Tuesday, June 08, 2010

In Missouri, it is the prosecutors complaining about sentencing guidelines

This local story from Missouri, which is headlined "Prosecutors seek changes to sentencing guidelines," reports on complaints about the state sentencing guidelines that are tellingly similar to complaints we hear about federal sentencing guidelines. But, as highlighted in this excerpt, the source of the usual complaint is tellingly distinct:

Some Missouri prosecutors remain unhappy with the way convicted criminals are sentenced, especially since the state began using sentencing guidelines in November 2005 that are based on actual sentencing practices of Missouri's trial judges.

"Prosecutors continue to be unhappy with the one-size-fits-all recommendations in the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission's recommendations," said Eric Zahnd, Platte County prosecutor and a member of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys' legislative committee.  "There is, simply, no way to include enough variables in a recommended sentencing structure to provide a meaningful recommendation for any individual crime."

The association on Monday issued a news release thanking Supreme Court Judge Michael A. Wolff, who chairs the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission (MOSAC), for appointing a subcommittee to review the recommended sentences. During MOSAC's May 25th meeting, Wolff said prosecutors, public defenders and judges should be represented on that subcommittee.

Zahnd said prosecutors hope it will consider a "motion by prosecutors to abolish the recommended sentences, at least for violent and sexual offenses."  He said prosecutors particularly are unhappy with the "Sentencing Advisory Report," or SAR, that often is ordered by a judge before imposing a final sentence in a criminal case.  The prosecutors association said those "recommended sentences ... are unreasonably lenient, particularly for violent and sex crimes."

As serious sentencing fans know, in the federal system it is the defense attorneys who often lament "one-size-fits-all" sentencing rules and who often claim that unique individual sentencing factors make any guideline system inherently problematic.  It is telling and somewhat amusing to now hear these classic complaints about sentencing guidelines coming from prosecutors in Missouri.

Because I seriously doubt that all the state prosecutors in Missouri are former federal defenders, this story is really just an example of how sentencing advocates will often "shoot the messenger" of sentencing guidelines rather than just focus on their fundamental concern with the substance of sentencing rules they consider either too harsh (in the federal system) or too lenient (in Missouri's system).  Just as I am glad that the federal defense bar has failed to eliminate all guidelines in the federal system, I hope the Missouri prosecutors fail to bring down that their state's seemingly successful (and fully advisory) guideline system. 

June 8, 2010 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, June 07, 2010

Connecticut governor vetoes bill which would have created a state sentencing commission

This local storyfrom Connecticut, which is headlined "Rell vetoes bill to create sentencing commission," reports on an interested sentencing development from the Nutmeg State.  Here are the details:

Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed a bill today that would have created a new commission within the Office of Policy and Management to review state sentencing policies.  The governor argued the legislature's Judiciary Committee already performs this function, and that the bill would have required an extra $130,000 in spending to provide salaries and benefits for commission staff.

"While I appreciate the need for review of our sentencing statutes and practices, given our state's ongoing economic challenges, this is simply the wrong time to create yet another state entity," Rell wrote in her veto message. "I have spent much of the last year examining our state budget to find ways to save money so that we would not have to increase the burden borne by our already struggling taxpayers. Some of the cuts we have made were painful. None were easy."

The bill passed overwhelmingly during the regular 2010 legislative session, which ended May 5, clearing the House unanimously and the Senate by a 34-1 margin. It would have created a 23-member Connecticut Sentencing Commission to review the existing criminal sentencing structure and any proposed changes to it. The panel would be funded, according to the bill, "within existing budgetary resources."

But the governor noted that the group would have to maintain a database and conduct trend analyses to identify areas of disparity, which would create new expenses. "I believe that the Judiciary Committee is the appropriate body to carry out these function, as they have done in the past," Rell added.

Sen. Andrew J, McDonald, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, disagreed strongly though, arguing his panel has neither the staff nor the othe resources needed to conduct this research.

McDonald added the legislation not only enjoyed broad, bipartisan support in the legislature but had "universal backing" from the chief state's attorney's office, criminal defense lawyers and criminal justice advocates. "This legislation held the prospect of creating a more coherent and sustainable system for implementing fair and proportional sentences," he added. "We held a public hearing and nobody testified against it. And up until this veto, we've had no input from the governor's office."

The legislature is tentatively scheduled to meet in special session on June 21, and could attempt to override the governor's veto later this month.  That would require a two-thirds' vote in both chambers. McDonald said he believes a veto override attempt would be appropriate, but he hasn't discussed that option yet with legislative leadership.

I tend to assume that a well-functioning state sentencing commission generally can and will produce criminal justice savings that help pay for its start-up costs.  And this is the first time I have heard of a policy-maker using cost concerns to justify doing without a sentencing commission. 

Consequently, I suspect there is more to this veto story than just an extra $130,000 in spending.  Indeed, I feel pretty confident that a concern for dollars and cents is not what is driving Gov. Rell's veto given this news piece from last week, which reports that "Connecticut Comptroller Nancy Wyman says unexpectedly good job and tax revenue growth have swelled the 2010 state budget surplus to nearly $167 million."  Seems to me that spending less than 0.1% of an unexpected state budget surplus is not too much to spend on a sentencing structure that could produce sentences that were more fair and proportional.  But I am not the Governor of Connecticut, so I do not get to make that call.

June 7, 2010 in State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Big sentencing changes become law in South Carolina

As detailed in ths local report, which is headlined "New law changes criminal sentencing," the Palmetto State has just completed an impressive bit of modern sentencing reform.  Here are the basic details:

South Carolina has a new way of dealing with criminals that judges, victims' advocates, crime and justice experts and Republicans and Democrats all have signed off on.  The comprehensive new law is intended to save money while diverting nonviolent offenders from prison to community-based programs so space is available in prison for violent criminals.  Gov. Mark Sanford signed it into law Wednesday.

The new law was one year in the making. It is intended to:

  • Make sure there is space for high-risk, violent offenders in prison while saving the state an estimated $350 million, the cost of building a new prison.
  • Help inmates transition from prison life back to society and increase supervision of former inmates in the community.
  • Provide incentives for probationers and parolees to stay drug- and crime-free in order to go from being tax burdens to taxpayers.

The lengthy new law also redefines 22 crimes as violent, providing longer sentences for some offenders.

Here are some details about why and how this reform came to happen:

Sanford said the law was "smart on crime," a sentiment echoed by many Wednesday.  The governor said it strikes the right balance and it's good for the taxpayers. Experts from the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States helped the state develop the new law.

The prison population 25 years ago stood at about 9,000 inmates and is today at 24,000.  As the population grew, so did the cost of running the Corrections Department.  In the mid-1980s the prisons ran on $63 million a year. Today it costs $394 million, Sanford said.  In another five years the cost is projected to increase by another $141 million, as the prison population grows by another 3,200 inmates.

"For the taxpayers, there is something fundamentally wrong with that system," Sanford said. "Unless we're going to build a bunch more jails, you have got to look at alternatives.  This bill does that.  I think it strikes the right balance and in the process saves the taxpayers over 400 million bucks."  South Carolina already spends less than $40 per day on each inmate, the second-lowest rate in the nation, Sanford said.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, called the legislation a massive undertaking. He was part of the group that spent the last year coming up with solutions to South Carolina's haphazard criminal justice system. "We really made a difference with this bill," Campsen said. "It is going to change people's lives. It will help offenders get back on their feet and make sure victims get compensated."

Notably, as documented by this editorial from The Economist headlined "Cutting time, cutting crime," this South Carolina reform effort is already garnering praise from various quarters:

Call it one of the tiny wisps of silver emanating from the immense cloud of municipal budget crises: South Carolina's Republican governor today signed off on a sentencing-reform law that passed the state's Republican-controlled legislature by a wide margin....

We rarely consider prisons and jails a service provided by the state, but of course they are: they are a service to law-abiding citizens, even though, unlike most other municipal services, the money is not spent directly on those whom it serves. And as cash-strapped states are cutting schools, libraries and other such services, it is only natural that they look to prisons. Arguing that a library with fewer books and shorter opening hours better serves its users, however, would be laughable; whereas in the case of prisons, putting fewer people in them and helping those who leave never return is precisely what we ought to be doing.

June 3, 2010 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, May 10, 2010

Will the continued drop in crime rates help Democrats deflect the usual "soft-on-crime" attack?

This post's question about the usual crime, punishment and politics dialogue is inspired by this intriguing article in today's Washington Post, which is headlined "Drop in crime might be a boost for O'Malley." Here is how the piece starts:

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is scheduled to announce Monday that the state recorded fewer violent crimes last year than at any point since 1979 and that the overall number of crimes dipped to an all-time low since Maryland police began uniformly reporting them more than 35 years ago.

By another key measure -- the likelihood that a resident will fall victim to murder, rape, robbery or violent assault -- Maryland is expected to drop out of the nation's 10 most dangerous states for the first time in more than two decades.

Maryland's improving public safety record stands out even amid a national phenomenon of falling crime rates, including a precipitous drop last year in the number of homicides across the greater Washington region.

The good news comes at an opportune time for O'Malley: at the outset of his reelection campaign. Over the coming months, O'Malley (D), who won the governor's mansion in part on a reputation as Baltimore's tough-on-crime mayor, is expected to reclaim the mantle of crime fighter.

But with crime rates falling fast nationwide, assessing how much credit O'Malley deserves for Maryland's record lows remains a tough task. Recent high-profile crimes, including the killing of an 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl in December that exposed major gaps in the state's supervision of sex predators and the slaying in February of a teacher at a state-run juvenile detention facility in Prince George's County, have provided entry points for O'Malley's challenger, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), to question the state's progress.

During this year's General Assembly session, Ehrlich criticized O'Malley and the state's Democratic-controlled legislature for failing to more quickly tighten sex-offender rules. Last week, Ehrlich accused O'Malley and powerful Democrats opposed to capital punishment of "shenanigans" to circumvent the state's death penalty laws, effectively maintaining a de facto moratorium on executions for Maryland's five death-row inmates.

In an interview Saturday, O'Malley said he was looking forward to making the case that his administration's award-winning tactics aimed at cracking down on violent repeat offenders, tightening parole and probation standards, targeting at-risk youths and clearing the state's backlog of unanalyzed DNA samples have made Marylanders safer.

Recent related post:

May 10, 2010 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 09, 2010

"Protecting the public while saving public money"

The title of this post is the headline of this op-ed out of Missouri, which is authored by a county-level prosecuting attorney. Here are some notable excerpts:

It is a myth that prisons are full of first-time nonviolent criminals.  Fewer than 7 percent of the inmates in Missouri prisons fall within the Department of Corrections’ definition of “first-time nonviolent offender.”  That means 93 percent of Missouri’s 30,000 prisoners are violent or chronic felony offenders, according to the corrections department’s own narrow definition.

More importantly, the term “first-time nonviolent offender” includes people who clearly deserve to be in prison.  The term does not mean the offender is incarcerated without good reason or, in some instances, does not pose a danger to the public.

For example, the department categorizes the following crimes as “nonviolent”: felony DWI offenders with four or more prior convictions; weapons charges; aggravated stalking; burglary while someone is at home; resisting arrest resulting in a risk of death; and escape involving the use of weapons.

Prosecutors recognize that the remaining offenders — far fewer than 2,000 inmates — may not normally pose a danger if released.  However, the vast majority of these offenders have already received multiple chances on probation and failed repeatedly.  Ultimately, judges must have the ability to incarcerate offenders — even nonviolent ones — if those people refuse to conform to the terms of court-ordered supervision.

Other inmates have committed a particularly aggravated nonviolent offense such as stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars or breaking into dozens of homes.  It is true that 41 percent of these offenders re-offend when released. It is also true that judges correctly recognized these offenders’ likelihood of victimizing others when originally sentencing them to prison.

Prosecutors agree there are cost-efficient solutions to address true nonviolent offenders in a way that promotes recovery and rehabilitation rather than simply punishing people through incarceration.  For example, drug and DWI courts can address the serious needs of addicts at one-third the cost of incarceration.  Such programs can keep people out of the criminal justice system forever if they are motivated to be successful.

May 9, 2010 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, May 07, 2010

Notable variations in state approaches to juve sex offenders

This new AP story, which is headlined "States vary on dealing with youth sex offenders," provides an effective review of the diversity in how different states deal with juvenile sex offenders. Here are excerpts:

When Ricky Blackman was 16, he pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl, and an Iowa judge ordered him to register as a sex offender. But if Blackman had lived in at least a half-dozen other states, his name would never have appeared on a registry because states are deeply divided on how to deal with the nation's youngest sex offenders.

Juvenile justice advocates want rehabilitation instead of registration, yet public safety experts argue children must be protected from predators, even if they are minors. The confusing array of rules for juvenile sex offenders persists despite a vast overhaul that was adopted four years ago to bring clarity and consistency to the nation's sex offender registration laws.

"It's a real bind for the states," said Michele Deitch, an attorney who teaches criminal justice policy at the University of Texas. "Do you want to comply with what could be poor public policy or risk not complying with the federal law? And there's no easy answer."

Twenty-one states currently require juveniles convicted of a serious sex crime to register with law enforcement, according to an Associated Press review of state laws and interviews with state officials.

In 19 other states, only juveniles convicted as adults or who move from a state that requires registration are required to provide their information to authorities. In the remaining states, the laws vary. In Nevada, for instance, a juvenile sex offender can petition a judge to set aside registration requirements.

In 2006, President George W. Bush signed a law requiring states to adopt a series of sex offender measures, including the registration of all juveniles who commit serious sex crimes such as abuse or rape. The law was designed to create a national sex offender registry and toughen penalties for those who fail to register.

Ohio is so far the only state to meet the new federal standards, but states have until July to comply so they can build up their online registries and ensure the information can be incorporated into the national database.

Of the 21 states that require juvenile sex offenders to register, at least four states do not publish all of their details online, such as photographs and home addresses.

Critics said young offenders will be more likely to reoffend because of the humiliation of being labeled a sex offender. "These kids can get better and here you are punishing them for life without offering any treatment. That to me is unethical," said Dr. Valerie Arnold, the interim chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Tennessee. "Even convicted murderers aren't put on a list like this."

It's unclear how many of the nation's estimated 686,000 sex offenders are juveniles. But a recent study by the University of New Hampshire Crimes against Children Research Center that found more than a third of those who sexually abuse children are juveniles. "It's a difficult balance," said Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "We're in favor of the rehabilitative ideal and targeting treatment for the youngest offenders, but many of America's offenders are kids — and they are committing very serious sex offenses."...

Those who want juvenile sex offenders on registries acknowledge the requirements are not ideal, but they say the benefits to public safety far outweigh the impact on a juvenile sex offender's psyche.

Supporters often refer to the case of Amie Zyla, who was sexually assaulted when she was 8 years old in Wisconsin by a 14-year-old family friend. She became a leading advocate of juvenile registration requirements when her perpetrator was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to later fondling two teen boys. "The simple truth is that juvenile sex offenders turn into adult predators," she said at a 2005 Congressional hearing. "Kids all over the country need the same kind of protection as in Wisconsin."

Yet there is a wide disparity in how states treat juvenile offenders. In Texas, where judges decide whether to put juveniles on the registry, lawmakers led a push several years ago to make it automatic. But the measure's sponsor, Texas state Rep. Jim McReynolds, said he abandoned the effort after concluding the new requirements would be too costly and may end up harming the juvenile offenders. "The more I began to look at it, the more I saw it was pretty doggone tough on juveniles," said McReynolds, who chairs the House Corrections Committee. He now favors more treatment.

In Maryland, powerful lawmakers are aiming to require those 14 and older who commit rape and other serious sex crimes to register. "Juveniles are treated as adults in other areas of the law," said Delegate Bill Frank of Baltimore County, one of the measure's sponsors. "And if a juvenile commits a first-degree rape, that juvenile should be required to register as a sexual offender."

The challenging question upon reflection is whether we ought to regard the state-by-state differences here as a healthy form of "laboratory of the states" federalism or instead as an unjust form of national sentencing disparity.  Any thoughts dear readers on whether we should be pleased or troubled by the state diversity found regarding juve sex offender law and policy?

May 7, 2010 in Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Sanford backs plan to put fewer non-violent offenders in prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this new article concerning proposed prison reforms in South Carolina.  Here are the particulars:

Gov. Mark Sanford formally threw his support behind a far-reaching sentencing reform bill Wednesday, a bill that supporters say will reduce the number of non-violent offenders in prison and save the state millions of dollars. "You can only squeeze so much blood from a turnip," Sanford said. "This really is a taxpayer issue."

The 94-page bill is expected to reduce the state's projected prison population enough to negate the need for a new prison -- saving more than $400 million over five years. It's designed to increase training for nonviolent offenders to re-enter society without becoming repeat offenders. And it defines a laundry list of crimes as "violent," including many sex crimes against children.

It also provides, for example, a tiered approach to assault and battery crimes. Currently, the state has 90-day maximum sentences and 10-year minimum sentences and nothing in between, said state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston.

And it provides a sentence of up to $10,000 and up to 20 years in prison for habitual offenders convicted of driving under suspension resulting in death -- and a fine of up to $5,000 and 10 years in prison in such cases where great bodily injury results. A version of that provision, rolled into the bill last month, has been championed by Spartanburg resident Lily Lenderman for eight years -- ever since she lost her grandson in a wreck caused by someone driving under a suspended license.

"The whole idea about any criminal law is to keep us safe," said Rep. Keith Kelly, R-Woodruff, chairman of the House Criminal Law Subcommittee. "This bill ... is strong by keeping the violent offenders segregated from South Carolina families. At the same time, it's smart, because it's taking non-violent offenders out of the Department of Corrections and puts them on alternative sentencing -- GPS monitoring, for instance, that they pay for, not you or me."...

Corrections Department Director Jon Ozmint said the Sanford administration had been behind sentencing reform since a scaled-down version of it failed seven years ago.  Ozmint said South Carolina currently doesn't have a criminal justice system; rather, it has a patchwork of laws that have been cobbled together over the years.  He and several supporters talked about this bill being ruled by statistics rather than emotions.  "Don't underestimate that first step in this state's history," he said.

April 22, 2010 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Interesting report on long state sentence for child porn offense

At the same time I have been following closely the debates and controversies over long child porn offense sentence in the federal system, I have been wondering how (and how many) such cases are handled at the state level.  On that front, I found interesting this local story from Florida headlined "Gibsonton man gets 55 years in child porn case."  Here are the details:

A Gibsonton man arrested in a sting in which he thought he was going to have sex with a 12-year-old mentally challenged girl was sentenced today to 55 years in prison. Deputies found thousands of photographs and videos of child pornography on the computer of Carl M. Cocking, 37.

Prosecutors said it was the longest prison term ever handed down in Hillsborough County for downloading child porn. "Every time these images are made, a child has been raped, a child has been victimized and a child has lost its innocence," Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe said in imposing sentence. "It has to be stopped."

The sentence was the maximum Tharpe could mete out under a five-page plea bargain Cocking worked out with prosecutors. He was charged with using a computer to solicit child pornography, two counts of attempted lewd and lascivious battery, and 45 counts of possessing more than 10 images of child pornography.

Cocking faced 1,300 years under state law, but prosecutors said 55 years was the maximum sentence under state sentencing guidelines.

Prosecutors took the rare approach of showing some of the images to Tharpe before sentencing. Assistant State Attorney Rita Peters said it was the first time she had done so. The screen was placed so only Tharpe, the lawyers and a detective could see it. The images included the rape of a 2-year-old who cried for her mother during the attack.

"It is beyond my wildest dream that you would watch that and get sexual satisfaction," Tharpe told Cocking. "Thank God the detectives caught you before you acted out because you were going to act out." Tharpe remained visibly upset afterward....

Cocking's lawyers sought to lessen his sentence, saying he has been in constant outpatient therapy since being released on bail and that he didn't flee. Peters said she took the step of showing the images to Tharpe so he could understand the degree of Cocking's depravity. "He needed to be incarcerated," she said.

April 21, 2010 in Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (37) | TrackBack

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