Tuesday, January 23, 2018

New FBI crime data on first half of 2017 show encouraging declines in all areas except murder and car thefts

LargeThis new news release from the FBI, headlined "2017 Preliminary Semiannual Crime Statistics Released: Stats Show Slight Crime Decline in First Half of 2017," reveals some generally positive crime news for the start of 2017. Here are the basics:

Preliminary statistics show declines in the number of both violent crimes and property crimes reported for the first half of 2017 when compared with the first half of 2016, according to the FBI’s Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report, January - June 2017, released today. The report includes data from more than 13,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide that submitted crime data to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program.

According to the report, overall violent crime decreased 0.8 percent in the first six months of 2017 compared with the same time frame in 2016, though the number of murders and non-negligent manslaughters reported increased by 1.5 percent.  Additionally, the number of rapes (revised definition) decreased 2.4 percent, robberies decreased 2.2 percent, and aggravated assaults were down 0.1 percent.

Overall reported property crime offenses dropped 2.9 percent in the first half of 2017 compared with the first half of 2016. Burglaries decreased 6.1 percent, and larceny-thefts decreased 3 percent.  One area of property crime that did rise was motor vehicle thefts, with a 4.1 percent increase.

This FBI table providing year-to-year trends of the last four years provides a little more context for this latest data.  It is especially encouraging to see violent crime start to tick down after two years of increases, but the continued increase in murders remains disconcerting coming on the heels of two prior years of increases.  As has been the case in recent years, I suspect the homicide story is a dynamic region-specific tale with divergent numbers and stories in different cities.  Indeed, this FBI chart with population breakdowns and this FBI chart with regional breakdowns seem to indicate that mid/large-sized cities in the Midwest and South account for much of the increases in murders in the first part of 2017.

UPDATE: Attorney General Jeff Sessions already has penned this commentary published by USA Today touting the good news in this new FBI crime data. Here are parts of the piece:

When President Trump was inaugurated, he made the American people a promise: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” It is a promise that he has kept....

Trump ran for office on a message of law and order, and he won. When he took office, he ordered the Department of Justice to stop and reverse these trends — and that is what we have been doing every day for the past year.

We have placed trust in our prosecutors again, and we’re restoring respect for law enforcement. We have invested in new resources and put in place smarter policies based on sound research.

Ensuring every neighborhood in America is safe again will take time, but we are already starting to see results.

In 2017, we brought cases against more violent criminals than in any year in decades.  We charged the most federal firearm prosecutions in a decade. We convicted nearly 500 human traffickers and 1,200 gang members, and helped our international allies arrest about 4,000 MS-13 members.  We also arrested and charged hundreds of people suspected with contributing to the ongoing opioid crisis.

Morale is up among our law enforcement community.  Any loss of life is one too many, but it is encouraging that the number of officers killed in the line of duty declined for the first time since 2013, reaching its second lowest level in more than half a century.  And we are empowering and supporting our critically important state, local and tribal law enforcement partners as we work together to protect communities from crime.

In the first six months of last year, the increase in the murder rate slowed and violent crime actually went down.  Publicly available data for the rest of the year suggest further progress. For the first time in the past few years, the American people can have hope for a safer future.

Our strategy at this department of concentrating on the most violent criminals, taking down violent gang networks, prioritizing gun prosecutions, and supporting our state, local and tribal law enforcement partners has proven to work.  Of course, our work is not done. Crime is still far too high — especially in the most vulnerable neighborhoods.

This first year of the Trump era shows once again that the difficult work we do alongside our state, local and tribal law enforcement partners makes a difference. Crime rates are not like the tides — we can help change them.  And under Trump’s strong leadership, we will.

I fear that AG Sessions may be taking a victory lap a bit too early based on just a small bit of data from the first half of 2017.  But this commentary references positive "data for the rest of the year," and that lead me to think he has a reasonable basis to expect subsequent crime data reports for 2018 to also be positive.  Given that crime rates are already pretty low by historical standards, I rather like that AG Sessions is already prepared to "take ownership" of crime data.  Consequently, if crime continues to trend down, he certainly can and will be in a position to take credit.  And if crime does not continue to trend down, he will have some explaining to do. 

January 23, 2018 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Lots of notable arrest data in Drug Policy Alliance report on marijuana legalization states

Status-report-coverThe reform advocacy organization Drug Policy Alliance has released today this big new data-dense report titled "From Prohibition to Progress: A Status Report on Marijuana Legalization; What We Know About Marijuana Legalization in Eight States and Washington, D.C."   I have already blogged about this report in general terms over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, but I suspect sentencing reform fans might find interesting what this report says about marijuana arrest rates and related criminal justice issues. 

Particularly interesting for criminal justice fans, especially those interested in or concerned about low-level offense enforcement, are the DPA report's detailed arrest data for every marijuana legalization state in the Appendix.  Here is a portion of how the DPA report discusses these data:  

Arrests in all legal marijuana states and Washington, D.C. for the possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana have plummeted since voters legalized the adult use of marijuana, saving those jurisdictions hundreds of millions of dollars and preventing the criminalization of thousands of people.

Across legal marijuana states and Washington, D.C. the number of arrests for marijuana law violations has declined dramatically (as shown in Chart 2). In Alaska, the number of marijuana arrests for possession and sales/manufacturing declined by 93 percent from 2013 to 2015, from 845 to 60 (see Appendix C). In Colorado, marijuana arrests declined by 49 percent from 2012 to 2013 (12,894 to 6,502). The number of marijuana arrests increased by 7 percent in in 2014 (7,004), yet remained 46 percent lower than in 2012 (see Appendix E). The total number of marijuana‐related court filings in Colorado declined by 81 percent between 2012 and 2015 (10,340 to 1,954), and marijuana possession charges dropped 88 percent (9,130 to 1,068).

In Oregon, the number of marijuana arrests declined by 96 percent from 2013 to 2016 (6,996 to 255) (see Appendix H). The total number of low-level marijuana court filings in Washington fell by 98 percent between 2011 and 2015 (6,879 to 120) (see Appendix I). Marijuana possession convictions in Washington decreased by 76 percent from 2011 to 2015 (7,303 to 1,723). In Washington, D.C., marijuana arrests decreased 76 percent from 2013 to 2016 (3,450 to 840), with possession arrests falling by 98.6 percent, from 2,549 in 2013 to 35 in 2016....

It is widely acknowledged that racial disparities exist in the enforcement of marijuana laws in this country – Black and Latinx people are more likely to be arrested for marijuana law violations than White people, despite similar rates of use and sales across racial groups. Marijuana legalization has dramatically reduced the number of Black and Latinx people arrested for marijuana-related conduct, yet racial disparities persist. Initial data show that while legalization substantially reduced the total number of Black and Latinx people arrested for marijuana offenses, it did not eliminate the forces that contributed to the disparity in the first place, such as the overpolicing of low-income neighborhoods, racial profiling, and other racially motivated police practices.

In Colorado, for example, White people benefitted most from the declines in marijuana arrests, which decreased by 51 percent, compared to 33 percent for Latinx people, and 25 percent for Black people between 2012 and 2014. The marijuana arrest rate for Black people (348 per 100,000) in Colorado was nearly triple that of White people (123 per 100,000) in 2014. The post-legalization arrest rate for Black individuals in Washington is reported to be double the arrest rate for other races and ethnicities. In Alaska, both Black and White people experienced dramatic declines in marijuana arrests between 2013 and 2015, 95 and 92 percent respectively, yet disparities remain (see Chart 17 below).  Of the 17 marijuana arrests in Alaska in 2016, 29 percent were of Black people (a racial group that comprises only 4 percent of the state’s population). Alaska’s marijuana arrest rate for Black people (17.7 per 100,000) is ten times greater than that of White people (1.8 per 100,000). A similar pattern has emerged in Washington, D.C....

In several states, marijuana legalization for adult use has had the unintended consequence of reducing historically high numbers of youth (under 18 years of age) and young adults (between 18 and 20 years old) stopped and arrested for marijuana offenses. However, these reductions are inconsistent from state-to-state and, in some circumstances, youth now comprise a growing number of people charged with marijuana offenses.

Between 2012 and 2015, marijuana court filings in Colorado fell 86 percent for adults 21 years of age and older, and they declined by 69 percent for youth under 18 years of age and 78 percent for young adults 18-to-20 years old.190 Arrests followed a similar trend in the state between 2012 and 2014 wherein the marijuana offense arrest rate for adults 21 and older decreased by 79 percent and young adults 18-to-20 years old experienced a 34 percent decrease in marijuana arrest rates.191 At the same time, the number of youth under 18 years of age cited for marijuana offenses increased by five percent, which amounts to a one percent increase in the rate per 100,000.192

In Oregon, marijuana arrest rates declined by 92 percent between 2013 and 2015 for adults 18 years of age and older, compared to 80 percent for youth under 18 years of age (See Chart 21). In 2016, the marijuana arrest rate for Oregon youth (19.1 per 100,000) was nearly 7 times the adult rate (2.8 per 100,000).193 Similarly, in Washington, marijuana possession convictions declined by 99.1 percent for adults 18 years of age and older and 56 percent for youth under 18 years of age between 2012 and 2015. In 2015, 98 percent of all marijuana possession convictions in Washington (1,691 of 1,723) were of youth.

January 23, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The 'New' District Court Activism in Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper authored by Jessica Roth now available via SSRN. Here is the paper's abstract:

Historically, the debate over the judicial role has centered on the constitutional and administrative law decisions of the United States Supreme Court, with an occasional glance at the Federal Courts of Appeals.  It has, moreover, been concerned solely with the “in-court” behavior of Article III appellate judges as they carry out their power and duty “to say what the law is” in the context of resolving “cases and controversies.”  This Article seeks to deepen the discussion of the appropriate role of Article III judges by broadening it to trial, as well as appellate, judges; and by distinguishing between an Article III judge’s “decisional” activities on the one hand, and the judge’s “hortatory” and other activities on the other.

To that end, the Article focuses on a cohort of deeply respected federal district judges — many, although not all, experienced Clinton appointees in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York — who, over the last decade, have challenged conventional norms of judicial behavior to urge reform of fundamental aspects of the federal criminal justice system.  These “new” judicial activists have made their case for reform in the pages of their judicial opinions, often in dicta; in articles and speeches; and through advocacy within and beyond the judicial branch.  This Article summarizes this activity, places it in historical context, and assesses its value as well as its risks.

January 23, 2018 in Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 22, 2018

You be the federal judge: what sentence for Senator Rand Paul's attacker?

As regular readers know, I enjoy following up news of a high-profile conviction by asking what sentence readers think fitting for the high-profile convicted offender.  As detailed in this local article, report, headlined "Rand Paul’s attacker should get 21 months in prison, prosecutors recommend," the case today is high-profile because of the victim (and some motive uncertainty). Here are the latest crime and punishment details:

Federal prosecutors will recommend a sentence of 21 months in prison for the neighbor charged with tackling and injuring U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, according to a court document. The document, posted Monday, also makes clear that the attack was not politically motivated.

Paul’s neighbor, Rene Boucher, told police he attacked Paul because he’d “had enough” after seeing the Republican senator stack more brush on a pile near Boucher’s yard, according to the plea agreement Boucher signed.

Boucher’s attorney, Matthew Baker of Bowling Green, has said he will argue that Boucher should not be put behind bars for the attack on Paul.

The plea deal also envisions that Boucher will make restitution to Paul, who was seriously injured.

Boucher, a 58-year-old retired anesthesiologist, and Paul have lived next to each other for years in an upscale subdivision in Bowling Green, but have reportedly had differences of opinion over property maintenance. Boucher is “very meticulous” about yard maintenance, while Paul “takes a different approach,” Baker told the Herald-Leader last week. “It just became … a point of frustration that boiled over,” Baker said....

Boucher’s plea agreement says Paul was mowing his yard — while wearing headphones for hearing protection — when Boucher saw Paul stacking more brush on an existing pile and lost his temper. Boucher “executed a running tackle” of Paul on Paul’s property, the plea agreement said.

Paul did not see Boucher coming until the last second and was “unable to brace for the impact,” the plea document said. Paul suffered several broken ribs and had to be treated for pneumonia which developed as a result of his injuries....

No date has been set for Boucher to formally plead guilty or be sentenced. The charge against him carries a top sentence of 10 years.

Long-time readers know that Senator Paul has long been an advocate for federal sentencing reforms especially for nonviolent drug offenders; in this case, Senator Paul the victim of a violent crime and perhaps the kind he thinks ought to carry some prison time.  Notably, in this 2013 op-ed, Senator Paul explained his opposition to mandatory minimum drug sentences due in part to the risk they create for federal offenders having "their lives ruined for a simple mistake or minor lapse of judgment."   Arguably Boucher's "running tackle" was just a minor lapse, albeit one that seemingly cause some significant harm to Senator Paul. 

Thanks the the federal Crime Victims' Rights Act, Senator Paul has a "right to be reasonably heard" at Boucher's sentencing and it will be interesting to see if Senator Paul exercises this right and whether he might be inclined to urge any particular sentence.  I surmise that the plea agreement filed today provides that federal prosecutors will seek a sentence of 21 months (likely pursuant to the aggravated assault guideline) while the defense will seek a sentence of probation.  It will be interesting to see what the probation office may end up recommending, and in the meantime I am eager to hear in the comments from various readers:

What sentence would you give to Rene Boucher for his assault on Senator Rand Paul?

January 22, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (11)

Spotlighting the impact and import of rural realities in modern mass incarceration

This recent USA Today commentary, headlined "Ignoring rural areas won't solve America's mass incarceration problem," provides a useful reminder that all parts of the United States are part of the story of modern mass incarceration.  The piece is authored by Christian Henrichson of the Vera institute of Justice, and here are excerpts:

A little known fact imperils our nation’s collective efforts to end mass incarceration: Major cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are no longer bearing the heaviest burden.  Instead, thousands of smaller cities and towns are now grappling with the nation’s highest incarceration rates.

But the reform movement has not reacted to changing incarceration trends.  In most small cities and towns, public officials are not running on reform platforms, and investment by foundations and national advocates is thin or absent.  If attention and resources are not urgently shifted to overlooked places, progress to reduce unnecessary incarceration in big cities will be totally eroded by deepening problems in the rest of the country.  This means it will be mathematically impossible to end mass incarceration — and too many Americans will be left behind.

There is no better indicator of the geography of mass incarceration than America’s 3,283 local jails.  Unlike prisons, jails exist in nearly every county in America and are under local control.  Designed to only hold people for a short time and when absolutely necessary, jails have become massive warehouses — particularly for those too poor or sick to disentangle themselves from the justice system.

Historically, jail incarceration rates have comported with our understanding of mass incarceration as an urban challenge: They were once highest in the nation’s largest cities and the lowest in the country’s rural and suburban counties. But over the past two decades, the geography of jail incarceration quietly shifted....

Since 2008, large urban jail populations have shrunk dramatically.  But even as reformers celebrated progress, jail growth went into overdrive — particularly in smaller places with limited tax bases.  In small town America, many courts do not convene regularly, resources for public defenders are scarce, and diversion options and pretrial services that might otherwise keep people out of jail beds are few and far between....

It’s also important to note that the geographic shift wasn’t limited to jails.  Recent research indicates that small and rural counties now also funnel a disproportionate share of people into state prisons, a reality that should come as no surprise given that jails function as the “front door” of the criminal justice system.

Rural counties, in particular, have been out of sight and out of mind in much of America.  But the 2016 election refocused attention onto the particular challenges of voters whose voices are often missing from the national conversation. Their burgeoning jails are a window into the pain in smaller places: shrinking economies, deteriorating public health, negligible services and pervasive addiction....

Ending mass incarceration demands a shift in resources and attention.  We need to confront what is happening in all of our backyards and understanding each community’s local incarceration story.  Policymakers and the public have to take stock of how many of their neighbors are behind bars and why — and ask difficult questions about whether wasting so much human potential and taxpayer money makes us any safer.

January 22, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Documentary film about capital punishment, "The Penalty," starts screening in Ohio

Ohio+Tour+The+PenaltyI had heard some time ago that a documentary film was being made that included former student of mine, Allen Bohnert, who has spent the last decade defending persons on Ohio's death row as they approach execution dates. That film, called The Penalty, is complete and is now about to start a week-long Ohio series of showings.

An extended preview of the film is available at this link, and here are parts of the film's official description from its website:

Three extraordinary people embark on journeys of recovery, discovery and rebellion and find themselves centre stage in the biggest capital punishment crisis in modern memory.

The Penalty is a feature documentary film following three people with extraordinary experiences of America's modern death penalty and goes behind the scenes of capital punishment's most recent headlines....

America’s most divisive issue — capital punishment — is running into some trouble. With drug supplies for lethal injections drying up and public support at an all-time-low, the struggle to keep executing is taking its toll.

The Penalty follows three people caught in the crosshairs of capital punishment and the political landscape that could decide their fate.  Going behind the scenes of some of the biggest headlines in the history of America's death penalty, the film follows the lethal injection protocol crisis that resulted in a botched execution; the rehabilitation of a man who spent 15 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit, and the family of a young woman — brutally murdered — split by the state's pursuit of the ultimate punishment.

And here are details about this week's Ohio screenings (with links from the original):

We're very excited to announce that in 2018 we'll be taking The Penalty on tour around the US, starting with a week long tour of Ohio from the 22nd-28th of January. 

Ohio currently has over 25 executions scheduled up to 2022 with the next one scheduled for just a few weeks time on February 13th. After the last attempted execution ended in disarray, there couldn't be a better time to take this film around the state. 

We've teamed up with Ohioans to Stop Executions and The Inter-community Justice and Peace Centre to put on 9 FREE SCREENINGS around the state. Each screening will be followed by a talkback session with the film's co-director Will Francome and special guests, plus the opportunity to take action. 

For those of you in Ohio, or who have friends or family in the state, go to this link to reserve your free tickets. 

If you're not in Ohio - don't fear - there will be more screenings this year, with multiple state tours and one-off screenings. 

January 22, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 21, 2018

"Sentencing in Time"

The title of this post is the title of this recent publication authored by Linda Ross Meyer via the Amherst College Press. Here is how the work is described:

Exactly how is it we think the ends of justice are accomplished by sentencing someone to a term in prison?  How do we relate a quantitative measure of time — months and years — to the objectives of deterring crime, punishing wrongdoers, and accomplishing justice for those touched by a criminal act?  Linda Ross Meyer investigates these questions, examining the disconnect between our two basic modes of thinking about time — chronologically (seconds, minutes, hours), or phenomenologically (observing, taking note of, or being aware of the passing of time).

In Sentencing in Time, Meyer asks whether — in overlooking the irreconcilability of these two modes of thinking about time — we are failing to accomplish the ends we believe the criminal justice system is designed to serve.  Drawing on work in philosophy, legal theory, jurisprudence, and the history of penology, Meyer explores how, rather than condemning prisoners to an experience of time bereft of meaning, we might instead make the experience of incarceration constructively meaningful — and thus better aligned with social objectives of deterring crime, reforming offenders, and restoring justice.

January 21, 2018 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (8)

"Undocumented Immigrants, U.S. Citizens, and Convicted Criminals in Arizona"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by John Lott available via SSRN that a helpful reader made sure I did not miss.  For a host of reasons, John Lott is a controversial empiricist, and this latest paper could surely stir up some new controversies.  Here is its abstract:

Using newly released detailed data on all prisoners who entered the Arizona state prison from January 1985 through June 2017, we are able to separate non-U.S. citizens by whether they are illegal or legal residents. Unlike other studies, these data do not rely on self-reporting of criminal backgrounds. Undocumented immigrants are at least 142% more likely to be convicted of a crime than other Arizonans. They also tend to commit more serious crimes and serve 10.5% longer sentences, more likely to be classified as dangerous, and 45% more likely to be gang members than U.S. citizens. Yet, there are several reasons that these numbers are likely to underestimate the share of crime committed by undocumented immigrants. There are dramatic differences between in the criminal histories of convicts who are U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants.

Young convicts are especially likely to be undocumented immigrants. While undocumented immigrants from 15 to 35 years of age make up slightly over two percent of the Arizona population, they make up about eight percent of the prison population. Even after adjusting for the fact that young people commit crime at higher rates, young undocumented immigrants commit crime at twice the rate of young U.S. citizens. These undocumented immigrants also tend to commit more serious crimes.

If undocumented immigrants committed crime nationally as they do in Arizona, in 2016 they would have been responsible for over 1,000 more murders, 5,200 rapes, 8,900 robberies, 25,300 aggravated assaults, and 26,900 burglaries.

January 21, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, January 19, 2018

US Sentencing Commission releases new proposed guideline amendments to address synthetic drugs

As reported in this official press release, this morning "the United States Sentencing Commission approved publication of several proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines, including proposals addressing the treatment of synthetic drugs under the guidelines." Here is more about today's USSC action and the broader on-going amendment cycle:

Today’s proposed amendments stem from a multiyear Commission study of some of the more prevalent and dangerous synthetic drugs in the federal system. The proposals adopt a class-based approach for synthetic cathinones and cannabinoids, two types of synthetic drugs studied by the Commission.  The proposal also defines the term “synthetic cannabinoid” and establishes a single marihuana equivalency for each class.

The Commission also proposed an increase to penalties for fentanyl offenses by setting the offense level for fentanyl equal to the higher offense level currently assigned to fentanyl analogues. The proposal provides more exact guideline definitions for the terms “fentanyl” and “fentanyl analogue”.  An enhancement for misrepresenting or marketing fentanyl or fentanyl analogues as another substance was also proposed.

Circuit Judge William H. Pryor, Jr., the acting chair of the Commission remarked, "A growing number of synthetic drugs are being developed and trafficked on the illicit drug market. It is important that the sentencing guidelines account for our most current understanding of the chemical structure, potency and effect, trafficking trends, and community impact of these drugs. These proposals aim to provide greater clarity, guidance, and efficiency in synthetic drug cases."

During the synthetic drugs study undertaken from August 2016 through December 2017, three fact-gathering public hearings were conducted on each drug type. The Commission received testimony from dozens of experts, including federal judges, scientists, law enforcement officers, and emergency medical personnel.... Several other technical or clarifying amendments were proposed today, including an amendment addressing two application issues relating to the immigration guidelines.

Today's proposals join other proposed amendments published in August 2017 that were held over from the previous amendment cycle. The Commission is expected to vote on the full slate of proposed amendments during the current amendment year ending May 1, 2018.

A public comment period on the newly proposed amendments will close on March 6, 2018, with a reply comment period closing March 28, 2018. To inform public comment, the Commission will soon release an online data briefing on synthetic drugs that highlights some of the findings from the Commission’s study. Two public hearings will also be scheduled in February and March.

The intricate details of these new proposed amendment are set forth in this reader-friendly USSC document, and the intricate details of the holdover proposed amendment are set forth in this reader-friendly USSC document. My own cursory understanding of all these proposals suggests to me that the holdover proposal addressing first offenders and alternatives to incarceration may be the only very consequential proposed amendment potentially in the works. But, of course, every possible guideline change can be very consequential to any defendant and any lawyers involved in any case implicating a perhaps-soon-to-be-amended-guideline.

January 19, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

New research findings by computer scientists "cast significant doubt on the entire effort of algorithmic recidivism prediction"

F1.mediumThis notable new research article in the latest issue of Science Advances provides a notable new perspective on the debate over risk assessment instruments. The article is authored by computer scientists Julia Dressel and Hany Farid and is titled "The accuracy, fairness, and limits of predicting recidivism."  Here are parts of its introduction:

In the criminal justice system, predictive algorithms have been used to predict where crimes will most likely occur, who is most likely to commit a violent crime, who is likely to fail to appear at their court hearing, and who is likely to reoffend at some point in the future.

One widely used criminal risk assessment tool, Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS; Northpointe, which rebranded itself to “equivant” in January 2017), has been used to assess more than 1 million offenders since it was developed in 1998. The recidivism prediction component of COMPAS — the recidivism risk scale — has been in use since 2000.  This software predicts a defendant’s risk of committing a misdemeanor or felony within 2 years of assessment from 137 features about an individual and the individual’s past criminal record.

Although the data used by COMPAS do not include an individual’s race, other aspects of the data may be correlated to race that can lead to racial disparities in the predictions. In May 2016, writing for ProPublica, Angwin et al. analyzed the efficacy of COMPAS on more than 7000 individuals arrested in Broward County, Florida between 2013 and 2014.  This analysis indicated that the predictions were unreliable and racially biased.  COMPAS’s overall accuracy for white defendants is 67.0%, only slightly higher than its accuracy of 63.8% for black defendants.  The mistakes made by COMPAS, however, affected black and white defendants differently: Black defendants who did not recidivate were incorrectly predicted to reoffend at a rate of 44.9%, nearly twice as high as their white counterparts at 23.5%; and white defendants who did recidivate were incorrectly predicted to not reoffend at a rate of 47.7%, nearly twice as high as their black counterparts at 28.0%. In other words, COMPAS scores appeared to favor white defendants over black defendants by underpredicting recidivism for white and overpredicting recidivism for black defendants....

While the debate over algorithmic fairness continues, we consider the more fundamental question of whether these algorithms are any better than untrained humans at predicting recidivism in a fair and accurate way.  We describe the results of a study that shows that people from a popular online crowdsourcing marketplace — who, it can reasonably be assumed, have little to no expertise in criminal justice — are as accurate and fair as COMPAS at predicting recidivism. In addition, although Northpointe has not revealed the inner workings of their recidivism prediction algorithm, we show that the accuracy of COMPAS on one data set can be explained with a simple linear classifier.  We also show that although COMPAS uses 137 features to make a prediction, the same predictive accuracy can be achieved with only two features. We further show that more sophisticated classifiers do not improve prediction accuracy or fairness. Collectively, these results cast significant doubt on the entire effort of algorithmic recidivism prediction.

A few (of many) prior related posts on risk assessment tools:

January 18, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Texas completes first execution of 2018

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "'Tourniquet Killer' executed in Texas for 1992 strangling," the first execution of the year was completed in Texas this evening. Here is the story:

Texas carried out the nation's first execution of 2018 Thursday evening, giving lethal injection to a man who became known as Houston's "Tourniquet Killer" because of his signature murder technique on four female victims. Anthony Allen Shore was put to death for one of those slayings, the 1992 killing of a 21-year-old woman whose body was dumped in the drive-thru of a Houston Dairy Queen.

In his final statement, Shore, 55, was apologetic and his voice cracked with emotion. "No amount of words or apology could ever undo what I've done," Shore said while strapped to the death chamber gurney. "I wish I could undo the past, but it is what it is."

As the lethal dose of pentobarbital began, Shore said the drug burned. "Oooh-ee! I can feel that," he said before slipping into unconsciousness. He was pronounced dead 13 minutes later at 6:28 p.m. CST.

"Anthony Allen Shore's reign of terror is officially over," Andy Kahan, the city of Houston crime victims' advocate, said, speaking for the families of Shore's victims. "There's a reason we have the death penalty in the state of Texas and Anthony Shore is on the top of the list. This has been a long, arduous journey that has taken over 20 years for victims' families."

Shore's lawyers argued in appeals he suffered brain damage early in life that went undiscovered by his trial attorneys and affected Shore's decision to disregard their advice when he told his trial judge he wanted the death penalty. A federal appeals court last year turned down his appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his case and the six-member Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously rejected a clemency petition.

In 1998, Shore received eight years' probation and became a registered sex offender for sexually assaulting two relatives. Five years later, Shore was arrested for the 1992 slaying of Maria del Carmen Estrada after a tiny particle recovered from under her fingernail was matched to his DNA. "I didn't set out to kill her," he told police in a taped interview played at his 2004 trial. "That was not my intent. But it got out of hand."...

He also confessed to killing three others, a 9-year-old and two teenagers. All four of his victims were Hispanic and at least three had been raped. Jurors also heard from three women who testified he raped them.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who as an assistant prosecutor worked the then-unsolved Estrada case, said crime scene photos showed Estrada was tortured and had suffered as a stick was used to tighten a cord around her neck. "I know this case, I know his work and the death penalty is appropriate," she said. "A jury in this case gave Shore death. ... I think he's reached the end of the road and now it's up to government to complete the job."

Besides Estrada, Shore confessed to the slayings of Laurie Tremblay, 15, found beside a trash bin outside a Houston restaurant in 1986; Diana Rebollar, 9, abducted while walking to a neighborhood grocery store in 1994; and Dana Sanchez, 16, who disappeared in 1995 while hitchhiking to her boyfriend's home in Houston....

In 2017, 23 convicted killers were put to death in the U.S., seven of them in Texas, more than another state. Three more inmates are scheduled to die in Texas in the coming weeks.

January 18, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Rate My District Attorney: Toward a Scorecard for Prosecutors’ Offices"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report recently released by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and authored by Katherine Moy, Dennis Martin, and David Alan Sklansky. Here is its executive summary:

Local prosecutor elections can have uniquely consequential results for the American criminal justice system. Paradoxically, however, these elections attract much less voter engagement than other races, and incumbents are repeatedly re-elected.  As a result, activists seeking to convince prosecutors to pursue reforms, or to elect new reform-minded prosecutors, have a hard time communicating just how well a given office is performing.

A prosecutorial rating system is one approach to remedying this information gap. Much like indices used in other public policy areas, such a rating system could be a critical way of communicating to voters and potential electoral challengers whether a prosecutors’ office has effectively pursued the electorate’s policy priorities.

This report begins to chart a path toward building such a rating system.  Drawing on the expertise of experienced public policy index developers, the report outlines a procedure that developers can follow to design and build their own scorecard.  The process described in the report involves several stages, during which developers will need to grapple with key policy and logistical issues.

Although the contours of the process are flexible, the report lays out the following steps to developing a prosecutorial rating system:

1) Gather key personnel and experts and set project benchmarks.

2) Define the index’s goals and target audience, including any intermediaries that might be enlisted to convey the index’s message.

3) Select the variables the index will use to measure performance and decide how much weight to attribute to each variable.

4) Gather data for each variable, including any proxy measurements to use where direct data is unavailable.

5) Aggregate and normalize the data in a coherent, rigorous, digestible format.

6) Disseminate and build support for the index.

Each of these stages involves complex decisions, many of which may need to be revisited throughout the development process. But walking through each of the stages methodically can help highlight areas of dispute and place in a broader procedural context.  By keeping the index’s overall goals in mind as they work through the minute details of each stage, developers are more likely to be able to create a successful index to help meet their reform objectives. 

January 18, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously rejects constitutional attack on consideration of victim impact statements at sentencing

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court handed down a notable short ruling today in Massachusetts v. McGonagle, SJC-12292 (Mass. Jan. 18, 2018) (available here). Here is how the unanimous opinion starts and ends:

General Laws c. 258B, § 3 (p), permits "victims . . . to be heard through an oral and written victim impact statement at sentencing . . . about the effects of the crime on the victim and as to a recommended sentence."  We transferred this case here on our own motion to answer two questions: first, whether the United States Supreme Court's recent decision in Bosse v. Oklahoma, 137 S. Ct. 1 (2016) (per curiam), precludes a sentencing judge from considering victim impact statements "as to a recommended sentence" under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights; and second, whether the sentencing recommendation provision violates the defendant's constitutional guarantee of due process.  We conclude that a sentencing judge's consideration of victim impact statements "as to a recommended sentence" is constitutional because the concerns underpinning the Supreme Court's treatment of victim impact statements before a jury during the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial differ from those at issue here.  We further conclude that a victim's right to recommend a sentence pursuant to G. L. c. 258B, § 3 (p), satisfies the requirements of due process. We therefore answer both questions in the negative and affirm....

"Few, perhaps no, judicial responsibilities are more difficult than sentencing. The task is usually undertaken by trial judges who seek with diligence and professionalism to take account of the human existence of the offender and the just demands of a wronged society."  Rodriguez, 461 Mass. at 259, quoting Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 77 (2010).  The concerns underlying the Supreme Court's holdings in Booth and Bosse, that sentencing decisions not be made based on emotion, apply in nearly every sentencing decision.  They raise an important caution. When a crime victim recommends a particular sentence to a judge, that judge must dispassionately consider that recommendation, cognizant that the sentencing decision is the judge's and the judge's alone.  We expect judges to make sentencing decisions devoid of emotion, prejudice, and the relative status of a particular crime victim.

We all stand equal before the bar of justice, and it is neither cruel nor unusual or irrational, nor is it violative of a defendant's due process guarantees, for a judge to listen with intensity to the perspective of a crime victim.  We affirm.

UPDATE: Not long after noting this case, it dawned on me that this posting might be a fitting place to link this compelling account from the Washington Post of all the compelling victim impact testimony being offered in a high profile case in Michigan this week.  The extended article is headlined "At Larry Nassar sentencing hearing, a parade of horror and catharsis," and here is the context:

Nearly a year and a half after one woman filed a police report and contacted a newspaper, the criminal cases against Larry Nassar are nearing an end this week with a marathon sentencing hearing — 105 of the more than 130 girls and women who’ve accused Nassar of abuse are expected to speak — that began Tuesday and could end Friday, before a judge levies a sentence for seven sex crimes Nassar has admitted to as part of a plea deal.

January 18, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

An accounting of how criminal justice has changed as the folks inside the Beltway have changed

The Marshall Project has this notable new piece headlined "Trump Justice, Year One: The Demolition Derby; Here are nine ways the law-and-order president has smashed Obama’s legacy." Here is how the piece sets up its listing (readers can click through to review the particulars):

On criminal justice, Donald J. Trump’s predecessor was a late-blooming activist.  By the end of President Barack Obama’s second term, his administration had exhorted prosecutors to stop measuring success by the number of defendants sent away for the maximum, taken a hands-off approach to states legalizing marijuana and urged local courts not to punish the poor with confiscatory fines and fees.  His Justice Department intervened in cities where communities had lost trust in their police.

After a few years when he had earned the nickname "Deporter-in-Chief," Obama pivoted to refocus immigration authorities — in effect, a parallel criminal justice system — on migrants considered dangerous, and created safeguards for those brought here as children.  He visited a prison, endorsed congressional reform of mandatory minimum sentences and spoke empathetically of the Black Lives Matter movement.  He nominated judges regarded as progressives.

In less than a year, President Trump demolished Obama's legacy.

In its place, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has framed his mission as restoring the “rule of law,” which often means stiffening the spines and limiting the discretion of prosecutors, judges and law officers. And under President Trump’s “America first” mandate, being tough on crime is inextricably tied to being tough on immigration.

“I think all roads in Trump's rhetoric and Sessions’ rhetoric sort of lead to immigration,” said Ames Grawert, an attorney in the left-leaning Brennan Center’s Justice Program who has been studying the administration’s ideology.  “I think that's going to make it even harder for people trying to advance criminal justice reform because that's bound up in in the president's mind, in the attorney general's mind, as an issue that they feel very, very passionately on -- restricting immigration of all sorts.” 

Here are nine ways Trump has transformed the landscape of criminal justice, just one tumultuous year into his presidency.

January 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Detailing how AG Sessions seeks to block sentencing reforms in White House criminal justice reform push

Vice News has this new piece providing a little backstory on how and why the event last week at the White House was focused only on prison reform and lacked any discussion of sentencing reform.  The piece is headlined "Jared Kushner’s prison reforms hit a brick wall called Jeff Sessions," and here are excerpts:

For the past six months, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been working on a potentially bipartisan initiative: to reform the U.S. criminal justice system.  Kushner has been holding “listening sessions” to develop White House agenda on criminal justice reform, including policy recommendations such as providing incentives to companies for hiring former felons, investing in inmates once they leave prison, and perhaps most importantly, reforming sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentencing, a relic of the 1980s and 90s war on drugs and the focus of a three-year bipartisan reform effort in the Senate.

It all culminated in last week’s White House roundtable discussion on prison reform with President Trump, several Republican governors, and conservative activists. Except one thing was missing: sentencing reform.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposes reforming mandatory minimum sentencing and effectively blocked it from becoming part of the White House reform agenda, according to three people who attended meetings with White House advisors on the issue over the past few months.

“Sessions was very powerful in the Senate, but I think he’s actually more powerful now to oppose the bill,” a source familiar with White House meetings on the issue said. “He has an ability to keep in line several members on the conservative side, the DOJ would take a position on the bill, that would scare the Republicans.”

As the prison reform debate played out, Kushner expressed support for limiting mandatory minimum sentencing, according to individuals who have discussed these issues with him, aligning him with Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.  But Kushner dropped the issue from the agenda in order to get Sessions to attend the roundtable discussion last week.

At the meeting Trump suggested creating more programs for job training, education, mentoring and drug addiction aimed at rehabilitation.  There was no discussion of sentencing laws. The White House did not respond to a request for clarification about the Kushner’s nor the White House’s official position on sentencing reform.

“The president directed the Attorney General to reduce violent crime in this country and he is focusing the Department’s efforts on achieving that goal. Incarceration remains necessary to improve public safety, and the effectiveness of incarceration can be enhanced by the implementation of evidence-based reentry programs,” a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said.

“They were never going to be able to get the President to say he supports sentencing reform based on what Sessions has told him,” a source familiar with the meetings said.

A majority of Republicans and Democrats support reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, which takes sentencing leeway away from judges.  Since then the federal prison population has quadrupled; more than half of all federal inmates were sentenced using mandatory minimum laws.

Meaningful sentencing reform is considered key to any reform package that could be brought to vote in the Senate.  Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Judiciary Committee Chairman, said sentencing reform is a must-have if Trump wants a bill to pass.  “Any proposal that doesn't include sentencing reform is not going to get through the committee,” a spokesman for Grassley said in an email....

In October, the Senate Judiciary Committee unveiled its latest criminal justice reform bill — the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — to eliminate many mandatory-minimum sentences for drug crimes.  This is not the first time Congress has tried to pass comprehensive reform.  The same bill made it out of the committee in 2015, but was never voted on due to loud opposition from a group of Republicans, including then-Senator Jeff Sessions.

I remain confident that any number of bills with sentencing reform components could get a majority of votes on the floor of the House and the Senate if leadership would bring these bills up for a vote.  But I surmise AG Sessions has enough sway with leadership (especially in the Senate) to get them to prevent a vote on any bills the AG opposes.

That all said, the kinds of prison reform being discussed and seemingly now endorsed by AG Sessions — some version of the corrections part of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — could be a very significant type of reform that could have a positive impact for every federal offender. Sentencing reform in the form of a reduction in the length and reach of mandatory minimums would be very important in lots of ways, but these mandatories only directly impact roughly 1/4 of all new federal offenders each year and it is unclear exactly when and how any mandatory minimum sentencing reforms would be extended to the roughly 90,000 current federal drug offense prisoners. Corrections reforms that allow prisoners to earn reductions in their sentences could and likely would impact all 180,000+ current federal prisoners and all those new prisoners brought into the system every years.

Of course, we need to see the particulars of any "evidence-based reentry programs" and other prison reforms that AG Sessions can abide before being able to assess effectively who might benefit from a reform bill with only the corrections part of the reform equation.  But my main point it to highlight that the import and impact of any discussed reform always has devilish elements in the details, and a that good form of prison reform may be even better and much more consequential than a middling form of sentencing reform.

January 17, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Lies, damn lies and fascinating statistics in the US Sentencing Commission FY 2017 sentencing data

I just noticed that the US Sentencing Commission last week released its latest standard quarterly data report, and this one is extra exciting because it contains preliminary data on all cases sentenced during fiscal year 2017.  Critically, FY17 runs October 1, 2016 through September 30, 2017, so a good chunk of the data reflect a period in which Attorney General Loretta Lynch was still in charge of the Justice Department.  Still, a majority of the data reflects sentencings after Attorney General Jeff Sessions took over, and the final third of FY 2017 had all sentencings taking place after AG Sessions issued his May 2017 charging and sentencing memorandum directing federal prosecutors to more regularly seek within-guideline sentences.

I provide all this backstory largely as a prelude to highlighting how similar the USSC FY17 data look to FY16 data. I also thought it interesting to compare some of these data to FY13 and FY09, the last two Prez election year USSC data sets. (I am drawing all these data from Table 19, then Table 6 of these USSC data reports.)

USSC FY        Total Sentences (mean in month)     Drug Trafficking Sentences (mean in month)     Immigration Sentences (mean in month)

2009                81,347 (47 months)                                  23,931 (78 months)                                         25,924 (17 months)

2013                80,035 (45 months)                                  22,354 (72 months)                                         24,972 (16 months)

2016                67,740 (44 months)                                  19,231 (66 months)                                         20,052 (13 months)

2017                66,409 (45 months)                                  18,980 (70 months)                                         20,333 (12 months)

One can mine a lot more data from the FY 2017 report to tell a lot more stories about how, at least so far, formal and informal changes by AG Sessions have not yet made a dramatic impact on federal sentencing statistics.  Indeed, one might be heartened by the fact that fewer federal cases were sentenced in FY 2017 than in the last 15 years, and I think fewer federal drug trafficking sentences were imposed in FY17 than in nearly any other year in the past two decades (though the uptick in average sentence is interesting and may prompt a future post). 

Of course, these data may start looking very different in FY 2018 and beyond as new US Attorneys appointed by Prez Trump take over and their new cases make it all the way to sentencing. Still, I think it notable and interesting that the first run of federal sentencing data of the Trump Era shows a continued decline in overall sentences imposed and in drug trafficking sentences imposed.

January 17, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Breaking Down Barriers: Experiments into Policies That Might Incentivize Employers to Hire Ex-Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Rand Corporation research report. Here is its summary and some of its key findings and recommendations:

The rate of criminal punishment in the United States has had far-reaching economic consequences, in large part because people with criminal records are marginalized within the labor market. Given these negative economic implications, federal, state and local officials have developed a host of policies to encourage employers to hire ex-offenders, with varying degrees of success.  To inform policies and programs aimed at improving employment rates for ex-offenders, we examined employer preferences regarding policy options targeted to incentivize hiring individuals with one nonviolent felony conviction.

In our experiments, we found employers were 69 percent more likely to consider hiring an ex-offender if a hiring agency also provides a guaranteed replacement worker in the event the ex-offender was deemed unsuitable and 53 percent more likely to hire an ex-offender who can provide a certificate of validated positive previous work performance history.  Having consistent transportation provided by a hiring agency increased the likelihood of being considered for hire by 33 percent. 

Employers also were found to be 30 percent more likely to consider an ex-offender for hire if the government increases the tax credit from 25 percent of the worker’s wages (up to $2,500) to 40 percent (up to $5,000) — double the current maximum amount allowed by the Work Opportunity Tax Credit — and 24 percent more likely to hire an ex-offender if the government completed all tax-related paperwork.

Key Findings

Worker Replacement and Fee Discounts Increase Hiring Prospects for Ex-Offenders...

Tax Credits Have a Similarly Positive Effect...

Employer Access to Previous Performance Could Factor into Hiring...

Recommendations

  • Staffing agencies and reentry or reintegration programs could increase the likelihood of employment for people with a criminal record if they guarantee prospective employers a replacement employee.
  • State policymakers should consider expanding post-conviction certification programs. Across both the tax credit and staffing agency discount experiments, employers demonstrate a clear preference for wanting to know whether an ex-offender job candidate has a consistent work history and verifiable positive employment references versus simply knowing whether the person follows company codes of conduct.
  • Tax agencies should consider reducing the paperwork that companies have to fill out for credits. Government agencies could also consider providing help to prepare and submit the forms.
  • Ensuring reliable transportation to and from a job site for candidates with a criminal record increases the likelihood an employer will support hiring such individuals. As with reducing paperwork, the impact of this policy is more limited than many of our other tested policy features.

January 17, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Taking a critical look at recent report on "Federal Prosecution of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Cases"

Guy Hamilton-Smith has this notable new piece at In Justice Today discussing a new Bureau of Justice Statistics report. The BJS report, available here, is titled "Federal Prosecution of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Cases, 2004-2013." Guy Hamilton-Smith's critical assessment, available here, is titled "New DOJ Report Demonstrates Stunning Disingenuity on Cases Involving Sexual Exploitation of Children." Here is how the commentary starts and additional excerpts with a sentencing bite:

A recent bombshell report from the Department of Justice claims that the number of people prosecuted in federal court for commercial sexual exploitation of children roughly doubled between 2004 and 2013.

The title of the report from the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, Federal Prosecution of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Cases, 2004–2013, conjures the specter of children being forced into sexual slavery. The titling and framing of the report leaves a casual reader with the impression that more and more children are falling victim to commercial sex offenses  —  such as sex trafficking  —  and that DOJ has placed a high priority on prosecuting these offenses.

The actual data contained within the report itself, however, merits no such dramatic conclusion. The DOJ defines the phrase the “commercial sexual exploitation of children” (CSEC) as involving “crimes of a sexual nature committed against juvenile victims for financial or other economic reasons,” the obvious implication being that these “CSEC” defendants are directly involved in the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. However, according to the BJS’ own data, the vast majority of the defendants charged with CSEC offenses were accused, not of producing of child pornography or of child sex trafficking, but of consuming child pornography, including images of cartoon obscenity....

The growth in these types of child pornography prosecutions is not necessarily indicative of an increase in rates of offending.  Rather, it is more likely the result of law enforcement’s ability to secure confessions and convictions with relatively little effort. In the vast majority of these cases, investigators monitor peer-to-peer networks for hash values of images that are known to be child pornography, serve administrative subpoenas on service providers for records associated with those IP addresses, and knock on front doors with search warrants. Defenses are usually slim to none. Guilty pleas are exceedingly common: The BJS data reveals that 92.5% of defendants prosecuted in federal court for possession, receipt, or distribution of child pornography pled guilty.

Including such defendants under the banner of “CSEC” is sloppy at best and disingenuous at worst.  While the DOJ’s commitment to battling commercial sexual exploitation of children is admirable, their framing and presentation of the data as implication of an epidemic is at odds with the numbers themselves.

Underscoring the need for clarity and objectivity is the fact that defendants prosecuted for non-production child pornography offenses are amongst the most harshly punished defendants in all of the federal system. The report indicates that they are the least likely of all federal defendants to be given non-custodial sentences, even over and above violent and weapon offenses, and that "Prison sentences imposed on defendants convicted of CSEC offenses were among the longest in the federal justice system. The mean prison sentence imposed on convicted CSEC defendants increased by 99% from 2004 to 2013, from 70 to 139 months."

Sentences to the north of a decade are routine for CSEC defendants by virtue of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. These provide a recommended “range” in months of imprisonment based on both the severity of an offense and a person’s criminal history. Offenses, depending on specific characteristics of how they are committed, can receive enhancements that result in lengthier terms of imprisonment.

There are a number of significant sentencing enhancements for child pornography cases which are routinely applied. These may have held some rough logic in an era before Google, but they make little sense now. Use of a computer? Enhancement.  More than ten images?  Enhancement.  Distribution, even unintentional distribution, as discussed above?  Enhancement. More than 10 images (note that a video file, regardless of length, is counted as 75 images)? Enhancement.  Sentence enhancements are piled on such that, even for those individuals with no criminal record and no evidence they sexually assaulted a child, the recommended sentences can easily dwarf the statutory maximum sentences.

No other class of offense in the federal system (or, indeed, in many states) is characterized by such extreme sentences.  As courts have noted, there is virtually no empirical or reasoned bases for any of these enhancements beyond naked revulsion and desire for retribution. Some scholars have suggested that such severe punishments represent punishment by proxy. In other words, they are intended to obscure and compensate for the failure of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute actual cases of child sexual trafficking and commercial exploitation. In seeking to justify such draconian punishments even for “end users,” prosecutors and others (including courts) have advanced a market theory  —  that even possession of such images drives a market for child pornography.  The United States Sentencing Commission, in a 2012 report to Congress, noted that such arguments are without empirical support. Notably, similar arguments were made in support of harsh treatment of drug addicts in the 1970’s and 80’s as a way of winning the war on drugs.

Whatever the underlying rationale, the draconian nature of these sentences has attracted attention and push back in recent years, including from an extremely unlikely group: federal judges, some of whom are recognizing the inherent unfairness of enhancements for these types of offenses, and beginning to impose sentences far more lenient than those recommended by the guidelines.

Equating garden variety child pornography defendants with child sex traffickers is an abdication of reason and rationality. Unfortunately, the DOJ has not signaled any intention of reversing course.  Rather, if the trends in the report are any indication, it appears to be accelerating the use of what might justifiably be described as a prosecutorial machine that crushes defendants in child pornography possession cases, while failing to even charge far more culpable defendants.

January 17, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"A Smarter Approach to Federal Assistance with State-Level Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by John Pfaff for the American Enterprise Institute. Here is its abstract:

This brief explains how Congress and the president can best help reduce our country’s outsized reliance on imprisonment, a goal with rare, widespread bipartisan support.  Successful interventions will need to target issues that previous efforts have overlooked or ignored, and they will need to take better account of the haphazard ways that costs, benefits, and responsibilities are fractured across city, county, state, and federal governments.  If designed properly, however, federal efforts could play an important role in pushing our criminal justice system to adopt more efficient, as well as more humane, approaches to managing and reducing crime.

January 16, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Effective state-by-state review of recent crime rate and imprisonment rate declines

PSPP_35_states_cut_crime_and_imprisonment_infographicThe folks at The Pew Charitable Trusts' public safety performance project have this terrific new state-by-state accounting of recent crime and incarceration rates under the heading "National Prison Rate Continues to Decline Amid Sentencing, Re-Entry Reforms: More than two-thirds of states cut crime and imprisonment from 2008-16." The infographic alone merits a click-through, and her is the accompanying text:

After peaking in 2008, the nation’s imprisonment rate fell 11 percent over eight years, reaching its lowest level since 1997, according to an analysis of new federal statistics by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The decline from 2015-16 was 2 percent, much of which was due to a drop in the number of federal prisoners. The rate at which black adults are imprisoned fell 4 percent from 2015-16 and has declined 29 percent over the past decade. The ongoing decrease in imprisonment has occurred alongside long-term reductions in crime. Since 2008, the combined national violent and property crime rate dropped 23 percent, Pew’s analysis shows.

Also since that 2008 peak, 36 states reduced their imprisonment rates, including declines of 15 percent or more in 20 states from diverse regions of the country, such as Alaska, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Connecticut. During the same period, almost every state recorded a decrease in crime with no apparent correlation to imprisonment (see Figure 1). The latest data, released Jan. 9 by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, show that trends in crime and imprisonment continue to be unrelated:

• Across the 45 states with crime declines from 2008-16, imprisonment rate changes ranged from a 35 percent decrease to a 14 percent increase.

• 35 states cut crime and imprisonment rates simultaneously.

• 21 states posted double-digit declines in both rates.

• The average crime decline across the 10 states with the greatest declines in imprisonment was 19 percent, and across the 10 states with the largest imprisonment growth it was 11 percent.

The annual national violent crime rate increased in 2015 and 2016, but many cities are reporting reductions for 2017, and both violent and total crime rates remain near record lows. National, state, and local crime rates shift for complex and poorly understood reasons, and experts offer a wide range of possible explanations; overall, however, the rates of reported violent and property crime have declined by more than half since their 1991 peaks, falling to levels not seen since the late 1960s.

Starting with Texas in 2007, more than 30 states have adopted sentencing and corrections reforms designed to improve public safety and control taxpayer costs. The reforms vary from state to state, but typically they prioritize prison space for people who have committed serious offenses and invest some of the savings in effective alternatives to incarceration. Research shows that investment in evidence-based re-entry programs reduces recidivism, contributing to declines in crime and imprisonment. Several states have cut return-to-prison rates significantly, including Georgia (35 percent) and Michigan (43 percent) over the past decade.

The lack of a consistent relationship between the crime and imprisonment trends reinforces a growing body of research and expert consensus that imprisonment in many states and the nation as a whole has long since passed the point of diminishing returns. This indicates that local, state, and federal policymakers can adopt additional reforms to reduce imprisonment without jeopardizing public safety.

January 16, 2018 in National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)