Wednesday, July 23, 2014
"Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States"
Although the pace of criminal justice reform has accelerated at both the federal and state levels in the past decade, current initiatives have had only a modest effect on the size of the prison population. But over this period, three states — New York, New Jersey, and California — have achieved prison population reductions in the range of 25%. They have also seen their crime rates generally decline at a faster pace than the national average.
• New York and New Jersey led the nation by reducing their prison populations by 26% between 1999 and 2012, while the nationwide state prison population increased by 10%.
• California downsized its prison population by 23% between 2006 and 2012. During this period, the nationwide state prison population decreased by just 1%.
• During their periods of decarceration, violent crime rates fell at a greater rate in these three states than they did nationwide. Between 1999-2012, New York and New Jersey’s violent crime rate fell by 31% and 30%, respectively, while the national rate decreased by 26%. Between 2006-2012, California’s violent crime rate drop of 21% exceeded the national decline of 19%.
• Property crime rates also decreased in New York and New Jersey more than they did nationwide, while California’s reduction was slightly lower than the national average. Between 1999-2012, New York’s property crime rate fell by 29% and New Jersey’s by 31%, compared to the national decline of 24%. Between 2006-2012, California’s property crime drop of 13% was slightly lower than the national reduction of 15%.
These prison population reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay. The experiences of these states reinforce that criminal justice policies, and not crime rates, are the prime drivers of changes in prison populations. They also demonstrate that it is possible to substantially reduce prison populations without harming public safety....
At least in three states we now know that the prison population can be reduced by about 25% with little or no adverse effect on public safety. Individual circumstances vary by state, but policymakers should explore the reforms in New York, New Jersey, and California as a guide for other states.
There is also no reason why a reduction of 25% should be considered the maximum that might be achieved. Even if every state and the federal government were able to produce such reductions, that would still leave the United States with an incarceration rate of more than 500 per 100,000 population — a level 3-6 times that of most industrialized nations.
In recent years a broader range of proposals has emerged for how to reduce the prison population and by various scales of decarceration. In a recent right/ left commentary Newt Gingrich and Van Jones describe how they will “be working together to explore ways to reduce the prison population substantially in the next decade.” The experiences of New York, New Jersey, and California demonstrate that it is possible to achieve substantial reductions in mass incarceration without compromising public safety.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
"Strictly Taboo: Cultural Anthropology's Insights into Mass Incarceration and Victimless Crime"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Brennan Hughes available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
I argue that cultural anthropology can explain two persistent riddles of American criminal justice: (1) Why do we have mass incarceration when mass incarceration is ineffective and socially destructive? (2) Why do we have victimless crimes when criminal law is ostensibly based on the utilitarian harm principle?
One answer is found in the anthropological “survivals” known as “uncleanness” and “taboos.” These visceral, often subconscious, feelings function to preserve order, the status quo, and class distinctions. Despite the gains made in civil rights, nonwhites and the underclass remain “the other,” and they threaten to “contaminate” the majority population. Crime itself, as a threat to social stability, has become charged with a powerful ability to attract and repel. Crime and criminals are described using terms for dirt and feces. The majority culture’s response to crime (which is linked with its unconscious response to the lower class and minorities) is to expel such pollution into sealed containers called prisons. The ritualism of civic religion completes the purification process.
Deeply felt taboos also persist concerning sex and drugs. While marijuana possession and use harms no one but the user, marijuana is historically taboo on account of its association with minorities and radicals. Incest is criminalized and sex with minors is hyper-punished because they violate deeply felt sexual taboos.
I argue that one promising solution is to help people develop a stronger taboo (through education) that can cancel out the dehumanizing taboos toward criminals (just as the taboo against homophobia has supplanted the taboo against homosexuality). We will continue to overpunish until hyper-punishment itself becomes repulsive.
Monday, July 21, 2014
John Oliver covers the realities of incarceration nation
A whole lots of folks have sent me notes to make sure I saw the remarkable 15+ minute piece on John Oliver's HBO show about modern prison realities in the United States. To make sure everyone gets to see this effective (and humorous) piece of journalism, here is the video:
"Liberal but Not Stupid: Meeting the Promise of Downsizing Prisons"
The title of this post is the title of this important and timely new paper authored by two terrific criminologists, Professors Joan Petersilia and Francis T. Cullen, and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
A confluence of factors — a perfect storm — interfered with the intractable rise of imprisonment and contributed to the emergence of a new sensibility defining continued mass imprisonment as non-sustainable. In this context, reducing America’s prisons has materialized as a viable possibility. For progressives who have long called for restraint in the use of incarceration, the challenge is whether the promise of downsizing can be met.
The failure of past reforms aimed at decarceration stand as a sobering reminder that good intentions do not easily translate into good results. Further, a number of other reasons exist for why meaningful downsizing might well fail (e.g., the enormous scale of imprisonment that must be confronted, limited mechanisms available to release inmates, lack of quality alternative programs). Still, reasons also exist for optimism, the most important of which is the waning legitimacy of the paradigm of mass incarceration, which has produced efforts to lower inmate populations and close institutions in various states.
The issue of downsizing will also remain at the forefront of correctional discourse because of the court-ordered reduction in imprisonment in California. This experiment is ongoing, but is revealing the difficulty of downsizing; the initiative appears to be producing mixed results (e.g., reductions in the state’s prison population but increased in local jail populations). In the end, successful downsizing must be “liberal but not stupid.” Thus, reform efforts must be guided not only by progressive values but also by a clear reliance on scientific knowledge about corrections and on a willingness to address the pragmatic issues that can thwart good intentions. Ultimately, a “criminology of downsizing” must be developed to foster effective policy interventions.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
US Attorney for NJ: "Ex-offenders get time, now they need opportunity"
Especially in the wake of this US Sentencing Commission's big decision yesterday to vote for retroactive application of its new reduced drug guidelines (basics here and here), a recent opinion piece by the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Paul Fishman, struck me as especially timely. This piece is headlined "Ex-offenders get time, now they need opportunity," and here are excerpts:
Every year, my office prosecutes several hundred defendants who have violated criminal laws passed by Congress. For most of those defendants, a term in federal prison is warranted. Whether they are public officials who betray their oaths, predators who threaten the safety of our neighborhoods and our children, or thieves who cheat the health care system, investors or the government — incarceration is the appropriate punishment.
But prison is usually not meant to last forever. More than 95 percent of federal prisoners will be released after serving their sentences. Altogether, 700,000 federal and state prisoners are released every year, along with millions more who stream through local jails.
Most return to their communities, trying to put their lives back together and avoid the pitfalls that got them in trouble. Bearing the stain of their convictions, they compete for jobs, look for housing and seek educational opportunities.
A staggering number don't succeed. Nationally, two-thirds of people released from state prisons are arrested again; half of those will end up back inside. Forty percent of federal prisoners return to jail in the first three years.
This level of recidivism is unacceptable. Offenders, their families and their communities are devastated by it. Public safety suffers for it. And with more than $74 billion spent annually on federal, state and local corrections, we can’t afford it.
Prison alone isn't enough. Any smart law enforcement model prevents crime by supporting ex-offenders. That is why my U.S. Attorney's Office — along with federal judges, the federal public defender, and the U.S. Probation Office — began the "ReNew" program, a federal re-entry court in Newark. Those leaving federal prison at serious risk of reoffending are invited to participate.
They are closely supervised, meeting biweekly with federal Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo, our office, and the federal defenders, and more regularly with probation officers. And they are supported in obtaining housing, jobs, education, counseling and legal assistance. My office provides services to the team and participants and supervises research into the program's efficacy.
This week, the judge will preside over the first graduation ceremony for those who have successfully completed 52 weeks in the program. It is a hugely inspiring milestone for everyone involved, but especially for the graduates reimagining their lives despite great adversity....
Recently, my office launched the New Jersey Re-entry Council, a partnership with acting New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman, other federal and state agencies, and NGO community members to share resources and ideas.
But there is one more partner we need: you. Finding a job after release is the most important key to success. In a recovering economy, securing a job after prison can be especially difficult. If you have a company that can train or hire our participants, or if you have access to housing, we need to hear from you....
One of every 100 adults in the United States is behind bars. Most will come home. They will have paid their debt and need a chance to support themselves, their families and their communities. We can look at ex-offenders returning to our communities as a risk, or we can help give them that chance. The potential rewards for their lives, for the economy and for our safety are incalculable.
Friday, July 18, 2014
Split Iowa Supreme Court declares all mandatory juve sentencing terms violate state constitution
Thanks to a helpful reader, I learned this afternoon that the Iowa Supreme Court today declared unconstitutional pursuant to the Iowa Constitution the imposition of any and all mandatory terms of imprisonment on juvenile offenders. The majority ruling in Iowa v. Lyle, No. 11–1339 (Iowa July 18, 2014)
In this appeal, a prison inmate who committed the crime of robbery in the second degree as a juvenile and was prosecuted as an adult challenges the constitutionality of a sentencing statute that required the imposition of a mandatory seven-year minimum sentence of imprisonment. The inmate was in high school at the time of the crime, which involved a brief altercation outside the high school with another student that ended when the inmate took a small plastic bag containing marijuana from the student. He claims the sentencing statute constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the State and Federal Constitutions when applied to all juveniles prosecuted as adults because the mandatory sentence failed to permit the court to consider any circumstances based on his attributes of youth or the circumstances of his conduct in mitigation of punishment. For the reasons expressed below, we hold a statute mandating a sentence of incarceration in a prison for juvenile offenders with no opportunity for parole until a minimum period of time has been served is unconstitutional under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. Accordingly, we vacate the sentence and remand the case to the district court for resentencing. Importantly, we do not hold that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to imprisonment for their criminal acts. We do not hold juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to a minimum term of imprisonment. We only hold juvenile offenders cannot be mandatorily sentenced under a mandatory minimum sentencing scheme.
The majority opinion supporting this ruling runs nearly 50 pages and, unsurprisingly, has a lot to say about the US Supreme Court's recent Eighth Amendment work in Graham and Miller. In addition, two forceful dissents follow the majority's opinion in Lyle, and here is the heart of one of the dissenting opinions:
By holding Lyle’s seven-year mandatory minimum sentence for his violent felony is cruel and unusual punishment and unconstitutional under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution, rather than under the Eighth Amendment, the majority evades review by the United States Supreme Court. As Justice Zager observes, no other appellate court in the country has gone this far. Our court stands alone in taking away the power of our elected legislators to require even a seven-year mandatory sentence for a violent felony committed by a seventeen-year-old. Will the majority stop here? Under the majority’s reasoning, if the teen brain is still evolving, what about nineteen-year olds? If the brain is still maturing into the mid-20s, why not prohibit mandatory minimum sentences for any offender under age 26? As judges, we do not have a monopoly on wisdom. Our legislators raise teenagers too. Courts traditionally give broad deference to legislative sentencing policy judgments. See State v. Oliver, 812 N.W.2d 636, 650 (Iowa 2012) (“We give the legislature deference because ‘[l]egislative judgments are generally regarded as the most reliable objective indicators of community standards for purposes of determining whether a punishment is cruel and unusual.’ ” (quoting Bruegger, 773 N.W.2d at 873)). Why not defer today?
July 18, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich saying again that "backing sensible and proven reforms to the U.S. criminal-justice system is a valuable conservative cause"
I have long stressed my belief that many federal sentencing reform efforts can and should be viewed as a cause that ought to attract politicians and people with true conservative principles. This recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, headlined "An Opening for Bipartisanship on Prison Reform," authored by Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan echoes this point. Here are excerpts:
Several states have passed meaningful reforms, including expanding drug courts to order mandatory drug treatment programs, increasing funding for drug and mental-health treatment, and limiting costly prison beds to violent and serious repeat offenders. These state reforms passed in part thanks to conservative support.
Right on Crime, a national organization founded in 2010 that we both belong to, is helping spread the word that backing sensible and proven reforms to the U.S. criminal-justice system is a valuable conservative cause.
On a panel at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in March in National Harbor, Md., Texas Gov. Rick Perry explained how reform worked in his state. In 2007, Texas scrapped plans to build more prisons, putting much of the savings into drug courts and treatment. The results have been impressive: Crime in Texas is at the lowest rate since 1968. The number of inmates has fallen by 3%, enabling the state to close three prisons, saving $3 billion so far. What inspired the reform, Gov. Perry said, was this: "Being able to give people a second chance is really important. That should be our goal. The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, never give them a chance at redemption is not what America is about."
In 2010, South Carolina followed Texas' example, toughening penalties for violent criminals while creating alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. These included providing community drug treatment and mental health services for lower-level lawbreakers—mostly drug and property offenders—who made up half of the state's prison population. South Carolina also increased funding for more agents to supervise offenders in the community. Three years later, the prison population has decreased by 8%, and violent offenders now account for 63% of the inmate population. South Carolina's recidivism rates also are much improved and the state has closed one prison.
Other states—Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Mississippi—have adopted similar reforms. As is so often the case, the states are showing the way. Congress should apply these common-sense reforms to the federal prison system.
The reforms have developed in the states, as conservatives tend to prefer. But now that there is proof that prison reform can work, the debate has gone from an ideological discussion to evidence-based changes that can be applied to the federal system.
Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who have seen the benefits firsthand in Texas, have been joined by Republican Senate colleagues such as Rob Portman, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Jeff Flake and Ron Johnson in backing one or more prison-reform bills. Two bills, the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act (S. 1675) and the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410) have already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and await action by the full Senate.
In the House, Republican Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Raúl Labrador, Trey Gowdy and others are backing similar legislation. This push for reforming the federal prison system has support on the other side of the aisle as well. Such liberal stalwarts as Sens. Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Reps. John Conyers, Bobby Scott and Jerrold Nadler have signaled their backing.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
"Recalibrating Justice: A Review of 2013 State Sentencing and Corrections Trends"
The title of this post is the title of a notable new report from the Vera Institute of Justice. The report, available via this link, checks in at less than 50 pages and provides a terrific accounting of state-level reforms nationwide. This one-page summary provides these highlights:
In 2013, 35 states passed at least 85 bills that largely eschew the tough-on-crime policies of the past. Lawmakers exhibited a willingness to pursue change consistent with the growing body of research that demonstrates carefully implemented and well-targeted community-based programs and practices can produce better outcomes at less cost than incarceration. In particular, states enacted legislation to:
> Reduce prison populations and costs. States repealed or narrowed mandatory sentencing schemes, reclassified offenses, or altered sentencing presumptions. States also sought to expand access to early release mechanisms — such as good time credits —designed to accelerate sentence completion.
> Expand or strengthen community-based sanctions. States introduced or strengthened community corrections programs proven to reduce recidivism. Some states expanded eligibility for diversion programs — a sentencing alternative through which charges will be dismissed or expunged if a defendant completes a community-based program or stays out of trouble for a specified period. States also expanded community-based sentencing options, including the use of problem-solving courts.
> Implement risk and needs assessments. Several states focused on the use of validated risk and needs assessments as the basis for implementing individualized offender case plans. These states passed laws requiring assessments of an offender’s risk of recidivism as well as his or her criminogenic needs — characteristics, such as drug addiction and mental illness — that when addressed can reduce that risk. States incorporated these assessments at different points in the criminal justice process — at the pre-trial stage, at the pre-sentencing stage, or to inform supervision and programming, whether in prison or in the community.
> Support the reentry of offenders into the community. States passed laws to mitigate the “collateral consequences” of criminal convictions — such as restrictions on housing and social benefits and exclusion from employment. In some states, legislators sought to clarify, expand, or create ways to seal or expunge criminal records from the public record. Others focused on helping offenders transition from prison or jail back into the community by increasing in-prison and post-release support.
> Make better informed criminal justice policy. A number of states sought a deliberate discussion about the purpose and impact of proposed sentencing and corrections legislation and looked to external groups to debate proposals, collect and analyze data, and formulate policy recommendations. Some states even passed legislation requiring fiscal or social impact statements in order to help legislators consider the ramifications of proposed criminal justice reforms.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Careful examination of California's "mixed" record with realignment
Every serious criminal law and criminology researcher knows and respects (or should know and respect) the work of Joan Petersilia. Consequently, what she has to say about California's prison realignment realities necessarily garners my attention, and it is set forth in this Sanford Report headlined "California's prison realignment plan needs adjustments, Stanford law professor says." Here are excerpts:
When California embarked on a sweeping prison realignment plan in 2011, The Economist described it as one of the "great experiments in American incarceration policy." The challenge was to shift inmates from overcrowded state prisons to jails in California's 58 counties.
At this point, the results are mixed and the "devil will be in the details" as tweaks to the original legislation are urged, according to new research by a Stanford law professor.
"Only time will tell whether California's realignment experiment will fundamentally serve as a springboard to change the nation's overreliance on prisons," wrote Stanford Law School Professor Joan Petersilia, a leading expert on prison realignment, in her article in the Harvard Law and Policy Review. "It is an experiment the whole nation is watching."...
"If it works, California … will have shown that it can downsize prisons safely by transferring lower-level offenders from state prisons to county systems. … If it does not work, counties will have simply been overwhelmed with inmates, unable to fund and/or operate the programs those felons needed, resulting in rising crime, continued criminality and jail overcrowding," wrote Petersilia, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
In an interview, she noted that the 2008 economic crisis prompted state and local governments to cut costs and find efficiencies in their prison and jail systems. Plus, people are now thinking differently about punishment. "The public no longer believes that prisons are the answer for lower-level offenses [drug crimes, minor thefts], and also is more aware of the hugely damaging effects [inability to get a job] of imposing prison terms on those who really aren't dangerous," said Petersilia, who also has forthcoming research on prison policy.
Petersilia's research for the Harvard Law and Policy Review article consisted of interviews with 125 people in law enforcement, courts, probation departments, victim service agencies and offenders themselves. These sessions were conducted in the second year of the realignment. Subjects were asked how realignment was working and what fixes were needed. "The findings illustrate that realignment gets mixed results so far," wrote Petersilia, who described counties as struggling heroically to carry out an initiative seemingly imposed on them overnight.
Probation officials were the most optimistic about realignment, the interviews revealed. They believed that mental health agencies and the courts could reduce recidivism, but that it will take time to coordinate and implement rehabilitation programs that do not compromise public safety.
Though most participants agreed that realignment is spurring greater collaboration and innovation on how to efficiently incarcerate criminals, problems exist, according to the research. For example, counties are now dealing with more sophisticated criminals, lack of space and concern that the state's problem of overcrowding could become local problems as well. Finally, some prosecutors were disappointed in the "deep jail discounts" — reduced time behind bars — given to arrestees due to the crowded jails, she said....
Petersilia urges legislative revisions to California's realignment plan (some are now under discussion in the legislature). Suggestions include:
- Requiring that all felony sentences served in county jail be split between time behind bars and time under supervised release (probation), unless a judge deems otherwise
- Allowing an offender's entire criminal background to be reviewed when deciding whether the county or state should supervise them
- Capping county jail sentences at a maximum of three years
- Allowing for certain violations, such as those involving domestic restraining orders or sex offenses, to be punished with state prison sentences
- Creating a statewide tracking system for all offenders
- Collecting data at the county and local level on what is and is not working in realignment
"These recommendations should reduce the burden realignment has placed on counties," wrote Petersilia. She said several counties are taking advantage of split sentencing with promising results. Still, only 5 percent of felons in Los Angeles County have their sentences split. She called this type of flexibility "extraordinarily important" to realignment, as it would lessen space and cost burdens for counties. "Most county officials believe realignment can work – if the state will work with them to tweak the flaws in the original legislation," she wrote.
The full Harvard Law and Policy Review article, which is titled "California Prison Downsizing and Its Impact on Local Criminal Justice Systems," is available via this link.
Monday, July 14, 2014
Fourth Circuit to reconsider en banc its Whiteside ruling concerning reconsideration of guideline errors in 2255
As noted in this prior post, titled "Fourth Circuit deepens (via dramatic split opinion) circuit split over fixing sentencing problems via 2255 motions," a split panel of the Fourth Circuit back in April allowed a federal inmate to use a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to challenge a sentence that was based on the career offender enhancement under the United States Sentencing Guidelines when subsequent case law revealed the enhancement was inapplicable to him. The ruling in Whiteside v. US, No. 13-7152 (4th Cir. Apr. 8, 2014) (available here), included both a spirited marority and dissenting opinion.
Now, thanks to a helpful reader and this unpublished order, I have learned that the full Fourth Circuit has decided to rehear this matter en banc. I am not to surprised by this news, though I am perhaps a bit disappointed that it does not seem as though the Fourth Circuit has invited amicus invovement at this stage. As regular readers know, I think sentencing finality concerns raise distinct issues and I have written at length on this subject recently. Perhaps I should be grateful that the Fourth Circuit has not solicited amicus briefs in Whiteside, as it is much easier and much more efficient for me to share some of my perspective at this stage just to linking to my series of recent prior posts about sentence finality here:
- Examining "sentence finality" at length in new article and series of posts
- Finality foundations: is it uncontroversial that "conviction finality" and "sentence finality" raise distinct issues?
- Is it fair to read the Constitution as evidence the Framers were not fans of finality?
- Form, function and finality of sentences through history: the Founding Era
- Form, function and finality of sentences through history: the Rehabilitative Era
- Form, function and finality of sentences through history: the Modern Era
- Conceptual considerations for differentiating sentence finality and conviction finality
Are federal drug sentences for mules now too short?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable and fascinating new article in the New York Times headlined "Second Thoughts on Lighter Sentences for Drug Smugglers." Here are excerpts:
For years, a steady parade of drug smugglers have tried all sorts of ways to ferry contraband into the United States through Kennedy International Airport in Queens, posing a challenge not only to Customs and Border Protection officers, but also to federal prosecutors.
To avoid clogging up the court, the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn has embraced a strategic approach that allows couriers to plead guilty and offer information in return for lighter sentences. The policy reflected a view among many prosecutors that the mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses — which require prison terms of five years and higher in these smuggling cases — were too harsh on defendants who were typically nonviolent and disadvantaged.
But in recent months, changes in drug sentencing have served to further lower punishments for these couriers. A year ago, drug couriers regularly faced three years in prison; now they might face guidelines starting at only a few months, or no prison time at all.
The changes are raising questions of whether the pendulum has swung too far. Some prosecutors say that couriers have little to no incentive to cooperate anymore. Border patrol officials grumble that they are working to catch smugglers, only to have them face little punishment. And judges who once denounced the harsh sentencing guidelines are now having second thoughts....
The debate over what constitutes a fair sentence for drug crimes has persisted for decades. Critics — many of them judges in this court — have said that sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum punishments had become hugely problematic. Nonviolent drug offenders, like couriers or people selling marijuana on the street, could face longer guideline sentences than an underground gun dealer. And until recently, possession of five grams of crack warranted a minimum five-year sentence. To get the same sentence for powdered cocaine possession, 500 grams would be required.
Various reforms have been instituted to address the inequities in sentencing. In 1994, a “safety valve” provision allowed nonviolent first offenders on drugs — which describes most couriers — to avoid mandatory minimums if they admitted to all prior criminal conduct. And in 2010, Congress passed legislation toward balancing the crack versus cocaine disparity....
In August, the United States attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., ordered prosecutors nationwide to charge couriers and other low-level drug offenders who met certain criteria in a way that did not result in mandatory-minimum sentences. (Guideline sentences must still be considered, but they are not mandatory.)
Then, in April, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to reduce sentencing guidelines for drug crimes by two points, or several months. The reduced guidelines go into effect in November, pending congressional approval, but prosecutors in many districts have agreed to apply them now.
The changes made things more difficult in Brooklyn, where prosecutors still wanted to give low-level couriers an incentive to avoid trials and to assist in prosecutions against larger drug distributors. Believing they had to further sweeten the deal, prosecutors agreed to give an additional four points off those reduced sentences for couriers who agreed to cooperate.
As a result, drug-courier defendants can now face sentencing guidelines that suggest no prison time.
My first reaction to this piece is to suggest that it's a nice change of pace for federal judges to now view at least some federal sentencing guidelines to be too lenient and that any problems this creates can and should be addressed through judicial discretion to sentence above the guidelines, case-by-case, as needed and appropriate. But I imagine this viewpoint is not very satisfying for federal prosecutors and investigators who depend on the threat of severe sentences to get mules to cooperate to their satisfaction.
For additional intriguing and diverse reactions to these intriguing new drug sentencing realities, check out these posts from other informed bloggers:
From Simple Justice here, "The Pendulum and the Mule"
From Hercules and the Umpire here, "Should Interstate 80 be treated like JFK airport in New York?"
Thursday, July 03, 2014
Hawaii legislatively eliminates all juve LWOP sentences for all crimes
As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Hawaii ends juvenile life sentences without parole," a new piece of legislation means and and all "life sentences without parole for minors are now abolished in Hawaii." Here are the basics:
Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a bill Wednesday recognizing that children convicted of first-degree murder should be treated differently than murderous adults.
Advocates say children are impressionable and sometimes can't get out of horrific, crime-ridden environments. Honolulu prosecutors argued the measure isn't fair to people who are born weeks apart from slightly younger perpetrators of the same crime.
July 3, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Wednesday, July 02, 2014
An (overly?) optimistic account of how GPS technology could "solve" mass incarceration
This recent article from Vox, headlined "Prisons are terrible, and there’s finally a way to get rid of them," praises and promotes efforts to use GPS tracking to reduce US reliance on incarceration. The article strikes me as a bit too optimistic, but it does assembled some research that may justify such optimism. Here is a snippet from the start of the article that highlights its themes:
So why do prisons exist? In theory, because we need them. They keep bad guys off the street. They give people a reason to not commit crimes. They provide a place where violent or otherwise threatening people can be rehabilitated.
But prisons aren't the only way to accomplish those goals. Technological advancements are, some observers say, making it possible to replace the current system of large-scale imprisonment, in large part, with alternatives that are not as expensive, inhumane, or socially destructive, and which at the same time do a better job of controlling crime. The most promising of these alternatives fits on an ankle.
While the idea of house arrest has been around for millennia, it has always suffered from one key defect as a crime control tool: you can escape. Sure, you could place guards on the homes where prisoners are staying, but it's much easier to secure a prison with a large guard staff than it is a thousand different houses with a guard or two apiece.
Today, we have something better than guards: satellites. The advent of GPS location tracking means it's now possible for authorities to be alerted the second a confinee leaves their home. That not just enables swift response in the event of escape; it deters escape by making clear to detainees that they won't get away with it.
"Into the Breach: The Case for Robust Noncapital Proportionality Review Under State Constitutions"
The title of this post is the title of this notable piece authored by Samuel Weiss now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Eighth Amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishments. The Supreme Court has found in the Amendment a guarantee that punishment be proportionate to the crime. Although the requirement technically applies equally to all punishment, in practice the Court has used the guarantee strictly to regulate capital punishment — a practice it recently extended to life without parole sentences for juveniles — but has abdicated almost entirely on noncapital sentences.
States have authority to regulate excessive punishment under their state constitutions, but most have chosen to interpret their state proportionality clauses in lockstep with the Eighth Amendment. Even the states that have found greater protection in their constitutions have done so cautiously, striking down only the rare sentence so absurd that the legislature could not possibly have intended the result.
This Note suggests that states should aggressively police the proportionality of noncapital sentences under their state constitutions. Part I discusses extant noncapital proportionality, both the United States Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment doctrine and states’ responses to either heighten standards of review or to march in lockstep with the Court. Part II discusses the primary basis for state courts’ failure to regulate proportionality — that regulating sentences would be intervening into legislative judgment of retributive fit — and its deep flaws. State courts ignore that criminal codes bear little relation to actual crime and punishment — criminal liability is so broad and sentences so punitive that legislatures have essentially delegated decisions on criminality and sentence length to prosecutors. Prosecutors, in turn, routinely deliver disproportionate sentences because prosecutors are local political actors who push the actual costs of incarceration onto state governments; because the public pushes for ever-harsher sentences; and because prosecutors deliver trial penalties to defendants who refuse to plead guilty. Much of the Supreme Court’s cautiousness comes from its broader fear about intervention in state criminal justice systems; this fear is legitimate but should carry no weight with state courts, which are part of state criminal justice systems. Part III addresses the remaining arguments against aggressive state proportionality review — that states should interpret their parallel provisions in the same manner as the federal provision and that judges are institutionally incompetent to make decisions about comparative blameworthiness. The Note concludes that states should use their constitutions to pursue aggressive noncapital proportionality review.
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Can and should California's enduring CJ problems be blamed on those who've long opposed a state sentencing commission?
The question in the title of this post is part of my take-away from an engaging and spirited debate with Bill Otis and others that I participated in here over at Crime & Consequences. The debate began when Bill highlighted this disconcerning recent Los Angeles Times article highlighting that prison reforms in California under Gov. Jerry Brown's realignment plans have not been working out as well as Gov. Brown promised and everyone else might have hoped. Here is an extended passage from the LA Times article:
Nearly 15 months after launching what he called the "boldest move in criminal justice in decades," Gov. Jerry Brown declared victory over a prison crisis that had appalled federal judges and stumped governors for two decades. Diverting thousands of criminals from state prisons into county jails and probation departments not only had eased crowding, he said, but also reduced costs, increased safety and improved rehabilitation....
The numbers tell a different story. Today, California is spending nearly $2 billion a year more on incarceration than when Brown introduced his strategy in 2011. The prisons are still overcrowded, and the state has been forced to release inmates early to satisfy federal judges overseeing the system....
Counties, given custody of more than 142,000 felons so far, complain that the state isn't paying full freight for their supervision. Many jails are now overcrowded, and tens of thousands of criminals have been freed to make room for more. "The charts are sobering," Senate Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) said at a hearing this year on crime, prison costs and inmate numbers....
In theory, the state would reduce its prison population and save money [through realignment]. Local authorities would take a more active role in rehabilitation and parole — an approach Brown saw as more efficient and effective. "You have to take care of your own," said Diane Cummins, Brown's special advisor on realignment.
The reality, however, is that realignment fell short of Brown's promised achievements. The prison population fell sharply at first, dropping from 162,400 to 133,000, but it is rising again. There now are 135,400 inmates in state custody, a number expected to grow to 147,000 in 2019.
The state Finance Department originally projected that realignment would reduce prison spending by $1.4 billion this fiscal year and that about two-thirds of that savings would be passed on to counties to cover the costs of their new charges. Instead, the state's increased costs for private prison space and the compensation it pays out for county jails, prosecutors and probation departments adds up to about $2 billion a year more for corrections than when Brown regained office.
Without stemming the flow of prisoners into the system, the problems created by crowding continue. The Little Hoover Commission, an independent state agency that investigates government operations, said in a May report that realignment simply "changed the place where the sentence is served."
One of the biggest effects of realignment is that state and local authorities are releasing inmates early. From October 2011 to June 2013, California jail releases increased by 45,000, according to state data. The biggest rise has been a doubling in the number of inmates freed before doing half their time.... Although there is no hard proof, politicians, researchers and law enforcement officials are debating whether realignment is behind a recent 8% rise in property crime, reversing years of decline.
Brown's advisors counter that freeing jail inmates is safer than releasing state prisoners. But that too is happening. Under federal orders, the state in April and May freed a total of more than 800 prisoners.
Not surprisingly, the tough-on-crime crowd over at C&C is eager to blame these less-than-positive developments on Gov. Brown and/or the democrats in the California legislature and/or the judges and Justices who declared California's overstuffed prisons to be unconstitutional. But, notably, it was this same tough-on-crime crowd that vehemently opposed and effectively blocked efforts to create a California sentencing commission to deal proactively and smartly with these enduring problems before they became so acute that federal court intervention was required. Here is a listing from this blog of some posts noting the debate over creating a sentencing commission in California stretching back to 2006:
- Might California finally create a sentencing commission? (Nov 2006)
- A push for a sentencing commission in California (Jan 2007)
- Advocating a sentencing commission for California (June 2007)
- California sentencing commission complications (Sept 2007)
- Possibility of California sentencing commission continues to generate controversy (Aug 2009)
- Latest legislative twist suggests California won't have a sentencing commission anytime soon (Aug 2009)
Among other realities, a review of this history shows former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, pushed by police chiefs and district attorneys, initially opposed the creation of a sentencing commission in 2007. But, by 2009, as the state's ensuring prison problems became even more acute and as consequential federal court orders became even more likely, Gov. Schwarzenegger came to recognize the desparate need for California to have an institution that could bring a data-driven "smart" approach to CJ reform in the state. Nevertheless, continued advocacy against any commission by the tough-and-tougher crowd in California ultimately precluded (and seemingly still precludes) the creation of such an entity in California.
I do not mean to assert that all would be sunshine and roses in the challenging regulatory state of California if a sentencing commission had been created in 2007 or 2009. But I do mean to assert that those eager to attack Gov. Brown and/or legislators who have struggled to deal with post-Plata reforms should, at the very least, acknowledge that proponents of a California sentencing commission asserted that the such a commission would have dealt better with prison challenges (and maybe even would have prevented Plata from happening). In other words, those assailing current developments should at least explain why those who advocated commission-driving smarter policy rather than tougher politics back in 2007 or 2009 would be misguided to assert that the tough-and-tougher crowd in California is arguably most responsible for the current California mess.
Friday, June 27, 2014
"Managing Prisons by the Numbers: Using the Good-Time Laws and Risk-Needs Assessments to Manage the Federal Prison Population"
The title of this post is the title of this timely and valuable new article available via SSRN authored by Paul J. Larkin Jr. of The Heritage Foundation. Here is the abstract:
The criminal justice system directs actors to make predictions about an offender’s likely recidivism. Today, many criminal justice systems use some form of a risk-needs assessment as a classification tool at various stages of the criminal process, especially when deciding where a particular offender will be housed or whether he should be granted credit toward an early release.
Research has shown that risk-needs assessments have valuable predictive power and therefore can be worthwhile tools for making the myriad predictions needed in the federal criminal justice system. Yet, risk-needs assessments also are controversial. Some commentators have criticized them on the ground that they offend equal protection principles.
The Public Safety Enhancement Act (PSEA) and the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act (RRPSA) attempt to navigate the path toward criminal justice reform by directing the Attorney General to study the value and legality of risk-needs assessments. Legislators who choose to pursue correctional reform by revising the back end of the process would find that the PSEA and the RRPSA are valuable efforts to improve the system.
I have been hopeful (but not confident) that the distinct efforts at federal sentencing and corrections reform found in the PSEA and the RRPSA would not get lost in the discussion and debate over the Smarter Sentencing Act. But I keep fearing that controversy over the type of front-end reform involved in the SSA has tended to eclipse the (arguably more pressing and consequential) back-end reforms developed in the PSEA and the RRPSA. I hope this piece help folks continue to appreciate the need and value of both types of reform in the federal system.
June 27, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Sunday, June 22, 2014
New York Times editorial laments stalled federal sentencing reform
Today's New York Times has this lengthy editorial, headlined "Sentencing Reform Runs Aground," expressing justified concerning that bipartisan support for federal sentencing reform has not yet been enough to secure legislative action. Here are excerpts:
Criminal justice reform is one of the rare issues on which there has been bipartisan support in Congress and significant progress toward a legislative solution. Until recently, anyway.
Two bills, each with Republican and Democratic sponsors, were expected to come up for a vote by this summer — one that would reduce lengthy sentences for many low-level drug offenders and another that would give low-risk inmates credit toward early release if they participate in job-training and drug treatment programs. But progress on both bills has stalled, and congressional leaders who were once confident about their chances this year are now looking toward 2015, at the earliest.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of federal inmates — many of whom have already served years of unjustly long drug sentences — continue to sit in overstuffed prisons, wasting both their lives and taxpayer dollars at no demonstrable benefit to public safety....
So why the delay? One major factor has been resistance from members of the old guard, who refuse to let go of their tough-on-crime mind-set. In May, three senior Republican senators — Charles Grassley of Iowa, John Cornyn of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama — came out against the sentencing reductions, arguing that mandatory minimums are only used for the highest-level drug traffickers. This assertion is contradicted by data from the United States Sentencing Commission, which found that 40 percent of federal drug defendants were couriers or low-level dealers.
Another factor was the Obama administration’s April announcement that it would consider clemency for hundreds, if not thousands, of inmates currently serving time under older, harsher drug laws. Republicans complained that this — along with other executive actions on criminal justice by Mr. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. — took the wind out of reform’s sails.
But with the exception of some old-line prosecutors and resistant lawmakers, everyone still agrees on the need for extensive reform. The other branches of the federal government have begun to do their part: Federal judges across the country have spoken out against the mindlessness of mandatory minimums. The sentencing commission voted in April to reduce many drug sentencing guidelines. And the Justice Department under Mr. Holder has taken multiple steps to combat the harsh and often racially discriminatory effects of those laws.
The public is on board too. According to a recent Pew survey, 67 percent say the government should focus more on treating drug users than on prosecuting them.
Some members of Congress get it. On the right, the charge for reform has been led by Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Yet the prospect of reform has become more precarious, even as the need for it has become more urgent.
Judicial pronouncements and executive orders only go so far. It is long past time for Congress to do its job and change these outdated, ineffective and unjust laws.
Saturday, June 21, 2014
Two more prominent conservative prosecutors call for less incarceration
Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia AG, and Deborah Daniels, a former DOJ official in the Bush Administration, have this notable new opinion piece in the Washington Post headlined "Less incarceration could lead to less crime." In part because this piece reflects a lot of my own views on the modern need for modern reforms, I will quote it at length:
When crime rates began rising in the 1960s and too many Americans felt unsafe walking in their neighborhoods, the idea of putting more people in prison — and keeping them there longer — made sense.
For the next three decades, our nation did just that, as public unease propelled lawmakers to promote longer sentences, curbs on parole and other measures making our correctional system ever tougher.
Now more than 2 million American adults are behind bars and nearly one of every 33 is under some form of correctional control — either incarcerated or supervised in the community. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the rate was one in 77.
As conservatives with backgrounds in law enforcement, we embraced the orthodoxy that more incarceration invariably meant less crime, no matter the offense or the danger posed by its perpetrator. But crime rates have been falling since the early 1990s, and a growing body of research combined with the compelling results of reforms in many states prove it is time to adjust our approach.
In short, we must reserve our harshest and most expensive sanction — prison — for violent and career criminals while strengthening cost-effective alternatives for lower-level, nonviolent offenders. The latter lawbreakers must be held accountable for their crimes, but they pose less risk and hold greater potential for redemption.
With today’s sophisticated assessment tools, we can better sort offenders and match them with the levels of treatment and community supervision that offer the best chance for them to stay crime free. Specialty courts that use swift and certain sanctions to promote compliance with drug tests and other conditions of probation are another key plank in this approach.
Let us be clear: Society’s treatment of dangerous, violent felons should remain as punitive as ever. Communities need protection from such predatory criminals, and incapacitation — for a long time, no matter the cost — remains the proper response. Widespread incarceration has played a role in making our streets safer. Estimates vary, but many social scientists believe that expanding imprisonment can be credited for up to a third of the crime reduction of recent years, with demographics, advances in policing and a hotly debated mix of other dynamics accounting for the rest.
However, when it comes to the public safety benefits of incarceration, at least for some offenders, it is clear that we are well past the point of diminishing returns. And given that recidivism levels remained disappointingly high as incarceration rates rose, we would be foolish to ignore the need for a course correction.
The Pew Charitable Trusts recently reported that states that have cut their imprisonment rates (coupled with other reforms) have experienced a greater crime drop than those that increased incarceration. Between 2007 and 2012, the 10 states with the largest decreases in imprisonment rates had a 12 percent average reduction in crime, while the 10 states with the largest imprisonment rate increases saw crime fall 10 percent....
When you see, as we have, what reduces criminal behavior, it’s easier to accept the notion that for many offenders, prison is not the best answer. That conclusion is part of what led us to join Right on Crime, a national movement of conservatives who support a criminal justice system reflecting fiscal discipline, a belief in redemption, the empowerment of victims and reliance on solid evidence to determine the most cost-effective use of taxpayer funds to reduce recidivism and improve public safety.
Much of the talk about such reforms highlights their fiscal payoff, and we’re all for saving taxpayer dollars. But as conservatives, we also applaud such efforts because they reflect an evidence-driven approach that values results, not imprisonment for imprisonment’s sake.
Let’s resist our old incarceration reflex and support a rational system anchored in the knowledge, experience and values of today. Let’s preserve families, restore victims, help willing offenders turn their lives around and keep the public safe.
Some older and recent posts on the "new politics" of sentencing reform:
- Could the Tea Party take down of Eric Cantor increase the chances of more federal sentencing reform?
- Some new posts highlighting the "tough-on-crime" take on federal drugs sentencing reform
- Notable talk of sentencing reform at CPAC conference
- "G.O.P. Moving to Ease Its Stance on Sentencing"
- Notable inside-the-Beltway discussion of modern sentencing politics
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform
- Conservative group ALEC joins the growing calls for sentencing refom
- Will Tea Party players (and new MMs) be able to get the Smarter Sentencing Act through the House?
- Effective Heritage analysis of federal MMs and statutory reform proposals
- "Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"
- "Right on Crime: The Conservative Case for Reform" officially launches
- "NAACP, right-wing foes get friendly" when it comes to prison costs
- "Conservatives latch onto prison reform"
- "Sentencing Debate Reveals Divide Among Republicans"
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Fascinating accounting of state incarceration rates in a global perspective
I just came across this interesting chart and discussion headlined "States of Incarceration: The Global Context," which reviews world incarceration rates if every U.S. state were a country. The chart and related discussion is both enlightening and depressing, and here is an excerpt:
Around the globe, governments respond to illegal activity and social unrest in many ways. Here in the United States, policymakers in the 1970s made the decision to start incarcerating Americans at globally unprecedented rates.... While there are certainly important differences between how U.S. states handle incarceration, placing each state in a global context reveals that incarceration policy in every region of this country is out of step with the rest of the world....
If we compare the incarceration rates of individual U.S. states and territories with that of other nations, for example, we see that 36 states and the District of Columbia have incarceration rates higher than that of Cuba, which is the nation with the second highest incarceration rate in the world. New Jersey and New York follow just after Cuba. Although New York has been actively working on reducing its prison population, it’s still tied with Rwanda, which has the third highest national incarceration rate. Rwanda incarcerates so many people (492 per 100,000) because thousands are sentenced or awaiting trial in connection with the 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people.
Next comes the state of Washington, which claims the same incarceration rate as the Russian Federation. (In the wake of collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia used to rival the United States for the highest incarceration rate in the world. An epidemic of tuberculosis in the overcrowded prisons, however, encouraged the Russian government to launch a major amnesty in 1999 that significantly lowered that country’s incarceration rate.)
Utah, Nebraska and Iowa all lock up a greater portion of their populations than El Salvador, a country with a recent civil war and one of the highest homicide rates in the world.8 Five of the U.S. states with the lowest incarceration rates — Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Dakota, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — have higher incarceration rates than countries that have experienced major 20th century social traumas, including several former Soviet republics and South Africa.
The two U.S. states that incarcerate the least are Maine and Vermont, but even those two states incarcerate far more than the United State’s closest allies. The other NATO nations, for example, are concentrated in the lower half of this list. These nations incarcerate their own citizens at a rate five to ten times lower than the United States does.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
"Lawmakers should be parsimonious — not sanctimonious — on drug sentencing"
The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary at The Hill authored by Jamie Fellner. Here are excerpts:
Hopes are high that the U.S. Congress will do the right thing this year and reform notoriously harsh federal drug sentencing laws that have crammed U.S. prisons with small-time offenders.
The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, approved by the Senate judiciary committee and now awaiting debate in the full Senate, would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, increase the number who can avoid them altogether, and permit prisoners serving time under outdated crack-cocaine sentencing laws to seek lower sentences. Passage would begin to reverse a decades-long trend that's seen "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason," as Attorney General Eric Holder put it earlier this year.
Although legislators may not realize it, reduction of unduly severe sentences for drug offenders will help bring federal sentencing back in line with the long-overlooked principle of "parsimony." In the criminal justice context, parsimony dictates that sentences should be no greater than necessary to serve the legitimate goals of punishment, namely, retribution for past crimes, deterrence of future ones, and rehabilitation of the offender.
Congress once recognized the importance of parsimony. In the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, it instructed federal judges to impose sentences that were “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to advance the purposes of punishment. But starting in 1986, against a backdrop of social and economic turmoil, racial tension, and the advent of crack cocaine, Congress enacted mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws with stunning disregard for whether they would yield needlessly harsh sentences -- which they invariably did for the low-level offenders who made up the bulk of those receiving them....
Opponents of the Smarter Sentencing Act, including some current and retired federal prosecutors, insist — without evidence – that the mandatory drug sentences are necessary to protect public safety. They also claim — and here the evidence is on their side — that the threat of high mandatory sentences helps convince defendants to plead guilty and cooperate with the government in exchange for lesser punishments. Because judges have no choice but to impose the mandatory minimums triggered by the charges prosecutors file, prosecutors can make good on the threat of higher sentences for those defendants who insist on going to trial: their sentences are on average three times longer than for those who plead. Not surprisingly, ninety-seven percent of drug defendants choose to plead guilty. Opponents of drug law reform seem to forget — or don't care — that the purposes of punishment do not include bludgeoning defendants into pleading.
Each year, hopes for federal drug sentencing reform are dashed by legislative inertia and a few powerful legislators who cling to outdated “tough on crime” notions. Perhaps this year will be different. A growing number of lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, realize that lengthy mandatory minimum drug sentences are ineffective, wasteful, and expensive. And though few may use the term parsimony, many have come to understand that unnecessarily harsh sentences make a mockery of justice.