Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Update on a decade-long (lack of) effort (not) to fix lethal injection in California

California has long been a state leader in spending lots of time, energy and money on the death penalty without achieving much.  This commentary by Debra Saunders, headlined "Yes, California, there is a death penalty," provides a critical review of the lethal injection part of this story that has played out over the last decade. Here are excerpts:

What happened to California’s death penalty? There has not been an execution since 2006, when a federal judge ruled against the state’s three-drug lethal injection protocol. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld three-drug executions. It didn’t matter. Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris both personally oppose capital punishment, but as candidates promised to uphold the law. In real life, they’ve let things slide. Fed up, two men related to murder victims have filed suit to push the state to carry out the law.

Kermit Alexander wants to see the law work on Tiequon Cox, convicted of killing the former football player’s mother, sister and two nephews in 1984 — Cox went to the wrong address for a $3,500 contract killing. Bradley Winchell is sick of waiting for the execution of Michael Morales, who raped, hammered, strangled and stabbed to death his 17-year-old sister, Terri, in 1981. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shellyanne Chang ruled in their favor Friday after Harris challenged them on the dubious grounds that crime victims and the general public “lack standing” to sue the state.

Brown had directed the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in April 2012 to develop rules that should pass court muster. What’s taking so long? Spokesman Jeffrey Callison answered that his department has been working on “a single drug protocol” but “nationwide, there is a problem with access to execution drugs and that is complicating efforts.”

California has used lethal injection since 1996 to spare condemned inmates unnecessary pain. Even still, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel stayed Morales’ execution as the judge perceived a 0.001 percent chance the convicted killer might feel pain.

In other states not headed by Hamlets, leaders have found ways to anticipate court sensibilities and keep faith with voters.  Many adopted one-drug protocols.  Death penalty foes responded by using their considerable muscle to bar importation and choke the supply of lethal-injection drugs.  Flat-footed Sacramento stuck with the unused three-drug protocol for too long. While Brown’s Corrections Department was working on a one-drug rule, Texas executed 38 killers with pentobarbital. The next time you hear the cerebral governor argue that high-speed rail is doable, remember that he couldn’t pull off a legal procedure that didn’t daunt former Texas Gov. Rick Perry....

In 2012, California voters rejected a ballot measure to get rid of capital punishment. Alexander and Winchell shouldn’t have to sue their government to enforce the law.

As the title of this post is meant to suggest, I do not think officials in California have any real interest in fixing its execution protocol.

February 11, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

New bipartisan federal prison reform bill introduced (with good chance of passage?)

This article from The Hill, headlined "Senators unveil prison reform bill," reports on the latest iteration of a bipartisan federal criminal justice reform proposal.  Here are the details: 

Two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are reintroducing a prison reform bill they say will achieve a major goal of criminal justice reformers: reducing the size of the federal inmate population. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pushed the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System (CORRECTIONS) Act at a press conference Tuesday.

The law is meant to reduce the number of people — currently just over 210,000 — incarcerated in federal prisons.  The package proposed by the two senators takes a more moderate approach to reducing prison populations than other proposals that would implement reductions to mandatory sentences.  It also supports programs that help prisoners avoid returning to crime after being released.

Prisoners would undergo a risk assessment to determine whether they present a low, medium or high risk of committing another offense.  Prisoners determined to have a low or medium risk of offending again would be eligible to earn time off of their sentences by participating in recidivism reduction programs, including drug counseling or vocational training, a release from Whitehouse’s office said.

In total, prisoners can earn 25 percent of their sentence off through the law. The bill, though, prevents certain types of prisoners, like those serving time for sex offenses or terrorism, from benefiting from the law. "We want to go forward with what's passable without subjecting the bill to the kind of Willie Horton-type critique that it might receive,” Whitehouse said of the decision not to have the law cover some types of prisoners....

Cornyn and Whitehouse said they are open to debating additional measures, including changing the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. But they touted their measure as a good starting point for a larger conversation about criminal justice. “This is a debate that we welcome,” Cornyn said when asked whether sentencing reform could conceivably be added to the bill. “There's a lot of things we can do to improve our criminal justice system, and there's a lot of it being discussed. Things like mandatory minimums, sentencing reform, over criminalization, particularly of the regulatory environment. There are a lot of things we can do better.”

"Given the new open amendment process in the United States Senate, anybody who's got a good idea and 60 votes — 59 plus theirs — can offer it by way of an amendment," he added.

Whitehouse said that having a criminal justice bill moving through the Senate could buoy other ideas for reforming the criminal justice system.  "I think if this bill proves to be a catalyst for further legislation in the area of sentencing reform and criminal justice reform, John and I would have no objection to that,” he said....

Some, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), have been reluctant to support changes to the mandatory sentences. But Grassley recently expressed an openness to having his committee consider the idea in an interview at a conservative event last month.

As the title of this post highlights, I have little idea if this CORRECTIONS Act has a real chance at passage. But I am keeping my fingers crossed.

February 11, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

ABA resolution calls for elimination of juve LWOP in the United States

DownloadAs reported in this Robina Institute press release, yesterday "the American Bar Association (ABA) approved a resolution calling for an end to the practice of sentencing children to life-in-prison-without-parole and urging meaningful periodic opportunities for release.”  Here is more from the press release:

The United States stands alone in permitting sentences of life without parole for juveniles. It is the only country other than Somalia that has not yet ratified the Convention on Rights of the Child, which prohibits life without parole sentences for children.  Passage of this resolution signals the ABA’s commitment to reforming U.S. juvenile sentencing laws and aligns with recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court affirming that children are “constitutionally different” from adults, and that because children have diminished culpability and greater prospects of reform, they should not be routinely subject to our nation’s harshest penalties.

“With the adoption of Resolution 107C, the American Bar Association has sent a clear message to the legal community and policymakers across the country that children should never be sentenced to die in prison,” said ABA President, William C. Hubbard.  “As the world’s foremost leader and defender of human rights, the United States should ban life without parole sentences for children — a severe violation of human rights. The ABA applauds those states that have already taken steps to reform their laws and urges other states to pass similar reforms as soon as practicable.”

“For any one individual, if over time that person continues to pose a significant risk to public safety, a life sentence may be appropriate,” said Robina Institute Executive Director Kelly Mitchell.  “What this resolution is saying is that the moment of sentencing is not the time to make the judgment that a person is forever irredeemable.”

The control and administration of the ABA is vested in the House of Delegates, which is the 560-member policy-making body of the association.  The House of Delegates meets twice each year, at ABA Annual and Midyear Meetings.  Action taken by the House of Delegates on specific issues becomes official ABA policy.

The full text of ABA Resolution 107C and its assoiated report is available at this link.

February 10, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

As SCOTUS considers Oklahoma lethal injections, Oklahoma considers a gas chamber

As this AP article reports, now that "executions in Oklahoma [are] on hold amid a constitutional review of its lethal injection formula, Republican legislators are pushing to make Oklahoma the first state in the nation to allow the use of nitrogen gas to execute death row inmates." Here is more:

Two separate bills scheduled for hearings this week in legislative committees would make death by "nitrogen hypoxia" a backup method of execution if the state's current lethal injection process is found to be unconstitutional.

"You wouldn't need a medical doctor to do it. It's a lot more practical. It's efficient," said Rep. Mike Christian, an Oklahoma City Republican and former Oklahoma Highway patrolman who conducted a hearing last summer on hypoxia, or the depletion of oxygen in the bloodstream.

The U.S. Supreme Court currently is reviewing Oklahoma's three-drug method in a challenge sparked by a botched lethal injection last spring in which an inmate groaned and writhed on the gurney before a problem was discovered with an intravenous line. The case centers on whether the sedative midazolam properly renders an inmate unconscious before the second and third drugs are administered. Three scheduled lethal injections in Oklahoma have been delayed pending the high court's review.

Oklahoma officials concede midazolam is not the preferred drug for executions, but death penalty states have been forced to explore alternatives as manufacturers of more effective drugs refuse to sell them for use in lethal injections. Tennessee passed a law last year to reinstate the electric chair if it can't get lethal drugs, and Utah is considering bringing back the firing squad. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has urged legislators to consider the creation of a state compounding pharmacy to produce the drugs itself.

A fiscal analysis of the Oklahoma bill projects it would cost about $300,000 to build a gas chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. A similar bill is pending in the Oklahoma Senate. Christian said unlike traditional gas chambers that used drugs like cyanide that caused a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood, breathing nitrogen would be painless because it leads to hypoxia, a gradual lack of oxygen in the blood, similar to what can happen to pilots at high altitudes.

Four states currently allow the use of lethal gas — Arizona, California, Missouri, and Wyoming — but all have lethal injection as the primary method, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. No state has ever used nitrogen gas or inert gas hypoxia to execute an inmate. The last U.S. inmate executed in a gas chamber was Walter LaGrand in Arizona in 1999.

A few recent and older related posts:

February 10, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, February 09, 2015

"Inside The Koch Campaign To Reform Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Huffington Post piece that reviews a modern sentencing-reform story that is surely becoming familiar to regular readers of this blog.  Here are highlights from the piece which seem to add a few new elements: 

Koch Industries, Inc., the corporation led by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, is holding discussions with a coalition of strange bedfellows to tackle criminal justice reform.

In conversations with people like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and organizations like the ACLU, the Koch brothers are homing in on reducing overcriminalization and mass incarceration, as well as reforming practices like civil forfeiture.  Progressives, rather than giving the Kochs the stink eye, are welcoming their efforts.

Koch Industries general counsel and senior vice president Mark Holden told The Huffington Post that he met with Booker and his staff a few weeks ago.  The New Jersey Democrat and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are co-sponsoring the REDEEM Act, legislation that would give states incentives to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 18, among other reforms.

"We must reform our criminal justice system. It is an urgency more and more recognized by people across the political spectrum," Booker told HuffPost in an email.  "To make change in Congress and beyond I will work with just about anyone who shares my passion for this mission -- that includes Republican members of Congress and other leaders I've begun to work with like Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and Charles Koch's team."...

The Kochs have outlined five pillars for reform: The right not to be prosecuted for accidentally breaking the law; fair treatment under the law; competent and fair representation; mandatory minimum reforms; and restoration of rights.

When Koch Industries leaders talk about criminal justice, they at times sound like bleeding-heart progressives.  Holden, for example, called civil forfeiture practices, where police seize assets from someone accused of a crime, "a huge, grave injustice." He also praised Attorney General Eric Holder for taking a stand against the practice, and worried about the longterm consequences of the U.S. prison system.  "[S]omeone makes a mistake sometimes and it falls on the rest of their life, because they can't get a job, they can't vote, can't get a loan, that type of thing,” he said....

[O]organizations that work on criminal justice reform say they believe the Kochs' efforts are sincere and not monetary. "I think there are some people that worry perhaps the Kochs might be prioritizing things like environmental crime, or crimes more likely to impact white people with means," said Alison Holcomb, the national director of the ACLU’s Campaign to End Mass Incarceration. "My experience so far has been that they are genuinely interested in the issues across the board."

Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:

February 9, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Briefs seeking SCOTUS review of 15-year mandatory federal sentence for possessing shotgun shells

As regular readers may recall from this post, a few months ago a Sixth Circuit panel rejected an Eighth Amendment challenge brought by Edward Young, who is serving a "mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer."  I helped file an amicus brief on in support of Mr. Young's claim in the Sixth Circuit, and now I have  helped put together another amicus brief in support of his SCOTUS cert petition.  

The SCOTUS cert amicus, which can be downloaded below, makes a number of distinct points based in part on the (little-known) fact that the Supreme Court has never reviewed on the merits a federal term-of-years sentences under modern Eighth Amendment doctrines.  Writing along with Prof Michael J. Zydney Mannheimer, this brief starts and ends this way: 

This Court has never addressed how the Eighth Amendment’s proportionality and procedural safeguards for defendants facing the most serious penalties are to be applied when federal courts consider a challenge to a federal sentence. Both the original meaning of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause and modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence reasonably suggest that the proportionality and procedural safeguards in the Eighth Amendment should have a more robust application when federal courts are reviewing federal sentences, especially when a severe sentence significantly conflicts with state punishment norms.

These realities call for this Court to take up Mr. Young’s petition for certiorari and declare unconstitutional his fifteen-year mandatory federal prison term based on his harmless possession of shotgun shells in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  The vast majority of U.S. States do not even criminalize possession of shotgun shells by a convicted felon (surely because mere passive possession of ammunition alone is neither inherently dangerous nor a ready instrument of crime absent possession of a firearm).  The handful of States that do criminalize this possession offense treat the crime as a misdemeanor or set a statutory maximum prison sentence for the offense well below the 15- year mandatory minimum federal term Mr. Young received. Moreover, Amici are unaware of any case from any State or locality in which a defendant received any prison sentence of any duration for offense conduct that involved only the harmless possession of a small number of shotgun shells. Legislative enactments and state practices thus provide in this case potent objective evidence of a national consensus against Mr. Young’s federal punishment....

Perhaps a majority of this Court has come now to the view that the Eighth Amendment functionally and formally provides no restrictions whatsoever on how severe Congress may punish adults through prison terms for conduct it deems criminal, and that only structural provisions like the Commerce Clause “impose[] real limits on federal power” and establish “boundaries to what the Federal Government may do” in the exercise of its police powers through the federal criminal justice system.  Alderman v. United States, 562 U.S. ___ (2011) (Thomas, J., dissenting from the denial of certiorari).  But, as explained above, a sounder originalist and modern understanding of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is as a constitutional provision that can operate to protect individual Americans from the most extreme application of severe mandatory prison terms for the most minor transgression of federal law.  Indeed, if Mr. Young’s fifteen-year mandatory federal prison term based on his harmless possession of shotgun shells is allowed to remain in place without further review, this Court would essentially signal to Congress that it very well could constitutionally make even “overtime parking a felony punishable by life imprisonment.” Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263, 274 n.11 (1980).

  Download Young v US Cert Amicus

Prior related posts:

February 9, 2015 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Highlighting the role of prosecutorial activity in modern mass incarceration

Images (3)I am pleased to see this new Slate piece giving attention to Professor John Pfaff's important and effective analysis of the reasons for modern mass incarceration.  The piece is headlined "Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?: A provocative new theory," and here is how the piece sets up a Q&A with John, along with a key portion of the Q&A explaining the heart of John's statistical insights:

Criminal justice reform is a contentious political issue, but there’s one point on which pretty much everyone agrees: America’s prison population is way too high.  It’s possible that a decline has already begun, with the number of state and federal inmates dropping for three years straight starting in 2010, from an all-time high of 1.62 million in 2009 to about 1.57 million in 2012.  But change has been slow: Even if the downward trend continues, which is far from guaranteed, it could take almost 90 years for the country’s prison population to get down to where it was in 1980 unless the rate of decline speeds up significantly.

What can be done to make the population drop faster? Many reformers, operating under the assumption that mass incarceration is first and foremost the result of the war on drugs, have focused on making drug laws less punitive and getting rid of draconian sentencing laws that require judges to impose impossibly harsh punishments on people who have committed relatively minor crimes. But according to John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, neither of those efforts will make a significant dent in the problem, because they are based on a false understanding of why the prison boom happened in the first place.  Having analyzed statistics on who goes to prison, why, and for how long, Pfaff has emerged with a new and provocative account of how the problem of mass incarceration came to be.  If he’s right, the implications for the prison reform movement are huge and suggest the work needed to achieve real progress will be much harder than most people realize.

In a conversation with Slate, Pfaff explains his theory....

Q: So why did the prison population keep on rising after 1991, when the crime wave ended? It seems like if your theory is right, that the increase in violent crime and property crime caused the prison boom, the end of the crime wave should have been accompanied by decreasing incarceration rates.

A: Three things could have happened. One, police just got much more efficient—they’re just arresting more and more people, with new policing technologies, new policing approaches—maybe they’re just arresting a bigger share of offenders. But we don’t actually see that. Arrests tend to drop with the crime rate. So the total number of people being arrested has fallen. The other thing it could be is we’re just locking people up for longer—but like I said, it’s not that. So clearly what’s happening is we’re just admitting more people to prison. Though we have a smaller pool of people being arrested, we’re sending a larger and larger number of them to prison.

Q: Why would that be?

What appears to happen during this time — the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available — is that the probability that a district attorneys file a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3.  So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies.  I can’t tell you why they’re doing that.  No one’s really got an answer to that yet.  But it does seem that the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down.

As regular readers likely know, I am a big fan of John Pfaff's research.  Anyone concerned about mass incarceration, especially at the state level, need to look at his research, and I think John is very right to focus on the importance of state prosecutorial activities and the relatively limited direct impact of the modern federal drug war on state incarceration realities.  (I must note, though, that John's analysis here is not now really "new and provocative": as this 2009 post notes, John himself highlighted this statistical story in a Slate commentary six years ago and most informed folks know prosecutorial activities have played a huge role in modern mass incarceration.)

That said, in part because John's analysis  is especially focused on state data, I fear he misses how the modern drug war, fueled especially by the growth of the federal criminal system, provides one big explanation for why and how "over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges."   In the 1980s and before, the feds generally prosecuted significantly less than 10,000 drug cases each year.  But thanks largely to the tough new drug penalties (and added prosecutorial resources) that the Congress put in place by the end of the 1980s, the feds started prosecuting tens of thousands more drug offenders each year and averaged more than 25,000 yearly drug prosecutions through the 2000s.  These additional federal prosecution of drug offenders surely freed up state prosecutors to focus more time and attention on other cases/offenders and allowed them to get "much more aggressive in how they filed charges."

In other words, in the 1980s and before, the feds prosecuted far less than 100,000 drug offenders each decade, and all the other folks arrested by states were not as aggressively prosecuted because state prosecutors saw limited value in cycling lots of lower-level drug offenders through their system.  But throughout the ’90s and 2000s, the feds prosecuted well over 500,000 drug offenders; that freed up space, time, energy for other folks arrested by states to be aggressively prosecuted.  (These forces also had a synergistic impact as new tough three-strikes laws in states and at the federal level extended greatly the terms of those repeatedly cycling through criminal justice systems.)

My point here is not to assert that John's data analysis is misguided or inaccurate in any way.  But I do think it important --- indeed, essential --- to see how the drug war and other toughness effort at both the federal and state level fed off each other in order to change state prosecutorial behaviors in the way John highlights.  And, perhaps most importantly, all of this needs to be studied closely to fully understand how we got into our modern costly mass incarceration mess and how we might best find out way out.

Prior posts about Prof. John Pfaff's important research:

February 8, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Ohio Gov John Kasich advocating significant resources devoted to addiction services for prisoners

As reported in this local article, headlined "Addiction programs for incarcerated included state budget," Ohio's GOP Governor John Kasich is now showing through his latest budget proposal that he remains deeply committed to "smart on crime" sentencing and prison reforms. Here are the details:

Eight of 10 people come to Ohio prisons with a history of abusing drugs and alcohol.  Most leave without treatment or a recovery plan, with predictable results. On the outside, they return to old addictive habits that often trigger criminal behavior.

Gov. John Kasich’s proposed state budget calls for a $61.7 million collaboration by two agencies to treat offenders both behind bars and once they are released. “This is not tinkering with recovery programs. This is going to be a remarkable leap forward, addressing a large group of people coming to our prisons who in many cases aren’t being served at all,” said Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

The big-picture goal is to help ex-offenders succeed outside prison and, in the long run, to cut prison costs charged to taxpayers. Statistics show that about 10 percent of inmates who get alcohol and drug treatment later return to prison, compared with about 27 percent of those who don’t get treatment.

The change pushed by Kasich would shift responsibility for inmate-recovery services from Rehabilitation and Correction to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. It involves moving 120 people who work for prisons to the mental-health agency budget at a cost of $12.5 million annually. They will, however, continue working in the same jobs.

Prison officials estimate that about 4,500 of the roughly 30,000 inmates with moderate to severe addiction problems are getting recovery services. Officials from the two agencies won’t predict how many more inmates will be treated until the program is in place, but Stuart Hudson, prison chief of medical services, said it will be a “substantial increase.”...

Mental-health director Tracy Plouck said much of the $61.7 million, beyond the $25 million to absorb the DRC staff, will go for community recovery services once inmates return home.

Prison officials have struggled for years with an influx of inmates who commit nonviolent crimes, many of them related to their addictions.  For about 20 percent of new prisoners, a drug charge is their most serious offense.  Many are in and out of prison so quickly there isn’t time or resources to get them involved in recovery programs, Mohr said.

“We’re not reaching enough people and we’re not reaching them early enough,” Mohr said. “Ohioans are paying $22,500 a year for each prisoner, and we should be doing more than warehousing them. We are committed to helping people improve their lives.” Ohio’s recidivism rate of 27.1 percent is far better than the national average of over 40 percent.

February 7, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, February 06, 2015

Bipartisan Recidivism Risk Reduction Act introduced in US House

This notable press release from the office of Representative Jason Chaffetz provides the details of a federal prison reform bill that would be extremely consequential if it can get enacted. Here are excerpts from the release providing basic details about the bill:

Republicans Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Trey Gowdy (R-SC) joined with Democrats Cedric Richmond (D-LA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to introduce H.R. 759, Recidivism Risk Reduction Act. This bipartisan legislation uses risk assessment tools to reduce recidivism, lower the crime rate, and reduces the amount of money spent on the federal prison system....

H.R. 759 would implement a post-sentencing dynamic risk assessment system to identify an inmate’s risk of recidivism. Then, using evidence-based practices developed by states, effective recidivism reduction programs are identified and utilized. The bill would then provide incentives for inmates to participate in those programs.

Ultimately, inmates could earn credits toward an alternative custody arrangement – such as a halfway house or home confinement – at the end of their term. Such arrangements reduce the cost of housing an inmate in the federal prison system.

The program will be phased in over a five year period. The savings will be reinvested into further expansions of proven recidivism reduction programs during this time. After that, it is anticipated that the savings can be used either for other Justice Department priorities such as FBI agents, US Attorney offices etc., or the savings can be used to help reduce the deficit. Similar programs have found success on a state level in several states including Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and North Carolina.

In addition, Reps. Chaffetz and Jefferies introduced HR 760, the Bureau of Corrections Renaming Act. This bipartisan legislation would simply rename the “Bureau of Prisons” – under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice – the “Bureau of Corrections.” Over ninety percent of all federal prisoners will eventually be released. This small change will help the Bureau remember that its mission is not just to house people, but also to rehabilitate prisoners such that they are productive members of society when released. Forty-eight states throughout the country use the word ‘corrections’ in describing their prisons.

The Attorney General is directed to consult with appropriate federal agencies and stakeholders to design, develop, implement, and regularly upgrade an actuarial Post Sentencing Risk Assessment System which shall include one or more comprehensive risk and needs assessment tools, which shall be peer-reviewed and validated, and periodically re-validated, on the federal prison population for the specific purposes of this Act.

Prisoners will be divided into high, moderate, or low risks of recidivism. Prisoners will be periodically re-evaluated and have the opportunity to progress to low risk of recidivism. Prisoners who misbehave can move the other way – i.e. from low to moderate risk of recidivism. Bureau of Prisons shall incentivize prisoners to reduce their individual risk of recidivism by participating in and completing recidivism reduction programs.

Prisoners who have committed more serious crimes such as child abuse, terrorism, and violent felonies, are not eligible for the program.

If a prisoner is successfully participating in and/or completing programs, holding a prison job, participating in educational courses, participating in faith-based services and courses, or delivering programs or faith-based services and courses to other prisoners, the prisoner can earn [certain credits based on their risk levels]. Low risk prisoners will be eligible for consideration for alternative custody such as halfway houses, home confinement, ankle bracelets, etc.

This is not automatic – it must be reviewed and approved by the prison warden, the chief probation officer in the relevant federal district, and a judge in the relevant federal district.

This is not a reduction in sentence – prisoners are not being released and nothing in this Act affects Truth in Sentencing requirements that prisoners complete at least 85% of their sentence.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  Not to be overlooked (even though I managed to overlook it), this past week also saw another notable bipartisan federal bill of not introduced in both houses of Congress.  This press release from the office of Senator Rand Paul provides the basics:

Today, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 353/H.R. 706) in the Senate and House of Representatives.  The Justice Safety Valve Act would give federal judges the ability to impose sentences below mandatory minimums in appropriate cases based upon mitigating factors.

February 6, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Highlighting President Obama's pitiful pardon record

ZZoTyPLThis lengthy USA Today piece, headlined "The 50-year-old pardon: Obama picks safe clemency cases," provides yet another review of the now-too-familiar story of President Obama awful record on his use of his clemency authority. Here are excerpts:

Of the 64 pardons President Obama has granted over six years, half are for offenses that happened before 1989. Six are from the 1960s. On average, 23 years have elapsed between the sentencing date and the day Obama has granted a pardon or commutation — an all-time high. A century ago, three or four years was the norm.

It's part of a decades-long trend toward presidents being more cautious in their pardon power, picking older and safer cases for clemency. But Obama has been the most cautious of all, and some critics say he is shirking his constitutional power — some say duty — to "grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States."

"'Safe' is being nice. I would almost say irrelevant. The people who are being pardoned are people on Social Security," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who studies pardons. "The people who need pardons are young and need to establish themselves and get a job, get a Pell grant and go to college."...

Many of Obama's pardons are for old, obscure and sometimes trivial crimes:

• Ronald Lee Foster, of Beaver Falls, Pa., was convicted of mutilating coins in 1963. He had shaved the edges off pennies to fool vending machines into thinking they were dimes. He was pardoned in 2010 at the age of 66.

• David Neil Mercer of Grand Junction, Colo., was convicted in 1997 of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act by disturbing Indian artifacts in Utah. He now owns an automotive business and was pardoned last year at the age of 56.

• Bobby Gerald Wilson, of Summerton, S.C., was convicted in 1985 of aiding and abetting in the possession and sale of illegal American alligator hides. He was pardoned in 2011 at the age of 61.

Obama has issued fewer pardons than any president since James Garfield, who served just 199 days in office, and fewer than any two-term president since George Washington, according to Ruckman, a Rock Valley College professor who tracks clemency trends on the blog Pardon Power.

The few pardons Obama is granting often come late in life — sometimes to people on their deathbeds. Albert Byron Stork, a defense attorney from Delta, Colo., was convicted of tax evasion in 1987, when he took money from his fugitive brother for the down payment of a house. He received a pardon the same day as Auvil — and died of brain cancer two weeks later.

The White House said the president has an "ongoing commitment" to granting clemency. "The president believes strongly that a critical component of our criminal justice system is for deserving and qualified applicants to have the ability to petition for clemency," said White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine. She said Obama "looks forward to reviewing additional requests for clemency in the coming months."

The Office of the Pardon Attorney, in the Justice Department, is responsible for sifting through the hundreds of applications received each year.... Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff's recommendations go to Deputy Attorney General James Cole, then to White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, and ultimately to the president. That's how it works in principle. But in practice, the Justice Department is run by career prosecutors who are often hostile to those seeking pardons, defense attorneys say.

"They churn out a steady stream of no," said Sam Morison, a lawyer specializing in pardon cases who worked in the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Clinton, Bush and early Obama administrations. "That doesn't mean that the president has to do what they say. But the president almost always does what the Justice Department recommends, even when he doesn't agree with what the Justice Department recommends." But the Justice Department has to recommend some favorable applications, and they tend to be older, easier cases, he said....

Delegating the decisions to the Justice Department helps to depoliticize the pardon power, but it's also led to its own problems. An internal Justice Department investigation found that President George W. Bush's pardon attorney withheld information from the White House about a commutation he opposed. And in 2010, the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica published an investigation in the Washington Post revealing that, under Bush and Obama, white criminals were four times more likely to get a pardon than black offenders.

Last year, the Justice Department announced a clemency initiative in an attempt to rectify some of the inequities in the system. Inmates who would have gotten lighter sentences under current federal guidelines were encouraged to apply to have their sentences commuted, or reduced.  But the Justice Department says that's a separate issue from pardons. 

Just a few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

February 6, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 05, 2015

More than three decades after crime, SCOTUS decides it still needs to stay Texas mass murderer execution

As reported in this AP piece (with my emphasis added), a "Texas inmate set to be executed next week for fatally shooting four men at an airplane hangar more than 30 years ago won a reprieve Thursday from the U.S. Supreme Court."  Here are the details:

Lester Bower Jr., 67, among the longest-serving Texas death row inmates, had been scheduled for lethal injection Tuesday. The justices gave no reason for the reprieve, saying only that it would be lifted automatically if they deny an appeal or act on it.

Bower was convicted in the October 1983 deaths at a Grayson County ranch about 60 miles north of Dallas. Authorities found parts from a small ultralight airplane at the hangar at his home in Arlington, a Dallas suburb. Prosecutors also tied unusual Italian-made .22-caliber bullets used in the slayings to similar ammunition purchased by Bower, a federally licensed gun dealer.

In their appeal to the high court, Bower's lawyers said jurors who decided on his death sentence had faulty instructions that didn't allow them to consider mitigating circumstances that he had no criminal record, was a married father of two, college educated and employed as a chemical salesman.

Since his 1984 trial, court rulings have refined instructions to Texas capital murder trial juries to account for mitigating circumstances. Several condemned inmates from that era - but not Bower - have received new court-ordered punishment trials. Bower's attorneys also contended that prosecutors misstated the rarity of the fatal bullets, and that his long time on death row and numerous rescheduled execution dates amount to unconstitutional suffering.

State attorneys argued that courts have rejected appeals about the jury instructions, that information about the bullets was available at the time of his trial and that Bower's lawyers' persistent appeals account for the lengthy case. "Any delay is purely of his own making," Stephen Hoffman, an assistant Texas attorney general, told the justices in a filing this week....

Those killed were building contractor Bob Tate, 51; Grayson County Sheriff's Deputy Philip Good, 29; Jerry Brown, 52, an interior designer; and Ronald Mayes, 39, a former Sherman police officer. Good's wife, Marlene Bushard, said the delay was "very frustrating since we were so close."

"I am hoping once this is done he will be out of options, we can get another death warrant and end this," she said in an email.

As this timeline of products reveals, over the last 30 years Apple has been able to go from its Apple IIe personal computer to a modern (multi-generation) iPhone and iPad and iMac, and the latest Apple machines now put more computing power into our hands than NASA had at its disposal in the early 1980s.  Meanwhile during this same period, our legal system has been unable to conclusively determine whether a Texas mass murderer was lawfully sentenced to death. Hmmm.

February 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

"Could 2015 be the year Congress finally gets serious about criminal-justice reform?"

The title of this post is the subheading of this new Mother Jones piece which carries this main headline: "On These 5 Things, Republicans Actually Might Work With Dems to Do Something Worthwhile." Here are highlights (mostly) from the start and end of the piece:

Recently, bipartisan momentum has been building behind an issue that has historically languished in Congress: criminal-justice reform. Recent Capitol Hill briefings have drawn lawmakers and activists from across the political spectrum—from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, whose boss, conservative megadonor Charles Koch, has made reform a key philanthropic priority.

The emergence of this unlikely coalition has been building for some time: Liberals have long been critical of the criminal-justice status quo, and many "tough on crime" conservatives — growing concerned by the staggering costs of mass incarceration and the system's impingement on liberty — are beginning to join their liberal and libertarian-minded colleagues. In the past, bills aimed at overhauling the criminal-justice system have stagnated on Capitol Hill, but the bipartisan players who are coming together to push for change means that there are some reforms that could realistically gain traction, even in this divided Congress....

Earned-time credits....

Easing up mandatory minimums....

Juvenile-justice reform....

Reducing recidivism....

Sealing and expunging records....

Despite the bipartisan efforts, many experts still believe that there are plenty of issues that could pose serious obstacles to compromise. Beyond the disagreement on mandatory minimums, there's potential conflict on the role of for-profit prisons, which conservatives praise and Democrats like Booker loathe. Additionally, support for loosening drug penalties — particularly for marijuana — is growing broadly popular, but powerful Republicans remain vocal opponents....

There is one especially powerful force pushing along reform: The federal government is expected to spend nearly $7 billion on prisons this year, and conservatives in charge of Congress will be under pressure to bring down costs. "With every Congress, I'm hopeful for reform," Hurst says. "But this Congress' argument is based on money, not humanity, which is why it's more realistic that it'd happen."

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress

This lengthy new article in The National Journal provides an interesting and informative look at the politics and people at the center of federal sentencing and prison reform discussions. The piece's headlined highlights its themes: "This Is How Justice Reform Can Actually Happen This Year: Chuck Grassley's power will change the dynamics of sentencing reform. But there's still a bipartisan way forward in the Senate." The full piece is a must-read for anyone closely following congressional reform realities, and here is how the article starts:

The rise of Sen. Chuck Grassley to the head of the Judiciary Committee has made a lot criminal-justice reform advocates nervous.

Four months ago, before Republicans took back the Senate, it appeared that reducing mandatory minimums had overcome crucial hurdles.  The Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimums for some drug offenders, passed out of committee in January 2014 and attracted a roster of high-profile backers, from former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to progressive leader Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Potential 2016 presidential candidates such as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz had decried mandatory minimums.  Even President Obama and the Koch brothers, who have spent millions against him, agreed the sentencing requirements had to be reduced.

But, like many conservatives who came to power in an era when Republicans branded themselves as the "tough on crime" party, Grassley has made it clear that he sees the steady reduction in violent crime in the United States over the last 30 years as a direct reflection of more-effective policing strategies.  And he believes that mandatory minimum laws that ensure criminals stay locked up have been key to that progress.

Grassley's posture toward mandatory minimums has given some advocates pause. "I do think we can work with him," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said of Grassley.  "He knows some changes need to be made, but it does influence how far you can go if the chairman stands opposed."

In a Democratic-controlled Congress, many saw a clear path for reducing mandatory minimums.  A handful of vocal GOP supporters have continued to say justice reform should remain a key priority in the new Senate.  But with Grassley in charge, the path forward for criminal-justice reform will likely look very different.

And we may get our first true glimpse of it next week — when GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas introduces a rare bill that could actually get through Congress and be signed by the president.  That legislation would be similar to what was known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act in the 113th Congress.  That bill was also bipartisan but far less contentious than the Smarter Sentencing Act among the Republican rank-and-file. Even Grassley voted it out of committee last year, where it passed 15 to 2.  Many of the same members are still sitting on the committee with a few GOP additions, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina and David Perdue of Georgia.

The bill next week will focus on transitioning prisoners back into the community after they have served their time. It requires that each inmate undergo a risk assessment to evaluate his or her propensity for recidivism.  Then it allows those deemed medium- and low-risk to earn credits for participating in programs such as job training or substance abuse counseling.  Certain well-behaved and low-risk offenders could then use those credits to serve out the final days of their sentences under some kind of community supervision.

Grassley's office insists that it is early, and no decisions have been made on what bills will make it through the committee.  There is an attorney general to confirm and more on the committee's docket that comes before discussions about far-reaching justice reform.  But, shuffling down the hallways of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in January, Grassley rattled off his top three goals for the committee. "Juvenile-justice reform, patent trolling, and ... prison reform," he said.  "There are some things where there is a pretty good shot of getting some bipartisan agreement."  And, if the Senate GOP's No. 2 introduces the bill, it will make it harder for Grassley to ignore.

February 4, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sign of the drug war times: risk-management review of state drug-law reforms

There are many diverse signs, and many diverse consequences, of our modern (retrenching?) drug war, especially with respect to state-level reform of marijuana prohibitions.  One such interesting sign and consequences arrived in my e-mail this morning via this link to this post by a risk management firm titled "Recap of Drug-Related State Legislation Passed in 2014." This helpful resource is introduced this way:

One trend that hiring managers should take note of in 2015 is the increased fragmentation of state drug test regulations.  Exactly half of all states passed legislation in 2014 that touches upon or completely regulates drug testing in some way or another.

With more and more attention being given to developments in medical and recreational marijuana laws, it may be hard to imagine that the United States is not trending away from drug testing in the workplace.  It is true that public opinion about certain controlled substances is shifting, but legislation is still being passed that creates provisions for drug testing employees, banning synthetic substances, and penalizing intoxicated motorists.

The diversity of laws and court decisions produced in 2014 is proof that the line between pro-employer and pro-employee is vague and becoming more difficult to draw-out.  As laws in some states provide new “rights” to individuals to consume intoxicating substances, other laws in those states as well as other places reinforce the rights of employers and citizens seeking to ensure safe workplaces and communities.

I am not, of course, an expert on labor and employment law. But this posting provides perhaps more evidence that labor and employment lawyers need to be experts on modern drug law reforms in order to serves their clients effective.

February 4, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

NACDL seeking examples of federal cases impacted by "trial penalty"

Through some of my work with folks at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, I have learned that NACDL is now, as part of its Trial Penalty Project, actively seeking examples of the “trial penalty” federal defendants often face as they consider whether to exercise their right to go to trial based on the great discrepancy between post-trial sentences and those offered in the plea process.   Human Rights Watch issued a report summarizing extensive statistical and anecdotal evidence of this trial penalty focusing on federal drug defendants, and NACDL is working toward producing companion report focusing on the trial penalty in federal cases not involving drug prosecutions. 

NACDL seeks, via a simple on-line survey, help in collecting examples and data for use in the report. NACDL is interested in examples such as (1) cases where a defendant after trial received a far more severe sentence than had been offered during plea negotiations; (2) cases where a defendant pleaded guilty principally because of a fear that any sentence imposed after trial would be dramatically higher than the plea offer; and/or (3) cases where defendant(s) convicted at trial received disproportionately severe sentences given their culpability as compared to co-defendants who pleaded guilty.

If you know of a federal case that fits these categories — or that otherwise reflects the “trial penalty” federal defendants often face in non-drug-offense settings — please take a few minutes to complete the online questionnaire at the NACDL website.

February 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new report from The Sentencing Project.  Here is a partial summary of its contents from an e-mail I received earlier today:

The report identifies four key features of the criminal justice system that produce racially unequal outcomes, beyond the conditions of socioeconomic inequality that contribute to higher rates of some crimes in marginalized communities, and showcases initiatives to abate these sources of inequity in adult and juvenile justice systems around the country. In many cases, these reforms have produced demonstrable results, including:
  • Indiana amended its drug-free zone sentencing laws, which imposed harsh penalties on a defendant population that was over 75% African American in Indianapolis.
  • Multnomah County (Portland), OR, revised and removed bias in its risk assessment instrument for determining juvenile detention, reducing African American and Latino youth detention levels by half.
  • Berks County, PA, reduced the number of youth in secure detention – who were primarily youth of color – by 67% between 2007 and 2012 in part by increasing reliance on alternatives including non-secure shelters and expanding use of evidence-based treatment programs.
  • The Milwaukee County prosecutor’s office eliminated racial disparity in charges of possession of drug paraphernalia by instituting case oversight and emphasizing diversion to treatment programs and dismissals.

February 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

A test for the Kochs' influence: seeking justice and freedom for Weldon Angelos

Download (1)If the wealthy truly have extraordinary influence on modern federal politics and policies, a notable defendant serving a mandatory 55-year sentence as a result of a few small marijuana sales ought to be getting out of prison before too long.  I say this because, according to this Daily Beast piece, my former client Weldon Angelos is now a "poster boy" for the latest Koch-brothers-backed political effort.  This piece is headlined "The New Face of the Koch Campaign" and here is its subheading: "A father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot. The Koch brothers want to help set him free and make him the face of their new campaign for criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

Weldon Angelos could have hijacked a plane and spent less time in jail.  But due to mandatory sentencing laws, the father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot — a term so long even the judge who gave it to him protested its injustice.  A group backed by the Koch brothers agrees, and is now fighting to get him out of prison.

Angelos is an extreme case: even though the crime was considered non-violent, Angelos carried a firearm during a series of marijuana sales to a Salt Lake City police informant —  so federal mandatory minimums required that he be put in jail until he’s 80 years old. Judge Paul Cassell protested the sentence when he was forced to make it in 2004, a move he told The Daily Beast he considers “the most unjust, lengthy sentence that I had to hand down.”...

Angelos is now 35 years old and has spent some 11 years behind bars.  He has more than 40 years left to go.  Even though his crime was non-violent, parole is not an option at the federal level.  His only hope for relief from his sentence is an order by the president.

“If we’re going to deprive someone of liberty, and deal with the high cost of incarceration, it better solve a problem.  And in this case, it doesn’t solve any problem,” argued Mark Osler, Angelos’ lawyer, who filed a clemency petition on his behalf in 2012.

This is where the Koch brothers come in.  The case is being highlighted by Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, which targets millenials, in a broader campaign to press for criminal justice reforms this year.  They will kick off the campaign with a documentary highlighting Angelos’ predicament, premiering at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum next week. “[This year] offers a unique moment in history in which people of different backgrounds and political leanings are coming together to facilitate a substantive dialogue on how to fix [the criminal justice system],” said Evan Feinberg, the group’s president. “We can work towards a more just system that reflects the rule of law without overcriminalizing non-violent offenses.”

The new campaign will target the overcriminalization of non-violent crime, mandatory minimum laws, and helping criminals who have served their sentences reintegrate into society.  The demilitarization of police and the excesses of civil asset forfeiture will also be addressed.

Generation Opportunity worked with Families Against Mandatory Minimums on the documentary.  FAMM founder Julie Stewart was in the room during Angelos’ first sentencing hearing.  It was, she said, a severe example of a worrisome trend in the criminal justice system....

“A lot of people just thought that because of the amount of time my brother was [sentenced to], he had done something terrible, just because of the ignorance that is out there about mandatory sentencing,” said Lisa Angelos, Weldon’s older sister and advocate. “Before the case, I had no idea that this was possible in America.”  The judge who was forced to hand down the sentence, Paul Cassell, said the Angelos case is an example of “clear injustice marring the public perception” of the federal courts — and victimizing taxpayers who have to pay to keep him locked up.

“We have in place in our country today some very draconian penalties that distort our whole federal sentencing scheme,” Cassell said.  “When people look at a case like Weldon Angelos and see that he got 55 years, and they see other cases where victims have gotten direct physical or psychological injuries and don’t see a similar [result] from the system, they start to wonder if the system is irrational.”

When he was sent to prison, Angelos’ children were small, now both are in their teens. Without their father, the family fell on hard financial times.  His children rarely talk to him, Weldon’s sister says, because they can’t afford a cell phone on which they can be reached.  “When I tell him stories about his kids, you can tell how very hard it is for him to hear it… to know that he can’t be here,” Lisa Angelos said. “It’s destroyed him in many ways.”

The Angelos’ have waited for more than two years for word on their executive clemency request.  The average successful clemency request takes approximately four years, according to his lawyer.  Weldon Angelos deserves clemency, Osler said, because his sentencing “doesn’t correlate in this country with what’s wrong, and what those wrongs deserve.”

Long-time readers are likely familiar with the Angelos case, which came to my attention on a few months after I started this blog 11 years ago. I litigated pro bono, unsuccessfully, Weldon's 2255 motion with claims (that I still find compelling) that his prosecution and sentencing involved violations of the Second, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments. I continue to hope Weldon will receive clemency or some other form of relief soon not merely to remedy the injustice of his extreme prosecution and sentencing, but to vindicate critical constitutional principles.

Related prior posts providing some Angelos case history:

February 3, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, February 02, 2015

Indiana sentencing reforms highlight how low-level criminal justice is forced to fill public health gaps

This lengthy local article from Indiana, headlined "County jails fear onslaught of addicts, mentally ill from prisons," provides an effective showcase of the relationships between criminal-justice issues and public-health issues. Here is how:

With the passage of sentencing reforms last year, one study estimates that more than 14,000 low-level offenders, some with serious addictions and mental illnesses, will no longer be kept in prison.  They will be diverted to county jails and community corrections programs that [Franklin County Sheriff Ken] Murphy and others say are ill-equipped to handle the onslaught.

Many such offenders need expensive mental health care — some requiring hundreds of dollars a month in medication.  "These are people with real problems that need treatment," Murphy said. "We need a secure facility or work release or whatever where we can send these folks ... where they can receive treatment, and when they're released, somebody follows up with them."

Sheriffs across the state say jails are not designed for all that.  Jails are meant to hold people awaiting trial, not to house and rehabilitate those who have been convicted. Many do not have mental health services.  Some counties also lack money to expand treatment programs or to launch community corrections programs that provide alternatives to jail, such as housing and GPS monitoring.  That, Murphy said, makes this legislative session critical for public safety.

The success of the criminal code reform under House Enrolled Act 1006, which took effect in July, hinges largely on providing funds for county programs.  Without them, Murphy and others say, people with mental illness and substance abuse problems have a higher risk of failing and re-offending....

"County jails are totally based on the idea in our society that you are innocent until proven guilty," said Howard County Sheriff Steve Rogers. "(HEA) 1006 wants us to hold folks after they've been convicted. Then they won't be pretrial detainees." Rogers said HEA 1006 will put a strain on his jail's mental health resources. "If we can reduce the amount of people that have these mental health issues in our jail," Rogers said, "I think we can handle what 1006 will bring us."

Jails also lack educational programs and vocational training offered in the DOC. "We're not here to rehabilitate," said Capt. Harold Vincent, commander at the Howard County Jail. "That doesn't happen in the jail setting."

Inmates with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems are expensive to incarcerate because of their medical and psychiatric needs. In Marion County, for instance, about 30 percent of inmates are mentally ill, and they take up roughly $7.7 million of the sheriff's budget every year, Layton said. Eighty-five percent have substance abuse problems.

Medication for the mentally ill costs about $800 to $1,500 per dose per person, said Dr. Erika Cornett, medical director for the behavioral health division of Community Howard Regional Health.  Some need an injection once a month, while others need two. That means one mentally ill inmate can cost a jail up to $3,000 a month in medication alone....

Will the political atmosphere be agreeable to spending more money on programs and services that help criminals?  Some hope so....   Some, however, think there will be political resistance.  Investing in other areas, such as education, is more popular.

This article is notable in part because it helps highlight that efforts to reduce prison populations and associated costs could be "penny wise, pound foolish" if there are not adequate resources devoted to services needed to aid localities with community supervision and reentry needs.  More broadly, by detailing various links between health-care needs and criminal justice institutions, this article suggests that effective health-care reform (especially for the poor) may be as critical to public safety and to the public fisc as is effective sentencing reform.

February 2, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Highlighting how apathy may help the criminal justice reform cause

This new Slate commentary by Jamelle Bouie spotlights why maybe I should not complain too much about criminal justice problems not getting enough attention from the media and the general public. The piece is headlined "Why Public Apathy Isn’t All Bad: It has actually helped pave the way for significant criminal justice reform," and here are excerpts:

[A]s much as intensity contributes to politics, we shouldn’t give short shrift to its sibling: public apathy. Apathy gets a bad rap, but when you look at its full place in the world of public policy, it’s underrated.

To be clear, apathy’s reputation isn’t undeserved.  Politicians have long used voter disinterest as cover for corrupt behavior.  And on issues toward which voters aren’t attentive — but interest groups are — the public can get shafted. But the same shadows that cloak the worst of our lawmakers can also shield the best of them.  On issues with which the problems are severe and about which voters are indifferent, politicians have a chance to act effectively for the public good without watching their rears.

The best example is criminal justice reform. During the last decade, lawmakers across the country have pushed bold experiments in shrinking prisons and reducing incarcerated populations, unscathed by any kind of public backlash.  In 2010, after two decades of ceaseless prison growth, Texas officials — supported by Gov. Rick Perry — moved to counter increasing costs of prison construction and incarceration with a new regime of treatment and mental health programs to give prosecutors and judges a third option besides jail or parole.  It worked.  The Texas inmate population has dropped from its peak of 173,000 in 2010 to 168,000 in 2013, without any increase in violent or property crime. Recidivism is down, and the state has saved an estimated $3 billion.

You see a similar story in Georgia, where Gov. Nathan Deal has led the state to drastically change its approach to criminal justice. In 2012, lawmakers passed reforms that gave prosecutors non-prison options for adults arrested for minor crimes, and that gave judges more options for drug offenses, with a goal of reserving prison beds for violent offenders. And in 2013 the state passed reforms that would place minor juvenile offenders in social service programs, skipping the criminal justice system entirely....

On crime, in other words, the broad public just isn’t that interested. And as such, there isn’t a strong incentive for “tough on crime” rhetoric, crime-focused politicians, or punitive anti-crime policies.  But for those on the other side of the issue — for politicians who want fewer prisons and less incarceration — there’s an opportunity to push reform without fear of attack. And slowly, lawmakers are taking it.

Thanks in part to public apathy, the country is beginning to make progress on one of our most important problems.  But we shouldn’t get too optimistic.  Bills against asset forfeiture or for flexibility in sentencing are like the first few boards in a game of Ms. Pac-Man — easy to clear if you know what to do.  To tackle the larger problems — overcriminalization, disinvestment in prison alternatives, and robust reintegration for former offenders — you need more: more will, more skill, and more support.  You also need more money beyond the savings you gain from reform.  And in politics, the moment you ask for cash is the moment the public starts to pay attention.

February 2, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Seemingly without a "grim roster of victims," California reduces extreme prison crowding as ordered in Plata

DownloadAs long-time readers will recall, the US Supreme Court in 2011 in Plata upheld, by a 5-4 vote, a lower-court order that imposed on California a requirement to have its prison population reduced below 137.5% of capacity to remedy extreme Eighth Amendment violations in prison conditions (basics here).  In their dissenting Plata opinions (as noted here and here), Justices Alito and Scalia predicted this ruling would likely produce "a grim roster of victims" and a massive number of "murders, robberies, and rapes" in California.  Similarly, as noted here, in response to Gov Jerry Brown's realignment plan to deal with the Plata problems, the Los Angeles DA predicted "the greatest spike in crime of the last several decades."

Fast forward a few years and this local story now reports that "California’s prison system has hit a milestone, with new figures showing that the inmate population inside the state’s 34 adult prisons has fallen below a court-ordered cap more than a year ahead of schedule."  Here is more: 

California’s prisons steadily filled in the 1990s as tough-on-crime measures such as the “three-strikes” law won public support. In November 2006, the prison population hit 162,804 -- larger than Elk Grove’s current estimated population -- or 200.2 percent of the design capacity at that time.

Lawyers for the inmates said overcrowding had reached the point that medical and mental health care services for prisoners were unconstitutional, and they renewed their legal challenge to a system in which inmates were being housed in triple-deck bunks in prison gyms and other open spaces.  The state disagreed and continued to fight, but in August 2009 a panel of three federal judges said the situation had “brought California’s prisons to the breaking point.”

The panel decreed that within two years the state would reduce inmate populations to 137.5 percent of capacity.  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in a 5-4 decision in 2011 that the prison population had to be reduced, prompting a series of efforts under Gov. Jerry Brown that led to Thursday’s levels.

Under the latest court orders, California has until Feb. 28, 2016, to cut its inmate population to the 137.5 percent benchmark. The early success in getting to that point can be traced largely to the governor’s prison realignment plan, passed in 2011, which shifted responsibility for nonviolent, low-level offenders from the state to counties.

Before that plan, as many as 60,000 inmates annually were sent to prisons as parole violators and served an average of 90 days. The Department of Corrections says realignment has cut the prison population by about 25,000 inmates. Counties statewide have seen an increase in jail inmates during that time frame....

[In addition,] 2,035 inmates have been released since passage of Proposition 47 in November, which redesignated several felony-level crimes, including some drug possession and property offenses, as misdemeanors. [And] 1,975 inmates in prison after a “third strike” have been released since voters approved Proposition 36 in 2012.  The measure allows for inmates to seek resentencing if their third strike was not considered serious or violent.

So, one should ask, what has happened recently in California with respect to crime rates, especially violent crimes that produce the greatest harms to victims.  This Crime & Consequences post provides a quick summary of the latest official data: "California property crimes per 100k population totaled 2,665.5 in 2013, a 3% drop from the 2012 figure although still above the rate before the realignment law went into effect.  Even better, the rate of violent crimes, less affected by that law, is down to a level not seen since 1967."

Posts at C&C highlight data indicating an increase in car thefts and other property crimes in recent years in California.  But I do not think even the greatest critics of Plata and the state's responses can assert that, as was predicted by a prominent prosecutor, California has experienced "the greatest spike in crime of the last several decades."  In sharp contrast, violent crime has continued to drop in the state in the wake of Plata.  

Though I doubt we will be hearing any sort of mea culpa from those who predicted that the public safety sky was sure to fall after Plata, I hope the California story will help inform assessments of future Chicken-Little-type predictions.

February 1, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack