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September 4, 2020

Plenty more COVID headlines and stories in incarceration nation

I am now generally rounding up prison-COVID press pieces every few weeks, even though the ugliness of American prisons and jails during a pandemic is a felt reality for millions of incarcerated persons and their families every day.  As I have said before, we should be thankful that the press and commentators keep reporting and discussing these stories that keep emerging from our prisons and jails:

From the Appalachian Media Institute, "A Call for Help (from Prison During COVID)"

From Cal Matters, "COVID-19 hotspots revealed the need for prison reform and better rehabilitation"

From Carolina Public Press, "Are NC prisons in contempt? Punishing sick, misleading information alleged as judge weighs action"

From CNN, "Prison inmates are twice as likely to die of Covid-19 than those on the outside, new report finds"

From Cowboy State Daily, "Due to Coronavirus, Wyoming Penitentiary Prisoners Let Out Of Cells 15 Minutes A Day"

From Governing, "COVID Prison Disaster Prompts Reform Bills: Legislative Watch"

From Montana Public Radio, "'It’s Like Sardines:' Advocates Call For Health Protections For Inmates"

From STAT, "As Covid-19 cases in prisons climb, data on race remain largely obscured"

From WBUR, "Medical Experts Raise Questions About COVID-19 Data From Mass. Jails And Prisons"

In this round-up, I have left out stories about continued increases in positive COIVD cases and deaths among prisoners not because there aren't any, but because there are too many to cover them all effectively.

September 4, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 3, 2020

"Judicial Disparity, Deviation, and Departures from Sentencing Guidelines: The Case of Hong Kong"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies authored by Kevin Kwok-yin Cheng, Sayaka Ri, and Natasha Pushkarna.  Here is its abstract:

Analyzing sentencing disparity calls for more calibrated measures to capture the nuances of judicial discretion within jurisdictions that adopt strict sentencing guidelines.  This article uses an unconventional outcome variable, percent deviation, to investigate guideline digressions in a nested, multilevel model.  Percent deviation is calculated based on the difference between the guidelines’ “arithmetic starting point” and the actual starting point that a judge adopts.  Two equations were used to measure percent deviation from the arithmetic starting point before and after adjustment for guilty plea sentence reductions.

Extracting data on drug trafficking cases from an open‐source database from the Hong Kong Judiciary (n = 356), we illustrate how percent deviation can be employed as a measure of inter‐judge disparity using hierarchical linear models (HLMs).  Our findings suggest that approximately 8 to 10 percent of the deviation in sentence length can be attributed to judges’ differential sentencing behaviors.  The deviation is affected by case characteristics as well as judicial characteristics.  Due to the wide guideline ranges, departures from said guidelines’ ranges are not common.  This indicates that the guideline ranges mask the deviation and inter‐judge disparity that exist and recur.

September 3, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spotlighting remarkable (but still cursory) data on "compassionate release" after FIRST STEP Act

Regular readers are surely familiar with the big deal I have long made about the statutory changes to the so-called compassionate release provisions in federal law via the FIRST STEP Act.  In posts here and here way back in February 2019, I was talking up these changes as the "sleeper provisions" in the Act because it now let persons in prisons move directly in court for a sentence reduction.  By May 2019, I was wondering aloud here about whether anyone was collecting and analyzing sentence reduction orders under § 3582(c)(1) since passage of the FIRST STEP Act.  From the get-go, I have tried to flag notable rulings granting sentence reductions under 3582(c)(1) since the passage of the Act, but the coronavirus pandemic created so much jurisprudence in this space that I was ultimately only able to do lengthy postings like this one of grants on Westlaw.

Against this backdrop, I was so very pleased to see that the US Sentencing Commission's big new report on "The First Step Act of 2018: One Year of Implementation" (discussed here, available here) includes a final section discussing "Compassionate Release" (at pp. 46-49).  Somewhat disappointingly, this section is quite brief and the data provided is not especially rich or detailed.  But some data is better than nothing and certainly worth reviewing:

During Year One, 145 motions seeking compassionate release were granted, a five-fold increase from fiscal year 2018 (n=24)... [and] of those motions granted during Year One, 96 (67.1%) were filed by the offender and 47 (32.9%) were filed by the BOP.... 

Offenders who benefited from compassionate release in Year One received larger reductions and served more time when compared to those granted release in fiscal year 2018. The average length of the reduction in sentence was 68 months in fiscal year 2018; sentences were reduced, on average, by 84 months in Year One.  The average months of time served at the time of release also increased, from 70 months to 108 months.  The average age at the time of release increased by ten years, from 51 years old at the time of release to 61 years old....

In Year One, most (81.4%) compassionate release grants were also based on medical reasons.  Of the 145 compassionate release motions granted, 118 were based on the medical condition of the defendant, 15 were based on age, two were based on family circumstances, and 15 were based on other extraordinary and compelling reasons.  Of the 118 granted for medical reasons, 75 were based on terminal illness, 31 based on a condition or impairment that substantially diminishes the ability of the defendant to provide self-care within the correctional facility environment, and in 12 the type of medical reason was not further specified.

An additional appendix (Appendix 4 on p. 71) provides a break-down of the guidelines under which these persons receiving sentence reductions were initially sentenced.  These data look somewhat comparable to the general federal prison population, as about half of the recipients were sentenced under the drug guideline.  But it seems white-collar guidelines and the robbery guideline may be somewhat over-represented, though that may reflect that these offenders are more likely to be older and/or subject to more extreme sentencing terms for various reasons.  Other than knowing that a lot more sentence reduction motions were granted in the first year after the FIRST STEP Act and that most were for medical reasons, these "raw" data do not tell us that much more about this interesting little part of the sentencing world.  (Notably, the USSC does not report at all, and may not be collecting, data on how many sentence reduction motions have been brought to, and have been denied by, district courts.  Grants only tells us only so much, though even grant data could and should be subject to some more detail analysis to help Congress and other assess whether this mechanism was working as intended in 2019.)

Critically, as the USSC report makes clear, its data here are from just the first full calendar year the First Step Act was in effect (“First Step Year One”) running from December 21, 2018 through December 20, 2019.  In other words, this report concerns entirely pre-COVID data, and that is HUGELY important because there has been, roughly speaking, about a nearly 20-fold(!) increase in sentence reductions grants over the last six months of our COVID era.  Specifically, the BOP is now reported at this FSA page that there have been "1,498 Approved" total post-FIRST STEP Act "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences."  Doing the math, this seems to mean that while there were 145 motions granted in First Step Year One, there have been 1,353 more motions granted since that time (nearly all of which, I think, have been over the last six months).  Framed another way, we can say that, on average, in the year after passage of the FIRST STEP Act, roughly a dozen sentence reductions motions were granted each month, and now in the COVID-era, more than 220 are being granted each month!  

I sincerely hope the USSC is planning to do a more detailed and informative accounting of its First Step Year One data, as I think a lot could and should be learned from how judges responded to these motions before COVID.  But I am now even more interested to see data from the COVID era, as the number of cases (and probably the number of reasons for grants) has increased so dramatically.  At the same time, the relative rarity of these sentence reductions should not be forgotten.  With a federal prison population of around 175,000 through 2019, the USSC data show that less than 0.1% of all federal prisoners benefited from a sentence reduction that year.  With all new COVID grants, we still have well under 1% of the federal prison population receiving so-called compassionate release.  That still does not seem anywhere close to a lot or enough compassion to me.

September 3, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 2, 2020

CCJ releases new "Impact Reports" on "COVID-19 and Prisons" and "COVID-19 and Jails"

Earlier today I was praising the work of the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) for launching an important and impressive new commission to assess the impacts of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system (basic details here).  Not more than a few minutes later, I received an email about two new important reports from the commission.  Here is the heart of the email with links to the reports:

New research released today by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found wide disparities among states in rates of COVID-related deaths and cases in prisons.  Five states — Arkansas, New Mexico, Kentucky, Ohio, and Delaware — reported prison mortality rates more than eight times higher than rates for their general state populations, while some states — including New York and Pennsylvania — reported prison death rates below those for the non-incarcerated.

Overall, after adjusting for the age, sex, and race/ethnicity of incarcerated individuals, the study found that theCOVID-19 mortality rate in state and federal prisons is twice that of the death rate for the general population.  Without those demographic adjustments, the rate of COVID-19 cases in prisons is more than four times the national rate. 

The Commission also released a separate analysis of the pandemic’s impact on jail populations, based on more than 14 million daily jail population records collected between January 1 and July 20.  Reflecting data from 375 facilities in 39 states, it found that jail numbers declined by an average of 31% between the issuance of the White House Coronavirus Guidelines on March 16 and mid-May.

The declines were accompanied by changes in the composition of jail populations.  After pandemic responses began in March, data showed that those released from jails were on average 34% more likely to have been booked on felony charges, and had been detained for 71% longer, compared to pre-pandemic releases.  The shares of people in jail who were booked on only misdemeanor charges, who were female, and who were white all decreased, while the proportions of those who were black, male, age 25 or younger, and booked on felonies increased.  These compositional changes have persisted even as the jail population trend reversed, growing 12% between mid-May and July 20. 

The jails study, by  Anna Harvey and Orion Taylor of New York University’s Public Safety Lab, also showed that rebooking rates for people released after March 16 remained at or below pre-pandemic rates.  These findings suggest the population reduction did not negatively affect public safety during the first three months of the COVID-19 outbreak, but the authors caution that this could change as the pandemic wears on....

The prisons report was prepared by economist  Kevin T. Schnepel of Simon Fraser University. Analyzing data through August 19, it also found that:

  • Among large correctional systems, Ohio reported 86 COVID-related deaths and a prison death rate more than 11 times the state rate; Texas had 112 deaths and a mortality rate about three times the state rate; and California, with 53 deaths, had a death rate about twice the state rate.
  • The highest prison mortality rate was reported by Arkansas. With 34 deaths and a prison population of about 15,500, its mortality rate of 218 deaths per 100,000 people in prison was nearly 20 times the state rate.
  • Fourteen states reported zero COVID-19 deaths within their prisons, and six reported COVID-19 death rates below adjusted state mortality rates.
  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons – the largest single prison system in the nation with about 179,000 people held in facilities – reported 116 deaths and a mortality rate nearly twice the national rate.
  • Overall, the highest mortality rates were reported in large prisons (over 1,000 people), which accounted for 83% of total confirmed coronavirus infections and 87% of total deaths.

September 2, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

In praise of a bipartisan effort to assess and address COVID and criminal justice

I noted a some weeks ago that the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) — a favorite new organization of mine in part because they asked me to take a close look at the 1994 Crime Bill's sentencing provisions and because they recently produced a great report urging federal criminal justice reforms — has launched an important and impressive new commission to assess the impacts of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system (basic details here).   I am pleased to see that the heads of the commission, former AGs Loretta Lynch and Alberto Gonzales, have this new Hill piece about its work.  Here are excerpts:

Across our country, the coronavirus is placing unprecedented pressure on those who live and work within our justice system.  From our local jails to courts, police precincts, and community organizations, the impacts of the pandemic are forcing us to improvise as we struggle to dispense justice and promote safety.

But which of our new policies and practices work best, are backed by evidence, and merit our trust?  How can we ensure that our justice system operates more fairly and effectively, notably for communities of color and lower income Americans?  Could that realignment create a path to restoring public confidence and trust in the justice system as it seeks to provide not just accountability but also fairness and transparency?

The urgent need to answer those questions is among the reasons we are serving as chairs of a national commission on the coronavirus and criminal justice.  As two former United States attorneys general, one who served in a Democratic administration and one who served in a Republican administration, we do not see eye to eye on every issue.  But we do agree that the threat of the pandemic to our justice system demands an independent response guided by research and experience.

That is precisely what this commission contributes during this historic moment in time.  Launched by the Council on Criminal Justice, it will assess the impact of the coronavirus on the justice system, develop priority strategies to contain outbreaks, and recommend policy changes to better balance public health and public safety.

We are fortunate to join numerous members who bring a wide range of experience to our work on the commission.  They include justice system leaders on the front lines, a big city mayor, community activists, a public health specialist, a respected incarceration researcher, and a formerly incarcerated individual.  Testimony from other experts and advocates will ensure our work is informed by a broad set of views.

Given the urgency of the crisis, and the thirst for reliable and realistic solutions, we are moving quickly.  In the coming weeks, we will complete our evaluation of the impact of the coronavirus on courts, corrections, law enforcement, and community organizations.  We will identify cost effective ways to minimize the spread of the pandemic and the impact of future outbreaks.

Our second phase will focus on reforms of the justice system.  The coronavirus may be novel, but it brought to the fore problems that have plagued the justice system.  By the end of the year, we will recommend the policies and practices that must change based on what the pandemic and response have highlighted for us about the fairness and effectiveness of the justice system, notably for people of color and the poor....

In our deliberations, we are driven by the knowledge that the pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on those who work and live within our justice system.  The largest clusters of the coronavirus across the country are in prisons and jails, where more than 145,000 incarcerated people and staff have tested positive.  Nearly 900 incarcerated people and almost 90 correctional employees have died....

The coronavirus will shape our society for generations, so helping our courts, police districts, correctional facilities, and community organizations emerge from the pandemic more prepared and better equipped to deliver truly impartial and racially blind justice is a daunting challenge.  But we must, and we will, meet this moment head on.

September 2, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable new tool for tracking COVID-19 risk in state prisons

I just was altered to this notable new tool coming from the Litmus Program at the NYU Marron Institute, which is described via this posting titled "State Prison Covid-19 Risk Tracker":

Correctional and detention facilities have proven to be hotspots for COVID-19, with the ten largest outbreak clusters in the United States occurring in prisons or jails.  Staff and visitors come and go from correctional institutions, potentially bringing infection in and out.  As facility administrators and health officials shift from immediate crisis response to managing a dynamic and long-term event, data-tracking tools can guide proactive steps to manage outbreaks and improve conditions of confinement.

The Litmus team generated a census of state adult correctional and detention facilities and created an interactive mapping tool that uses publicly available, county-level data from the New York Times on numbers of confirmed cases and deaths, updated daily, to indicate which facilities are located in or near counties that appear to be at high risk for community transmission.  Community risk is calculated using three alternative metrics: recent deaths, recent death rates per 100k, and current case-doubling time.

With support from Unorthodox Philanthropy, the NYU Marron Institute interactive mapping tool is created as a resource for families and advocacy groups and to assist decision-makers in prioritizing PPE, staff and resident testing, increased social distancing (e.g., dorm closures), more stringent cleaning procedures, and adapting policies, including early release, in response to COVID-19 outbreaks.  It can guide intra-system transfers, indicating facilities between which it may be safe to transfer residents and facilities that should restrict new transfers and keep vacancies as people release, to allow for greater social distancing.  The tool is also intended to make community-risk information more accessible so that it can be used to improve conditions of confinement.  Community-risk data can help prioritize lower-risk facilities for relaxing restrictions on external service providers and allowing more congregant time or outside visitors, improving upon the stark conditions in which many incarcerated people currently reside.  It can inform release protocols, allowing for prioritization of quarantine housing, testing, and other support for people returning to their communities from high-risk facilities and serve as a mechanism to target community partnerships between facilities, local health departments, and community-serving organizations.

September 2, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

FAMM announces notable new campaign focused on a "Second Chances Agenda"

Long-time readers are surely aware that I have long advocated for, and written a lot about, revisiting problematic sentences and expanding the means and manner of doing so.  (I have written numerous articles related to this topic, some of which I have linked below.)  Consequently, I was very pleased to see this press release from FAMM discussing its new campaign:

FAMM announces a new “Second Chances Agenda“ campaign aimed at urging state and federal policymakers to increase their use of compassionate release and clemency, and to encourage the introduction of more second look legislation.

“One of the things we’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic is that every state knows to impose lengthy mandatory sentences, but very few have ways to revisit those sentences when the person or circumstances have changed,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring. “There are people languishing in prison who do not need to be there – and we are no safer for it.

“There are also people who have made remarkable changes in their lives since entering prison, and should be considered for a second chance. If people have served a significant sentence, and they have succeeded in rehabilitating themselves, we should give them an opportunity to go home.”

FAMM’s Second Chances Agenda campaign calls for the following:

  1. Pass “second look” laws. FAMM is urging the creation of laws in every state that direct courts to reconsider a person’s sentence after 10 or 15 years to determine whether a shorter sentence is appropriate. Learn more about second look laws.
  2. Expand compassionate releases. Sometimes referred to as medical or geriatric parole or release, compassionate release programs at the state level are failing to allow early release for elderly and sick people who pose no risk to public safety. Learn more about how these systems work around the country and how FAMM is working to improve them.
  3. Expand clemency. The president and most governors have the authority to shorten excessive prison terms but often fail to use their clemency power to its fullest extent. FAMM is committed to working with governors and the White House to expand the use of executive clemency and to identify people who deserve a second chance.

FAMM also supports other reforms that prosecutors and lawmakers could use to provide second chances.

  • Eliminate extreme mandatory sentences and make the reforms retroactive – When lawmakers pass smart reforms, they rarely apply them retroactively, leaving people to serve unjust sentences that are no longer in the law.
  • Parole reform – Some states have parole, but rules and red tape make it too difficult for people to get it.
  • Sentence integrity units – Prosecutors can promote second chances by reviewing sentences periodically to see if they are appropriate.

FAMM has also launched similar campaigns in ArizonaFlorida and Pennsylvania today.

As even newer readers should also realize, perhaps from this initial posting or this more recent one, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center have been working together on a writing competition for law students and recent graduates to propose a "second-look statute" for Ohio (which is discussed more fully on this DEPC webpage).

Here are just a few of my writing on these kinds of topics (which I might now call my own "Second Chances Agenda"):

September 2, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable exploration of criminal justice structures for "emerging adults"

This morning I received an email altering me to a big new report on an interesting modern topic that is focused on a population and a region especially near to me heart.  Here is the text of the email, which provides a link to the nearly 100-page report and a useful overview of its coverage:

Today, Juvenile Law Center released “Rethinking Justice for Emerging Adults: Spotlight on the Great Lakes Region,” a report on criminal justice reforms for young people between the ages of 18 and 24.  The report, funded by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, cites new research which shows that these “emerging adults” share many of the same characteristics as teens in the juvenile justice system, yet they are treated very differently.  Emerging adults also represent a disproportionate share of the justice-involved population, accounting for a third of all criminal arrests nationwide.  They also experience the worst racial disparities in incarceration and arrest rates of any age group.

“Racism permeates our criminal justice system at every stage and available data suggests racial and ethnic disparities are worst for those in the emerging adult population,” said Katrina L. Goodjoint, Staff Attorney at Juvenile Law Center and co-author of the report. “In Illinois, 9.4 Black emerging adults are arrested per every white emerging adult. Eliminating mass incarceration and reducing racial disparities necessarily require reforming the justice system’s punitive treatment of emerging adults.”

Juvenile Law Center’s report highlights the need for a new, developmentally appropriate approach to criminal justice involvement for this population.  The report includes research showing that many areas of the law — from new federal tobacco regulations to extended access to health insurance under the Affordable Care Act — already recognize and make accommodations for the developmental characteristics of emerging adulthood.  Justice systems around the country have also begun to do the same.  The report describes some of the new initiatives targeted at this population, including:

  • raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction
  • youthful offender statutes
  • diversion programs, young adult courts, and other specialized criminal justice programs for emerging adults
  • modifications to mandatory sentences and other harsh penalties
  • expungement of records
  • expanded access to supports and services outside the criminal justice system.

“People do not magically transform from children to adults on their 18th birthdays,” said Karen U. Lindell, Senior Attorney at Juvenile Law Center and one of the report’s authors. “Other areas of the law have long recognized that fact — limiting young adults’ abilities to engage in risky activities, like drinking or purchasing firearms, and offering them additional support, like greater health insurance coverage and special education services.  Yet the criminal justice system is just beginning to acknowledge the distinctive needs and characteristics of emerging adults.”

The report released today focuses on the laws and policies affecting emerging adults in six Great Lakes region states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. For each of these states, the report provides a comprehensive overview of the current legal landscape for emerging adults, including available data on justice-involved emerging adults, relevant criminal and juvenile justice statutes, existing criminal justice programs, and other systems serving emerging adults in the state.  By providing an in-depth analysis of the current legal landscape, this report lays the foundation for meaningful criminal justice reform for emerging adults — both in the Great Lakes region and throughout the country.

September 2, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Fees, Fines, and the Funding of Public Services: A Curriculum for Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new reader produced by a group of law school centers. Here is the full introduction to the collection of articles:

Since 2018, the Liman Center at Yale Law School and Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program (CJPP), in partnership with the Fines & Fees Justice Center and the Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, have collaborated to mitigate the problems faced by people of limited means and resources who interact with criminal punishment systems around the United States.  Through a series of workshops and materials, we have examined how law has enabled and, on occasion, limited these harms, experienced disproportionately by communities of color.

Budget pressures are part of what drives state and local governments to rely on monetary sanctions.  Reform efforts have, at times, been stymied by arguments that governments “need” the money generated by regressive fines and fees. In 2008, during and after the Great Recession, state and local governments responded to sudden budget pressures by searching for new streams of revenues— including from a host of legal assessments.  Given that experience, we know that the economic disruptions created by the current COVID-19 crisis will likely result in governments’ considering additional use of monetary sanctions and “user” fee financing to generate revenue.  The current economic constraints place strains on subnational budgets even more acute than those experienced a dozen years ago.  Thus, we fear that governments may scale up the imposition and the enforcement of monetary sanctions.  More tools are needed to resist these efforts, as the economic effects of the pandemic will frame the years to come.

Knowledge of subnational systems of taxing and budgeting and of fiscal policymaking processes can be put to use to reduce and to end governments’ reliance on user fees for courts and for other aspects of criminal systems.  This reader aims to help experts in public finance to understand the misuse of court-based assessments which are regressive revenue streams.  Subsequent volumes will provide a primer on public finance for people knowledgeable about the law and practices of unfair monetary sanctions through an overview of how money is collected and allocated at the state and local level.  These materials interact with ongoing seminars, sometimes virtual, to link people expert in public finance with their counterparts seeking to reform unfair monetary sanctions.

Through monographs such as this, we hope to support work underway to shape just and equitable revenue-generation mechanisms that avoid imposing harmful costs on vulnerable individuals, families, and communities.  This is the third volume in this series.  See ARTHUR LIMAN CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEREST LAW, WHO PAYS? FINES, FEES, BAIL, AND THE COST OF COURTS (2018), ARTHUR LIMAN CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEREST LAW, ABILITY TO PAY. See also Inability to Pay: Court Debt Circa 2020, N.C. L. REV.

We should note that, to be concise, we have provided just a snapshot of a rich literature.  In the few essays excerpted here, we have cut sections and references, and we provide the original publication information to enable easy access to the originals.  This project is made possible by support from Yale Law School, the Liman Center, and Arnold Ventures. Our hope is that through these many efforts, fairer and more just practices will result.

September 2, 2020 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 1, 2020

More great resources from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center

Last week in this post, I highlighted that folks at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center were producing series of posts drawn from a forthcoming huge report surveying mechanisms for restoring rights and opportunities following arrest or conviction.  Since then, the CCRC folks have these three more new postings:

September 1, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Effective and timely review of the state of disenfranchisement for those with criminal convictions

This lengthy new Stateline piece, headlined "More People With Felony Convictions Can Vote, but Roadblocks Remain," provides an effective review of the realities of felon disenfranchisement circa 2020. I recommend the full piece and here are excerpts:

In every state except Maine and Vermont, people convicted of felonies are stripped of their voting rights while in prison. In most states, that ban extends to those on probation or parole, while some states have additional time and fee requirements, disenfranchising millions of people.

[Iowa Gov Kim] Reynolds restored automatic voting rights to most people with felony records after they complete their sentence, including parole or probation; the exceptions are people with homicide convictions, who must file an application.  Under the order, an estimated 60,000 additional people now are eligible to vote in the Hawkeye State.

They join the ranks of hundreds of thousands of others with felony convictions who are newly eligible to vote in the general election this year.  Since the 2016 election, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Virginia also have implemented or expanded voting rights for some people convicted of felonies.

The political stakes are up for debate.  Roughly 630,000 people with felony convictions can vote this year in Florida, nearly six times the 113,000 vote-margin by which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the state.  But research has shown that like other voters, people convicted of felonies who are registered don’t necessarily vote.

Still, groups ranging from liberal political organizations to the nonpartisan League of Women Voters are working furiously to find these newly eligible voters as registration deadlines approach.  But the pandemic is complicating in-person registration drives, as are the uncertainties around mail-in voting.  And eight states explicitly require people with felony records to pay some form of court costs and fees before registering.

In 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people or 1 in 40 adults were unable to vote because of a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization. The project found that Black people were the most likely to be disenfranchised: More than 7 percent of the adult African American population, or 1 in 13 people, could not vote because of a felony conviction....

In Kentucky, an estimated 170,000 people with felony records were given voting rights in December under an order from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. As in Iowa, the order doesn’t automatically apply to people convicted of certain violent offenses. Grassroots advocacy organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has been working for years on expanding voting rights. Since Beshear’s order, and with the help of other organizations, it has put together a list of more than 60,000 names and contact information for people who now can register to vote....

In 2018, 65 percent of Florida voters supported a constitutional amendment to give voting rights to people with felony records who had completed parole or probation, with the exception of those convicted of murder or sexual offenses. But the GOP-controlled legislature last year passed a measure to require that restitution, fines and fees be paid before voting rights are restored. Over half of the estimated 1.4 million people convicted of felonies in the state have outstanding court costs or restitution, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School.

Lawsuits have ensued over the constitutionality of the law, which opponents liken to a poll tax.  A federal judge in May found the requirement to be unconstitutional. But Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in his favor.  Voting rights groups asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in; the court in July left in place the appeals court’s order.  The issue remains before the appeals court, which heard arguments in the case Aug. 18.

Florida is known for close elections, and some political observers think a majority of the new voters would vote Democratic.  But Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of voting rights and elections in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Project, dismisses the notion that politics drive enfranchisement efforts.  “The decisions about who has the right to vote should never be based on an assessment of how we think someone is going to vote,” he said.  “We should be for or against voting rights restoration because of the merits of the policy, not the politics.”...

Beyond the push toward the November elections, voting rights activists eventually want to extend voting to people on probation or parole and people in prison.  “Residents who are required to pay taxes, be good citizens, they should also have a role in determining who governs them,” said Nicole Porter, advocacy director of state and local policy for the Sentencing Project.

A referendum on the ballot in California in November would give parolees voting rights.  Efforts are ongoing in other states, including Connecticut, where legislation proposed by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, to extend voting rights to people on parole died this year.

September 1, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Fighting for a Second Look: Efforts in Ohio and Across the Nation"

6a00d8341c8ccf53ef026bde8d638d200c-320wiThe title of this post is the title of this webinar that I am honored to be a part of tomorrow, Wednesday, September 2, 2020, from 2-3pm ET.  You can register here, where you will see this description:

Draconian sentencing laws and practices stretch back decades and have yielded countless excessive prison terms nationwide.  As public awareness of this problem mounts, legal advocates and scholars have urged new legal mechanisms to allow courts to revisit unnecessarily long sentences.  In that spirit, the Ohio Justice & Policy Center and DEPC teamed up to create a writing competition for law students and recent graduates to propose such a "second-look statute" for Ohio.

Join us for a webinar that brings together leading advocates to discuss efforts across the country to create second-look provisions.  We will also announce the winner of our recent writing competition.

SPEAKERS

  • Shakyra Diaz, managing director of partnerships/Ohio state director, Alliance for Safety and Justice
  • William Johnston, senior program officer, Open Society Foundations
  • Michael Serota, associate deputy director, Academy for Justice, Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law
  • David Singleton, executive director, Ohio Justice & Policy Center

MODERATOR

  • Douglas A. Berman, executive director, Drug Enforcement and Policy Center

Regular readers may recall my repeated effort on this blog all summer long to flag this initial posting about the exciting new drafting contest emerging from a partnership of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center.  This webinar serves to cap off this exciting contest, which is discussed more fully on this DEPC webpage.

September 1, 2020 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Making the case for post-secondary education for people in prison

Emily Mooney has this effective new commentary at Politico headlined "We Already Have a Tool That Lowers Crime, Saves Money and Shrinks the Prison Population."  Here are excerpts:

In America, individuals released from prison often return to crime.  One study published in 2018, which analyzed data from 23 states, found that 37 percent of those released in 2012 returned to prison within three years.  Of those released in 2010, 46 percent returned to prison within five years.

But the recidivism rate is far lower for prisoners who are able to get some postsecondary education while in prison.  Fewer than 3 percent of graduates of [the Bard Prison Initiative], which is based in New York, return to prison.  In contrast, well over 30 percent of individuals released from the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision return to custody within just three years.  Other colleges with similar postsecondary education programs for prisoners also boast lower recidivism statistics than their state averages.

Providing education to the incarcerated is a win-win — it reduces future crime rates and saves public funds that otherwise would be spent keeping people in jail or prison. Unfortunately ... the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act rendered anyone behind bars ineligible to receive federal Pell Grants.  These grants, which give impoverished students financial aid for postsecondary education, had long been a critical funding mechanism for in-prison college programs.  The Pell Grant ban put a virtual end to postsecondary education for prisoners who weren’t able to take advantage of privately funded programs like Bard’s or who didn’t have greater familial financial support.

This situation remained largely unchanged until the announcement of the Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program in 2015.  By expanding educational opportunities for some people behind bars, the program aimed to help individuals returning home acquire work, financially support their families and claim a second chance for a better life.  The Pell Pilot Program currently allows around 10,000 students at selected institutions to receive Pell Grant funding each year to attend classes.  While better than nothing, there would be hundreds of thousands of individuals who would be eligible to receive Pell Grant funding if the ban was lifted.

While at least part of the improved recidivism rates depends on personal characteristics of the people who seek out educational opportunities, the findings of multiple studies that attempt to account for these differences reinforce the conclusion that investing in postsecondary education for prisoners is one of the smartest ways to increase safety in our communities....

[F]ailing to invest in postsecondary education for prisoners means a lost opportunity to save taxpayer dollars at a time when state and local budgets are reeling from lost revenue due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  Incarcerating someone usually costs tens of thousands of dollars a year. If Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners was reinstated, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, the savings to states is estimated to be approximately $365.8 million per year in incarceration costs alone.  This is likely an underestimate, since it does not include other direct and indirect costs of crime or potential benefits of educating prisoners, such as increased economic output.

This is forfeited money that could otherwise be available for investing in other taxpayer priorities. A 2016 brief by the Department of Education found that while per capita spending on corrections increased by almost half from the late 1990s to the early 2010s, the amount of state and local postsecondary education funding per full-time student plummeted.

On account of the potential cost-savings and public safety benefits, it is clear that federal policymakers of both parties should support reinstating Pell Grants. State policymakers, too, should look for ways to expand educational offerings within state and local correctional systems.  Luckily, lawmakers are beginning to introduce legislation to support these goals. A repeal of the Pell Grant ban was included in an appropriations “minibus” bill passed out of the House at the end of July; it currently is waiting for action by the Senate. If successful, this measure promises a new era of learning — and safety.

September 1, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 31, 2020

"What We Got Wrong in the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Mark Osler. Here is its abstract:

The War on Drugs is effectively over.  Drugs won.  This essay addresses some of the mistakes we made in that futile effort.  Allowing racism to motivate action and impede reform was a primary error.  So was failing to understand that narcotics crime is simply different than other types of criminalized behavior in several fundamental ways. 

In whole, we largely addressed the narcotics trade as a moral failing rather than a market — and never got around to recognizing the size and shape of that market or to using market forces to control it.  Ronald Reagan compared the War on Drugs to the Battle of Verdun, and he was right: fortunes were spent, many lives were lost, and nothing really changed.

August 31, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Locking up my generation: Cohort differences in prison spells over the life course"

The title of this post is the title of this new Criminology article authored by Yinzhi Shen, Shawn D. Bushway, Lucy C. Sorensen and Herbert L. Smith.  Here is its abstract:

Crime rates have dropped substantially in the United States, but incarceration rates have remained high.  The standard explanation for the lasting trend in incarceration is that the policy choices from the 1980s and 1990s were part of a secular increase in punitiveness that has kept rates of incarceration high.  Our study highlights a heretofore overlooked perspective: that the crime–punishment wave in the 1980s and 1990s created cohort differences in incarceration over the life course that changed the level of incarceration even decades after the wave. 
With individual‐level longitudinal sentencing data from 1972 to 2016 in North Carolina, we show that cohort effects — the lingering impacts of having reached young adulthood at particular times in the history of crime and punishment — are at least as large (and likely much larger) than annual variation in incarceration rates attributable to period‐specific events and proclivities.  The birth cohorts that reach prime age of crime during the 1980s and 1990s crime–punishment wave have elevated rates of incarceration throughout their observed life course.  The key mechanism for their elevated incarceration rates decades after the crime–punishment wave is the accumulation of extended criminal history under a sentencing structure that systematically escalates punishment for those with priors.

August 31, 2020 in Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission issues big new report on "The First Step Act of 2018: One Year of Implementation"

Download (25)I am extremely pleased to see that the US Sentencing Commission this morning released this big new report (and this infographic) providing data and analysis on the impact of the First Step Act over the period it calls “First Step Year One” running from December 21, 2018 through December 20, 2019.  Importantly, though the report is titled "The First Step Act of 2018: One Year of Implementation," this document only examines key sentencing provisions and not all the prison reforms and other elements of the First Step Act. (As the start of the report explains: "This report examines the impact of five provisions of the First Step Act of 2018 related to sentencing reform.") 

In addition, and I think valuably, the report cover an entirely pre-COVID period and thus sets an interesting and important baseline for understanding the impact of the First Step Act before the pandemic may have changed things.  The most obvious change brought about by COVID was a sharp increase in the number of motions for compassionate release/sentence reduction, but I suspect there will be other impacts that will be reflected in future data.

With all that background, here are some "Key Findings" from the Introduction of the full USSC report:

REDUCING DRUG RECIDIVIST PENALTIES

Enhanced recidivist penalties imposed pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851 applied to fewer offenders in First Step Year One, as a result of the First Step Act’s narrowing of qualifying prior drug offenses. When enhanced penalties did apply, they were less severe than in fiscal year 2018.
• The number of offenders who received enhanced penalties decreased by 15.2 percent, from 1,001 offenders in fiscal year 2018 to 849 offenders in First Step Year One.
• The new 15-year enhanced mandatory minimum penalty, which was reduced from 20 years by the First Step Act, applied to 219 offenders in First Step Act Year One. By comparison, the 20-year enhanced mandatory minimum penalty applied to 321 offenders in fiscal year 2018....

EXPANDING SAFETY VALVE 

Offenders were more likely to receive relief from a mandatory minimum penalty or a reduction in sentence as a result of the First Step Act’s expansion of the safety valve eligibility criteria at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f).
• In First Step Act Year One, of 13,138 drug trafficking offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, 41.8 percent (n=5,493) received statutory safety valve relief from the mandatory minimum penalty. By comparison, in fiscal year 2018, of 10,716 drug trafficking offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, 35.7 percent (n=3,820) received statutory safety valve relief.
• In First Step Act Year One, of 19,739 drug trafficking offenders, 36.1 percent (n=7,127) benefited from the safety valve, either by receiving relief from a mandatory minimum, a
guideline reduction, or a variance based on the new expanded eligibility criteria. By comparison, of 18,349 drug trafficking offenders, 32.1 percent (n=5,885) benefited from the safety valve in fiscal year 2018....

LIMITING 924(c) “STACKING”

The 25-year penalty for a “second or subsequent offense” under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) applied less frequently in First Step Year One, as a result of the First Step Act’s limitation of the penalty to section 924(c) offenders with a final prior firearms conviction, as opposed to those with multiple section 924(c) charges in a single case....

RETROACTIVELY APPLYING THE FAIR SENTENCING ACT OF 2010

Since authorized by the First Step Act, 2,387 offenders received a reduction in sentence as a result of retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010....

COMPASSIONATE RELEASE

In the first year after passage of the First Step Act, 145 offenders were granted compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), a five-fold increase from fiscal year 2018, during which 24 compassionate release motions were granted.

A lot could be said about these data and lots more in the report, but my short take away is that the sentencing revisions in the First Step Act largely achieved their intended goals and impacted a lot of cases, though they still have a relatively small impact on a massive federal criminal justice system.  For example, even though these data show that the First Step Act's expanded safety valve provision served to benefit roughly 1250 more federal drug defendants at sentencing, any system-wide benefit would seem to be largely eclipsed by the fact that the federal government brought roughly 1400 more drug cases into the federal system during First Step Year One.  When some federal drug sentences go down slightly, but the overall number of defendants being sentenced for drug cases goes up (and especially if the federal caseload increase involves mostly lower-level offenders), it is hard to get too excited about the impact of reform.

I do not want to throw cold water on the good news that this new USSC report represents.  Rather, I just want to stress that there is still a WHOLE lot more reform work needing to get done.  (There is also a whole lot more work needed to be done in analyzing this report, which I hope to be able to do in some subsequent posts.)

August 31, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 30, 2020

"The Price of Criminal Law Skepticism: Ten Functions of the Criminal Law"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Douglas Husak now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

A growing trend in philosophical commentary about penal justice is what I loosely call criminal law skepticism.  The scholarship I have in mind does not simply urge caution or a more judicious use of the criminal law to address social problems.  Instead, its thrust is more sweeping and radical; it presents reasons to doubt that the criminal law as presently constituted should continue to exist at all. 

I make no concerted effort to categorize the several varieties or motivations for this trend; their forms and underlying rationales are diverse and frequently humane.  No single argument can refute them all.  Instead, I respond by describing the price that might be incurred if these skeptics were to achieve their objective.  I list ten valuable functions served by the criminal law as it currently exists, several of which are too seldom appreciated in philosophical commentary.  No case for criminal law skepticism is complete unless efforts are made to explain how alternatives to the criminal law can achieve these functions or afford to dispense with them.

August 30, 2020 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Can we somehow arrange for one of the upcoming Prez debates to be entirely about criminal justice issues?

Long-time readers know that, every four years, I cannot stop complaining that the Prez-election-season discourse and debates do not give nearly enough attention to a range of important criminal justices issues.  (Here are just a few example of this complaining in posts from 2008 and from 2012 and from 2016.)  For many reasons, it seems likely that the 2020 election season will have considerably more discussion of criminal justice issues from the candidates and in the media.  For example, this morning I saw this new NPR piece headlined "Fact Check: Trump's And Biden's Records On Criminal Justice," and here are excerpts:

For four nights, speakers at the Republican National Convention pilloried Democrat Joe Biden over his alleged weakness on crime and painted a dystopian future if he were to be elected in November. Biden and Democrats were "completely silent about the rioters and criminals spreading mayhem in Democrat-run cities," during their convention, President Trump charged on Thursday.  The previous evening, Vice President Pence warned, "The hard truth is you will not be safe in Joe Biden's America."... Pence claimed that Biden would "double down in the very policies that are leading to violence in American cites," to which Biden responded with a reminder that "right now ... we're in Donald Trump's America."...

Trump — who promised in his 2016 acceptance speech that "the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end" — has a spotty record when it comes to criminal justice reform.

His signature achievement on the issue, the widely touted First Step Act signed in 2018 and passed with bipartisan support in Congress, instituted sentencing reforms, including reducing harsh penalties for crack cocaine possession.  And on Friday, Trump pardoned Alice Johnson, a criminal justice reform advocate who delivered a powerful address at the Republican National Convention this week, and whose cause had been espoused by Kim Kardashian West. But some parts of the law have fallen short, activists say.

In June, following the unrest after George Floyd's killing, Trump signed an executive order that would provide federal grants to improve police training, and create a national database of police misconduct complaints. But it fell well short of what activists say is needed. Congress was unable to reconcile police reform proposals earlier this summer....

As Republicans were fond of noting during their convention, Joe Biden has a 47-year record as a U.S. senator and then vice president. During much of his Senate career, he was a member of and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and in 1994 sponsored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.  It came in a different era, as Democrats set out to prove that they, too, were "tough on crime."  The bill included a 10-year ban on assault-style weapons as well as the Violence Against Women Act, which Biden points to today as a signal of his commitment to ending domestic violence.  But the act also included harsh penalties for drug-related crimes and money to construct new prisons, which critics said led to the mass incarceration of Black men. It also included funding to hire 100,000 additional police officers.

Now, Biden has backed away from some of the provisions in that bill, while at the same time rejecting calls by some in his party to defund police departments. He's proposed a ban on police chokeholds, a new federal police oversight commission, new national standards for when and how police use force, more mandatory data collection from local law enforcement and other steps.

There are three Presidential debates scheduled to begin in late September, and I am sure this season will bring at least a few questions on crime, police reform and racial justice issues.  But there are so many issues in the criminal justice arena that merit attention and that are likely to be of considerable interest to voters.  Clemency policies and practices, for example, could and should merit focused debate discussion.  So, too, should the operation of the death penalty, especially now that the Trump Administration has carried out five federal executions while the Biden policy task force calls for abolishing the death penalty "at the federal level, and incentiviz[ing] states to follow the federal government’s example."

And let's not forget marijuana and other drug policy issues.  At least six states in 2020 will be voting on state-level marijuana reforms, and other forms of reform concerning other drugs are also on various other ballot.  The Trump Administration has given some attention to the opioid crisis, and we ought to have both candidates discuss drug overdoses which still result in many, many more deaths of young people than has the coronovirus (NIDA reports over 4600 overdose deaths for persons aged 15-24 in 2018; the CDC reports under 400 COVID deaths for that same age group in 2020).

And the list of important topics for debate and discussion could go on and on: the operation and oversight of the federal Bureau of Prisons; reform of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions; voting rights for those with past convictions; the policies and practices of so-called progressive prosecutors; appointments to the US Sentencing Commission; barriers to effective reentry due to collateral consequences; the timeline and possible substance for a Second Step Act (and a Third Step Act).  The great new Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) released a few months ago this big new report titled "Next Steps: An Agenda for Federal Action on Safety and Justice."   This report had 15 thoughtful recommendations for federal reform, each of which could justify extended debate discussion.

I will not belabor this point here, but in the coming months I likely will keep returning to the idea that an entire Prez debate should be devoted exclusively to discussing criminal justice issues.  The candidates' histories and well as their campaigns, not to mention the moment we are living through, justify more than just one or two questions on these topics.  As in years past, I expect to be disappointed on this front.  But, as in years past, I will keep using this platform to push what I think is a sound debate agenda for voters and the nation.

August 30, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)