Saturday, January 11, 2014

A few notable headlines concerning notable state prison realities

My review of sentencing law and policy stories this morning revealed this array of noteworthy reports and commentary pieces concerning a number of state prison systems across the US.  I have reprinted the headlines and subheading, which serve as a kind of summary of the issues covered:

January 11, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, January 10, 2014

Mass incarceration, marijuana and deeper dives into national employment data

The title and topic of this post is driven by the curious news today, reported here by the AP, that US employers "added a scant 74,000 jobs in December after averaging 214,000 in the previous four months," but that also "the unemployment rate fell from 7 percent in November to 6.7 percent, its lowest level since October 2008."  The standard "official reason" for low job growth but a big dip in the unemployment rate is "because many Americans stopped looking for jobs."  But I started then thinking about whether and how the thousands of people now employed in state-legal (but federally-prohibited) marijuana businesses are counted in this national data.  Could it be that a significant number of people working in the state-legal marijuana industry are now counted as unemployed and/or not looking for work (just as I assume all illegal cocaine dealers are counted)?

These thoughts are based in part on this one notable Montana study, which students in my marijuana seminar found when they assembled information about job creation in marijuana industry. Though the data in this 2011 study may be hinky because it was produced by the Montana Medical Growers Association, the study estimated that 1,400 new jobs had been created in the sparcely populated state of Montana alone and that "approximately 70% of employees [in the Montana marijuana industry] were previously unemployed."  Extrapolating from these numbers, it seems plausible that there may already be 50,000 or more Americans already working in state-legalized medical marijuana businesses, and these employment numbers are certain to grow in states like Colorado and Washington now with a huge new recreational marijuana market.

But do all Americans now working in the (cash only) state-legal marijuana industry count as employed in the federal data?  I would suspect not given that the federal law still regards all these folks as illegal drug dealers on par with a guy on a street-corner trying to peddle crack.  Perhaps more worrisome for those concerned about the abuse of federal benefits, how many Americans have acquired jobs in the state-legal marijuana industry but remain happy and eager to report they are "still looking for (fully legal) work," and thus are collecting federal unemployment insurance while actually working in the marijuana industry?  Or instead, once formerly unemployed folks get a job within a state-legal (but federally-prohibited) marijuana business, do they tend then to just report that they have given up looking for work?

As the title of this post suggests, I am asking these questions about the mariujuana industry and employment data in part because shrewd labor-force data-crunchers have long known that the massive increase in incarceration during the 1990s played a huge role in making national unemployment data look better than the reality.  During from 1985 to about 2005, hundreds of thousands of unemployed (and mostly low-skilled) Americans were added to our prison population, taking them out of the labor force entirely and thus (artificially) driving down the unemployment rate statistic.  (In addition, the need to build and staff ever more prisons was a terrific government stimulus program for low-skilled labor.)  But in the last decade or so, the national prison population has been relatively stable: each year roughly 700,000 new persons get admitted to prison and another 700,000 get released.  However, the reality of prison life and the challenges of a criminal record mean that every person newly released from prison each year is all but certain to have a harder time finding legal employment than every person newly admitted to prison that year.

Put differently, growing the prison-industrial complex often makes for better superficial national job numbers, while keep America's prison population stable (or getting it to decline) can end up hurting simplistic national job numbers.  (That reality is one of many reasons it is often so much easier to get politicians to support laws that fuel prison growth rather than laws that fuel prison reduction.)  

With these statistical realities in mind, I am now wondering and worrying in light of the latest national employment data whether a reverse data-collection problem could be at work with the marijuana-industrial complex as long as pot prohibition is still the law at the federal level.  Could significant growth of a state-legal "marijuana-industrial complex" actualy produce federal data that makes national employment data look worse than it really is? 

Obviously, I am not a labor economist, and I could be waaaaaay off base here.  But I suspect and fear few serious US labor economists are even considering these realities much, if at all, as they think about the modern American labor force and its needs in the years ahead.   More broadly, the only key takeaway from this post should be that just as mass incarceration is a labor issue as well as a criminal justice issue, so too do I think marijuana law and policy is a labor issue as well as a criminal justice issue.

January 10, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

"Should We Let Prisoners Upgrade Their Prison Cells?"

9515_luxury_prison_by_iMoo_pupuDesign-1The title of this post is the headline of this interesting report from the OZY media resource. Here are excerpts:

Would prison be so bad if your cell was spacious and included a private bathroom, kitchen and cable TV? These are the accommodations for some prisoners at San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia. But luxury isn’t free: For about $1,000-1,500, an inmate can purchase a high-class cell for the duration of his or her sentence.

San Pedro is divided into eight sections ranging from shared small cells with risks of stabbings at night to the opulent cells that have access to billiard tables and fresh juice stands. Every person must buy or rent a cell, no matter the quality, and many inmates have jobs as hairdressers, laundry staff, food stall operators or TV repairmen.

Does the idea of paying for better prison accommodations sound ludicrous? Would you bet this could never happen in the U.S.? Think again.

In California there are multiple jails with “pay-to-stay” programs where inmates can pay from $75-155 a day for a private cell in quiet areas away from violent offenders, and they are occasionally allowed to bring in an iPod or computer for entertainment. They must be approved for the program and their crimes are usually minor offenses. The ACLU is not a fan, calling the program a “jail for the rich.”

Supporters of pay-to-stay say they benefit the cities where they are located by providing revenue. For example, if the Fremont jail — which spends $8.35 a day on each inmate — houses 16 inmates for two nights per week a year, the city would net a profit of about $244,000. One immediate question is whether cities should make a profit off of prisoners. Another question has to do with equality.

Two people who commit the same crime but end up in different facilities depending on their ability to pay isn’t exactly equitable, but the American incarceration system doesn’t have the best record when it comes to treating the poor and rich equally....

But what if you weren’t allowed to use Daddy’s dollars to secure better living conditions while serving time for a DUI? What if, instead, you started out the same as every other inmate, regardless of personal wealth or outside resources?

Could a fairer option be that you start your sentence with a financial blank slate, earn money by taking jobs inside the prison or jail and then apply your self-earned dollars to book a nicer and more comfortable living situation? Should prisoners be allowed to pay to upgrade the quality of their cells, or should the nature of their crime be the sole factor in how they live out their prison terms?

January 7, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 05, 2014

"The Punishment Imperative The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America"

9780814717196_FullThe title of this post is the title of this notable new book published by NYU Press authored by Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost.  Here is the book's description from the NYU Press site:

“Backed up by the best science, Todd Clear and Natasha Frost make a compelling case for why the nation’s forty-year embrace of the punitive spirit has been morally bankrupt and endangered public safety. But this is far more than an exposé of correctional failure. Recognizing that a policy turning point is at hand, Clear and Frost provide a practical blueprint for choosing a different correctional future — counsel that is wise and should be widely followed.” — Francis T. Cullen, Distinguished Research Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati

Over the last 35 years, the US penal system has grown at a rate unprecedented in US history — five times larger than in the past and grossly out of scale with the rest of the world.  This growth was part of a sustained and intentional effort to “get tough” on crime, and characterizes a time when no policy options were acceptable save for those that increased penalties.  In The Punishment Imperative, eminent criminologists Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost argue that America’s move to mass incarceration from the 1960s to the early 2000s was more than just a response to crime or a collection of policies adopted in isolation; it was a grand social experiment.  Tracing a wide array of trends related to the criminal justice system, The Punishment Imperative charts the rise of penal severity in America and speculates that a variety of forces — fiscal, political, and evidentiary — have finally come together to bring this great social experiment to an end.

Clear and Frost stress that while the doubling of the crime rate in the late 1960s represented one of the most pressing social problems at the time, this is not what served as a foundation for the great punishment experiment.  Rather, it was the way crime posed a political problem — and thereby offered a political opportunity — that became the basis for the great rise in punishment.  The authors claim that the punishment imperativeis a particularly insidious social experiment because the actual goal was never articulated, the full array of consequences was never considered, and the momentum built even as the forces driving the policy shifts diminished.  Clear and Frost argue that the public’s growing realization that the severe policies themselves, not growing crime rates, were the main cause of increased incarceration eventually led to a surge of interest in taking a more rehabilitative, pragmatic, and cooperative approach to dealing with criminal offenders.

The Punishment Imperative cautions that the legacy of the grand experiment of the past forty years will be difficult to escape.  However, the authors suggest that the United States now stands at the threshold of a new era in penal policy, and they offer several practical and pragmatic policy solutions to changing the criminal justice system’s approach to punishment.  Part historical study, part forward-looking policy analysis, The Punishment Imperative is a compelling study of a generation of crime and punishment in America.

January 5, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 28, 2013

George Will laments "mandatory minimums as sledgehammers"

This past week, Washington Post columnist George Will made heavy use of recent opinions by Judge John Gleeson to join the chorus of commentators lamenting federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.  Here are the closing paragraphs from this commentary, headlined "The sledgehammer justice of mandatory minimum sentences":

Kenneth Harvey was 24 in 1989 when he committed a crack cocaine offense. He had two prior offenses that qualified as felony drug convictions even though they were not deemed serious enough for imprisonment. They, however, enabled the government to make an 851 filing. He will die in prison. Harvey is 48.

Thousands of prisoners are serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes. Gleeson, who is neither naive nor sentimental (as a prosecutor, he sent mobster John Gotti to die in a supermax prison), knows that most defendants who plead guilty are guilty. He is, however, dismayed at the use of the threat of mandatory minimums as “sledgehammers” to extort guilty pleas, effectively vitiating the right to a trial. Ninety-seven percent of federal convictions are without trials, sparing the government the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Mere probable cause, and the meager presentation required for a grand jury indictment, suffices. “Judging is removed,” Gleeson says, “prosecutors become sentencers.” And when threats of draconian sentences compel guilty pleas, “some innocent people will plead guilty.”

Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are questioning the regime of mandatory minimum sentences, including recidivism enhancements, that began with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Meanwhile, the human and financial costs of mass incarceration mount.

December 28, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Friday, December 27, 2013

Fascinating lead-crime-rate forecast that incarceration levels will decline significantly in coming years

Regular readers know I am very intrigued by (but still at least a bit skeptical concerning) the social science research that suggest that lead exposure level better account for variations in violent crime rates than any other single variable.  Consequently, I have to link to this new item sent my way by researcher Rick Nevin, titled "It Will Not Take 88 Years to End Mass Incarceration," which responds to a recent commentary by sentencing reform advocates (noted in this post) lamenting how little incarceration rates have declined even as crime has continued its historic decline over the last decade. Without vouching for the data, I am eager to highlight Nevin's concluding sentiments in this interesting little data discussion:

Nevin (2000) showed that per capita use of lead in gasoline from 1941-1975 explained 90% of the variation in the USA violent crime rate from 1964 to 1998.  Nevin (2007) showed the same relationship between preschool lead exposure trends and violent and property crime trends in the USA, Britain, Canada, West Germany, Finland, France, Italy, New Zealand, and Australia.  The time lag in every nation reflected lead-induced neurodevelopmental damage in the first years of life affecting behavior in the late-teens and 20s when offending peaks.  The best-fit lag for burglary was 18 years, reflecting property crime arrests that have historically peaked at ages 15-20.  The best-fit for violent crime was 23 years, consistent with violent crime arrest rates that have peaked in the early-20s.

The ongoing violent crime rate decline (down 32% from 1998-2012) has been slowed by an increase in older offenders born across years of pandemic lead poisoning.  This has been slowed by an increase in older offenders born across years of pandemic lead poisoning. This rise in arrest rates for older adults has occurred even as juvenile arrest rates have fallen to record lows, due to ongoing declines in lead paint exposure over the 1990s.

The Sentencing Project and other advocates for sentencing reform need to acknowledge the extreme divergence in arrest and incarceration trends by age. Opponents of sentencing reform often assume that “mass incarceration” is a key factor behind the USA crime decline over the past two decades, but arrest and incarceration trends by age discredit that theory: The largest arrest rate declines have been recorded by younger age groups that have also recorded large incarceration rate declines, while arrest rates have increased for older age groups despite rising incarceration rates for older adults.

Arrest and incarceration trends by age also cast doubt on the theory that budget constraints and public policy reforms have been a large factor in the overall prison population decline over recent years. The declining prison population is clearly not explained by shorter prison terms or early releases for older prisoners, but by steep arrest rate declines for younger Americans. It isn’t the public policies that have changed: It’s the people, and specifically the percent of people poisoned by lead exposure in early childhood.

Some recent related posts:

December 27, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Monday, December 23, 2013

"Can We Wait 88 Years to End Mass Incarceration?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Huffington Post commentary by Marc Mauer and Nazgol Ghandnoosh of The Sentencing Project.  Here is how it gets started:

By many measures, there is growing momentum for criminal justice reform.  Changes in federal drug-sentencing policy, passed by Congress in 2010, will help to reduce sentence lengths and racial disparity.  We hear less "tough on crime" rhetoric and budget-conscious conservatives are embracing sentencing reforms.  The Attorney General has criticized aspects of the criminal justice system and directed federal prosecutors to seek reduced sanctions against lower-level offenders.

In light of this, one would think we should celebrate the new figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) showing a decline in the U.S. prison population for the third consecutive year.  This follows rising prisoner counts for every year between 1973 and 2010.  BJS reports that 28 states reduced their prison populations in 2012, contributing to a national reduction of 29,000.  Beset by budget constraints and a growing concern for effective approaches to public safety, state policymakers have begun downsizing unsustainable institutional populations.

The break in the prison population's unremitting growth offers an overdue reprieve and a cause for hope for sustained reversal of the nearly four-decade growth pattern.  But any optimism needs to be tempered by the very modest rate of decline, 1.8 percent in the past year.  At this rate, it will take until 2101 -- 88 years -- for the prison population to return to its 1980 level.

Other developments should also curb our enthusiasm.  The population in federal prisons has yet to decline.  And even among the states, the trend is not uniformly or unreservedly positive. Most states that trimmed their prison populations in 2012 did so by small amounts -- eight registered declines of less than 1 percent. Further, over half of the 2012 prison count reduction comes from the 10 percent decline in California's prison population, required by a Supreme Court mandate.  But even that state's achievement is partly illusory, as it has been accompanied by increasing county jail admissions.

Three states stand out for making significant cuts in their prison populations in the past decade: New York (19 percent), California (17 percent), and New Jersey (17 percent). The reductions in New York and New Jersey have been in part a function of reduced crime levels, but also changes in policy and practice designed to reduce the number of lower-level drug offenders and parole violators in prison.  But the pace of reductions in most other states has been quite modest.  Moreover, 22 states still subscribed to an outdated model of prisoner expansion in 2012.

December 23, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Isn't it crazy (and one reason for much dysfunction) that California does not have some kind of sentencing commission?

Cal prisonI have written a law review article emphasizing that the mere existence of a sentencing commission within a jurisdiction does not magically solve or even necessarily improve the development of sentencing and corrections laws and policies in that jurisdiction.  Indeed, some might reasonably claim that in jurisdictions that have other agencies collecting system-wide data, a sentencing commission can become a costly luxury that may at times do more harm than good.

That all said, and as the question in the title of this post highlights, it strikes me as truly nuts that California has never created some kind of sentencing commission to assemble at least basic state-wide sentencing information.  Indeed, given the huge mess that has long been California's massive sentencing and corrections system, and given the crisis-mode reforms and regulations imposed by judges and governors for decades now, I have to think any kind of sentencing commission in California would be able to improve matters in some way at least by being the go-to location for information about what the heck is even going on in the state on a range of sentencing and corrections issues.

These matters come to mind in reaction to this notable new article in the Sacramento Bee headlined "Sentencing commission, suggested in Sacramento, faces long odds." Here are excerpts:

Key California lawmakers this summer suggested that a commission to review and overhaul criminal sentences not only could bring coherence to a disjointed system but also perhaps ease chronic prison overcrowding in the long term. But the idea now appears stalled, despite the incentive of federal litigation that could force Gov. Jerry Brown to release as many as 10,000 inmates next spring.

Lawmakers chastened by a history of unsuccessful sentencing commission bills hold out little hope that this time could be different. “These issues are hard,” Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in an interview last week. “They’re hard to bite off politically.”

The notion of a panel to overhaul California’s penal code has percolated for decades but eluded proponents time and again. Supporters argue that a steady accumulation of different regulations, layered on top of one another over time, has led to a labyrinth of sentencing guidelines. “There is a lot of disproportionate punishment in our penal code, and that’s because not uncommonly a horrible crime may be committed in someone’s district and so the response is legislatively to get tougher,” said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. “These are emotional issues,” he added, “and to have politics infused in all of our decision-making does not create the most sound public policy.”

State sentencing commissions are typically independent bodies, appointed by officials, that study a state’s galaxy of sentencing laws and condense them into a comprehensive framework. They issue guidelines that would increase or decrease sentences for various categories of crimes. That troubles some law enforcement leaders who see the potential for weakened sentences. And it rattles lawmakers wary about constituents – or future electoral opponents – who could hold them responsible for changes that emanated from an unelected body.

“No legislative body wants to give up power,” said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, a former Assembly speaker who pursued a sentencing commission during her time in the Legislature.

Historically, the state’s law enforcement community has been hostile to allowing appointed entities to dictate consequences for crimes.  District attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs have opposed past efforts, raising concerns about who would sit on panels with expansive authority to reshape criminal justice.  “In California, the only times sentencing commissions come up, it has been code for sentence reductions,” said Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully.

But the idea resurfaced this summer when Gov. Jerry Brown, seeking to satisfy a federal order to reduce California’s prison population without resorting to more early releases, proposed spending an additional $315 million to provide more cells.  Steinberg broke with the governor, rallying Senate Democrats behind an alternate plan that questioned expanded capacity.

Among other provisions, Steinberg’s blueprint included a detailed plan for immediately creating an 18-member sentencing commission that could provide recommendations by the end of 2014. A letter to Brown argued that “short-term fixes provide no sustainable remedy.” Steinberg’s letter said the panel would make recommendations aimed at “long-term prison capacity, staying within the (prison capacity) cap, including changes in criminal sentencing and evidence-based programming for criminal offenders.” He included private poll results that showed nearly three-fourths of Californians supported a panel “to streamline California’s criminal statutes with the goal of safely reducing prison costs and maximizing public safety.”

But by summer’s end, the governor got his cash infusion. The final bill also created a special corrections policy committee tasked with broadly examining criminal justice in California. Last week, Steinberg called sentencing reform “a key piece” of rethinking the state’s criminal justice system. But he expressed doubt that substantial changes would materialize in the coming legislative session....

This session, Leno carried his second consecutive bill easing penalties for simple drug possession. Brown vetoed it. Part of Leno’s argument emphasized the state’s uneven sentencing statutes, which make possession of cocaine a felony but allow possession of Ecstasy or methamphetamine to be charged as misdemeanors. Leno cited such inconsistencies in arguing that the sentencing commission is “an idea whose time has come,” adding that the state’s struggles to reduce its prison population “only underscores the need for it.”...

Past sentencing commission efforts have self-destructed because the panel’s recommendations, though subject to legislative approval, would have carried the force of law, argued Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley. By contrast, Steinberg proposed a purely advisory body.

After seeing previous resentencing campaigns stymied, Hancock said an advisory commission may be the only tenable approach. Even if a commission’s recommendations remain just that, Hancock said she would push to see them implemented. “It’s just so important to cast some rational light on what goes on with our sentencing that I would be happy to see one that makes discretionary recommendations,” Hancock said.

I am pleased to hear there is talk of making a sentencing commission advisory in California because that should be one key to making such an entity a viable reality. But, were I a lawmaker in California, my proposal for a CA sentencing commission would be for the entire voting body of any such commission to be staffed only with district attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs and for these folks on the CA commission to always have a majority of voting members. In that way, it should and could be clear that having a CA sentencing commission would not be code for sentence reductions but rather just a means for seeking greater sentencing rationality and information as defined by those very state actors elected and most responsible to the voters for seeking to ensure public safety and sensible use of tax resources to that end.

December 23, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 21, 2013

"If our prisons were a country, what would Incarceration Nation look like?"

The title of this post is the headline of this fascinating commentary by lawprof Rosa Brooks, which merits a read in full.  Here are just a few highlights from a very interesting piece:

You already know that the United States locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world.  If you look at local, state and federal prison and jail populations, the United States currently incarcerates more than 2.4 million people, a figure that constitutes roughly 25 percent of the total incarcerated population of the entire world.

A population of 2.4 million is a lot of people -- enough, in fact, to fill up a good-sized country. In the past, the British Empire decided to convert a good chunk of its prison population into a country, sending some 165,000 convicts off to Australia.  This isn't an option for the United States, but it suggests an interesting thought experiment: If the incarcerated population of the United States constituted a nation-state, what kind of country would it be?

Here's a profile of Incarceration Nation:

Population size: As a country -- as opposed to a prison system -- Incarceration Nation is on the small side. Nonetheless, a population of 2.4 million is perfectly respectable: Incarceration Nation has a larger population than about 50 other countries, including Namibia, Qatar, Gambia, Slovenia, Bahrain and Iceland....

Population Density:  No matter how you look at it, Incarceration Nation is a crowded place. If we assume a land area of 2,250 square miles, it has a population density of roughly 1,067 people per square mile, a little higher than that of India.  Of course, the residents of Incarceration Nation don't have access to the full land-area constituting their nation: most of them spend their days in small cells, often sharing cells built for one or two prisoners with two or three times that many inmates....

Demographics:

A nation of immigrants: Like many of the smaller Gulf States, Incarceration Nation relies almost entirely on immigration to maintain its population. You might even say that Incarceration Nation is a nation of displaced persons: most of its residents were born far away from Incarceration Nation, which has a nasty habit of involuntarily transporting people hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from their home communities, making it extraordinarily difficult for residents to maintain ties with their families. In New York, for instance, one study found that "70 percent of incarcerated individuals are in prisons over 100 miles from their homes" -- often in "isolated rural areas that are inaccessible by direct bus or train routes."...

Gender balance: International attention to gender imbalances has tended to focus on China, India and other states, but Incarceration Nation has the most skewed gender ratio of any country on Earth: men outnumber women by a ratio of about 12 to 1.

Racial and ethnic makeup: If Incarceration Nation were located in a geographical region matching its racial and ethnic makeup, it would probably be somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps near Brazil.  Roughly 40 percent of the incarcerated population is of African descent, another 20 percent is of Hispanic descent, and the remaining 40 percent are Caucasian or mixed....

Health: Incarceration Nation doesn't do so well here. One recent study found that the incarcerated are "more likely to be afflicted with infectious disease and other illnesses associated with stress."...

Per Capita Spending: Judged by per capita government spending, Incarceration Nation is a rich country: its government spends an average of about $31,000 per year on each incarcerated citizen. (State by state, costs vary. Kentucky and Indiana spend less than $15,000 on each inmate per year, while in New York State, the per capita cost per inmate is more than $60,000 a year. In New York City, per capita costs for jail inmates reach an astronomical $168,000 per year.) Internationally, only little Luxembourg spends as much on its citizens as Incarceration Nation; among the generally wealthy states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, average per capita spending is under $15,000, and Sweden, France, Germany, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom all spend under $20,000 per year on each citizen.

Gross Domestic Product: Incarceration Nation doesn't have a GDP, per se, but that doesn't mean it doesn't turn a profit -- sometimes, and for some people. For American taxpayers, aid to Incarceration Nation is pretty expensive: looking at just 40 U.S. states, the Vera Institute of Justice found that the cost to taxpayers of incarceration in these states was $39 billion. Overall, federal and state governments spend an estimated $74 billion on prisons each year. (This doesn't count spending on state and local jails.) How much is $74 billion? It's higher than the GDP of more than half the countries in the world, including Lebanon, Paraguay, Nepal and Lithuania.

Some people make a lot of money from Incarceration Nation. Incarceration Nation employs about 800,000 people as prison guards, administrators and the like -- almost as many people as are employed in the entire U.S. automobile industry -- and in some rural areas, prisons are the main employers. But the real money goes to the operators of private prisons and the companies that make use of prison labor.

December 21, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases a whole slew of notable new corrections data

I just received an e-mail reporting on these new data publications released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Here are the bare basics (with analysis perhaps to follow if anything special jumps out from these materials):

Correctional Populations in the United States, 2012 is available at this link: Summarizes data from various correctional collections to provide statistics on the number of offenders supervised by the adult correctional systems in the United States.

Prisoners in 2012: Trends in Admissions and Releases, 1991-2012 is available at this link: Presents final counts on prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities on December 31, 2012, collected in the National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) program.

Probation and Parole in the United States, 2012 is available available at this link: Presents data on adult offenders under community supervision while on probation or parole during 2012.

Data Analysis Tool Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) - Prisoners (Updated) is available at this link: This dynamic analysis tool allows you to examine National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) on inmates under the jurisdiction of both federal and state correctional authorities.

UPDATE: For focus especially interested in incarceration data, this lengthy Trends in Admissions and Releases document looks like the most notable and interesting of these reports.  Helpfully, this BJS press release provides a lot of the highlights from all these reports, and I found this accounting from the press release of prison developments especially interesting:

Prisoners

  • The federal prison system had the largest sentenced prison population (196,600 inmates) in 2012, followed by Texas (157,900), California (134,200), Florida (101,900) and New York (54,100).
  • California (down 10 percent) had the largest prison population decrease in 2012, followed by Arkansas (down 9 percent), Wisconsin and Colorado (down 7 percent each).
  • Overall, black males were 6 times and Hispanic males 2.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males in 2012.
  • Black males ages 18 to 19 were almost 9.5 times more likely than white males of the same age group to be in prison. Among new court commitments to state prison, more than a third each of black and Hispanic offenders, and a quarter of white offenders were convicted of a violent offense.
  • Between 1991 and 2011, the number of females admitted to state prison for newly committed violent offenses increased 83 percent.

December 19, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Task force recommends broad changes to sentencing and corrections in Mississippi

As reported in this local article, headlined "Sweeping prison reforms suggested in Mississippi: More judicial discretion among proposals," there is now big talk about big reforms in The Magnolia State. Here are the details:

A criminal justice task force on Tuesday recommended sweeping reforms to reduce Mississippi’s soaring prison population and costs, standardize sentences and reduce recidivism. “This is the first time in my career — 32 years — that we have taken a comprehensive look at corrections in this state,” said Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps. “… We all know the cost of doing nothing.”

The recommendations include providing more discretion for judges to impose alternatives to prison and creating “true minimums” on when violent and nonviolent offenders are eligible for release.  They also call for defining what constitutes violent crime — something officials said isn’t clear in state law.  Proposals also include increasing the threshold from $500 to $1,000 for felony theft and lowering drug sentences for possession of small amounts while cracking down on large drug dealers.

Epps headed the bipartisan, 21-member task force of lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement and defense attorneys.  The group, after working for seven months with assistance from the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project, developed recommendations for the 2014 Legislature.

Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker pro tem Greg Snowden and others voiced their support for the proposal after the task force adopted it. The task force was created by a bill Snowden authored this year.  Bryant said the reforms “put victims first,” protect public safety and provide “clarity of sentencing.”  Reeves praised the recommendations as “evidence-based, data-driven, fiscally sound criminal justice reforms.”

While the nationwide trend has been lower prison population, Mississippi’s has skyrocketed since it passed some of the toughest “truth in sentencing” laws in the 1990s. The state now has more than 22,600 prisoners and the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation.  Prison costs have risen from $276 million in 2003 to $361 million, with unchecked growth expected to result in 2,000 more inmates and cost taxpayers another $266 million over the next 10 years.

The state has attempted unsuccessfully to reduce prison costs with a patchwork of release policies that created confusion in sentencing and a disconnect between the judges/prosecutors and corrections.  Uncertainty about how long convicts would serve helped push sentence lengths by 28 percent the last decade....

State Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, said the proposed reforms are “historical,” and “create a better system as opposed to a build it (prisons) and they will come approach.”

December 18, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"We wish you 70 years in prison, we wish you 70 years in prison, and an unhappy new life"

Grinch_mugshotThe title of this post is inspired by this local sentencing story and the song I could imagine in some Texas jurors' heads as they decided to "celebrate" the holiday season by sentencing a woman with a notably long and ugly criminal record to a notably long and harsh prison term.  The story is headlined "Parker County 'Grinch' Sentenced to 70 Years in Prison," and here are the details:

A woman known as the Christmas “Grinch” for stealing Christmas lights from a Parker County family’s home was sentenced to 70 years in prison on Friday after she was convicted of a separate burglary.

Dana Brock, 44, of Hurst, shook her head when the judge read the jury’s sentence. Prosecutors pushed for a long sentence because of her lengthy criminal record.

Brock gained notoriety in December 2012 when she was caught on surveillance video stealing Christmas lights from outside a family’s Aledo home while they were inside sleeping.  She was arrested again in May after she stole a weed wacker and a power washer from another homeowner’s garage.  She also was caught on video in that case.

"One of our deputies who responded out to this case and looked at the surveillance video at the homeowner's house saw her on the video and said, 'Hey, that's the Grinch,’” said assistant Parker County district attorney Jeff Swain.  “He knew right away who it was." A jury deliberated just five minutes before convicting her on Thursday.

In the sentencing phase of her trial, prosecutors pointed to her long criminal history. Brock’s record dates to when she was a 17-year-old and was convicted in Arizona of solicitation to commit murder.  Over the years she also was convicted of credit card abuse, injury to a child, theft, assault, and drug possession.  Instead of two to 20 years in prison for burglary of a habitation, she faced 25 years to life under the "three strikes and you're out" law.

She shook her head as the judge read her 70-year sentence. "A 70-year sentence will knock the air out of your stomach,” said her attorney Raul Navarez.  “She kept asking me, '70 years? Are you serious? 70 years?'  Because 70 years is a pretty harsh sentence for this kind of a deal. And quite frankly, that's what I argued to the jury.  But the jury decided and we have to respect that."

Navarez and prosecutors agree it didn't help her case when jurors saw the video of her stealing Christmas lights.  "When you're known as the Christmas Grinch, people do remember you,” Swain said.

I am unsure whether Texas law ensures that this version of the grinch will have to serve most or nearly all of these 70 years in prison, though this defendant's lengthy record of not-so-petty crimes leads me to be less than too-sympathetic concerning her fate.  That said, if she is really as smart as the "real" Grinch, she probably will be able to figure out some way to catch "affluenza" while serving her time in Texas prisons and thereafter convincingly claims at a parole hearing that her heart and her conscience managed to grow three sizes one day while she was incarcerated.

December 17, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

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.

December 16, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

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:

From Reason.com:

December 15, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

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.

December 9, 2013 in Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Remarkable new HRW report details massive "trial penalty" due to mandatory minimums in federal system

2013-US-plea-graphicAs 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.

December 5, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (49) | TrackBack

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.

December 4, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

"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"

Presidential-pardonsThe 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."

November 27, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack