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April 27, 2019

Should reform advocates urge Prez Trump to embrace new proposed federal Clean Slate Act as sound Second Step?

Cleanslatecampaign-feature-2The question in the title of this post is prompted by these two recent press stories about federal criminal justice reform:

Let's begin my pitch with excerpts from the first of these pieces:

President Trump began the month hosting a White House celebration with people freed from prison by the First Step Act. He told the April Fools' Day gathering the White House would work on a Second Step Act "right away."  Despite the day, Trump was not joking. But he was also not correct.

Sources tell the Washington Examiner that the White House is in fact not preparing a Second Step Act package to follow the landmark criminal justice reform law, which is Trump's only major bipartisan legislative achievement.  “There’s definitely not a Second Step Act,” said a source who works on White House reform efforts and helped with Trump’s April 1 speech, a draft of which did not mention new legislation.

The White House is focused instead on implementing the First Step Act in a way that denies ammunition to opponents such as Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.  “One of the most important things we do in the second step is to get the first step implemented,” said Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries and a prominent reform advocate.

It is unclear if Trump misspoke when he said: "Today, I am announcing that the Second Step Act will be focused on successful reentry and reduced unemployment for Americans with past criminal records. And that’s what we are starting right away."  A White House official said that Trump "wants to bring more fairness" to the legal system and "you can expect more legislation to address the second steps in the future," but that the First Step Act "will take a year to fully implement," diverting focus from additional legislation....

“There’s a lot of concern that they have to get this right. Folks like Tom Cotton are just waiting for someone to do something stupid,” said the source who has worked on White House efforts. “People are going to want to wait and see how this [First Step Act] works out.”

Because there are so many important elements to the FIRST STEP Act, I think reform advocates are well advised to be laser focused on implementation issues in the short term.  The impact of FIRST STEP is still very much under development as the reach of the new sentencing/prison reforms are being defined by the judiciary and determined by executive branch officials (especially related to the risk/needs tools and prison programming).  It is not unreasonable for legislators to want to assess the initial impact of the new sentencing and prison laws before moving on to further proposals. (This is one reason I am so eager for the US Sentencing Commission to start providing real-time updates on the FIRST STEP Act.  Lawmakers cannot assess the FIRST STEP Act without data on its implementation.)

Further, as the 2020 election season heats up with criminal justice reform already becoming a topic of considerable conversation, the politics surrounding additional sentencing and prison reforms  grow dicier.  The recent commentary by Jared Kushner states that the FIRST STEP Act "nearly died dozens of times along the way" due to the persistent challenges of navigating the tribal politics of DC.  The political tribes, between and within parties, are likely to be even harder to manage over the next 18 months with a major election looming.

And yet, given Prez Trump's important statement about the importance of "successful reentry and reduced unemployment for Americans with past criminal records," I think a new bipartisan bill concerning record clearing could and should be worth focused support.  Here are a few details about a federal Clean State Act proposal via the Politico article linked above:

An unlikely pair of House members are making a push for a “second chance” law for people convicted of certain low-level federal offenses, with hopes to repeat Congress’ unexpected victory on criminal justice reform last year.  Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat from Delaware, and Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican from Pennsylvania, introduced the Clean Slate Act on Tuesday, which would automatically seal a person’s record if he or she has been convicted of possession of drugs, including heroin, as well as any nonviolent offense involving marijuana.

The intention, they say, is to eliminate barriers to employment, education and housing that are common for people convicted of crimes.  “I’ve seen so many stories of people who, because of a minor offense, it has stuck with them for the rest of their lives,” Blunt Rochester said in an interview Tuesday, calling her bill the “next logical step” after last year’s landmark package of sentencing and prison reform.  The bill has won support from what Blunt Rochester described as “strange bedfellows” — the liberal Center for American Progress and the conservative FreedomWorks....

Both lawmakers said they hope the bill can be a rare area of common ground in the coming weeks as Senate GOP leaders have flatly rejected most bills sent to them by House Democrats. Blunt Rochester said she’s spoken with House Democratic leaders and is optimistic about a floor vote.... Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) plans to introduce a similar bill on the Senate side and is in talks with Republicans to become a co-sponsor.

Because the Clean Slate Act addresses criminal records after a persons has fully completed a sentence, there really is no direct overlap between its provisions and laws altered by the FIRST STEP Act and so there really is no reason to await FIRST STEP implementation before taking action on this important distinct front.  Indeed, the Clean Slate Act seeks to address reentry and employment issues mentioned by Prez Trump earlier this month and does so in a manner that could itself further enhance the long-term success of the FIRST STEP Act.

As long-time readers know, I am always pragmatically pessimistic about the work of Congress in this space.  But I think the next 18 months provides a unique window of time for moving forward with a Clean Slate Act or some other expungement reform, and I hope reform advocates will all consider jumping on this particular reform bandwagon. 

April 27, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Seventh Circuit finds Indiana approach to revoking good-time credits in sex offender program violates Fifth Amendment right against compelled self‐incrimination

A panel of the Seventh Circuit a few days ago issued a notable opinion in Lacy v. Butts, No. 17-3256 (7th Cir. April 25, 2019) (available here), which affirmed a lower court ruling that part of Indiana's Sex Offender Management and Monitoring program violates the Constitution. Here is how the court's opinion gets started:

When the state wants to encourage suspects, defendants, or incarcerated offenders to admit guilt, it has many tools at its disposal.  Before or during trial, prosecutors may hold out the prospect of a plea bargain. Judges may reward defendants with a sentence reduction for accepting responsibility.  Prison rehabilitation programs may offer benefits and incentives by conditioning visitation rights, work opportunities, housing in a lower‐security unit, and other privileges on an offender’s willingness to admit responsibility for the crime of conviction. McKune v. Lile, 536 U.S. 24, 40 (2002).

But the Fifth Amendment draws one sharp line in the sand: no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”  U.S. CONST. amend. V. (emphasis added).  This case requires us to decide whether Indiana’s Sex Offender Management and Monitoring (INSOMM) program crosses that line with its system of revoking good time credits and denying the opportunity to earn such credits for convicted sex offenders who refuse to confess their crimes.  In an action brought by a class led by Donald Lacy, an inmate subject to INSOMM, the district court ruled that Indiana’s system as currently operated impermissibly compels self‐incrimination and must be revised.   We affirm.

April 27, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

April 26, 2019

"Individualized Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article available via SSRN authored by William Berry. Here is its abstract:

In Woodson v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court proscribed the use of mandatory death sentences.  One year later, in Lockett v. Ohio, the Court expanded this principle to hold that defendants in capital cases were entitled to “individualized sentencing determinations.”  The Court’s reasoning in both cases centered on the seriousness of the death penalty.  Because the death penalty is “different” in its seriousness and irrevocability, the Court required the sentencing court, whether judge or jury, to assess the individualized characteristics of the offender and the offense before imposing a sentence.

In 2012, the Court expanded this Eighth Amendment concept to juvenile life-without-parole sentences in Miller v. Alabama.  Specifically, the Court held that juvenile offenders also were unique — in their capacity for rehabilitation and their diminished culpability — such that they too deserved individualized sentencing determinations.  The seriousness of the sentence in question, life without parole, also factored into the Court’s decision to extend the individualized sentencing requirement to juvenile life without parole cases.

Felony convictions, however, are serious too.  The current consequences for a felony conviction in most states result in dehumanizing effects that extend far beyond release including loss of right to vote, state surveillance, and loss of the right to own a firearm, not to mention social stigma.  As such, this Article argues for an extension of the Court’s Eighth Amendment individualized sentencing principle to all felony cases.  Doing so would require the Court to overrule its prior decisions, including Harmelin v. Michigan, but the Court’s opinion in Miller hints at a willingness to do just that.

While initially valuable in ensuring that capital cases received heightened scrutiny, the unintentional consequence of the Court’s differentness principle is that non-capital cases have received almost no constitutional scrutiny.  The individualized sentencing determination requirement provides one simple way to begin to remedy this shortcoming.

Adopting this doctrinal extension would have three major consequences: (1) it would provide each defendant his day in court in the face of serious, lifelong deprivations, (2) it would eliminate draconian mandatory sentencing practices, and (3) it would shift the sentencing determination away from prosecutors back to judges.

Part I of the Article describes the evolution of the individualized sentencing doctrine.  Part II exposes the unintended consequences of the differentness concept, and unearths the theoretical principles behind individualized sentencing.  In Part III, the Article argues for the expansion of the current doctrine and explains why the current roadblocks are not insurmountable.  Part IV then explores the consequences of broadening the application of the individualized sentencing doctrine, for defendants, legislators, and judges alike.

April 26, 2019 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Recapping a notable week of SCOTUS criminal justice arguments

As flagged in this Monday post, the Supreme Court's final week of oral arguments for this Term, which took place this past week, included hearings on three cases involving notable criminal justice issues.  We likely should not expected written decisions in Mitchell v. Wisconsin, Rehaif v. United States or Quarles v. United States until late June, but SCOTUSblog provides a sense of where the Court might be headed in these cases through these argument analysis posts:

On Mitchell by Amy Howe, "Justices debate warrantless blood draw for unconscious drunk driver"

On Rehaif by Evan Lee, "Court leaning toward requiring the government to prove that a felon in possession knew he was a felon"

On Quarles by Rory Little, "ACCA argument becomes a broader discussion of statutory interpretation"

Interesting jurisprudential developments could emerge from all three of these cases, but the Rehaif case has an issue lurking that could possibly impact lots and lots of federal prosecutions for felon in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  

April 26, 2019 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 25, 2019

Maryland GOP Gov finally commutes notable life sentence (and others) following notably stingy prior Gov

Van Jones received considerable grief when he said earlier this year at CPAC that the "conservative movement ... is now the leader" on criminal justice reform. But this new story out of Maryland, headlined "Maryland Gov. Hogan commutes life sentence of 'model inmate' from Baltimore who's served 47 years in killing," provides another example of a GOP official being more progressive in the criminal justice arena than an official from the other side of the aisle. Here are the details:

Gov. Larry Hogan’s office said Wednesday the governor has commuted the life sentence of Calvin Ash, a 68-year-old Baltimore man who has spent nearly his entire adult life behind bars despite multiple recommendations from the parole commission for his release.

A spokesman for Hogan said the governor decided this week to accept an 8-0 vote of the parole commission that Ash be freed after serving 47 years for fatally shooting his wife’s boyfriend in the 1970s, when Ash was 21 years old.

Hogan also commuted sentences this week of two other inmates, but did not release their names....

Hogan’s actions mean the governor has now commuted the sentences of 15 prisoners since he took office in 2015 — including at least five inmates serving life sentences.  The previous governor, Democrat Martin O’Malley, released three prisoners through commutation during his eight years in office....

Ash has been imprisoned since he killed the boyfriend of his estranged wife on May 2, 1972.  On that day, Ash — who was an employee of Union Memorial Hospital — shot and killed Thomas Robinson, 24, inside a rowhouse in the 1800 block of N. Rosedale St. in West Baltimore.  Ash confessed to police during questioning, saying: “We were still seeing one another, but then she got on with someone else.”...

He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. David Blumberg, chairman of the state’s parole commission, said that for more than a decade, the panel has repeatedly recommended that Ash be freed....

Ash’s case has been in the news for years.  In 2004, the Maryland Parole Commission approved his release. But in 2006, O’Malley rejected the recommendation without comment.  In 2009, the commission again voted 5-2 to commute Ash’s sentence, but that, too, was rejected....

Maryland governors over time have adopted different stances on their power to commute sentences. In the mid-1990s, Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening, issued a so-called “life means life" edict — giving out zero commutations — as he attempted to negotiate an end to the death penalty in the state.  Glendening has since disavowed that approach.

Republican Gov. Robert Ehlirch, who served between 2003 and 2007, considered parole on a case-by-case basis.  He commuted 18 sentences, including those of five lifers.

O'Malley fought to repeal the death penalty and he commuted the sentences of Maryland’s four remaining death-row inmates to life without parole.  But when it came to releasing prisoners sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, he took a hard line.  He granted clemency to three in 2012, but approved no non-medical paroles.

Hogan has presided over a decline in Maryland’s prison population.  Maryland’s inmate census has fallen below 18,000 for the first time in nearly three decades....  The 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act is often credited for helping to reduce Maryland’s prison population.  The landmark legislation sought to divert nonviolent offenders from prison into drug treatment and other programs and included changes to mandatory minimum drug penalties.  It went into effect in October 2017.

April 25, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The High Stakes of Low-Level Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable book review authored by Alexandra Natapoff (who has, as noted here, her own book on this important topic). Here is the review's abstract:

The low-level misdemeanor process is a powerful socio-legal institution that both regulates and generates inequality.  At the same time, misdemeanor legal processing often ignores many foundational criminal justice values such as due process, evidence, and even individual guilt.  These features are linked: the erosion of the rule of law is one of the concrete mechanisms enabling the misdemeanor system to take aim at the disadvantaged, rather than at the merely guilty. 
In the book Misdemeanorland, Issa Kohler-Hausmann describes the inegalitarian workings of the misdemeanor legal process in New York City and how it operates as a system of managerial social control over the disadvantaged even when it stops short of convicting and incarcerating them.  This Review summarizes the book’s key contributions to the burgeoning scholarly discourse on misdemeanors and then extends its insights about New York to illuminate the broader dynamics and democratic significance of the U.S. misdemeanor process.

Prior related post:

April 25, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Jared Kushner: Fifteen Lessons I Learned From Criminal-Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting Time commentary authored by Jared Kushner, which seems to be something of a follow up to his interview as part of The TIME 100 Summit.  I would recommend the extended piece in full, especially for those interested in more background on how the FIRST STEP Act became a reality and how best to be successful in seeking the next steps in federal criminal justice reform.  Here is a taste:

In the wake of this legislation, hundreds of people have asked me how it was possible in the middle of such a divided political climate to bring both parties together on an issue that initially seemed to have no consensus, no champion and no pathway.  Pursuing the passage of the First Step Act was one of the hardest experiences of my life.  I got a close-up view of how Congress works — and how it doesn’t.  Because this was neither a major issue of the campaign nor one of the first priorities of the new Administration, I did a lot of the staff work on it myself, with a small and dedicated team, and we were able to follow what I designed as a more intuitive process, instead of a standard legislative process. This ended up working even though this bill nearly died dozens of times along the way. Here are the key lessons I learned from the experience.

The first lesson is that you have to reach out and talk to the other side. You will never make a deal in politics by only talking to people who agree with you.  Ivanka and I would frequently host bipartisan groups of six to eight legislators at our home for off-the-record dinners, normally on a specific legislative priority, and the first toast was always by someone saying, “We don’t do this enough. We used to spend more time with people in the other party in safe and productive environments.”  Politics is a tribal business, and my reaching out to Democrats made some on the right uncomfortable.  My politics have been those of an independent.  Since I was new to professional politics, I did not feel that I knew the best way to solve the problems we have in this country so I sought out respected people on both sides of the aisle.  I saw that when people reach out on either side of the aisle, they are subjected to criticism and even being labeled a “traitor” by those in their own party.  By contrast, President Trump is a pragmatist.  He looks to solve problems but is not ideologically fixed. I believed that he deserved thoughtful, researched options on how to pursue the promises that he made to the American people.  There are many different ways to solve problems and no party has a monopoly on good ideas.

The second lesson is that you have to engage early with a diverse group of people.  For the prison reform effort, we started out by hosting multiple listening sessions in which we assembled the right people and allowed everyone to share their perspective. T his included Senators, Congressmen, governors, academics, law enforcement and many others. From these conversations we got good ideas, we saw overlapping areas of agreement, and we made people feel included in the process from the outset. Asking a lot of questions and closely listening, helped me form a more nuanced perspective.  As my close friend and mentor Ambassador Bob Lighthizer would tell me during intense trade negotiations, “I don’t know anyone who ever got smarter by talking.”  While being in the White House and having the President on board was powerful, we could not have gotten this done if it weren’t for the many outside groups supporting the effort.  There are too many to name who worked on this issue for a decade before I got involved, but they laid the foundation for our success.  When we had politicians on the fence about voting with us, we would activate these outside groups and they always knew who the most influential voices were for each Senator or Congressman.  Having many supporters out on TV and in the communities in both liberal and conservative circles helped bring around others who were less familiar with the issue.  This coalition enabled me to cross the most important hurdle of all, which was to get President Trump to support this effort over the objections of others.

The third lesson is to study what was tried and assess why it failed.  Our system was designed to make change hard, and I remind my team all the time not to be afraid to follow intuition over ceremony and to try new approaches. We started by looking at the 2016 legislative effort and sought to understand who supported it and why the effort had failed. We were told that the Senate would not put a new bill on the floor since there was still too much disagreement. The leading opponent in 2016 was then Senator Jeff Sessions, who in 2018 was the Attorney General. Following dozens of discussions with interested parties, I engaged with him and after several meetings I was able to get him to agree not to block prison-reform efforts in exchange for us not working on the sentencing reforms he opposed. I told him that I would assume that we would work in good faith to achieve our shared goals of reducing crime. To that end, we would take all of his comments under advisement and try to incorporate them to the degree possible.  This angered Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin, who had spent considerable time crafting the compromise language on the old bill.  They were skeptical of Sessions’ working in good faith on this issue and thought we were disrespecting their work. After several heated meetings, I told them that we were going to start working in the House on a prison-reform bill.

The other side of this is to study what has worked . The best thing about the federalist system is that the states are laboratories of democracy where ideas are tested. On prison reform we analyzed the many red states where reforms have succeeded.  For instance, in Texas in 2002, Governor Rick Perry saw that the costs of incarceration were rising fast. He determined, with the help of his then policy director Brooke Rollins — who later led this effort with me from the White House — that you can change the prison system to focus it on locking up the worst violent criminals and that by being more targeted with these efforts you can lower incarceration costs and also lower crime rates.

The fourth lesson was to develop a full legislative strategy early, and be prepared to modify as things progressed.  We started working with Representatives Doug Collins and Hakeem Jeffries in the House, who had been the co-sponsors for the previous prison-reform bill.  What we hoped would be easy got complicated very quickly.  When the White House engaged, this raised the profile of the effort making it more political than it was the last time.  We received criticism on all sides.  Law-enforcement groups insisted that the current version of the bill was inadequate and in need of major revisions; Congressman Jeffries was taking heat for working with Trump’s White House; and Senate Democrats even claimed that our version of the bill was potentially racially discriminatory in how it would be implemented.  We had our work cut out for us.

The fifth lesson is that the details really matter.  It’s easy for politicians to disagree on big concepts, but you find compromise and solutions in the details. During the negotiations we had many moments where both sides almost quit.  At one point, those at the table who were against the bill had put so many poison pill provisions into the draft legislation that I got an emergency call from Ja’Ron Smith, the talented legislative staffer who volunteered to work on this with me.  Ja’Ron told me that Jeffries’ team had walked away. The poison pills did not matter to our primary objective, while putting undue pressure on the Congressman, who was already getting a lot of criticism from the left. I didn’t want to let him down.  We reviewed the provisions and determined which ones were reasonable and which were not....

The seventh lesson is that nothing significant in Washington gets done without the President’s buy-in. After a year of research and planning, we were confident that this was a worthwhile effort but could not take any further steps without President Trump’s blessing.  The President was a bit skeptical going into the meeting, saying “Jared, this sounds like a pretty liberal issue.”  So I scheduled a policy meeting in January 2018 with external conservative leaders who could better explain how these reforms would advance his agenda.  Before it began, Sarah Sanders noted that her father had passed similar reforms in Arkansas and that they were some of the most impactful and popular things he had done.  When the President entered the room he was pleased to see many familiar conservative faces.  I made a few introductory points and quickly passed it off to others to make the case.  Having conservative governors, activists and law-enforcement leaders there helped a lot.  But the most important statement made at that meeting was by aide Reed Cordish who said to President Trump, “You promised during your campaign to fight for the forgotten men and women of this country. There is no one more forgotten or underrepresented than the people in prison.” I could see that this statement hit the President and moved him deeply.

After we had gone through the statistics and policy, the President said, “That’s really sad. These people make a mistake, do their time, get out and then have all of these challenges. In some ways, what do we expect them to do?”  He saw immediately why both parties should support these reforms and told me: “I am all in. Let’s get it done, but work with Jeff to make sure this isn’t soft on crime.”

April 25, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

BJS releases "Prisoners in 2016" and "Jail Inmates in 2017" reporting notable declines in incarcerated persons

As reported in this press release, "from 2007 to 2017, incarceration rates in both prisons and jails decreased by more than 10%, according to reports released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics." Here is more from the release:

Over a decade, the incarceration rate among state and federal prisoners sentenced to more than a year dropped by 13%, from 506 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2007 to 440 prisoners per 100,000 in 2017. The prison incarceration rate also dropped 2.1% from 2016 to 2017, bringing it to the lowest level since 1997. The jail incarceration rate decreased by 12% from 2007 to 2017, from 259 to 229 jail inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, but did not decline from 2016 to 2017.

The U.S. prison population was 1.5 million prisoners at year-end 2017, and the population of jail inmates in the U.S. was 745,000 at midyear 2017. There were 1.3 million prisoners under state jurisdiction and 183,000 under federal jurisdiction. From the end of 2016 to the end of 2017, the number of prisoners under federal jurisdiction declined by 6,100 (down 3%), while the number of prisoners under state jurisdiction fell by 12,600 (down 1%).

By citizenship status, non-citizens made up roughly the same portion of the U.S. prison population (7.6%) as of the total U.S. population (7.0%, per the U.S. Census Bureau). This is based on prisoners held in the custody of publicly or privately operated state or federal prisons. Among racial groups, the imprisonment rate for sentenced black adults declined by 31% from 2007 to 2017 and by 4% from 2016 to 2017, the largest declines of any racial group.

However, the imprisonment rate for sentenced black males was more than twice the rate for sentenced Hispanic males and almost six times that for sentenced white males (2,336 per 100,000 black males compared to 1,054 per 100,000 Hispanic males and 397 per 100,000 white males). The rate for sentenced black females was almost double that for sentenced white females (92 per 100,000 black females compared to 49 per 100,000 white females).

Among state prisoners sentenced to more than one year, more than half (55%) were serving a sentence for a violent offense at year-end 2016, the most recent year for which state data are available. An estimated 60% of blacks and Hispanics in state prisons were serving a sentence for a violent offense, compared to 48% of whites. At the end of fiscal year 2017, nearly half of all federal prisoners were serving a sentence for drug trafficking.

Privately operated prison facilities held 121,400 prisoners, or 8% of all state and federal prisoners, at year-end 2017. Inmates in these facilities were under the jurisdiction of 27 states and the Bureau of Prisons. The number of federal prisoners held in private facilities decreased by 6,600 from 2016 to 2017 (down 19%).

In 2017, almost two-thirds (482,000) of jail inmates were unconvicted, awaiting court action on a charge, while the rest (263,200) were convicted and either serving a sentence or awaiting sentencing.

The demographic characteristics of persons incarcerated in jails shifted from 2005 to 2017. During this period, the percentage of the jail population that was white increased from 44% to 50%, while the percentage that was black decreased from 39% to 34%. Hispanics accounted for 15% of all jail inmates in 2017, the same as in 2005. Asians accounted for less than 1% of jail inmates in both years. In 2017, the jail incarceration rate for blacks was more than 3 times the rate for whites and Hispanics, and more than 20 times the rate for Asians.

Jails reported 10.6 million admissions in 2017, which represented no change from 2016 but a 19% decline from 13.1 million in 2007. The overall weekly inmate turnover rate was 54% in 2017, while the estimated average time spent in jail before release was 26 days.

The full BJS reports are chock full of additional important data points, and are excitingly titled "Prisoners in 2017" (running 44 pages) and "Jail Inmates in 2017" (running 18 pages).  Especially because I am busy with end-of-semester tasks, I would be grateful to hear from others about any particular data points within these documents that seem especially notable and important.  Helpfully, the Sentencing Project has this release about the data with these interesting observations:

Analysis of the new data by The Sentencing Project reveals that:

  • The United States remains as the world leader in its rate of incarceration, locking up its citizens at 5-10 times the rate of other industrialized nations. At the current rate of decline it will take 75 years to cut the prison population by 50%.
  • The population serving life sentences is now at a record high. One of every seven individuals in prison — 206,000 — is serving life. 
  • Six states have reduced their prison populations by at least 30% over the past two decades — Alaska, Connecticut, California, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont. 
  • The rate of women’s incarceration has been rising at a faster rate than men’s since the 1980s, and declines in recent years have been slower than among men. 
  • Racial disparities in women’s incarceration have changed dramatically since the start of the century.  Black women were incarcerated at 6 times the rate of white women in 2000, while the 2017 figure is now 1.8 times that rate. These changes have been a function of both a declining number of black women in prison and a rising number of white women. For Hispanic women, the ratio has changed from 1.6 times that of white women in 2000 to 1.4 times in 2017.

April 25, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 24, 2019

Texas completes another execution of another killer involved in notorious hate crime

As reported in this local article, headlined "Texas executes John William King in racist dragging death of James Byrd Jr.," the Lone Star State has completed another notable execution.  Here are the basics:

It’s been more than two decades since an infamous hate crime in East Texas, where three white men were convicted of chaining a black man to the back of a pickup truck, dragging him for miles and then dumping the remains of his body in front of a church.

On Wednesday evening, John William King, 44, became the second and final man to be executed in the 1998 murder case of James Byrd Jr. Lawrence Brewer was put to death in 2011 for the crime, and Shawn Berry is serving a life sentence.

King had previously been involved in a white supremacist prison gang, and he was notoriously covered in racist tattoos, including Ku Klux Klan symbols, a swastika and a visual depiction of a lynching, according to court documents. But King maintained that he was innocent in Byrd’s murder — claiming that Berry dropped him and Brewer off at their shared apartment before Byrd was beaten and dragged to death.

In a last-minute appeal, King’s attorney argued that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling entitled his client to a new trial because his original lawyers didn’t assert his claim of innocence to the jury despite King’s insistence. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals narrowly rejected this appeal in a 5-4 ruling Monday, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against stopping the execution about 30 minutes after it was scheduled to begin Wednesday.

After the ruling, King was taken from a holding cell and placed on a gurney in the death chamber and hooked up to an IV. He had no personal witnesses at his execution and spoke no final words, but he did provide a written statement beforehand, stating "Capital Punishment: Them without the capital get the punishment."  He was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital at 6:56 p.m., and pronounced dead 12 minutes later, according to the prison department.

Two of Byrd’s sisters and his niece planned to watch King's death. One of the sisters, who also watched Brewer's execution in 2011, told The Texas Tribune Tuesday that she didn’t understand why King’s case was tied up for so long with numerous appeals. He was sentenced to death in February 1999. “He wants to find a way not to die, but he didn’t give James that chance,” said Louvon Harris. “He’s still getting off easy because your body’s not going to be flying behind a pickup truck being pulled apart.”...

Before the execution, Harris said King's death would bring her some closure, but she will still have to be involved in Berry’s case as he becomes eligible for parole in 2038.

Notably, this was only the fourth execution in all of the US so far in 2019.  For telling contrast, consider that 10 years ago, there were 24 executions in 2009 before the end of April; and 20 years ago, there were 40 executions in 1999 before the end of April.  Were the pace of just one execution per month to continue, we would see in 2019 the fewest total number of executions in the United States in more than 30 years.

However, as this upcoming executions page reveals, there are already five executions in five different states scheduled for May 2019.  If all those executions are carried out, the pace for nationwide executions in 2019 would be comparable to the pace in 2017 and 2018.

April 24, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

"How to Argue with an Algorithm: Lessons from the COMPAS ProPublica Debate"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Anne Washington and now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The United States optimizes the efficiency of its growing criminal justice system with algorithms however, legal scholars have overlooked how to frame courtroom debates about algorithmic predictions.  In State v Loomis, the defense argued that the court’s consideration of risk assessments during sentencing was a violation of due process because the accuracy of the algorithmic prediction could not be verified.  The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the consideration of predictive risk at sentencing because the assessment was disclosed and the defendant could challenge the prediction by verifying the accuracy of data fed into the algorithm.

Was the court correct about how to argue with an algorithm?

The Loomis court ignored the computational procedures that processed the data within the algorithm.  How algorithms calculate data is equally as important as the quality of the data calculated.  The arguments in Loomis revealed a need for new forms of reasoning to justify the logic of evidence-based tools.  A “data science reasoning” could provide ways to dispute the integrity of predictive algorithms with arguments grounded in how the technology works.

This article’s contribution is a series of arguments that could support due process claims concerning predictive algorithms, specifically the Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (“COMPAS”) risk assessment.  As a comprehensive treatment, this article outlines the due process arguments in Loomis, analyzes arguments in an ongoing academic debate about COMPAS, and proposes alternative arguments based on the algorithm’s organizational context.

Risk assessment has dominated one of the first wide-ranging academic debates within the emerging field of data science.  ProPublica investigative journalists claimed that the COMPAS algorithm is biased and released their findings as open data sets.  The ProPublica data started a prolific and mathematically-specific conversation about risk assessment as well as a broader conversation on the social impact of algorithms.  The ProPublica-COMPAS debate repeatedly considered three main themes: mathematical definitions of fairness, explainable interpretation of models, and the importance of population comparison groups.

While the Loomis decision addressed permissible use for a risk assessment at sentencing, a deeper understanding of daily practice within the organization could extend debates about algorithms to questions about procurement, implementation, or training.  The criminal justice organization that purchased the risk assessment is in the best position to justify how one individual’s assessment matches the algorithm designed for its administrative needs.  People subject to a risk assessment cannot conjecture how the algorithm ranked them without knowing why they were classified within a certain group and what criteria control the rankings.  The controversy over risk assessment algorithms hints at whether procedural due process is the cost of automating a criminal justice system that is operating at administrative capacity.

April 24, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Judge Jack Weinstein provides thorough explanation for FIRST STEP Act crack retroactivity sentence reduction

A few weeks ago, as noted here, the Justice Department issues a press release discussing the implementation of the FIRST STEP Act in which it reported that the "Act’s retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (reducing the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine threshold amounts triggering mandatory minimum sentences) has resulted in 826 sentence reductions and 643 early releases."  These numbers are encouraging, though the US Sentencing Commission is this impact analysis reported that there were "2,660 eligible offenders ... in BOP custody as of May 26, 2018" who should benefit from Section 404 of the FIRST STEP Act making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive.  So we may be only a third of the way toward fully implementing just this one section of the new law.

Notably, a judicial legend has now added to the number of federal offenders benefiting directly from the FIRST STEP Act, as earlier this week Judge Jack Weinstein issued this extended opinion explaining the legal basis and justifications for reducing by eight months a sentence being served for a crack offense imposed back in 2009.  I recommend the 15-page opinion in full because it is a clear and effective explanation of the import and impact of the FIRST STEP Act, and here is an excerpt from the start of the opinion:

Defendant Cheyenne Simons was sentenced over a decade ago to a twelve-year term of imprisonment for his role in a criminal conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.  He now moves to have his sentence reduced pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act.  The Act permits courts to retroactively lower the sentence of a defendant convicted of certain Controlled Substances Act violations involving crack cocaine.

The United States concedes that Simons is eligible for resentencing but argues that the court should decline to revisit its original sentence.  “Nothing in the First Step Act,” it contends, “changes the court’s original assessment of the Section 3553(a) factors or suggests that a sentence should be arbitrarily reduced.” Gov’t Letter 5, ECF No. 754, Mar. 27, 2019.

The government is mistaken.  We now have two well-considered statements of federal policy by Congress since the defendant was originally sentenced — the First Step Act and the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372 (2010) (“the Fair Sentencing Act”).  Both favor sending fewer people to prison, imposing shorter sentences for drug crimes, and reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses.  The court must consider this new governmental policy when deciding whether a reduction of defendant’s sentence is warranted.  See Sent. Hr’g Tr., Apr. 22, 2019, passim.

An extra year, day, or moment of freedom from prison, when warranted, is worth pursuing by a prisoner, and, if justified by the law, should be granted by the court.

Defendant’s motion is granted.  His sentence is reduced to time served.  An amended judgment and conviction shall be filed forthwith.

After serving more than 136 months of his 144-month original sentence, Simons is now eligible for immediate release.  While this decision does not substantially shorten his sentence, justice favors freedom over unnecessary incarceration.  Every day of imprisonment that can be appropriately shortened in a case like this should be.  See Shaila Dewan & Alan Binder, Just How Much of an Overhaul Is This Overhaul of the Nation’s Criminal Justice System?  N.Y.Times, Nov. 16, 2018 (“One day makes a difference because you don’t know what that one day can bring about in a person’s life,” was declared by a former inmate properly released early from federal custody after serving more than 21 years for her involvement in a crack cocaine ring).

April 24, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Implementing retroactively new USSC crack guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Vera Institute documents another drop in the US prison population in 2018

The Vera Institute of Justice today released this notable new "Evidence Brief" titled simply "People in Prison in 2018."  Here is part of this document's summary:

Effective advocacy and policy making require up-to-date information. V era Institute of Justice (Vera) researchers collected data on the number of people in state and federal prisons on December 31, 2018 to provide timely information on how prison incarceration is changing in the United States.  This report fills a gap until the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) releases its 2018 annual report — likely in early 2020 — which will include additional data, such as population breakdowns by race and sex.

At the end of 2018, there were an estimated 1,471,200 people in state and federal prisons, down 20,000 from year-end 2017 (1.3 percent decline).  There were 1,291,000 people under state prison jurisdiction, 16,600 fewer than in 2017 (1.3 percent decline); and 179,900 in the federal prison system, 3,200 fewer than in 2017 (1.7 percent decline).

The prison incarceration rate in the United States was 450 people in prison per 100,000 residents, down from 458 per 100,000 in the previous year, representing a 1.8 percent drop. This brings the rate of prison incarceration down 15.2 percent since its peak in 2007.

The overall decline in the national prison incarceration rate was driven by the large decrease in the number of people in federal prisons, as well as greater than 5 percent declines in incarceration rates in seven states.  Of those states, a few have large prison populations, such as Missouri, South Carolina, New York and North Carolina.  However, the declines were not universal.  Mass incarceration is still on the rise in some states, such as Indiana, Texas, and Wyoming.

Vera has some visualizations and other related materials at this webpage.  The Marshall Project has this article about Vera's findings providing a broader context for the data and including these important points:

Advocates for prison reform have come to rely on Vera’s data as the federal reports are increasingly outdated. The Bureau of Justice Statistics compiles a comprehensive data set on people in prison, which includes demographic information. But because of budget cuts the latest report, released in 2018, covers prisoners in 2016. The 2017 data is set to be released on Thursday.

Timely data on the people in prison helps analysts and legislators understand where criminal justice changes are having the biggest impact, said Jacob Kang-Brown, one of the study’s authors. “This report shows whether states are following through and reducing the number of people that are locked up in prison,” he said, and which are “bucking the trend.”

April 24, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

April 23, 2019

California DAs assail Gov Newsom's execution moratorium

Four California district attorneys, Anne Marie Schubert, Michael Hestrin, Lisa Smittcamp and Gilbert Otero, have this notable new CNN commentary under the headline "California Gov. Gavin Newsom's death penalty moratorium is a disgrace."  Here is how it gets started:

Gov. Gavin Newsom's blanket moratorium on California's death penalty is a slap in the face to crime victims and their families who have waited years for justice.  With the stroke of his pen last month, Newsom single-handedly undermined our state's democratic values and our criminal justice system.

Democracy embodies a government where the people hold the ruling power either directly or through elected representatives.  In California, the people have exercised their power repeatedly in voting to keep the death penalty for the state's most horrific killers.  In fact, less than three years ago, California voters made this clear when they rejected an initiative, supported by Newsom, to abolish the death penalty and instead passed an initiative to ensure its fair and efficient implementation.

When Newsom campaigned for governor, he explicitly asserted that he would respect the will of the voters regarding the death penalty.  So much for that promise.  Instead, Newsom disregarded the voters in favor of his personal opinion and granted leniency to those facing the death penalty, including serial killers, cop killers, mass shooters, baby killers and sexual sadists.

In doing so, Newsom damaged the very fabric of our criminal justice system -- trial by jury -- where community members, not just one person in a position of power, make decisions affecting life and liberty.  Newsom's unilateral decision to ignore jury verdicts imposing the death penalty is not just an arbitrary exercise of power, it is a gross miscarriage of justice.

In support of his moratorium, Newsom also made broad sweeping statements, often cited by the American Civil Liberties Union and other death penalty opponents, including cautions about racism and claims that some on death row may be innocent.  If Newsom has concerns about specific cases, he should examine those cases individually rather than granting mercy to everyone on death row.  After all, Newsom has the powers of clemency and commutation as a remedy if he sees actual proof that someone was wrongfully convicted.

But looking at the facts of cases isn't something Newsom seems to want to do.  Why?  It could be because the facts are so horrific that one cannot justify leniency to these killers.

Prior related posts:

April 23, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Relying on post-Miller legislation, Illinois Supreme Court rules any juve sentence over 40 years constitutes de facto life sentence

I just saw an interesting ruling handed down last week by the Illinois Supreme Court, Illinois v. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327 (Ill. April 18, 2019) (available here), which concerns what length of sentence should be considered a de facto life sentence triggering the Eighth Amendment sentencing limitations articulated by the Supreme Court in Miller and Montgomery.  For folks following closely debates over the reach and application of the Eighth Amendment to juvenile term-of-year sentences, all of Buffer is worth reading (including the extended concurrence). Here is a key passage from the court's opinion:

[In a legislative response to Miller,] the General Assembly has determined that the specified first degree murders that would justify natural life imprisonment for adult offenders would warrant a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years for juvenile offenders.  The legislature evidently believed that this 40-year floor for juvenile offenders who commit egregious crimes complies with the requirements of Miller.

In determining when a juvenile defendant’s prison term is long enough to be considered de facto life without parole, we choose to draw a line at 40 years.  This specific number does not originate in court decisions, legal literature, or statistical data.  It is not drawn from a hat.  Rather, this number finds its origin in the entity best suited to make such a determination — the legislature.  The Supreme Court has made clear that “[i]t is for the State, in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance” with eighth amendment mandates pertaining to juvenile sentencing.  Graham, 560 U.S. at 75.  As this court recognized long ago, “‘[g]reat constitutional provisions must be administered with caution. *** It must be remembered that legislatures are ultimate guardians of the liberties and welfare of the people in quite as great a degree as the courts.’” People ex rel. Douglas v. Barrett, 370 Ill. 464, 467 (1939) (quoting Missouri, Kansas & Texas Ry. Co. v. May, 194 U.S. 267, 270 (1904)).

Extrapolating from this legislative determination, a prison sentence of 40 years or less imposed on a juvenile offender provides “‘some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.’” Miller, 567 U.S. at 479 (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 75).  We hereby conclude that a prison sentence of 40 years or less imposed on a juvenile offender does not constitute a de facto life sentence in violation of the eighth amendment.

April 23, 2019 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

How could and how should a President push states to extend the franchise to all prisoners?

I have not been blogging all that much about some of the notable criminal justice positions and statements by the huge field of candidates seeking the Democratic Party's nomination to run for US President.  But this press piece about an exchange involving Senator Bernie Sanders at a town hall last night prompted the question that is the title of this post.  The headline of The Hill piece is catchy, "Sanders: Boston Marathon bomber should be able to vote from prison," and here is its account of the exchange:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) argued Monday that all prisoners, including domestic terrorists such as the Boston Marathon bomber, should have the right to vote while they are incarcerated.

Speaking at a CNN town hall, Sanders was asked if he believes the right to vote should extend to serious criminals, such as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is in prison and has been sentenced to death.  “If somebody commits a serious crime, sexual assault, murder, they’re going to be punished,” Sanders said.  “They may be in jail for 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, their whole lives.  That’s what happens when you commit a serious crime."

"But I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy," he continued.  "Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away ... you’re running down a slippery slope. ... I do believe that even if they are in jail, they’re paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”

Earlier this month, Sanders called for more states to join Vermont and Maine in allowing imprisoned felons to vote.... “This is what I believe. Do you believe in democracy? Do you believe that every single American 18 years of age or older who is an American citizen has the right to vote?"

"Once you start chipping away at that ... that’s what our Republican governors all over this country are doing.  They come up with all kinds of excuses why people of color, young people, poor people can’t vote.  And I will do everything I can to resist that," he added.

Regular readers likely know that I see no good reason to disenfranchise categorically any class of competent voters (and my basic thinking on this front was explained in this Big Think piece years ago headlined "Let Prisoners Vote").  But, in the context of discussions about the positions of potential candidates for President, anyone call for expanding suffrage ought to be asked about how the federal government can and should seek to push states into ensuring more people have the right to vote.  This can be done, of course, through a constitutional amendment or through various forms of federal legislation that might try to force or prod states into changing their voting eligibility rules. 

I would really like to know if Senator Sanders (or any other presidential contender) is prepared to move forward with a formal federal plan that would go beyond just "call[ing] for more states to join Vermont and Maine in allowing imprisoned felons to vote."   Because I am not a voting rights expert, I am not sure what might be the best ways, legally and politically, to make progress on this front.  But I hope the question in the title of this post might be further explored on the campaign trail over the next 18 months.

April 23, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Justice Denied: The Harmful and Lasting Effects of Pretrial Detention"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new "evidence brief" from the Vera Institute of Justice.  Here is its overview:

The pretrial population — the number of people who are detained while awaiting trial — increased 433 percent between 1970 and 2015.  This growth is in large part due to the increased use of monetary bail.  But pretrial detention has far-reaching negative consequences.  This evidence brief presents information on the way that pretrial detention is currently used and summarizes research on its impacts.  These studies call into question whether pretrial detention improves court appearance rates, suggests that people who are detained are more likely to be convicted and to receive harsher sentences, and indicate that even short periods of detention may make people more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system again in the future.  The brief concludes by highlighting strategies that some jurisdictions have employed to reduce the use of monetary bail and increase pretrial release.

April 23, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

April 22, 2019

"The case against solitary confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and effective Vox piece from last week.  I call the piece effective in part because, in addition to being well-structured and well-written, it includes lots and lots of links.  Here is how the piece starts (with links retained):

Albert Woodfox was held in solitary confinement for more than 40 years in a Louisiana prison before being released in 2016, when he was 69 years old.  In his book Solitary, published last month, Woodfox writes that every morning, “I woke up with the same thought: will this be the day? Will this be the day I lose my sanity and discipline? Will I start screaming and never stop?”

Thousands of people — at least 61,000 on any given day and likely many thousands more than that — are in solitary confinement across the country, spending 23 hours per day in cells not much bigger than elevators.  They are disproportionately young men, and disproportionately Hispanic and African American.  The majority spend a few months in it, but at least a couple of thousand people have been in solitary confinement for six years or more. Some, like Woodfox, have been held for decades.

Solitary confinement causes extreme suffering, particularly over prolonged periods of months or years.  Effects include anxiety, panic, rage, paranoia, hallucinations, and, in some cases, suicide.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, deemed that prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture, and the UN’s Mandela Rules dictate that it should never be used with youth and those with mental or physical disability or illness, or for anyone for more than 15 days.  Méndez, who inspected prisons in many countries, wrote, “[I]t is safe to say that the United States uses solitary confinement more extensively than any other country, for longer periods, and with fewer guarantees.”

Many practices in the US criminal justice system are harsh, ineffective, even absurd, from the widespread use of money bail to detain unconvicted people to extremely long sentences and parole terms, and a host of other outrages.  But placing people in solitary stands out as a violation of human rights.

Well over a century ago in the US, the practice fell out of favor, partly because of its capacity for psychological harm. Yet starting in the 1980s, its use in prisons and jails exploded again.

Over the past decade, there has been a movement to (again) stop the widespread use of solitary. There have been major steps forward in some states.  But there’s considerable need for more progress — and wider acknowledgment that this is something that we are all accountable for. As Laura Rovner, a law professor at the University of Denver, put it in a recent talk, “We torture people here in America, tens of thousands of them every day … it’s done in our names, with our tax dollars, behind closed doors.”

April 22, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

No new criminal law cert grants, but still possibilities for a notable SCOTUS week ahead

The Supreme Court granted cert on some notable cases via this order list list morning, the most notable involving questions of how federal employment discrimination laws apply to LGBT employees.  But, for the second Monday in a row, there is little of interest on this list for those of us who obsess over (just) criminal law matters.  However, all is not lost for the week as the Court has on tap for oral argument three criminal justice cases over the next two days.  Via SCOTUSblog:

On Tuesday, the justices hear oral argument in Mitchell v. Wisconsin and Rehaif v. United States.

On Wednesday, the justices hear oral argument in Quarles v. United States.

Of course, the SCOTUS oral argument on census questions scheduled for tomorrow will be sure to overshadow everything else on the docket this week. But, importantly, the Court has also indicated that it will be releasing opinions tomorrow morning, and that means we might get the long-awaited ruling in Gundy v. US concerning federal SORNA and the application of the nondelegation doctrine in this context.  The long wait for Gundy has me thinking something big is afoot in that case (though that might also mean we do not get the opinion for still a few more months).

April 22, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

April 21, 2019

"Misdemeanors by the Numbers"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN authored by Sandra Mayson and Megan Stevenson.  Here is its abstract:

Recent scholarship has underlined the importance of criminal misdemeanor law enforcement, including the impact of public-order policing on communities of color, the collateral consequences of misdemeanor arrest or conviction, and the use of misdemeanor prosecution to raise municipal revenue.  But despite the fact that misdemeanors represent more than three-quarters of all criminal cases filed annually in the United States, our knowledge of misdemeanor case processing is based mostly on anecdote and extremely localized research.  This Article represents the most substantial empirical analysis of misdemeanor case processing to date.  Using multiple court-record datasets, covering several million cases across eight diverse jurisdictions, we present a detailed documentation of misdemeanor case processing from the date of filing through adjudication and sentencing.

The resulting portrait reveals a system that disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color.  Between 2011 and 2016, each jurisdiction studied relied on monetary bail, which resulted in high rates of pretrial detention even at relatively low amounts, and imposed court costs upon conviction.  There were substantial racial disparities in case-filing rates across locales and offense categories.  The data also, however, highlight profound jurisdictional heterogeneity in how misdemeanors are defined and prosecuted.  The variation suggests that misdemeanor adjudication systems may have fundamentally different characters, and serve different functions, from place to place. It thus presents a major challenge to efforts to describe and theorize the contemporary landscape of misdemeanor justice.  At the most fundamental level, the variation calls into question the coherence of the very concept of a misdemeanor, or of misdemeanor criminal justice.  As appreciation for the significance of low-level law enforcement builds, we urge scholars and policymakers to attend carefully to the complexity of this sub-felony world.

April 21, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)