Tuesday, June 10, 2014
DOJ advocates for "limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment"
As detailed in this prior post, today the US Sentencing Commission is conducting a public hearing to gather testimony from invited witnesses concerning whether the Commission should designate as retroactive its new proposed guideline that reduces most drug sentences across the board. And though that hearing is on-going, the hearing agenda available here now has links to most of the witnesses' submitted written testimony, including the position advocated by the Department of Justice.
As detailed in this official DOJ press release and this written testimony via US Attorney Sally Yates, the Justice Department is urging the Commission to make the new reduced drug guidelines retroactive for some, but not all, prisoners now serving sentences under the old drug guidelines. Here are the basics of the compromise advocated by DOJ via its submitted testimony:
After extensive discussions and consideration of the various policy interests at stake in this matter – including public safety, individual justice for offenders, and public trust and confidence in the federal criminal justice system – we support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment. As I will discuss further, we think such an approach strikes the right balance of policy interests and can be rigorously and effectively implemented across the federal criminal justice system within existing resource constraints....
Assessing whether the amendment should be applied retroactively requires balancing several factors. The primary factor driving our position to support retroactive application of the amendment, albeit limited retroactivity, is that the federal drug sentencing structure in place before the amendment resulted in unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders. While we believe finality in sentencing should remain the general rule, and with public safety our foremost goal, we also recognize that the sentences imposed for some drug defendants under the current sentencing guidelines are longer than necessary, and this creates a negative impact upon both the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and our prison resources....
Because of public safety concerns that arise from the release of dangerous drug offenders and from the diversion of resources necessary to process over 50,000 inmates, we believe retroactivity of the drug amendment should be limited to lower level, nonviolent drug offenders without significant criminal histories. Limited retroactivity will ensure that release decisions for eligible offenders are fully considered on a case-by-case basis as required, that sufficient supervision and monitoring of released offenders will be accomplished by probation officers, and that the public safety risks to the community are minimized. Release dates should not be pushed up for those offenders who pose a significant danger to the community; indeed, we believe certain dangerous offenders should be categorically prohibited from receiving the benefits of retroactivity....
Balancing all of these factors, the Department supports limited retroactive application of the 2014 drug guideline amendment. We urge the Commission to act consistently with public safety and limit the reach of retroactive application of the amendment only to those offenders who do not pose a significant public safety risk. The Commission has the authority to direct limited retroactivity under both 18 U.S.C. § 994(u) and Dillon, which provide authority to the Commission to prescribe the “circumstances” under which an amended guideline is applied retroactively. We believe the Commission should limit retroactive application to offenders in Criminal History Categories I and II who did not receive: (1) a mandatory minimum sentence for a firearms offense pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(c); (2) an enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(1); (3) an enhancement for using, threatening, or directing the use of violence pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(2); (4) an enhancement for playing an aggravating role in the offense pursuant to §3B1.1; or (5) an enhancement for obstruction of justice or attempted obstruction of justice pursuant to §3C1.1.
With these limitations, all of which should have been determined in prior court action and should be documented in the court file in most cases, courts will be able to determine eligibility for retroactivity based solely on the existing record and without the need for transporting a defendant to court or holding any extensive fact finding. Retroactivity would be available to a class of non-violent offenders who have limited criminal history, did not possess or use a weapon, and thus will apply only to the category of drug offender who warrants a less severe sentence and who also poses the least risk of reoffending. While the factors we suggest are not a perfect proxy for dangerousness, they are a reasonable proxy based on the Commission’s own research, and identifying them will not require new hearings.
Though I suspect the intriguing middle-ground position embraced here by DOJ will disappoint the usual suspects advocating fully against or fully for retroactivity, I view this DOJ proposal to be both politically and practically astute. In part because SO very many current federal prisoners may be eligible for a sentence reduction based on the new guidelines, I think it make sense (and is consistent with congressional policies and goals) for any retroactivity rule to seek to bring some equities into the application of the new law in an effort to ensure the most deserving of previously sentenced defendants get the benefit of the new guidelines. The DOJ position here seems thoughtfully designed to try to achieve that balance.
Some recent related posts:
- Big US Sentencing Commission hearing Tuesday on reduced drug guideline retroactivity
- Commentary on drug guideline retroactivity asks "Who's Afraid of Too Much Justice?"
- 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
June 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack
New ACLU report assails private prison industry involved in federal immigration detention
As detailed in this press release, this week "the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Texas released the report Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry, [which examines] the secretive 'Criminal Alien Requirement' or 'CAR' prisons for immigrants." Here is more about the report from the ACLU press release:
In a four-year investigation of five CAR prisons in Texas, our researchers found pervasive and disturbing patterns of neglect and abuse of the prisoners–all non-citizens, most of whom have been convicted only of immigration offenses (such as unlawfully reentering the country).
"At the CAR prisons we investigated, the prisoners lived day to day not knowing if their basic human needs would be met, whether they would get medical attention if they were hurt or ill," said Carl Takei, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. "The Bureau of Prisons creates perverse incentives for the for-profit prison companies to endanger human health and lives."
In total, the 13 CAR prisons across the country hold more than 25,000 immigrants.... The report details the relationship between each of the three companies that run them–CCA, GEO Group, and MTC–and the federal Bureau of Prisons, including the ways that the Bureau and the companies work together to cover up the prisons’ conditions....
In Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry, the ACLU and the ACLU of Texas tell the stories of prisoners who have been torn from their families by the extreme distances (often 1,000 miles or more) between a CAR prison and a prisoner’s hometown and by the high phone rates the private prison companies charge for phone calls.
Among its recommendations to the federal government, the report calls on the Bureau of Prisons to strengthen oversight of CAR prisons, end the use of contractually binding occupancy quotas for CAR prisons, and stop spending taxpayer money to shield basic information about private prisons from public disclosure. It also urges the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to return immigration enforcement to civil immigration authorities.
The full report is available at this link.
Monday, June 09, 2014
Two years after Miller, Iowa still muddling through juve sentencing
As highlighted by this local article, headlined "Iowa juvenile sentencing rules in legal limbo," the Hawkeye state is still struggling with how to revamp its juvenile sentencing rules to comply with modern Eighth Amendment restrictions. Here are the details:
Iowa prosecutors want clarification on the state’s sentencing laws for juveniles convicted of murder. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 struck down the use of mandatory life terms in prison for defendants who committed murder when they were under 18. The court ruled that judges have to take a person's age and the severity of crime into consideration.
Iowa legislators have been working since then to determine whether to change state sentencing rules. Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers are struggling to decide the best approach given the “hodgepodge of judicial rulings” that have left in question what is the minimum number of years a juvenile who commits first-degree murder should be required to serve in prison before being eligible for parole.
“It’s a situation that we’re trying to deal with the amorphous concept of cruel and unusual punishment not only as it’s interpreted through the federal constitution but the Iowa Supreme Court has decided that the cruel and unusual punishment provision in the Iowa Constitution means something different that what it means at the federal level,” he said.
Iowa Assistant Attorney General Kevin Cmelik said prosecutors want clear guidelines. “There is no clear answer as to what is required by the law right now because we don’t have a statute that’s applicable anymore," he said.
Prosecutors like Black Hawk County Attorney Tom Ferguson tried to get lawmakers to set a mandatory minimum of at least 35 years for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, but it failed to gain traction last legislative session....
Prosecutors say judges should have discretion to re-impose a life sentence with or without parole but they worry that lesser penalties potentially could create a situation where someone sentenced for second-degree murder could be facing more prison time that an offender found guilty of a Class A crime.
Forty-eight youth in Iowa who have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole since 1964, state data shows.
Saturday, June 07, 2014
Detailing how many more women have come to discover "Orange is the New Black"
To really appreciate the popular NetFlix show "Orange is the New Black," everyone should read and reflect on the data on modern female incarceration usefully assembled in this recent Fusion piece headlined "The Real Life Stats Behind Women in Prison and ‘Orange is the New Black’." Here are the data (with sources, emphasis and links included):
The series "Orange is the New Black" is based on a true experience that follows women in prison, which is one of the fastest growing prison populations. So, it’s only appropriate [with] the premiere of the second season of "Orange is the New Black" we look at some of the numbers of women in prison.
The number of women in prison increased by 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, rising from 15,118 to 112,797. If we include local jails, more than 205,000 women are now incarcerated. The female prison population is increasing at nearly double the rate for men. (The Sentencing Project-PDF)
Two thirds of women in prison are there for non-violent offenses, many for drug related crimes. (Women’s Prison Association - PDF)
Oklahoma is the greatest incarcerator of women. Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state with 130 out of every 100,000 women in prison. Massachusetts has the lowest rate of female imprisonment at 13 per 100,000 women. (Women’s Prison Association - PDF)
1 in 25 women in state prisons and 1 in 33 in federal prisons are pregnant when admitted to prison. Women can be shackled during labor in at least 32 states. The majority of children born to incarcerated mothers are immediately separated from their mothers. (The Sentencing Project-PDF)
Women in prison are more likely than are men to be victims of staff sexual misconduct. More than three-quarters of all reported staff sexual misconduct involves women who were victimized by male correctional staff.(The Sentencing Project-PDF)
Black women represent 30 percent of all incarcerated women in the U.S, although they represent 13 percent of the female population generally.
Latinas represent 16 percent of incarcerated women, although they make up only 11 percent of all women in the U.S. (ACLU)
Transgender inmates are almost always housed according to their birth gender. The two most common responses are housing transgender prisoners on the basis of their birth gender or placing them in isolation. (American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law)
Friday, June 06, 2014
More critical analysis of NRC mass incarceration analysis from John Pfaff
As I highlighted in this post late last week, through a series of astute posts at PrawfBlawg, Professor John Pfaff has started to pick apart a number of notable flaws and omissions in the National Research Council's analysis of mass incarceration. John's first five posts in that series are linked here, and now below I have linked his latest in this important series:
- The Flawed NRC Report: What Incentivizes Prosecutors?
Thursday, June 05, 2014
"Strict Liability Offenses, Incarceration, and the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Paul Larkin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Supreme Court long ago rejected due process challenges to the government’s use of strict liability offenses, but the Court has never considered the issue of whether imprisonment for such crimes violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. Being unable to persuade the Court to forbid strict liability crimes altogether, defendants incarcerated for those crimes are likely to argue that their punishment is cruel and unusual. It therefore may not be long before the courts, including the Supreme Court, must finally address the issue. When that day arrives, the Court should limit the penalties that can be imposed for strict liability crimes by forbidding any period of incarceration altogether or, at least, by outlawing imprisonment. The Constitution should not allow a person to be imprisoned for committing a strict liability offense.
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.”