Monday, May 12, 2014

Documenting the enduring challenge of reducing prison populations in Ohio

Prison-boom-art0-gfjsdd1f-10511gfx-prison-boom-population-epsOne of many challenges facing this nation as it works toward trying to ameliorate the worst excesses of mass incarceration is the modern and now-all-too-common social and cultural instinct that significant prison terms must be the "right" way to respond to any and all crimes of concern.  One expression and example of this perspective concerns this recent story of the feds appealing, and calling "substantively unreasonable," a probation sentence for a high-profile tax evader who has already paid in penalties more than 10 times the amount of taxes he tried to evade.  

Another expression of this reality is in this lengthy story from my own Columbus Dispatch headlined "Ohio struggles with rising prison population: One in 175 adults in the state is incarcerated, at taxpayer cost of $22,836 each annually." Here are excerpts:   

When Gary Mohr began his career at the Marion Correctional Institution in 1974, there were 8,516 inmates in state prisons. Forty years later, he manages a system nearly six times as large, packed with 50,639 offenders. One of every 175 adult Ohioans is housed, fed and receives medical care at taxpayer expense in a state prison. The latest two-year budget allocated $3.14 billion for the prison system.

Ohio officials have been unable to consistently tamp down the prison population despite attempts to do so. Major sentencing reforms were enacted, “good time” was reintroduced, community programs were enhanced, and early-release provisions were added.

And still the numbers go up. The latest projections suggest the inmate population in 27 prisons (including two private facilities) will hit 52,000 in two years, and 53,484 in five. Prisons already are bulging with 30 percent more prisoners than they were designed to hold.

“I’m getting a lot of people saying, ‘When are you going to build another prison?’  ” Mohr said in an interview. “I’m a believer in people instead of bricks and mortar. I’m not going to build another prison.” The major reason is the enormous cost, Mohr said. “That’s a commitment of $1 billion for two decades. It would cost $120 million to $150 million to build and $40 million annually to operate.”...

The series of reforms that began with House Bill 86 in 2011 got traction in Ohio’s six largest counties, including Franklin, which reduced the number of offenders being sent to state prisons in the past year. That helped reduce the prison population by about 675. However, the number of inmates being sent to prison from the remaining 82 counties increased, helping push up the population by 11.1 percent from 2003 to 2013. Here’s the math behind the numbers: Each prisoner costs Ohio taxpayers $22,836 per year, so adding 100 prisoners, for example, costs nearly $2.3 million.

A report by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative corrections watchdog, last August listed five contributing reasons why the prison population has gone up: a very small increase in violent crime, longer sentences for higher-level felonies, dramatically fewer prison releases (a 24.3 percent drop in five years), legislation increasing penalties for specific crimes, and adverse court decisions. Another factor may trump all the others: a flood of heroin cases. Men coming into prison still outnumber women more than 4 to 1, but that gap is shrinking as more women are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes.

State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who has been instrumental in recent prison-reform legislation, says the changes included in House Bill 86 are indeed working, “just not as fast as we had hoped. They’ve certainly ameliorated the situation as opposed to doing nothing. “We didn’t expect a dramatic overnight reduction,” Seitz said. “It takes awhile for the full import of these comprehensive reforms to float down the system.”

Seitz said many judges opposed the reforms because they limited judicial discretion in sentencing. As a result, “some judges are finding creative ways of sidestepping the provision that requires them not to send to prison first-time Felony 4 and Felony 5 non-violent drug and property offenders.”...

The prison-crowding issue is an everyday dilemma for corrections officers represented by the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. “We were told sentencing reform would flatten out staffing levels, but we keep keeping more people (hired) on the administrative staff and those who work 9 to 5,” said the union’s president, Christopher Mabe. “We know there’s going to be more inmates coming into the system, and that means we need more staff.”

May 12, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Recognizing that mass incarceration has lately been a little less massive

The always astute commentator Charles Lane has this new astute commentary in the Washington Post under the headline "Reaching a verdict on the era of mass incarceration."  Here are excerpts:

Though the U.S. prison population of 1.5 million in 2012 was far larger than that of any other country, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of population, the era of ever-increasing “mass incarceration” is ending.

The number of state and federal inmates peaked in 2009 and has shrunk consistently thereafter, according to the Justice Department.  New prison admissions have fallen annually since 2005.  The inmate population is still disproportionately African American — 38 percent vs. 13 percent for the general population — but the incarceration rate for black men fell 9.8 percent between 2000 and 2009, according to the Sentencing Project.

This is not, however, the impression one would get from a new 464-page report from the prestigious National Research Council, which, like other think-tank output and media coverage of late, downplays recent progress in favor of a scarier but outdated narrative. The report opens by observing that the prison population “more than quadrupled during the last four decades” and goes on to condemn this as a racially tainted episode that badly damaged, and continues to damage, minority communities but did little to reduce crime.

The study’s authors are right that the disproportionate presence of minorities in prison is a tragic reality, rooted at least partly in the post-1960s politics of white backlash. Today’s big prison population reflects the impact of mandatory minimums and longer sentences, which probably do yield diminishing returns in terms of crime reduction, especially for nonviolent drug offenses. Summarizing a relative handful of studies, the NRC report implies that we can have safe streets without the cost, financial and moral, of locking up so many criminals — since it’s “unlikely” that increased incarceration had a “large” positive impact on crime rates.

It would be nice if there were no trade-off between crime and punishment, but common sense says it’s not so. An analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, similar in both tone and timing to the NRC report, acknowledges that increasing incarceration can reduce crime and that this effect is greatest when the overall rate of incarceration is low.

Ergo, increasing the incarceration rate now would do little to reduce crime, but the crime-fighting benefits were probably substantial back in the high-crime, low-incarceration days when tougher sentencing was initially imposed.

It’s easy to pass judgment on the policymakers of that violent era, when the homicide rate was double what it is today and crime regularly topped pollsters’ lists of voter concerns. That had a racial component, but minorities were, and are, disproportionately victims of crime, too. The NRC report extensively discusses the negative effect on communities of incarcerating criminals, but it has comparatively little to say about the social impact of unchecked victimization.

Buried within the report is the fact that, in 1981, the average time served for murder was just five years; by 2000, it had risen to 16.9 years. The numbers for rape were 3.4 and 6.6 years, respectively. Insofar as “mass incarceration” reflects those changes — and the majority of state prisoners are in for violent crimes — it’s a positive development....

Instead of ignoring recent positive trends, researchers should try to understand them. The decline in incarceration may represent the delayed effect of falling crime and the diminished flow of new offenders it necessarily entails.

Sentencing reform, too, is taking hold, based on changing public attitudes. The percentage of Americans who say criminals are not punished harshly enough has fallen nearly 23 points since 1994 — when the crime wave peaked — according to data compiled by Arizona State University professor Mark Ramirez.

After erring on the side of leniency in the 1960s, then swinging the opposite way in the 1980s and 1990s, the United States may be nearing a happy medium. But this probably would not be possible if 48 percent of Americans felt unsafe walking at night within a mile of their homes, as the Gallup poll found in 1982.  To sustain moderate public opinion we must keep the streets safe, and to do that we must learn the right lessons from the recent past.

I largely concur with many of Lane's sentiments here, especially with respect to making sure we acknowledge that rates of violent crime have dropped dramatically in recent decades and trying our very best to identify and understand recent trends and to "learn the right lessons from the recent past." At the same time, though, I question the basis for asserting that we may "be nearing a happy medium" with respect to modern punishment policies and practices given that the vast majority of the most severe sentencing laws enacted in the the 1980s and 1990s are still on the books.

Some recent related posts:

May 8, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Intriguing new BJS data about national jail populations

I just received notice of a new Bureau of Justice Statistics publication, excitingly titled "Jail Inmates at Midyear 2013 -- Statistical Tables" and available at this link.  Though lacking a thrilling title, the data discussed in this publication are actually pretty interesting  This official BJS press release, excerpted below, provides some highlights:

After a peak in the number of inmates confined in county and city jails at midyear 2008 (785,533), the jail population was significantly lower by midyear 2013 (731,208). However, the estimated decline between midyear 2012 and 2013 was not statistically significant. California’s jails experienced an increase of about 12,000 inmates since midyear 2011....

Local jails admitted an estimated 11.7 million persons during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013, remaining stable since 2011 (11.8 million) and down from a peak of 13.6 million admissions in 2008. The number of persons admitted to local jails in 2013 was 16 times the estimated 731,352 average daily number of jail inmates or average daily population during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013....

Males represented at least 86 percent of the jail population since 2000. The female inmate population increased 10.9 percent (up 10,000 inmates) between midyear 2010 and 2013, while the male population declined 4.2 percent (down 27,500 inmates). The female jail population grew by an average of about 1 percent each year between 2005 and 2013. In comparison, the male jail population declined an annual average of less than 1 percent every year since 2005.

White inmates accounted for 47 percent of the total jail population, blacks represented 36 percent and Hispanics represented 15 percent at midyear 2013. An estimated 4,600 juveniles were held in local jails (less than 1 percent of the confined population), down from 5,400 during the same period in 2012.

At midyear 2013, about 6 in 10 inmates were not convicted, but were in jail awaiting court action on a current charge—a rate unchanged since 2005. About 4 in 10 inmates were sentenced offenders or convicted offenders awaiting sentencing. From the first significant decline in the overall jail population since midyear 2009, the unconvicted population (down 24,000 inmates) outpaced the decline in the convicted inmate population (down 12,000 inmates).

May 8, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Examining "sentence finality" at length in new article and series of posts

I am pleased to report that an article I completed in conjunction with a wonderful symposium on "Finality in Sentencing" for the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy is now in print and available in full via this SSRN link.  

The full title of my article is "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences," and here is the abstract: 

This Essay examines the issue of “sentence finality” in the hope of encouraging more thorough and reflective consideration of the values and interests served — and not served — by doctrines, policies, and practices that may allow or preclude the review of sentences after they have been deemed final.  Drawing on American legal history and modern penal realities, this Essay highlights reasons why sentence finality has only quite recently become an issue of considerable importance.  This Essay also suggests that this history combines with modern mass incarceration in the United States to call for policy-makers, executive officials, and judges now to be less concerned about sentence finality, and to be more concerned about punishment fitness and fairness, when new legal developments raise doubts or concerns about lengthy prison sentences.

Regular readers know I have commented in the past in this space about my fear that too much stock and weight is often put on "sentence finality" (as distinct from "conviction finality"), and this article provided me the first real opportunity to think and write about this issue more thoroughly and systematically.  And yet I fear I am only scratching the surface of various important conceptual and practical issues in this Wake article; as a result, I may end up writing a lot more on this topic in the months and years.  

In service to my stated goal "to encouraging more thorough and reflective consideration of the values and interests served — and not served — by doctrines, policies, and practices that may allow or preclude the review of sentences after they have been deemed final," I am planning in the days ahead to reprint and discuss in separate posts a few of the ideas and themes that find expression in this article.  For now, I am hopeful that readers will check out the full article and perhaps let me know via comments if they find this topic of sufficient interest and importance so as to justify many additional posts on sentence finality.

May 7, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

New Human Rights Watch report bemoans "Nation Behind Bars"

HRWAs reported in this press release, Human Rights Watch has issued a new report highlighting the problems of mass incarceration in the united States. Here are the details (and a link) via the the start of the press release:

The 36-page report, “Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution,” notes that laws requiring penalties that are far longer than necessary to meet the purposes of punishment have given the United States the world’s highest reported rate of incarceration. These laws have spawned widespread and well-founded public doubts about the fairness of the US criminal justice system.

“The ‘land of the free’ has become a country of prisons,” said Jamie Fellner, co-author of the report and senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Too many men and women are serving harsh prison sentences for nonviolent and often minor crimes. How can a country committed to liberty send minor dealers to die in prison for selling small amounts of illegal drugs to adults?”....

Momentum to reduce mass incarceration is growing. Human Rights Watch is seeking to build on this momentum and offer a way forward. Federal and state legislators should ground their moves for reform in core principles of human rights, including prudent use of criminal sanctions, fair punishment, and equal protection of the laws.

To put those principles into practice, Human Rights Watch urges legislators at the very least to:

May 7, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

"The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences"

The title of this post is the title of the massive report released last week by the National Research Council (which is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering).  The report runs more than 450 pages and can be accessed at this link

I was hoping to get a chance to review much of the report before posting about it, but the crush of other activities has gotten in the way.  Fortunately, the always help folks at The Crime Report have these two great postings about the report:

I hope to be able to provide more detailed coverage of this important report in the weeks to come.

May 6, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

California Supreme Court decides Miller demands altering presumption for juve LWOP

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Ruling could reduce life-without-parole terms for juvenile offenders," the California Supreme Court issued a significant post-Miller ruling about juve murder sentencing in the state.  Here are the basics:

In a decision likely to reduce life-without-parole sentences for teenage offenders, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday that judges are free to hand down 25-year-to-life terms for older juveniles convicted of serious crimes and must consider the defendants' youth before sentencing.

Before the unanimous ruling, California law had been interpreted as requiring judges to lean toward life without parole for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds convicted of murder with special circumstances.  The decision overturned decades of lower-court rulings and gave two men who were 17 at the time they killed the opportunity to have their sentences reconsidered by trial judges.

The court said the sentences should be reviewed because they were handed down when state law was being misconstrued and before the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2012 that judges must consider a juvenile's immaturity and capacity for change. The ruling, written by Justice Goodwin Liu, stemmed from appeals in two cases.

In one, Andrew Lawrence Moffett robbed a store and his accomplice killed a police officer in Pittsburg, Calif. Moffett was convicted of murder, robbery and driving a stolen vehicle. Because the victim was a police officer and Moffett used a gun during the crime, he was subject to life without parole. In the other case, Luis Angel Gutierrez killed his uncle's wife while living with the family in Simi Valley. He received life without parole because the jury determined he had murdered Josefina Gutierrez while also raping or attempting to rape her.

"Because Moffett and Gutierrez have been convicted of special circumstance murder, each will receive a life sentence," wrote Justice Goodwin Liu for the court. "The question is whether each can be deemed, at the time of sentencing, to be irreparably corrupt, beyond redemption, and thus unfit ever to reenter society."

Certain juvenile offenders became subject to life without parole when voters passed Proposition 115, the 1990 "Crime Victims Justice Reform Act." State appeals' courts ruled that the law required judges to favor imposing life without parole over a sentence that allowed for release after 25 years. For two decades, those rulings stood.

But Monday's decision said the lower courts had erred in the interpretation of the law. "Proposition 115 was intended to toughen penalties for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder by making them eligible for life without parole upon a finding of one or more special circumstances," Liu wrote. But he said neither the wording of the ballot measure nor any of the official analyses resolved whether "the initiative was intended to make life without parole the presumptive sentence." The court concluded it was not.

Four justices joined a separate opinion to stress that California judges may still sentence older juveniles to life without parole, despite the 2012 Supreme Court ruling. Justice Carol A. Corrigan, who wrote the concurrence, said the high court's ruling came under a law that was different from California's and involved mandatory lifetime sentences for much younger children.

Attorneys in the case said it was uncertain whether Monday's decision would apply retroactively to cases in which appeals have already been completed. Courts across the country have been divided over whether the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on juvenile sentencing applied retroactively, the lawyers said.

The full ruling in California v. Gutierrez, No. S206365 (Cal. May 5, 2014), is available at this link.

May 6, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 03, 2014

"Harsh Sentencing, Overstuffed Prisons — It's Time for Reform"

The title of this post is the headline given to this new Wall Street Journal commentary authored by Mortimer Zuckerman.  Here are excerpts:

Too many people are in prison who should not be there.  How many?  Most of them!  It is not that they are innocent of the offenses that put them there.  It is that they are in prison mainly because we have criminalized vast areas for nonviolent offenders and compounded that with a distorted sentencing system.  Criminal justice cries out for reform.  Congress and the Justice Department have begun to listen.

Since 1980 the U.S. federal prison population has grown by about 800% (to 216,787 this week, according to the Bureau of Prisons), while the country's population has increased only a third.  By comparison, under President Reagan, the total correctional-control rate (that includes everyone in prison or jail or on probation or parole) was less than half what it is today.  And here's another shocker: At the federal level, nonviolent offenders account for 90% of prisoners....

Federal prisons today house nearly 40% more inmates than they were designed for, many of them repeat offenders.  According to an April 2011 report from the Pew Center on the States, more than 40% of state ex-convicts return to their cells within three years of release, and in some states the recidivism rate approaches 60%.  The inflexible mandatory-sentencing rules inflict punishments that in many cases no reasonable judge would impose — and then the system turns out prisoners who are more harmful to society than when they went in.  For instance, a June 2013 paper by Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph J. Doyle Jr. of MIT found that putting a minor in juvenile detention reduced his likelihood of graduating from high school by 13% and increased his odds of being incarcerated as an adult by 23%.

There is now an awakening to the desperate situation we created (out of the best of motives).  It is manifest in Congress, which has a bipartisan bill before it to refocus federal resources on incarcerating violent offenders and move away from low-level ones. We also see the urge for reform in Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as in the states, which together have six times as many prisoners as the federal government....

The states are laboratories of reform led by vigorous governors—who realize that prisons cost the states more than $50 billion a year, up from about $9 billion in 1985.  Beginning in 2007, Texas, under the leadership of Gov. Rick Perry, rejected a proposal to build eight more prisons (and has saved an estimated $2 billion overall in projected corrections spending).  Instead, Texas is shifting nonviolent offenders from state prisons into alternative treatment, and budgeting for rehabilitative programs for addicts and mentally-ill prisoners.  A March 2013 Pew Charitable Trust report on state and consumer initiatives found that the rate of parole failure had dropped 39% since 2007 and Texas had its lowest crime rate since the 1960s.

More than a dozen other states — including Ohio, Georgia and South Carolina — are shortening or even eliminating prison time for the lowest-risk, nonviolent offenders. Instead of spending on more prisons, many states are increasing the number and compensation of parole caseworkers, who in the past have been almost perpetually overwhelmed.  Technology like ATM-style check-in stations and ankle bracelets with GPS helps.

But funding is required for the roughly 650,000 federal and state prisoners who are released every year into society.  You cannot drop them on the curb to fend for themselves, for two-thirds are rearrested within three years.  Enlisting family members to help once their relative leaves prison is one proven way to reduce recidivism.  Sentencing nonviolent offenders to a minimum-security prison or even to home confinement is not only cheaper but also eliminates the strain on separated families and reduces the contagion of crime.

We have to be smart and tough on criminal-justice spending, with the goal of getting the most public safety from the more-efficient expenditures of taxpayer dollars. The central idea must be to return significant criminal-justice discretionary dollars to local authorities. Reserve expensive prison beds for career criminals and violent felons, and give local jails the responsibility and funding to oversee low-level inmates involved with less-violent crimes.

The politics of all this are admittedly touchy. But we cannot remain in the mind-set created by the 1980s crime explosion that led to a narrowing of criminals rights and tougher penalties. Think of all the billions spent building prisons that could have been spent on roads, hospitals, schools and airports. If we do not support the initiatives of all three government branches to reform the system, the verdict could only be: Guilty of waste and injustice.

May 3, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Notable new data on crime, punishment and mass incarceration

This interesting new commentary by Eduardo Porter in the New York Times Business section, headlined "In the U.S., Punishment Comes Before the Crimes," combines the standard modern US story of mass incarceration with some notable new data suggesting we might be able to have less violent crime and less punishment. Here are excerpts:

Few things are better at conveying what a nation really cares than how it spends its money. On that measure, Americans like to punish. The United States spent about $80 billion on its system of jails and prisons in 2010 — about $260 for every resident of the nation. By contrast, its budget for food stamps was $227 a person.

In 2012, 2.2 million Americans were in jail or prison, a larger share of the population than in any other country; and that is about five times the average for fellow industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The nation’s unique strategy on crime underscores the distinct path followed by American social and economic institutions compared with the rest of the industrialized world.

Scholars don’t have a great handle on why crime fighting in the United States veered so decidedly toward mass incarceration. But the pivotal moment seems to have occurred four decades ago. In 1974, the criminologist Robert Martinson published “What Works? Questions and Answers About Prison Reform.” Efforts at rehabilitation, it concluded, were a waste of time....

Crime was rising in the 1960s and 1970s, alarming the public and increasing the risk to politicians of appearing “soft” on crime. The decline in manufacturing employment, once the backbone of many urban economies, wasn’t helping. Later, in the 1980s and ’90s, crack cocaine became a scourge of the nation’s inner cities.

But as Steven Raphael of the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael A. Stoll of the University of California, Los Angeles, note in their book “Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?,” what drove up imprisonment rates was not crime but policy. If rehabilitation was out of reach, the thinking went, all that was left was to remove criminals from society and, through harsh sentencing, deter future crime.  From 1975 through 2002, all 50 states adopted mandatory sentencing laws, specifying minimum sentences. Many also adopted “three strikes” laws to punish recidivists. Judges lost the power to offer shorter sentences.

And the prison population surged. Four decades ago, the correctional population in the United States was not that dissimilar from the rest of the developed world. Less than 0.2 percent of the American population was in a correctional institution. By 2012, however, the share of Americans behind bars of one sort or another had more than tripled to 0.7 percent.

Bruce Western of Harvard suggests a specific American motivation, which sprang to some degree from the victories of the civil rights movement. “The crime debate was racialized to an important degree,” Professor Western told me. “The anxieties white voters felt were not just about crime but about fundamental social changes going on in American society.”

Today, a little under half the state and federal prison population is black. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that a black boy born in 2001 had a 32.2 percent chance of doing time behind bars. Growing inequality, too, appears to have played a role. As Devah Pager of Harvard told me: “There is something to the idea that the more distant the rich become to the poor, the easier it is to impose policies that are more punitive than others.”...

The United States had another singularity: a comparatively small welfare state that struggled to address social and economic dislocation. “The criminal justice system became the only effective institution that could bring order and manage urban communities,” Professor Pager said. Prison, according to Professor Western, “became a last resort for a whole variety of social failures.” Whether it is caused by problems with mental health, drug abuse or unemployment, he said, “all the people that slip through the safety net and end up in crime end up in the prison system.”

What did we get from this? Crime rates have fallen by almost half since 1990, to the lowest level since the early 1970s. But that may have little to do with mass incarceration. Demographic trends — there are simply fewer young men around — help explain much of the decline. Some states, like New York, have managed to reduce crime even while cutting the prison population through better policing.

The United States still suffers higher rates of violent crimes than European countries that have lighter sentencing policies. In 2012, the United States had five intentional homicides for each 100,000 people. In Canada, the rate was 1.8. In Australia, 1.2. Mass imprisonment not only suffers from diminishing returns. After a certain point, it might actually increase crime.

Indeed, a growing body of research has concluded that the costs of the strategy are much steeper than prisoners’ room and board. Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph J. Doyle Jr. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that putting a minor in juvenile detention reduced his likelihood of graduating from high school by 13 percentage points and increased his odds of being incarcerated as an adult by 23 percentage points.

The impact of incarceration on a former inmate’s future life is difficult to disentangle. Still, a report by Mr. Western and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington suggested that serving time reduced men’s hourly wage by 11 percent and annual employment by nine weeks. More than half of inmates have minor children. Their children are almost six times as likely to be expelled or suspended from school. Family incomes fall 22 percent during the years fathers are incarcerated.

On Wednesday, the National Academy of Sciences is unveiling a report on the causes and consequences of American mass incarceration. On Thursday, the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project will present its evaluation, alongside an analysis by Mr. Raphael and Mr. Stoll, which suggests that less imprisonment might not produce more crime.

California — which had to release tens of thousands of prisoners in 2011 and 2012 to reduce prison crowding — offers a perspective into what life might be with a more lenient approach. According to calculations by Professors Raphael and Stoll, there were 1.2 more auto thefts for every prison year not served. Violent crime wasn’t affected at all.

Extrapolating to a national scale, they estimated that reducing the imprisonment rate by 20 percent would lead to 121 new property crimes for every 100,000 Americans, a 5 percent increase over 2012. This is a price American voters, and their elected officials, might be willing to pay — especially if they can save money on prisons....

In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators — as varied as the Texas Republican Ted Cruz on the right to Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, on the left — are supporting a bill to lighten sentences for low-risk drug offenders. These changes could turn around the imprisonment juggernaut. After rising relentlessly for three decades, the nation’s incarceration rate hit a peak in 2008 and started gradually to decline. In 2011 and 2012, the total correctional population actually shrank slightly. We might spend the savings on food stamps.

April 30, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Why innocent people plead guilty": Judge Jed Rakoff suggests "tens of thousands of innocent people" have been "coerced into pleading guilty"

Judge-Jed-Rakoff-400x400The title of this post is drawn from this report via USC News summarizing a provocative recent speech given by Judge Jed Rakoff (which a kind reader alerted me to). Here are excerpts:

Rakoff, who sits on the Federal District Court in Manhattan, N.Y., spoke recently at the USC Gould School of Law’s Neiman Sieroty Lecture on “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty.”...

“The criminal justice system is nothing like you see on TV — it has become a system of plea bargaining,” Rakoff said. Today, only 2 percent of cases in the federal system go to trial, and 4 percent of cases in the state system go before a jury. As a result, accepting a deal from prosecutors — despite one’s guilt or innocence — has become a common choice for individuals accused of a crime.

“Plea bargains have led many innocent people to take a deal,” Rakoff said. “People accused of crimes are often offered five years by prosecutors or face 20 to 30 years if they go to trial. … The prosecutor has the information, he has all the chips … and the defense lawyer has very, very little to work with. So it’s a system of prosecutor power and prosecutor discretion. I saw it in real life [as a criminal defense attorney], and I also know it in my work as a judge today.”

What can be done? Rakoff said prosecutors should have smaller roles in sentence bargaining and the mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated. “But to be frank, I don’t think, politically, either of those things is going to happen. … When it comes right down to it, I think the public really wants these high penalties, and that’s because when these harsh penalties were imposed [in the 1980s], the crime rate went down.”

Another more controversial solution is to allow judicial involvement in the plea bargain process. A judge who is not involved in the case could take a first pass at an agreement, working with prosecutors and defense attorneys. “What I have in mind is a magistrate judge or a junior judge would get involved,” Rakoff said. “He would take offers from the prosecutor and the defense. … He would evaluate the case and propose a plea bargain if he thought that was appropriate, and he might, in appropriate cases, say to the prosecutor, ‘You don’t have a case and you should drop it.’ This would be very difficult for the judiciary; it’s not something I come to lightly, but I can’t think of any better solution to this problem.”

Until extraordinary action is taken, Rakoff said little will change. “We have hundreds, or thousands, or even tens of thousands of innocent people who are in prison, right now, for crimes they never committed because they were coerced into pleading guilty. There’s got to be a way to limit this.”

April 29, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Interesting articles about history and modern prison realities in United States

I just came across a set of interesting papers just made available on SSRN authored by criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross examining the history and some modern realities about prisons in the United States. Here are links to these pieces via their titles:

April 26, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Justice Department formally announces its clemency initiative plans and guidelines

As expected, the US Department of Justice today announced some more formal plans and criteria for the long discussed new clemency initiative.  Two documents which I learned via an e-mail reprinted below provides the basics and links to the substance (which I will blog about a lot more in the hours and days ahead):
Announcing New Clemency Initiative, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Details Broad New Criteria for Applicants

As part of the Justice Department’s new clemency initiative, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole announced six criteria the department will consider when reviewing and expediting clemency applications from federal inmates.

 Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole at the Press Conference Announcing the Clemency Initiative

We are launching this clemency initiative in order to quickly and effectively identify appropriate candidates, candidates who have a clean prison record, do not present a threat to public safety, and were sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed, and are no longer seen as appropriate.

April 23, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"WWJD? Reform Alabama's horrible criminal sentencing laws"

Jesus_in_prisonThe title of this post is the headline given to this provocative commentary authored by Sue Bell Cobb, a retired Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice. Here are excerpts:

As the former Chief Justice of Alabama, I am proud to have devoted my career to the cause of justice in our state. But as a lifelong United Methodist, it shames me to know that if Jesus came to our state today, he would chastise me and every other Alabama Christian for our nearly complete silence on a terrible injustice taking place under our noses and in our names every day: ineffective, absurdly harsh sentencing laws that lead to overcrowded, dangerous prisons that breed more crime.  What would Jesus do? Fix our criminal sentencing laws.

Our shame should be all the greater because we cannot pretend that we do not know the truth. In poll after poll, we say that we understand that there are cheaper and more effective ways to punish non-violent, drug-addicted offenders than by locking them up in prison.  Virtually every Alabama newspaper has reported on our state's horrendously overcrowded prisons.

It is undisputed that no state in the nation has prisons as over-crowded and underfunded as ours.  Alabama prisons have almost twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold and far too few correctional officers guarding them.  They are terrible, deadly violent places that truly decent people would not tolerate in our midst.

The Alabama Legislature recently completed another legislative session and did nothing to remedy this deplorable situation. Why did the legislature fail to act?  A lack of leadership is an easy answer, but it is also a tremendous cop out.  As Christians, do we need politicians to show us the way? No.  In Alabama today and everywhere, except for Senator Cam Ward of Shelby County, politicians are followers, not leaders.  It falls to us, as people who profess to be passionate about true, meaningful justice to be visible and vocal on this issue.  We must lead our politicians onto the path of justice.  Thus far, we have failed to do so....

Every dollar we misspend and waste on inappropriately locking up a non-violent offender, is a dollar that is desperately needed for prevention of child abuse and neglect, mental health services, education, parks, libraries healthcare and our deteriorating infrastructure.  Prevention programs are much more cost-effective with lasting benefits that improve the quality of life for everyone.

By locking up low risk, nonviolent offenders with higher risk offenders, we are making ourselves less safe.  There are less expensive, more effective community alternative punishment programs which appropriately punish an offender without sending them off to prison.  Model drug courts, the replication of which was a major priority of mine during my tenure as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, HOPE courts, mental health courts, expanded community corrections and work release, intensive probation services, and evening juvenile reporting centers are examples of ways to hold offenders accountable, yet also try to fix the issues that initially lead them to a life of crime.

It is the Easter season, and Christians like me will fill our churches to hear the story of a prisoner who suffered a terrible and unjust punishment.  Our hearts will swell with shame over the sacrifice that Our Lord made for us -- "while we were yet sinners."  We will rededicate ourselves to serve Him.

And then we will go home and say and do nothing about the thousands of injustices in Alabama courts and prisons carried out in our name every day.

As I contemplate what that "prisoner" from 2,000 years ago would say about those prisons, I am inspired to act.  And I tremble in fear about how He will judge me if I do not.

April 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, April 18, 2014

Should Prez Obama create a "Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration"? Who should be on it?

The questions in the title of this post are prompted by one of the executive actions suggested earlier this week the Brennan Center for Justice in this new report titled "15 Executive Actions to Overcome Government Dysfunction."  Notably, as listed here, at least three of the suggested actions are focused on criminal justice matters that should be of special interest to sentencing fans:

9. Create a Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration, modeled after the “Kerner Commission.”

10. Issue an executive order directing federal agencies to recast their criminal justice grants in a Success-Oriented Funding model.

11. Direct the Justice Department to identify federal prisoners to whom the Fair Sentencing Act would retroactively apply, and recommend commutations for all those eligible, barring exceptional circumstances.

The first proposal of these three struck me as especially novel and interesting, and here is part of the full report's discussion of the proposal:

With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of its prisoners.  More than 2 million Americans are behind bars.  A quarter of the nation’s adult population has a criminal record.  The prison population has increased sevenfold since 1970. The country spends a quarter of a trillion dollars a year on criminal justice, but true costs are wider: Economic and social impacts on families and children can continue for generations.  The explosion in our correctional population extends far beyond prison: pre-trial detention, parole and probation supervision, and those with arrest records.

Public safety does not compel incarceration of this scope.  More than half of prisoners are serving time for drug or nonviolent crimes.   One in four new prison admissions are for violations of parole. 106 One in five people behind bars are simply awaiting trial. 

Yet, the epidemic of mass incarceration hides in plain sight.  Most Americans are unaware of it.  Those who are aware are not mobilized to act.

Progressives and conservatives have begun to seek action. Several states have taken up reforms in recent years. Momentum is increasing in Washington.  Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the “Smart on Crime” initiative, calling for federal prosecutors to seek harsh sentences only for the most serious drug traffickers and other reforms. 

These federal and states fixes, however, have been piecemeal rather than systemic.  Full change is not possible without wide public support.  Mass incarceration must be identified as a national problem requiring national attention.  Though jurisdictions vary in the minutia of their justice systems, the overall drivers of the incarceration explosion are similar across the country.  

Federal legislation to create a national commission on criminal justice has failed to pass repeatedly.  This year, Congress created the Chuck Colson Task Force, named after the founder of Prison Fellowship.  It will aim to study the federal prison system to alleviate overcrowding.  A similar assessment should be made of the far broader problem.

The president can help make mass incarceration visible by creating a National Commission on Mass Incarceration of leading bipartisan policymakers and civic leaders.  He can do so through an executive order or a presidential memorandum.  And he can avail himself of a high profile venue, such as a commencement address, to announce the commission.  

Such a panel could be modeled after the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr.).  President Lyndon B. Johnson created the “Kerner Commission” to study the causes of urban riots.  The National Commission on Mass Incarceration should similarly study the current drivers of the growth in federal and state prison and jail populations.  It should examine the accompanying economic and societal toll. And, it should issue concrete policy recommendations to achieve a measureable goal — for example, cutting the nationwide incarcerated population by 25 percent by 2025.

Proposals should focus on “front-end” changes that help stem the influx of people into the pipeline to prison.

The Kerner Commission’s members included New York City Mayor John Lindsay, Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Litton Industry founder Charles Thornton, NAACP head Roy Wilkins, and Atlanta police chief Herbert Turner Jenkins.  These prominent public figures helped bring national attention to the issue of race.  The National Commission on Mass Incarceration should include similar public and civic leaders.  Such a commission would draw the nation’s attention to this overlooked issue and, most importantly, catalyze action.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear I like both the style and substance of this proposal. Thus, to answer my own post-title question, I do think Prez Obama should create a Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration. (And, of course, I think I should be on this Commission along with Bill Otis and perhaps many other (but not all other) frequent commenters on this blog.)

April 18, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Critical reflections on the Cantu commutation ... aka why some federal prosecutors perhaps deserve to be demonized

220px-TrialKafkaThe more I reflect on the typo-correction sentence commutation of federal prisoner Cesar Huerta Cantu (basics here), and especially after re-reading this 2255 dismissal order that followed Cantu's own effort to have a court fix its own significant sentencing error, the more disgusted I feel about the modern federal sentencing system and especially about the U.S. Department of Justice and those federal prosecutors most responsible for Cesar Cantu's treatment by our Kafkaesque system.  In an effort to achieve some catharsis, let me try to briefly explain my feelings in three basic points:

1.  Cantu's original federal sentencing as guidelines numerology:  My disgust begins as I think about the basic reality that our federal sentencing system enables a small numerical typo — what should have been a 34 was a 36 in the presentence report guideline calculations — to result in 38-year-old defendant with no criminal history (who pleaded guilty and had considerable family support) to get sentenced to an extra 3.5 years in prison.  I continue to struggle to find much sense of justice or wisdom in a federal sentencing system in which quantitative numbers invented by a government agency, rather than qualitative factors and reasoned judgment, often still conclusively determine how many years or decades defendants are ordered to spend locked in a cage.

2.  Cantu's original federal sentencing as federal actors gone numb:  Arguably more depressing than a federal sentencing system in which numbers invented by a government agency determine how long a defendant gets locked up are sentencing actors whose concern for the human realities of incarceration have been numbed by all the numbers.  One would hope that, as part of a system in which years of human experience for federal defendants (and those who care about them) get determined by basic math, everyone involved would make extra sure the math is always done right.  But, numbed by so many humans being imprisoned for so many years based on so many numbers, the author of the PSR did not notice a typo that inflated Cantu's guideline-recommend prison sentence by many years, and neither did the defense attorney representing Cantu, and neither did the US Attorneys prosecuting Cantu, and neither did the federal judge sentencing Cantu.

3.  Cantu's dismissed 2255 motion as federal prosecutors possessed:  Bill Otis and others sometimes complain that I seem at times to suggest federal prosecutors are evil or satanic.  In fact, I have great respect for the hard work of federal prosecutors, and I am sure I would much rather have my daughters date 99% of federal prosecutors than 99% of federal defendants.  But I must wonder about what kind of evil or satanic forces may have possessed the federal prosecutors who responded to Cantu's pro se 2255 motion to correct his sentence with a motion to dismiss this matter as time-barred.  

Based on my reading of this 2255 dismissal order that followed Cantu's motion, federal prosecutors have never disputed that a  typo resulted in Cantu receiving a sentence 3.5 years longer than he should have, nor have they disputed that federal government officials are wholly responsible for this consequential error.  Still, the federal prosecutors who contributed to a mistake costing Cantu 3.5 years of his freedom responded to his 2255 motion by urging the sentencing judge also responsible for this mistake to refuse to correct Cantu's sentence because Cantu discovered their mistakes too late.  I am hard-pressed to come up with adjectives to describe this federal prosecutorial decision to seek dismissal of Cantu's 2255 motion other than inhumane.

I want to be able to imagine a positive motivation for why federal prosecutors sought a procedural dismissal of Cantu's motion to correct his indisputably erroneous sentence: perhaps, I was thinking, six years after prosecutors helped get an erroneously long sentence imposed on Cantu, these prosecutors came to believe Cantu was a criminal mastermind still involved in serious criminal wrongdoing from prison.  But, as this New York Times article reports, years after his initial erroneous sentencing, Cantu provided "law enforcement authorities with substantial assistance on an unrelated criminal matter" and "he has been a model prisoner, taking vocational and life skills courses and expressing remorse."  In addition, according to the Times reporting, Cantu is married and has 8-year old daughter.  Even if prosecutors were, for whatever reasons, disinclined to help Cantu get his erroneous sentence fixed after Cantu himself had helped the prosecutors, wouldn't they lose a little sleep over the notion that a typo could end up costing Cantu's wife the chance to have her husband's help to raise their daughter during her coming adolescence?

I am hoping Bill Otis or other current or former federal prosecutors will help me feel better about the work of our federal sentencing system and the Department of Justice in the wake of the Cantu commutation.  Especially because Prez Obama has been so stingy with his clemency power, I want this latest commutation to be a reason to celebrate rather than curse our justice system.  But unless and until someone can metamorphasize my understanding of the work of federal prosecutors in this case, I have a hard time not thinking that Josef K. and Cantu have far too much in common. 

April 16, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Another sign of the modern sentencing times: notable sponsor for "How the Criminal Justice System Impacts Well-Being"

I am pleased to note a notable event taking place in Texas this evening under the banner "Rule of Law: How the Criminal Justice System Impacts Well-Being." Here is a description of the event, with its notable chief sponsor (and a link) to be found after the jump:

Can criminal justice system reform improve overall well-being for individuals, families, and communities?

The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population but about 25 percent of its known prison population. In fact, the country's prison population has increased by 790 percent since 1980, exceeding 2 million people in 2002.

We hope you’ll join us for a discussion on how the sharp rise in the number of people behind bars has had a significant impact on well-being. A criminal conviction, even for a minor offense, hinders opportunity and advancement, can contribute to a breakdown in family structure, and can put a strain on community resources. All too often, the effects of incarceration propel former prisoners to commit another crime, creating a vicious cycle of recidivism.

Thoughtful dialogue on this issue can lead to solutions to the challenges facing the criminal justice system and those affected by it, especially the least fortunate. That’s why we’re bringing together leading figures in the criminal justice arena for a conversation on the use of criminal versus civil law; federal and state reforms; mandatory minimum sentences; and other topics.

This Rule of Law event is presented by the Charles Koch Institute.

I know, as reported here by the founder of FAMM Julie Stewart, that "David Koch has donated generously and without fanfare to Families Against Mandatory Minimums for many years.  And the broader libertarian commitments of the Koch brothers should make them fans of a variety of sentencing and drug war reforms, especially at the federal level.

If (when?) the Koch Brothers together start aggressively and visibly putting lots of their political might and their billions behind sentencing reform efforts, I will start to believe seriously that significant reform is on the horizon.  Indeed, it would be especially significant (and surely a huge boast to the presidential prospects of Senator Rand Paul) if the Koch brothers were to make clear to all members of the GOP that they will only support those candidates who are vocal and active suporters of significant federal sentencing reform.   

April 16, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, April 14, 2014

House Judiciary Chair suggests Smarter Sentencing Act still facing uphill battle on the Hill

DownloadCQ News has this important new article on federal sentencing reform developments in Congress under the headline "Goodlatte: Don't 'Jump to Conclusions' on Mandatory Minimums." Here are excerpts:

House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is not convinced that Congress should scale back mandatory minimum drug sentences, even as the Obama administration and a bipartisan coalition in the Senate step up their efforts to do so.  Goodlatte, speaking to reporters from CQ Roll Call and Politico during a pre-taped interview that aired Sunday on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program, said the severity of drug sentences “is a legitimate issue for us to be examining.”

He noted that his committee has set up a task force to review mandatory minimum sentences and many other aspects of the federal criminal code, and he did not rule out taking up a bipartisan, administration-backed Senate proposal (S 1410) that would reduce some minimum drug penalties by as much as 60 percent.  The Senate could take up the proposal in the coming weeks after the Judiciary Committee approved it 13-5 in March.

Despite signaling his willingness to consider sentencing changes, Goodlatte said, “I want to caution that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what is right and what is wrong with the law yet.” Asked whether he believes that some federal prisoners are facing dramatically long sentences for relatively minor drug crimes — a claim frequently made by supporters of an overhaul — Goodlatte expressed skepticism.

“If you’re talking about 25- or 30-year sentences, you’re talking about something that the judge and the jury found appropriate to do above mandatory minimum sentences, because those are five-year and 10-year sentences,” he said.  Regarding the mandatory minimum sentences themselves, he said, “you’ll find that the quantities of drugs that have to be involved are very, very large.”

In the case of marijuana possession, for example, it takes “hundreds” of pounds of the drug to trigger a five-year mandatory minimum penalty and “thousands” of pounds to trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum penalty, Goodlatte said.  “With other drugs that are very potent in much, much smaller doses, those quantities are much, much lower,” he said. “But if you look at it from the standpoint of what someone has to be engaged in dealing, you’re talking about large quantities before you get those minimums.”

The Senate bill, which is supported by conservatives including Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., would reduce 10-year minimum sentences for certain drug crimes to five years, while reducing five-year minimum sentences for other drug crimes to two years.  If those drug crimes result in “death or serious bodily injury,” mandatory minimum penalties would be slashed from their current 20 years to 10 years.  In all of the penalties being reconsidered, mandatory sentences are triggered based on the quantity of drugs involved in a particular crime....

Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in an e-mail that the quantity of drugs involved in a crime is “bad proxy for culpability” and suggested that it should not be used as the basis to defeat proposed changes to fixed drug sentences....

She noted that the independent U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets advisory sentencing guidelines for the federal judiciary, found in a 2011 study that “the quantity of drugs involved in an offense is not closely related to the offender’s function in the offense.” So-called “drug mules,” for example, physically transport large quantities of narcotics for others but are not themselves major traffickers or kingpins, Gill said.

Even as Goodlatte showed skepticism about lowering mandatory drug sentences, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. kept up his call for Congress to take action on the Senate proposal, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act.

After the Sentencing Commission approved its own changes in drug sentencing guidelines last week — a move that is expected to reduce some drug offenders’ penalties by an estimated 11 months — Holder urged Congress to follow up with more sweeping, statutory changes. “It is now time for Congress to pick up the baton and advance legislation that would take further steps to reduce our overburdened prison system,” he said in a statement.  “Proposals like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act would enhance the fairness of our criminal justice system while empowering law enforcement to focus limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety.”

The full video of the interview with Rep. Goodlatte is available at this C-Span archive, and sentencing fans will want to cue the video up to a little after the 10 minute mark. Not long after that point, there is a discussion of federal marijuana policies and then the interview turn to drug sentencing generally. A review of the whole segment makes me a bit less pessimistic about the possibilities of federal sentencing reform making it through the House of Representatives. But being a bit less pessimistic is hardly being optimistic.

Some prior posts about federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:

April 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Would embrace of "judicial corporal punishment" help remedy mass incarceration?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this provocative new commentary by John Dewar Gleissner and given the headline "Who is biased against prison and sentencing reform?".  Here are excerpts:

Private prison companies and the guards’ labor unions are biased, of course.  Politicians do not wish to appear soft on crime.  Some communities need the jobs prisons provide. The public is biased about crime generally, and believes crime rates are going up when they are actually declining.  Many want prison to be horrible.  Who can blame crime victims? Taxpayers dislike money going to prisons. Law-abiding people do not have much in common with prisoners.  Businesses don’t sell much to prisoners.  Prison industries lose money and cannot succeed with government control.

The media prefer sensational stories about egregious criminal behavior. Once the offender is sentenced, the story usually ends. Prisoners do not have access to the internet.

Incarceration is hidden from the eyes of the people, harmful to the morals of prisoners and expensive.  Cultural, generational and religious bias prevent us from crediting our ancestors or other countries with effective crime-control techniques....

Attacking the supply of illegal drugs did not work.  The costs of fully supporting 2.3 million inactive welfare recipients, America’s prisoners, finally caught our attention.  The Constitution is the standard in conditions of confinement litigation.  But when the Constitution was adopted, massive incarceration as we now know it did not exist.  Back then, judicial corporal punishment was constitutional; it was approved of or used by all the presidents carved into Mt. Rushmore.

Incarceration is all Western civilization has known for several generations.  As the death penalty declines, most of us think of prison as the nearly exclusive serious punishment method.  Criminal justice systems focus on the single, inflexible, expensive and inexorable dimension of time.  Most Americans are shocked by the idea of judicial corporal punishment, which is invariably depicted as cruel, perverted or unjust in movies and TV.

Science proves that rehabilitation, restitution and deterrence are not often achieved by lengthy incarceration.  But some violent offenders deserve their long prison sentences. Prisons will not be abolished.  Real bad folks need to stay behind bars.

We think society moves forward.  Reformers are supposed to be “forward-looking.”  Belief in continual social progress ignores history.  Society periodically degenerates into barbarism, disorganization, bankruptcy, genocide, war and revolution.  Scientific study of changed values sometimes takes decades before conclusions are reached and legislation enacted. Our belief in social progress is accompanied by rejection of biblical principles in favor of unproven secular values.

We do not often enough look in the Bible for answers. If we did, the relatively simple solution to ending massive incarceration would be obvious: Deuteronomy 25:1-3. We could cut the American prison population in half. Modern behavioral and neurological science can and would confirm the superior effectiveness of traditional judicial corporal punishment. Believe it or not, judicial corporal punishment was largely abolished in the U.S. because it was too effective.

Judicial corporal punishment is in public, less expensive, much faster and repeatable. Its last use in the United States was to punish wife-beating without diminishing family income. In The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, Harvard law professor William J. Stuntz wrote, “Today's would-be reformers would do well to … consider the possibility that the best models for productive change may not come from contemporary legislation or court decisions, but from a past that has largely disappeared from our consciousness. Sometimes, the best road forward faces back.”

April 14, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, April 11, 2014

"Abandoned: Abolishing Female Prisons to Prevent Sexual Abuse and Herald an End to Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new article by David Frank now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Because the U.S. is unable to prevent widespread sexual violations of incarcerated women, it should apply the prescriptions of a recent U.K. female prison abolitionist movement as the most effective and humane solution to the problem.

Part I of this article examines the mass incarceration, composition, and sexual victimization of U.S. female prisoners. Part II evaluates the most recent attempt to stop the sexual victimization of U.S. prisoners under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Part III presents the U.K. abolitionist solution and the small, though notable, consensus of support that developed around it. Part IV contends that, because neither the Prison Rape Elimination Act nor any previous law has adequately protected prisoners from sexual abuse, the incarceration of women is unconscionable when adequate prison alternatives of support programs and community care are available. This Part also argues against alternatives rooted in retaliation and violence. The article concludes with hope: it argues that the best response to chaotic brutality is not calculated brutality, but humanity.

April 11, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 10, 2014

US Sentencing Commission to vote on reducing drug sentencing guidelines

As detailed in this official notice, "a public meeting of the [US Sentencing] Commission is scheduled for Thursday, April 10, 2014, at 2:30 p.m."  On the official agenda is "Vote to Promulgate Proposed Amendments," and as reported in this prior post, in January the USSC voted to publish proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines that include an across-the-board reduction in the sentences recommended for all drug offenses.  

I expect there will be some press reports about the USSC vote on the drug guidelines later today.  In the meantime, this effective new PBS Frontline article headlined "Feds to Reconsider Harsh Prison Terms for Drug Offenders," provides some background and context:

The federal prison population has expanded by nearly 800 percent in the past 30 years, spurred in part by the increasing use of tougher sentences applied to nonviolent drug crimes. Now there’s a growing movement to scale it back. On Thursday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent federal agency, plans to vote on an amendment to sentencing guidelines that could ultimately begin to winnow the federal prison population, nearly half of whom are people convicted of drug offenses.

The amendment is part of a bipartisan push away from America’s addiction to incarceration, which prison reform experts say costs far too much, not only in dollars — $80 billion a year in 2010 — but also in the devastation primarily of African-American communities, who have been disproportionately caught up in the system.

The commission’s proposal would lower the sentencing guideline levels for drug-trafficking offenses, allowing judges to impose reduced sentences by about 11 months, on average, for these crimes. The guidelines are the range between which a judge can sentence an offender. Currently, those guidelines are set higher even than mandatory minimum sentences — the lowest possible sentence a judge could impose — to give prosecutors bargaining power. The amendment would set the upper and lower guideline limits around the mandatory minimums, leading to lower sentences for nearly 70 percent of drug-trafficking offenders, the commission said....

Prison reform advocates say the commission’s proposal is an incremental step, but an important one. “When you’re serving 10 years, six months can make a difference,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, an attorney with the ACLU’s Washington legislative office. “It’s incremental, but it’s all important because it sends the larger message that we have to do something about the harsh sentencing in the federal system.”

Should the Sentencing Commission’s amendment pass, it will be sent to Congress, which will have 180 days to make any changes. If it does nothing — which is the likely outcome given bipartisan Congressional support for the proposal — the resolution will take effect on Nov. 1.

For years, states, which carry the bulk of U.S. prisoners, have taken the lead on sentencing reform — largely out of necessity. Struggling with stretched budgets and overflowing prisons, 40 states have passed laws that ease sentencing guidelines for drug crimes from 2009 to 2013, according to a comprehensive analysis by the Pew Research Center. Seventeen states have invested in reforms like drug treatment and supervision that will save about $4.6 billion over 10 years, according to the Justice Department.

Such reforms also have gained popular public support. According to Pew’s own polling, 63 percent of Americans say that states moving away from mandatory minimum sentencing is a “good thing,” up from 41 percent in 2001. Even more — 67 percent — said that states should focus on treatment, rather than punishment, for people struggling with addiction to illegal drugs....

The Sentencing Commission itself notes that substantial reform requires action by Congress. “Our proposed approach is modest,” said Patti Saris, the commission’s chairwoman. “The real solution rests with Congress, and we continue to support efforts there to reduce mandatory minimum penalties, consistent with our recent report finding that mandatory minimum penalties are often too severe and sweep too broadly in the drug context, often capturing lower-level players.”...

The Senate is currently considering a bill called the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in July 2013 by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). It wouldn’t abolish mandatory minimums, but it would allow judges to impose more lenient sentences for certain non-violent drug offenses. “Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said when introducing the bill, adding that the act “takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing policies.”...

But the bill, which even the senators acknowledged as “studied and modest” on their website, doesn’t have great odds of passing. According to govtrack.us, a nonpartisan website that tracks congressional legislation, the Smarter Sentencing Act has only a 39 percent chance of being enacted.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  This press release reports that, as expected, the USSC voted today to reduce the federal guidelines for all drug offenses.  Here is an excerpts from the press release:

The Commission voted unanimously to amend the guidelines to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types. The drug guidelines under the amendment would remain linked to statutory mandatory minimum penalties. The Commission estimates that approximately 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants would qualify for the change, with their sentences decreasing an average of 11 months, or 17 percent, from 62 to 51 months on average.

The Commission this year has prioritized addressing federal prison costs and capacity with a continued commitment to public safety. The Commission estimates that the amendment reducing drug guidelines would reduce the federal prison population by more than 6,500 over five years, with a significantly greater long-term impact.

“This modest reduction in drug penalties is an important step toward reducing the problem of prison overcrowding at the federal level in a proportionate and fair manner,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991.”

In addition, the Chair of the USSC made a statement in conjunction with today's vote, which is now available here via the USSC's website.  The interesting three-page statement concludes with this interesting paragraph concerning possible retroactive application of the proposed new guidelines: 

Over the next few months, the Commission will be studying the issue of whether the drug amendment should apply retroactively, which we are statutorily required to do. This is a complex and difficult issue, and requires a different analysis than the decision we have made today about reducing drug sentences prospectively. The Commission will take into account, as it always does when considering retroactivity, the purposes of the amendment, the magnitude of the change, and the difficulty of applying the change retroactively, among other factors. I know the Commission will carefully consider this issue, and many stakeholders will have strong views. I do not know how it will come out, but we will carefully review data and the retroactivity impact analysis we have directed staff to conduct as well as public comment in order to ensure that we weigh all perspectives.

April 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack