Friday, January 08, 2016

Is mass incarceration contributing to the dumbing down of America?

Section2_Fig7The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article headlined "Oregon Spends Nearly Four Times More on Incarceration than Higher Education."  As these excerpts reveal, the article focuses on just one state's investment of more taxpayer resources on locking up young people than on educating them:

According to new data released near the end of 2015, Oregon is among the states with the lowest ratio of higher education spending to prison and incarceration spending.  Criminal justice and higher education experts, advocates and reformers told GoLocal that, the state’s disparity in funding is a major issue that needs to be addressed.

According to a study entitled Public Research Universities: Changes in State Funding, published by the American Academy for Arts and Sciences, Oregon spends $204 million in higher education each year, only fifth from the bottom in the United States.  Meanwhile, the state spends nearly four times that, $802 million in total, on corrections.

That gives them the second largest disparity in the country, trailing only Michigan and leading Arizona, Vermont and Colorado in the top five. According to the Academy, the lack of funding can have major impacts on the U.S. and state economy in the future....

The Partnership for Safety and Justice is also calling for a decrease in the amount of money spent on prisons. The group fights for a decrease in crime and a change in the way the criminal justice system is funded. In an interview with GoLocal, Shannon Wight, Vice President of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said that recent actions taken by the State of Oregon to cut prison spending should be only the beginning....

Business leaders told GoLocal that more spending for schools is crucial, especially given Oregon’s issues with education. "First and foremost, we need to improve the reputation of our education system," John Taponga, President of ECONorthwest, told GoLocal.

In order to do so, groups like the Partnership for Safety and Justice recommend taking a closer look at funding for education and incarceration. “A few years ago Pew did a similar analysis and what we learned from that is that it’s important to note is how much of our general fund we are spending on corrections vs education,” Wight said. “Certainly as a state we want to emphasize education over incarceration if we want to see the state, and its residents, thrive.”

Wight cautioned, however, that spending should be shifted gradually to avoid taking important resources away from those already serving time behind bars. “It’s important to remember that we can’t just spend less on prison and put all that money into schools right away,” Wight said. “We have to thoughtfully reduce the number of people in our correctional systems by evaluating who should be under correctional control and who shouldn’t; who should instead be receiving help from mental health or addiction services and who can be held accountable without doing prison time. Counties need the state investment to do that work effectively.”

The full report published by the American Academy for Arts and Sciences referenced in this article is available at this link.  The figure reprinted here comes from the report (which also details how increased spending on health care is another key factor reshaping how states spend limited resources).

January 8, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Making the case for a "20-Year Maximum for Prison Sentences"

Marc Mauer has this essay in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas which makes the case for a heavy presumption that no prison sentence should be longer than two decades.  Here are excerpts from the piece:

The excessively lengthy incarceration of offenders — yes, even for violent crimes — is counterproductive, costly, and inhumane.  To remedy this problem, Congress and state legislative bodies should establish an upper limit of 20 years in prison as a maximum penalty, except in unusual cases such as a serial rapist who has not been amenable to treatment in prison or a mass murderer.  The rationale for such a policy shift is grounded in both humanitarian and public-safety concerns.  Life sentences ruin families and tear apart communities; they deprive the person of the chance to turn his or her life around.  Moreover, it has long been known that individuals “age out” of crime, and that this occurs at a surprisingly young age.  As is true of all adults, offenders mature in prison as they age and develop a longer-term vision for their lives.  Research by leading criminologists Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura demonstrates that an 18-year-old arrested for robbery is no more likely to be arrested for this crime by the age of 26 than anyone in the general population.  Thus, each successive year of incarceration after this decline sets in produces diminishing returns for public safety.

This impact comes at great cost as well.  Estimates are that the cost of imprisoning an elderly offender is double that of a young offender, largely due to high health-care costs. Given that public-safety resources are finite, incarcerating aging prisoners inevitably diverts resources from preschool programs, substance abuse treatments, and mental health interventions that all produce demonstrated and substantial crime-reduction benefits.

Lengthy prison terms also exacerbate the dramatic racial and ethnic disparities that have defined the phenomenon of mass incarceration.  Nationwide, nearly two-thirds of the people serving life in prison are African-American or Latino. The sight of elderly men of color in prison uniforms and bound in wheelchairs only reinforces the racialized nature of incarceration in the modern era.

Some skeptics would argue that while the public-safety argument may apply to many offenders, there are nonetheless individuals who present such a threat to the community that even 20 years in prison is not sufficient for public protection.  That’s certainly correct.  But the problem is that on the day of sentencing, no one — including the judge — can predict who those people are, or how individuals may mature over a 20-year period.

For this reason, policymakers could establish a mechanism to evaluate the public-safety risk of select prisoners as they near the end of their 20-year term.  A review board comprised of psychologists and other professionals could make recommendations either to a judge or a parole board regarding whether continued confinement is necessary for public safety.  And in such cases, they should also propose appropriate treatment interventions designed to produce behavioral change leading to eventual release.

While some might think this is unrealistic, sentences of more than 20 years are quite rare in many democratic nations. Norway, for example, limits prison terms to no more than 21 years, followed by a period of civil confinement when deemed necessary.  Even the worst mass killer in the country’s history, Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011, is serving such a prison term.  Contrast this to the current practice in the United States, where countless drug offenders are serving far lengthier terms.

January 6, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, January 04, 2016

Excessive federal sentencing and strict mandatory minimums at center of armed "militia" occuptation in Oregon

23rd_Ohio_Volunteer_Infantry_Color_GuardBecause I am back to full-time teaching this week, I have not yet had much time to research closely the sentencing backstory seemingly inspiring a group of Americans to take up arms against the federal government in Oregon.  But a number of readers have made sure I did not miss that federal sentencing outcomes, and particularly the application of a 5-year mandatory minimum sentencing term, have been a central catalyst for what is now going on.  Helpful, this new lengthy Washington Post piece, headlined "What spurred the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in southeast Oregon," provides some of the key sentencing details:

The several-hundred-person procession through Burns, Ore., concluded at Dwight Hammond’s doorstep early Saturday evening. In a town of less than 3,000 tucked in Oregon’s southeast corner, it was a massive show of support for Hammond, 73, and his son Steven, 46, as they prepared to report to federal prison Monday.

“I thank everyone who came out here today,” Dwight Hammond told the supporters after he and his wife hugged each of them. “See you in five years.” The father and son had been sentenced last year for setting fires on federal land, the conclusion of two decades of clashes between the Hammond family and the federal government that have made the ranchers a cause celebre for some on the right.

For their supporters, the Hammonds represent the latest battle in a struggle as old as the American settlement of the northwest: pitting poor cattle farmers against the federal government and its land regulations in states such as Oregon, where the government owns more than half of the land.

“Most Americans, if they knew the story of the threats and the charges brought against these ranchers, they would say this isn’t right,” said Jeff Roberts, one of the organizers of Saturday’s rally. “We really wanted to show the family support and let them know that they’re not alone. That Americans don’t turn their backs on them.”

But there is a stark divide among the ranks over how to best remedy the plight of the cattle rancher. Some activists, such as Roberts, think the battle will be won through a deliberate public awareness campaign, rallies and town hall meetings. Others, including some armed militias, have another tact in mind: armed resistance.

As Saturday’s rally concluded, a small subsection of attendees, led by Ammon Bundy, began launching into impromptu speeches and, to the horror of many of the rally’s primary organizers, declared that it was time for the group to take up arms. “Those who want to go take a hard stand, get in your trucks and follow me!” Bundy declared to the group at the conclusion of the event, according to several people who were in attendance. “We were just aghast,” Roberts said.

Within the hour, Bundy and about a dozen armed supporters had seized Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, posting armed men at the front gate and vowing to occupy the federal land for “years.”

His father, Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who in 2014 had an armed standoff with federal agents who were attempting to prevent him from illegally grazing his cattle on federal land, who is not himself inside the refuge, told a reporter in Oregon that “150 militia men” had occupied the federal land. As of 6 p.m. Sunday, the armed men remained at the refuge. “There were absolutely not 150 of them,” Roberts said Sunday morning. “He had a small handful of supporters, maybe a dozen. I saw them as they pulled out in their trucks.”...

After a two-week trial, Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted by jury. They were sentenced in October to five years in prison for committing arson on federal land in 2001 and 2006. The pair had been sentenced and served time previously, but on appeal a federal judge ruled that their initial sentences had been too short.

In the 2001 incident, the men, who had leased grazing rights to the land for their cattle, said they had started the fires on their own land to try to prevent the spread of an invasive species of plant, and that the fire had inadvertently burned onto public land. Prosecutors said the fire consumed 139 acres of public land, and was set in an attempt to hide evidence after the men were part of a hunting party that illegally killed several deer on the federal land.

In 2006, the Hammonds allegedly set a “back fire” meant to protect their land after a series of lightning storms had started a fire on the federal property. Prosecutors said that fire then spread onto the federal land.

“We all know the devastating effects that are caused by wildfires. Fires intentionally and illegally set on public lands, even those in a remote area, threaten property and residents and endanger firefighters called to battle the blaze” Acting U.S. Attorney Billy Williams said in a statement issued after the Hammonds were sentenced. “Congress sought to ensure that anyone who maliciously damages United States’ property by fire will serve at least 5 years in prison. These sentences are intended to be long enough to deter those like the Hammonds who disregard the law and place fire fighters and others in jeopardy.”

The sentence outraged many fellow ranchers and constitutionalist groups in the northwest, who considered the case an overreach of federal regulation and of the federal prosecutors. “We don’t agree with the sentencing, so we came out to stand in solidarity and support,” said Brandon Curtis, president of the Idaho chapter of Three Percent, a constitutionalist group that was heavily involved in organizing the rally for the Hammonds.

Most infuriating about the Hammond case, their supporters say, is that the two men were charged under a federal terrorism statute that requires a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone convicted of arson on federal property. “I don’t think anybody would argue that arson took place . . . but to sentence this family as terrorists, we think that is absolutely egregious,” Roberts said. “These are just country folk, they’re not terrorists.”

Roberts, Curtis and others traveled to the Hammond home in recent weeks and began holding town hall meetings to try to build more local support for them — assuring residents that they were not there to “upend the town.” Despite encountering a lot of local skepticism, the men eventually found some allies — who started an organization called Harney County Committee of Safety and participated in Saturday’s rally.

But at the same time, the Bundy family had begun speaking out on behalf of the Hammonds. In early November, Ammon Bundy began posting updates on the case to his Facebook pages and website. “This last Wednesday I spent a good part of the day in the Hammond’s home. We spoke for hours. Several times, I found the Hammond’s in tears when they explained the injustices that has destroyed their lives,” Ammon Bundy wrote on Nov. 21. “They were hopeful that the American people were going to stand for them. And that, just maybe, they would be able to return to the life they once knew.”

January 4, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, January 03, 2016

"Taking Another Look at Second-Look Sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article authored by Meghan Ryan and recently posted SSRN.  Based on the abstract alone, I am a big fan of this paper because it appears to explore rigorously a sentencing topic which I believe merits much more attention in an era marked by a record-high numbers of LWOP and other lengthy prison sentences: whether, why and how a sentence imposed long ago can and should be reconsidered anew.  Here is the abstract:

A historically unprecedented number of Americans are currently behind bars.  Our high rate of incarceration, and the high bills that it generates for American taxpayers, has led to a number of proposals for sentencing reform.  For example, bills were recently introduced in both the House and Senate that would roll back federal mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, and the Obama Administration has announced a plan to grant clemency to hundreds of non-violent drug offenders.

Perhaps the most revolutionary proposal, though, is one advanced by the drafters of the Model Penal Code, namely that judges be given the power to resentence offenders who have been serving long sentences on the ground that societal views about the seriousness of the offenses these individuals committed have changed.  These evolved societal views, the drafters have asserted, might justify reducing the offenders’ sentences.  The drafters of the Code have suggested that this position is based in part on retributivism — on what these particular defendants deserve as a result of committing these crimes.  

But an offender’s desert ordinarily does not change as time progresses; it is societal views of desert that change.  This raises a new question in criminal law about whether the original sentencer — the one imposing punishment at the time of trial — or a new sentencer — one imposing punishment over a decade after the offense was committed — is better positioned to determine the offender’s desert.  The drafters of the Code have proffered that a new sentencer is best because it can be more representative of modern values.  But the new sentencer does not represent the public against which the offense was committed.  And the new sentencer may not be well positioned to assess the offender’s culpability or the harm he caused.  

The new sentencer may be in a better position to know whether, as time has passed, the offender has been rehabilitated or whether he still poses a danger to society, but these factors are not based on the offender’s desert.  While these other utilitarian considerations may certainly justify second-look sentencing, and while second-look sentencing may very well be a useful innovation, this new approach to sentencing overlooks the important desert-based restraints of limiting retributivism upon which the Code is based.  Reliable assessments of an offender’s desert generally best lie with the decisionmakers in place around the time the crime was committed.

January 3, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

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

One of the many joys of the holiday season for data junkies is new releases of new official reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  This latest one, excitingly titled "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2014," was released today at this BJS webpage where one can also find this summary of the report's basic coverage main findings:

Presents statistics on persons supervised by adult correctional systems in the United States at yearend 2014, including offenders supervised in the community on probation or parole and those incarcerated in state or federal prison or local jail. The report describes the size and change in the total correctional population during 2014. It details the downward trend in the correctional population and correctional supervision rate since 2007. It also examines the impact of changes in the community supervision and incarcerated populations on the total correctional population in recent years. Findings cover the variation in the size and composition of the total correctional population by jurisdiction at yearend 2014. Appendix tables provide statistics on other correctional populations and jurisdiction-level estimates of the total correctional population by correctional status and sex for select years.

Highlights:

  • Adult correctional systems supervised an estimated 6,851,000 persons at yearend 2014, about 52,200 fewer offenders than at yearend 2013.
  • About 1 in 36 adults (or 2.8% of adults in the United States) was under some form of correctional supervision at yearend 2014, the lowest rate since 1996.
  • The correctional population has declined by an annual average of 1.0% since 2007.
  • The community supervision population (down 1.0%) continued to decline during 2014, accounting for all of the decrease in the correctional population.
  • The incarcerated population (up 1,900) slightly increased during 2014.

December 29, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Recuenco and review of Blakely error, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"To forgive prisoners is divine — or as close as government gets"

The title of this post is the sub-headline of this notable new commentary published by the American Conservative and authored by Chase Madar under the main headline "The Case for Clemency."  I recommend the lengthy piece in full, and here are excerpts:

President Obama’s recent announcement that he would commute the sentences of 95 federal prisoners and fully pardon two others is welcome news.  So is a holiday press release from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has hitherto been miserly with clemency, but will pardon nonviolent offenses committed by 16 and 17 year olds (who will continue to be automatically tried as adults, a harshness almost unique among the fifty states).  But we should see these gestures for what they are: small trickles of clemency where what is demanded is a rushing, roaring pipeline scaled to the globally unprecedented size of our prison population and incarceration rate. We need industrial-scale clemency.  Here is why and how....

At the federal level — which only accounts for about 12 percent of U.S. prisoners — mild sentencing reform has both bipartisan support and bipartisan resistance in the Senate.  Looking to the states, a much hyped “moment” of criminal-justice reform is more than countervailed by the deeply ingrained punitive habits of governors and legislatures across the land, from Massachusetts, whose liberal governor signed a tough “three strikes” law in 2012, to Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal upped penalties for heroin-related offenses.

Whether we admit it or not, we are in quite a spot: our hyper-incarceration is unprecedented in U.S. history.  Rectifying this will require changes in policing, a cutting back of what we criminalize, and serious revision of our sentences, which far outstrip their deterrent value.  Another part of the solution will have to be clemency on a massive scale: pardons, which all but expunge a criminal record; commutations, which shorten a prison sentence; parole; geriatric and compassionate release; and retroactive sentencing reform.

As of this writing, Obama has issued more commutations than any other president since Lyndon Johnson.  But the supply of imprisoned Americans is orders of magnitude greater than it was in Johnson’s day, and Obama has only granted pardons or commutations at the exceedingly stingy rate of one out of 136, in line with the steep plummet in clemency since World War II. The Department of Justice has promised to routinize clemency, issuing new guidelines for nonviolent offenders who have served 10 years already, but the results so far have been bonsai-scaled in comparison to the magnitude of the federal prison population....

So much for Washington, which despite much misty-eyed self-congratulation has not shown itself up to the task of scaling back our prison state.  Washington’s timidity means less than it first appears however: despite lazy media focus on the federal justice system, the real action is at the state level, which handles most policing, sentencing, and imprisoning.  Alas, here too the general trend has been towards greater stinginess with clemency. 

Take the example of Minnesota, a state that has, by U.S. standards, a low incarceration rate and arguably the most humane penal system in the country, with perhaps more in common with Denmark and Germany than with Texas and Louisiana.  Yet it says something that Mark Dayton, one of the most progressive governors in the country, has a more merciless default setting than virtually all of his executive predecessors from the mid-20th century.  Minnesota used to grant pardons and commutations by the barrelful: from 1940-89, the state granted 741 commutations and nearly 90 percent of all pardon applications.  Minnesota’s clemency process began to tighten in the 1970s, only to be choked off further in the 1980s. From 2000-10, the number of pardons plummeted. In the past quarter-century, Minnesota has not issued a single commutation.

The barriers to mercy are dug deeply into American politics and intellectual culture.  At the same time there is a rich tradition of clemency in this country, which can and should be tapped into.... Devotion to the Rule of Law has an ugly side in resentment of executive acts of mercy, at the level of practice and high theory.... Overall, the thrust of American legalism militates against executive clemency, which seems to many a kind of short circuit, a deus ex machina, an insult to the rule of law, smelling of elitism and monarchical whims....  (And it has to be said, occasionally this image of executive mercy as sleazy end-run around the justice system is correct: think of Bill Clinton granting a full pardon to felonious oil trader Marc Rich, whose ex-wife had been a major Democratic fundraiser.)

But in the face of this hostility to the pardon power there is a great counter-tradition of American clemency.  At the founding of the country, executive power was seen not as a violation of our self-image as a “nation of laws not men” but as a necessary and healthily legitimate part of any popular government. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 74: “the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered.”  Without pardon power, “justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”...

U.S. history turns out to be generously littered with acts of mass clemency.  In the 1930s, Mississippi Governor Mike Conner went to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, and held impromptu “mercy courts” that freed dozens of African-American prisoners, in an act that entered national folklore — as did Texas Governor Pat Neff’s pardon in 1925 of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who issued his clemency request in song.  In the 20th century, Governors Lee Cruce of Oklahoma, Winthrop Rockefeller of Arkansas, and Toney Anaya of New Mexico all commuted their states’ death rows down to zero upon leaving office.  Among presidents, according to political scientist P.S. Ruckman Jr’s excellent blog Pardon Power, Abraham Lincoln granted clemency every single month of his administration as an act of mercy and a canny political strategy.  Woodrow Wilson, though a teetotaler himself, pardoned hundreds convicted of booze-related infractions to signal his disapproval of Prohibition....

Reversing course on hyper-incarceration and clemency will be a generational project, and an Augean one at that. Judges and prosecutors are not the most self-effacing career group, and many would sooner eat their Civil Procedure books than admit error.... But for most people, clemency in cases of judicial and prosecutorial error is a no brainer: the law’s finality should not come at the expense of justice.   The type of clemency we need today, however, is to remedy a problem several orders of magnitude larger, admitting not legal or judicial error but political or legislative disaster.  A rushing, roaring clemency pipeline would be an explicit recognition that the various state and federal tough-on-crime policies, virtually all of which passed with broad bipartisan support, were dead wrong....

Our incarcerated population is also aging rapidly, and though older prisoners have far lower recidivism rates, few states are availing themselves of geriatric release. For instance, Virginia in 2012 granted geriatric release to less than 1 percent of about 800 prisoners eligible, according to the state parole board. Meanwhile, as the Virginian Pilot reported, “during the same period, 84 inmates died in state prisons.” Running high-security nursing homes is neither compassionate nor fiscally sound—another reason to restore and expand clemency.

What is needed is a restoration of the kind of clemency that was once the everyday norm in this country, expanded to meet the needs of our enormous 21st-century prison population.  There will surely be stentorian howling that industrial-scale clemency is the invasive hand of overweening government power.  These fault-finders ought to be reminded that our incarceration regime is on a scale rarely seen in human history: our only competitors are third-century BC “legalist” China; the late, off-the-rails Roman Empire; and the Soviet Union from 1930-55.  Routinized clemency on a grand scale will be necessary to tame this beast.

To say that mass incarceration is an issue best addressed by the legislature, not by the executive, is theoretically correct.  But procedural rectitude should not be taken to the point of sadism, ignoring the tens of thousands of harshly sentenced prisoners who are already stuck halfway through the penal snake’s digestive tract.  Besides, this would hardly be the first time that elected officials have used the pardon power as a tool to alter policy.  To give one more glorious example, on Christmas Day in 1912, Governor George Donaghey of Arkansas pardoned 360 state prisoners as a condemnation of the state’s brutal and corrupt “convict leasing” system, making national headlines and dealing a death blow to the corrupt practice.

The time is as ripe as it will ever be for industrial-scale clemency . Even with an 11 percent average increase in homicides in big American cities for 2015 so far (bringing the nation back to 2012 murder levels), violent crime is as low as it’s been since the early 1960s....  How we proceed with clemency is not just about how we treat thousands of prisoners..., it is about how we treat ourselves. According to Shakespeare’s most famous courtroom speech, mercy “blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.” With an expansion of the pardon power, we have the opportunity to rule ourselves as monarchs, with all the magnanimity and grace that implies. Or we can remain a nation of vindictive jailers that lectures the rest of the world about freedom.

December 22, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Federal judge enjoins Tennessee county's privatized probation system operating like debtors' prison

As reported in this local article, "Judge's order frees 13 held for not paying probation fees," a group of probationers got a holiday gift in the form of a significant federal judicial order preventing a locality for jailing low-level offenders for failing to pay fines or court costs. Here are the basics:

Heather Keller is looking forward to spending Christmas with her children after a federal judge's order set her free from the Rutherford County Detention Center Friday afternoon. A day earlier, a federal judge in Nashville granted an injunction that prevented officials and probation supervisors in Rutherford County from holding people in jail for certain violations or only because they could not pay fees. It also said that anyone being held for those reasons should be let go.

Keller, 35, was one of 13 inmates released from the jail in Murfreesboro who were held there because they could not pay fees to the private company contracted to oversee the Rutherford County misdemeanor probation system. The injunction that won Keller’s release was part of a lawsuit filed against Providence Community Corrections, which has changed its name to Pathways Community Corrections.

The suit was filed in October and accuses Rutherford County and PCC of working together to extort people on probation there by charging excessive fees. Many of the seven people named in the lawsuit rely on government assistance and have said in court testimony or documents that PCC's excessive fees leave them struggling to pay bills and facing extended probation terms because they cannot pay court costs.

It is a practice Alec Karakatsanis, attorney for the plaintiffs, likens to the operation of a debtors' prison. Karakatsanis said Sharp's order is only the beginning of possible probation reform in Rutherford County.

“We will fight to end permanently what we believe to be the rise of a modern debtors' prison system in which the poor and destitute are jailed and threatened with jail solely because of their inability to make monetary payments to a private company and their local government,” Karakatsanis said. “This is a very important ruling for impoverished people in Tennessee.”

The injunction was granted by Chief District Judge Kevin Sharp in Nashville. In addition to freeing these prisoners, Sharp also ordered PCC immediately stop the practice of violating probationers solely for non-payment of fees.

Keller was originally arrested for driving on a suspended license and since has been jailed twice for non-payment of probation fees, she said. “I’ve spent more time in jail for non-payment than the original charge,” Keller said.

And Sharp ordered Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold to free any inmates held on violation of probation charges stemming solely from non-payment of fees and fines.

The federal district judge's 20-page injunction order in Rodriguez v. Providence Community Corrections is available for download here:  Download Opinion Granting Injunction

December 21, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, December 18, 2015

"Dignifying Madness: Rethinking Commitment Law in an Age of Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Jonathan Simon and Stephen Rosenbaum. Here is the abstract:

Modern nation-states have been trapped in recurring cycles of incarcerating and emancipating residents with psychiatric disabilities.  New cycles of enthusiasm for incarceration generally commence with well-defined claims about the evils of allowing “the mad” to remain at liberty and the benefits incarceration would bring to the afflicted.  A generation or two later, at most, reports of terrible conditions in institutions circulate and new laws follow, setting high burdens for those seeking to imprison and demanding exacting legal procedures with an emphasis on individual civil liberties.  Today, we seem to be arriving at another turn in the familiar cycle.  A growing movement led by professionals and family members of people with mental health disabilities is calling for new laws enabling earlier and more assertive treatment.

December 18, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Effective accounting of how hard it is to account accurately for intricacies of modern mass incarceration

1-OdMX2oryFZyj4uCuqW5n8wThe strangely named Xenocrypt on the website Medium has a terrific new posting titled "Why You Don’t Understand Mass Incarceration." I recommend a full read of this lengthy post, and here are excerpts highlighting why:

“Mass incarceration” usually refers to the historically high U.S. incarceration rate, which is the share of the population in state and federal prison at any given time.  Starting in 1980 or so, incarceration rates had huge growth after decades of relative consistency....

But there’s a big problem.  The incarceration rate  —  who’s in prison right now — follows from two basic questions, which those famous graphs (and phrases like “the prison population”) mash together:

1. Who did we send to prison in the first place, and for what?  How much has “mass incarceration” meant expanded incarceration?  Which people are going to prison who’d never have gone under other policies? There’s a moral version of the question, too: What should we send people to prison for?

2. How long were they in prison for?  How much has “mass incarceration” meant deepened incarceration?  Which people would have gone to prison anyway but are spending more time incarcerated, either serving longer sentences or cycling through the system over and over again?  Again, there’s a moral version of the question: How long should people be in prison for?

Both of those questions are important, but they’re distinct topics, at right angles to each other analytically and morally: “should drug offenders go to prison at all?” is pretty different from “how long should convicted murderers serve in prison?”.  The next time you read an article about incarceration in the popular press or on social media, though, try to see if it’s even aware of the distinction. (For example, “reducing the prison population” is a pretty meaningless phrase  —  does it mean having fewer people go to prison or having people go to prison for less time?  One reason you don’t understand mass incarceration: the phrase “the prison population”.)

It’d be hard enough to understand how those two questions interact if we knew how to answer both of them, but no one knows how to answer either one.  There’s been a lot of impressive, interesting work trying to answer who goes to prison for how long (John Pfaff has been a big influence on this piece) and even the best of it is hampered by limited or unreliable data and difficult inferences, while obviously there isn’t much consensus on who should....

Quick: How many people really were sent to state or federal prison in the United States since 1978?  Don’t be surprised if you don’t know, since as far as I can tell no one else does either.

If you care about incarceration, then that should trouble you. This is, after all, the set of human beings that we’re talking about when we talk about mass incarceration. If we really understood mass incarceration then we would know a great deal about them.  We would know how many were African-American or white, how many served one, two, or ten terms in total, how many had different kinds of criminal histories prior to incarceration, how many only went to prison on drug offenses, how many went to prison on drug offenses then went back on violent offenses, and so on (and how all of those things changed over time and between different states and places).

But we don’t know any of that.  We don’t even know how to count them.  And if we don’t know how to count how many people have been to prison, then we don’t really know how mass incarceration affected real human beings....

We have some idea of how many prison terms there have been. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) lists about 12.7 million “new court commitments” to state and federal prison since 1978 in their National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) data, which is my main source here. Of course, that doesn’t mean that 12.7 million different people were sent to prison between 1978 and 2014, since some people had multiple prison terms....

Let’s say I’m right that around 7.5 million people were sent to state and federal prison since 1978.  Here’s another question that should be simple: How many of them wouldn’t have gone to prison without “mass incarceration” policies  — and what does that mean, anyway?  It’s clear that new prison terms did increase after 1978, so presumably a lot fewer people would have gone to prison without whatever it was that changed, but how many fewer people?  More like two million or more like six million?

Nobody knows, but we can make up some numbers, and maybe that’s a start.  For example we can consider a somewhat arbitrary hypothetical: What if new prison terms (new court commitments) had stayed constant per capita since 1978, when the rate was 57 in 100,000?  Under that hypothetical, there would have been about 5.6 million new prison terms since 1978, not 12.7 million.  I’ve illustrated this in the [reprinted] chart, which has the incarceration rate since 1978 in black, the rate of new prison terms in red, and the hypothetical of constant new terms per capita in blue.

December 18, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Two notable new papers looking at life sentences from two notable perspectives

Via SSRN, I have recently noticed two new papers providing different perspectives on life sentences. Here are titles, links and the abstracts for both interesting pieces:

"Irreducible Life Sentences: What Difference Have the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK Human Rights Act Made?" by Andrew Dyer

Abstract:  A comparison between United Kingdom (UK) and Australian law concerning irreducible life sentences indicates that human rights charters and/or other strong human rights guarantees in a jurisdiction can produce improved protections for offenders against penal populism. In a series of challenges to draconian state laws that remove any possibility of parole from ten notorious murderers, the Australian courts steadfastly refused to intervene. Without clear authority to consider such legislation’s effect on human rights, the judges were careful to avoid creating any perception that they were undemocratically overriding Parliament’s will. But while the UK approach to irreducible life sentences is more desirable than that prevailing in Australia – especially concerning child offenders – Vinter v United Kingdom and succeeding events demonstrate that even courts that have explicitly been empowered to resolve human rights controversies possess far from a complete freedom, or ability, to effect change in this emotive area.

 

"Some Facts About Life: The Law, Theory, and Practice of Life Sentences" by Melissa Hamilton

Abstract: A diverse band of politicians, justice officials, and academic commentators are lending their voices to the hot topic of correcting the United States’ status as the world’s leader in mass incarceration. There is limited focus, though, upon the special role that life sentences play in explaining the explosion in prison populations and the dramatic rise in costs that result from providing for the increased needs of aging lifers. This Article highlights various ways in which life sentences occupy unique legal and political statuses. For instance, life sentences are akin to capital punishment in likely ending in death within prison environs, yet enjoy few of the added procedural rights and intensity of review that capital defendants command. In contrast to term prisoners, lifers cannot expect to reenter civil society and thus represent an exclusionist ideological agenda. The paper reviews whether life penalties remain justified by fundamental theories of punishment in light of new evidence on retributive values, deterrence effects, and recidivism risk. It also situates life sentences within an international moral imperative that reserves life penalties, if permitted at all, for the most heinous offenders and, in any event, demands period review of all long-term prison sentences.

This article provides a novel perspective, too, by presenting an empirical study in order to further investigate the law and practice of life sentences. Utilizing federal datasets, descriptive statistics and a multiple regression analysis offer important insights. The study makes an original contribution to the literature by exploring the salience of certain facts and circumstances (including demographic, offense-related, and case processing variables) in accounting for life sentence outcomes in the federal system. While some of the attributes of life sentenced defendants are consistent with current expectations, others might be surprising. For example, as expected, sentencing guideline recommendations, the presence of mandatory minimums, and greater criminal history predicted life sentences. Results also supported the existence of a trial penalty. On the other hand, lifers in the federal system were not representative of the most violent offenders or worst recidivists. Life sentences were issued across a variety of violent and nonviolent crimes, and in recent years a substantial percentage presented with minimal criminal histories. Regional disparities in the use of life sentences were also indicated. In concluding, this Article reviews potential remedies to the overreliance upon life penalties in the American justice system.

December 16, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

NAAUSA sends letter opposing federal sentencing reforms on behalf of forty former federal officials

As reported in this new Washington Examiner article, "[f]orty former top federal law enforcement officials want senators to hit the breaks on bipartisan legislation that would roll back mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing and other crimes." Here is more:

The group, which includes former New York mayor and U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, former Attorney General John Ashcroft and drug control czar William Bennett, say sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s led to the dramatic dip in crime rates that began 25 years ago, a claim disputed by many liberals and criminologists.

"Our system of justice is not broken," the former officials wrote in a Dec. 10 letter sent by the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys to Senate leaders. "Mandatory minimums and proactive law enforcement measures have caused a dramatic reduction in crime over the past 25 years, an achievement we cannot afford to give back." The officials call for leaving the current sentencing regime alone.

"Our current sentencing structure strikes the right balance between congressional direction in the establishment of sentencing levels and the preservation of public safety," they write. The former officials express alarm about proposals to retroactively alter previously applied sentencing guidances, a step they say would cause the release of "thousands of armed career criminals."...

Some senior Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, support scraping some minimum sentencing laws, though Grassley backs a less sweeping bill than [Senator Rand] Paul. The GOP support has helped make sentencing reform a popular issue, widely hailed as a rare area where bipartisan cooperation is possible.

But the law enforcement officials' letter shows reports of an emerging bipartisan consensus are exaggerated. The letter's signatories include officials who helped enact the tough sentencing laws now under fire. Michele Leonhart, who headed the Drug Enforcement Agency under Obama, is a notable Democratic appointee who broke with her former boss by signing on.

Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another a presidential hopeful, are among conservatives gearing up to oppose to sentencing reform, raising the chance the issue could divide Republicans.

I cannot yet find a copy of this NAAUSA letter on-line, but I will try to post it when I can get access to a copy.

UPDATE:  A helpful colleague sent me a copy of the letter for posting here:  Download Former_Official_Ltr_1210-2015-FINAL (1)

December 10, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015"

Pie2015The title of this post is the title of this valuable new on-line report from the Prison Policy Initiative. Everyone interested in the details essentials of modern mass incarceration ought to check out the full report (and the larger version of the pie graphic reprinted here). Here is part of the report's introductory text and subsequent discussion:

Wait, does the United States have 1.4 million or more than 2 million people in prison? And do the 636,000 people released every year include the people getting out of local jails?  Frustrating questions like these abound because our systems of federal, state, local, and other types of confinement — and the data collectors that keep track of them — are so fragmented.  There is a lot of interesting and valuable research out there, but varying definitions and other incompatibilities make it hard — for both people new to criminal justice and for experienced policy wonks — to get the big picture.

This report offers some much needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement.  The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.  And we go deeper to provide further detail on why people in the various systems of confinement are locked up.

While the numbers in each slice of this pie chart represent a snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and therefore the many more lives that are affected by the criminal justice system.  In addition to the 636,000 people released from prisons each year, over 11 million people cycle through local jails each year.  Jail churn is particularly high because at any given moment a majority of the people in local jails have not been convicted and are in jail because they are either too poor to afford bail and are being held pretrial, or because they have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days.  The remainder of the people in jail — almost 200,000 — are serving time for minor offenses, generally misdemeanors with sentences under a year.... 

Now, armed with the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States in the various types of facilities and for what offenses, we have a better foundation for the long overdue conversation about criminal justice reform.  For example, the data makes it clear that ending the War on Drugs will not alone end mass incarceration, and it demonstrates why the policymakers and advocates who see ending the War on Drugs as a politically acceptable first step towards ending mass incarceration must take great care that their actions both constitute actual progress for people with drug offenses and do not make further reforms more difficult.  Looking at the “whole pie” also opens up other conversations about where we should focus our energies:

  • What is the role of the federal government in ending mass incarceration? The federal prison system is just a small slice of the total pie, but the federal government can certainly use its financial and ideological power to incentivize and illuminate better paths forward.

  • Are state officials and prosecutors willing to rethink both the War on Drugs and the reflexive policies that have served to increase both the odds of incarceration and length of stay for “violent” offenses?

  • Do policymakers and the public have the focus to also confront the geographically and politically dispersed second largest slice of the pie: the 3,283 local jails? Given that the people behind bars in this country are disproportionately poor and shut out of the economy, does it make sense to lock up millions of people for a few days at a time for minor offenses? Will our leaders be brave enough to ask the public to support smarter investments in community-based drug treatment and job training? Or will they support the continued use of jails as mass incarceration’s front door?

December 10, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 07, 2015

Notable new BJS data on veterans in state and federal prisons and local jails

As reported in this official press release, titled "Fewer Veterans In Prison And Jail In 2011-12 Than 2004," the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a new report on incarcerated vets. Here are excerpts from the first page of this detailed, data-heavy report:

In 2011–12, an estimated 181,500 veterans (8% of all inmates in state and federal prison and local jail excluding military-operated facilities) were serving time in correctional facilities. This represented a decrease from the estimated 206,500 incarcerated veterans (9% of the total incarcerated population) in 2004, and was consistent with the decline in the number of veterans in the U.S. general population. While the number of veterans in prison and jail increased along with growth in the overall number of persons incarcerated between 1980 and 2008, the proportion of incarcerated veterans has declined, down from an estimated 24% of all persons incarcerated in state prison and jail in 1978 (federal inmates were not surveyed in 1978).

In 1978, 19% of U.S. adult residents, 24% of prisoners, and 25% of jail inmates were military veterans. By 2011–12, veterans accounted for 9% of the general population, 8% of state and federal prisoners, and 7% of jail inmates....

The total incarceration rate in 2011–12 for veterans (855 per 100,000 veterans in the United States) was lower than the rate for nonveterans (968 per 100,000 U.S. residents). „

Non-Hispanic black and Hispanic inmates made up a significantly smaller proportion of incarcerated veterans (38% in prison and 44% in jail), compared to incarcerated non-Hispanic black and Hispanic nonveterans (63% in prison and 59% in jail). „

A greater percentage of veterans (64%) than nonveterans (48%) were sentenced for violent offenses....

„ More than three-quarters (77%) of incarcerated veterans received military discharges that were honorable or under honorable conditions.... „

„ A quarter of veterans in prison (25%) and less than a third of veterans in jail (31%) reported that they had been in combat while in the military. „

About half of all veterans in prison (48%) and jail (55%) had been told by a mental health professional they had a mental disorder. „ Incarcerated veterans who saw combat (60% in prison and 67% in jail) were more likely than noncombat veterans (44% in prison and 49% in jail) to have been told they had a mental disorder.

December 7, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Latest USSC retroctivity data suggest prison savings over $1.4 billion from drugs-2 guideline amendment retroactivity

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this new document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated December 2015, provides "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782 [the so-called drugs -2 amendment]. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through September 30, 2015 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by November 30, 2015.

The subsequent official data indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive, well over 20,000 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of just about 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 over $1.4 billion dollars. As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing at least some proof that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and costs of the federal government.

December 6, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 03, 2015

"The government is abusing mandatory minimums: How law enforcement is ruining a generation of Americans"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Salon article authored by Daniel Denvir.  Here are excerpts: 

The Obama administration has called for the criminal justice system to be reformed and for the population of our enormous prison system to be reduced, encouraging reform efforts in Congress and pledging to speed up a moribund clemency process so that people serving unjustly harsh sentences can be freed.  The Department of Justice has taken a lead role, forcing local police departments to clean house and, under former Attorney General Eric Holder, pledging to restrict federal prosecutors’ use of harsh mandatory minimums....

There is growing concern, however, that federal prosecutors in the 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices nationwide are implementing Holder’s directives unevenly — or even resisting implementation entirely.  David Patton and Jon Sands, co-chairs of the Federal Defender Legislative Committee, wrote in a recent letter to House Judiciary Committee leadership that “there is widespread disregard of DOJ policy among line federal prosecutors about when to trigger those severe enhancements.  And the enhancements are regularly used for no other reason than to force people to waive their trial rights.”

 851 enhancements double five- and ten-year mandatory minimum drug sentence for offenders with one prior “felony” drug conviction, and impose a life without parole sentence for offenders with two drug priors facing a ten-year sentence.  What counts as a so-called felony, however, is remarkably broad [and] it can include state convictions so minor that they did not result in jail time. It can even include state misdemeanors...

Steve Cook, the president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys ... is leading a campaign against sentencing reform legislation in Congress, and he disagrees that prosecutors use 851s to coerce cooperation. “One of the criticisms I hear frequently from commentators is prosecutors want these mandatory minimums and 851s so they can strong arm guilty pleas. Well, that isn’t the case,” Cook said. “851s, those were designed to put recidivists in prison for longer.”

There is evidence, however, to suggest that that is often precisely how they are used. Judge Gleeson detailed one such instance in a 2013 opinion protesting his own sentencing of Lulzim Kupa, and the prosecutorial abuse of mandatory minimums more generally. Based on more than five kilograms of cocaine alone, Kupa faced a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. But Kupa had two prior marijuana trafficking convictions.  If prosecutors so decided, they would trigger life without parole upon conviction.

On March 5, 2013, prosecutors offered Kupa a plea deal.  The government would withdraw the 10-year mandatory minimum and instead recommend a sentence of between 110-137 months.  With good time credits, Kupa could serve seven years and ten months, Gleeson wrote.  But Kupa had just one day to think the agreement over, and he didn’t accept it.  And so prosecutors twisted the screws tighter, filing the 851 information detailing his two prior marijuana convictions. Unless prosecutors withdrew the notice, he would be automatically sentenced to life without parole upon conviction. “Just like that, a defendant for whom the government, only ten days earlier, was willing to recommend an effective sentence of less than eight years was looking at life in prison without the possibility of parole,” wrote Gleeson.

December 3, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

"The Promises and Perils of Evidence-Based Corrections"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Cecelia Klingele and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Public beliefs about the best way to respond to crime change over time, and have been doing so at a rapid pace in recent years.  After more than forty years of ever more severe penal policies, the punitive sentiment that fueled the growth of mass incarceration in the United States appears to be softening. Across the country, prison growth has slowed and, in some places, has even reversed.  Many new laws and policies have enabled this change. The most prominent of these implement or reflect what have been called "evidence-based practices" designed to reduce prison populations and their associated fiscal and human costs.  These practices "which broadly include the use of actuarial risk assessment tools, the development of deterrence-based sanctioning programs, and the adoption of new supervision techniques" are based on criminological research about "what works" to reduce convicted individuals' odds of committing future crimes.

Because evidence-based practices focus on reducing crime and recidivism, they are usually promoted as progressive tools for making the criminal justice system more humane. And while many have the potential to do just that, evidence-based practices are not inherently benign with respect to their effect on mass incarceration and the breadth of the penal state.  In their reliance on aggregate data and classification, many such practices have as much in common with the "new penology" that enabled mass incarceration as with the neorehabilitationism they are ordinarily thought to represent.

Without denying the contribution that such practices are making to current reform efforts, this Article seeks to highlight the unintended ways in which evidence-based tools could be used to expand, rather than reduce, state correctional control over justice-involved individuals. It explains what evidence-based practices are, why they have gained traction, and how they fit into existing paradigms for understanding the role of the criminal justice system in the lives of those subject to its control.  Finally, it calls on policymakers and practitioners to implement these practices in ways that ensure they are used to improve the quality and fairness of the criminal justice system and not to reinforce the institutional constructs that have sustained the growth of the penal state.

December 2, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Pollard, parole and the possibilities for potent sentencing reform

Writing at Salon, Daniel Denvir has this interesting and useful take on the recent release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. Here is the full headline of this piece: "People are celebrating this spy’s release from prison. Here’s what they should be doing instead. Jonathan Pollard sold intel to Israel. 30 years later, he's free. But thousands of others have no chance of parole." Here are excerpts:

Last Friday, something extraordinary happened: Jonathan Pollard, a Naval intelligence analyst sentenced to life in prison for extensively spying for Israel, was released from federal prison on parole 30 years after his arrest. Most coverage, now and in recent decades, has focused on the campaign waged by Israeli and Jewish-American leaders to free him, and the vehement opposition mounted by American intelligence figures.

The real scandal, however, is that most federal prisoners, including drug offenders make up nearly half of a federal prison population of nearly 200,000, have no chance at parole. Pollard’s crime was incredibly serious, and many drug offenders who committed crimes orders of magnitude less harmful are serving harsh mandatory minimums of 5, 10 and 20 years, if not life — all without the possibility of parole.

Pollard’s release has been covered in the context of national security intrigue. In fact, his parole reflects a quirk in federal sentencing law: He had a shot at parole because he committed his crime before parole eligibility was abolished for all those convicted of committing a federal crime on or after November 1, 1987, amidst a wave of tough-on-crime politicking.

Pollard is a true anomaly. According to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report, roughly 3 percent of federal prisoners are eligible for parole. When Pollard finally speaks to the media—he is reportedly not allowed to under the conditions of his parole—it would be good of him to express some solidarity with the far less dangerous fellow federal inmates he left behind.

The abolition of federal parole, and its sharp limitation or elimination in many states, has, like the introduction of harsh mandatory minimum sentences, been a major driver of this country’s extraordinary prison population boom. From 1988 to 2012, the average time federal inmates served rose from 17.9 to 37.5 months, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. The federal prison population rose during that same period from 49,928 inmates to 217,815....

Releasing Pollard was not a bad thing. Few people deserve punishment without end. We punish most every crime far too harshly in the United States, which is how we came to construct a system of human punishment unmatched by any nation on earth. But Pollard’s crimes were extremely serious. Compare his crimes to those committed by Alton Mills, who is serving a life without parole sentence after being convicted of couriering crack because of two prior, extremely minor, drug possession convictions. Mills’ family misses him too. And desperately so.

It’s not just a federal problem but also a matter for the states, where the bulk of American prisoners are incarcerated. Fourteen states joined the federal government in eliminating or severely restricting parole, according to a Marshall Project investigation.

“In the early 1990s, the New York state board voted to parole more than 60 percent of those eligible. That rate then went into a two-decade decline, dipping below 20 percent in 2010,” the investigation found. “In many states, parole boards are so deeply cautious about releasing prisoners who could come back to haunt them that they release only a small fraction of those eligible — and almost none who have committed violent offenses, even those who pose little danger and whom a judge clearly intended to go free.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate for president, has introduced legislation that would reestablish federal parole. Most media attention has been focused on bill provisions banning private prisons. But reestablishing parole would be far more consequential. (The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)

Way back in 2009 in this Symposium article published in the Florida Law Review, I made the claim that model modern sentencing reforms should include parole mechanisms because "parole boards possess both the effective legal tools and an ideal institutional perspective to reduce incarceration rates and mitigate extreme punishments." I therefore agree wholeheartedly agree with the suggetion in Denvir's piece that reinstituting robust parole mechanisms and opportunities in many sentencing systems would provide a truly potent path for future sentencing reforms.

November 29, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, November 27, 2015

"Prisons as Panacea or Pariah?: The Countervailing Consequences of the Prison Boom on the Political Economy of Rural Towns"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by John Major Eason available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The nascent literature on prison proliferation in the United States typically reveals negative impacts for communities of color.  Given that southern rural communities of color were the most likely to build during the prison boom (1970-2010), however, a more nuanced understanding of prison impact is warranted.

Using a dataset matching and geocoding all 1,663 U.S. prisons with their census appointed place, this study explores the countervailing consequences of the prison boom on rural towns across multiple periods.  For example, locales that adopted prisons at earlier stages of the prison boom era received a short-term boon compared to those that did not, but these effects were not lasting.  Furthermore, later in the boom, prison building protected towns against additional economic decline.  Thus, neither entirely pariah nor panacea, the prison serves as a state-sponsored public works program for disadvantaged rural communities of color but also supports the perverse economic incentives for prison proliferation.  Methodological, substantive, theoretical, and policy implications regarding the intersection of race and punishment are explored.

November 27, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Spotlighting why ending the drug war could make a big dent in mass incarceration

This new Washington Post Wonkblog posting by Christopher Ingraham, headlined "Drug offenders make up nearly one-third of prison admissions, new analysis shows," details one reason why I think ending the so-called "war on drugs" would be a very important first step toward tackling the problem of modern mass incarceration.  Here is how it starts (with links from the source):

Drug policy activists long have said that decriminalizing parts of the drug trade would relieve some of the burden on overcrowded prisons.  But some researchers have pushed back against this notion in recent years.  They point out that drug offenders account for only about 1 in 5 state and federal inmates.  The Urban Institute showed earlier this year that cutting drug admissions in half would reduce the state prison population by only about 7 percent.  Facts like these have led some to conclude that ending the drug war will do little to end the mass incarceration crisis.

But in a new analysis published this week, Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rothwell says that arguments about the impact of drug reforms on prison populations have overlooked one key distinction: the difference between the number of people in prison at any given time, and the number of people moving into and out of prison.  Rothwell calls this "stock and flow."

He points out that while drug offenses account for only 20 percent of the prison population, they make up nearly one-third — 31 percent — of the total admissions to prison.  The reason for the difference?  Drug offenders typically serve shorter sentences than, say, murderers or other violent criminals.  So simply looking at the number of people in prison at a given point in time understates the true impact of drug laws on incarceration.

"Drug crimes have been the predominant reason for new admissions into state and federal prisons in recent decades," Rothwell writes.  "In every year from 1993 to 2009, more people were admitted for drug crimes than violent crimes."

Rothwell agrees that rolling back the drug war won't totally solve the incarceration problem. "But it could help a great deal, by reducing exposure to prison," he writes.  Even a brief jail or prison sentence — even just an arrest — can have dire consequences for people at the poorer margins of society.  A 30-day jail term for a pot bust, for instance, can mean the loss of a job, the loss of income, and an eventual turn to crime to survive.

November 27, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 26, 2015

So thankful for federal judges encouraging prosecutors to reconsider extreme sentence... but...

I wish that such reconsideration of extreme sentences were more the norm than the exception in our modern era of mass incarceration.  The notable new judicial trend for which I am thankful was discussed earlier this week in this Wall Street Journal article headlined "Persuasive Judges Win Reduced Sentences for Some Convicts: Federal prosecutors agree to do-overs in a handful of cases, another sign of shifting attitudes about punishment."  Here are excerpts:

Francois Holloway became a free man this year three decades earlier than planned, thanks to a well-placed ally. U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn, N.Y., who put Mr. Holloway away in 1996 for participating in armed carjackings, had lobbied prosecutors for years to reduce Mr. Holloway’s 57-year sentence.

Federal trial judges have little leeway in sentencing when prosecutors trigger mandatory-minimum laws that set floors for punishment, and they have few means of revisiting closed cases, unless new evidence comes to light or a major legal error was committed. But they can be persuasive.  Federal prosecutors have agreed in recent years to sentence reductions in a handful of cases, most after public pressure from judges.

Such do-overs are another sign of shifting attitudes about punishment and growing bipartisan support for criminal justice policies that emphasize rehabilitation.  The practice does have its detractors, who say such relief should come from the White House in the form of commutations and pardons, not from the courthouse.

So far, the cases have tended to involve defendants who rejected plea deals, lost at trial and received prison terms several times larger than they would have if they had they pleaded guilty, sometimes called a “trial penalty.” Mr. Holloway balked at a deal that would have sent him to prison for about 11 years. He ended up receiving a mandatory minimum of 45 years because one of his co-assailants brandished a gun during the three carjackings. He earned the balance for stealing the vehicles, per federal sentencing guidelines that were binding on Judge Gleeson at the time....

After Mr. Holloway lost his appeal, he turned to a federal law frequently used by federal prisoners to challenge their sentences as excessive or to show that their lawyers were ineffective to the point of depriving them of their rights. At the urging of Judge Gleeson, the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn last year withdrew its opposition to Mr. Holloway’s petition, citing his “extraordinary” record while in prison, as well as the responses of Mr. Holloway’s victims, who supported his early release. Attorney General Loretta Lynch headed the U.S. attorney’s office at the time.  Judge Gleeson vacated two of Mr. Holloway’s convictions and resentenced him to time served. “Prosecutors are almost never criticized for being aggressive,” he wrote in a July 2014 ruling lauding Ms. Lynch’s move. “Doing justice can be much harder.”

U.S. attorneys have accepted reduced punishments “where prosecutors, the court and victims have agreed that a sentence is unjust,” but such cases are rare, said Melanie Newman, a spokeswoman for Ms. Lynch. “The government nearly always seeks to preserve the finality of sentences where there is no legal flaw,” Ms. Newman said.

Harlan Protass, a partner at Clayman & Rosenberg LLP who represented Mr. Holloway, said the case has become a model for taking a second look at sentences.  Mr. Protass and Sam Sheldon, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP in Washington, D.C., hope to establish a law-school clinic with the mission of persuading the government to allow new sentence hearings and reduced prison terms for certain offenders....

In another New York case, Randy Washington, a crack-cocaine dealer from the Bronx convicted of armed robbery, found a friend in his sentencing judge, who last year admonished prosecutors to consider whether the 52-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence Mr. Washington faced was “worthy of the public’s trust and confidence.” His punishment later was cut in half.

Prosecutors in Oklahoma agreed this year to allow an Army National Guard veteran sentenced to life for cocaine smuggling to leave prison after serving nearly three decades.  In Atlanta, the government shortened from life to 25 years the sentence of a man convicted of cocaine distribution.  Meanwhile, prosecutors in Montana dismissed several gun and drug counts against a medical-marijuana grower, lopping off 80 years of an 85-year mandatory sentence....

Some federal prosecutors have declined requests by federal judges for shorter sentences.  In Philadelphia, U.S. District Judge Jan DuBois recently implored prosecutors for a penalty that “better serves the interests of justice” in the case of Tyrone Trader, who was convicted for his role as a street-level dealer in a cocaine-trafficking conspiracy...  Mr. Trader received a mandatory life sentence under federal law, after the Justice Department filed a notice with the court showing Mr. Trader had prior felony drug convictions.  The other street-level dealers who took pleas have been released from prison, Judge DuBois noted, adding that the average federal sentence for murder was less than 23 years in fiscal 2014.  “It is difficult to see how a sentence of life imprisonment in Trader’s case is just,” Judge DuBois wrote in an August ruling.

U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said in a statement that the government carefully considers each case before making charging decisions and that there was “no basis” for reducing Mr. Trader’s sentence.

November 26, 2015 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 23, 2015

NY Times editorial: "Cut Sentences for Low­-Level Drug Crimes"

This New York Times editorial provides a glimpse into the latest state (and notable criticisms) of federal statutory sentencing reform making slow-but-steady progress in Congress. Here is how it starts and ends:

Now that Congress is within sight of passing the most significant federal sentencing reforms in a generation, it’s worth taking a closer look at where the legislation falls short.

The main driver of the federal prison population is, by far, the dramatic increase in the time people spend behind bars — specifically, those convicted of drug offenses, who account for nearly half of the nation’s 199,000 federal inmates. From 1988 to 2012, the average time served for drug crimes more than doubled in length, according to a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.  That increase in the length of drug sentences comes at a great expense: an estimated $1.5 billion each year, based on how much it costs to keep a federal inmate behind bars.

The new sentencing­-reform bills now moving through the Senate and House would help reduce some of the longest mandatory­-minimum sentences, including ending the use of life without parole for drug crimes, and would give judges more power to impose a shorter sentence when the facts of a case warrant it.

But these fixes do not reach to the heart of the problem, which is that the vast majority of federal drug offenders serving outsize sentences are in for low-level, non-violent crimes, and have no serious history of violence. More than half of the current drug­-offender population has no violent history at all, according to a new analysis by the Urban Institute and the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections.  Less than 14 percent were sentenced for using or threatening to use violence, or directing its use.  And only 14 percent were sentenced for having a high-­level or leadership role in a drug operation, the study found....

A critical fix Congress could make right now would be to change the law so that a person’s sentence is determined by his role in a drug operation, and not by the entire amount of drugs found in that operation, which is a poor measure of culpability.

One version of the sentencing reform legislation, introduced in the House by Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, and Robert Scott, Democrat of Virginia, would have addressed this issue squarely by applying many mandatory minimum sentences only to the leaders of a drug organization. But that smart idea was heavily watered down in the bills passed by the Senate and House Judiciary Committees in recent days.  Congress should resurrect this sensible provision, which would go a long way toward bringing some basic fairness and rationality back into the nation’s horribly skewed drug laws.

Some recent related posts:

November 23, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Latest BJS official data show reduction of offenders on probation and parole

As reported in this official press release, the Bureau of Justice Statistics this past week released this report, titled "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2014," providing the latest official data on offenders under community supervision throughout the nation. Here are some data highlights from the press release:

The one-percent decline in the number of adults supervised in the community on probation or parole between yearend 2013 and 2014 marked the seventh consecutive year of decline in the population, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today.  In the past seven years, adults under community supervision declined between 0.5 percent and 2.6 percent annually, or by nearly 400,000 offenders over the 7-year period.

Between yearend 2008 and 2014, the probation population fell 10 percent, while the parole population increased nearly 4 percent.  Probation is a court-ordered period of supervision in the community, generally used as an alternative to incarceration, and parole is a period of conditional supervised release in the community following a prison term.

An estimated 4.7 million adults were under correctional community supervision in the United States on December 31, 2014, down 45,300 offenders from the same day in 2013. The decline in community supervision was due to a drop in the number on probation that was offset by an increase in the number on parole. Between yearend 2013 and 2014, the probation population decreased by 46,500 offenders (from 3,910,600 to 3,864,100 offenders) while the parole population increase by 1,700 offenders over the same period (from 855,200 to 856,900 offenders)....

Other probation findings include —

  • About 25 percent of probationers were female in 2014, up from 22 percent in 2000....
  • Of all persons on probation during 2014, the incarceration rate (5 percent) among those violating their conditions of supervision — including incarceration for a new offense, a revocation and other reasons — was similar to the rate observed in 2013 (5.4 percent).

Other parole findings include —

  • Twelve percent of parolees were female in 2014, unchanged from 2000.
  • In 2014, nearly a third (31 percent) of parolees were being supervised for violent offenses, about a third (31 percent) for drug crimes and nearly a quarter (22 percent) for property offenses....
  • Among all persons on parole during the year, an estimated 9 percent were reincarcerated in 2014, a rate similar to 2013.

November 21, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 20, 2015

"Prison Time Surges for Federal Inmates"

PSPP_PrisonTime_fig1The title of this post is the headline of this notable Issue Brief released this wqeek by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. Here is how it gets started (with notes omitted):

The average length of time served by federal inmates more than doubled from 1988 to 2012, rising from 17.9 to 37.5 months. Across all six major categories of federal crime — violent, property, drug, public order, weapon, and immigration offenses — imprisonment periods increased significantly. (See Figure 1.)  For drug offenders, who make up roughly half of the federal prison population, time served leapt from less than two years to nearly five.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the elimination of parole, and other policy choices helped drive this growth, which cost taxpayers an estimated $2.7 billion in 2012 alone.  Despite these expenditures, research shows that longer prison terms have had little or no effect as a crime prevention strategy — a finding supported by data showing that policymakers have safely reduced sentences for thousands of federal offenders in recent years.

Two factors determine the size of any prison population: how many offenders are admitted to prison and how long they remain. From 1988 to 2012, the number of annual federal prison admissions almost tripled, increasing from 19,232 to 56,952 (after reaching a high of 61,712 in 2011). During the same period, the average time served by released federal offenders more than doubled, rising from 17.9 to 37.5 months.  These two upward trends ...caused a spike in the overall federal prison population, which jumped 336 percent, from 49,928 inmates in 1988 to an all-time high of 217,815 in 2012.  One study found that the increase in time served by a single category of federal offenders — those convicted of drug-related charges — was the “single greatest contributor to growth in the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010.”

The long-term growth of this population has driven a parallel surge in taxpayer spending.  As Pew reported in February 2015, federal prison spending rose 595 percent from 1980 to 2013, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.  Taxpayers spent almost as much on federal prisons in 2013 as they spent in 1980 on the entire U.S. Justice Department — including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and all U.S. attorneys.

November 20, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"States of Women's Incarceration: The Global Context"

The title of this post is the title of this effective new on-line report by the Prison Policy Initiative.  Here is how it gets started:

We already know that when it comes to incarceration, the United States is truly exceptional.  As we have reported previously, the United States incarcerates 716 people for every 100,000 residents, more than any other country. Worldwide, and within the U.S., the vast majority of those incarcerated are men.  As a result, women's incarceration rates are overshadowed and often lost in the data.  As a first step in documenting how women fare in the world's carceral landscape, this report compares the incarceration rates for women of each U.S. state with the equivalent rates for countries around the world.

Across the globe, the 25 jurisdictions with the highest rates of incarcerating women are all American states.  Thailand, at number 26, is the first non-U.S. government to appear on this high-end list, followed closely at number 27 by the Unites States itself.  The next 17 jurisdictions are also American states.

Overall, with the exception of Thailand and the U.S. itself, the top 44 jurisdictions throughout the world with the highest rate of incarcerating women are individual American states.  Nearly 30% of the world's incarcerated women are in the United States, twice the percentage as in China and four times as much as in Russia.

Putting U.S. states in a global context is sobering; even the U.S. states that have comparatively low rates of incarceration far out-incarcerate the majority of the world. Illinois' incarceration rate for women is on par with El Salvador, where abortion is illegal and women are routinely jailed for having miscarriages.  New Hampshire is on par with Russia, and New York with Rwanda.

Rhode Island, which has the lowest incarceration rate for women in the U.S., would have the 15th highest incarceration rate in the world if it were a country.  In other words, only 14 countries (not including the United States) incarcerate women at a higher rate than Rhode Island, the U.S. state that incarcerates women at the lowest rate of imprisonment.

November 19, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"Aging in Prison: Reducing Elder Incarceration and Promoting Public Safety"

Screen-Shot-2015-11-11-at-12.11.33-PMThe title of this post is the title of this notable new report from published by the Center for Justice at Columbia University.  Here is the report's executive summary:

Columbia University’s Center for Justice, with Release Aging People in Prison/ RAPP, the Correctional Association of New York, the Osborne Association, the Be the Evidence Project/Fordham University, and the Florence V. Burden Foundation, coordinated a symposium in Spring of 2014 to discuss the rapidly growing population of elderly and aging people in prison. In attendance at the symposium were researchers, policy advocates, current and former policy makers and administrators, elected and appointed officials, and those who have directly experienced incarceration.

All agreed that while the overall prison population of New York State has declined in the past decade, the number of people aged 50 and older has increased at an alarming rate. The symposium provided the time and space for key stakeholders and actors to think critically about how best to address the phenomenon of New York’s aging prison population without compromising public safety.

A series of papers emerged from the symposium.  Together, they provide a rich overview and analysis of aging people in prison from some of the best thinkers in this field.  While the authors differ in opinion over some issues, they share several key observations and recommendations:

In New York State, the aging prison population continues to rise.  The population of incarcerated people aged 50 and older has increased by 81% since the early 2000’s. Currently, people aged 50 and older comprise more than 17% of the prison population.  The well-documented racial disparities in the criminal justice system are also reflected in the aging prison population — a vastly disproportionate percentage of aging people in prison are Black men and women.

Prisons were not meant to be nursing homes and are poorly equipped to house an aging population.  Basic structural limitations create formidable difficulties for elderly people in prison who often have limited mobility. The lack of medical or correctional staff with specialized knowledge in geriatric care significantly impairs prisons from providing appropriate care to people experiencing chronic medical problems.

Incarcerating the elderly has serious financial implications.  The cost of incarcerating someone aged 50 and older is two to five times the cost of incarcerating someone 49 and younger. An economist who presented at the symposium estimated that the United States spends at least $16 billion annually on incarcerating elderly people.

The explosion in the aging prison population undermines basic fairness, justice, and compassion.

The boom in the aging prison population is largely the result of tough-on-crime sentencing laws and release policies.  Legislators across the political spectrum are rethinking such policies because they have proved ineffective at addressing crime and have a deleterious impact on the wellbeing and safety of poor people and people of color.

Public safety does not require that we keep aging people in prison when they pose no risk to society.  People in prison aged 50 and older are far less likely to return to prison for new crimes than their younger counterparts. For example, only 6.4% of people incarcerated in New York State released age 50 and older returned to prison for new convictions; this number was 4% for people released at the age of 65 and older. Nationally, arrest rates are just over 2% for people aged 50+ and are almost 0% for people aged 65+.

There are several measures New York State should implement to reform parole policy and release aging people from prison.  These measures are consistent with public safety and will result in significant cost savings for New York State. In addition, there are several measures New York State must implement if it is to provide humane care for its aging prison population. Lastly, reentry services specifically tailored to elders released from prison will help ensure the protection of their human rights and dignity, as well as enhancing public safety and preventing any risk of recidivism.

We are pleased to report that the symposium resulted in the creation of a model pilot project for discharge planning and reentry — the report on this pilot is attached to this series of papers as an appendix.  We hope that the knowledge collected in the symposium, the pilot on reentry, and our continued commitment to improving New York State’s justice system serve as resources for you in your efforts to create a safer and healthier New York for all its residents.  The groups and individuals who participated in the symposium and the Aging Reentry Task Force remain ready to provide expertise and resources to help our policy makers in these efforts.

November 17, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Fitting follow-up to cursory Dem debate comments about criminal justice

As the numerous Prez debates all start to blend into one another, I am no longer making a habit of blogging about questions I would like to see asked or about the occasional tepid comment about criminal justice reform from one candidate or another.  Nevertheless the Democratic debate over the weekend had one of the most extended (and yet still cursory) discussions of criminal justice issues, and these two recent article provide an effective review and commentary of what was said and of what still needs to be discussed a lot more:

From The New Republic here, "The Democrats Have Learned to Say, "Black Lives Matter." Now What?: Why Democrats can't get complacent about police brutality."

From Vox here, "Next time, Democrats should debate these Black Lives Matter and criminal justice questions"

I especially liked these proposed debate questions from the Vox article:

Experts say undoing mass incarceration would likely require imprisoning fewer violent offenders and even releasing some of them.  Is that something you'd be willing to consider?

Has the Obama administration done enough to prevent aggressive prosecutions by US attorneys?  What would you do differently?

More than 86 percent of prisoners are in state facilities.  What can the federal government do to encourage decarceration in the states?

Should drug courts mandate rehabilitation and treatment with the threat of incarceration?

November 17, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"Who's Really Sentenced to Life Without Parole?: Searching for 'Ugly Disproportionalities' in the American Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and important new paper by Craig Lerner digging deeply into the realities of LWOP sentencing in eight states. Here is the abstract:

Critics argue that the American criminal justice system is rife with “ugly disproportionalities” and “brutal penalties on the undeserving.”  One particularly brutal punishment is the sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).  The punishment, conceived decades ago as a substitute for the death penalty, scarcely exists in the rest of the world. Today, while capital punishment wanes in the United States, steadily increasing numbers of defendants are sentenced to LWOP.  Furthermore, according to a recent ACLU Report, over 3,000 of the 50,000 inmates serving LWOP were convicted of nonviolent offenses.  There is no uglier disproportionality than a defendant, guilty of a minor crime, banished to prison for the remainder of his life.

This Article questions this narrative and therewith the contemporary wisdom as to the brutality of American criminal justice, at least in its imposition of LWOP sentences.  The author conducted a detailed study of every inmate sentenced to LWOP in eight states.  In a few states, it is impossible to find a single inmate sentenced to LWOP for any crime other than murder or the most serious violent crimes.  Even in jurisdictions that impose LWOP for crimes labeled “nonviolent,” the inmates are few in number and often present aggravating factors, such as extensive criminal histories or previous violent crimes. Inevitably, criminals sentenced to LWOP will vary in culpability, and some will appear not to merit this punishment.  Drawing attention to their plight can spur executive clemency in individual cases. But accusations that the American legal system is rife with “ugly disproportionalities,” at least insofar as this claim is applied to LWOP sentences in the states, appear to have little merit.

November 15, 2015 in Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (6)

New York Times editorial makes case that California prison releases are working

The New York Times had this notable recent editorial, headlined "California’s Prison Experiment," highlighting why California is the most dynamic state to watch amidst the national debate over sentencing reform and mass incarceration.  Building on two recent reports, the editorial makes the case that California is finding success with decarceration reforms.  Here are excerpts:

Until recently, California locked up more people per capita than any other state. It has been under federal court order since 2009 to bring its severely overcrowded prison system below 137.5 percent of capacity, or about 114,000 inmates.

It met that modest goal in February, thanks in part to a 2014 ballot initiative that reclassified six low­level offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies. The initiative, Proposition 47, was expected to lead to the release of thousands of inmates, and cut new admissions by about 3,300 per year.  It also required that the cost savings — estimated to be more than $150 million this year — be reinvested into anticrime services like drug rehabilitation,  antitruancy efforts and mental health treatment.  Victims’ services receive funding, too.

Proposition 47 followed two other major reforms: A 2011 law diverted low­level offenders from state prisons into county jails, and a 2012 ballot initiative scaled back a “three strikes” law. The latter led to the release of more than 2,100 people who had been sentenced to life without parole, some for a third strike as minor as shoplifting.

After each reform, law enforcement officials predicted that crime would rise, but it continued to drop around the state. Recidivism rates of those released under the three­-strikes reform are far below the state average.

Now, two new reports, by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project, look at the effect of Proposition 47.  The most easily measurable impact is on the state’s prison and county jail population, which has fallen by about 13,000, with more than 4,400 prison inmates released by the end of September.  But the law remains controversial.  Some in law enforcement argue that they can’t arrest people for small crimes anymore, and point to crime upticks in some counties.

In fact, crime rates vary widely throughout the state. In Los Angeles County, property crime is up 8 percent, while the rate for all crime remains at record lows in San Diego County.  One sign that Proposition 47 is working is the recidivism rate. It is less than 5 percent for people released under the law; the state average is 42 percent....

It may be too soon to understand the full impact of Proposition 47, but the damage done by the indiscriminate and lengthy lockup of low­level offenders is all too clear. California’s voters, who have in the past given in to their most punitive impulses, have now opened the door to a more intelligent and humane justice system.

A few (of many) prior related posts on Prop 47 and its impact:

November 15, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Notable new ACLU report on impact of California's Prop 47 one year later

ACLUcaCoverIn this prior post last week, I reported on this Stanford Justice Advocacy Project report providing one perspective on the impact and import of California voters' embrace of criminal justice reform last year through Proposition 47.  I have just seen that the ALCU of California has this week released its own report on this important topic.  This report, titled "Changing Gears: California’s Shift to Smart Justice," covers lots of ground about local implementation of Prop 47.  Here are excerpts from its six main findings (which has its numbering a bit off):

For this survey, the ACLU obtained and reviewed public records from sheriffs, probation chiefs, district attorneys, and behavioral health departments from around the state. The findings below are offered as a starting point for policymakers and advocates working to better understand the choices local agencies are making in responding to Prop 47 and the voter mandate behind it – and begin to evaluate whether those choices are appropriate.

1. Thousands are waiting for their Prop 47 resentencing/ reclassification petitions to be reviewed. Under Prop 47, people who may be eligible to change the felony on their record to a misdemeanor have a limited time to ask the court to make the change. The November 2017 deadline to apply is now just two years away.  As of June 2015, courts statewide had reported a total of about 160,000 applications for Prop 47 relief – both for resentencing and reclassification.29 Responding to public records requests by the ACLU, many counties were unable to provide accurate data on how many people may still be incarcerated or under supervision awaiting resentencing.  Although most counties acted quickly to establish a process for resentencing eligible incarcerated people, it is less clear how many people eligible for Prop 47 resentencing are still serving felony sentences under community supervision.  According to Californians for Safety and Justice, there may be up to one million Californians who have an old felony on their record that may be eligible for reclassification....

2. Jail populations fell after Prop 47, but they are rising again. Due to overcrowding, jail populations in California are largely determined by jail administrators’ decisions about how to manage jail capacity.  They determine who will be booked into jail and who will be released, how and under what conditions.  Following enactment of Prop 47, jail populations statewide dropped by almost 11% from October 2014 to March 2015.  During the same period, the number of people who were released early due to jail overcrowding dropped by one-third. However, jail populations soon began to increase again as administrators adjusted detention policies and practices....

3. Some in law enforcement have prioritized low-level arrests while others de-prioritized them. The ACLU obtained several county sheriff departments’ arrest numbers for low-level drug and property offenses for each month in 2014 through mid-2015. (Sheriff’s departments represent a small sample of the hundreds of law enforcement agencies in the state.)  Changes in arrests in the fi rst six months of 2014 compared to the fi rst six months of 2015 demonstrate that local agencies are applying their discretion to arrest for Prop 47 offenses very differently....

4. Some county jails are making room for people charged with low-level offenses. The facts belie the claim by some in law enforcement that people facing misdemeanor charges cannot be jailed. In 2015, people facing misdemeanor charges are taking up a growing number of jail beds....

4. A majority of counties already require supervision for some people convicted of a low-level offense. In response to ACLU inquiries, 38 county probation departments reported supervising some people for misdemeanor convictions. Other counties put misdemeanants on court probation (which does not involve active monitoring). Following Prop 47, some counties reported putting people who have been resentenced from a felony to a misdemeanor under the supervision of the probation department. Other counties have chosen not to provide formal supervision....

5. Agencies have been focused on individual agency roles, rather than collaborative planning. In records provided to the ACLU, communication among criminal justice agencies at the county level have focused on the individual roles of each agency rather than on how best to maintain the county’s overall public safety goals. Few counties appear to have made the space to discuss how various agencies and the county as a whole should adjust policies and practices to ensure that counties adhere both to the legal requirements and the voter intent behind Prop 47.

A few (of many) prior related posts on Prop 47 and its impact:

November 12, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"How Parental Incarceration Affects a Child’s Education"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Atlantic article, which summarizes some of the findings from this research report titled "Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?" authored by David Murphey and P. Mae Cooper.  Here are excerpts from the Atlantic article:

Research has long found that children who have (or have had) a parent behind bars tend to suffer from problems including poor health, behavior challenges, and grade retention, but it’s been difficult to suss out the degree to which those issues are attributable more generally to other realities common in communities with high incarceration rates. “It can be challenging to disentangle the effects of parental incarceration from … other risk factors, such as extreme poverty,” Murphey and Cooper write. “Complicating matters further, parental incarceration can also exacerbate these associated risk factors, through loss of income, for example.”...

The researchers also found that a child who’s had a parent in prison is more likely than one who hasn’t to experience additional “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs—long-term, “toxic” circumstances such as witnessing domestic or community violence, suffering from extreme poverty, or living with someone who’s mentally ill. Research has shown that ACEs, especially when they’re cumulative, often cause childhood trauma, which can ultimately result in poor immunity and mental-health problems in adulthood and even early mortality. As James Perrin, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan last year, “If you have a whole bunch of bad experiences growing up, you set up your brain in such a way that it’s your expectation that that’s what life is about.”

Parental incarceration often acts as one such ACE because it causes a confusing, troubling loss of an attachment figure and involves ongoing contact with law enforcement, the corrections system, and child-welfare officials. But what Murphey and Cooper find is that having a parent in prison is likely to coincide with even more traumatic experiences: Children who’ve undergone parental incarceration suffer from 2.7 ACEs on average, according to their analysis of of the National Survey of Children’s Health, which lists 8 ACEs total. Children who haven’t experienced parental incarceration suffered from 0.7 ACEs on average.

Ultimately, the researchers conclude that “the harm associated with parental incarceration can compound the already difficult circumstances of vulnerable children,” a reality that’s particularly evident in their schooling. Yet, as the University of Minnesota paper shows, education policy has done little to address these kids’ particular needs. And in this age of mass incarceration, perhaps it should. In his recent cover story for The Atlantic about the topic, Ta-Nehisi Coates described mass incarceration as a vicious cycle that victimizes entire families, holding them “in a kind of orbit, on the outskirts, by the relentless gravity of the carceral state.” “Through it all,” Coates wrote, “children suffer.”

November 12, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

How many vets, after serving to secure liberty, are now serving LWOP sentences?

The question in the title of this post, in addition to raising an important empirical question on a day devoted to honoring our veterans, seeks to highlight my view that even more disconcerting than the number of veterans who many be on death row (as dicusses in this new DPIC report) is the surely much larger number of vets who are serving a sentence ensuring they will never experience true freedom again after they served to protect that very freedom.

The DPIC report indicates that around 300 veterans may be on death row, which would make vets a little less than 10% of the condemned population.  Using that rough percentage and knowing that at least 100,000 persons (and likely many more) are serving LWOP sentences in the United States, it think it would be reasonable to guess that as many as 10,000 veterans might be serving the ultimate American liberty-depriving sentence after having devoted part of their life to protecting American liberties.

November 11, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (10)

"What Mass Incarceration Looks Like for Juveniles"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times op-ed by Vincent Schiraldi. Here are excerpts:

After two decades of researching mass incarceration — and advocating for its demise — I decided in 2005 to take more direct action and accepted a job running corrections departments, first in Washington, D.C., then in New York City.  It was a rude awakening.

The juvenile corrections department in Washington had about 1,000 clients, about 200 of whom were confined to a detention facility, and a staff of 800. For the previous 19 years, the department had been under a court order for unconstitutional conditions; I was the 20th leader in that time.  In the year prior, two scathing reports, one by the district’s inspector general and another from plaintiffs’ experts, detailed appalling conditions: Beatings of children in custody were commonplace, inmates stuffed clothing around the toilets to keep out rats and cockroaches, young people were locked up for so long that they often defecated or urinated in their cells.  Youths who came in clean tested positive for marijuana after 30 days of confinement, suggesting that it was easier to score drugs in my facility than on the streets of the District of Columbia.

My staff and I quickly uncovered more abuses.  Staff members were sexually harassing the kids and one another.  One of my corrections officers married a youth shortly after the boy was released from custody.  A teacher who had been confined in the facility when she was a teenager confided to us that she had been sexually assaulted by a staff member who was still in our employ years later.  The female staff members widely complained that, if they didn’t perform sexually for their supervisors, they were threatened with finding themselves alone and unaided with the facility’s inmates in dangerous situations.

These abuses are not meted out equally in the United States, with African-Americans and Latinos incarcerated at far higher rates than whites.  In my five years running the Washington system, I never saw one white youth (other than volunteers) in my correctional facility....

In New York, where I ran the probation department, I didn’t witness the same hair­raising institutional abuse, mostly because we didn’t run any facilities.  But probation officers reported that they routinely re­incarcerated people on their caseloads for technical, noncriminal violations largely because they were afraid that if they didn’t, and their client was rearrested, they’d be held to account.  As a result, our clients were frivolously deposited into New York’s jail and juvenile facilities, both of which were sued by the Justice Department during my tenure for conditions chillingly similar to what I had witnessed in Washington.  When we put a stop to the over-incarceration, crime did not spike and there was a remarkably low felony rearrest rate of 4 percent a year for people who completed probation.

Two things surprised me about my experiences on the inside.  First, horrific institutional conditions are common, not exceptional.... Since 1970, systemic violence, abuse and excessive use of isolation and restraints have been documented in juvenile institutions in 39 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a philanthropic group devoted to children’s poverty issues....

The second major surprise was how much I liked many of my staff members.  I charged into my job with an air of moral superiority.  Surely, I thought, such conditions could be created only by ethically bankrupt characters who would wear their depravity on their sleeves.  But it was far more complicated.  Just about everyone in my Washington facility knew who was beating the kids, having sex with them and selling them drugs.  After all, our facility housed only about 200 young people, roughly the size of a small middle school.

Yet many of the church-going people on my staff were ostensibly very friendly people who, despite their silence, believed they were advancing public safety.  They attended our football games and plays and cheered the youths on, sitting in the stands with their parents.  They were the good guys, rendered complicit by years in a corrupt system....

From what I witnessed during my decade on the inside, the end of mass incarceration can’t come soon enough; conditions poison staff members and kids alike and harm, rather than improve, public safety. Incarceration should be the backstop, not the backbone, of our crime­-control efforts.

November 11, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Thanks to retroactive drug guidelines, federal prison population under 200,000 for first time in nearly a decade

I was pleased to discover from this webpage providing a weekly updating of the official federal prisoner headcount that, for the first time in nearly a decade, the federal prison population is now officially under 200,000.  I believe that the official count last week was around 205,000, and thus it would seem that this milestone was achieved officially as a result of the implementation of the first set of drug-2 retroactivity early prisoner releases.

I have heard talk in various settings of an interest in having the federal prison population down eventually to 150,000 (which, I believe, would still have the facitlities officially a bot above their standard capacity).  I think the passage and effective implementation of the bipartisan federal sentencing reform bills now in Congress would likely go a long way to getting to that goal in a responsible way.     

November 7, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 06, 2015

"How Federal Judges Contribute to Mass Incarceration and What They Can Do About It"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by US District Judge Lynn Adelman and his clerk Jon Deitrich now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Talk of reforming federal sentencing law by eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences is much in the air. The fact is, however, that many federal offenders are unnecessarily imprisoned in cases where there is no mandatory minimum.

This article attempts to expand the conversation about excessive imprisonment by discussing first how the federal sentencing guidelines place far too much emphasis on prison and far too little on sentences served in the community. Next, we discuss federal judges' excessive attachment to the guidelines despite their deep flaws and even after the Supreme Court has made clear that judges are free to reject them. Finally, we propose an approach to federal sentencing that is much less deferential to the guidelines and places much more emphasis on 18 U.S. § 3553(a), the parsimony statute, which requires judges to impose the least punitive sentence necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing.

November 6, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, November 05, 2015

"Proposition 47 Progress Report: Year One Implementation"

The title of this post is the title of this recently-released report from the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project, which "was involved in the drafting of Proposition 47 and currently assists its implementation, including litigation on behalf of individual prisoners seeking reduced sentences under the new law."  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this report tells a much more positive story about the impact of Proposition 47 than has been reported by law enforcement officials and various others.  Here are the short report's "Key Findings" (without the many footnotes):

Since the enactment of Proposition 47 on November 14, 2014, the number of people incarcerated in California’s prisons and jails has decreased by approximately 13,000 inmates, helping alleviate crowding conditions in those institutions. Proposition 47 has also reduced the number of jail inmates released from custody early due to overcrowding and should generate over $150 million in state savings this fiscal year. County governments stand to save even more money: over $200 million annually, in aggregate.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, prior to Proposition 47 approximately 40,000 people per year received felony sentences for the drug and property crimes targeted by the initiative.  Those offenses are now punished as misdemeanors, significantly reducing sentence lengths and costs for incarceration, litigation and law enforcement.

According to the Department of Corrections, 4,454 state prisoners have been released under Proposition 47 as of September 30, 2015.  In addition, the state will incarcerate an estimated 3,300 fewer prisoners every year because these offenders will receive misdemeanor jail sentences under Proposition 47 rather than new prison terms. In February, the prison population dropped below the capacity level ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plata v. Brown, one year ahead of schedule.

According to the Board of State Community Corrections, the total statewide jail population has dropped by almost 9,000 inmates since the enactment of Proposition 47.9 Early releases from county jails due to overcrowding are down approximately 35 percent statewide.

Financial savings to the state from reduced prison costs under Proposition 47 is estimated at over $156 million this fiscal year.  Long term annual savings are estimated at $93.4 million.  These savings will be directed to the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund to support mental health and drug treatment, K-12 public schools, and services for crime victims.  In May, the Governor cut over $70 million dollars from the state prison budget because of population reductions from Proposition 47.

Fewer than five percent of state prisoners released early under Proposition 47 have been convicted of a new crime and returned to prison.  Although law enforcement officials in some jurisdictions have recently complained about increasing crime rates, there is no evidence that state prisoners released early under Proposition 47 are committing those crimes. Statewide data on crime rates is not currently available, making it impossible to measure any impact on crimes rates by Proposition 47.

November 5, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Sign of the sentencing reform times: Louisiana Gov candidates spar over prison reform plans

Louisiana-prisons-jailsThis local article, headlined "Gubernatorial candidates spar about Louisiana’s high incarceration rate," provides a report on the notable and telling political debate over prison policies now going on in the Bayou. Here are details:

Republican David Vitter’s first television ad against his Nov. 21 runoff opponent Democrat John Bel Edwards takes aim at Edwards’ position on criminal justice — specifically, Edwards’ talking points about Louisiana’s high incarceration rate. The ad claims Edwards, who is being backed by the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, wants to release “5,500 violent thugs” from prison — a position that Edwards says has been misconstrued and taken out of context.

In reality, both candidates support some form of prison reform, including the expansion of early release programs for nonviolent offenders. Edwards and Vitter won the top two spots in Louisiana’s Oct. 24 primary, sending them to a head-to-head runoff to succeed Gov. Bobby Jindal, who can’t seek re-election due to term limits and has set off on a presidential campaign.

Lafayette Parish Sheriff Michael Neustrom, one of the sheriffs backing Edwards in the governor’s race, said he thinks progressive programs that aim to reduce the prison population responsibly are needed in Louisiana. “We have to do things differently,” he said. He said Louisiana prisons are overcrowded with minor, nonviolent offenders and that reform would be both economical and smart for the state.  He noted that Texas could be a model for the types of reform that should be implemented here.

Louisiana has earned the dubious distinction of having — not just the nation’s — the world’s highest incarceration rate.  There are nearly twice as many people jailed in Louisiana per capita as the national average. As of 2014, there were nearly 40,000 people behind bars in the state.  The prison system costs Louisiana nearly $350 million a year.  It’s an issue that the Louisiana Legislature has grappled with for several years, slowly winnowing away some of the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements implemented decades ago.

“We have to look at proven strategies that have been implemented elsewhere,” Edwards said in an interview Friday.  He said he thinks Louisiana should take a serious look at pretrial diversion programs, including sobriety and drug courts, as well as special programs for the mentally ill and veterans. Edwards is a military veteran. “That’s the type of approach we should take,” he said, adding that the reduced costs on incarceration could be reinvested to reduce crime.

He said Vitter’s characterization of his views is misleading. The 5,500 figure, which Edwards has noted in several speeches — not just the Southern University speech the Vitter ad cites — is the number of prisoners that puts Louisiana above the state with the No. 2 incarceration rate.  He’s used it as a hypothetical number that Louisiana would need to reduce by just to get out of the No. 1 spot.  “I have never said I have a plan to release anybody,” he said, noting that the state has to set goals that it would like to achieve.

Asked about his views on sentencing reform and Louisiana’s high incarceration rate, Vitter referred reporters to his policy plan, “Together, Louisiana Strong.” The plan includes a chapter on “fighting violent crime and reforming criminal justice,” but it doesn’t specifically outline efforts to reduce Louisiana’s prison population. It mentions that Vitter wants to implement “cost-effective work release and monitoring programs,” but doesn’t provide details on those ideas. “I support common sense,” Vitter said Friday. “It is fundamentally different from John Bel Edwards.”

Vitter said he had not read recent legislative proposals that have aimed to reduce penalties for nonviolent offenses as a way to rein in the prison population.  He repeatedly characterized Edwards’ comments as a “proposal” that his opponent has made and said his main objection is to the figure named. “We don’t need to pick an arbitrary number,” he said. “That’s a completely irresponsible proposal.”

November 3, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 02, 2015

House Judiciary Chair Goodlate makes case for sentencing reform by attacking sentencing reform

The somewhat curious title of this post is prompted by this somewhat curious new National Review commentary authored by Representative Bob Goodlatte, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. The piece is headlined "Reduce Prison Sentences, but Not for Violent Offenders: The release of dangerous criminals shows why Congress needs to act on criminal-justice reform." Here are excerpts from the piece (with a few patently false phrases emphasized):

Starting this month, thousands of federal inmates are set to be released early from federal prison, including serious violent felons and criminal aliens.  This action is not the result of legislation passed by the people’s elected representatives in Congress.  Rather, it is a result of a decision made by unelected officials appointed to the United States Sentencing Commission.

In early 2014, the Sentencing Commission adopted an amendment to reduce the sentences for certain drug-trafficking and distribution offenses, including trafficking offenses that involve drug quantities substantial enough to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.  The Sentencing Commission made these reductions retroactive, applying them to tens of thousands of inmates in the Bureau of Prisons’ custody who are serving sentences for drug offenses.  Since then, thousands of federal inmates have filed motions with their courts of jurisdiction for sentence reductions and have been granted approval for early release.

The problem with the Sentencing Commission’s changes to federal drug-sentencing requirements is that they are applied without regard to the inmate’s criminal history and public safety.  Consequently, criminals set to be released into our communities as a result of the Sentencing Commission’s amendment include inmates with violent criminal histories, who have committed crimes involving assault, firearms, sodomy, and even murder.

There is growing consensus in Congress that certain federal drug sentences, such as mandatory life imprisonment for a third drug-trafficking offense, are unnecessarily harsh and contribute to prison overcrowding and a ballooning federal prison budget.  However, the Sentencing Commission is going about sentencing reform the wrong way.  Its new guidelines blindly apply sentencing reductions to all federal inmates without considering the impact an early release would have on the safety of our communities.

The Sentencing Commission’s unilateral changes show why it is imperative that Congress act on sentencing reform and other criminal-justice issues.  If Congress does not act, the matter is left in the hands of an entity that has demonstrated it cannot be trusted to act responsibly.  Fortunately, leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate agree that our nation’s criminal-justice system needs improvement and are working on bipartisan legislation to do just that....

Recently, I joined several leaders of the committee in introducing our first piece of bipartisan legislation to reform federal sentencing requirements and simultaneously prevent serious violent criminals from getting out early.

That bill — the Sentencing Reform Act — makes the criminal-justice system more fair, efficient, and fiscally responsible.  It reduces certain mandatory minimums for drug offenses, including cutting the third-strike mandatory life sentence to 25 years and the second-strike mandatory sentence from 20 to 15 years. The bill also broadens the mechanism for non-violent drug offenders to be sentenced below the mandatory minimum sentence and provides judges in those cases with greater discretion in determining appropriate sentences.  These changes will help save taxpayer dollars and take an important step toward reducing crowding in our federal prisons and the amount of federal taxpayer dollars spent on incarceration each year.

Our criminal-justice system is in need of reform, but we must ensure that changes to the system do not compromise the safety of the American people.  Most important, the bill contains major limitations on the retroactive application of these reforms, to ensure that serious violent criminals serve the full time for their crimes in federal prison and do not get out of prison early.  This is in stark contrast with what the Sentencing Commission has done to federal sentencing requirements....

While the fruit of the Sentencing Commission’s reckless changes is laid bare beginning this month, the House Judiciary Committee will move forward with the Sentencing Reform Act so that sentencing reform is done responsibly. Our criminal-justice system is in need of reform, but we must ensure that changes to the system do not compromise the safety of the American people.

The phrases I have highlighted are patently false because the instructions that the US Sentencing Commission giver to judges when deciding whether to reduce a defendant's sentence based on lowered guidelines includes an express requirement that the "court shall consider the nature and seriousness of the danger to any person or the community that may be posed by a reduction in the defendant's term of imprisonment in determining: (I) whether such a reduction is warranted; and (II) the extent of such reduction." In other words, the USSC does not call for retroactive application of reduced guidelines without regard for public safety.  Rather, the USSC expressly calls for judges to consider, on a case by case basis, whether reducing a sentence for an inmate poses a danger to any person or the community.  

That all said, while this op-ed seems to me to be taking unfair pot shots at the US Sentencing Commission, I think it is wise to suggest that Congress can and should feel urgency to enact its own federal sentencing reform if it is concerned in any way with how the US Sentencing Commission has been trying to reduce the federal prison population.  Both the Sentencing Commission and the US Department of Justice have been telling Congress for a number of years that federal prisons are badly overcrowded and are using up too much of the federal crime control budget.  The Commission's decision to reduce drug sentences across the board and to make these changes retroactive reflect, in part, a wise recognition by the Commission that it needed to do something significant ASAP to reduce federal prison overcrowding.  Notably, though many members of Congress have now been talking seriously about federal sentencing reforms for nearly three years, no actually refoms have become law.  

November 2, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, November 01, 2015

"Bar None? Prisoners' Rights in the Modern Age"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper by Daniel Medwed available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The American public is perhaps more sensitized to the flaws in our criminal justice system than at any time in our history.  News accounts of wrongful convictions, racial profiling, violent police-citizen encounters, and botched executions have called into question the policies of a nation that imprisons more people than any other developed nation — upwards of 1.5 million people housed in state or federal prisons according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  To some extent, this period of questioning and reflection has produced gains; we have witnessed a modest shift away from mandatory minimum sentencing and toward the decriminalization of some narcotics.  Parole boards have shown a rising awareness that inmates’ claims of innocence should not be held against them in their release decisions. Even more, some states — most notably, Michigan — have formulated innovative re-entry programs to assist prisoners in making the perilous transition from their cell blocks to residential and commercial blocks in neighborhoods throughout the country.  These events have prompted some observers to envision an end to mass incarceration in the United States.

Yet this vision is a mirage.  Despite all of the talk about criminal justice reform and “decarceration,” we still live in a country where large swaths of people, especially young men of color, languish behind bars or under the restrictions of probation, parole, or some other form of community supervision.  This is likely to remain the case absent dramatic changes to policing practices, wealth inequalities, and the lobbying tactics of corrections officials and affiliated industries.  The danger with the decarceration rhetoric is that it deflects attention from those who continue to suffer under horrid conditions of confinement.  Indeed, this Symposium explores the contemporary prison experience against this complicated backdrop and asks a fundamental question: what are the gravest problems that inmates face during an era in which many people might naively think that the situation has improved?

November 1, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Saving the United States from Lurching to Another Sentencing Crisis: Taking Proportionaltiy Seriously and Implementing Fair Fixed Penalties"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Mirko Bagaric and Sandeep Gopalan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Unabated tough-on-crime policies in the United States for the past two decades in response to a crime problem have now produced another crisis: too many prisoners. Prison gates are currently literally being opened to release prisoners in a bid to ameliorate the unsustainable cost of detaining more than two million Americans.  More than 40,000 drug offenders may be released early from prison pursuant to retrospective sentence reductions which have been implemented for no greater reason than the prison walls are crumbling from overuse.  Sentencing is the sharp end of the criminal law.  It is the domain where the State acts in its most coercive manner against citizens.  The cardinal interests at stake are too important for it to continue to be dictated by reflexive legislative hunches.  Yet, it is the area of law where there is the biggest gap between what is implemented and what theory informs us is achievable.

This Article attempts to correct that failing and in the process makes concrete proposals to prevent the United States making another macro-political and social error by over-reacting to the present crisis.  Mandatory harsh penalties have caused the incarceration crisis.  The solution to the problem involves maintaining the overarching architecture of this approach but fundamentally alerting its content.  The core problem with the current approach to sentencing in United States is not its prescriptive nature.  It is that the sanctions are generally too severe; devoid of any attempt to match the gravity of the crime to the harshness of the penalty.  Proportionality is the missing component in United States sentencing.  Drug traffickers, for example, deserve punishment, but any system that treats them as severely as murderers is afflicted with a fundamental doctrinal deformity.

This Article proposes a model to remedy such flaws.  It gives meaning and content to proportionality.  As a result, it is suggested that most non-violent and non-sexual offenses should be dealt with less harshly.  This is especially because the cost and burden of imprisonment to the community needs to be factored into the sentencing calculus.  Moreover, prison should be principally reserved for offenders who are a threat to public safety; not those whom we simply dislike.  This will result in a rapid emptying of many prisons, but it will be principled -- not reflexive.  To illustrate the manner in which our recommendations should operate we develop a sentencing grid which, if implemented, would make United States sentencing fair, efficient and profoundly less expensive to the taxpayer.

October 29, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission provides estimates on likely impact of sentencing reforms in SRCA 2015

I have been remiss for failing to highlight in this space the notable analysis recently done by the US Sentencing Commission in conjunction with the Senate's work on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (basics of SRCA 2015, S. 2123, here).  That analysis appears in full form in this extended statement by USSC Chair Patti Saris to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it appears in summary form in this USSC news release praising the Committee's passage of SRCA 2015 through to the full Senate.  Here are the key data appearing in short form in the press release: 

According to the Commission’s analysis, key provisions of S. 2123 would:

• Provide retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which could allow 5,826 offenders currently in prison to receive an approximate 20 percent reduction in sentence.

• Permit certain offenders who are currently subject to the 10-year mandatory minimum penalty to be subject to the 5-year mandatory minimum instead, which would reduce the sentence of 550 offenders annually by approximately 19.3 percent.

• Broaden the safety valve to provide greater relief to more low-level, non-violent offenders, which would reduce the sentence of 3,314 offenders annually by nearly 20 percent and save 1,593 federal prison beds within 5 years of enactment.

• Reduce mandatory minimum penalties for recidivist drug offenders with prior drug felony convictions from 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the mandatory life imprisonment penalty for certain offenders to 25 years while both narrowing and expanding the types of prior offenses that could trigger a mandatory minimum.

• Reduce the mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement for using a firearm in the commission of a violent crime or drug offense from 25 years to 15 years, and narrow the circumstances in which multiple sentencing enhancements apply, which would reduce the sentence of 62 offenders annually by 30.4 percent.

• Reduces the mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act from 15 to 10 years, which would reduce the sentence of 277 offenders each year by approximately 21.6 percent. The bill would apply this provision retroactively, which, if granted, could result in a sentence reduction for 2,317 offender currently in federal prison.

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 29, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

NY Times debates "Will Crime Rise If More People Are Kept Out of Prison?"

The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of pieces exploring the potential crime impact of reduced use of incarceration.   Here is the section's set up (with links from the source):

Even many of the nation’s police chiefs have called for reducing the number of people, particularly minorities, sent to prison.  But the news that a man suspected of murdering a New York City police officer had been given break after break, and was free because he had been allowed to enter a diversion program rather than be jailed on drug charges, have led even supporters of such programs to raise questions about them.

With some already saying that crime may be rising, are we moving too fast to embrace limits on incarceration, such as diversion programs and drug courts? Could such measures actually increase the risk of crime?

Here are the contributions, with links via the commentary titles:

October 29, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Interesting takes on California developments since passage of Prop 47

Download (1)I have long asserted that California has long been among the most interesting states to watch closely when it comes to crime and punishments.  The latest round of developments involve the state's passage of an initiative, Proposition 47, reducing the severity of many offenses and subsequent reactions thereto.  This new Los Angeles Times op-ed, authored by Robert Greene and headlined "California's Prop. 47 revolution: Were the voters duped?," provides a notable take on all this and a preview of more to commentary come.  Here are exerpts:

Police and prosecutors have lately attempted to link increases in crime to last year's Proposition 47. Based on their overwrought statements, it would be understandable for Californians to start wondering whether they had been duped into completely decriminalizing drug possession and petty theft....

As is the case with all large bureaucracies, it is difficult for courts and for city and county agencies — police departments, sheriff's departments, district attorneys, probation officers, county supervisors — to understand and constructively respond to changed circumstances. And Proposition 47 no doubt brought change, by converting six felonies to misdemeanors and allowing many people serving sentences for those crimes, and those who served their time long ago, to be resentenced and have their rap sheets adjusted....

Crime in Los Angeles and some other communities throughout the state has increased this year after many years of decline. But is that because of Proposition 47? Other American cities, where Proposition 47 has no effect, have seen similar increases.

If the ballot measure is connected to rising crime, that's probably because public officials have been too slow to recognize the options that the measure gives them. And it's likely that their decisions — a deputy's decision not to arrest, for example, or the sheriff's not to make room in the jail for a recidivist offender pending trial, or county supervisors' not to use any of the hundreds of millions of dollars currently available for non-jail alternatives — are based on suppositions about how the other links in the public safety chain will react....

The gist of the reaction against Proposition 47 is that we as a society simply have no choice but to make possession of drugs and petty theft into felonies punishable by more than a year in prison if we want to control more serious crime. Similar warnings were issued about the consequences of modifying the three-strikes law, yet recidivism among strikers released from prison after voters adopted Proposition 36 is astonishingly low. And similar arguments were made against redirecting some felons from state prison and state parole to county jail and county probation, yet crime rates after realignment continued to fall.

In the coming week, The Times' Opinion section — the Opinion L.A. blog, the editorial board and the Op-Ed page — will explore the repercussions of Proposition 47, and compare this episode in criminal justice history with similar recent changes that also produced periods of adjustment. The goal is not to defend the voters' decision but rather to seek some honest talk, some accountability and some effective action on the part of public officials who are responsible for providing public safety, justice and wise and effective spending.  

These follow-up opinion pieces provide, as their headlines suggest, pro and con views of the pros and cons of Prop 47:

California's Prop. 47 revolution: Voters were sold a bill of goods

California's Prop. 47 revolution: Give reform a chance to work

October 26, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Justice Anthony Kennedy condemns extreme US punishments as "ongoing injustice of great proportions"

This new piece in the Harvard Gazette, headlined "Kennedy assails prison shortcomings," highlights that an especially notable Supreme Court justice is saying some especially notable things about the US criminal justice system. Here is how the piece gets started:

Without mincing words, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy disparaged the American criminal justice system on Thursday for the three prison scourges of long sentences, solitary confinement, and overcrowding.

“It’s an ongoing injustice of great proportions,” said Kennedy during a conversation with Harvard Law School (HLS) Dean Martha Minow at Wasserstein Hall, in a room packed mostly with students.

Kennedy criticized long prison sentences for the high costs associated with them. (In California, where Kennedy comes from, the cost per prisoner is $35,000 per year, he said.) He also said long sentences have appalling effects on people’s lives.

Solitary confinement, he said, “drives men mad.” He called mandatory minimum sentences “terrible” and in need of reform. Sentences in the United States, he said, are eight times longer than sentences in some European countries for equivalent crimes. With more than 1.5 million prisoners in federal, state, and local jails, the United States has the world’s largest prison population.

The worst of the matter, he said, is that nobody pays attention to this wrong, not even lawyers. “It’s everybody job to look into it,” he said.

Kennedy, LL.B. ’61, whose views on the court reflect a preoccupation with liberty and dignity, has often been described as the high court’s swing vote on major issues. But during his talk with Minow, he said he hated to be depicted that way. “Cases swing. I don’t,” he quipped, as the room erupted in laughter.

October 24, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (43)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Looking closer at (unexpected?) states investing more in incarceration than higher education

I often worry that some offenders when sent to prison will primarily learn about how to be a better criminal.  For that reason and others, I am troubled when government authorities invest more taxpayer resources sending young adults to correctional institutions than to educational institutions.  That concern is spotlighted by this recent Deseret News article headlined "11 states that spend more on prisons than on colleges." Among other virtues, this article highlights that the list of states investing more in incarceration than higher education is not composed of the "usual" states that get the most criticisms for criminal justice systems (although this may because a lot of those usual states seek to cut so many economic corners in the operation of their prison systems). Here is how the article gets started:

A new report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences [available here] makes the case that state investment in higher education has fallen dramatically over the past decades.  Many states are now contributing only a small fraction of the cost of "state" colleges and universities.

One finding in particular stood out: There are now 11 states that spend more on prisons than on higher education. It's an arresting factoid, so to speak.  But it could also be deceptive.  To dig into those numbers, we looked at the 11 states on the list, plus four large states that weren't on the list — Louisiana, Texas, Florida and California — as comparisons.

In each, we compared the state to the national average on five measures: incarceration rates, per prisoner spending, higher-education spending per capita in 2013 and the change in higher-education spending per student from 2008-14.  In every case, the numbers are expressed as the percent higher or lower than the national average.

We found that beneath the headline, those 15 states actually were quite varied.  Some clearly underinvest in higher education, while others have high incarceration rates.  Some states balance high incarceration rates by spending very little per prisoner, with troubling policy implications in its own right.  Other states have low incarceration rates but still make the blacklist because they spend more per prisoner while underspending on higher ed.

Some of the states that underspend will surprise you. Reputations do not always match reality.

October 22, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"Separation by Bars and Miles: Visitation in state prisons"

SeparationByBarsAndMiles_250The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Prison Policy Initiative. This press release about the report provides this overview:

Less than a third of people in state prison receive a visit from a loved one in a typical month [according to] a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative, Separation by Bars and Miles: Visitation in state prisons. The report finds that distance from home is a strong predictor for whether an incarcerated person receives a visit.

“For far too long, the national data on prison visits has been limited to incarcerated parents. We use extensive yet under-used Bureau of Justice Statistics data to shed light on the prison experience for all incarcerated people, finding that prisons are lonely places,” said co-author Bernadette Rabuy, who recently used the same BJS dataset for Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned.

Separation by Bars and Miles finds that most people in state prison are locked up over 100 miles from their families and that, unsurprisingly, these great distances — as well as the time and expense required to overcome them — actively discourage family visits. Given the obvious reluctance of state prison systems to move their facilities, the report offers six correctional policy recommendations that states can implement to protect and enhance family ties. Rabuy explained, “At this moment, as policymakers are starting to understand that millions of families are victims of mass incarceration, I hope this report gives policymakers more reasons to change the course of correctional history.”

October 21, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (12)

Notable new group advocating for sentencing reforms: Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration

I was intriguing and pleased to receive this press release this morning, titled "130 Top Police Chiefs and Prosecutors Urge End to Mass Incarceration."  The release explains the creation and commitments of a notable new public policy group.  Here are excerpts from the press release (with links and emphasis from original):

Today 130 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, and attorneys general from all 50 states join together as a surprising new voice calling for the end to unnecessary incarceration in the U.S. while maintaining public safety.

The new group, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, marks an unprecedented partnership among the nation’s top law enforcement leaders to push reforms to reduce incarceration and strengthen public safety.  At a press conference today in Washington, D.C., police chiefs from six of the largest U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Houston, and New Orleans, will announce their policy agenda, featured in a Statement of Principles.

President Barack Obama will host members of the group at the White House tomorrow, where group leaders will speak on why they believe reducing imprisonment while protecting public safety is a vital national goal....

“As the public servants working every day to keep our citizens safe, we can say from experience that we can bring down both incarceration and crime together,” said Law Enforcement Leaders Co-Chair Garry McCarthy, Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.  “Good crime control policy does not involve arresting and imprisoning masses of people.  It involves arresting and imprisoning the right people.  Arresting and imprisoning low-level offenders prevents us from focusing resources on violent crime. While some may find it counterintuitive, we know that we can reduce crime and reduce unnecessary arrests and incarceration at the same time.”

Members of the group will work within their departments as well as with policymakers to pursue reforms around four policy priorities:

Increasing alternatives to arrest and prosecution, especially mental health and drug treatment. Policies within police departments and prosecutor offices should divert people with mental health and drug addiction issues away from arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment and instead into proper treatment.

Reducing unnecessary severity of criminal laws by reclassifying some felonies to misdemeanors or removing criminal sanctions, where appropriate.

Reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum laws that require overly harsh, arbitrary sentences for crimes.

Strengthening ties between law enforcement and communities by promoting strategies that keep the public safe, improve community relations, and increase community engagement.

“Our decision to come together reflects the deep commitment among law enforcement’s ranks to end unnecessary, widespread incarceration,” said Law Enforcement Leaders Co-Chair Ronal Serpas, former Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department.  “As leaders of the law enforcement community, we are committed to building a smarter, stronger, and fairer criminal justice system.  We do not want to see families and communities wrecked by our current system.  Forming this new organization will allow us to engage policymakers and support changes to federal and state laws, as well as practices, to end unnecessary incarceration.”

October 21, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Remarkable Fusion series on "Prison Kids"

Pk_bannerThe multi-platform media company Fusion puts a number of its platforms to great use in this massive series of videos and articles under the banner "Prison Kids: A crime against America's children." Here is just a partial list (with links) of some of the pieces in the series:  

October 17, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Making a case for prison abolition, not just sentencing and prison reform

This notable article in The Nation authored by Mychal Denzel Smith seeks to make the case for a prison abolition movement that would go far beyond the kinds of sentencing reform garnering bipartisan support these day.  This commentary is headlined, "The Senate’s Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Bill Only Tackles Half the Problem: If we don’t face the injustice of the very existence of prisons, the root causes of mass incarceration will go unaddressed."  Here are excerpts:

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, as it is currently known, reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders, replaces life sentences for “three strikes” violations with 25 years, provides judges more discretion in sentencing low-level drug offenders, mostly ends solitary confinement for juveniles, and funds reentry programs, among other reforms.  The bill is expected to pass in the Senate, be supported in the House (which introduced its own reform bill earlier this year), and ultimately be signed into law by President Obama.

In the immediate future, it will mean shorter sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison; when applied retroactively, it will lead to the release of others.  The prison population will shrink slightly, and the federal government will save a bit of money. But the United States will remain free to continue locking away millions of people.

Many reform advocates have praised the Senate proposal, and understandably so. Organizing around prisons and incarcerated people — those written off as the dregs of society—is tough, and any win is a welcome one, particularly one that will directly benefit people currently serving unjust sentences....  [But]changes only affect federal sentencing guidelines and don’t end mandatory minimums (in fact, the bill imposes new minimums, on certain crimes related to domestic violence and gun possession or sale linked to terrorist activity).  Despite such moderate reforms, it is being hailed as “historic,” “major,” and a “game changer.”  Why?  Because a true agenda for change has been ceded to the language of reform.  The debate started and has effectively ended without considering the injustice of the very existence of prisons.  We never considered abolition....

Abolition makes sense, though, only if we see prisons as a site of injustice in and of themselves.  And they are — not only because of the violence of rape and murder that exists within prison walls, the psychological damage, the lack of educational opportunities, and the denial of due process that locks up innocent people.  Prison is the means by which we tell ourselves we are dealing with our societal ills, but only creating more.  Prison makes us lazy thinkers, hungry for revenge instead of justice.  Prison is a violent representation of our failure to fight inequality at all levels.  In abolishing prison, we force ourselves to answer the difficult question: How do we provide safety and security for all people?

Abolition will not win right now.  But an abolitionist framework for crafting reforms would lead to more substantial changes in the US prison system.  An abolitionist framework makes us consider not only reducing mandatory minimums but eliminating them altogether.  An abolitionist framework would call for us to decriminalize possession and sale of drugs.  Abolition would end the death penalty and life sentences, and push the maximum number of years that can be served for any offense down to ten years, at most.

With these reforms in place, we as a society would have a huge incentive to rehabilitate those in prison, and we would ensure the incarcerated are capable of socialization when they are released.  And without being able to depend on prison as a site of retribution, we would have to find new ways to address things like gender-based violence, sexual assault, and domestic violence.  And we could then start making the kinds of investments in alleviating poverty that [advocates] call for.

But we can’t do that so long as prison exists as a fail-safe.  Abolition may not win today, but neither did it win when it was first introduced as solution for slavery or segregation.  So long as we allow the terms of the debate to be shaped by what is politically possible, we’ll only ever be taking tiny steps and calling them major.

October 17, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"Ending the war on drugs would not end mass incarceration" ... but it would help, perhaps a lot

NixonDrugWarBThe title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post opinion piece authored by Charles Lane, plus a little commentary from me. The piece serves as fitting fact-check of recent sloppy statements about prison populations by Prez candidates (as do other recent similar pieces via PolitiFact and The Marshall Project).  But, like lots of commentary highlighting the statistical realities of modern prison populations, I fear Lane here underplays the potential import and impact of significant changes in state and federal drug laws. Here are excerpts, with my extended commentary at the end:

It seems that no presidential debate this year would be complete without denunciations of the drug laws, which, it is alleged, result in long prison terms for thousands of people, disproportionately African Americans, who are guilty only of low-level offenses, thus fueling “mass incarceration.”

At the last Republican debate, on Sept. 16, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina charged that “two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-related.”

Apropos of former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s admitted youthful marijuana use, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) observed that “there is at least one prominent example on the stage of someone who says they smoked pot in high school, and yet the people going to jail for this are poor people, often African Americans and often Hispanics, and yet the rich kids who use drugs aren’t.”

When Democrats faced off Tuesday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he is for marijuana legalization, “because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for nonviolent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana.”

“I agree completely with the idea that we have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana. . . . We have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana,” the front-running former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, chimed in.

Too bad this bipartisan agreement is contradicted by the evidence. Fiorina’s numbers, for example, are exaggerated: In 2014, 46 percent of all state and federal inmates were in for violent offenses (murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault), according to the latest Justice Department data. And this is a conservative estimate, since the definition of violent offense excludes roughly 30,000 federal prisoners, about 16 percent of the total, who are doing time for weapons violations.

Drug offenders account for only 19.5 percent of the total state-federal prison population, most of whom, especially in the federal system, were convicted of dealing drugs such as cocaine, heroin and meth, not “smoking marijuana.”

Undeniably, the population of state prisons (which house the vast majority of offenders) grew from 294,000 in 1980 to 1,362,000 in 2009 — a stunning 363 percent increase — though it has been on a downward trajectory since the latter date. But only 21 percent of that growth was due to the imprisonment of drug offenders, most of which occurred between 1980 and 1989, not more recently, according to a review of government data reported by Fordham law professor John Pfaff in the Harvard Journal of Legislation. More than half of the overall increase was due to punishment of violent offenses, not drugs, Pfaff reports....

Given the relatively small share of drug offenders, ending the war on drugs would not significantly alter the racial disparity in incarceration rates, contrary to the conventional wisdom. Blacks make up 37.5 percent of all state prisoners, about triple their share of the population as a whole, according to the Justice Department. If we released all 208,000 people currently in state prison on a drug charge, the proportion of African Americans in state prison would still be 37 percent. In short, ending the “war on drugs” is not quite the panacea for mass incarceration that politicians imply.

Marijuana legalization could help reduce arrest rates, to be sure; and to the extent fewer people get busted for smoking pot, that would, indeed, cut down on the resulting undue negative personal and social consequences. Otherwise, the bipartisan consensus in favor of looser drug laws is just the latest political free lunch, served up by politicians who would rather discuss anything except real public policy trade-offs.

Republicans and Democrats alike are propounding the crowd-pleasing notion that we can have less incarceration — saving the country billions of dollars and international shame — without risking an increase in violent crime, or other harms. In truth, if we released all 300,000 drug offenders from state and federal prison, the U.S. incarceration rate would still be far higher than it was three decades ago, and far higher than the rates of other industrial democracies.

The only way to lower it dramatically would be to reduce the frequency and duration of imprisonment for violent crimes, while continuing to reduce violent crime itself. If any of the candidates has a plan to do that, he or she should speak up.

Images (1)Lane is quite right to highlight the statistical reality that lots more imprisoned offenders are behind bars for violent offenses than for drug crimes.  But he fails to ackowledge that a considerable amount of violent crime is related to black market turf wars and that the failure to treat effectively drug addictions and related woes often drive property crimes.  American legal and social history should provide a ready reminder of these realities: violent and property crimes (and incarceration rates) spiked considerably during alcohol Prohibition not because of greater alcohol use but due to enhanced incentives for otherwise law-abiding people to profit in the black market from others' desire for a drink.

Regular followers of this blog likely recall the case of (my former client) Weldon Angelos, which provides a clear example of a low-level marijuana dealer serving decades in federal prison based technically on "violent firearm crimes."  The modern federal drug war explained why an informant (himself fearing a long federal drug sentence) told authorities Angelos was a major drug dealer, why federal prosecutors threated Angelos with over 100 years mandatory imprisonment if he did not forgo his right to a trial after te informant arranged to buy marijuana from Angelos, and why even after his acquittal on some charges, a federal judge was bound by law to give Angelos 55 years in federal prison for having firearms nearby as he sold the informant a relatively small amount of marijuana.

I bring all this up because, again to recall American history, four score ago the ending of alcohol Prohibition indeed did itself significantly help to "reduce violent crime itself."  I am cautiously hopeful that ending marijuana prohibition will help have the same effect in the modern era.  More broadly, I sincerely believe we would further reduce violent crime by ending a drug war that relies on state violence and condemnation and investing monies saved (and taxes earned) into a significant public-health commitment to address serious drug addictions using evidence-based treatments.

October 15, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (12)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Could local DA elections be a critical means to fighting mass incarceration?

ImagesLots of sophisticated analyses of the roots and causes of modern mass incarceration, especially the empirical work done by John Pfaff, rightly suggest that the activities of local prosecutors are a critical part of the overall story.  Consequently, I find both notable and astute this new Economist commentary which suggests local elections for district attorneys can and should be a focal point for advocates looking to combat mass incarceration.  The piece is headlined "Two cheers: The best way to reduce the prison population," and here are excerpts:

In 2013 Charles Hynes, Brooklyn’s district attorney, was voted out of office after 24 years on the job. The ousting of an elected local prosecutor is rare in America. Incumbents who run for re-election win 95% of the time. Until Mr Hynes got the boot, no incumbent DA had lost a vote in Brooklyn since 1911. Mr Hynes’s fate needs to be more common, however, if America is to cease to be the world’s leading jailer. At present, it accounts for 5% of the world’s population and nearly 25% of its prisoners. Elected public prosecutors, such as Brooklyn’s Mr Hynes, are largely to blame.

The incarceration rate is like the water level in a bathtub. If the tap runs faster than the water drains, the level rises. The mandatory minimum sentences and truth-in-sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s blocked the outflow from America’s prison system. Proposals for sentencing reform, such as the bipartisan bill introduced by Chuck Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, would clear it a bit, by returning some discretion to judges and parole boards. But it would be even better to turn down the gushing tap.

Although the crime rate began to decline in the 1990s, the rate of admissions to prisons continued to climb for two decades, until it peaked in 2006. The criminal-justice system managed to put more and more people behind bars for 15 years, even though fewer and fewer people were committing crimes. The admissions rate has now reverted to the level in the late-1990s, but remains three times greater than it was 30 years ago when the crime rate was higher than it is today....

DAs can decide whether charges will be filed against arrested persons and, if so, what they will be charged with. Less than 5% of criminal cases go to trial: most end in plea bargains. And it is DAs who decide which plea deals to offer and accept, in effect determining whether offenders will be sent to prison and, if so, for how long. By and large, they are not a merciful lot.

They are also usually elected at county level, whereas prisons are run at state level. Short sentences — less than a year in most jurisdictions — are often served in county jails, putting county taxpayers on the hook. Punitive DAs can take the fiscal burden off the people who elect them by foisting the cost of imprisonment onto states.

If legislators cannot rein in DAs, that job must fall to voters. Because unseating an incumbent is so unusual, and because there are more than 3,000 county and state district attorneys, this may seem an unpromising path to a lower incarceration rate. But more than half of state prisoners, who make up the vast majority of the incarcerated, are housed in just ten states. Within those states, most prisoners come from a few large metropolitan jurisdictions. Moreover, these areas tend to contain lots of rehabilitation-minded liberals as well as minority voters, who are more likely to have family members in prison. Prosecutors in California and New York have already changed tack, and incarceration rates in those states have fallen.

Kenneth Thompson, Brooklyn’s first black DA, managed to knock Mr Hynes off his perch by highlighting a couple of dodgy murder convictions and speaking out against aggressive police tactics. And though sentencing reform is obviously needed too, the election of just a handful of “smart-on-crime” DAs in and around big cities like Houston, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles could cut America’s incarceration rate even more dramatically.

I am not convinced that local DA elections are the "best way" to attack mass incarceration, but I do think that the work of all prosecutors (local, state and federal) should be subject to a lot more scrutiny and accountability and should be a concern for all those interested in modern criminal justice reforms.

October 13, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)