Monday, May 18, 2015

NY Times editorial astutely praises "Justice Reform in the Deep South"

Throughout too much of America's history, the term "Southern Justice" would invoke shudders and fear. (Indeed, as discussed here, Norman Rockwell used this term as the title for his historic painting depicting the deaths of three civil rights workers killed for seeking to register African American voters.) But, as effectively highlighted by this new New York Times editorial, lawmakers in the deep south are lately doing a lot to remake the image of southern justice:

It has been getting easier by the day for politicians to talk about fixing the nation’s broken criminal justice system. But when states in the Deep South, which have long had some of the country’s harshest penal systems, make significant sentencing and prison reforms, you know something has changed.

Almost all of these deep-­red states have made changes to their justice systems in the last few years, and in doing so they have run laps around Congress, which continues to dither on the passage of any meaningful reform.  Lawmakers in Alabama, for example, voted nearly unanimously early this month to approve a criminal justice bill.  Alabama prisons are stuffed to nearly double capacity, endangering the health and lives of the inmates, and the cost of mass imprisonment is crippling the state budget at no discernible benefit to public safety.

The bill would cut the state’s prison population of nearly 25,000 by about 4,500 people over the next five years. Sentences for certain nonviolent crimes would be shortened, and more parole supervisors would be hired to help ensure that people coming out of prison don’t return. Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to sign the measure as soon as Tuesday.

Before Alabama, South Carolina passed its own package of reforms in 2010.  In February, it closed its second minimum-­security prison in a year.  Georgia got on board with significant reforms to its adult and juvenile prison systems in 2012 and 2013, including giving judges more leeway to sentence below mandatory minimums and increasing oversight of prisons.  In 2014, Mississippi passed its own systemic fixes, like providing more alternatives to prison for low­level drug offenders.

Of course, all these states had abysmal conditions to start with. Mississippi imprisons more of its citizens per capita than China and Russia combined. That’s worse than any state except Louisiana, which has not yet managed reforms as broad as its neighbors. Alabama was facing the threat of federal intervention to alleviate its crushingly overcrowded prisons if it didn’t act.  And many of these state reforms are far more modest than they should be....

Nonetheless, these initiatives show important progress. Less than a decade ago, it was difficult to find any governor anywhere, of either party, who would go near this issue. Now, a Republican governor like Nathan Deal of Georgia is pointing with pride to two major reform packages, as well as the state’s “ban the box” law, which prohibits the state from asking potential employees about their criminal history until later in the hiring process.

Still, justice reform is a fragile proposition, and can be easily thwarted by more powerful political forces.  As the 2016 presidential election approaches, most of the major candidates agree that criminal­justice reform is a priority, but there remains a good deal of ambivalence on how to move forward.  There needn’t be.  The reforms in the southern states, though limited, are already paying off.  The presidential candidates — not to mention Congress — should be paying close attention.

May 18, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Oklahoma House passes safety valve to give judges more sentencing discretion

In the course of this lengthy discussion in the comments at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis labelled the the federal bill known as the Justice Safety Valve Act as "radically pro-criminal" because it would give federal judges some limited authority to sentence defendants below statutory mandatory minimums.  Though I disputed this label, I suspect Bill might be inclined to call most members of the Oklahoma House "radically pro-criminal" based on this recent news, headlined "Oklahoma House passes bills to give judges more discretion in sentencing."  Here are the details:

The Oklahoma House on Wednesday approved a key piece of justice reform legislation intended to help reduce the state’s growing population of prison inmates.

Rep. Pam Peterson’s House Bill 1518 would give judges the authority to hand down shorter sentences for some crimes that now require mandatory minimum prison time. The judge would be allowed to do this if the longer sentence would be unjust or if the offender does not present a risk to public safety. There are more than 100 crimes in Oklahoma that carry requirements for incarceration for specified minimum durations.

Called the Justice Safety Valve Act, the Tulsa Republican’s measure was passed 76-16 and was sent to the Senate. It is modeled after similar legislation that has been approved in 17 other states. The bill would not allow judges to consider lesser sentences for violent or sexual offenses....

Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, argued against the measure, saying it would minimize the role of district attorneys in the sentencing process and isn’t tough enough on repeat offenders.

“I’ve said I’m for reform, just not when it comes to violent offenders. Here we have repeat offenders,” he said. “This is a bad bill.”

Peterson said it’s time to reform the state’s justice system, noting Oklahoma’s prisons are overflowing due to the highest incarceration rate in the nation for women and one of the highest for men. The state’s prison population has doubled since 1990, but the crime rate has not declined as fast as that of other states, she said. “The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result,” she said.

Gov. Mary Fallin has urged the Legislature to embrace justice reform efforts this session, including finding ways to offer more prison diversion programs that would provide treatment rather than incarceration for nonviolent offenders with drug and mental health problems.

March 14, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Two notable and timely new reform reports from The Sentencing Project

Via an e-mail from The Sentencing Project (reprinted in part below), I received this summary (with links) to two notable new reports from the group:

[Here are] two new reports from The Sentencing Project documenting changes in criminal justice policy in 2014 and successful advocacy campaign strategies in conservative state environments. The reforms highlighted in these reports represent approaches that lawmakers and advocates can consider to address sentencing policy and collateral consequences at the state level.

The State of Sentencing 2014 highlights policy changes in 30 states and the District of Columbia in both the adult and juvenile justice systems, including:

  • Scaling back sentences for low-level drug offenses

  • Reducing barriers to reentry, including employment restrictions and bans on public assistance

  • Eliminating juvenile life without parole

State Criminal Justice Advocacy in a Conservative Environment documents successful advocacy strategies employed in campaigns in Indiana, Missouri, and Texas. In these states, advocates achieved the following reforms:

  • Reduced enhanced penalties in drug-free zones in Indiana by shrinking the limit of zones from 1,000 feet to 500 feet, and eliminating all zones except those around schools and parks
  • Modified Missouri’s federal lifetime ban on food stamp benefits for persons with felony drug convictions
  • Closed two Texas prison facilities: the Dawson State Jail and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility

February 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ohio Supreme Court finds multiple constitution flaws in mandatory sex offender sentencing process

The Ohio Supreme Court this morning handed down an interesting constitutional ruling in Ohio v. Bevly, No. 2015-Ohio-475 (Feb. 11, 2015) (available here), striking down a distinctive mandatory sentencing provision for certain sex offenders.  Here is how the majority opinion concludes: 

We hold that because there is no rational basis for the provision in R.C. 2907.05(C)(2)(a) that requires a mandatory prison term for a defendant convicted of gross sexual imposition when the state has produced evidence corroborating the crime, the statute violates the due-process protections of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.  Furthermore, because a finding of the existence of corroborating evidence pursuant to R.C. 2907.05(C)(2)(a) is an element that must be found by a jury, we hold that the application of R.C. 2907.05(C)(2)(a) in this case violated Bevly’s right to trial by jury found in the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.  We reverse the judgment of the court of appeals, and we remand the case to the trial court for imposition of its sentence in accordance with this opinion.

Justice French dissents in an opinion which explains why she thinks the there is rational basis for the sentencing provision struck down by the majority:

When its victims are younger than 13, the crime of gross sexual imposition (“GSI”) carries a mandatory prison term, as opposed to a presumption of prison, so long as “[e]vidence other than the testimony of the victim was admitted in the case corroborating the violation.” R.C. 2907.05(C)(2)(a). I cannot agree with the majority’s conclusion that this corroboration provision simultaneously violates due process, equal protection, and the right to a jury trial. Therefore, I respectfully dissent....

The General Assembly rationally could have concluded that it is unwise or unfair to categorically mandate prison for every person guilty of GSI against a child victim and that more sentencing discretion is appropriate in cases when no evidence corroborated the child victim’s testimony. By reserving the mandatory term (and the associated costs and resources) for convictions with the most evidence of guilt, the General Assembly has made a policy determination that corroboration is relevant to the punishment for child GSI convictions. As the court of appeals recognized in unanimously upholding the statute, “It seems obvious that the General Assembly felt that it was better to start out with a sentence that was not required to be mandatory and to make the sentence mandatory only if there is corroborative proof beyond the alleged victim's testimony that the crime was actually committed.” 2013-Ohio-1352, ¶ 9.

 

Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another sentencing provision in Ohio or anywhere else that a court has found unconstitutional based on rational basis review. Notably, the Bevly opinion indicates in a footnote that it addresses only the defendants federal constitutional claims because "the state constitutional challenges were not raised at the trial or appellate levels." That means the state of Ohio might reasonably try to a press an appeal to the US Supreme Court. It will be interesting to see if it will.

February 11, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Split Washington Supreme Court decides accomplices must receive distinct sentencing treatment

As reported in this local article, headlined "Washington Supreme Court alters sentencing structure for accomplices," the top court in the Evergreen State earlier this week issued an interest opinion concerning how the state's sentencing structure should be applied to those found guilty as accomplices. Here is a summary from the press report:

In a 5-4 opinion released Thursday, the state’s high court ruled that convicted identity thief Larry Hayes should have received a standard-range sentence after being convicted of a host of felonies in 2009.  Instead, he got a 15-year term under a provision that allows prosecutors to seek extra punishment for egregious offenders. The majority ordered the case back to Pierce County for re-sentencing.

At issue is how people charged as accomplices should be treated under the law at sentencing. For years, Washington law has prescribed that accomplices and principle actors in a crime be exposed to the same culpability, a concept Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist on Thursday called “in for a penny, in for a pound.”

In an opinion written by Justice Charles Johnson and signed by Justices Charles Wiggins, Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst and Sheryl Gordon McCloud, the majority ruled that should not always be the case, especially where sentencing is concerned.

Until Thursday, when a prosecutor sought an exceptional sentence for a criminal defendant, he or she had to prove to a jury that certain aggravating factors made the crime worse than usual. The requirement applied to principle actors and accomplices alike. Thursday’s majority opinion said the blanket application to accomplices is improper.

Accomplices should be judged for their specific role in the crime and not just on the crime itself, the majority ruled. An accomplice, to qualify for an exceptional sentence, must have knowledge that the crime he or she is involved in is worse than usual, Johnson wrote, and prosecutors now must prove that knowledge to a jury. “...this finding of knowledge ensures that the defendant’s own conduct formed the basis of the sentence,” Johnson wrote....

Justice Debra Stephens authored the dissent, which was signed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen and Justices Mary Yu and Steven Gonzalez. Stephens argued that the majority was turning decades of case law on its head for no good reason. “It makes no sense that a principal should be punished regardless of whether he or she knew the crime was a major economic offense but an accomplice, who committed the same crime, should not be,” she wrote.

She went on to say the ruling would have far-reaching impacts. “It is no exaggeration to say that the way co-participants have long been tried in this state will need to change in order to accommodate the knowledge finding the majority superimposes on the enhancement statute,” Stephens wrote.

Lindquist agreed with Stephens’ assessment and said he would consider asking state lawmakers to pass legislation clarifying what they want to happen to accomplices. “They could say, ‘We meant what we wrote: Principals and accomplices are equally culpable,’” Lindquist said.

Appellate attorney Nancy Collins, who worked on Hayes’ appeal, said she thinks the majority got it right and that the application of the ruling would not be onerous. “I don’t see it as a change in the law at all,” Collins said. “The majority said the jury needs to consider the defendant’s individual conduct.”

The full opinion in Washington v. Hayes, No. 89742-5 (Wash. Feb. 5, 2015), is available at this link.

February 7, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Intriguing review of early impact of California's Prop 47 reducing offense seriousness

La-me-g-early-release-20150127Though marijuana reform is the national criminal justice reform story most significantly driven by voter initiatives, voters in California the last two major election cycles have been enacting significant sentencing reforms through the initiative process.  In 2012, voters approved Proposition 36 to revise the state's tough Three Strikes Law; last year, voters passed Proposition 47 to reduced various crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. These developments provide yet another reason to view California as the most interesting and dynamic of all states in the history of modern sentencing reform.

The Los Angeles Times now has this lengthy new article detailing some early impacts of Prop 47. The piece is headlined "Prop. 47 brings a shift to longer time spent behind bars," and here are excerpts:

For decades, Los Angeles County jail inmates divided their sentences by five, 10 or 20 to calculate the time they would actually spend behind bars. Because of overcrowding, they left after completing as little as 5% of their sentences.

Now, as Proposition 47 begins to reshape the California criminal justice system, they are serving much more of their time. The new law, passed by voters Nov. 4, reduced drug possession and other minor crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The county jail population plummeted and sheriff's officials began increasing the time served for the remaining inmates to 90% or more.

Most of the affected inmates will end up serving only half of that, due to automatic credits prescribed by state law, but the change is still profound. Because of Proposition 47, others who would have landed in jail are not being arrested as street cops take a pass because of the low stakes. At the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, bookings are down by 23% and narcotics-related arrests are down 30%.

Other California counties are also seeing significant decreases in their jail populations as a result of the new law. In Los Angeles County, the altered landscape has led to renewed questions about how big the new Men's Central Jail should be, as well as concerns about whether those now being issued misdemeanor citations are missing out on drug treatment that could turn their lives around.

Under the new law, the cost savings from smaller county jail populations, which the state legislative analyst estimated could be hundreds of millions of dollars, will be channeled into substance abuse and mental health programs, victim services and reducing school dropouts and truancy.

But some, including law enforcement officials, worry that people who need help will not enter the system. Already, fewer are opting for mandatory drug treatment programs because they face little to no jail time as an alternative. "What concerns me is that some of those offenders were getting treatment," said Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano, the Los Angeles County representative for the California Police Chiefs Assn., which lobbied against Proposition 47. "If they're getting arrested less, that doesn't mean their drug addiction problems have gone away."

Early release has been a near-constant feature in Los Angeles since 1988, when a federal judge allowed sentenced inmates to be let out early as a temporary solution to overcrowding. Many inmates were freed after serving only 10% of their time. A 2006 Times investigation found that nearly 16,000 were rearrested for new offenses while they could have been finishing out their sentences. Sixteen were charged with murder....

Over the years, the county has tried solutions including electronic monitoring, work programs and firefighting camps. But nothing had a dramatic impact until Proposition 47 passed with nearly 60% of the vote.

More than 400 county jail inmates have been released in the last three months because their crimes — which include theft and writing bad checks as well as drug possession — have been downgraded to misdemeanors under Proposition 47. That, combined with the reduced number of arrests, helped bring the jail population down to a low of about 15,000 from 18,600. Since early release has been scaled back, the inmate count has rebounded to about 17,400.

Inmates with county sentences for burglary, theft, DUI and the like are now serving 90% of their terms, whereas men had been serving 20% and women serving 10%. Those convicted of more serious offenses such as child molestation or assault with a deadly weapon are now serving 100% of their terms, compared with 40% previously. About 3,000 inmates are serving the longer county sentences; most of those serving state sentences are not affected.

The smaller jail population has allowed sheriff's officials to complete overdue repairs and has freed up more space for educational programs, Cmdr. Jody Sharp said. Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey praised the news that serious offenders in Los Angeles County are now serving most of their terms, calling it "a positive and welcome effect" that could help her office strike better plea deals. "Every defendant asks the following question: 'When can I get out?' " Lacey said. "If the 'when can I get out' is far in the future, it could impact if they plead guilty early or if they demand a trial."

Lacey emphasized that keeping a close eye on crime and recidivism rates will be key to understanding the full impact of the new law.

In Orange County, the inmate count has dropped nearly 22% since Proposition 47 took effect after the election, allowing sheriff's officials to close a section of the James A. Musick jail. Previously, there were no extra beds for new arrivals on the long weekends when court was not in session. "Now, we've got the luxury of not waiting on pins and needles — now we have some space," said Lt. Jeff Hallock, a department spokesman.

This report provides early evidence that Prop 47 has succeeded in redirecting California's state law enforcement and correction resources principally to the most serious offenders presenting the greatest risk to public safety.  Of course, long-term developments and analyses will been needed to conclusively assess whether the Prop 47 reform is an unqualified success.  But this early report sure is encouraging (and perhaps explains why the folks at Crime & Consequences, who had substantive posts assailing Prop 47 before the November vote, have not substantively discussed the law since its passage).

Some prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

January 29, 2015 in Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the The Vera Institute of Justice.  Here is a description of the report I received today via an e-mail from The Vera Institute of Justice:

Enacted in 1973, New York State’s Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated lengthy prison sentences for people convicted of a range of felony drug offenses.  This heralded a wave of mandatory sentencing statutes that swept the nation, contributing to dramatic increases in state prison populations and fueling the racial disparities that have come to characterize the U.S. criminal justice system.  In 2009, however, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were essentially dismantled by the latest in a series of reforms that eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for the possession, use, or small-scale sale of illegal drugs and increased eligibility for diversion treatment.

In End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University examine the impact of reform soon after implementation and suggest mid-course corrections.  The research team compared cases pre and post-reform to assess changes in the use of jail and prison, rates of diversion to treatment, recidivism, and cost. Researchers also interviewed 35 criminal justice stakeholders to assess their perceptions of the impact of drug law reform.  The National Institute of Justice-funded study, which focused on New York City where the majority of the state’s prison population is from, found that drug law reform, as it functioned in the city soon after the laws were passed, led to a 35 percent rise in the rate of diversion among eligible defendants. Although the use of diversion varied significantly among the city’s five boroughs, it was associated with reduced recidivism rates, and cut racial disparities in half.

January 20, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Significant sentencing reform afoot in Michigan

As reported in this Detroit News article, headlined "Michigan prison sentence reforms gain momentum," the Great Lakes state is moving toward some significant sentencing changes. Here is how the article starts:

State lawmakers are poised to act on a legislative package that would reduce some prison sentences, making it potentially the biggest issue — besides a road tax increase — they may consider when they return from a two-week recess.

The package of bills calls for a state commission to adjust tough sentencing policies adopted in 1998 that crowded prisons and sharply increased corrections spending. The legislation is aimed at reducing crime while reining in the state's $2 billion prison budget through sentencing, parole and probation reforms. It has moved quickly toward a House vote in the lame-duck session.

The vision is for the number of prisoners to decline over time, and for all released prisoners to receive supervision. The number of inmates incarcerated by the state has dropped below 44,000 from a high of 51,554 in March 2007, and cost increases have moderated because of policy changes and the contracting out of some prison services to private companies.

But Republican Rep. Joe Haveman of Holland, point man for the proposed reforms, said he sees potential for even more downsizing of the sprawling prison system. Corrections Department Director Dan Heyns "has done a fantastic job of getting at the low-hanging fruit through policies and cost savings ... but you can't save your way to a low-cost prison system," Haveman. "The only way you can get more long-term savings is to close a prison."

Attorney General Bill Schuette said he has "grave concerns" with some key proposals in the bills that he feels could "open the door to parole for some violent offenders at the earliest possible date."

The legislation is getting a boost from House Speaker Jase Bolger, a Marshall Republican who over the weekend shared on his Facebook page a column by GOP former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich that lauded Michigan's sentencing reform package and suggested it was "getting it right on crime."

November 20, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

"Profiles in Probation Revocation: Examining the Legal Framework in 21 States"

ProfilesProbationCover1The title of this post is the title of this notable new research report just released by the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. Via the Robina Institute at this webpage, here are the basics of the report's coverage and contents:

The Robina Institute is pleased to present the publication of Profiles in Probation Revocation: Examining the Legal Framework in 21 States, a close look at probation revocation practices in twenty-one states and the Model Penal Code.  The first publication of the Probation Revocation Project, Profiles on Probation Revocation, allows for a comparison across selected jurisdictions.  This report reveals a wide variation in probation practices in the United States and we hope it will further the dialogue on community supervision and probation practices.

This publication is the first in a series that will be produced by the Probation Revocation Project.  The focus of this publication is the legal framework of probation: that is, how have the legislature and courts defined the purpose and functions of probation in each state?  The focus of one or more subsequent publications will be how probation actually works within that legal framework.

In addition, I received from one of the authors of the report this more extended summary of its coverage:

The report compiles — in a convenient format — the results of a yearlong research project conducted by the Robina Institute on the laws relating to probation revocation in 21 American states.  By leafing through the volume’s four-page “legal profiles,” readers can easily see how much variation exists in statewide laws of probation and probation revocation, while zeroing in on issues of greatest interest.  Whether a reader’s jurisdiction is included in the report’s 21 states or not, the legal profiles contain a wealth of information that will allow for comparison with one’s own system.

The focus of the report is probation revocations and what leads up to them.  Each legal profile describes a particular state’s approach to issues collected under twelve headings concerning probation.  These are: Definition and Purpose, Forms of Probation, Length of Term, Early Termination, Supervision, Conditions, Modification of Conditions, Extension of Probation Term, Revocation Procedures, Legal Standard for Revocation, Revocation and Lesser Sanctions, and Appeal. The selected topics embrace aspects of the use of probation that may contribute to (or, conversely, reduce) revocation rates or the numbers of probationers who enter revocation proceedings.

Each profile begins with the nature of the probation sanction itself, including lengths of term and the burdens placed on probationers through sentence conditions. These are the early precursors of revocation rates.  The profiles also focus on what happens during the probation term, and how the law allows the terms of conditions of probation to lighten or grow more restrictive in individual cases. For example, legal arrangements during the probation period that encourage probationers to succeed — or at least do not impede their success — will have an impact on revocation numbers. Finally, the profiles give close attention to each state’s probation revocation process itself, including the legal grounds for revocation, the identity of the ultimate decisionmaker (judicial versus administrative), rules for hearings, procedural rights that accrue to the probationer, and the range of sanctions that may be imposed after a sentence violation is proven or admitted.

The report relies on official legal source materials such as statutes, court rules, caselaw, administrative rules and policies, and publicly-available documents. The report seeks to describe, more or less, the “law-on-the-books,” while realizing that the official sources do not necessarily reflect actual practices of probation supervision and revocation on the ground. Even so, the report provides new and valuable comparative information about statewide legal superstructures for probationary sentences. While not a full portrait of what happens in individual states, the report illuminates crucial legal boundaries within which local and case-specific discretion must be exercised.

November 4, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, October 24, 2014

Split Minnesota Supreme Court rules lenient sentence in rape case was abuse of discretion

As reported in this local article, headlined "Minnesota Supreme Court criticizes probation sentence in rape case," the top appellate court in Minnesota recently took the unusual step of overruled a trial judge's sentencing decision as an abuse of discretion. Here are the details:

In a rare and harshly worded ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court said Wednesday that a lower court judge erred in sentencing a particularly violent rapist to probation rather than the recommended 12 years in prison.

Justice David Lillehaug opened his 21-page opinion by saying that district courts have a great deal of discretion in sentencing. And the state high court rarely holds that it has been abused, he said. “But rarely is not never,” he continued. “This is such a rare case.”

The state Supreme Court vacated the sentence of 30 years’ supervised probation given to Jose Arriaga Soto Jr. Polk County District Judge Jeffrey Remick now must conduct additional fact-finding on whether the recommended 12-year sentence should be imposed or if a departure from the guidelines is justified.

Soto was 37 when he beat and raped a woman for two hours after drinking all night in an East Grand Forks apartment in 2012. Soto pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal sexual conduct. A co-defendant who was involved in the rape to a lesser degree than Soto received 12 years in prison, the opinion noted in its many criticisms of the ruling.

A presentencing report said Soto had minimized his actions without taking responsibility and blamed the victim. At his sentencing, he apologized to her. The opinion notes, in a tempered outrage, the horrors of the assault for the victim: “Soto committed a forcible and violent assault against an intoxicated and thus particularly vulnerable person. The assault lasted approximately 2 hours and the victim was repeatedly subjected to multiple penetrations by two men. Soto slapped the victim’s face, choked her, and caused several injuries.”

The opinion noted the Legislature and the Sentencing Guidelines Commission have determined a sentence of 12 years in prison is “presumed to be appropriate” for someone with Soto’s criminal history who commits such a rape. The victim’s vulnerability, the multiple forms of penetration and other particular cruelty that may be involved suggests that an upward departure on the case could have been appropriate, the opinion says. The opinion also noted that Soto’s co-defendant, Ismael Hernandez, was “arguably less culpable than Soto — he left the room shortly after the sexual assault began,” but he went to prison for the presumptive sentence of 12 years....

Three of the seven justices dissented from Lillehaug’s opinion. Alan Page wrote that the district court relied on factors generally recognized by the higher court as potentially relevant considerations in determining whether probation was appropriate for Soto. “While another [district] court or the members of our court might have arrived at a different conclusion, that alone does not make this situation the ‘rare case’ warranting our intervention,” wrote Page, who was joined in his dissent by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and G. Barry Anderson....

Even though probation wasn’t recommended in Soto’s pre-sentence report by a probation officer or an evaluator from a sex offender treatment program, Remick placed him on supervised probation for 30 years. The judge emphasized Soto’s age, lack of serious criminal record and family support. He also said the crime was primarily caused by alcohol and that Soto’s attitude in court was largely respectful and that “this particular type of event seems largely out of character.”

Lillehaug’s opinion challenged all the factors Remick listed for Soto’s amenability to probation, finding that he drew false or inappropriate conclusions in considering them. He said the judge should have argued that Soto was “particularly” amendable, the legal standard used to justify the departure of staying a presumptive sentence.

The full majority and dissenting opinion in Minnesota v. Soto, No. A13-0997 (Minn. Oct. 22, 2014), can be accessed at this link.

October 24, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Reviewing Alabama's (somewhat successful) use of sentencing guidelines to reduce prison growth

ImagesAs highlighted in this lengthy local article, headlined "Sentencing reform has slowed, not stopped, inmate growth," sentencing and sentencing reform in Alabama has been a dynamic process that includes sentencing guidelines intended to steer more offenders away from prison. Here are some details:

The state's sentencing structure has a huge impact on the prison population, which is at about 190 percent the capacity it was designed for. A 24-member panel — the Prison Reform Task Force — is working with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to analyze the system and find ways to reduce overcrowding, reduce recidivism and improve public safety.

Andy Barbee, research manager of the CSG's justice center, said Alabama's switch in October 2013 to presumptive guidelines — which judges are required to use unless there's a mitigating or aggravating factor to be considered — has accelerated a downward trend in the number of sentences to prison and the lengths of those sentences. Those guidelines, however, only apply to drug and theft cases.

That trend started in 2006, when voluntary guidelines were made available for judges to use. Judges still had the option to choose existing sentencing laws, but had to acknowledge for the record that voluntary guidelines were considered, Barbee said. The state took those guidelines a step forward when they approved legislation in 2012 that established the presumptive guidelines....

The new guidelines use a point system that weighs factors such as past criminal history and facts of the crime to impose a sentence, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission. The commission is the research arm of the criminal justice system. It's responsible for implementing changes when laws change and making annual recommendations for improvements to the governor, Legislature, chief justice and attorney general.

Wright said the purpose of creating the presumptive guidelines was to provide uniform sentencing practices across Alabama counties, and to make sure the system is fair, effective and encourages community supervision for nonviolent offenders.

But because there are scarce drug rehabilitation and mental health resources and those vary county by county, more structured and uniform assessments of those in the criminal justice system need to be in place to make sure services are effective. "At some point, the state will have to make a bigger investment in community services and supervision programming," Wright said. "Matching offenders with the right services lowers the likelihood that they'll commit more crimes."

The presumptive guidelines are binding unless a judge decides to downgrade the sentence based on facts, or unless an aggravating factor that might warrant a harsher sentence is proved, Wright said. Barbee said the switch to presumptive guidelines was a bold move in the right direction that took political courage, but the next step is to make sure the structure in place continues to evolve. He said similar changes need to happen with parole.

Although the number of arrests, sentences to prison and lengths of sentence are decreasing, the prison population is still on the rise. However, the presumptive guidelines are projected to slow the tremendous growth that the prison population would have seen otherwise, Wright said. "The presumptive guidelines are not going to drastically lower the prison population," Wright said. "It would be a modest reduction at best, but more than likely, it would result in a stabilization. The point is, if you didn't have them, the prison population would just grow, grow, grow."

Much of the current prison population was punished under a set of laws that provided more serious punishments to a larger class of offenses, Barbee said. "Simply waiting on the guidelines to have an effect won't get the system where it wants to be until many years out," Barbee said. "Therefore it's critical, if the state wants to have a near-term impact on the crisis level of overcrowding, it looks beyond sentencing."

Barbee said there are some caveats with the state's sentencing guidelines. Burglary is considered a violent crime, regardless of whether anyone else was involved during the burglary.... He also said Alabama has one of the lowest felony theft thresholds in the country at $500. The threshold was recently raised from $250, he said, and most states are at about $1,000 or $2,000.

The fact that the state's laws don't consider weight or amount when it comes to drug crimes also makes it more likely that punishment might not match the crime. He said any amount of drug possession other than marijuana — whether it's one pill or a pound of cocaine — is a felony.

October 19, 2014 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Is California's Prop. 47 a "common-sense" or a "radical" reform to the state's criminal laws?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new FoxNews piece headlined "California voters weigh 'radical' changes to justice system as prisons fill up." Here are excerpts:

Voters this fall, however, could approve big -- and some say "dangerous" -- changes to the state’s sentencing system, aimed in part at easing the overcrowding.  On the state ballot is a proposal that would dramatically change how the state treats certain “nonserious, nonviolent” drug and property crimes, by downgrading them from felonies to misdemeanors.

The measure, known as Prop 47, also would allow those currently serving time for such offenses to apply for a reduced sentence, as long as they have no prior convictions for more serious crimes like murder, attempted murder or sexual offenses. 

Businessman B. Wayne Hughes Jr., who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to push the ballot measure, told FoxNews.com the changes would affect Californians who are “over-incarcerated and over-unpunished.” 

“I saw Prop 47 as common-sense reform,” Hughes said. “I don’t see it as a radical reform.”

However, the measure is being slammed as dangerous by members of California’s law enforcement, including San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.   Zimmerman told FoxNews.com “virtually the entire law enforcement community opposes Prop 47.”

“It will require the release of thousands of dangerous inmates,” she said. 

The proposition would reduce penalties for an array of crimes that can be prosecuted as either felonies or misdemeanors in California. This includes everything from drug possession to check fraud to petty theft to forgery.  Prop 47 would, generally, treat all these as misdemeanors, in turn reducing average jail sentences.  According to a state estimate, there are approximately 40,000 people convicted each year in California who would be affected by the measure.

“[Prop 47] allows the criminal justice system to focus in on more serious crimes,” Hughes said.

According to an analysis by the California Budget Project, state and local governments would save hundreds of millions of dollars every year.  The measure dictates the savings be split among three different areas, with 65 percent going to mental health and drug treatment programs, 25 percent going to K-12 school programs and 10 percent going to victim services.  The measure’s supporters say it also would help reduce California’s prison-overcrowding problem, an issue that has dogged the state for years.

The analysis by the California Budget Project found that the California prison population would “likely" decline if Prop 47 were implemented.  “If Proposition 47 reduced the prison population by just 2,300 individuals – through re-sentencing and/or reduced new admissions – the state could meet the court-ordered population threshold via the measure alone,” the analysis said.

However, Zimmerman argued that the proposition would only shift the burden from the state prisons to local law enforcement and communities.   “[Prop 47 is] not a sustainable or responsible way to reduce California’s prison population,” she said.

The California Police Chiefs Association also has come out hard against the proposition.  “Proposition 47 is a dangerous and radical package of ill-conceived policies wrapped in a poorly drafted initiative which will endanger Californians,” the association said....

Former Republican congressional candidate Weston Wamp agreed, saying Prop 47 "might not be perfect, but it’s a breath of fresh air to talk about an issue where there can be some agreement."  Wamp said if passed, he believes Prop 47 could have a positive effect on the nationwide prison reform movement.   "I think it’s realistic if you give people who are not violent criminals, if you give them an opportunity not to just stay behind bars but to make their lives better, you may see over a longer period of time is lower rates in recidivism and a better chance at taking care of the problems and paying the bills," he said. 

For now, it seems like the proposition’s supporters are connecting with voters. An August poll by the Field Research Corporation found that 57 percent of Californians were in favor of the measure, 24 percent were opposed and 19 percent were undecided. 

Prior related post:

September 24, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

You be the sentencing judge: decades or just years for mistaken home shooting in Detroit? UPDATE: Judge decides decades

This new Detroit Free Press article, headlined "Attorney: Wafer wants to apologize at sentencing today for porch shooting," sets out the basic sentencing arguments being presented to a Michigan judge in a high-profile homicide case. Here are the details: 

Theodore Wafer wants to apologize to the parents of the 19-year-old woman he fatally shot 10 months ago and plans to make a statement during his sentencing this morning. That is what Wafer’s attorney said in a court document asking Wayne County Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway to depart downward from the sentencing guidelines of second-degree murder when she sentences the Dearborn Heights man for killing Renisha McBride.

“He wants to tell the McBride family that he is so sorry for taking their loved one’s life,” defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter said in the document.  “He wishes he could have taken it all back and not opened that door.  He beats himself up for opening the door.”

Wafer, 55, fatally shot McBride on the porch of his home about 4:30 a.m. Nov. 2.  A jury convicted him last month of second-degree murder, manslaughter and using a firearm in a felony.

Prosecutors said they believe Wafer should receive a sentence of 15-25 years in addition to two years for the firearm count and will make their argument in court, said Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the office. “There are no compelling, objective and verifiable reasons not accounted for in the sentencing guidelines that would justify a downward departure from the guideline range,” prosecutors said in a court document filed last week.

The defense disagrees. Carpenter said in the court document that she anticipates asking for a minimum sentence of four to seven years plus two years for the weapons conviction. Carpenter called the facts and circumstances of the case “more akin to manslaughter than murder.”   Carpenter cited several reasons for the departure, including Wafer’s age, his cooperation with police after the shooting and remorse for McBride’s death....

Gerald Thurswell, the attorney for McBride’s family in a wrongful-death lawsuit against Wafer, said one of McBride’s sisters will give a victim-impact statement during sentencing, and McBride’s father, Walter Simmons, will read a statement from another sister. McBride’s family feels Wafer should spend the rest of his life behind bars, Thurswell said....

The court document filed by the defense said Wafer is “riddled with guilt for his actions” and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. During the trial, prosecutors argued that Wafer was angry, wanted a confrontation, went to the door to scare away neighborhood kids with his gun, shot through a locked screen door and killed McBride, whom they described as an “unarmed, injured, disoriented 19-year-old.”

Wafer, who said he couldn’t find his cell phone and had no land line, testified that he heard banging on his doors, grabbed a baseball bat then his shotgun, opened the front door because he thought someone was going to come inside and fired in self-defense.

The jury didn’t believe self-defense, a juror told the Free Press.  Carpenter said she plans to appeal the conviction.

UPDATE: This CNN report, headlined "Man gets 15-30 years for shooting Michigan teen on his porch," provides the details of the sentencing decision made by the real sentencing judge here. Here is how the report starts:

Theodore Wafer said he was sorry from the bottom of his heart Wednesday for gunning down an unarmed young woman on the front porch of his Michigan home, but a judge said "mistake" was the wrong word to describe a murder and sentenced him to 15 to 30 years in prison.

Wafer, 55, looked down, his lawyer patting him on the back, as Wayne County Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway sentenced him for second-degree murder in the November shooting death of Renisha McBride, 19 -- a racially charged case because the victim was black and Wafer is white.

Wafer had testified that he feared for his life when loud banging startled him awake in the early morning hours of November 2, 2013. He opened his front door and fired a fatal shotgun blast into the face of McBride, who prosecutors say was seeking help after a car accident.

"To the parents family and friends of Renisha McBride, I apologize from the bottom of my heart and I am truly sorry for your loss," Wafer said. "I can only hope and pray that some how you can forgive me. ... From my fear, I caused the lost of a life that was too young to leave this world and for that I carry that guilt and sorrow forever."

Hathaway said it was one of the "saddest cases" she had ever presided over. "I do not believe that you are a cold-blood murderer or that this case had anything to do with race or that you are some sort of monster," the judge said. "I do believe you acted out of some fear but mainly anger and panic and unjustified fear is never an excuse to take someone's life."

Hathaway said she was confident Wafer was remorseful and would likely never commit another crime in his life, but that McBride came to his doorstep seeking help and lost her life. "You made the choices that brought us here," the judge said. "I don't know that you could ever use the word 'mistake' to describe a murder, and a person was murdered."

The defense had argued for a sentence of four to seven years, saying a longer sentence guaranteed that he would never get out of prison alive. But Hathaway said the sentencing guidelines were reasonable for the crime, giving him 15 to 30 years for second-degree murder and two additional years for possessing a firearm while committing the felony.

September 3, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

"Rethink sentencing and parole to solve aging, costly prison population"

The title of this post is the headline of this new editorial from a local South Carolina paper.  Yet, even though focused on some Palmetto State particulars, many of the points and themes in the editorial have broad applicability in many US jurisdictions.  Here are excerpts:

The term "life in prison" is easy enough to understand when it is handed down as a sentence in a courtroom.  But after the courtroom drama subsides, Corrections Department officials must face the realities of feeding, housing and caring for criminals who will spend decades in prison.

For many, the sentences are a just and fair punishment.  Often, they are also necessary to keep the public safe.  But some who will spend their lives behind bars must do so because of overly severe mandatory sentencing laws.

Regardless, any prisoner costs the state and its taxpayers a lot of money.  Prisons should serve to deter would-be criminals and separate society from its most dangerous members. Problems — and extra costs — arise when they must also serve as mental health facilities and nursing homes.

According to a recent report by The State newspaper, the number of South Carolina inmates over the age of 55 has more than doubled over the last 10 years. And that number is expected to increase without reforms to the way the state handles its sentencing and parole laws.

Many aging prisoners were sentenced long before a 2010 legislative reform reduced sentences for some non-violent crimes while strengthening punishments for violent offenders. That bill was so effective that it has reduced the prison population in the state by more than 10 percent overall and slashed the number of incarcerated non-violent offenders in the years since its passage.

South Carolina has also implemented programs, including a "smart probation" system, that have helped cut the rate of recidivism dramatically, as The Post and Courier reported on Sunday.   Even so, the state's cost per inmate continues to rise, and part of that increase is due to the expense of caring for aging prisoners with additional medical needs and accompanying logistical concerns....

The South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission prepares an annual review of the state corrections system with a particular focus on the impact of the 2010 legislation.  That data show that sentencing reform has, by and large, been a success story. But more work remains.  South Carolina should continue its reform of sentencing laws while focusing on rehabilitation for offenders who pose a minimal threat if given probation rather than prison.

The Legislature should also consider expanding parole options for aging inmates who have served substantial portions of their sentences, have serious chronic medical conditions or are unlikely to pose a threat should they be released under supervision.  Every prisoner who can safely be released on parole represents thousands of dollars of savings for taxpayers....

Any decision must consider both what is cost effective and acceptable for public safety. If some older prisoners who have effectively paid their debt to society can be allowed to re-enter society safely and at a savings to taxpayers, then there is little reason to keep them locked away.

September 2, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 02, 2014

"Swift, Certain, and Fair Punishment — 24/7 Sobriety and Hope: Creative Approaches to Alcohol- and Illicit Drug-Using Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Paul Larkin of The Heritage Foundation available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Local and state government officials in South Dakota and Hawaii have implemented a creative way to address some of the problems stemming from alcohol and drug use. The South Dakota 24/7 Sobriety program and Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) project seek to deal with those problems by combining an old criminological theory with modern technological devices.  Criminologists, both old and contemporary, have believed that the certainty and celerity of punishment are more effective components of deterrence than is the severity of a penalty.  In fact, anyone who has been a parent will tell you that the swift and certain use of a mild or moderate punishment is far more likely to deter unwanted conduct than the threat of an infrequently used severe punishment imposed at some point down the road.

South Dakota and Hawaii have developed innovative programs to deal with substance use and noncompliance with the conditions of supervision.  Both programs address this problem. Starting from the proposition that certainty and celerity are more important than severity when measuring the effectiveness of punishment and using a rigorous alcohol-testing regimen, South Dakota has made strides toward the reduction of problem drinking and the attendant harms that it can produce.  Hawaii has independently developed and followed a similar approach to the use of drugs and crime, subjecting certain offenders to rigorous, random drug urinalysis punished by the certain imposition of a modest stint in jail for those who fail the required tests. Those creative approaches are worth serious consideration as an effective and humane means of addressing the grim problems that alcohol- and drug-abusers pose for victims and society.

August 2, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Alabama struggling (and facing lawsuits) as sentencing toughness produces overcrowded prisons

As reported in this new local article, headlined "Governor Bentley to feds, prison reform advocates: 'You all are crazy to sue us'," elected officials in Alabama are struggling to figure out how best to deal with too many prisoners and prison problems. Here are the details:

Gov. Robert Bentley acknowledged the immense problems facing the state's prison system but said Monday that his administration needs time to address them, not lawsuits. Speaking at the annual convention at the Alabama Sheriffs' Association, Bentley said his message is the same whether his audience is the U.S. Justice Department or advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"You all are crazy to sue us," he said. "What good does it do to sue us?"

Bentley said he is as interested as anyone in solving problems that include overcrowding and allegations of mistreatment of inmates. He said he wants to work with anyone who has ideas about how to improve the system but added that lawsuits only divert time and money away from those solutions.

The Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center has, in fact, sued the state over its prisons. The organization alleged last month that the state has failed to meet its constitutional responsibilities to provide adequate health care to prisoners. Maria Morris, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said her organization had no choice but to sue to force improvement to years-old problems.

The Justice Department so far has not sued. But a scathing report in January detailing alleged abuses at the Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka has raised fears among the state's elected leaders that federal authorities are preparing to do so.

Bentley said the state cannot solve its prison problem without taking further steps to reduce long sentences, although he offered no specific proposals. "It is a real problem in this state. Not only is it a problem, but our sentencing of our prisoners is a real problem," he said.

The Legislature already has taken action in recent years on that front. Sentencing guidelines designed to reduce penalties for certain nonviolent and drug crimes have been "presumptive" since October, meaning that judges must cite specific reasons if they depart from the recommendations.

As far as addition action, Bentley said the state is waiting recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a program coordinated by the National Council of State Governments Justice Center. He acknowledged the political difficulty of taking on the prison issue.

"I can't run for governor talking about prison reform. People say, 'I don't care about that,'" he said. "But they do care if you have to raise taxes to build more prisons. They do care if you let violent prisoners out."

Bentley suggested changes in the state's Habitual Felony Offender Act, which was designed to crack down on repeat criminals but has helped spark a massive increase in the state's prison population since its passage in 1977. "The habitual offender act probably has increased our prison population more than anything else," he said.

Bentley said he opposes leniency for violent criminals and sex offenders – "I don't think we ought to let them out" – but said some nonviolent offenders serving longer prison terms because of the law probably can be rehabilitated faster. "If we don't do that, we're going to have to find money to build more prisons," he said.

July 29, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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.

July 16, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Careful examination of California's "mixed" record with realignment

14069-prisons_petersiliaEvery 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.

July 15, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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:

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.  

June 29, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Notable indication that "smart on crime" sentencing reform in West Virginia is paying dividends

StsealAs highlighted by this local article, headlined "Governor: Justice Reinvestment Act drops W.Va. jail population by 5%," it appears that another state is having significant success with data-driven "smart-on-crime" sentencing and corrections reforms. Here are the encouraging details:

Although in effect for slightly more than a year, legislation to reduce prison overcrowding by reducing recidivism and substance abuse is having a positive impact, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said during an event Thursday in Washington, D.C.

“Since I signed West Virginia’s Justice Reinvestment Act, we have had a 5 percent reduction in our prison population,” Tomblin said. “In April 2013, we had nearly 7,100 prisoners in our state. Last Thursday, that figure was down to 6,743. We have reduced overcrowding at our regional jail facilities by nearly 50 percent.”

The legislation was enacted in May 2013, after a yearlong study coordinated by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, which recommended reducing prison overcrowding with accelerated probation and parole for nonviolent offenders, and better community-based resources for parolees, including substance-abuse treatment programs.

Tomblin told the Washington CSG event that, in April 2013, West Virginia’s corrections system was 1,746 inmates over capacity, a figure that has now dropped to 885. “Today, we have more than 1,000 fewer people in our prisons than what was projected just a few years ago,” Tomblin said. “Without these changes, we expected to have more than 7,800 inmates in West Virginia prisons, compared to today’s total of 6,743.”

Since the passage of the legislation, Tomblin said, the state has continued efforts to reduce re-offense rates with new workforce training programs, assistance in helping parolees find appropriate housing and efforts to ensure access to community-based substance-abuse treatment for those released from prison, funded through Medicaid expansion....

The West Virginia Democrat was joined at the event by Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who has overseen similar successes with prison-reform programs in the Keystone State. Corbett noted that, in the 1990s, Pennsylvania was building a new prison nearly every year, as mandatory sentencing laws were causing the state’s inmate population to soar.

Michael Thompson, director of the CSG Justice Center, noted that the national dialogue has changed from a partisan debate over which party could be tougher on crime to a bipartisan effort to be smart on crime, a theme echoed by Tomblin. “I hope other states will consider the justice reinvestment model to take a “smart on crime” approach to prison overcrowding and public safety,” he said.

June 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack