Monday, December 16, 2013
DOJ Inspector General stresses "growing crisis" from growth of federal prison population
Thanks to The Crime Report, I have just come across this recently released memorandum from the US Department of Justice's Inspector General detailing the IG's views on the "six challenges that ... represent the most pressing concerns for the Department." Notably, as the cover letter to the memorandum stresses, concerns about the growth of the prison population is at the very top of the IG's list:
Attached to this memorandum is the Office of the Inspector General's (OIG) 2013 list of top management and performance challenges facing the Department of Justice (Department), which we have identified based on our oversight work, research, and judgment. We have prepared similar lists since 1998. By statute this list is required to be included in the Department's Agency Financial Report.
This year’s list identifies six challenges that we believe represent the most pressing concerns for the Department. They are Addressing the Growing Crisis in the Federal Prison System; Safeguarding National Security Consistent with Civil Rights and Liberties; Protecting Taxpayer Funds from Mismanagement and Misuse; Enhancing Cybersecurity; Ensuring Effective and Efficient Law Enforcement; and Restoring Confidence in the Integrity, Fairness, and Accountability of the Department. While we do not prioritize the challenges we identify in our annual top management challenges report, we believe that one of the challenges highlighted this year, which we also identified in last year’s report, represents an increasingly critical threat to the Department’s ability to fulfill its mission. That challenge is Addressing the Growing Crisis in the Federal Prison System.
The crisis in the federal prison system is two-fold. First, the costs of the federal prison system continue to escalate, consuming an ever-larger share of the Department’s budget with no relief in sight. In the current era of flat or declining budgets, the continued growth of the prison system budget poses a threat to the Department’s other critical programs -- including those designed to protect national security, enforce criminal laws, and defend civil rights. As I have stated in testimony to Congress during the past year, the path the Department is on is unsustainable in the current budget environment. Second, federal prisons are facing a number of important safety and security issues, including, most significantly, that they have been overcrowded for years and the problem is only getting worse. Since 2006, Department officials have acknowledged the threat overcrowding poses to the safety and security of its prisons, yet the Department has not put in place a plan that can reasonably be expected to alleviate the problem.
Meeting this challenge will require a coordinated, Department-wide approach in which all relevant Department officials -- from agents, to prosecutors, to prison officials -- participate in reducing the costs and crowding in our prison system. In that respect, the challenge posed by the federal prison system is reflective of all of the challenges on our list: each is truly a challenge to be addressed by the Department as a whole, not just by individual Department components.
As a policy matter, of course, it is not too difficult to devise a set of long-advocated reforms that would effectively help with this crisis: fewer federal drug prosecutions, more use of alternatives to incarceration for low-level federal offenders, greater judicial authority to reduce more unjust crack sentences based on FSA reforms, expanded good-time credits, new earned-time credits, greater use of compassionate release mechanisms, and greater use of executive commutations. The problems is, as a political matter, few in the current Obama Administration seem eager or willing to go beyond just talking the talk about these issues.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
In praise of sentencing and drug war coverage at The Atlantic and Reason.com
Thanks especially to columnists like Andrew Cohen and Jacob Sullum, sentencing fans need to make sure to make regular visits to The Atlantic and Reason.com. Below I provide just a sampling of what has appeared in these spaces over the last week.
From The Atlantic:
Saturday, December 14, 2013
"Freeing Morgan Freeman: Expanding Back-End Release Authority in American Prisons"
The title of this post is the title of this notable and important new piece by Frank Bowman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article, written for a symposium hosted by the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy on “Finality in Sentencing,” makes four arguments, three general and one specific.
First, the United States incarcerates too many people for too long, and mechanisms for making prison sentences less “final” will allow the U.S. to make those sentences shorter, thus reducing the prison population surplus.
Second, even if one is agnostic about the overall size of the American prison population, it is difficult to deny that least some appreciable fraction of current inmates are serving more time than can reasonably be justified on either moral or utilitarian grounds, and therefore American criminal justice systems ought to adopt mechanisms for identifying both individuals and categories of prisoners whose terms should be shortened.
Third, it is impossible, or at least unwise, to try to make “final” decisions — at least good final decisions — about how long someone should spend in prison at the beginning of the prison term, at least if that term is supposed to be very long. Thus, in cases where a long sentence is imposed, one ought not make the initial, front-end, judicial sentencing decision “final,” but should instead create mechanisms for one or more later second looks.
After exploring these contentions, I conclude that discretionary early-release mechanisms should be restored where they have been abandoned, and reinvigorated where they have languished. In particular, I propose instituting a discretionary back-end release mechanism for some categories of both federal and state long-sentence prisoners and I explore the political and institutional difficulties of doing so.
December 14, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack
Monday, December 09, 2013
Ins't home confinement for only three months and a small fine insufficient punishment for a felony false imprisonment charge?
The question in the title of this post is my reaction to this new CNN report headlined "Ex-San Diego Mayor Bob Filner sentenced to home confinement, fines." Here are the details:
Former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner was sentenced Monday to 90 days in home confinement, three years probation, and a series of fines totaling about $1500 as part of a plea deal.
The 71-year-old pleaded guilty in October to kissing or grabbing three women at campaign events or at City Hall -- one a felony false imprisonment charge, the other two misdemeanor battery charges. The three women were among 19 who accused him of offensive behavior during his tenure as mayor and as a congressman....
GPS monitoring will track his whereabouts during his confinement. He'll be allowed to go out for medical and therapy appointments, religious services, and meetings tied to his probation. He'll also be allowed to leave his apartment but stay within the apartment complex....
[T]he prosecution said Filner's behavior harmed the women and the city. Referring to the three women as Jane Does 1, 2, and 3, the state said Filner humiliated, scared, embarrassed, sexualized and devalued them. Prosecutors also noted that after taking part in two weeks of treatment earlier this year, Filner still denied his crimes "and insisted that he was the victim of a lynch mob."
Filner's attorneys said they did not dispute any of the facts stated by the prosecution. None of the victims chose to be in court for the sentencing.
The felony charge said Filner used force to restrain a woman at a fund-raising event March 6. The misdemeanor charges say he kissed a woman on the lips without her consent at City Hall on April 6 and grabbed a woman's buttock after she asked to have her picture taken with him at a rally on May 25....
Under the plea deal, which was announced in October, Filner would be prohibited from ever seeking or holding public office again, the attorney general's office said. Filner also would not be able to vote, serve on a jury or own a firearm while on probation. Filner also will have to give up pension credit for his time in the mayor's office after March 6, the date of the first offense.
I am not intimately familiar with all the details of all the unlawful intimate and too-familiar behavior of the former mayor of San Diego. But the fact that this plea deal included a felony count proposed by state prosecutors and accepted by the state court judge suggests that many responsible folks think Filner should be foreover branded a felon. In light of that conclusion, I have a hard time seeing the "slap on the wrist" punishment here to be reasonably sufficient, especially if prosecutors had solid evidence that Filner abused more than a dozen women and that "Filner humiliated, scared, embarrassed, sexualized and devalued" his many victims.
I am not sure if this (seemingly too) lenient sentence for Filner was baked into the plea deal or the result of a sentencing judge not being too troubled by Filner's many crimes. Whatever the reality, if the victims truly suffered the way the prosecutor asserted, I am sorry for them that they were not there to speak at Filner's sentencing and that their harm may seem disvaluaed by this outcome. That said, perhaps many of Filner's victims are mostly interested in a huge tort payday, so maybe at least some of them are content with Filner having resources to pay them in a civil suit rather than a huge fine to the state as part of his punishment.
Thursday, December 05, 2013
Remarkable new HRW report details massive "trial penalty" due to mandatory minimums in federal system
As highlighted in this press release discussing a new important report, in federal courts "drug offenders convicted after trial receive sentences on average three times as long as those who accept a plea bargain, according to new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch." Here is more from the press release about the report and its findings:
The 126-page report, “An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty,” details how prosecutors throughout the United States extract guilty pleas from federal drug defendants by charging or threatening to charge them with offenses carrying harsh mandatory sentences and by seeking additional mandatory increases to those sentences. Prosecutors offer defendants a much lower sentence in exchange for pleading guilty. Since drug defendants rarely prevail at trial, it is not surprising that 97 percent of them decide to plead guilty.
“Prosecutors give drug defendants a so-called choice -- in the most egregious cases, the choice can be to plead guilty to 10 years, or risk life without parole by going to trial,” said Jamie Fellnew, senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Prosecutors make offers few drug defendants can refuse. This is coercion pure and simple.”...In one of hundreds of cases Human Rights Watch reviewed, Sandra Avery, a small-time drug dealer, rejected a plea of 10 years for possessing 50 grams of crack cocaine with intent to deliver. The prosecutor triggered a sentencing enhancement based on her prior convictions for simple drug possession, and she was sentenced to life without parole.
In addition to case reviews, the report is also based on numerous interviews with federal prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. It also includes new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch that provide the most recent and detailed measure of what the report calls the “trial penalty” -- the difference in sentences for drug defendants who pled guilty compared with those for defendants convicted after trial. The trial penalty is, essentially, the price prosecutors make defendants pay for exercising their right to trial. “Going to trial is a right, not a crime,” Fellner said. “But defendants are punished with longer sentences for exercising that right.”
Prosecutors are able to impose the trial penalty because judges have been reduced to virtual bystanders in cases involving mandatory sentences. When prosecutors choose to pursue mandatory penalties and the defendant is convicted, judges must impose the sentences. They cannot exercise their traditional role of tailoring sentences to each defendant’s conduct and culpability and of making sentences no longer than necessary to serve the purposes of punishment....The new statistics Human Rights Watch developed for the report, based on raw federal sentencing data for 2012, include the following:
• The average sentence for federal drug offenders who pled guilty was five years, four months; for those convicted after trial the average sentence was sixteen years.
• For drug defendants convicted of offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences, those who pled guilty had an average sentence of 82.5 months compared with 215 months for those convicted after trial, a difference of 11 years.
• Among drug defendants with prior felony convictions, the odds of receiving a sentencing enhancement based on those convictions was 8.4 times greater for those who went to trial than for those who pled guilty.
• Among drug defendants with a gun involved in their offense, the odds of receiving the statutory gun sentencing enhancement were 2.5 times greater for those who went to trial than for those who pled guilty.
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
"How Bureaucrats Stand in the Way of Releasing Elderly and Ill Prisoners"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new ProPublica piece about (the paucity of) compassionate release in the federal criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:
The government has long been criticized for rarely granting compassionate release. This August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department would try to change that by expanding criteria for who can apply.
Under the new guidelines, compassionate release can be granted not just to prisoners who have terminal illnesses, but also to those with debilitating conditions. Prisoners who need to serve as caregivers for family members may now also seek reductions in sentencing. And for the first time, elderly federal inmates who aren’t necessarily dying or incapacitated can apply to be let out early.
Holder touted the compassionate release initiative as one way to cut down on the “astonishing” federal prison population, which has grown by nearly 800 percent since 1980.
But even if the changes enable more inmates to apply for compassionate release, prison officials still have almost total discretion over who is approved. A federal prison’s warden, as well as the Bureau of Prisons’ regional director and central office must sign off on an inmate’s application before it is passed on to a judge. Any of those officials can reject applications for a number of reasons, from a perceived risk of recidivism to concern for what’s best for a prisoner’s child.... There is no process for inmates to appeal those decisions in court.
Many advocates say they expect eligible inmates will remain behind bars despite the changes. “I don’t believe it’s going to change at all,” said lawyer Marc Seitles, whose client was denied release despite terminal cancer. “It’s still the same people making decisions.”
In September, Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels said he predicted expanding eligibility would result in the “release of some non-violent offenders, although we estimate the impact will be modest.” (The agency declined to make Samuels available for comment to ProPublica.)
As of October 29, The Bureau of Prisons had approved and passed along 50 compassionate release requests to judges this year. That’s up from 39 in 2012 and 29 in 2011. It’s impossible to know if the overall rate of approval has increased, as the federal Bureau of Prisons hasn’t released the number of inmates who have applied.
The Bureau says it recently started to track inmate requests, after an Inspector General report earlier this year excoriated the department for failing to do so. The report also found most inmates didn't even know the program existed.
The expansion of compassionate release was motivated in part by the rising number of sick and elderly inmates incarcerated in the U.S. As of 2011, there were over 26,000 inmates over 65 in state and federal custody. And as the elderly population in prison grows, so do their medical bills. Housing an inmate in a prison medical center costs taxpayers nearly $60,000 a year — more than twice the cost of housing an inmate in general population.
Many lawyers and prisoner advocates have said the “jailers are acting as judges” by rejecting most compassionate release cases without ever passing them onto the courts for a final decision. “The Bureau of Prisons should be letting judges have the opportunity to decide every time extraordinary and compelling reasons come to their attention, and [they are] not doing that,” said federal public defender Steve Sady, who has written extensively on the issue and represented clients requesting early release. “We believe that, under the statute, the sentence is for the judge to decide.”
Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross said in an emailed statement that “Congress gave the [Bureau of Prisons] authority” to decide which inmates should be granted release. “Review includes deliberation on the most important factor, ensuring that an inmate's release would not pose a danger to the safety of any other person or the community,” he said. “This must be considered before any request is submitted to a court.”
Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says prison officials are ill-equipped to make those kinds of decisions. Prison officials’ “job is to keep people locked up. Identifying people who should no longer be incarcerated is just not what they do,” she said....
Prisoner advocates at Human Rights Watch and other organizations have proposed allowing inmates to go before a judge to appeal rejections. “Unless there’s an institutional change or a criteria that they have to follow, this will never change,” Seitles said.
"The wrong people decide who goes to prison"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new CNN commentary authored by US DIstrict Judge Mark Bennett and Prof. Mark Osler. Here are some of the on-the-mark views coming today from these Marks:
Nearly 30 years ago, Congress embarked on a remarkable and ultimately tragic transformation of criminal law. Through the establishment of mandatory sentences and sentencing guidelines, discretion in sentencing was shifted from judges to prosecutors. After the changes, prosecutors largely controlled sentencing because things like mandatory sentences and guideline ranges were determined by decisions they made.
This change ignored the fact that federal judges are chosen from the ranks of experienced members of the bar precisely because their long legal careers have shown the ability to exercise discretion. It also ignored the contrasting truth that many federal prosecutors are young lawyers in their 20s and 30s who have little experience making decisions as weighty as determining who will be imprisoned and for how long.
The primary reason for the changes was well-intended, though: Members of Congress wanted more uniformity in sentencing. That is, they wanted a term of imprisonment to derive from the crime and the history of the criminal rather than the personality of the person wielding discretion.
After nearly 30 years, we know how Congress' experiment turned out, and the results are not good. Federal judges have been relatively lenient on low-level drug offenders when they have the discretion to go that way. Turning discretion over to prosecutors via mandatory sentences and guidelines not only resulted in a remarkable surge in incarceration, it does not seem to solve the problem of disparities....
Let's look at just one way that prosecutors exercise this discretion: the enhancement of narcotics sentences under 21 U.S.C. 851, or proceedings to establish prior convictions. These enhancements, at a minimum, double a drug defendant's mandatory minimum sentence and may raise the maximum possible sentence.... [O]ur analysis of the way these enhancements have been used reveals a deeply disturbing dirty little secret of federal sentencing: the stunningly arbitrary application of these enhancements by prosecutors within the Department of Justice.
The numbers tell the story. Our home states are fairly typical in their wild disparities: A federal defendant in Iowa is more than 1,056% likely to receive a 851 enhancement than one in Minnesota. Nor are these Midwestern neighbors an anomaly. In the Northern District of Florida, prosecutors apply the enhancement 87% of the time, but in the bordering Middle District of Georgia, they are used in just 2% of relevant cases.
There is also breathtaking disparity within federal district within the same state (PDF). For example, in Florida, prosecutors in the Northern District apply the enhancement 87% of the time, but in the Southern District, it is used only 14% of the time. In the Eastern District of Tennessee, offenders are 3,994% more likely to receive an enhancement than in the Western District of Tennessee. In the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a defendant is 2,257% more likely to receive the enhancement than in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The disparities are startling.
In August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced steps to establish more discipline within the Department of Justice in how this discretion is used. It is a promising step but only that: a step. It is unclear how firm the attorney general is willing to be in tracking and constraining the use of this kind of discretion by prosecutors in different areas.
The larger lesson, and the more important one, is that after nearly 30 years, we still have gross and tragic disparities in federal sentencing, with the added burden of too many people put in prison, caused by mandatory sentencing and harsh sentencing guidelines. Tentative steps at reform will not be enough. It is time for a radical rethinking of the project as a whole and a recognition that this grand experiment in shifting discretion to prosecutors has failed.
December 4, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
"20% Of Obama’s Pardons Have Gone To Turkeys"
The title of this post is the fitting headline devised by Andrew Sullivan for this post from The Dish. The post links to this longer lament of the entire turkey pardon ritual by Brad Plummer, which winds down this way:
It's a mockery of the presidential pardon, which is an all-too neglected issue. Maybe this isn't surprising, since the turkey pardon was basically invented as a way of mocking presidential pardons. Still, it's worth mentioning.
After tomorrow, Obama will have "pardoned" 10 turkeys in all (turkeys that, as best we can tell, haven't actually committed any crimes). By contrast, he will have only pardoned or commuted the sentences of 40 actual living human beings.
The latter is a record low for modern-day presidents. At the same point in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had pardoned 313 people. Harry Truman had pardoned 1,537 people.
Last year, Sam Morrison, an official who spent 13 years in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney before retiring in 2010, described the prevailing attitude toward pardons this way: "They tend to view any grant of clemency not as a good thing, as a criminal justice success story, but almost as a defeat — that you're taking away something from what some good prosecutor achieved." (The Justice Department disputed this characterization.)
Over at National Journal, Ron Fournier pointed out that, at the bare minimum, Obama could grant clemency to all the people still serving extra time in prison under the old crack-sentencing guidelines — guidelines that Obama himself opposed as excessive and which Congress reduced for all new prisoners in 2010. So far, however, there's no sign that the White House will do this.
Of course, comparing Prez Obama's pitiful clemency record to the records of prior presidents like Ronald Reagan or Harry Truman is quite unfair — to Reagan and Truman. The federal criminal justice system and the federal prison population (not to mention the negative consequences of a federal record) were all much, much smaller when Reagan and Truman were President, and thus the number of federal offenders and prisoners formally seeking clemency was much lower. Indeed, these official clemency statistics reveal that Prez Obama gets about 10 times as many formal commutation requests than Prez Reagan got each year (which, is not so surprising given that the federal prison population is nearly 10 times larger now than it was when Reagan first became President).
Indeed, if we focus on only commutations, President Obama's record looks even more revolting. As Jacob Sullum notes here at Forbes, Obama has only commuted a single federal prison sentence. Thus, as the Forbes headline states, "Judging From His Clemency Record, Obama Likes Turkeys 10 Times As Much As People."
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Can Prez Obama be trusted to live up to clemency reform promises?
Perhaps the only thing I have grown to dislike about Thanksgiving in modern times is all the pomp and circumstance (and the lame-stream media's attention) given to the silly tradition of having the President pardon a turkey. Regular readers kow that this silly tradition is distinctly galling of late given the Obama Administration's truly disgraceful record on granting clemency to real humans rather than tasty animals. Fortunately, this new article at The National Journal is covering the real story with reference to the well-known case of (my former client) Weldon Angelos under the headline "Will Obama Pardon This Man (and Many Like Him) or Just a Turkey?: The White House is considering clemency reform, sources say, after compiling a historically unmerciful record." Here is how this piece starts:
President Obama on Wednesday will pardon a Thanksgiving turkey. Which makes this a good time to ask why a liberal constitutional lawyer who bemoans the bloated prison system and proclaims that "life is all about second chances" is -- on the matter of clemency -- one of the stingiest presidents in U.S. history? Put another way: If a turkey deserves a second chance, why not Weldon Angelos?
Angelos was sentenced in 2004 to 55 years' imprisonment for possessing a firearm in connection with selling small amounts of marijuana. He didn't brandish or use a weapon, nor did he hurt or threaten to injure anybody. And yet the father of young children and an aspiring music producer was given an effective life sentence because of a draconian federal law requiring mandatory minimum sentences.
Even the judge on his case, Paul G. Cassell, found the sentence "cruel and irrational." While urging Obama to reduce Angelos's punishment, the Republican-appointed judge wrote, "While I must impose the unjust sentence, our system of separated powers provides a means of redress."
More than almost any president, Obama has failed to exercise that "means of redress" inscribed in the Constitution, the presidential clemency. But that may be changing. The White House is considering a broad range of clemency reforms.
One reason I am among the majority of Americans who now, according to the latest polling, thinks is Obama is not honest or trustworthy is because we have been hearing from this White House vague talk about clemency reform for years now and yet have not seen one whit of action on this front despite mountains of evidence (and lots of talk from Attorney General Holder) that reform is badly needed and long overdue.
Long-time readers likely recall that I blogged and complained a lot about these issues during the first few years of the Obama Administration when I still believed that this President meant what he said and said what he meant. But in recent years I have concluded that this Prez is in this context happy and generally eager to talk the talk without ever walking the walk.
I certainly will continue to hold out hope that we may eventually see this White House develop "a broad range of clemency reforms," and I remain (naively?) optimistic that the Obama team will do at least a little something (at least for show) on this front come mid-November 2014 or 2016. But I have long been tired of the talk and too long been waiting for action to really from the current Administration, and I instead like spending my time imagining what a President Rand Paul might be willing and able to do with the historic constitutional power of clemency.
Some recent and a few older posts concerning federal clemency practices:
- "How to Awaken the Pardon Power"
- New Slate pitch for Prez to use clemency powers to address crack sentencing disparities
- "Clemency Reform: We're Still Waiting"
- "Why Has Obama Pardoned So Few Prisoners?"
- "Barack the Unmerciful: Obama's amazingly stingy clemency record"
- New York Times editorial assails Prez Obama's considerable clemency failings
- "Obama Has Granted Clemency More Rarely Than Any Modern President"
- Updated numbers on President Obama's disgraceful clemency record
- ProPublica reveals more ugliness in federal clemency process
- Effective USA Today coverage of President Obama's clemency stinginess
- NYTimes op-ed assailing Obama's pathetic pardon practices
- How about a few clemency grants, Prez Obama, to really honor vets in need on Veterans Day?
Monday, November 25, 2013
New Brennan Center report urges "Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration"
As reported in this press release, late last week The Brennan Center for Justice published a notable new report setting out a notable new proposal under the title "Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration." Here are highlights via the press release:
The proposal, dubbed by the authors “Success-Oriented Funding,” would recast the federal government’s $352 million Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, by changing the measures used to determine success of its grants. It reflects a broader proposed shift in criminal justice programs at all levels of government. The proposal could be implemented without legislation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Funding what works and demanding success is critical, especially given the stakes in criminal justice policy. This report marks an important step toward implementing this funding approach in Washington and beyond,” said Peter Orszag, former Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, who wrote the proposal’s foreword.
The Center proposes major changes to the program’s “performance measures”, which are used to track a grant recipient’s use of the funds....
“What gets measured gets done,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center and one of the report’s authors. “Criminal justice funding should reflect what works. Too often, today, it is on autopilot. This proposal reflects an innovative new wave of law enforcement priorities that already have begun to transform policy. That is the way to keep streets safe, while reducing mass incarceration.”
Success-Oriented Funding would hold grant recipients accountable for what they do with the money they receive. By implementing direct links between funding and proven results, the government can ensure the criminal justice system is achieving goals while not increasing unintended social costs or widening the pipeline to prison.
The JAG program was launched nearly three decades ago at the height of the crime wave. As such, its performance measures center on questions about the quantity of arrests and prosecutions. Although funding levels are not based on rates of arrests and prosecutions, interviews with over 100 state and local officials and recipients found that many grant recipients interpreted the performance measure questions as indicating how they should focus their activity.
The Brennan Center’s new, more robust performance measures would better record how effective grant recipients are at reducing crime in their state or locality. For example, current volume-based performance measures record activity, such as total number of arrests, number of people charged with gun crimes, or number of cases prosecuted. The Brennan Center’s proposed new Success-Oriented performance measures record results, such as the increase or decrease in violent crime rate or what percentage of violent crime arrests resulted in convictions.
A Blue Ribbon Panel of criminal justice experts also provided guidance and comments on the measures, including leaders in law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders, former government officials, and federal grant recipients. Participants included David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys; John Firman, research director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police; and Jerry Madden, a senior fellow at Right on Crime....
In addition to implementing new metrics, the Brennan Center recommends the Justice Department require grant recipients to submit reports. By mandating that grant recipients answer the questions, the Justice Department can align state and local practices with modern criminal justice priorities of reducing both crime and mass incarceration. The reported data should then be publicly available for further analysis.
The full Brennan Center report can be accessed at this link.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
What message does six-month prison sentence in high-profile NJ animal cruelty case really send?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy local report about a high-profile New Jersey state sentencing, headlined "Brick couple sentenced to 6 months in jail for abusing dog, Sammy." Here are excerpts:
The township couple that admitted to abusing a 17-year-old dog named Sammy was sentenced to six months in jail on Monday. Brick residents Keith Morgan, 56, and Shauna Ewing Morgan, 43, stood in silence next to each other and between their respective attorneys while the sentence was read. The sentence also included a $1,000 fine, $13,500 in restitution, 30 days community service and the couple is prohibited from future ownership of an animal.
“This is what we wanted, this is what was deserved and it was justified,” Monmouth County SPCA Chief Victor “Buddy” Amato said. “This judge did the right thing.” A packed courtroom erupted in cheers when Judge Robert LePore announced jail time for the couple.
“Unless these individuals are imprisoned for their depraved, cruel and heinous conduct, such acts of animal cruelty will continue worldwide,” LePore said. “The lack of care provided to Sammy was inexcusable.” LePore said the sentence he issued was to deter future animal cruelty. “This court believes that a message needs to be sent not just to these defendants, but to all of society that animal cruelty is a national and global problem and must be addressed and deterred,” LePore said.
The charges stem from a March incident when Keith Morgan brought the Cocker Spaniel to the Associated Humane Society in Tinton Falls, claiming he found Sammy in a garbage bag on the side of the road, Amato said. Keith Morgan gave an interview to a local television station after he turned the dog in, claiming he found the dog. That interview was played in court during the sentencing. However, officials said they later learned that the couple had owned the dog for at least nine years.
Sammy was then brought to the Red Bank Veterinary Hospital for treatment because he was malnourished and his fur was covered in urine and matted together in knots to the extent that the dog could not stand up, Amato said. He was released to a foster family in April. Days after Sammy was turned in, authorities learned through an anonymous tip that the Morgans had a second dog, named Ady, at their home. Amato said that because Ady had been groomed before they found her, authorities they were unable to determine if she was neglected. The 3-year-old Cocker Spaniel was voluntarily surrendered to the SPCA and eventually placed in a new home.
Before LePore issued the sentencing, both of the Morgans made a statement to the judge, apologizing. “I was in a bad time in my life. I was depressed … because my wife left,” Keith Morgan said. “I apologize, I didn’t mean for this to happen.” He and his attorney Kevin Sheehy told the judge that Shauna Morgan wasn’t at the home for several months before the incident because the two were separated. Keith Morgan had also been diagnosed with a kidney disease and at one point was suicidal, Sheehy said.
Shauna Morgan’s attorney, Marc Schram, told the judge the couple did not have any contact during their separation, and found the conditions at the home when she returned. “I should have foreseen that Sammy wouldn’t have been safe with my husband, but I didn’t know he was going to get so sick. … If I had foreseen it I would have taken Sammy with me,” she said through tears. “I’m sorry it turned out the way it did.”...
Attorney Steven Zabarsky prosecuted the case and he said he was happy with the outcome. “On behalf of the state, I’ve very satisfied,” Zarbarsky said.
Sammy’s case garnered international attention and a Facebook page was created in support of the dog. An online petition calling on prosecutors to ask for the maximum sentence for the Brick couple received nearly 33,000 signatures.
The Morgans were arraigned on May 20, with more than 250 people packing the Brick municipal courtroom to watch. A line stretched out the door of the courthouse with supporters wearing t-shirts and holding signs demanding justice. During a July 15 hearing, which also drew approximately 150 Sammy supporters, a Staten Island, N.Y. woman yelled out “Go kill yourself” and was escorted out of the courtroom.
Ultimately the Morgans reached a plea agreement on Aug. 19, and Amato called the outcome a “win.” Keith Morgan pleaded guilty to one count of abuse of animal cruelty and filing a false report with law enforcement, while Shauna Ewing Morgan admitted to two counts of animal cruelty.
The eight-month case also stirred debates surrounding animal abuse. In May, N.J. 101.5 radio hosts Dennis Malloy, Judi Franco and Ray Rossi were under fire after they brought the case up on their respective shows. Social media posts claimed Malloy and Franco said animal rights activists needed to get their priorities straight, while Rossi allegedly said “untrue” and “hurtful” statements on air about one of the administrators of the Sammy the Cocker Spaniel Facebook page....
Capt. Richard Yocum, who is president of the state SPCA, said he was proud of Detective William Hyer and Deputy Chief Larry Donato, who investigated the case and of the ruling that was made. “The stand that they [the court] have taken against animal cruelty being unacceptable tonight was admirable,” Yocum said. “Sammy does have a loving home, he’s doing much, much better and he’s living out his life in a very good place.”
After the sentence, both of the Morgans’ attorneys said they would be filing an appeal Tuesday morning. The judge granted a motion for a stay to allow the Morgans to remain free for the appeal process.
Because I am an animal lover and have been a passionate pet owner for my whole life, I can understand how many people can and will get very worked up about animal abuse. Still, I cannot help but wonder how much NJ taxpayer money was spent in this prosecution, and I especially wonder if many other abused animals might have been better served if those resources had instead been directed to an animal shelter or to a public service campaign.
Effective use of state resources aside, the message I take away from this sentencing story is the telling (and I think unfortunate) reality that many folks view incarceration as the only serious and meaningful punishment even when it seems likely that creative alternative punishments could possibly be more significant and effective. This kind of case, in which the defendants do not appear to present any real risk to public safety, seems to me to be the perfect setting for developing thoughtful shaming sanctions and lengthy (animal-servicing) community service as a punishment that could and should keep an on-going spotlight on the problems of animal cruelty and better enable other to better understand how to avoid hurting animals in the first instance.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
Cyber-criminal/hacktivist gets max federal sentence of 10 years after guilty plea
As reported in this Rolling Stone piece, headlined "Cyber-Activist Jeremy Hammond Sentenced to 10 Years In Prison: The hacker, who pleaded guilty in May, is given the maximum sentence by a federal judge," a high-profile on-line criminal got a big-time sentence in federal court late last week. Here are the details and some context:
Cyber-activist Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison ... by Judge Loretta A. Preska in a federal courtroom in lower Manhattan for hacking the private intelligence firm Stratfor. When released, Hammond will be placed under supervised control, the terms of which include a prohibition on encryption or attempting to anonymize his identity online.
Hammond has shown a "total lack of respect for the law," Judge Preska said in her ruling, citing Hammond's criminal record — which includes a felony conviction for hacking from when he was 19 — and what she called "unrepentant recidivism." There is a "desperate need to promote respect for the law," she said, as well as a "need for adequate public deterrence."
As Hammond was led into the courtroom, he looked over the roughly 100 supporters who had shown up, smiled, and said, "What's up, everybody?" Prior to the verdict, he read from a prepared statement and said it was time for him to step away from hacking as a form of activism, but recognized that tactic's continuing importance. "Those in power do not want the truth exposed," Hammond said from the podium, wearing black prison garb. He later stated that the injustices he has fought against "cannot be cured by reform, but by civil disobedience and direct action." He spoke out against capitalism and a wide range of other social ills, including mass incarceration and crackdowns on protest movements.
The Stratfor hack exposed previously unknown corporate spying on activists and organizers, including PETA and the Yes Men, and was largely constructed by the FBI using an informant named Hector Monsegur, better known by his online alias Sabu. Co-defendants in the U.K. were previously sentenced to relatively lighter terms. Citing Hammond's record, Judge Preska said "there will not be any unwarranted sentencing disparity" between her ruling and the U.K. court's decision....
Hammond's defense team repeatedly stressed that their client was motivated by charitable intentions, a fact they said was reflected in his off-line life as well. Hammond has previously volunteered at Chicago soup kitchens, and has tutored fellow inmates in GED training during his incarceration.
Rosemary Nidiry, speaking for the prosecution, painted a picture of a malicious criminal motivated by a desire to create "maximum mayhem," a phrase Hammond used in a chat log to describe what he hoped would come from the Stratfor hack. Thousands of private credit card numbers were released as a result of the Stratfor hack, which the government argued served no public good.
Sarah Kunstler, a defense attorney for Hammond, takes issue with both the prosecution and judge's emphasis on the phrase "maximum mayhem" to the exclusion of Hammond's broader philosophy shows an incomplete picture. "Political change can be disruptive and destructive," Kunstler says. "That those words exclude political action is inaccurate."
Many supporters see Hammond's case as part of a broader trend of the government seeking what they say are disproportionately long sentences for acts that are better understood as civil disobedience than rampant criminality.
"Sentenced to a Slow Death"
The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial discussing this week's noteworthy new ACLU report on the thousands of persons serving LWOP sentences for non-violent offenses in the United States (first discussed here). Here are excerpts:
If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast. A sentence of life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for trying to sell $10 of marijuana to an undercover officer? For sharing LSD at a Grateful Dead concert? For siphoning gas from a truck? The punishment is so extreme, so irrational, so wildly disproportionate to the crime that it defies explanation.
And yet this is happening every day in federal and state courts across the United States. Judges, bound by mandatory sentencing laws that they openly denounce, are sending people away for the rest of their lives for committing nonviolent drug and property crimes. In nearly 20 percent of cases, it was the person’s first offense.
As of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving sentences of life without parole for such crimes, according to an extensive and astonishing report issued Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. And that number is conservative. It doesn’t include inmates serving sentences of, say, 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales. Nor does it include those in prison for crimes legally classified as “violent” even though they did not involve actual violence, like failing to report to a halfway house or trying to steal an unoccupied car....
As in the rest of the penal system, the racial disparity is vast: in the federal courts, blacks are 20 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent crimes. The report estimates that the cost of imprisoning just these 3,278 people for life instead of a more proportionate length of time is $1.78 billion....
Several states are reforming sentencing laws to curb the mass incarceration binge. And Congress is considering at least two bipartisan bills that would partly restore to judges the power to issue appropriate sentences, unbound by mandatory minimums. These are positive steps, but they do not go far enough. As the report recommends, federal and state legislators should ban sentences of life without parole for nonviolent crimes, both for those already serving these sentences and in future cases. President Obama and state governors should also use executive clemency to commute existing sentences. Just one-fifth of all countries allow a sentence of life without parole, and most of those reserve it for murder or repeated violent crimes. If the United States is to call itself a civilized nation, it must end this cruel and ineffective practice.
Recent related posts:
- New ACLU report spotlights thousands of nonviolent prisoners serving LWOP terms
- New York Times op-ed asks "Serving Life for This?"
Friday, November 15, 2013
Is AG Eric Holder going to stay on the job until he truly reforms American criminal justice?
The question in the title of this post is inspired by this new Washington Post article headlined "Reforming justice system is personal goal for Eric Holder Jr." Here are excerpts from the piece:
As the Justice Department seeks new ways to reduce the burgeoning U.S. prison population, its success is likely to depend on community programs such as the one in this small city in America’s heartland.
In the past 11 years, federal prosecutors here have authorized substance abuse treatment and other assistance for more than 100 low-level offenders as an alternative to prison sentences. Eighty-seven have successfully completed the program and, in the process, saved the federal government more than $6 million by sparing it the cost of incarceration....
Justice officials see the program in Peoria as a model for other communities — and central to the criminal justice reforms that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is moving to implement. In August, at an American Bar Association conference in San Francisco, Holder announced that low-level nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations would no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences. He has also introduced policies to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates, to find alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals, and to improve reentry programs to curb repeat offenses.
The announcements have heralded some of the most significant criminal justice policy shifts from the department in years. For Holder — who has said that as a U.S. attorney and judge he saw neighborhoods destroyed by both illegal drugs and the tough-on-crime legislation that has disproportionately affected black men — the issue has been personal.
“Day after day, I watched lines of young people, most often young men of color, stream through my courtroom,” Holder told ex-offenders Thursday during a visit to a St. Louis courthouse, one of a string of stops he is making to promote his reform agenda. “I learned how drug abuse, crime and incarceration can trap people in a destructive cycle. A cycle that weakens communities, tears families apart and destroys individual lives.”...Many of the department’s criminal justice reforms have bipartisan support, and Republican governors in some of the most conservative states have led the way on prison reform. Congress also has shown a renewed interest in reducing the nation’s prison population, including the introduction of a bill this week that would reauthorize the Second Chance Act, which funds grants for programs that support probation, parole and reentry programs across the country.
“Rather than incarcerating repeat offenders in the same families generation after generation, we can put our taxpayer dollars to better use to break this vicious cycle and turn lives around,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former prosecutor and one of the bills sponsors, said in a statement.
Efforts to reduce the prison population have drawn criticism from some lawmakers, who are skeptical that new policies will reduce crime. “I am skeptical,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, said at a a hearing last week. “Reducing prison sentences will bring prisoners out on the street sooner. The deterrent effect of imprisonment would be reduced. Many so-called nonviolent drug offenders have violent records. Some of these released offenders will commit additional crimes.”...
In a Philadelphia courtroom earlier this month, the attorney general watched more than a dozen drug offenders in a “reentry” program report to a judge to discuss their personal and work situations. Officials there said the program, which provides parenting classes, vocational training and job opportunities, has saved $1.5 million in annual incarceration costs because fewer ex-offenders are being sent back to prison. The national revocation rate for ex-offenders who are not in such programs is 47 percent; the rate among participants in the seven-year-old Philadelphia program is about 20 percent.
During his stops Thursday, Holder met with judges and pretrial service officers and watched as a district court judge encouraged ex-offenders to overcome their drug addictions and stay out of prison. He spoke emotionally to a group about how his nephew struggled to overcome drug addiction.
Inside a federal courthouse in St. Louis, he watched a ceremony in which ex-offenders graduated from an intensive recovery program called EARN (Expanding Addicts’ Recovery Network). “I look at you all and I see myself,” he said. “I grew up in a neighborhood in New York City where people like you would have been my friends. We would have gone to school together. We would have tried to learn about girls together. We would have played basketball together. So I can’t help but feel mindful of the fact that, although I’m here in my capacity as attorney general of the United States, a few of the people I grew up with, good people like you, ended up taking different paths.”
“Some of them didn’t catch the same breaks,” the nation’s top law enforcement official said. “Some had to deal with drug issues. . . . I know that everyone makes mistakes — everyone. Including me. And that’s why I wanted to be here today to tell you in person how proud I am that each of you has decided not to let your mistakes define you and not to make excuses, but to make the most of the opportunities that you’ve been given.”
Right after President Obama's re-election, as noted in this post from last November, AG Holder was talking about staying on as AG for only "about a year" into this second Presidential term. But that year has now passed, and I have heard very little new buzz about AG Holder moving on. And, if he is truly committed to engineering significant and lasting criminal justice reform, I think he may need (at least) the next three years to really have a chance to get this done.
November 15, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
"Reducing crime by reducing incarceration"
The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Times op-ed authored by David Cole and Marc Mauer. Here are excerpts:
The United States remains the world leader in imprisonment, with an incarceration rate five times higher than that of many of our European allies. It wasn’t always this way. From 1925 through 1975, our incarceration rate was about 160 per 100,000 persons. Today it is nearly 700 per 100,000. It rose consistently for more than three decades, largely as a result of changes in policy, not crime rates. These policy changes, under the rubric of the “get tough” movement, were designed to send more people to prison and to keep them there longer. As the prison population has expanded, however, whatever impact incarceration may have had on crime has confronted the law of diminishing returns. Meanwhile, the corrections system costs us $80 billion a year.
In response to these concerns, recent years have seen significant reforms across the country. States from Texas to California to New York have reduced mandatory minimum sentences, softened “three-strikes” laws, or established drug-offender diversion programs. The number of people incarcerated in state prisons nationwide has dropped for three years in a row. California, New York and New Jersey have each reduced their prison populations by about 20 percent in the past decade — with no increases in crime.
In an era of heightened partisan politics, reform is a rare bipartisan issue. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee don’t often see eye to eye, but they have all advocated measures to reduce mandatory minimums. The American Legislative Exchange Council, which promotes free-market law reforms in the states, has identified reducing prison overcrowding as one of its priorities. Regardless of one’s politics, no one can be proud of the fact that the world’s wealthiest society locks up more of its citizens per capita than any other nation.
Most of the reforms thus far have focused on nonviolent offenders, especially drug-law violators — and for good reason. The large-scale incarceration of low-level drug offenders has had little impact on the drug trade; street-corner sellers and couriers are easily replaced. Incarceration imposes substantial costs on society at large, though, and on the life chances and families of those locked up.
If we are to tackle the incarceration rate effectively, we need to focus not only on those who receive the shortest sentences, but also on those who receive the longest sentences — lifers. Even as incarceration rates have begun to fall, life sentences have increased. One in nine prisoners in the United States is now serving a life sentence, including 10,000 serving life for a nonviolent offense (often the “third strike” under a three-strikes law). Nearly a third of the life sentences are imposed with no possibility of parole.
While most of these individuals have committed serious offenses, the increased reliance on life sentences is counterproductive. Criminal offenses tend to drop with age. As offenders grow older, their incarceration is increasingly less likely to have any incapacitative value. Nor is there any evidence that life sentences have greater deterrent effect. Studies find that it is the certainty of punishment, not its severity, that is most correlated with deterrence. Yet many states have adopted a “life means life” policy with no consideration of parole. Such sentences effectively write off the offender, rejecting the possibility of redemption altogether....
A key factor in the prison expansion of recent decades has been that offenders sentenced to prison are serving much longer sentences. American sentences today are frequently two to three times the length for similar offenses in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and other industrialized nations. Sentencing reform has begun with the low-hanging fruit of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses, but if it is to succeed, we must reduce the length of criminal sentences generally.
Recent related post:
- New ACLU report spotlights thousands of nonviolent prisoners serving LWOP terms
- New York Times op-ed asks "Serving Life for This?"
Thursday, November 14, 2013
New York Times op-ed asks "Serving Life for This?"
I am pleased to see that columnist Nicholas Kristoff used his op-ed space today in the New York Times to promote the ACLU's new report on the thousands of persons serving LWOP sentences for non-violent offenses in the United States (discussed here). This piece is headlined "Serving Life For This?," and here are excerpts:
At a time when America has been slashing preschool programs, we have also been spending vast sums to incarcerate thousands of nonviolent offenders in life sentences without any possibility of parole. These cases underscore that our mass incarceration experiment has resulted in monstrous injustice and waste — a waste of tax dollars and of human lives.
Judges and prison officials are rebelling at the injustice of our justice system. Here’s what Judge James R. Spencer, a federal district judge, said when sentencing a former F.B.I. informant to life without parole for selling crack cocaine to support his own addiction: “A life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous; it is a travesty.” But federal law on mandatory minimums left Judge Spencer no leeway. He added: “I don’t agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly.”
Here are some other nonviolent offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of parole:
• Ricky Minor, a meth addict and father of three, was found with 1.2 grams of meth in his home, along with over-the-counter decongestants that can be used to manufacture meth. He was initially charged under Florida law and says he faced a two-and-a-half-year sentence. Later indicted under federal law, he pleaded guilty because his public defender said that otherwise the prosecutors would also pursue his wife, leaving no one to raise their children. Minor had several prior nonviolent offenses, for which he had never served time, and these required Judge Clyde Roger Vinson to sentence him to life without parole. Judge Vinson said that the sentence “far exceeds whatever punishment would be appropriate.”
• Dicky Joe Jackson was a trucker whose 2-year-old son, Cole, needed a bone-marrow transplant to save his life. The family raised $50,000 through community fund-raisers, not nearly enough for the transplant, and Jackson tried to earn the difference by carrying meth in his truck. He has now been in prison for the last 17 years; when he lost his last appeal, he divorced his wife of 19 years so that she could start over in her life. The federal prosecutor in the case acknowledged: “I saw no indication that Mr. Jackson was violent, that he was any sort of large-scale narcotics trafficker, or that he committed his crimes for any reason other than to get money to care for his gravely ill child.”
• Danielle Metz became pregnant at 17 and later married an abusive man who was also a drug dealer. To placate him, she says, she sometimes helped him by fetching cocaine or collecting money from Western Union. After one clash in which he punched her in the face, she took the kids and left him. Two months later, she was indicted. She says that she was prosecuted primarily to induce her to testify against her husband, but that she wasn’t knowledgeable enough to have useful information to trade for a reduced sentence. She has now spent more than 20 years in prison.
Those examples come from a devastating new report, “A Living Death,” by the American Civil Liberties Union. It identified more than 3,200 such nonviolent offenders sentenced to die behind bars. Four out of five are black or Hispanic. Virtually all are poor. Many had dismal legal counsel. Some were convicted of crimes committed when they were juveniles or very young adults....
I write often about human rights abuses abroad. But when we take young, nonviolent offenders — some of them never arrested before — and sentence them to die in prison, it’s time for Americans who care about injustice to gaze in the mirror.
Recent related post:
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
New ACLU report spotlights thousands of nonviolent prisoners serving LWOP terms
The ACLU has released a huge new report giving focused attention to the thousands of prisoners serving life without parole sentences in the United States for nonviolent drug and property crimes. This massive new report, which can be accessed at this link, is titled "A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses." This related webpage highlights some specific defendants and cases with this introduction:
For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. An estimated 65% of them are Black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.
Here is an excerpt from the 200+ page report's executive summary:
Using data obtained from the Bureau of Prisons and state Departments of Corrections, the ACLU calculates that as of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent drug and property crimes in the federal system and in nine states that provided such statistics (there may well be more such prisoners in other states). About 79 percent of these 3,278 prisoners are serving LWOP for nonviolent drug crimes. Nearly two-thirds of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses nationwide are in the federal system; of these, 96 percent are serving LWOP for drug crimes. More than 18 percent of federal prisoners surveyed by the ACLU are serving LWOP for their first offenses. Of the states that sentence nonviolent offenders to LWOP, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Oklahoma have the highest numbers of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent crimes, largely due to three-strikes and other kinds of habitual offender laws that mandate an LWOP sentence for the commission of a nonviolent crime. The overwhelming majority (83.4 percent) of the LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes surveyed by the ACLU were mandatory. In these cases, the sentencing judges had no choice in sentencing due to laws requiring mandatory minimum periods of imprisonment, habitual offender laws, statutory penalty enhancements, or other sentencing rules that mandated LWOP. Prosecutors, on the other hand, have immense power over defendants’ fates: whether or not to charge a defendant with a sentencing enhancement triggering an LWOP sentence is within their discretion. In case after case reviewed by the ACLU, the sentencing judge said on the record that he or she opposed the mandatory LWOP sentence as too severe but had no discretion to take individual circumstances into account or override the prosecutor’s charging decision.
As striking as they are, the numbers documented in this report underrepresent the true number of people who will die in prison after being convicted of a nonviolent crime in this country. The thousands of people noted above do not include the substantial number of prisoners who will die behind bars after being convicted of a crime classified as “violent” (such as a conviction for assault after a bar fight), nor do the numbers include “de facto” LWOP sentences that exceed the convicted person’s natural lifespan, such as a sentence of 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales. Although less-violent and de facto LWOP cases fall outside of the scope of this report, they remain a troubling manifestation of extreme sentencing policies in this country.
November 13, 2013 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack
Thursday, November 07, 2013
"Free at Last? Judicial Discretion and Racial Disparities in Federal Sentencing"The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Crystal Yang now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similar defendants. This paper explores the impact of increased judicial discretion on racial disparities in sentencing after the Guidelines were struck down in United States v. Booker (2005). Using data on the universe of federal defendants, I find that black defendants are sentenced to almost two months more in prison compared to their white counterparts after Booker, a 4% increase in average sentence length. To identify the sources of racial disparities, I construct a dataset linking judges to over 400,000 defendants. Exploiting the random assignment of cases to judges, I find that racial disparities are greater among judges appointed after Booker, suggesting acculturation to the Guidelines by judges with experience sentencing under mandatory regime. Prosecutors also respond to increased judicial discretion by charging black defendants with longer mandatory minimums.
I am always interested in sophisticated analyses of the post-Booker sentencing system, so I am looking forward to finding time to review this article closely. But, as with lots of "disparity" sentencing scholarship, I worry that this article is among those spending lots of time worrying about and trying to figure out whose sentences may be longer after Booker rather than worrying about and trying to figure out if all sentence remain way too long in the federal sentencing system.
November 7, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Wednesday, November 06, 2013
Senate Judiciary hearing focused on federal prisons and "Cost-Effective Strategies for Reducing Recidivism"This motning, Tuesday November 6, 2013 at 10am, as detailed at this official webpage, there will be Hearing before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary titled "Oversight of the Bureau of Prisons & Cost-Effective Strategies for Reducing Recidivism." Here is the official agenda/hearing list:
- Charles E. Samuels, Jr.,Director,
- John E. Wetzel, Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
- Representative John Tilley, Chair, Judiciary Committee, Kentucky House of Representatives
- Nancy G. La Vigne, Ph.D., Director, Justice Policy Center, The Urban Institute
- Matt DeLisi, Ph.D., Professor and Coordinator, Criminal Justice Studies, Iowa State University
- Dr. Jeffrey Sedgwick, Managing Partner and Co-Founder Keswick Advisors
I am expecting and hoping that there will be written testimony from some or all of these witnesses posted via the Senate website within the few hours.
Here at The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen sets out "5 Questions for Federal Prisons Chief When He Comes to Capitol Hill"
Tuesday, November 05, 2013
"Looking for Answers on Overcrowded Prisons"The title of this post is the headline of this notable new AP article coming from Philadelphia. The piece is primarily about federal corrections and re-entry issues, as well as on-going work of AG Eric Holder and the Department of Justice. Here are excerpts:
Some ex-offenders here report to federal court twice a month so that judges can gauge their progress, from drug testing and parenting classes to education and job training. It's an attempt to address a stubborn problem: nearly 25 percent of offenders released into federal supervision were rearrested for a new offense within five years, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Another 14 percent violate the conditions of their supervision.
Attorney General Eric Holder is taking a look at the Philadelphia program Tuesday to call attention to an overburdened prison system and the high incidence of repeat criminals, the first of three such visits to promote innovative crime prevention initiatives. Holder will visit St. Louis and Peoria, Ill., on Nov. 14.
"The common thread of these programs is that it is very difficult to get out of a cycle of crime without proper rehabilitation," Holder said in an interview. "We should not be surprised" at high repeat offender rates "when we see people with education deficits, social deficits and we warehouse them and then just put them back into the same environment that they left."...
Seven years ago, federal judges in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania created a federal re-entry court that focuses on ex-criminal offenders with a significant risk of returning to a life of crime. The goal of the program is to place participants on a path to employment rather than a cycle of crime. Those who successfully complete the 52-week program can reduce their court-supervised release by a year. It aims to cut Philadelphia's high violent crime rate by addressing the social, family and logistical issues confronting ex-offenders when they return to society.
Of 186 participants in the Supervision to Aid Re-Entry, or STAR, initiative over the past seven years, 142 have successfully completed the program or remain in it. In a new change designed to keep ex-offenders on the right track, STAR will provide some participants with federal housing assistance under a federal voucher program.
"For every dollar we invest in programs like these we are going to save much more" in prison costs, an outcome that will enable spending limited law-enforcement resources on other priorities, Holder said.
While Philadelphia's program deals with high-risk offenders, the program in St. Louis is aimed at helping low-level drug offenders remain drug-free and the effort in Peoria, Ill., substitutes drug treatment for jail time for low-level drug offenders.
In all, 73 of 79 participants in the Peoria program have successfully completed it. The program operated by the U.S. Attorney's office, a federal court, the probation office and defense lawyers is designed for defendants whose criminal conduct was motivated by substance abuse. The Justice Department says over $6 million has been saved through the program — money that otherwise would have been spent on putting the defendants behind bars....
Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity and almost half of the prisoners are serving time for drug-related crimes. Many of them have substance use disorders. In addition, some 9 million to 10 million prisoners go through local jails each year. "We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder told the American Bar Association in August. "To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and re-entry."