Wednesday, June 04, 2014
Constitutional challenge to California's solitary confinement practices to proceed as class action
As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Judge grants class action status to inmates' solitary confinement case," a notable procedural ruling in a notable prisoner suit was handed down earlier this week. here are the basics:
A federal judge in Oakland has granted inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison class action status in their claims of unconstitutional treatment. The inmates allege physical and psychological abuse when California puts inmates in Pelican Bay's windowless isolation cells. The prisoners are confined 22 hours a day and, in some cases, have been in solitary for years and decades at a time....
The Pelican Bay inmates, in their federal lawsuit, also challenged the administrative process California uses to determine who to send to the super-maximum security cells for an indefinite stay....
In courtroom proceedings, lawyers for the state have argued that isolation is necessary to keep the peace within prisons, and to hinder gang activity inside and outside prison walls. They said that by creating a so-called "step-down" program last year that allows some prisoners to eventually earn their way out of isolation, the state had made sufficient improvements.
In her ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken narrowed the class action case to just those Pelican Bay inmates who have not been accepted into the state's step-down program. Civil rights lawyers litigating the case say they hope a victory will set a national precedent on the use of extended isolation in prisons across the United States....
The class action motion was filed by 10 Pelican Bay inmates in solitary confinement, but California has since moved five of them to other quarters. Wilken's order allows the remaining five prisoners to represent the larger class of some 500 Pelican Bay prisoners who have spent more than a decade in isolation, and some 1,100 put into solitary because of alleged gang associations....
Wilken refused to allow the state prison guard union to intervene in the lawsuit. The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. had argued that it had an interest in protecting the safety of its members by preventing prisoners from leaving solitary confinement.
Tuesday, June 03, 2014
Commentary on drug guideline retroactivity asks "Who's Afraid of Too Much Justice?"
This notable new commentary in The Huffington Post by Megan Quattlebaum makes the case for the US Sentencing Commission to make fully retroactive its new guidelines amendment reducing most federal drug sentencing recommendations. Here are excerpts:
In a landmark decision, the United States Sentencing Commission voted last month to lower the recommended penalty for federal drug crimes by about 17 percent. As of now, the change will apply only to defendants who are sentenced after November 1, 2014. But the Commission is also exploring whether the reduction should be made retroactive, and it issued two reports two reports two reports (available here and here) analyzing that question last week.
Four things struck me as I read the reports. First, the Commission estimates that, if the changes were made retroactive, 51,141 individuals who are currently in prison (an incredible 23 percent of the total population) would be eligible to seek a reduction in their sentences. That a large number of people will be affected is not surprising -- almost half of all federal prisoners (48 percent) are incarcerated for drug crimes. But what is surprising is that even if all 51,141 were to get reduced sentences, we would have barely begun to bring the federal prison population down to pre-drug war levels. We incarcerated approximately 25,000 people in federal prisons in 1980. By 2013, that number had risen to over 219,000. As a result, the federal prison system is operating at 36 percent over capacity, costing taxpayers $6.4 billion per year and climbing....
Second, a significant percentage (about 25 percent) of the 51,141 potentially eligible for earlier release are non-citizens who may be subject to deportation. Many rightly question the wisdom of incarcerating large numbers of ultimately deportable non-citizens at taxpayer expense....
Third, the average age of an inmate who will be eligible for a sentence reduction is 38 years. In the universe of criminal justice, 38 is old. Researchers have consistently found that involvement in street crimes, like drug offenses, generally begins in the early teenage years, peaks in young adulthood, and dissipates before the individual turns 30. Explanations for this phenomenon are varied, but "[a] large body of research shows that desistance from crime... is... tied to the acquisition of meaningful bonds to conventional adult individuals and institutions, such as work, marriage and family..." These older offenders should have a low risk of recidivism generally. And the more that we can do to foster their re-engagement with their families and communities, the lower that risk will be.
Fourth, 20 percent of the individuals who may be eligible for earlier release come from one state: Texas. True, Texas is big and populous, but it's also punitive. The more heavily populated state of California only accounts for five percent of potential sentence reductions, while New York accounts for about four percent. Reading the charts that accompany the Sentencing Commission report is a statistical window into the American drug war, in which hang 'em high southern states feature prominently, if not proudly.
The Sentencing Commission is accepting public comments until July 7, 2014 on whether to make these changes to drug sentences retroactive. Some will no doubt argue against retroactivity, either out of fear that releasing individuals earlier will permit them re-offend sooner or out of concern for the serious workload that federal courts will have to take onin order to process so many applications for sentence reduction. But if we have revised our view of what constitutes a just sentence for a drug offense, then we cannot and should not justify continuing to incarcerate 51,141 people under an old, rejected understanding. We should never be afraid of too much justice.
I am grateful to see this thoughtful effort to dig into the US Sentencing Commission data concerning who could benefit from the new drug guidelines being made retroactive. And I think this commentary rightly highlights that the nationality status and the age profile of federal drug prisoners provide some important extra reasons for being comfortable with the new guidelines being made retroactive.
That said, the commentary about Texas justice and the state-by-state analysis strikes me a potentially a bit misguided. I suspect and fear that federal prosecution of drug crimes in Texas is higher than in other states not only because of the likely international dimensions to many drug crimes around the Mexican border but also because state drug laws in other states may be uniquely harsh. This commentary compares data from California and New York, but these two states have had a history of some notorious tough state sentencing laws (i.e., the Three Strikes Law in California, the Rockefeller Laws in NY). There may be so many federal drug prisoners from Texas not because state sentencing policies and practices are so tough, but because federal policies and practices relative to state norms are so much tougher and because local drug crimes are not really local along the border.
My point here is to highlight that state-by-state examination of federal drug sentencing patterns may reflect lots of distinct and dynamic factors. Notably, the Commission data indicate that about the same number of federal drug prisoners from Iowa will be impacted by retroactivity of the new drug guidelines as from Arkansas and Mississippi combined. These data alone hardly reveal the corn belt is the real "hang-em-high" center for the national drug war. Ultimaely, ever-changing local, state and national drug use and trafficking patterns along with dynamic prosecutorial policies and priorities likely better explain state-by-state federal prisoner data than any social or political conventional wisdom.
Some various somewhat recent related posts:
- US Sentencing Commission suggests lowering drug guideline sentences across the board!
- Attorney General to testify about drug guideline reform before US Sentencing Commission
- US Sentencing Commission to vote on reducing drug sentencing guidelines
- US Sentencing Commission releases two significant research reports concerning drug sentencing reform and retroactivity
- New York Times op-ed spotlights enduring flaw with modern drug sentencing
- Gov Chris Christie talking up drug sentencing reform as a pro-life commitment
Friday, May 30, 2014
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of mass incarceration analysis: John Pfaff tears apart NRC report
Astute readers who also follow closely a lot of broader media and political discussions of mass incarceration might have noticed that I have given relatively little attention on this blog to the massive report released late last month by the National Research Council (NRC) titled "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences." To date, I only noted the report and some early reactions to it in this post.
One reason for my limited blog coverage is a result of the NRC report running more than 450 pages (accessible at this link); I am always disinclined to do in-depth analysis or commentary on a significant report unless and until I have had adequate time to read most of it. But the primary reasons I have not blogged much about the NRC report is because, as I found time to start reading key parts of the NRC effort, I found myself underwhelmed by the originality and sophistication of the report. I had hoped, for example, that the NRC report would take a close look at the relationship between lead exposure and crime rates and/or would systematically look at critical state and regional differences in US crime and imprisonment rates. Instead, rather than break any new ground, much of the NRC report reads like an effective and lengthy summary of a lot of conventional wisdom.
Fortunately, a leading legal academic and empiricist with a critical eye has started to bring a (very) critical perspective to the NRC report. Through a series of astute posts at PrawfBlawg (all so far linked below), Professor John Pfaff has started to pick apart a number of notable flaws and omissions in the NRC analysis. John's first post, titled "The Problematic National Research Council's Report on Incarceration: Some Initial Thoughts," previews his series this way:
The National Research Council, the well-respected research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recently released a putatively authoritative report on the causes and implications of US incarceration growth. Sadly, it appears to be a deeply, profoundly flawed report. It is, in short, a rehashing of the Standard Story that I have argued time and again lacks real empirical support.
Dangerously, this report gives the Standard Story the NRC’s seal of approval, which will only increase its hold on policy-makers’ perceptions. The New York Times has already written an editorial pushing the NRC’s Standard-Story arguments, and no doubt it will be cited widely in the months to come.
So in the posts ahead, I want to dig into the report more deeply. I will certainly acknowledge what it gets right, but my sense so far is that it is one rife with errors.
From the start, here are John's posts to date highlighting some of the NRC errors he sees:
- The Flawed NRC Report: No Mention of Realignment!
US House hearing on "Penalties" as part of Over-Criminalizaiton Task Force
Taking place as I write this post is a notable hearing (which I am watching live via this link) of the Over-Criminalizaiton Task Force of the Judiciary Committee on the topic of "Penalties." Here is the witness list, with links to their written statements:
- Mr. Eric Evenson, National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, Evenson Testimony.pdf
A quick scan of the submitted testimony linked above reveals that regular readers of this blog will not find all that much which is new from the witness. But the submitted statements still provide a very effective review of all the essential elements of the modern debate over federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.
UPDATE: TheHouse hearing adjourned just before 11am, after most of the usual suspects had the opportunity to stake out their usual positions. I doubt this hearing moved the needle in any significant way, though I still found notable and telling that the US House Representatives arguing against the modern drug war and sentencing status quo generally seemed much more passionate and animated than those eager to support the status quo.
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Detailing the high costs of an aging prison population
This lengthy story in the Omaha World-Herald, headlined "Prisons: pricey nursing homes for Nebraska's aging inmates," highlights the expensive realities of an aging prison population. Here are excerpts:
At age 84, Larry Ortiz is like many senior citizens, dealing with the aches and pains of old age. He uses a cane to steady his slow, shuffling gait. He battles arthritis in his bony fingers, bronchitis and dry eyes. He takes four medications and has trouble remembering names. He has had prostate surgery, been fitted for dentures and had cataracts removed. He has two artificial knees.
But Ortiz is different. He’s spending his twilight years behind bars, serving a life sentence for beating a 29-year-old woman to death in 1970, then cutting off her hands to mask her identity before dumping her body. And the cost of his old-age maladies is being picked up by taxpayers.
Ortiz is part of an ever-rising number of aging inmates who occupy prison cells in Nebraska and other states — nationwide, they are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. In Nebraska, the graying of prisons has contributed to chronic overcrowding and has been a major factor in rapidly rising health-care costs.
Dealing with older inmates is not cheap. Nationally, they are twice as expensive to house on average as younger prisoners because of their increased medical needs — such as Ortiz’s titanium knees, which together cost upward of $90,000.
Prisons have become de facto nursing homes for more and more inmates. Unit 1 at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, where Ortiz lives, houses many senior citizen inmates. It’s designed to accommodate wheelchairs and has wider doors and handrails. The state corrections system also has 31 skilled nursing beds, like those found in a nursing home. The state is looking at building a 240-bed prison to consolidate housing for inmates who are older, as well as those with mental illnesses.
Prison administrators say that by law they must provide the “community standard of medical care” or risk federal intervention. In California, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court cited substandard medical care and overcrowding in ordering the release of thousands of inmates. “It may frustrate taxpayers,” Nebraska prison Director Mike Kenney said of the medical care, “but constitutionally, ethically and morally, we cannot cut corners with inmates.”
The ACLU and other groups recommend increased use of “medical” or “geriatric” parole for medically incapacitated inmates and “conditional releases” for inmates over age 50, if they have served a certain number of years and no longer are threats to society. “Geriatric” or “medical” parole can save states money, said Marc Levin, a corrections authority with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has studied Nebraska’s prison system. At least 36 states, including South Dakota, have such laws, Levin said. California granted medical parole to 47 inmates from 2010 to October 2012 and reduced its health care expenses more than $20 million.....
The increase in older inmates was a key driver in a request to the Nebraska Legislature
last fall for $9 million to cover additional medical expenses this year and next....Generally, criminal offenders show signs of aging earlier than the typical person, in part because of their riskier lifestyles, which can lead to higher rates of hypertension, arthritis, sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis and diabetes. About 1 in 3 inmates in Nebraska’s state prisons — about 1,600 — receives “chronic care,” which involves regular medication and follow-up checks for conditions such as hypertension and asthma.
A report by the ACLU projects that by 2030, 1 in 3 prisoners in the nation will be 55 or older. As of October of last year, nearly 18 percent of the inmates in Nebraska prisons were 50 or older. In Iowa, about 12 percent of the state’s 8,215 prison inmates are over 50. Nationally, get-tough-on-crime policies and the general aging of the U.S. population have been blamed for the explosion of silver hairs behind bars.
In Nebraska, there is an additional factor: Fewer inmates serving life sentences are being given a chance at release. Three decades ago the State Board of Pardons was more likely to commute a life sentence for murder to a specific number of years once an inmate had served 20 or 30 years. That provided a chance to gain a release on parole. But such commutations have occurred only four times in the past 23 years, so more lifers are spending the rest of their days in prison, racking up medical and prescription expenses.
The National Institute of Corrections estimates that it costs $60,000 to $70,000 a year to house an elderly inmate, compared with $27,000 to $34,000 for the average prisoner....
During the 2012-13 fiscal year, 16 inmates died in state prisons; 12 were over age 50. Releasing elderly, infirm inmates would present some problems. Win Barber, a penitentiary spokesman, said many would have to go to nursing homes — which may not want to house someone like a convicted murderer.
Gov. Dave Heineman, who sits on the State Pardons Board, said he would be cautious about releasing elderly inmates, though it’s probably something worth studying as part of the overall study of the state prison system’s spending and policies. “They’re in prison for a reason,” he said.
Friday, May 23, 2014
"Treating Prisoners With Dignity Can Reduce Crime"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new National Journal commentary authored by Nicholas Turner and John Wetzel. The piece's subheadline is "In Europe, prisoners work for real wages and even cook for themselves. And when they leave prison, they don't come back." And here are excerpts:
It sounds like the first line of a joke: "Three state corrections teams and some experts who are old hands at visiting prisons go to meet their warden counterparts in Germany and the Netherlands in mid-January to see what they could learn."
But it's a true story — and what high-level delegations from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania learned through the Vera Institute of Justice's European-American Prison Project is no laughing matter. What we learned, in fact, has serious and timely boots-on-the-ground implications....
For those of us who visited Germany and The Netherlands, the approach to sentencing and the prison philosophy we saw astonished and inspired us. Not only are far fewer people imprisoned, but even those who have committed serious violent crimes serve far shorter sentences.
In these European countries, prisons are organized around the belief that, since virtually all prisoners will return to their communities, it is better to approach their incarceration with conditions as close to "normal" as possible — with the addition of treatment, behavioral interventions, skills training, and needed education — and to remove them from communities for the shortest possible time so that institutional life does not become their norm.
Inmates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on concrete or steel slabs with thin padding. Inmates have privacy — correctional officers knock before entering — they wear their own clothes, and can decorate their space as they wish. They cook their own meals, are paid for work that they do, and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills, and gain education. Inmates are required to save money to ensure that they are not penniless upon release. There are different expectations for their corrections officers — who are drawn primarily from the ranks of lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals — to be part of a "therapeutic culture" between staff and offenders, and consequently receive more training and higher pay. There is little to no violence — including in communal kitchens where there are knives and other "dangerous" implements. And their maximum time in any kind of punitive solitary is eight hours.
Prison policies grounded in the belief that prisoners should be treated with dignity were startlingly effective — and have eminently pragmatic implications here at home. The adverse social and economic outcomes for former prisoners in the U.S. are severe — and they are concentrated in communities that are already struggling mightily. With 95 percent of our nation's incarcerated individuals eventually returning home from prison — and 40 percent going right back to prison within three years — we would do well to heed the strategies used in these nations to teach prisoners how to be good and productive citizens that can rebuild their communities....
Are there challenges to wholesale reform? Of course. Money. Infrastructure. Strains of racial division borne of our history and heterogeneity. And, cultural differences especially as relates to violence may mean that some European practices may not translate smoothly to the U.S. Yet we are at a moment of potential for significant shifts. It will require legislation and policy change, including rethinking sentencing for lower offenses and reducing the time for those who must be in prison. But the notion that we should strive to create an environment within our prisons conducive to our goal — to return good citizens to our communities — is a challenge we can and must meet.
Thursday, May 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich and Van Jones say "Prison system is failing America"
Not only has CNN brought together a 2012 Republican presidential candidate and a former advisory to President Barack Obama as co-hosts of "Crossfire," but it now has published this interesting joint commentary under the headline "Prison system is failing America." Here are excerpts from an interesting opinion piece that goes a bit beyond just the usual standard points about the various problems with modern mass incarceration:
Thirty-eight U.S. states are home to fewer people than live under the corrections system in this country. There are about as many people behind bars as live in Chicago. That's one in every 108 Americans. One in 35 are under some form of correctional supervision.
Among African Americans, the numbers are even more horrifying. According to the NAACP, one in three black males born in the United States today is likely to spend time in prison at some point in his life. That's compared with one in six Hispanic males or one in 25 white males.
It would be hard to overstate the scale of this tragedy. For a nation that loves freedom and cherishes our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the situation should be intolerable. It is destroying lives and communities.
Our corrections system is not correcting. Within three years of being released from prison, nearly half of prisoners are convicted of another crime with one out of every four ending up back in prison.
When a typical bureaucracy does its job this badly, it wastes money, time and paper. The corrections bureaucracy, in failing to correct the large majority of inmates in its charge, not only wastes money but also wastes lives, families and entire cities.
The current system is broken beyond repair. It's a human, social and financial disaster. We need a radical strategy of replacement of these huge bureaucracies that lack any meaningful oversight.... We need to rethink prisons, parole and probation for the 21st century.
At a time when high-quality education is increasingly digital and in many cases free, shouldn't we provide opportunities for prisoners to learn skills that will enable them to support themselves as upstanding citizens when they are released?
We know that inmates who earn a GED while incarcerated are substantially less likely to return to prison. There are readily available online tools that our prisons could use extensively for a minimal cost to increase the number of inmates receiving valuable education and skills training.
Khan Academy has replicated virtually the entire K-12 curriculum online for free. Udacity and other online education sites offer introductions to software programming for free. Our prisons should be using tools such as these extensively. They offer the opportunity to interrupt the cycle of poverty, a failing education system, crime and incarceration....
Technology should revolutionize more than just the prisons' rehabilitation programs. It should completely transform the corrections and criminal justice systems.... [T]echnology should enable much more effective probation and community supervision, especially new options that could allow nonviolent offenders to remain with their families living productive lives under an appropriate level of restriction.
Almost any activity to which we might sentence low-level offenders --apprenticeship programs, school, literacy or computer science boot camps, community service -- would be a better use of taxpayer dollars than sticking them idle in prison with hardened criminals. Unfortunately, the current corrections bureaucracy has embraced none of this innovation -- in part because it is captive to the prison guards' unions or the private prison lobby, and in part because it lacks any incentives or sufficient competition based on the right metrics....
Years ago, Van proposed that states give wardens a financial incentive to cut the rates of recidivism for inmates leaving their prisons. More than 65% of inmates in California return to prison within three years of their release, where they will again cost taxpayers an average of $47,000 each year.
Surely it is worth giving wardens a substantial portion of the savings for every inmate that leaves their prison and does not re-offend. Such incentives would spark dramatically more innovation and investment in rehabilitation, job training and job placement programs for prisoners. That would be a revolutionary change from prison administrators' current incentives, which are often to keep as many people in custody as possible.
Finally, we need real market competition that rewards success at every step of the process -- in probation and parole offices as well as prisons. That doesn't just mean privatizing prisons or rewarding probation services with the same failed metrics. We need competition of methods and ideas based on the right criteria: When we send prisoners home, do they have the skills to reintegrate in their communities as working, law-abiding citizens? Or do they end up coming back?...
We should start by opening our prisons and probation offices to innovation to save money, achieve better outcomes for individuals and ensure better safety for us all.
May 22, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack
"Remodeling American Sentencing: A Blueprint for Moving Past Mass Incarceration"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece by Michael Tonry now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
When and if the will to roll back mass incarceration and create just, fair, and effective sentencing systems becomes manifest, the way forward is clear:
-First, three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentence, and comparable laws should be repealed.
-Second, any three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentence, or similar laws that are not repealed should be radically narrowed in scope and severity.
-Third, any three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentence, and similar laws that are not repealed should be changed to include provisions authorizing judges to impose some other sentence “in the interest of justice.”
-Fourth, LWOP laws should be repealed, or radically narrowed.
-Fifth, truth-in-sentencing laws should be repealed.
-Sixth, criminal codes should be amended to set substantially lower maximum sentences scaled to the seriousness of crimes.
-Seventh, every state should establish a sentencing commission and promulgate a presumptive sentencing guidelines system.
-Eighth, any state that does not establish an effective set of presumptive sentencing guidelines should establish a system of parole guidelines.
-Ninth, every state and the federal government should reduce its combined rate of jail and prison confinement to half its 2014 level by 2020.
-Tenth, every state should enact legislation making all prisoners serving fixed terms longer than five years, or indeterminate terms, eligible for consideration for release at the expiration of five years, and all prisoners aged 35 or over eligible for consideration for release after serving three years.
These proposals are evidence-based, and mostly technocratic. Those calling for prison population targets and reducing the lengths of sentences being served may appear bold to some. Relative to the problems they address they are modest and partial. Reducing rates of imprisonment by half in the United States, a country with comparatively low crime rates, to a level that will remain 3 to 3.5 times those of other developed Western countries, can hardly be seen as overly ambitious.
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Fascinating exploration of modern data on modern mass incarceration
If you like data and like thinking hard about what to think about data about modern mass incarceration (and who doesn't), then you will be sure to like this interesting new posting authored by Andrew Cohen and Oliver Roeder at the Brennan Center for Justice headlined "Way Too Early to Declare Victory in War against Mass Incarceration." Here are excerpts (with some links retained) from an interesting and important bit of number crunching:
At The Week Monday, Ryan Cooper summarized some dramatic statistical work about mass incarceration undertaken by Keith Humphreys, the Stanford University professor and former Obama administration senior advisor for drug policy. The headline of the piece, “The plummeting U.S. prison admission rate, in one stunning chart,” was accompanied by Cooper’s pronouncement that “whatever the reason” for the drop it “is certainly great news.” Some of the same optimism was expressed over the weekend, in The New York Times Book Review section, by David Cole, the esteemed Georgetown law professor who has written so eloquently recently about many of the greatest injustices in American law. Reviewing Columbia University professor Robert Ferguson’s excellent book, “Inferno,” Cole proclaimed that “we may be on our way out of the inferno” and that “it is just possible that we have reached a tipping point” in the fight against mass incarceration.
Would that it were so. It is far too early, as a matter of law, of policy, and of fact, to be talking about a “plummeting” prison rate in the United States or to be declaring that the end is in sight in the war to change the nation’s disastrous incarceration policies. There is still far too much to do, far too many onerous laws and policies to change, too many hearts and minds to reform, too many families that would have to be reunited, before anyone could say that any sort of “tipping point” has been spotted, let alone reached. So, to respond to Humphreys’ work, we asked Oliver Roeder, a resident economist at the Brennan Center for Justice, to crunch the numbers with a little bit more context and perspective. What follows below ought to shatter the myth that America has turned a corner on mass incarceration. The truth is that many states continue to experience more incarceration than before, the drop in national incarceration rates is far more modest than Humphreys suggests, and the trend toward reform could easily stop or turn back around on itself....
[T]he incarceration rate is decreasing, but no, not by much. It’s down 5.5 percent since its 2007 peak. Since 2001, it’s up 1.6 percent. An unscientific word for this trend would be “flat.”
As for individual states’ incarceration rates, experiences over the past decade have varied greatly.... California, New Jersey, and New York have dipped over 20 percent from their 2001 levels, while West Virginia, Minnesota, and Kentucky have seen over 30 percent increases.
Incarceration is a state-specific issue in other senses as well. Clearly the trends can vary dramatically, but so can the rates themselves. In 2012, Louisiana’s incarceration rate was 873, while Maine’s was 159....
So what’s the story? Well one thing it isn’t is crime. There is a body of evidence that indicates that crime doesn’t really affect incarceration. Incarceration, rather, is a policy choice, largely independent of the actual level of crime in the world. (The incarceration rate is not a result of one single policy choice, of course, but rather is a function of many policy choices which compose essentially our willingness or propensity to incarcerate.) Admissions and thus incarceration were increasing because of increased willingness to incarcerate, or reliance on incarceration. I don’t have a good sense as to why admissions and incarceration have been dipping lately, but it does seem to be driven by a minority of (typically large) states.
Two new juve justice papers from The Sentencing Project
- Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview -- Recent Supreme Court rulings have banned the use of mandatory life without parole for juveniles, as well as in non-homicide cases. Still, the United States stands alone as the only nation that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 18. This briefing paper documents the key legal cases in this area, as well as the impact on fiscal costs, racial disparities, and prospects for reform.
- Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Juvenile Justice System -- Despite declining numbers of juveniles held in confinement nationally, racial disparities in the juvenile justice system remain a persistent problem. This briefing paper provides an overview of disparity trends in recent decades, and an assessment of how policy and practice decisions contribute to racial disparities.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Texas teen facing 5-to-life for selling pot brownies(!) highlights prosecutorial sentencing powers
A drug war and severe sentencing story making the media rounds today emerged via this recent local report headlined "Texas man facing possible life sentence for pot brownies." Here are the basics (which have already been sensationalized a bit in some media accounts I have seen):
A Texas man accused of making and selling marijuana brownies is facing up to life in prison if convicted. That’s because officials in Round Rock have charged him with a first-degree felony.
It’s a move that the man’s family and attorney outraged. “It’s outrageous. It’s crazy. I don’t understand it,” Joe Lavoro, the man’s father said. Like many familiar with the case, Joe does not understand why his son is in so much legal trouble....
The 19-year-old is accused of making and selling pot brownies. He’s charged with a first degree felony. “Five years to life? I’m sorry. I’m a law abiding citizen. I’m a conservative. I love my country. I’m a Vietnam veteran, but I’ll be ****ed. This is wrong. This is ***n wrong!” the father said.
Lavoro’s lawyer agrees. “I was outraged. I’ve been doing this 22 years as a lawyer and I’ve got 10 years as a police officer and I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Jack Holmes, Lavoro’s attorney said.
The former high school football player has a clean record. The charge is so severe because the recipe includes hash oil. That allows the state to use the sugar, cocoa, butter and other ingredients to determine the weight of the drugs. “They’ve weighed baked goods in this case. It ought to be a misdemeanor,” Holmes said.
KEYE reached out to the district attorney to ask how they’re going to prosecute the case. Our call has not yet been returned....
Jacob’s father wants what’s right. “If he did something wrong, he should be punished but to the extent that makes sense. This is illogical. I’m really upset, and I’m frightened, I’m frightened for my son,” Joe said.
Jacob Lavoro's father is right to be frightened, in large part because it would seem that his son's fate is now almost entirely in the hands of local prosecutors. Though I do not know all the ins and outs of Texas drug laws, I assume that the local prosecutors can (and probably will) ultimately allow Lavoro to plead to some less charge rather than go to trial on a first-degree felony charge carrying a 5 to life sentence. But the fact that such a severe charge with a big-time sentence is even on the table all but ensures that the local prosecutor can extract a plea on whatever terms strikes his fancy.
May 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack
"Save money, reduce crime: Alternative sentencing works, so Ohio needs to do more of it"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable lead editorial appearing in today's Columbus Dispatch. The Dispatch has a reputation as a pretty conservative paper (e.g., it has endorsed only GOP Prez candidates for nearly a century), so I see this editorial as further significant proof that more and more traditional conservative voices are seeing the value of (and now actively making the case for) sentencing and prison reforms. Here are excerpts from this editorial:
Ohio has made progress in easing prison crowding by offering alternatives for nonviolent offenders. But a look at the numbers shows that more can be done. The good news is, Ohio already knows what works: putting nonviolent felons in programs that make them better prepared to lead crime-free lives rather than in expensive prisons with hardened criminals. The challenge is to find the resources for the up-front investment.
Alternative-sentencing programs, such as the 18 community-based correction facilities and other programs based on drug-and-alcohol treatment and life-skills training, have a record of reducing recidivism. But the state hasn’t invested in them equally across the state, according to Ohio Division of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Gary C. Mohr....
A proposal contained in one of the mid-biennium budget-review bills would provide about $13 million to add 400 to 500 community-facility beds across the state. Because stays in such programs typically are three months, each of those beds could allow three people per year to get help and treatment rather than a prison stay. That saves taxpayers money and increases the chance that the offender will go on to a productive life — a double win.
As Ohio’s prisons grow more crowded and potentially more dangerous, the need for more alternatives becomes clearer. One in every 175 Ohio adults is in a state prison, and with nearly 51,000 inmates, the system has 30 percent more than it was designed for. Considering that each of those inmates costs taxpayers nearly $23,000 a year and that a large number are low-level, nonviolent offenders, it’s an expensive way to deal with societal problems.
A change to state sentencing law in 2011 aimed to ease the burden by steering more nonviolent offenders to community-based correction programs. The largest counties responded, and two years ago the prison population seemed to be on the decline. But Ohio’s wave of heroin and other opiate addictions, combined with too few alternative-treatment options, have swelled the prison population again.... But Mohr now finds himself with a new peak population and no reduction in sight unless the state invests more in alternatives.
Legislators should take note of the successful track record of alternative correction and steer available funds in that direction. Ohio won’t benefit from more prisons; putting low-level criminals in prison is a lousy business model with a poor return on investment. Spending less to provide the type of supportive correction that can turn around lives is a much smarter proposition. And it saves prison beds for those who pose the greatest threat to society.
Recent related post:
Friday, May 16, 2014
Record-long sentence?: 81-year-old child molester gets 935- to 1,870-year prison sentence
As reported in this local article, in order to "serve as a warning to other child predators," Pennsylvania Judge Albert Cepparulo "has imposed a 935- to 1,870-year prison sentence to an 81-year-old man who sexually abused a girl for four years and videotaped nearly every assault." Here is what led the judge to require an elderly offender to remain imprisoned until at least the year 2949:
Thomas Holliday was convicted in January of 234 crimes, including hundreds of counts related to creating and possessing child pornography. Prosecutors said Holliday began abusing the girl in 2009, when she was 14.
Holliday was a family friend who offered to help the girl's mother financially and the girl was sent to live with him. He denied the charges, telling the judge that he and the teen were in love.
Thursday, May 15, 2014
AG Holder assails solitary for juves with mental illness
As highlighted by this DOJ press release, "Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday called for an end to the excessive use of solitary confinement for youth that suffer from mental illness." Here is more about AG Holder's latest use of his criminal justice bully pulpit:
“Across the country, far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth, in particular youth with disabilities. But solitary confinement can be dangerous, and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.
“In a study released last year by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth in some type of isolation for more than four hours at a time. We have received reports of young people who have been held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, often with no human interaction at all. In some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows that were barely the width of their own hands.
“This is, to say the least, excessive. And these episodes are all too common.
“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities – who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects including self-harm and even suicide. In fact, one national study found that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent of victims had a history of solitary confinement....
“We must ensure in all circumstances – and particularly when it comes to our young people – that incarceration is used to rehabilitate, and not merely to warehouse and forget. Our nationwide effort to end the unnecessary or excessive seclusion of youth with disabilities will not be completed solely with one settlement or court filing. But as a department, we are dedicated – and as Attorney General, I am committed – to doing everything possible to ensure the effectiveness and integrity of our criminal and juvenile justice system. In the days ahead, we will continue to make good on our commitment to the best practices of law enforcement and the highest ideals of our nation.”
Monday, May 12, 2014
Significant collection of significant former federal prosecutors write to Senators to oppose SSA
Thanks to this new post by Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences, titled "Former Top DOJ Leaders Oppose the SSA," I have learned that a significant number of significant former federal prosecutors — including former US Attorneys General William Barr and Michael Mukasey — have signed on to a public letter to Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to express publicly their opposition to any reform of federal drug mandatory minimums. The full text of the letter is available at C&C, and here are excerpts:
Because the Senate is now considering revisiting the subject of mandatory minimum penalties for federal drug trafficking offenses, we take this opportunity to express our personal concerns over pending legislative proposals. We are concerned specifically by proposals that would slash current mandatory minimum penalties over federal drug trafficking offenses — by as much as fifty percent. We are deeply concerned about the impact of sentencing reductions ofthis magnitude on public safety. We believe the American people will be ill-served by the significant reduction of sentences for federal drug trafficking crimes that involve the sale and distribution of dangerous drugs like heroin, methamphetamines and PCP. We are aware of little public support for lowering the minimum required sentences for these extremely dangerous and sometimes lethal drugs. In addition, we fear that lowering the minimums will make it harder for prosecutors to build cases against the leaders of narcotics organizations and gangs — leaders who often direct violent and socially destructive organizations that harm people throughout the United States.
Many of us once served on the front lines of justice. We have witnessed the focus of federal law enforcement upon drug trafficking — not drug possession offenses — and the value of mandatory minimum sentences aimed at drug trafficking offenses.
Existing law already provides escape hatches for deserving defendants facing a mandatory minimum sentence. Often, they can plea bargain their way to a lesser charge; such bargaining is overwhelmingly the way federal cases are resolved. Even if convicted under a mandatory minimum charge, however, the judge on his own can sidestep the sentence if the defendant has a minor criminal history, has not engaged in violence, was not a big-time player,and cooperates with federal authorities. This "safety valve," as it's known, has been in the law for almost 20 years. Prosecutors correctly regard this as an essential tool in encouraging cooperation and, thus, breaking down drug conspiracies, large criminal organizations and violent gangs.
We believe our current sentencing regimen strikes the right balance between Congressional direction in the establishment of sentencing levels, due regard for appropriate judicial direction, and the preservation of public safety. We have made great gains in reducing crime. Our current sentencing framework has kept us safe and should be preserved.
In addition to thinking this letter is a pretty big deal, I am now wondering if it represents the final nail in the Smarter Sentencing Act's coffin or instead reveals that the SSA might still have some legs. Based on the lack of action on the SSA over the last few months, I have been assuming this effort at federal sentencing reform was dying a slow death, and this letter from a lot of prominent former prosecutors provides yet another reason and basis for member of Congress to express additional concerns about the sentencing reforms in the SSA. And yet, if the SSA was already in its death throes, I doubt there would have been so much obvious energy devoted to getting all these prominent former prosecutors speaking out against the reforms in the SSA.
All that said, I continue to find the discussion and debate over the SSA an intriguing (and valuable?) distraction from all the other arguably much-more-consequential federal sentencing developments that are afoot. The fact that prominent Tea-party leaders in the GOP like Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz all support significant federal sentencing reform, the fact that state marijuana reforms seem to be continuing apace, the fact that the US Sentencing Commission has voted to lower most of the drug guidelines, the fact that most federal sentences are now outside the guidelines, and the fact that DOJ and Prez Obama are working hard on clemency reform all will be likely impacting federal sentencing realities more than whether or not the SSA is passed by Congress. (This is not to say that the SSA is not important or potentially consequential, but it is to say that a whole host of much broader forces are changing the dynamics of modern federal sentencing policies and practices.)
Some prior posts about the SSA federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:
- Forecasting the uncertain present and future of federal legislative sentencing reform
- House Judiciary Chair suggests Smarter Sentencing Act still facing uphill battle on the Hill
- "Some prosecutors fighting effort to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences"
- "Law Enforcement Lobby Quietly Tries To Kill Sentencing Reform"
- Effective Heritage analysis of federal MMs and statutory reform proposals
- Are we "headed for a crime-riddled future" without mandatory minimums?
- "Prosecutors Wrong to Oppose Sentencing Reform"
- "With Holder In The Lead, Sentencing Reform Gains Momentum"
- "Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"
- Smarter Sentencing Act passes Senate Judiciary Committee by 13-5 vote
- Are "hundreds of career prosecutors" (or mainly just Bill Otis) now in "open revolt" over AG Holder's support for the Smarter Sentencing Act?
- Very eager to provide very thorough and fair coverage of prosecutors' views on Smarter Sentencing Act
- "Why innocent people plead guilty": Judge Jed Rakoff suggests "tens of thousands of innocent people" have been "coerced into pleading guilty"
May 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack
Documenting the enduring challenge of reducing prison populations in Ohio
One of many challenges facing this nation as it works toward trying to ameliorate the worst excesses of mass incarceration is the modern and now-all-too-common social and cultural instinct that significant prison terms must be the "right" way to respond to any and all crimes of concern. One expression and example of this perspective concerns this recent story of the feds appealing, and calling "substantively unreasonable," a probation sentence for a high-profile tax evader who has already paid in penalties more than 10 times the amount of taxes he tried to evade.
Another expression of this reality is in this lengthy story from my own Columbus Dispatch headlined "Ohio struggles with rising prison population: One in 175 adults in the state is incarcerated, at taxpayer cost of $22,836 each annually." Here are excerpts:
When Gary Mohr began his career at the Marion Correctional Institution in 1974, there were 8,516 inmates in state prisons. Forty years later, he manages a system nearly six times as large, packed with 50,639 offenders. One of every 175 adult Ohioans is housed, fed and receives medical care at taxpayer expense in a state prison. The latest two-year budget allocated $3.14 billion for the prison system.
Ohio officials have been unable to consistently tamp down the prison population despite attempts to do so. Major sentencing reforms were enacted, “good time” was reintroduced, community programs were enhanced, and early-release provisions were added.
And still the numbers go up. The latest projections suggest the inmate population in 27 prisons (including two private facilities) will hit 52,000 in two years, and 53,484 in five. Prisons already are bulging with 30 percent more prisoners than they were designed to hold.
“I’m getting a lot of people saying, ‘When are you going to build another prison?’ ” Mohr said in an interview. “I’m a believer in people instead of bricks and mortar. I’m not going to build another prison.” The major reason is the enormous cost, Mohr said. “That’s a commitment of $1 billion for two decades. It would cost $120 million to $150 million to build and $40 million annually to operate.”...
The series of reforms that began with House Bill 86 in 2011 got traction in Ohio’s six largest counties, including Franklin, which reduced the number of offenders being sent to state prisons in the past year. That helped reduce the prison population by about 675. However, the number of inmates being sent to prison from the remaining 82 counties increased, helping push up the population by 11.1 percent from 2003 to 2013. Here’s the math behind the numbers: Each prisoner costs Ohio taxpayers $22,836 per year, so adding 100 prisoners, for example, costs nearly $2.3 million.
A report by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative corrections watchdog, last August listed five contributing reasons why the prison population has gone up: a very small increase in violent crime, longer sentences for higher-level felonies, dramatically fewer prison releases (a 24.3 percent drop in five years), legislation increasing penalties for specific crimes, and adverse court decisions. Another factor may trump all the others: a flood of heroin cases. Men coming into prison still outnumber women more than 4 to 1, but that gap is shrinking as more women are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes.
State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who has been instrumental in recent prison-reform legislation, says the changes included in House Bill 86 are indeed working, “just not as fast as we had hoped. They’ve certainly ameliorated the situation as opposed to doing nothing. “We didn’t expect a dramatic overnight reduction,” Seitz said. “It takes awhile for the full import of these comprehensive reforms to float down the system.”
Seitz said many judges opposed the reforms because they limited judicial discretion in sentencing. As a result, “some judges are finding creative ways of sidestepping the provision that requires them not to send to prison first-time Felony 4 and Felony 5 non-violent drug and property offenders.”...
The prison-crowding issue is an everyday dilemma for corrections officers represented by the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. “We were told sentencing reform would flatten out staffing levels, but we keep keeping more people (hired) on the administrative staff and those who work 9 to 5,” said the union’s president, Christopher Mabe. “We know there’s going to be more inmates coming into the system, and that means we need more staff.”
Thursday, May 08, 2014
Recognizing that mass incarceration has lately been a little less massive
The always astute commentator Charles Lane has this new astute commentary in the Washington Post under the headline "Reaching a verdict on the era of mass incarceration." Here are excerpts:
Though the U.S. prison population of 1.5 million in 2012 was far larger than that of any other country, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of population, the era of ever-increasing “mass incarceration” is ending.
The number of state and federal inmates peaked in 2009 and has shrunk consistently thereafter, according to the Justice Department. New prison admissions have fallen annually since 2005. The inmate population is still disproportionately African American — 38 percent vs. 13 percent for the general population — but the incarceration rate for black men fell 9.8 percent between 2000 and 2009, according to the Sentencing Project.
This is not, however, the impression one would get from a new 464-page report from the prestigious National Research Council, which, like other think-tank output and media coverage of late, downplays recent progress in favor of a scarier but outdated narrative. The report opens by observing that the prison population “more than quadrupled during the last four decades” and goes on to condemn this as a racially tainted episode that badly damaged, and continues to damage, minority communities but did little to reduce crime.
The study’s authors are right that the disproportionate presence of minorities in prison is a tragic reality, rooted at least partly in the post-1960s politics of white backlash. Today’s big prison population reflects the impact of mandatory minimums and longer sentences, which probably do yield diminishing returns in terms of crime reduction, especially for nonviolent drug offenses. Summarizing a relative handful of studies, the NRC report implies that we can have safe streets without the cost, financial and moral, of locking up so many criminals — since it’s “unlikely” that increased incarceration had a “large” positive impact on crime rates.
It would be nice if there were no trade-off between crime and punishment, but common sense says it’s not so. An analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, similar in both tone and timing to the NRC report, acknowledges that increasing incarceration can reduce crime and that this effect is greatest when the overall rate of incarceration is low.
Ergo, increasing the incarceration rate now would do little to reduce crime, but the crime-fighting benefits were probably substantial back in the high-crime, low-incarceration days when tougher sentencing was initially imposed.
It’s easy to pass judgment on the policymakers of that violent era, when the homicide rate was double what it is today and crime regularly topped pollsters’ lists of voter concerns. That had a racial component, but minorities were, and are, disproportionately victims of crime, too. The NRC report extensively discusses the negative effect on communities of incarcerating criminals, but it has comparatively little to say about the social impact of unchecked victimization.
Buried within the report is the fact that, in 1981, the average time served for murder was just five years; by 2000, it had risen to 16.9 years. The numbers for rape were 3.4 and 6.6 years, respectively. Insofar as “mass incarceration” reflects those changes — and the majority of state prisoners are in for violent crimes — it’s a positive development....
Instead of ignoring recent positive trends, researchers should try to understand them. The decline in incarceration may represent the delayed effect of falling crime and the diminished flow of new offenders it necessarily entails.
Sentencing reform, too, is taking hold, based on changing public attitudes. The percentage of Americans who say criminals are not punished harshly enough has fallen nearly 23 points since 1994 — when the crime wave peaked — according to data compiled by Arizona State University professor Mark Ramirez.
After erring on the side of leniency in the 1960s, then swinging the opposite way in the 1980s and 1990s, the United States may be nearing a happy medium. But this probably would not be possible if 48 percent of Americans felt unsafe walking at night within a mile of their homes, as the Gallup poll found in 1982. To sustain moderate public opinion we must keep the streets safe, and to do that we must learn the right lessons from the recent past.
I largely concur with many of Lane's sentiments here, especially with respect to making sure we acknowledge that rates of violent crime have dropped dramatically in recent decades and trying our very best to identify and understand recent trends and to "learn the right lessons from the recent past." At the same time, though, I question the basis for asserting that we may "be nearing a happy medium" with respect to modern punishment policies and practices given that the vast majority of the most severe sentencing laws enacted in the the 1980s and 1990s are still on the books.
Some recent related posts:
- "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences"
- Notable new data on crime, punishment and mass incarceration
- New Human Rights Watch report bemoans "Nation Behind Bars"
- Should Prez Obama create a "Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration"? Who should be on it?
- Reviewing how US prisons now serve as huge warehouses for the mentally ill
- Lots of recent (and long-overdue) new concerns about solitary confinement
- "Fewer prisons — and yet, less crime"
Intriguing new BJS data about national jail populations
I just received notice of a new Bureau of Justice Statistics publication, excitingly titled "Jail Inmates at Midyear 2013 -- Statistical Tables" and available at this link. Though lacking a thrilling title, the data discussed in this publication are actually pretty interesting This official BJS press release, excerpted below, provides some highlights:
After a peak in the number of inmates confined in county and city jails at midyear 2008 (785,533), the jail population was significantly lower by midyear 2013 (731,208). However, the estimated decline between midyear 2012 and 2013 was not statistically significant. California’s jails experienced an increase of about 12,000 inmates since midyear 2011....
Local jails admitted an estimated 11.7 million persons during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013, remaining stable since 2011 (11.8 million) and down from a peak of 13.6 million admissions in 2008. The number of persons admitted to local jails in 2013 was 16 times the estimated 731,352 average daily number of jail inmates or average daily population during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013....
Males represented at least 86 percent of the jail population since 2000. The female inmate population increased 10.9 percent (up 10,000 inmates) between midyear 2010 and 2013, while the male population declined 4.2 percent (down 27,500 inmates). The female jail population grew by an average of about 1 percent each year between 2005 and 2013. In comparison, the male jail population declined an annual average of less than 1 percent every year since 2005.
White inmates accounted for 47 percent of the total jail population, blacks represented 36 percent and Hispanics represented 15 percent at midyear 2013. An estimated 4,600 juveniles were held in local jails (less than 1 percent of the confined population), down from 5,400 during the same period in 2012.
At midyear 2013, about 6 in 10 inmates were not convicted, but were in jail awaiting court action on a current charge—a rate unchanged since 2005. About 4 in 10 inmates were sentenced offenders or convicted offenders awaiting sentencing. From the first significant decline in the overall jail population since midyear 2009, the unconvicted population (down 24,000 inmates) outpaced the decline in the convicted inmate population (down 12,000 inmates).
Wednesday, May 07, 2014
Examining "sentence finality" at length in new article and series of posts
I am pleased to report that an article I completed in conjunction with a wonderful symposium on "Finality in Sentencing" for the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy is now in print and available in full via this SSRN link.
The full title of my article is "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences," and here is the abstract:
This Essay examines the issue of “sentence finality” in the hope of encouraging more thorough and reflective consideration of the values and interests served — and not served — by doctrines, policies, and practices that may allow or preclude the review of sentences after they have been deemed final. Drawing on American legal history and modern penal realities, this Essay highlights reasons why sentence finality has only quite recently become an issue of considerable importance. This Essay also suggests that this history combines with modern mass incarceration in the United States to call for policy-makers, executive officials, and judges now to be less concerned about sentence finality, and to be more concerned about punishment fitness and fairness, when new legal developments raise doubts or concerns about lengthy prison sentences.
Regular readers know I have commented in the past in this space about my fear that too much stock and weight is often put on "sentence finality" (as distinct from "conviction finality"), and this article provided me the first real opportunity to think and write about this issue more thoroughly and systematically. And yet I fear I am only scratching the surface of various important conceptual and practical issues in this Wake article; as a result, I may end up writing a lot more on this topic in the months and years.
In service to my stated goal "to encouraging more thorough and reflective consideration of the values and interests served — and not served — by doctrines, policies, and practices that may allow or preclude the review of sentences after they have been deemed final," I am planning in the days ahead to reprint and discuss in separate posts a few of the ideas and themes that find expression in this article. For now, I am hopeful that readers will check out the full article and perhaps let me know via comments if they find this topic of sufficient interest and importance so as to justify many additional posts on sentence finality.
New Human Rights Watch report bemoans "Nation Behind Bars"
As reported in this press release, Human Rights Watch has issued a new report highlighting the problems of mass incarceration in the united States. Here are the details (and a link) via the the start of the press release:
The 36-page report, “Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution,” notes that laws requiring penalties that are far longer than necessary to meet the purposes of punishment have given the United States the world’s highest reported rate of incarceration. These laws have spawned widespread and well-founded public doubts about the fairness of the US criminal justice system.
“The ‘land of the free’ has become a country of prisons,” said Jamie Fellner, co-author of the report and senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Too many men and women are serving harsh prison sentences for nonviolent and often minor crimes. How can a country committed to liberty send minor dealers to die in prison for selling small amounts of illegal drugs to adults?”....
Momentum to reduce mass incarceration is growing. Human Rights Watch is seeking to build on this momentum and offer a way forward. Federal and state legislators should ground their moves for reform in core principles of human rights, including prudent use of criminal sanctions, fair punishment, and equal protection of the laws.
To put those principles into practice, Human Rights Watch urges legislators at the very least to:
Ensure that the severity of the punishment does not exceed the gravity of the crime;
Reform or eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing laws that prevent judges from being able to tailor sentences to the individual crime and the particular defendant;
Ensure that adolescents and children are treated in a manner appropriate to their age and capacity for change, and that they are not subjected to all the same criminal procedures and sanctions as adults;
Reduce or eliminate criminal sanctions for immigration offenders, especially those who have done nothing more than enter the country illegally; End criminal sanctions for possession of illegal drugs for personal use; and
Ensure that criminal law is not by its terms or enforcement biased against any racial, ethnic, or religious group, as for example, in the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws against black people in the US.