Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Prosecutors defend who gets sent to Arizona's prisons

This interesting local article, which is headlined "Most state inmates committed violent crimes: Officials say state gets money worth for $1B corrections budget," reports on an notable effort by Arizona state prosecutors to defend their state's high prison population.  Here are excerpts:

A new study of the Arizona prison population reports that nearly all inmates have had prior convictions or committed violent felonies.

The Arizona Prosecuting Attorney's Advisory Council commissioned the study, titled "Prisoners in Arizona: A Profile of the Inmate Population." "Who is it who's locked up?" Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall asked at a March 30 news conference. "It's just who you'd expect."

Citing the 91-page analysis, LaWall said at least 94 percent of state inmates are repeat or violent offenders.  The figure represents more than 38,000 of the estimated 40,500 people incarcerated in state and private prisons.

Figures from the study show that 52 percent of inmates, some 21,200 prisoners, have been convicted of violent offenses.  The study also notes that as much as 83 percent, or 33,896 of convicts, have one or more felony convictions on their records.

Law enforcement officials say the study proves that only the most violent or problem criminals fill state prisons.  "A very small minority of folks can be classified as non-violent or fist-time offenders," LaWall said.

The study, as well as comments by LaWall and study author Daryl R. Fischer, may be directed at critics of the state's mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  Such laws lay out sentencing guidelines for numerous crimes, including drug offenses and drunk driving.  "The myth that we're filling our prisons with first-time drug offenders is not true," Fischer commented at the news conference.

A mathematician and longtime research manager with the Arizona Department of Corrections, Fischer wrote the study for the Arizona Prosecuting Attorney's Advisory Council, which paid about $24,000 for it. Fischer retired from the department of corrections in 2007....

According to the "Prisoners in Arizona" study, the state locks up about 567 people in 100,000.  Only Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas incarcerate people at a greater rate.

The study also note the state now spends about $1 billion per year on its corrections department.  "The state is getting its money worth for every tax dollar it spends on the prison system," Fischer said.  He noted that while crime has fallen by 42 percent since 1995, the prison population has risen by 18 percent.

The report discussed in this article, "Prisoners in Arizona: A Profile of the Inmate Population," is available at this link.  The report include a lot of interesting data, and that data might readily be "spun" in any number of ways. 

For example, the report asserts in its final numerical summary that "94.2% of inmates are violent or repeat offenders" and further asserts that, even among thousands of non-violent first offender, "97.2% exhibit factors either predisposing the present incarceration or weighing against early release."  These data certainly suggest that the vast majority of Arizona prisoners have a good reason to be in prison.  But they also suggest that there are still dozens (and perhaps hundreds) of non-violent first offenders behind bars in Arizona who have factors that neither predispose the present incarceration nor weigh against early release.  Now that this report helps identify who these non-violent first offenders may be, I wonder if these unnecessarily incarcerated persons will be able to get released early.

April 14, 2010 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Georgia not (yet) considering prison reduction to cut costs

This effective piece from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which is headlined "Georgia prison population, costs on rise," suggests that Georgia may soon have start considering it prison populations as it tries to deal with budget deficits. Here are excerpts:

As Georgia lawmakers desperately search for ways to slash spending, they are not debating an option taken by other states: cutting the prison population. Georgia operates the fifth-largest prison system in the nation, at a cost of $1 billion a year.  The job of overseeing 60,000 inmates and 150,000 felons on probation consumes 1 of every 17 state dollars.

The state’s prison population has jumped by more than a quarter in the past decade and officials expect the number of state inmates to continue to creep upward. Georgia has resorted to measures other than reducing the prison population to keep corrections spending under control....

Georgia prisoners are serving longer sentences due to tough-on-crime laws adopted in the 1990s. Those laws ban early release through parole for many offenders. A wave of convictions related to illegal methamphetamine also pushed up prison admissions in recent years.

Enough states are experimenting with keeping fewer offenders behind bars that the total number of state prisoners held nationwide declined this year for the first time in nearly four decades, according to a new report by the Pew Center on the States.  The Pew study found that prison populations dropped in half the states.  Georgia was among the states that posted an increase.

Budget problems played a role in the prison population reductions elsewhere.  But so did a sense among some policy makers that continuing to put greater numbers of offenders behind bars for longer sentences would not be effective at reducing crime, especially for some non-violent offenders and those incarcerated on drug charges....

States working to cut prison populations are relying on new research that helps them identify which offenders are likely to do well outside of prison and which programs work best to discourage recidivism....

Cutting Georgia’s prison population hasn’t been debated this year, even as legislators have considered drastic cuts in education, health care programs and the judiciary.  Given the state’s finances, some influential voices say it is time to begin a conversation about prison spending.

State Rep. Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta), who leads a subcommittee that oversees public safety spending, said it makes sense for the Legislature to study alternatives.  Martin said sentencing some low-risk offenders to house arrest at night, while requiring them to work during the day, could be more effective than placing them behind bars for a year with hardened criminals.

Such an approach could conserve resources to keep dangerous offenders locked up, he said, while also steering low-level offenders into more productive lives.  “If they are non-violent and do not pose a risk to the community or themselves,” Martin said, “let’s find a way to punish them and make them continue to work and pay restitution and support their family.”

Newt Gingrich, the former Georgia Republican congressman who served as Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999, wrote recently in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “Georgia simply can’t afford for the corrections system to maintain the status quo.” Gingrich argued that recidivism rates are unacceptably high and that churches and non-profits need to offer more resources and support to help offenders who are released from prison build productive lives in the community.

“Celebrating taking criminals off the street with little thought to their imminent return to society is foolhardy,” Gingrich wrote in the article, which was co-authored by Mark Earley, a former attorney general of Virginia.

April 4, 2010 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, March 26, 2010

Significant sentencing reform moving forward in South Carolina

As detailed in this local story, which is headlined "Sentencing reform passes: Bill tries to free up room for the dangerous," significant proposed changes to South Carolina's sentencing laws seem to be close to becoming a reality. Here are the details:

A bill designed to reduce the number of people going to jail in South Carolina for minor offenses and let more people out on parole received key approval Thursday.

The bill approved by the Senate is expected to save taxpayers money while providing improved oversight and training of nonviolent offenders. Proponents said it will ensure there's prison space for high-risk, violent criminals and that they'll serve longer prison terms. "This is a balanced bill that is tough on crime while providing alternative sentencing for those who deserve it," said Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, chairman of a commission that spent more than a year reviewing sentencing policies.

People convicted of nonviolent crimes account for nearly half of the state's 25,000 inmates, and nearly one in five inmates are imprisoned for drug crimes, according to the commission's February report.

Malloy, an attorney, said the bipartisan bill reforms a hodgepodge of laws enacted in recent decades, often as knee-jerk reactions to a particular local crime. Inmates are most commonly in prison on drug charges, burglary, check fraud and driving under suspension, in that order, he said. Providing education and supervision, rather than just throwing low-level offenders in prison, can "turn them from being a tax burden to a taxpayer," Malloy said.

Legislators have embraced the long-overdue changes largely because of the state's budget crunch, he said, noting that incarcerating someone costs $14,500 a year, compared to roughly $2,000 for supervised probation.

The state Corrections Department has been allowed to run a deficit for three consecutive years, as officials balked at the idea of releasing inmates early to make up for budget cuts. South Carolina's inmate population and its cost to taxpayers have soared since 1983, from less than 9,200 costing the state $64 million, to 25,000 costing $394 million. If trends continue, there will be 3,200 more inmates in five years, costing an extra $141 million to house and feed them, and several hundred million more for construction of new prisons, the report said.

March 26, 2010 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Interesting sentencing enhancement case from Washington state

Thanks to How Appealing, here is a little report on an interesting split state Supreme Court sentencing ruling today:

Should someone who is arrested for drunk driving, then taken immediately to jail, where a search reveals a small bag of methamphetamine taped to his sock, be subject to a sentencing enhancement for possessing a controlled substance in a jail or prison?  By a vote of 5-4, the Washington State Supreme Court answered "no" in a ruling issued today. The ruling consists of a majority opinion and a dissenting opinion.

March 25, 2010 in Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Great new features on improved website of The Sentencing Project

I just received this notable web-news via e-mail:

The Sentencing Project is excited to announce our new and improved Web site to help in your research and advocacy efforts for criminal justice reform....  Elements of the new site include:

Interactive U.S. Map -- A newly designed map provides access to comprehensive statistics, including total corrections populations, state corrections expenditures, racial/ethnic disparity in incarceration, number of juveniles in custody, and felony disenfranchisement.  Users can also compare data for different states, side by side.

New Site Search -- We have enhanced our search engine which now enables users to search for keywords within PDFs and other documents....

New Race and Justice Clearinghouse -- The Sentencing Project is host to the first, online database of research and information on race and justice.  Our exclusive resource contains more than 450 bibliographic references for books, articles and reports on the intersection of race and ethnicity with the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems.

This new Interactive US Map is an especially exciting feature of The Sentencing Project's new and improved website, as it provides instant and easy access to a lot of important state-by-state data. 

February 23, 2010 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A telling attack on mandating ignition interlocks for all drunk drivers

A local Tennessee paper has this interesting new commentary which is headlined "MADD's interlock proposal lumps all drinkers in same category."  The piece discusses and attacks a legislative proposal in Tennessee that would call for a specific sentencing response to all drunk driving.  Here are excerpts from the commentary:

This week, Mothers Against Drink Driving (MADD) voiced support for a bill to require ignition interlocks for all drunken driving offenders in Tennessee.  And while at first glance it might seem like a good way to get drunks off the road, readers should know that there is an important argument to be made against the mandatory use of these devices in the cars of all offenders....

[T]he proposed law supported by MADD would force judges to order low-BAC, first-time offenders — even those just one sip over the legal limit (and occasionally under the limit) — to install interlocks.  A 120-pound woman can reach the legal limit of 0.08 after two 6-ounce glasses of wine over a two-hour period. Under this new mandate, if she drives she will automatically be punished with an interlock for behavior that, according to studies, is equivalent to driving while talking on a "hands-free" cell phone. 

Mandating ignition interlocks for all DUI offenders is a one-size-fits-all approach that would punish that woman the same way as the hardcore abusers who cause the vast majority of alcohol-impaired fatalities. It eliminates a judge's ability to treat these very different offenders differently.

America's criminal justice system has a terrible record with universal sentencing guidelines. It's a lesson that the California legislature learned after a "three strikes" law sentenced a man to 25 years in prison for stealing a piece of pizza. Judges should be able to adjust some sentences based on circumstances and common sense....

In addition to targeting the wrong offenders, this mandate will cost millions of dollars to enforce. Based on estimates from the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), it would cost Tennessee at least $10 million per year to ensure that offenders comply with the interlock mandate.

Most state legislatures have already made it clear that they favor judicial discretion for marginal DUI offenders by rejecting low-level first-offender mandates or passing ignition interlock bills that target high-BAC and repeat offenders. Tennessee should do the same....

MADD is trying to subtly encourage Americans to be supportive of such in-car alcohol-sensors by making interlock technology more ubiquitous. That's why requiring interlocks for all offenders is MADD's top priority in Tennessee.  Tennessee should reject this proposal to require interlocks for all offenders. Instead, the state should target the high-BAC and repeat offenders who pose the biggest threat to safety on the roads.

I do not believe I have previously seen the standard arguments against mandatory prison sentences marshalled against requiring ignition interlocks for all drunk driving offenders, and it is especially interesting to see here the blanket (and, in my view, inaccurate) assertion that "America's criminal justice system has a terrible record with universal sentencing guidelines."  Though I fully agree that a "one-size-fits-all approach" to most sentencing issues is a very bad idea, especially when costly incarceration is involved, I am not sure that the classic arguments against mandatory minimum prison terms are quite so strong with respect to a simply requiring a tailored alternative sentencing mechanism like ignition interlocks for drunk drivers which merely seeks to prevent repetition of a particular type of illegal behavior.

So, who exactly is making this attack on the proposed law supported by MADD in Tennessee?  Is it the folks at the organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums?  Is it a representative of a woman's group concerned that petite women might get punished "the same way as the hardcore abusers"?  Nope, it is Sarah Longwell, who is "the managing director of the American Beverage Institute in Washington."  I am pleased to learn that the American Beverage Institute is so troubled by mandatory sentencing provisions, but I am sorry that this concern only finds expression in a forceful commentary when those provisions are targetting drunk drivers.

Some related posts on sentencing drunk drivers:

February 18, 2010 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Cheese in pants may draw life term for Yolo man"

The title of this post is the headline of this article from today's Sacramento Bee.  Here are the particulars:

A Yolo County man who put cheese down his trousers faces a life sentence when he goes before a judge next month.

Jurors convicted Robert Preston Ferguson of two counts of petty theft on Jan. 6.  One conviction was for swiping a woman's wallet from a convenience store counter.  The other was for stealing $3.99 worth of shredded cheese from the Nugget Market in Woodland.  Officers testified that Ferguson put the cheese in his pants and was apprehended in the parking lot.

Because of a lengthy criminal history that dates back 35 years, including six first-degree burglary convictions, Yolo prosecutors charged the petty theft counts as felonies. They say 22 years in prison failed to teach Ferguson, who is in his 50s, to obey the law.

Now they're asking a judge to give Ferguson a life sentence under the state's "three-strikes" law when he comes back to court March 1.  "Holding the defendant fully accountable will protect society from a repeat criminal offender," prosecutor Clinton Parish's motion says.

Defense lawyers have asked the judge to exclude Ferguson's prior offenses in sentencing, saying that the man is mentally ill and has substance abuse problems.  "At bottom, the prosecution's position is simply that because Mr. Ferguson has a criminal record he should be incarcerated for the term of his natural life for allegedly taking $3.99 worth of Tillamook cheese and allegedly taking a wallet the value of which has not been ascertained," public defender Monica Brushia's brief says.

As with most sentencing stories that make news, this case is sad and serious.  And yet, my impulse to leaven a snow day with some jocularity entails that I make light of this situation (and encourage readers to play along in the comments). 

For example, I cannot help but think of a Mae-West-type spin on what a female cop might have said when apprehending Ferguson: "Is that a three-strike sentence in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"  Also, I wonder if Larry Pratt might get inspired to consider a "Cheese in the Pants" sequal to his viral hit "Pants on the Ground".  Here's a possible lyric: "Looking like a fool ... and at a life sentence ... with the cheese in your pants!"

February 10, 2010 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Minnesota Governor Pawlenty urges doubling of sentences for sex offenders

As detailed in this local article, which is headlined "Pawlenty: Time to get tougher on sex crimes," Minnesota's governor (and a future presidential candidate?) is talking about significantly increasing his states punishment table for sex offenders. Here are the basics:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed tough new penalties for sex offenders Tuesday, saying sentences for those who commit serious crimes against children should be more than doubled. Under the proposal, those convicted of first-degree sex offenses would see their presumptive sentence go from 12 years to 25 years. Those with criminal histories likely would see tougher penalties.

"Sex offenders in our state and across the country continue to present a very serious challenge to the safety of our fellow citizens and to our communities and to our families," Pawlenty said. "They need to be kept off the street for as long as possible, and Minnesota's current law in that regard can be even further improved."

It is the governor's second effort at bolstering penalties for sex crimes. In 2005, the state passed a package of get-tough sentencing reforms, which included the first sentences of life without the possibility of parole for the most serious sex offenders.

But in announcing Tuesday's proposal, Pawlenty expressed unhappiness with the way some of those reforms have been implemented by courts. From 2006 to 2008, the latest year for which numbers are available, only seven people received the life without parole sentence. "It's been a helpful tool but not used as much as we would like," he said.

The sentencing proposal comes as the Legislature debates a $90 million expansion of the state's sex offender civil commitment program in Moose Lake. Since its creation two decades ago, 551 men and one woman have been sent to the program after their criminal sentences ended, and the number has been steadily increasing since college student Dru Sjodin's 2003 murder. Minnesota has the highest per capita number of civil commitments in the nation....

In 2008, courts issued 582 sentences for sex crimes, including 144 for first-degree crimes. That year, the Minnesota Department of Corrections recommended to county attorneys that 151 sex offenders scheduled for release be civilly committed. From 2008 to 2009, however, judges ordered only 38 offenders into the civil program, which includes extensive therapy and regular polygraph testing.

According to a one-day snapshot from July 2009, there were 9,353 inmates in the Minnesota prison system, 1,646 of whom were serving time for sex crimes. Nearly half of those were first-degree offenders with crimes involving children. Sex crimes make up the second-largest category of prison sentences in Minnesota, behind only drug crimes.

In 2008, the average prison sentence for first-degree offenders was actually more than 16.5 years, compared with a little more than 12 years a decade earlier, according to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. Offenders' criminal histories typically add length to sentences.

February 10, 2010 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Noting some great successes in Texas justice

As detailed in this January 2010 publication from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the story of Texas justice (at least in the non-capital arena) is one that should garner much attention and praise.  The publication is titled "Texas Criminal Justice Reform: Lower Crime, Lower Cost," and here is how it starts:

In recent years, Texas has strengthened alternatives to incarceration for adults and juveniles, achieving significant reductions in crime while avoiding more than $2 billion in taxpayer costs that would have been incurred had Texas simply constructed more than 17,000 prison beds that a 2007 projection indicated would be needed.  Similarly, juvenile crime has markedly declined at the same time Texas has reduced the number of youths in state institutions by 52.9 percent. By building on these successes in a challenging budget environment, policymakers can continue delivering improved results for public safety and taxpayers.

Especially because Texas is often (justifiably?) attacked for how they administer capital justice, I cannot help but wonder if there might be more than a coincidental relationship between Texas still being extra tough on the death penalty and now becoming extra astute in other areas of sentencing law and policy.  Is it possible that politicians who can readily display their "toughness" in the context of the death penalty are then especially able to avoid the often-problematic toughness posturing in debates over non-capital sentencing laws?

February 9, 2010 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Significant State Sentencing and Corrections Legislation in 2009"

The title of this post is the headline of an on-line report available herefrom the National Conference of State Legislatures, which includes a terrific (and seemingly comprehensive) state-by-state review of new sentencing and corrections legislation.  Here is part of the textual prelude to the chart with each state's new legislation:

Amid the most difficult economic situation since the Great Depression, state legislatures addressed sentencing and corrections policies that better manage correctional populations and budgets.  In 2009, states fine-tuned sentencing laws, expanded community-based diversion programs, and created policies and programs aimed at reducing recidivism. California, Delaware, Maryland, Montana, Oregon and Washington increased the monetary thresholds for theft-related crimes, to better align low-level offenses with less severe penalties.  States required presentence risk assessments to identify defendants appropriate for community-based sentences. In Illinois and New Hampshire, presentence screening that includes treatment recommendations must be completed for current military or veterans diagnosed with a mental illness.

Legislatures expanded access to substance abuse treatment by creating secure programs for more serious offenders and community-based programs for probation and parole violators.  A measure in Kentucky places offenders, identified by pretrial screening as having substance abuse issues, in community-based or secure substance abuse treatment.  Florida and North Dakota have designated specific substance abuse treatment programs as sanctions for probation and parole violations. States also relaxed mandatory sentences for drug offenders.  New York amended the “Rockefeller Drug Laws” by decreasing mandatory minimums, expanding probation eligibility, and permitting departures from mandatory incarceration for various felony drug offenses.

California, Colorado, Illinois and Montana enacted performance incentive funding policies that provide funds to counties for reducing probation revocations to state prisons.  In California, recidivism reduction programming must be evidence-based and funding provided to counties is directly related to costs avoided by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation due to a decrease in probation revocation admissions.  Programs created in Colorado and Montana focus on mentally ill offenders.

January 31, 2010 in Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Kansas legislature considering bill for PTSD-based sentence reductions for veterans

As noted previously on this blog, there have been some notable recent examples of judges reducing a sentence based on the hardships a defendant previously suffered as a result of military service. Now, as detailed in this local article from Kansas, this concept is getting some legislative attention:

Judges would be able to reduce sentences for defendants who are combat veterans and have post-traumatic stress disorder, under a bill being considered by the Kansas Legislature.

The measure is being pushed by state Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, who said his aim is to assist returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who become entangled in the criminal justice system to get the help they may need if they are suffering from PTSD. “They are returning from very stressful situations,” Sloan said. “If they get in trouble, maybe they don’t need to go to prison, but they need to get services.”...

The bill would give a judge the discretion to allow a departure from sentencing guidelines if the defendant has been diagnosed with PTSD and served in combat zones.

Committee Chairwoman Pat Colloton, R-Leawood, said several states are trying ways to connect returning veterans who run afoul of the law with needed health and social services. She said the proposals aren’t intended to excuse unlawful behavior but to get at the root of the problem and try to help

Sloan said he got the idea for the bill after discussions with Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the Kansas adjutant general. Recent reports have indicated that as many 300,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which is nearly 20 percent of returning forces, are likely to suffer PTSD or major depression.

Some recent related posts:

January 27, 2010 in Offender Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Accounting for the skewed punishment accountability in state crime codes

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting column from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which is headlined ""Pa. punishments often go beyond the crime."  The piece reports on important work being done by Professor Paul Robinson and his students concerning the perceptions and realities of sentencing in one state's criminal justice system.  Here are a few highlights:

Did you know that peeking at someone's e-mail in Pennsylvania carries a stiffer maximum penalty than keeping a slave?  Or that state law looks more harshly at someone who stole $2,000 than someone who sold a child?

These are just some of the weirder quirks in the piecemeal approach to lawmaking documented by a Penn research group for the state legislature.  University of Pennsylvania law professor Paul Robinson had his students determine this fall whether criminal laws were written in an orderly way. What they found was a "hodgepodge," as State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, put it. "It's more than inconsistent," the Republican said. "It's unfair."

Students found scores of serious crimes with lesser penalties than penalties for lesser crimes.  And polling of Pennsylvania residents turned up an additional 100 or so laws whose sentencing ranges were out of whack with public sentiment.

Robinson blames "aggressive politics." The more legislators feel the need to show their constituents they're responsive to the latest outrage in the media, the more punitive are the laws they write. "Usually some incident happens, it gets in the headlines, and legislators get worked up," he said. "They feel obliged to do something about it. The natural effect is to exaggerate the penalty."

Pennsylvania last gave its laws a good scrubbing in 1972, when it simplified, clarified, and organized its criminal code.  Since then, the code has more than doubled in size, to 636 offenses and suboffenses.  On top of that, legislators have added definitions of criminal offenses in 1,648 more sections of state law.

Researchers gauged the vastly different attitudes Pennsylvanians have about how much punishment should fit a crime by asking 131 residents from across the state to compare the seriousness of offenses.  Take slavery, for instance.  Keeping an adult against his or her will, according to the law, is a first-degree misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of five years.  But Pennsylvanians found that crime as serious as a first-degree felony, which can bring a 20-year term.

In most examples, the law proved harsher than popular opinion.  The law puts the maximum sentence for selling a bootlegged Beatles CD at five years.  Pennsylvanians thought it was worth no more than 90 days. Reading someone else's e-mail without permission carries a seven-year term.  Again, Pennsylvanians thought 90 days was more like it. ...

The problems with the law run deeper than disorganization.  Unequal justice erodes people's confidence in the system. Matt Majarian, one of Robinson's second-year students, says: "If people have little confidence in the system, they will be less willing to serve on juries, less willing to call police, they'll be more willing to engage in vigilantism.  This results in real problems in law enforcement and criminality."

The students presented their findings before the state Senate and House Judiciary Committees in December. They've proposed that the legislature reorganize its criminal code, evaluate the relative severity of punishments, and ensure that laws are not written too broadly.

I strongly suspect that Pennsylvania is not at all unique in this regard, and I hope Professor Robinson (or others) will consider conduct this sort of study and analysis of skews in other state criminal codes.

January 19, 2010 in Offender Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pushing back against proposed sentencing reforms in Michigan

As detailed in this local article, which is headlined "Early prison releases in Michigan assailed: Prosecutors, victims say at least minimum sentences should be served," a campaign against proposed states sentencing reforms is mounting in Michigan. Here are some details:

[Rose] King was one of two crime victims to speak at a news conference in which area law enforcement officials warned of the danger of releasing prisoners early. Also, they lashed out against a pending bill in Lansing that would do away with 1998's truth-in-sentencing guidelines which, among other things, guarantee felons will serve at least minimum sentences.

Similar news conferences were staged across the state, as prosecutors banded together in hopes of avoiding a return to the pre-1998 period when felons convicted of like crimes often received a wide range of sentences. "We want truth in sentencing rather than deceptive sentencing," Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Fink said.

Fink, Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz, King and others on Tuesday were critical of the state's efforts to reduce costs by the early release of prisoners such as Sherwood, who was sentenced before Michigan's truth-in-sentencing law took effect. Fink pointed out that two of the last three homicides in Kalamazoo County were allegedly committed by parolees released within the last two years. "There appears to be a fire sale at the Department of Corrections," said Fitz, alluding to an 11.8 percent reduction in the state's prison population over the last 11 months.

What people probably don't know, Fitz said, is Michigan has the highest violent crime rate, the fewest number of police officers by population and sends the fewest number of felony offenders to prison of any state in the Great Lakes region. "The national average is 40 percent of felons sent to prison. Michigan sends 20 to 21 percent," he said.

Arguing that the Legislature needs to find ways to reduce costs that don't jeopardize public safety, Fitz said the Department of Corrections has been "bleeding green for some time." It costs Michigan $32,817 a year to house an inmate, he said, compared to $19,812 in Indiana, $22,396 in Illinois and $25,269 in Ohio. St. Joseph County (Mich.) Prosecutor John McDonough was unable to say why the cost is so much higher in Michigan, guessing the reason could range from construction costs to the price of food and clothing. Neither did King venture a reason for the disparity.

January 13, 2010 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 07, 2010

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about linking education and prison funding

As detailed in this local report, which is headlined "Educators intrigued by proposal to link college, prison spending," a key part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's state-of-the-state address focused on the relationship between state funding of education and prisons.  Here are the basics:

University leaders on Wednesday lauded Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to shift state money from prisons to higher education, but some experts warned the proposal is just bad budgeting.

In his State of the State address, Schwarzenegger proposed a constitutional amendment that would guarantee at least 10 percent of the California budget for the University of California and California State University systems, gradually scaling back prison funding to reach that number.  Both university systems have raised student fees more than 30 percent in the past year while limiting access because of deep budget cuts.

About 7.5 percent of the state general fund is now devoted to the universities, the governor said, far less than the 13.4 percent they received in 1967.  Almost 11 percent of the state's $90 billion budget is dedicated to prisons, Schwarzenegger said.  Data from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office show slightly different figures: 9.6 percent for prisons and 5.9 percent for universities.

Education leaders -- and even some critics -- called the plan to shore up the suffering schools "bold" and "visionary."  But some said the proposal would be another sign of the state's bad habit of tying its hands when it comes to the budget.

UPDATE:  I just found this one-page release from Gov. Schwarzenegger's office which is titled "Reshaping Our Priorities To Shift Funding From Prisons To Universities." It starts with this quote from the Governor's state of the state speech:

Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future.  What does it say about a state that focuses more on prison uniforms than caps and gowns?  It simply is not healthy.  I will submit to you a constitutional amendment so that never again do we spend a greater percentage of our money on prisons than on higher education.

I am eager to give the Terminator lots of credit for his focus and rhetoric on these matters, though I fear that it is coming a day late and lots of dollars short.  Excessive and poorly coordinated spending on prisons has been a major problem for the entirety of Gov. Schwarzenegger's time in office, but only now during his last year in office is he talking the talk --- and perhaps only now because he is forced to start walking the walk due to a looming prison-reduction court order looming and on-going protests about cuts in higher education funding.

January 7, 2010 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Is repeat offender Charlie Sheen potentially facing a long prison sentence?

This article from the Los Angeles Times, which is headlined "Charlie Sheen's 1996 domestic violence incident in L.A. could become factor in new case," should prompt fans of "Two and a Half Men" to worry about the fate of the show's star.  Here are the details: 

Charlie Sheen’s previous domestic violence case more than a decade ago in Los Angeles could become a factor if Colorado prosecutors file charges against the actor over an alleged assault in Aspen last week.

Katie Buckland, executive director of the Women’s Law Center who has handled domestic violence cases for the L.A. city attorney’s office in the past, said the earlier instance of domestic abuse could be critical during both a trial and a sentencing if Sheen is convicted. “A second offense is always treated more seriously,” she said....

Sheen was arrested Christmas Day on suspicion of second-degree assault, menacing and criminal mischief and released on $8,500 bond, according to Aspen police. In a 911 recording released Monday, a tearful woman who identified herself as Sheen’s wife said her husband had threatened her with a switchblade-type knife. She feared she was “going to die,” the woman said.

Sheen, who stars in the CBS comedy “Two and a Half Men,” pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of battery with serious bodily injury for a 1996 incident involving his then-girlfriend, Brittany Ashland.

He was accused of knocking her to the floor, leaving her bloodied and briefly unconscious. He was sentenced to two years' probation with a suspended one-year jail term and 300 hours of community service. At his sentencing, he told a judge: “I feel this is very fair, and I’m grateful.... You will not see me back in this courtroom.”

Thanks to the folks at TMZ, everyone can read this affidavit supporting Sheen's arrest.  Of course, charges have to be formally filled against Carlos Irwin Estvez (aka Charlie Sheen) before sentencing particulars become central to Sheen's case.  But I would like to hear in the comments from anyone familiar with Colorado sentencing concerning just how long a prison sentence Sheen could be potentially facing if the worst allegations against him are true.

December 29, 2009 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, December 04, 2009

Repeat offender gets state sentence of 100 years for possessing child porn and pot

While closely following the debates and disparities in federal sentences for downloading child porn, I keep thinking and wondering about whether and how these offenses are being prosecuted and sentenced in state court.  Thus this local article, headlined "Slidell man sentenced to 100 years in prison for possessing child porn," concerning a Louisiana sentencing caught my attention this morning.  Here are the details:

A 43-year-old Slidell man on Thursday received 100 years in prison for possessing child pornography and about a pound of marijuana. State Judge William "Rusty" Knight sentenced Andrew Galatas under stiffer sentencing guidelines after Knight determined that St. Tammany Parish Assistant District Attorney Scott Gardner had sucessfully labeled Galatas a habitual offender.

None of the images was of local children and Galatas had not taken any of them himself, only downloaded them off the Web, authorities said. A 12-member St. Tammany jury had found him guilty on Nov. 10 as charged of the two possession charges.

Although pornography involving juveniles carries a maximum term of 10 years in prison, Galatas has other felony convictions on his record so could be considered a habitual offender. He has molestation of a juvenile and a sexual battery charges from 1997, a possession of stolen property over $500 charge in 1996 and an issuing worthless checks over $100 charge from 1995.

December 4, 2009 in Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Can the laboratory of the states help solve prison-crowding problems?

The question in the title of this post is inspired by this local article from Florida, which is headlined "Florida's prison problem could find a solution in Texas."  Here is how the piece starts:

If only Florida's economy could grow like its prisons.  The state has more than 100,000 prisoners for the first time in its history. It's expected to add 14,000 in the next five years, according to the Department of Corrections.  Every 1,500 new inmates need a new prison.  It costs $100 million to build one and $20 million a year to run.  How can a state in a perpetual budget crisis pay for all that?

"It's currently unsustainable given our fiscal situation," said Florida Tax Watch general counsel Robert Weissert. Florida is staring at a Texas-sized problem. Fortunately, Texas might also have the solution.

Two years ago that state faced its own prison crisis: house 17,000 new inmates by 2012 at a cost of half a billion dollars.  But Texas never built any new prisons. Instead, for half that amount, it revamped its criminal justice system, reduced its prison population and became a national model for reform.

"We hit the perfect storm at the right time," Texas legislator Jerry Madden said at the Collins Center for Public Policy's Justice Summit this week in Tampa.  "We were able to say we can do this for less and, oh, by the way, our results will be better."

November 19, 2009 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, October 23, 2009

A complete set of links to Smart Sentencing from the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission

I received this afternoon this helpful e-mail with links to some documents that should be useful for all sentencing fans:

The Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission presents the latest in statistics, information, research findings and evidenced-based practice to help make informed decisions about how to punish criminal behavior.  The Commission launched Smart Sentencing, a periodic bulletin to keep judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers and others concerned about sentencing issues current as to the latest information related to sentencing practices and their impacts...

The information in these bulletins is important and, we hope, useful.  We are grateful to the research staffs of the Department of Corrections and David Oldfield, its director of research, and the Office of State Courts Administrator and Anne Janku, its research director, for compiling the statistics and writing these bulletins, and to Beth Riggert, communications counsel of the Supreme Court, for editing assistance.  Here are the bulletins issued thus far:

October 23, 2009 in Recommended reading, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Were hundreds of criminals given the wrong sentences because lawyers messed up a basic work sheet?"

The title of this post is the sub-heading of this remarkable new Slate piece by Ray Fisman to which a helpful reader pointed me.  Here is the start of today's must-read piece:

In early 2005, Emily Owens was halfway through her Ph.D. thesis in economics at the University of Maryland.  Her topic: the deterrence effect of long prison sentences.  She had just received data from the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy on tens of thousands of cases that had appeared in the state's courts over the previous years, cases she hoped would help her close out her dissertation.  But as she started working through the numbers, she came across thousands of inconsistencies and errors in the sentencing recommendations provided to judges by the commission.  The errors ultimately translated into extra months and years of prison time for unlucky convicts and light sentences for lucky ones.  What might have been a run of the mill economic analysis of crime and punishment turned into a shocking account of human error.

The particulars of this story are best understood by reading the full Slate piece.  But this concluding paragraph to the piece will likely resonate for lots of folks outside of the Old Line State:

One lesson from the case of Maryland's work sheet errors is that multiple levels of evaluation helped to undo some of the damage (though you might not see it that way if you spent an extra couple of months in the slammer because your attorney can't do arithmetic).  It's a crucial insight given that states around the country have limited or abolished the discretion of parole boards as a result of Truth in Sentencing laws.  More generally, crime and punishment in America remains rife with prejudice and inconsistencies.  The poor and uneducated are convicted at rates disproportionate to their crimes; jurists and judges alike are biased and sometimes outright irrational.  Keeping some checks and balances in place — like the moderating effects of parole boards — might help to keep the justice system a little more just.

October 22, 2009 in State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 18, 2009

New report on mandatory minimum sentences from Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing late last week released this important research report, which is titled "A Study on the Use and Impact of Mandatory Minimum Sentences."  The study was undertaken at the direction of the state legislature, and it examined 1) the extent to which mandatory sentences are imposed, 2) the processing of mandatory sentencing cases, and 3) the effectiveness of mandatory sentencing with respect to crime reduction.

This local press article, which is headlined "State commission says drug-free school zone law should be repealed," reports on some of the highlights:

In a 490-page report Friday, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing recommended the repeal of the drug-free zone law that prosecutors invoked against Range. The report also advocated raising the threshold of cocaine needed to trigger enhanced penalties for trafficking -- from 2 to 5 grams -- and allowing more drug cases to go through intermediate punishment or boot-camp programs.

The recommendations, part of an overall study of mandatory minimums in the state, offer a change from the mid-1990s, when many of the beefed-up laws were enacted amid a popular mantra of get-tough-on-crime.

Critics say the laws are clogging prisons, breaking state budgets and failing to address the problems they aim to, prompting legislatures to reconsider the wisdom of warehousing offenders when studies show treatment is cheaper and produces less recidivism.

"This year in the budget process was the first year I've heard some serious discussion of the cost, and 'Let's look at those issues,'" said Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, which advises the state on sentencing policy. "It's a rare time when I actually think there can be some progress moving forward with these recommendations."

But that may not prove to be the case, because school zones and other heightened penalties are popular among prosecutors and law enforcement officials.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli is a supporter of the state's mandatory minimums, though he believes that more aren't needed. He said the minimums are a useful plea bargaining tool, because prosecutors can trade them for an admission of guilt. He said the goals of school zones are laudable. "It would be a mistake [to repeal them]," Morganelli said. "It would send a bad message that it's OK to deal drugs in school zones."

U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Lehigh, wrote Pennsylvania's school zone law in 1997 while serving in the state Legislature. He says it has helped keep drugs away from children. "The real issue is if these people were not in prison and on the streets, what would crime be then?" Dent asked.

The commission's report found school zones are "overbroad" and go beyond the goal of preventing drugs from being dealt to children. It also says the 1,000-feet parameter is problematic in dense urban areas and disproportionately affects minorities.

October 18, 2009 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, October 05, 2009

If you build good guidelines, judges will follow

The title of this post seems to be the message of this local article discussing data on how frequently state judges in Pennsylvania sentence within applicable state sentencing guidelines.  Here are some of the details from an interesting (and all-too-rare) press discussion of state sentencing patterns:

There were 101,576 criminal sentences handed down in Pennsylvania courtrooms in 2008, and 1,530 of them were imposed by judges in the four Valley courts, according to the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing’s annual report.

Statewide, about 90 percent of the sentences meted out to convicted offenders conformed with the guidelines and 5 percent were shorter than suggested by the guidelines. In the Valley, the rate ranged from 92 percent conformity in Northumberland County to 98 percent in Montour County.

Judge William H. Wiest, one of three judges in Northumberland County, said he follows the state’s recommendations almost all the time because “they are well thought out, fair and reasonable.” Wiest said he’d like to see the guidelines broadened to allow judges the option of meting out harsher sentences.

After 11 years on the bench, he’d like to see the state increase its recommended sentencing for first-time drug sale offenders from a maximum of three months in jail to a maximum of seven months and allow more leeway in sentencing convicted drunken drivers. “I’d like a greater range of discretion,” he said....

Martin Wilson, assistant district attorney in Union County, said the creation of statewide sentencing guidelines helped level the playing field and ensured offenders in Philadelphia would face the same penalties as an offender who commits the same crime in the rural city of Sunbury. “They definitely served a valuable service in an effort to be consistent,” he said.

October 5, 2009 in Data on sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Forum: Does California need a sentencing commission?"

The title of this post is the headline of this piece in the Sacramento Bee that sets up yes/no commentary answers from leading voices in the sentencing reform debate in California.  Here is the set up, followed by links to the dueling commentaries:

For years, California has been considering a commission to coordinate sentencing guidelines and fiscal policy, and to pull together state and local corrections programs into a coordinated system.  In 2007, the Senate and the Assembly passed bills for a sentencing commission.  But the Legislature couldn't agree on a final bill, so the effort died.

This year, the dynamic changed.  The Senate approved of a sentencing commission as part of a larger prison reform bill, with the support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.  But the Assembly removed the sentencing commission from its legislation.  The final prison reform bill that passed and was signed by the governor did not include a sentencing commission.

Sentencing commissions, which have been implemented in more than 20 states, serve to propose new or revised sentencing guidelines for judges and prioritize bed space in states that struggle with overcrowded prisons.

Opponents of sentencing commissions say it is an attempt to soften punishment for criminals; those in favor say California's sentencing policies aren't working because the state relies overwhelmingly on incarceration rather than rehabilitation.

September 27, 2009 in State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Interesting empirical study of sentencing in Nevada

I just came across this paper on SSRN, titled "Felony Sentencing in Rural and Urban Courts: Comparing Formal Legal and Substantive Political Models in the West." Here is the abstract:

This study explored two models of sentencing in urban and rural districts in Nevada (2007 felony sentencing data, N=10,873).  It was hypothesized that sentence lengths and dispositions would differ between rural and urban districts.  Furthermore, it was hypothesized that urban districts would follow a formal legal model – in which only legal variables (crime features, criminal history) act as predictors of sentencing outcomes, whereas rural districts would follow a substantive political model – in which extralegal factors (age, sex, race / ethnicity, etc.) also predict sentencing outcomes.  The authors found that urban and rural districts in Nevada conformed to a substantive political model of sentencing (including both legal and extralegal factors), though legal factors were often the strongest predictors of sentencing outcomes.

I have long thought that a lot more could be learned from the careful study of modern state sentencing systems, and this helpful paper confirms my desire to see more researchers analyzing more state sentencing patterns.

September 15, 2009 in Data on sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Notable materials from the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission

Though I am usually able to keep up with most of the activities of the US Sentencing Commission (and most of the stuff posted on its website), I never have enough time to review (and praise) all the interesting and important work being done by many state sentencing commissions.  Fortunately, helpful readers sometimes alert me to some of this work appearing publicly on state commission websites.

For example, thanks to a helpful reader, now I can note (and praise) these materials recently added to the official website of the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission:

RECENTLY ADDED: Smart Sentencing Bulletins, Issue 1 and Issue 2 and the February 2009 and April 2009 Progress Report on Recommended Sentencing.

In addition to encouraging folks interested in state sentencing developments to check out all these goodies from the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission, I also encourage folks involved in state sentencing developments to keep alerting me to notable reports and materials.

May 17, 2009 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, May 01, 2009

A close look at Alabama's experiences with sentencing reform

In my view, there is clearly far too little scholarship on state sentencing systems (and probably too much on the federal sentencing system). It is thus exciting and refreshing to see this new piece on SSRN by Joseph Colquitt, titled "Can Alabama Handle the Truth (in Sentencing)?." Here is its abstract:

This Essay examines truth in sentencing, discusses its strengths and weaknesses, and analyzes what it will mean for Alabama.  The piece neither seeks to support or oppose the existing legislative mandate to adopt truth in sentencing in Alabama.  Rather, the Essay seeks to shed light on the issues, induce a healthy dialogue, and encourage the involved parties to garner a broad base of knowledge, carefully deliberate, properly design Alabama's truth-in-sentencing scheme, and ensure that the state has built the necessary infrastructure to support truth in sentencing.  Otherwise, adopting any truth-in-sentencing scheme would be imprudent. The Essay also examines Alabama past and present sentencing models and reports on the Sentencing Commission's voluntary sentencing guidelines presently used in the state as well as the challenges it faces in developing a truth-in-sentencing scheme in compliance the existing legislative mandate.

May 1, 2009 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, February 16, 2009

An Ohio example of how the prison economy budget can mix up the usual political rhetoric

In my own home state of Ohio, a very tight budget and a growing prison population have created a fascinating and dynamic set of political and practical conversations about state sentencing reform.  This local article today, headlined "Seitz offers plan for prison reform: Overcrowding strains budgets," details some of the on-going debate and reveals why we are not quite seeing politics as usual:

State Sen. Bill Seitz says sweeping prison reform is the only way to reduce overcrowding and ease strain on Ohio's incarceration budget.  The conservative Green Township Republican last week introduced Senate Bill 22, which would allow more minor offenders to be sentenced to community programs, give more good-time credit to inmates, give the parole authority the ability to deal with parole violators and create sentencing alternatives for parents convicted of failing to pay child support.

"While it is important that the Legislature continues to pass strong laws to help keep our communities safe, this effort must be balanced with policies that work to responsibly reduce Ohio's prison population and its financial impact on taxpayers across the state," Seitz said....

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters stopped short of criticizing a fellow Republican, but said the bill would compromise safety and if the budget needs relief, cuts should be made elsewhere. "The problem with any of these laws is they are entirely budget driven, and not safety driven," Deters said.

"Bill is one of the best legislators I have ever met, he is very smart and he is looking for ways to get money out of the budget, but he is looking in the wrong place," Deters said. "The first job of government is to protect its citizens, and a viable prison system is critical to community safety."

Seitz, who served nearly eight years in the Ohio house before moving to the Senate in 2007, said reform has been needed for years. But the budget crisis means the legislature has to act now, he said.

Seitz's bill mirrors proposals by the [Democratic] Strickland administration.  Gov. Ted Strickland's two-year budget, which must be passed by June 30, proposes spending $3.65 billion in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 to run prisons. Collins said there is about $10 million in the state budget for counties to fund community-correction programs, including halfway houses....

The Seitz bill varies slightly from Strickland's proposal, reducing earned credit to five days a month instead of seven. Violent offenders and sex offenders would not be eligible for good-time credits. "There are many things for Democrats and Republicans to fight about in this budget," Seitz said. "I hope this is not one of them."

Seitz said the reforms do not compromise safety. "We all want to increase the penalties for this and that," Seitz said. "And it might be warranted, but where is the money? The prison budget has been cut, cut, cut." Something has to give, he added....

Seitz said sentencing disparities for people convicted of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine crimes must be corrected, that judges need more authority over judicial release, and that inmates at the end of their sentences should transition into community-based correctional facilities....

Hearings could start as soon as next month, Seitz said. "Until people put their money where their mouth is on criminal sentences, there is no other choice," Seitz said.

February 16, 2009 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, February 02, 2009

Departure patterns as a guide to whether guidelines are balanced

GUIDELINES_graphic_COLOR_thumb This effective local article about judicial departure rates from Virginia's state sentencing guidelines provides a terrific reminder about what judicial decisions can tell us about balances (and imbalances) in an advisory sentencing system.  Here are some statistical snippets from the article:

According to the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission’s 2008 annual report, judges in the 16th Circuit sentenced criminals in felony cases within sentencing guidelines 76.9 percent of the time.  They strayed from sentencing guidelines for more serious consequences in 13.7 percent of 642 cases while opting for lighter sentences in 9.3 percent.

In fiscal 2007, 16th Circuit judges followed the guidelines for 80.6 percent of 568 total cases. The judges in the circuit ... chose more severe sentences 8.8 percent of the time and lighter sentences 10.6 percent of the time....

The most recent commission report also detailed statewide compliance to sentencing guidelines in certain crimes.  Judges across Virginia stuck to sentencing guidelines 63.4 percent of the time in 232 total homicide cases, choosing more serious sentences 21.6 percent of the time and less severe sentences 15.1 percent of the time. 

Morris said he wasn’t surprised that judges strayed from the guidelines more often in violent crimes.  “That is where judges are really considering punishment and removing the person from the community for a lengthy period of time,” Morris said.

Of the 551 sexual assault cases in fiscal 2008, 20.5 percent of sentences were higher than the guidelines suggested, while 13.2 percent were lower than the recommendation. However, 22.8 percent of 202 total rape cases had less severe sentences, while 8.9 percent of sentences were more severe. Officials explained that disparity might have to do with the number of charges that falls into the sexual assault category, potential factual issues in rape cases and certain factors, such as age, that can worsen the recommended sentences.

In fiscal 2008, judges stuck to the guidelines more often in fraud, high abuse-risk drug and larceny cases, with 84.5 percent, 83.3 percent and 82.8 percent in compliance, respectively.

These data (as well as those reflected in the chart reprinted here) showcase that Virginia state judges are, generally speaking, as likely to find a guideline-recommended sentence to be too lenient as too harsh.  In sharp contrast, in the federal system, sentencing judges are roughly 10 times more likely to sentence below the guidelines than above the guidelines.  (In drug trafficking case, this ratio goes even higher; judges conclude that the federal guideline range is too harsh roughly 20 times more often than they conclude the federal guideline range is too lenient.)

Though a perfectly equal amount of upward and downward departures does not necessarily shows that a guideline system is perfectly balanced, a departure pattern like what we see in Virginia seems much sounder than what we see in the federal system.  And, what is especially troubling is that, both before and after Booker, despite departure patterns suggesting the federal guidelines are already way too harsh, the vast majority of US Sentencing Commission guideline amendments call for making the guidelines even harsher.

February 2, 2009 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, December 29, 2008

Kentucky legislature struggling with correction costs and sentencing reforms

This local story, headlined "Changes sought in Ky. penal code: Major reforms not on session agenda," provides an interesting window on one state's struggles with correction costs and sentencing reforms.  Here are a few excerpts:

In a short, 30-day session and with a gaping budget hole to fill, the 2009 General Assembly is not expected to take up comprehensive corrections reform, despite a surging inmate population.

Earlier this month Justice Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown submitted to Gov. Steve Beshear 11 proposed reforms, most of which are relatively small changes to the penal code.  But in light of the state's budget problems, "comprehensive (corrections) reform is delayed," said Rep. Robin Webb, D-Grayson....

With a burgeoning corrections budget and a fast-growing prison population, criminal justice officials have been clamoring for the first sweeping reform since the penal code was established in the 1970s. The state's prisons house about 21,000 inmates, a figure that is projected to reach 31,000 within a decade. The growth rate is the fastest in the nation, according to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States....

Despite the budget crisis, Brown said the state must be careful not to make program cuts that could increase the recidivism rate and instead should try to find funding for initiatives that could lower the rate.  Officials estimate that roughly 30 percent of all inmates re-offend within two years of being released from prison. "How do we put programs in place that are going to make it more likely, rather than less likely, the individual is going to succeed on the outside?" Brown said.

December 29, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Notable new stories from the most dysfunctional sentencing state

In the wake of Blogo-gate, there has been lots of talk about what state should be considered most politically corrupt.  That got me to thinking about which state should be considered most dysfunctional when it comes to sentencing.  And these headlines (and the underlying stories) reminded me why a state other than California would have a hard time making the case for most dysfunctional:

These stories highlight just some of the many reasons California is clearly the most dysfunctional sentencing state.  Whether we focus on the death penalty, prison overcrowding, constitutional sentencing jurisprudence or federal habeas review, California has something crazy and problematic going on both politically and practically.  I guess the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation never has to worry about running out of things to do. 

December 17, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

New risk-oriented sentencing law operative in Pennsylvania

This local article from Pennsylvania provides an effective review of a notable new sentencing law that its now operative in the Keystone state. Here are some excerpts:

Local crooks in the big house now have a better reason to change their ways. The state's Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive Act went into effect this week. It means many nonviolent offenders, such as drug users and serial shoplifters sentenced to a state prison term, must be given a third, incentive-based sentence along with their minimum and maximum sentence.

For court staff, the new law means a lot of math: The RRRI sentences would be equal to three-fourths of the minimum sentence imposed when the minimum sentence is three years or less, or five-sixths of the minimum sentence if the minimum sentence is more than three years.  Inmates must complete programs like anger management and substance abuse counseling to meet the terms of their RRRI.  It would be up to the state Parole Board to decide if they are successful.

“This is one to watch,” said Bucks County President Judge David Heckler. “This is something that holds them accountable, but also provides them with the tools they need to successfully reenter society.”... 

Even before defendants can begin any of the court-ordered programs judges tack onto their sentence, they must go through a lengthy classification process to determine which of the state's 27 prisons is the best fit for them.... 

Whether the RRRI act will go smoothly remains to be seen. Although the new law went into effect Nov. 24, an education plan for lawyers and judges is in the works. To be eligible for an RRRI sentence, defendants must meet [many] requirements....  The RRRI law is modeled after a successful New York program. Lawmakers will monitor the program for the next two years and make changes, if needed.

November 26, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wisconsin state appellate court urges guideline repeal

This Chicago Tribune article provides this report on an interesting ruling from a Wisconsin state appellate court today:

Wisconsin lawmakers should scrap a law requiring judges to consider sentencing guidelines when punishing people who commit certain felonies, an appeals court said Wednesday. The state commission that kept the guidelines current no longer exists and that makes considering them a pointless exercise, the District 2 Court of Appeals said.

Lawmakers eliminated the Wisconsin Sentencing Commission in a cost-saving measure in last year's state budget. The commission was created in 2001 to study sentencing patterns in Wisconsin, with a goal of making them more uniform from county to county....

But lawmakers failed to repeal a law that requires judges to consider the guidelines when they eliminated the commission. The appeals court warned Wednesday that is giving defendants an avenue for appeal since many judges are no longer filling out the worksheets or looking at the guidelines. Lawmakers must get rid of the law, Chief Judge Richard Brown wrote for a three-judge panel.... Brown made the plea at the end of an opinion in which the court upheld a 30-year prison term for a former Mr. Wisconsin body building champion convicted of torturing and sexually assaulting a woman for hours. The trial judge did not mention the guidelines when he sentenced Timothy Kaprelian of Racine on two counts of second-degree sexual assault and one count of false imprisonment last year.

The appeals court ruled that was a "harmless error" since the judge did consider many of the same factors before imposing the sentence. Lawyers should not cite similar errors as grounds for appeal in the future, it said. "Given the demise of the commission ... most trial judges have fashioned their own highly workable -- and perhaps more elaborate -- assessments and, as here, the record demonstrates that the sentence was the result of a thoughtful, deliberative process," Brown wrote.

The 16-page ruling in Wisconsin v. Kaprelian is available at this link.

October 22, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pennsylvania on verge of notable sentencing reforms

As detailed in this local story and this AP account, important sentencing reforms are working their way through Pennsylvania.  Here are the basics from the local reporting:

Nonviolent offenders could spend less time in prison if they complete educational programs and demonstrate good behavior, under legislation before Gov. Ed Rendell.

Proponents say the measures represent the biggest sentencing reforms in Pennsylvania since violent-crime rates started building in the 1980s, leading to a flurry of tougher mandatory minimum prison terms and longer sentences. Supporters say the new measures should lower the risk of repeat offenses and help curb a 25-year trend of higher inmate populations and prison construction....

Most state law-enforcement groups have supported the package. State Attorney General Tom Corbett opposes the legislation. He said Monday that the bills water down Pennsylvania's tradition of being a "truth-in-sentencing" state.

But state House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, R-Philadelphia, Beard, and other supporters noted that all of the breaks envisioned in the new bills require the consent of local prosecutors and judges.  "This represents a new approach to criminal justice for offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes," O'Brien said. "It will make the public safer, ensure that offenders receive services essential to break the cycle of crime ... and ensure that crime victims are treated fairly."

In the AP story, AG Corbett has this notable quote: "'I am going to take a look at what the crime rate is when that goes into effect, and I want to see what it looks like five years from now,' said Corbett, a Republican currently seeking re-election."  I think this is a great suggestion, though an ideal analysis ought to include regional and national crime rate data during this same period.  In other words, as AG Corbett suggests, these pending PA reforms might create a great natural experiment on the sentencing law-crime rate links. 

September 23, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, September 22, 2008

Evidence that judges will follow sensible sentencing guidelines

Though I do not know all the particulars of the state sentencing guidelines in Pennsylvania, I do know that this local story highlights that sentencing judges will generally follow sentencing guidelines that provide sensible sentencing advice.  The story is headlined "Study: Judges usually comply," and here are excerpts:

Judges in Montgomery County appear to be conforming to state sentencing guidelines and rarely sentence convicted criminals above or below those guidelines, according to a recent study.

Of the 5,537 county sentences reviewed by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing in 2007, 95 percent were within the guidelines recommended by state legislators.  Only 5 percent of the sentences doled out to criminals by county judges in 2007 were outside the guidelines, either above or below state recommendations.

District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman believes the statistics reflect that the guidelines are accomplishing their purpose in the county. "It shows that our judges take sentencing very seriously and they scrupulously follow the law," Ferman said. "The lion's share of the cases fall into the standard range of the sentencing guidelines because that's where they belong."...

Statewide, overall conformity to the guidelines was high during 2007.  About 91 percent of the 97,360 sentences imposed by judges in all 67 counties during 2007 were within the recommended guidelines.

September 22, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Interesting sentencing data coming from Nevada study

This article from the Carson Times reports on a sentencing study coming from Nevada that includes some notable and perhaps surprising findings:

About 12.5 percent of felony defendants sentenced in Nevada in 2007 received punishments that fell outside the limits set by law, according to a university study presented Monday to a commission evaluating sentencing practices in the state.

Of the cases studied that year, 1,364 defendants received a minimum or maximum sentence that went beyond what was allowed by statute, said Matt Leone, a researcher with the Grant Sawyer Center for Justice Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.  "There were folks being sentenced on a one-to-five to a maximum that exceeded five years," Leone told members of the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice, an interim legislative panel.  "They were given one-to-10 when the statute said one-to-five."...

The UNR group conducted its study to review the sentencing practices since 1995, when the Legislature passed laws to ensure that inmates paid appropriate punishments.

Besides the apparent sentencing disparity, the group also found that men were more likely to receive tougher punishments than women, and blacks received higher minimum and maximum sentences than whites and Hispanic offenders.  But researchers said when they looked deeper into the cases, they found that the tougher punishments for men and blacks were related to a list of other factors, including having a criminal history, using a weapon, tending to use drugs and alcohol, committing more crimes against people and being more likely to have a history of violence.

The report also said that Nevada has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country: it came in 10th out of 40 states studied.  The rate was based on a study that questioned whether an offender committed another crime within three years of being released.

The study also found a large disparity among judges over whether a defendant is sent to prison or receives probation.  The highest prison-sentencing rate was 58 percent, while the lowest was 23 percent of the defendants incarcerated.

These last two findings spark a concern I have long had about efforts to reduce sentencing disparity, namely the relationship between sentencing disparity and recidivism.  Would there be and should there be a huge concern about reducing sentencing disparity if it turned out that disparate sentencing patterns correlated with reduce recidivism rates?

August 19, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Monday, July 28, 2008

Is Booker Heading to Minnesota?

This interesting article discusses the plight of Minnesota judges forced to sentence within a strict state guidelines regime.  Sound familiar?  Here are some excerpts describing the system and its shortcomings:

The system is split into 11 levels.  The lowest levels are for the least severe crimes -- making threats or assaulting a police horse, for example.  The highest levels are for the most severe crimes, such as murder.  The system also takes into account a criminal’s history.  Each time a criminal is convicted of a crime, he is assigned points.

Judges plot a criminal’s point score with the crime level to find the appropriate sentence.  The grid provides judges a fixed range for jail time.

* * *

Judges can depart from the grid, but a separate jury trial must be held to find sufficient aggravating factors or the defendant must agree to let the judge depart.  Once a departure has been made, the judge must then file a report to the commission detailing reasons for departure.  Judges say departures are increasingly rare, partly because the jury trials they require are cumbersome and partly because of budget cuts to the state judiciary.  Judges departed from the guidelines in no more than 15 percent of cases between 1981 and 2006, according to the commission.

The complaints in Minnesota that the grid does not properly account for variations within the same classes of crimes are similar to those heard in the federal system before Booker.  If Minnesota's response to Blakely was to require a jury trial before a judge could depart from the grid, do these complaints suggest that even that system is too inflexible?  Will Minnesota's sentencing experiment survive, or is it proof that Booker's remedy really was a good alternative?

Guest bloggers

July 28, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, May 23, 2008

"Habeas Corpus and State Sentencing Reform: A Story of Unintended Consequences"

This title of this post is the title of this new piece from Professors Nancy King and Susan Sherry appearing on SSRN that looks like a must-read for the long weekend.  Here is the abstract:

This Article tells the story of how fundamental shifts in state sentencing policy collided with fundamental shifts in federal habeas policy to produce a tangled and costly doctrinal wreck. The conventional assumption is that state prisoners seeking habeas relief allege constitutional errors in their state-court convictions and sentences. But almost twenty percent of federal habeas petitions filed by state prisoners do not challenge state-court judgments. They instead attack administrative actions by state prison officials or parole boards, actions taken long after the petitioner's conviction and sentencing. Challenges to these administrative decisions create serious problems for federal habeas law, which is designed to structure federal review of state-court judgments, and is ill suited for review of administrators' actions. Courts find themselves trying to squeeze square pegs into round holes, and the confusion is particularly intolerable given the stakes for prisoners, state prison systems, and federal courts. This Article is the first to identify this significant problem, to analyze its disparate and complicated causes, and to propose a simple and rational way for Congress to respond.

May 23, 2008 in Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 22, 2008

New study indicates success of state guideline systems

This AP story reports on a new study providing empirical praise for states moving to guideline sentencing systems (even voluntary ones).  Here are snippets from the AP report:

State sentencing guidelines virtually erase discrimination in criminal punishments, regardless of how much judges are allowed to deviate from recommended prison terms, according to a study released Thursday. 

The National Center for State Courts examined significantly different guidelines in three states: Virginia, where the guidelines are voluntary; Michigan, which offers some judicial discretion and Minnesota, which has the most mandatory system of the three.  The study concluded that the guidelines in each of those states result in consistent sentences that generally are not influenced by race and economic status.

Wiping out racial discrimination was the major goal of a sentencing guidelines movement that began in the 1970s. "These findings stand in marked contrast to the inconsistent and discriminatory sentencing practices documented in all three states prior to the implementation of guidelines," the researchers wrote. 

The study was released at a National Governors Association retreat on sentencing and prison issues in Jacksonville, Fla. At least 20 states and the District of Columbia use guidelines that consider the nature of the offense and the defendant's criminal history. Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia were studied because their guidelines allow varying degrees of judicial discretion.

"No matter what form the guidelines took, they seemed to eliminate any measurable discrimination," Michigan State University political science professor Charles W. Ostrom, one of the report's four authors, said in a telephone interview. He said that finding was particularly surprising in Virginia. "The voluntary nature of the Virginia guidelines do not preclude it from having real positive effects," Ostrom said. "We thought it would not compare favorably to Michigan and Minnesota."...

The study by the nonprofit, Williamsburg, Va.-based NCSC was funded by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. The report was financed by the Pew Charitable Trust's Center on the States.

I cannot seem to find a copy of this report on the web anywhere, but I will post this important new research as soon as I can get my hands on it.

UPDATE:  A helpful reader sent me this link to the NCSC report, which is titled "Assessing Consistency and Fairness in Sentencing: A Comparative Study in Three States."  I see lots of interest in this document, which I hope to blog more about in the near future.

May 22, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The latest news on California sentencing reform

The Sacremento Bee has this new piece, headlined "California lawmakers consider new sentencing laws," which provides an update on the seemingly endless debate in California over sentencing reforms.  Here are excerpts:

Lawmakers have revived a pair of bills to overhaul California's criminal sentencing laws, but majority Democrats are still wrangling over which approach to push. Both measures would create a panel appointed by the executive, legislative and judicial branches that would be empowered to stiffen or reduce prison terms on its own, subject to a majority vote by the Legislature.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year proposed an advisory panel that the Democrats viewed as toothless. Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Lisa Page said that the governor is open to negotiating a commission proposal with legislative leaders but that they have shown "little interest" in a deal....

Assembly Speaker-elect Karen Bass said that reconsideration is going to have to wait until the budget gets fixed. "I certainly think we need to have sentencing reform, but frankly, my focus as soon as I take over is going to be the budget, the budget, the budget," said the Los Angeles Democrat, who takes over as speaker on May 13.

No Republican in either house voted for either sentencing commission bill when they came up last year. "I'm not interested in abdicating the Legislature's responsibility" to set prison terms, said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, the GOP point man on prisons.

My simple message to Assembly Speaker-elect Karen Bass: getting serious about sentencing reform and prison overcrowding/expenditures is a critical part of fixing the budget, the budget, the budget.

May 3, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Ohio litigation over state crack/powder sentencing disparity

The debate over crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is usually all about federal sentencing, but this local article spotlights a state-level litigation over these issues in Ohio.  Here is the start of an interesting article:

The debate over the penalties for possessing crack cocaine versus those for the powder version of the drug is being argued in Summit County. An Akron attorney has filed court papers on behalf of 10 area defendants contending the harsher state penalties for crack cocaine are unconstitutional and racially based.

Attorney Jana DeLoach said she also has filed similar motions on behalf of defendants in Cuyahoga, Lucas, Richland and Stark counties. In some cases, DeLoach said she has filed the motions at no fee to the defendants.

DeLoach contends that the differences in Ohio law between the two forms of cocaine have resulted in longer prison terms for blacks, who are more likely to possess crack cocaine, and lesser terms for whites, who might possess powder cocaine.

She cited statistics showing that 85 percent of crack cocaine convictions involve blacks. ''I believe the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine is based on race and it needs to stop.  There is no rational basis at this point to continue treating these offenses differently,'' she said.  Prosecutors say they intend to fight the motions.

This debate is going on elsewhere.  State senators last year passed a bill to bring the penalties in line.  Currently in Ohio, it takes 25 to 100 grams of powder cocaine to reach the third-degree felony penalty for possessing five to 10 grams of crack cocaine.

The Senate's solution was to raise the penalties for powder cocaine and put it in line with crack cocaine laws.  The bill has not been passed in the Ohio House. Opponents of the Senate proposal contend the changes will only bring more inmates to Ohio's already crowded prisons.

April 2, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, March 14, 2008

Brennan Lecture on a topic that the Justice surely would have cared about

As documented at this official site, Justice Michael Wolff focused on sentencing issues at NYU when giving the 14th Annual Justice Brennan Lecture on State Courts and Social Justice last month. Justice Wolff, who sits on the Missouri Supreme Court and is the Chairman of the state's Sentencing Advisory Commission, titled his lecture "Evidence-Based Judicial Discretion: Promoting Public Safety through State Sentencing Reform."  Here is how his lecture began:

Americans put more people behind bars per capita than any country in the western world. But this rate of incarceration is not necessarily helping to reduce crime. In fact, when we put the wrong people in prison, we make them — and the problem of crime — worse. As we come to realize this, hopefully a new way of thinking about sentencing will emerge that will focus on sentencing outcomes as a way to ensure that public safety is a top national priority.

Sentencing is a complex topic that needs to be approached with humility, an open mind and common sense. I believe we have the analytical tools available to help create a system that minimizes recidivism and maximizes public safety.

March 14, 2008 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Potent state sentencing op-ed from Arizona

This morning's Arizona Daily Star has this notable op-ed headlined "Sentencing laws are senseless."  Here are snippets:

Gov. Janet Napolitano's 2008-2009 proposed budget includes almost $1 billion for the annual expense of maintaining our adult and juvenile prison system. The state is also receiving bids for the construction of facilities to create 3,000 additional prison beds to ease prison overcrowding. The standard construction cost is $110,000 and up per bed.

In the last 10 years the incarceration rate in the United States has far outpaced the rest of the world. We lock up people at five to eight times the rate of any other industrialized country. Arizona ranks with Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas as having one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States, including particularly high rates of incarceration for women and minorities....

If these mind-boggling amounts of money were buying us public safety, or even helping to support a more ordered society, they might be acceptable. The facts show otherwise:

  • 49 percent of new prison admissions are for parole or probation violations.
  • 55 percent of Arizona prisoners are serving time for non-violent offenses — DUI, drugs, theft, etc.
  • Only 18 percent are in prison for offenses involving victim injuries. Many are serving time for automobile accidents criminalized by allegations of negligent or reckless behavior, frequently alcohol-related.

At the present time, Arizona has more than 2,000 inmates over 50 years old who will remain in custody well into their geriatric years, and many for life. These prisoners, well beyond their lawbreaking years, require special medical attention, expenses that must be borne by the taxpayers....

It's time the public and the politicians get the facts on how expensive and unfair our criminal-justice system is and submit all of it to the light of public examination.

March 2, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The interesting softer turn in Mississippi parole practices

Proving yet again that the most interesting and dynamic sentencing stories emerge from states, this local article discussed a notable development in Mississippi:

The Mississippi House voted Monday to ease the state’s truth in sentencing law.

By a vote of 69-52, the House approved legislation that would exempt non-violent offenders from the law, which now requires all people convicted of a felony to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole. The legislation has passed the House in previous sessions, only to die later in the process. It now goes to the Senate.

The bill would allow nonviolent offenders, such as those convicted of burglary and embezzlement, to be eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of the sentence. People convicted of selling marijuana and prescription drugs also would be eligible for early parole; other drug dealers would not.

Corrections Committee Chairman Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, said too many young people are being ruined for life because of the sentences they are given. He cited a ase in which a person was sentenced to 15-20 years for a first-time marijuana offense. "You might as well shoot that person," Malone said. "He will be institutionalized. ... There are better ways and cheaper ways to solve this problem." He cited home monitoring devices and other work programs....

Malone and others pointed out that the budget for the Department of Corrections has skyrocketed since the truth in sentencing law was passed. He said 6,300 inmates would be eligible for early parole if the legislation becomes law, though it would take the Parole Board literally years to hear all those cases.

The bill was hotly debated for about 80 minutes with Republicans primarily opposing it and Democrats supporting it, though a surprising number of members from each side voted against the majority of their party.

As I like to say, everyone in state government these days is now coming to understand that, when it comes to sentencing realities and politics, it's the prison economy, stupid.

February 26, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Economic woes in Michigan impacting corrections and sentencing

News from Michigan provides the latest setting for trotting out my new mantra, "It's the prison economy, stupid."  Here are specifics from this new AP article:

The budget proposal that state budget director Robert Emerson delivers Thursday is expected to trim spending on prisons, but one influential senator has asked Gov. Jennifer Granholm to not count on any savings until legislation changing sentencing requirements actually passes. Granholm said last week in her State of the State address that the state needed to look again at making changes in prison spending in the budget year that starts Oct. 1....

The governor said in December that she's still interested in rewriting sentencing guidelines so some convicts are sent to county jails with shorter sentences rather than to state prisons, or serve a shorter time in prison, saving the state money. She made that proposal last year but it never got taken up by lawmakers....

Sen. Alan Cropsey, a DeWitt Republican who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee and the appropriations subcommittee that oversees corrections spending, warned Wednesday that the Democratic governor may not be able to get the changes she wants to lower prison costs. "Last year, she based her budget on policies to be enacted, on policies she couldn't even get the Democrats to touch," Cropsey said Wednesday. "At this point, either on the Democratic or Republican side, we haven't been shown any changes that anyone feels comfortable with."

Last year, the Granholm administration proposed sentencing changes that would have changed some felonies into misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail. Other crimes would have had shorter maximum sentences.  Some drug offenders would face a maximum three-month jail term, not the potential for up to four years in prison.  Under that plan, the $2 billion prison system — which consumes more of the state's tax dollars than its 15 public universities — would have housed 3,300 fewer inmates over three years. Space in crowded county jails would have dropped by 2,000 beds in a year, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections.

But the measures went nowhere. County officials said they feared being saddled with more inmates and incarceration costs, and prosecutors and sheriffs warned the public could be at risk from more criminals on the streets.

The highlight above is my addition to the article because I find it especially important to spotlight that spending on prisons in Michigan exceeds spending on public universities.  Not only is this a telling reality, it also might be a dangerous one: studies show that persons with more educational achievement commit fewer crimes, and thus state investment in university education may well pay better public safety dividends than investments in a prison system.

February 7, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

What's just right in Kansas...

KansasProving yet again that the states are way ahead of the feds in figuring out how to do sentencing and corrections, this local article reports encouraging news from everyone's favorite bellwether state:

The percentage of Kansas inmates who commit new crimes while on supervised release has dropped significantly over five years.

The rate, which was a little more than 5 percent in 2002, fell to 2.2 percent last year, Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz told lawmakers Monday.  He attributed the reduction to increased legislative funding for programs that supervise inmates after they leave prison, and more dollars for alcohol and drug treatment.

Werholtz said that with fewer offenders returning to prison, the number of inmates in Kansas prisons has decreased from 9,153 in 2004 to 8,854 in mid-2007. “There is sufficient (prison) capacity to meet our needs for the next 10 years,” Werholtz told the House Appropriations Committee. However, he said that prediction assumed that the Legislature would not pass new sentencing laws that would put more offenders in prison. “During the last week of January, the prison population fell below 8,700, which was the first time that had been done since July, 2002,” he said.

Werholtz praised the passage last year of SB 14, which enacted a grant program to encourage community corrections programs to reduce revocation rates at least 20 percent.  The law also reduced sentences by 60 days for offenders who complete job training and drug abuse programs in prison.  Rep. Pat Colloton, the Leawood Republican who sponsored the House legislation, said the goal was to save money and rehabilitate criminals by preventing return trips to prison.

February 5, 2008 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

New report on the state of sentencing in 2007

The Sentencing Project, as detailed here, has just released a new report titled "The State of Sentencing, 2007: Developments in Policy and Practice."  This 30-page report is available at this link, and here is how The Sentencing Project describes some of highlights here:

Today's report, The State of Sentencing, 2007: Developments in Policy and Practice, highlights a number of important state criminal justice policy developments that occurred during 2007.  These include:

  • Nine states created oversight committees to examine sentencing laws, prison overcrowding, indigent defense, and/or reentry services;
  • Seven states amended parole policies and enhanced reentry preparation; Four states eased policies that treat juveniles as adults;
  • Three states relaxed sexual offense laws related to consensual acts conducted by teenagers; and
  • Two states reformed mandatory sentencing enhancements.

Nevada and California implemented some of the most significant criminal justice reforms in 2007....

The advances highlighted in The State of Sentencing, 2007 reflect a pattern in state criminal justice policy that emphasizes effective public safety measures that control government expenditures.  These developments continue a promising trend of "smart on crime" initiatives.  Between 2004 and 2006, 22 states enacted sentencing reforms targeted at reducing the prison population.  Today's report concludes with several recommendations for enhanced reforms:

  • Repeal mandatory minimum sentences;
  • Implement policies to reduce parole revocations to prison;
  • Invest in reentry and oversight of the criminal justice system; and
  • Expand options to reduce the amount of time served in prison.

January 23, 2008 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Reviewing California's prison problems

This AP story provides the latest update on California's continuing prison woes.  Here are excerpts:

When California adopted its criminal sentencing code 30 years ago, a state appeals court marveled that it was virtually incomprehensible, comparing it to income tax forms and insurance policies. The appellate judges wondered if the Legislature had used "some long departed Byzantine scholar to create its seemingly endless and convoluted complexities." 

Since then, California has added more than 1,000 felony sentencing laws and more than 100 other changes that can lengthen prison terms.  As a result, the state's prisons are so dangerously jammed that there is a possibility federal courts could cap the population, potentially forcing the early release of some inmates.   The number of inmates in California prisons has soared, from nearly 25,000 in 1980 to more than 170,000 this year. The state has an incarceration rate of 475 per 100,000 residents, well above the national average of 445 per 100,000.  So far, political efforts to simplify the convoluted process have failed....

Proposals by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic lawmakers to create a commission to review sentencing collapsed this year amid partisan infighting. Some feared that a commission could open prison doors too wide.  "We are jammed up with this situation right now because we have fallen in love with one of the most undocumented beliefs: That somehow you get safer if you put more people in jail," Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata said this spring....

December 8, 2007 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A brewing brouhaha over sentencing reform in New York

As detailed in prior posts here and here, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer earlier this year established through an executive order the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform (NYSCSR).  And, as detailed in this AP story and this official press release, last week the NYSCSR released a preliminary report (available here) which "outlined several major preliminary recommendations to improve the state’s current sentencing structure, calling for a more simplified and streamlined system focused on public safety, consistency and fairness." 

This preliminary report, entitled "The Future of Sentencing in New York State: A Preliminary Proposal for Reform," is a very impressive 100-page document that makes a lot of very sound points and recommendations.  However, as detailed in this strong article in City Limits, there is some dissension in the NYSCSR ranks:

The future of a pair of provocative criminal justice issues — parole for felons, and New York state's strict drug laws — remains in the air, as a commission proposing sweeping prison sentencing changes announced it was split on two fundamental issues....

The Commission recommended effectively ending parole for most crimes, but three of the 11 commissioners did not support that view.  And because commission members were unable to reach consensus on whether mandatory minimum prison sentences are appropriate for drug offenders, the panel largely put off discussion over whether to amend the Rockefeller drug laws.

The NYSCSR's decision to duck the Rockefeller drug laws has met with pointed criticism, as evidenced by this press release from the Drug Policy Alliance.  It notes: "Advocates and family members of those impacted by the Rockefeller Drug Laws responded to NYSCSR report by their voicing disappointment over the Commission's lack of findings."

As detailed here, the NYSCSR has scheduled a series of public hearing around New York next month.  it will be interesting to see how much attention these hearing receive and how the NYSCSR deals with its divisions and outside criticisms.

October 23, 2007 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Massachusetts event on sentencing reform

As discussed in this Boston Globe editorial, the Massachusetts Bar Association this morning is conducting a State House symposium focused on sentencing reform.  Details about the event and the many scheduled speakers is available from this MBA webpage.  The Globe editorial includes these effective insights about the event and the issues it is seeking to spotlight:

The symposium offers a welcome opportunity to reconsider the effects of such blunt [mandatory minimum sentencing] laws.  But it still feels like the state is revisiting an old controversy that ought to have been resolved by now.  In the mid-1990s, a commission of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys spent two years of research and debate creating a balanced set of sentencing guidelines.  In what appeared to be a sensible compromise, the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission stiffened sentences for violent crimes but gave judges leeway to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in nonviolent drug cases.  Alternative sanctions, such as electronic bracelet monitoring, could replace prison time for minor offenses.  But the Legislature never gave the sentencing reform bill serious consideration.

Today's symposium could suffer from the fact that no district attorney will be on the panel. A vigorous debate on sentencing reform is impossible without the DAs, who are among the state's fiercest protectors of mandatory minimum drug sentences.  Still, there are signs of flexibility even among hard-line prosecutors.  Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, for example, says he can't imagine fellow DAs agreeing to the elimination of mandatory drug sentences.  But O'Keefe could envision changes to the controversial law on school zones. This would be a good place to start.  About one third of the roughly 1,000 people who received mandatory drug sentences in 2006 fell under the sloppy school zone policy that provides little or no actual protection to students.

The state's district attorneys association and bar association worked well together recently to update the state's drunk driving laws.  They should do the same to bring Massachusetts drug laws into the modern era.

October 23, 2007 in State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The consequences of Cunningham in Hawaii and Tennessee

With so much going on, I have failed to report previously that in the last few weeks the highest courts in both Hawaii and Tennessee have (finally) recognized that they have to live in Apprendi-land.  Specifically, recognizing the impact and import of the Supreme Court's ruling in Cunningham (which applied Blakely to California's structured sentencing system), the Supreme Courts of Hawaii and Tennessee have both recently held that their states' mandatory sentencing schemes create Sixth Amendment problems.

These recent rulings came in State v. Maugaotega (available here) and State v. Gomez (available here).  A local press report provide the basics in this article from Hawaii.  And BNA subscribers can read about both rulings at this link.

October 18, 2007 in Blakely in the States, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Overcrowding problems in the Nutmeg State

As detailed in this New York Times article, Connecticut is yet another state on a ever-growing list that is struggling with its ever-growing prison population.  Here are a few specifics from the piece:

Cubicles built for four are crammed with eight inmates, and enclosed areas known as dollhouses where inmates once played cards and wrote letters now hold 14 bunk beds.  The corridors are lined with more beds. 

Each large room at the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution once had 50 beds and now has 118. The dual prison, one part in Enfield and the other in Somers, is part of a system so overcrowded that it tests the state's resolve to get tough on criminals. Correction officers who work at this dormitory-style, minimum security prison say the cramped conditions give them little room to maneuver and little hope of keeping small problems from turning into big ones....

The arrest in July of two parolees in the grisly murders of a mother and her two daughters in Cheshire, followed closely by a carjacking involving a parolee, touched off a wave of official responses that were intended to address flaws in the criminal justice system, but that also made crowded prisons even more crowded. Gov. M. Jodi Rell ordered the Department of Correction to temporarily stop granting parole to violent offenders, a class that now includes home burglars. "Security comes first," the governor said in a Sept. 21 statement.

In addition, prosecutors are holding out for stiffer plea bargains, and judges are imposing longer sentences.  Ms. Rell has promised a top-to-bottom review of the state’s criminal justice system, but in recent weeks, as policy makers have been discussing the issue, pressure has been building. The union that represents two-thirds of the 7,000 employees at the Department of Correction said Monday that its members counted 821 temporary beds — they resemble plastic toboggans with mattresses — in use in 11 of the state’s 18 prisons one night last week.  "My members believe we're already at a crisis population," said Jon Pepe, president of a correction officers union.  "We're only managing them because the population is letting us manage them."

UPDATE:  Anyone interested in more background and discussion of the problems of overcrowding Connecticut should be keeping up with the blogging done by Gideon at "a public defender," who has been following these overcrowding problems very effectively.

October 17, 2007 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack