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April 13, 2015

Judge Jed Rakoff gives provocative speech on mass incarceration and the responsibility of lawyers and judges

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable speech (made available in full here by Bloomberg BNA) delivered by US District Judge Jed Rakoff as part of a Harvard Law School conference about lawyers' roles and responsibilities. Titled "Mass Incarceration and the 'Fourth Principle'," the full speech is a must read in full for all sentencing fans. Here are excerpts providing a taste of why:

I want to build my little talk around ... the responsibility of lawyers to help create a safe, fair, and just society even when legal issues, in the narrow sense, are not directly at stake.  I want to discuss that responsibility — which I will refer to here simply as the “Fourth Principle”— as it applies to lawyers and as it applies to judges...

Of course, even lawyers devoted to the Fourth Principle may have different views as to what societal issues are of such central concern that lawyers should feel a professional responsibility to speak out about them.  Nevertheless, I want to suggest one such issue, and I submit that it is one that is so deeply connected to the administration of law that [lawyers] would have no difficulty seeing it as an appropriate subject for bar association resolutions and the like: and that is the issue of mass incarceration in our country today.

But I should mention at the outset that the relative failure of organized bar associations and lawyers in general to speak out on this issue pales in comparison to the silence of the judges, who, I submit, have a special duty to be heard on this issue.  Indeed, the commentary to Canon Four of the Code of Conduct for United States judges expressly encourages federal judges to speak out on issues relating to the administration of justice in general and criminal justice in particular.  Yet, for too long, too many judges (including me) have been too quiet about an evil of which we are ourselves a part: the mass incarceration of people in the United States today.

The basic facts are not in dispute.  More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase over the past 40 years. Although the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population.  The per capita incarceration rate in the U.S. is one-and-a-half times that of second-place Rwanda and third-place Russia, and more than six times the rate of neighboring Canada.  Another 4.8 million Americans are subject to the state supervision imposed by probation or parole....

And whom are we locking up?  Mostly young men of color.  Over 840,000, or nearly 40 percent, of the 2.2 million U.S. prisoners are young African-American males.  Put another way, one in nine African-American males between the ages of 20 and 34 is currently in prison, and, if current rates hold, one third of all black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes.  Another 440,000, or 20 percent, of the 2.2 million U.S. prisoners are Hispanic males.

This mass incarceration — which also includes about 800,000 white and Asian males, as well as over 100,000 women (the great majority of whom committed non-violent offenses) — is the product of statutes that were enacted, beginning in the 1970s, with the twin purposes of lowering crime rates in general and deterring the drug trade in particular.  These laws imposed mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment on many first offenders.  They propounded sentencing guidelines that initially mandated, and still recommend, substantial prison terms for many other offenders.  And they required life-time imprisonment for many recidivists.  These laws also substantially deprived judges of sentencing discretion and effectively guaranteed imprisonment for many offenders who would have previously received probation or deferred prosecution, or who would have been sent to drug treatment or mental health programs rather than prison.

The unavoidable question is whether these laws have succeeded in reducing crime. Certainly crime rates have come down substantially from the very high rates of the 1970s and 1980s that gave rise to these laws.  Overall, crime rates have been cut nearly in half since they reached their peak in 1991, and they are now at levels not seen in many decades.  A simple but powerful argument can be made that, by locking up for extended periods the people who are most likely to commit crimes, we have both incapacitated those who would otherwise be recidivists and deterred still others from committing crimes in the first place.

But is this true?  The honest answer is that we don’t know.  And it is this uncertainty that makes changing the status quo so difficult: for, the argument goes, why tamper with what seems to be working unless we know that it isn’t working?

There are some who claim that they do know the answer to whether our increased incarceration is the primary cause of the our decline in crime.  These are the sociologists, the economists, the statisticians, and others who assert that they have “scientifically” determined the answer.  But their answers are all over the place....

Put another way, the supposition on which our mass incarceration is premised — namely, that it materially reduces crime — is, at best, a hunch. Yet the price we pay for acting on this hunch is enormous.  This is true in the literal sense: it costs more than $80 billion a year to run our jails and prisons.  It is also true in the social sense: by locking up so many young men, most of them men of color, we contribute to the erosion of family and community life in ways that harm generations of children, while creating a future cadre of unemployable ex-cons, many of who have learned in prison how better to commit future crimes.  And it is even true in the symbolic sense: by locking up, sooner or later, one out of every three African-American males, we send a message that our society has no better cure for racial disparities than brute force....

But why, given the great decline in crime in the last quarter century, have most of the draconian laws that created these harsh norms not been repealed, or at least moderated?  Some observers, like Michelle Alexander in her influential book The New Jim Crow, assert that it is a case of thinly-disguised racism.  Others, mostly of an economic-determinist persuasion, claim that it is the result of the rise of a powerful private prison industry that has an economic stake in continuing mass incarceration.  Still others blame everything from a continuing reaction to the “excesses” of the ‘60s to the never-ending nature of the “war on drugs.”

While there may be something to each of these theories, a simpler explanation is that most Americans, having noticed that the crime-ridden environment of the 1970s and 1980s was only replaced by the much safer environment of today after tough sentencing laws went into force, are reluctant to tamper with the laws they believe made them safer.  They are not impressed with academic studies that question this belief, suspecting that the authors have their own axes to grind; and they are repelled by those who question their good faith, since they perceive nothing “racist” in wanting a crime-free environment.  Ironically, the one thing that might convince them that mass incarceration is not the solution to their safety would be if crime rates continued to decrease when incarceration rates were reduced.  But although this has in fact happened in a few places (most notably, New York City), in most communities people are not willing to take the chance of such an “experiment.”

This, then, is a classic case of members of the public relying on what they believe is “common sense” and being resentful of those who question their motives and dispute their intelligence.  What is called for in such circumstances is leadership: the capacity of those whom the public does respect to point out why statutes prescribing mandatory minimums, draconian guidelines, and the like are not the key to controlling crime, and why, in any case, the long-term price of mass incarceration is too high to pay, not just in economic terms, but also in terms of societal values.  Until quite recently, that leadership appeared to be missing in both the legislative and executive branches, since being labeled “soft on crime” was politically dangerous.  Recently, however, there has been some small signs of progress. For example, in 2013, Attorney General Holder finally did away with the decades-old requirement that federal prosecutors must charge offenders with those offenses carrying the highest prison terms.  And in the last Congress, a bill to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders was endorsed not only by the Department of Justice, but also by such prominent right-wing Republican Senators as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. On the other hand, prosecutors still have discretion to charge offenders with the most serious offenses available, and they usually do. And the aforementioned bill to modify the applicability of mandatory minimum sentences never reached a vote.

As for the organized bar, the American Bar Association, to its great credit, has increasingly spoken out about the dangers of mass incarceration and, most recently, has created a Task Force on Overcriminalization to suggest alternatives . But no other bar association, so far as I am aware, has openly denounced mass incarceration, called for outright repeal of mandatory minimum laws, supported across-the-board reductions of statutory and guideline imprisonment levels, or otherwise taken the kind of forceful positions that would cause the public to sit up and notice.

And where in all this stands the judiciary?  In some ways, this should be our issue, not just because sentencing has historically been the prerogative of judges, but also because it is we who are forced to impose these sentences that many of us feel are unjust and counter-productive.  It is probably too much to ask state judges in the 37 states where judges are elected to adopt a stance that could be characterized as “soft on crime.” But what about the federal judiciary, protected by lifetime tenure from political retaliation and, according to most polls, generally well-regarded by the public as a whole?

On one issue — opposition to mandatory minimum laws — the federal judiciary has been consistent in its opposition and clear in its message. As stated in a September 2013 letter to Congress submitted by the Judicial Conference of the United States (the governing board of federal judges), “For 60 years, the Judicial Conference has consistently and vigorously opposed mandatory minimums and has supported measures for their repeal or to ameliorate their effects.”  But nowhere in the nine single-spaced pages that follow is any reference made to the evils of mass incarceration; and, indeed, most federal judges continue to be supportive of the federal sentencing guidelines....

Several brave federal district judges — such as Lynn Adelman of Wisconsin, Mark Bennett of Iowa, Paul Friedman of the District of Columbia, and Michael Ponsor of Massachusetts, as well as former federal judges Paul Cassell and Nancy Gertner — have for some time openly denounced the policy of mass incarceration.  More recently, a federal appellate judge, Gerard Lynch of New York, expressed his agreement (albeit in an academic article) that “The United States has a vastly overinflated system of incarceration that is excessively punitive, disproportionate in its impact on the poor and minorities, exceedingly expensive, and largely irrelevant to reducing predatory crime.”

Perhaps the most encouraging judicial statement was made just a few weeks ago, on March 23, 2015, when Justice Anthony Kennedy — the acknowledged centrist of the Supreme Court — told a House subcommittee considering the Court’s annual budget that “This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working,” adding that it many instances it would be wiser to assign offenders to probation or other supervised release programs.  To be sure, Justice Kennedy was quick to tie these views to cost reductions, avoidance of prison overcrowding, and reduced recidivism rates — all, as he said, “without reference to the human factor.”  Nor did he say one word about the racially disparate impact of mass incarceration.  Yet still, his willingness to confront publicly even some of the evils of mass incarceration should be an inspiration to all other judges so inclined.

In many respects, the people of the United States can be proud of the progress we have made over the past half-century in promoting racial equality.  More haltingly, we have also made some progress in our treatment of the poor and disadvantaged.  But the big, glaring exception to both these improvements is how we treat those guilty of crimes. Basically, we treat them like dirt.  And while this treatment is mandated by the legislature, it is we judges who mete it out.  Unless we judges make more effort to speak out against this inhumanity, how can we call ourselves instruments of justice?  We may be the Third Branch, but we have yet to learn the Fourth Principle.

April 13, 2015 at 05:48 PM | Permalink


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Sickening. Utterly sickening. A federal judge, who has seen what criminals can do, indicts the rest of us because why, the proportion of criminals doesn't look like America. What a bastard. So many people have been killed by criminals who received lenient sentences for violent crimes.

He knows better. Yet he postures anyway. Disgusting.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 13, 2015 10:18:09 PM

I thought this speech fitting for a community college graduating class of security guards. Is this Harvard Law School exposition? The judge is stupid. The listeners are really stupid after that mind bendingly stupid legal education. Is this the best of the lawyer profession? You lawyers are really stupid.

I am talking to a Harvard Law grad volunteering for fellow stupid Harvard Law educated lawyer Obama, The Moron In Chief, now being played like a fiddle by low life rug dealers. He has a frickin' PhD in Medieval Legal History as well. He cannot tell me the origin of the word reasonable as the central doctrine of the common law. Nor could he even give me the original technical meaning of the word from St. Thomas Aquinas, nor of the format of the modern law brief, nor of the adversarial system of trial, a really stupid methodology run by really stupid lawyers, idiots, retards, with all due apologies to those with developmental disabilities. Many of the latter he 100 times the common sense as this stupid judge. I do not want to crush this stupid Harvard Law person with my intact high school education. So we move on to another subject.

He is a white collar defense lawyer, as are most of the other stupid Harvard Law grads in the room. Out of a dozen, ten must have been white collar defense lawyers. So I says, to this really stupid Harvard Law grad, what do you think of ever hitting back on behalf your clients? Most have broken some regulation and engaged in sharp business practice, not in crime. How about some electronic discovery of the computers of the prosecutor, and of the judge seeking to destroy the life of your hapless client. All of a sudden the jocular wine besotted atmosphere changes. He steps back a yard away from me. "We do not have a client lawyer relationship. This is not legal advice." I say, "Whoa," since I do not understand what is going on. He then says, what I am proposing is extremely unethical, and would never work, would only hurt the client, since the supervisor would take over from any disqualified prosecutor and would deal with the troublesome client far more harshly. Then he disappears. His being much younger, he is too fast for me to chase. I am left saying, "But, but, but..."

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 13, 2015 11:59:22 PM

I have a few lawyer friends who will easily go after the adverse lawyer, and would likely enjoy doing so on my dime. There is not a single lawyer in this country who will go after a judge.

A member of the House criticized a federal judge for condemning a comatose woman to death by starvation. In a Nazi death camp, the commandant could not bear to watch such a death. He offered the condemned some poison to end the suffering, not that of the condemned, but of the commandant. All of a sudden, this powerful, prominent House member is subject to ethics investigation, and to a partisan criminal investigation back in his district. His career is over. I have never heard any more criticism of judges by name since that time long ago.

Leave aside the cult hierarchy argument. They are sacrosanct, this piece of subhuman treasonous filth, have total immunity, I believe for a simple reason. They are the dogs doing the business the Congress does not want to do. They run into the swamp of political controversy, and fetch business, the Congress will not touch with tongs. Nobody touches the swamp dog of the Congress without paying a heavy price.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 14, 2015 12:16:24 AM

"But the big, glaring exception to both these improvements is how we treat those guilty of crimes. Basically, we treat them like dirt."

Well, Judge that is because they are criminals. Criminals get treated like criminals...that is the way it is supposed to work. It is called consequences for your actions. What do you propose, that we treat criminals like everybody else? Then where is the incentive to be a law-abiding person? If you commit crimes (oftentimes by hurting other people), then you deserve to be punished. You deserve to lose certain rights that the rest of us enjoy.

I for one am generally fine with what we've been doing over the last several decades. I like being able to walk down the streets of NYC without feeling like I am in a war zone (which is how NYC used to feel), I like being able to drive my car through a downtown neighborhood without being afraid of a stray bullet, I like being able to walk to dinner without seeing a drug deal and being solicited by a crack-addicted prostitute. If you ask me, we still aren't doing enough...there are way too many stories of early released prisoners who go on crime sprees and harm others not long after their early releases.

These judges see defendants in their courtrooms with lawyers. These judges don't see defendants on the streets of their nice gated neighborhoods wreaking havoc and harming people.

Posted by: hmmm | Apr 14, 2015 8:53:39 AM

Maybe if Rakoff could convince Jack Weinstein, Steven Reinhardt, and the rest of their ilk to resign, then the rest of us wouldn't feel so worried about leaving sentencing to judges' unconstrained discretion.

Posted by: tom | Apr 14, 2015 10:47:09 AM

4 crybabies who all want to have their cake and eat it too...true representatives of a thankfully dying generation

Posted by: grant | Apr 14, 2015 4:37:30 PM

Well - lots of citizens see what the overreaching of charging and prosecuting has done to respect for the law. After you are confronted with this enormous power you tend to think that it should be divided by ten.

Posted by: beth | Apr 14, 2015 5:42:48 PM

But Beth, your comment has nothing to do with Rakoff's idiocy.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 14, 2015 8:20:47 PM

No federalist, I didn't address his idiocy. I was responding to the danger of over incarceration which was not the sum, but a part of his address.

Posted by: beth | Apr 14, 2015 8:52:30 PM

And what about the price of underincarceration . . . . just ask Jennifer Hudson.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 15, 2015 7:51:40 AM

Well, about 50% of incarcerated citizens are in prison even though they didn't hurt anybody and didn't take their stuff.

It just depends on how frightened you are and how much government you want. We could triple our criminal code and still not prevent a single death, but it may make you feel safer.

Posted by: beth | Apr 17, 2015 2:06:51 PM

I think people are over-looking the indigent defense issue. Even though the work of a defense lawyer is often harder than the prosecution, prosecutor budgets are often double or triple that of defense, added to that they are able to use more resources such as the state police. Judges in many states are elected not appointed and many states don't care about indigent defense, and fees are often passed to defendants. The courts can solve this problem by ordering folks to be freed more often as sometimes folks wait years for a lawyer or court date.

This pressures defendants to accept plea deals without realizing the consequences which traps them in a cycle if they violate trivial probation conditions or are denied assistance or employment because of the plea.

Posted by: Morgan | Apr 19, 2015 4:27:06 AM

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