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September 12, 2020

Highlighting the need for, and the support for, reforming mass community supervision

Jessica Jackson's new USA Today piece, headlined "The expensive burden of parole, probation unjustly places people in a second prison," highlights why community supervision is another form of mass punishment that needs reform attention.  Here are excerpts:

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 4.4 million Americans were on probation or parole in 2018, approximately twice the number of people incarcerated in the United States.  [And] more than 75% were under supervision for nonviolent offenses, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.  Since 1990, the number of women on parole or probation has almost doubled to more than 1 million in 2016. And though African Americans make up just 13% of the U.S. adult population, they account for 30% of those on community supervision.

Sadly, almost 350,000 of people who exit probation or parole each year return to jail or prison, often for technical violations rather than for committing new crimes.  In fact, probation and parole failures account for 45% of state prison admissions nationwide.

Collectively, states spend $2.8 billion annually to incarcerate people for noncriminal rule violations.  This is money that could be better used to help people gain the skills and treatment they need to successfully reenter their communities after incarceration, something that has strong public support.   A new Morning Consult survey conducted in eight states on behalf of my organization, the REFORM Alliance [reported here], found:

► A majority of voters in six of the eight states think it is important to reduce the number of people on probation or parole supervision.

► A plurality of voters in all eight states think the United States spends too much incarcerating people for violating the conditions of their probation or parole.

► At least half of voters in seven of the eight states would be more likely to support a public official who wants to reform the probation and parole system.

Perhaps most important, a majority of voters in all eight states support commonsense probation and parole reforms, such as: decreasing caseloads for probation officers; providing mentorship programs for those on parole or probation; allowing people on probation to report to their supervisors remotely; incentivizing and encouraging supervised people to participate in rehabilitative programs; and investing savings from a smaller supervised population into reentry programs.

Simply put, people want a smarter system that balances accountability and public safety with rehabilitation and redemption. We know it's possible.  Crime and incarceration dropped at the same time in 37 states over a nine-year period, according to data from the Pew Charitable Trusts.  Red and blue states, alike, are continuing that progress, with legislatures in Mississippi, California and Louisiana passing parole and probation reform legislation this year.

September 12, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

A timely reminder that the war on drugs, and even the war on marijuana, is not anywhere close to over

Just last night I flagged here a new article by Michael Vitiello about the "war on drugs" and extreme sentences for drug crimes.  And this morning I saw this news article from Kansas this past week that provides a reminder that the US drug war as operationalized through extreme sentences even for marijuana offenses remains a very current reality for far too many.  The piece is headlined "Man serving 7.5 years on marijuana case says Kansas’ sentencing laws aren’t just," and here are excerpts:

A man sentenced to more than seven years in prison on a marijuana case wants Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly to consider his request for clemency and to see the state change its drug penalty laws.  Donte Westmoreland, 25, had no prior convictions when he was found guilty of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and conspiracy to distribute in May 2017 in Riley County. Judge John Bosch sentenced him to 92 months....

Kansas has a sentencing range guideline intended to promote uniformity in penalties. Bosch gave Westmoreland the lower end of the range.  But Christopher Joseph, Westmoreland’s attorney during sentencing and his appeal, said many judges across the state depart from the guidelines for marijuana cases, instead handing down probation....

According to a motion filed in the case, probation was given in 95% of the marijuana distribution cases in Kansas involving defendants with low criminal history scores.

On March 8, 2016, police observed two vehicles traveling in close proximity to each other. Officers testified that they believed a Hyundai was an escort vehicle for a Lexus. Westmoreland, of Stockton, California, was a passenger in the Hyundai, which was stopped for an obstructed license plate and searched in Geary County.  A small amount of marijuana was found in the trunk, according to court documents.  The Hyundai was released and it continued to an apartment complex in Riley County, where the Lexus met them about 20 minutes later. Officers followed them to the apartment of Jacob Gadwood, where they searched the Lexus and found packages of drugs.

Westmoreland and the driver of the Hyundai were arrested. Three other co-defendants who fled the scene were later taken into custody. Gadwood agreed to become an informant for prosecutors and testified that Westmoreland came to his apartment to sell marijuana. The five defendants in the case faced varying charges related to possessing and distributing marijuana, court records showed.  Sentences ranged from time served to Westmoreland’s 92 months, which was the longest.

In a statement to The Star, Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson said Westmoreland went to Manhattan to sell large amounts of marijuana with three others in two vehicles, one of which was a decoy.  “These were sophisticated dealers of narcotics,” Wilkerson said. “One of the vehicles was a Lexus.  92 months was a fair sentence under the circumstances.”

In Kansas, a defendant could serve a longer sentence for marijuana crimes than violent crimes such as voluntary manslaughter. “The current Kansas law and penalties for marijuana are unjust,” Joseph said. “The law is so out of sync with reality at this point.”

Lauren Bonds, legal director of the ACLU of Kansas, said Kansas is being closed in on.  Recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado in 2014.  Missouri and Oklahoma have passed medicinal marijuana laws and Nebraska has taken steps to decriminalize the drug....

Kansas Sen. Richard Wilborn, R-McPherson, chairs the Judiciary Committee and said sentencing guidelines is one of the topics “in the forefront.” He said he would take any recommendations from the Criminal Justice Reform Commission seriously, but that legislation has to be proportional with other illegal substances and not target a single issue.

Westmoreland said he supports reforms that address racial and sentencing disparities.  Twenty-eight percent of the Kansas Department of Corrections’ population is Black. According to the U.S. Census, Black people make up 6.1% of the state.

Earlier this year, Westmoreland submitted a clemency application to Gov. Laura Kelly’s office. The request included letters of support from Lansing Warden Shannon Meyer, Sen. Randall Hardy, R-Salina, and Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka....  Kelly’s office is in the process of reviewing the clemency request, spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald said.

I fully understand why many advocates for criminal justice reform who are eager to end mass incarceration are now quick to stress that we need to address unduly long sentences for violent crimes.  But I see these kinds of extreme drug sentencing cases and continue to stress that we still need to make a whole lot more progress on reform for so many non-violent crimes, too, while also recognizing that it will be hard to get a place like Kansas to be less harsh in response to violent crimes if state law still provides that "a defendant could serve a longer sentence for marijuana crimes than violent crimes such as voluntary manslaughter."

Moreover, severe drug war attitudes are ultimately more enduring and perhaps even more problematic than even severe drug war laws.  That the prosecutor here is still eager to assert that such a long sentence for mere distribution of marijuana "was a fair sentence under the circumstances" showcases that many drug warriors are seemingly not inclined to rethink even the most severe weapons used to wage this unwinnable and damaging war. 

September 12, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

September 11, 2020

"The War on Drugs: Moral Panic and Excessive Sentences"

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

The United States’ War on Drugs has not been pretty. Moral panic has repeatedly driven policy when states and the federal government have regulated drugs.  Responding to that panic, legislators have authorized severe sentences for drug offenses.  By design, Article III gives federal judges independence, in part, to protect fundamental rights against mob rule.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has often failed to protect fundamental rights in times of moral panic.  For example, it eroded Fourth Amendment protections during the War on Drugs.  Similarly, it failed to protect drug offenders from excessive prison sentences during the War on Drugs.

This article examines whether it is time for the Supreme Court to rethink its precedent upholding extremely long sentences for drug crimes.  In 1983, in Solem v. Helm, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause applies to terms of imprisonment.  There, it found the imposition of a true-life sentence imposed on a repeat offender to be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the defendant’s offense.   Whatever hope Solem created that courts might limit excessive sentences proved to be false.  Two Supreme Court cases dealing with drug sentences, bracketing Solem, demonstrate the Court’s unwillingness to override legislatures’ discretion in imposing sentences.  In 1982, the Court upheld a 40-year term of imprisonment imposed on an offender who possessed less than nine ounces of marijuana.  In 1991, the Court upheld a true-life sentence imposed on an offender who possessed 672 grams of cocaine.  The Court’s refusal to curtail such extreme sentences reflects its willingness to accede to the nation’s moral panic over drug usage.

Since the height of the War on Drugs, Americans have changed their views about drugs.  Significant majorities of Americans favor legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use.  Many Americans favor a wholesale rethinking of drug policy.  Despite studies in the 1950s and 1960s, demonstrating beneficial use of drugs like LSD and psilocybin, Congress yielded to moral panic and included them in Schedule I when it enacted the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Efforts are afoot at the state level to legalize the study of and to decriminalize the use of those and other drugs.

This article argues that the Court should rethink its Eighth Amendment caselaw upholding severe drug sentences.  The Court’s Eighth Amendment caselaw balances the severity of punishment against the gravity of an offense.  In turn, the gravity of an offense turns on its social harm and the culpability of the offender.  The Court upheld extreme drug sentences based on the view that drugs were a national scourge.  Moral panic led it to overstate the social harm and the culpability of drug offenders.  Scientifically based examination of drugs and drug policy should compel the Court to rethink its excessive punishment caselaw because the balance between severity of punishment and the gravity of drug offenses looks different when one has a better understanding of true costs and benefits of drug use. 

September 11, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Have Problem Solving Courts Changed the Practice of Law?"

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

Drug courts started thirty years ago in the United States.  The introduction of these courts brought high hopes that they would refocus our criminal legal system to therapeutic and rehabilitative methods while moving away from an otherwise largely punitive and punishment-oriented approach.  Has this happened?  Has the problem-solving court movement brought widespread change to how criminal cases are processed and how criminal lawyers, both prosecutors and defense lawyers, approach the practice of law?  Have these courts actually been a “monumental change?”  The simple answer is no.  These courts have changed how some defendants are treated some of the time.  But, the numbers impacted by these courts, even as the number of these courts has grown dramatically, remains small.  And, the rehabilitative approach within these courts has not led to changes in how other courts work within the larger criminal legal system. Problem-solving courts have remained, for the most part, in their own silo while other courts have continued business as usual focusing on punishment, not rehabilitation.

This article will start with a discussion of mass incarceration and offer some reasons why problem-solving courts did not prevent, or lessen, mass incarceration.  Next this article will discuss how problem-solving courts work, focusing on the roles of the professionals, the judges and lawyers, within these courts.  This article will then consider the impact, or lack of impact that these courts have had on how the larger criminal legal system works.  Finally, this article will suggest five key things that problem-solving courts do that would result in “monumental change” if more widely adopted by mainstream criminal courts.

September 11, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 10, 2020

Federal prison population now down to 155,483 according to BOP reporting

Regular readers likely realize that I am no longer providing weekly updates on COVID-era changes in the federal prison population because declines in the federal Bureau of Prisons' weekly updated "Total Federal Inmates" numbers has slowed considerably.  But I am continuing to notice that the BOP population is still declining and this story seems worth watching closely amidst  continuing efforts to return to some form of new normal.

As I have noted before via this post, according to BOP's reporting, most weeks through April the federal prison population shrunk around or over 1,000 persons per week; through May, as detailed here, the pace of weekly decline increased to an average of around 1,200 fewer reported prisoners; through June, as detailed here, declines continued at a slightly reduced rate of about 950 fewer persons reported in all federal facilities on average per week.  But by the tail end of July, as noted here, weekly reported population declines were trending under 500.

My post on July 30 noted that the federal population was at a another new historic low with the new BOP reported "Total Federal Inmates" at 157,862.  Three weeks later, on August 20, I reported here that we were down to 156,415.  Today, three more weeks on, the new BOP numbers at this webpage report "Total Federal Inmates" at 155,483

As I have said repeatedly before, I still suspect that COVID-delayed sentencings and stalled federal prison transfers continued to account for mot of these declines; but the lack of any real-time sentencing data from the US Sentencing Commission and the opaque nature of BOP data make it hard to be sure just what the reported population numbers represent.  I am hopeful that we will eventually get some sentencing data from the USSC that can help us better understand these prison data, but now well over six months into the pandemic, the USSC still seems in no rush to provide any inkling of how the federal criminal sentencing process has been impacted. Grrr.

A few of many prior related posts:

September 10, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Punishment, Rewards and the (Relative) Importance of Desert"

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

Philosophers and legal theorists have long been interested in the idea of desert.  In this work I intend to demonstrate that the importance of desert is, at times, overrated, leading thinkers to adopt rather extreme positions.  I believe that the concept of desert is important in some cases, but desert is by no means central to our thinking of punishment and reward, nor should it be.  Even though the concept of desert is generally addressed in matters regarding retribution, I will argue that this concept should not be the basis upon which we build our constructs of punishment and reward.  Rather, we should consider the impact that luck has on our lives.  If we do so, those considerations would change our perception of the concept of desert.

September 10, 2020 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

September 9, 2020

Lots and lots of government lawyers on Prez Trump's latest SCOTUS (not-so-)short list

As reported via this release from the White House, this afternoon Prez Trump announced the 20 additions to "his Supreme Court List."  There are a number of perhaps predictable names (e.g., Gregory Katsas) and perhaps surprising names (e.g., Daniel Cameron) on the list, but what I noticed was how many were current or former government lawyers.  Though not too many on the list were actually former criminal prosecutors, all but a few worked for departments of justice and/or in attorney general offices.  I do not believe any of the persons on the list ever served in a public criminal defense role (although some may have provided private or pro bono defense while with a law firm).

This lengthy Politico article discusses the and some of the politics surrounding it.  Here are a few excerpts:

President Donald Trump on Wednesday added 20 names to his existing list of 25 potential picks to fill a future Supreme Court vacancy, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley. By doing so, Trump reprised a strategy that many credit with bringing skeptical social conservatives into the fold in 2016 and paving the way for his upset victory over Hillary Clinton.

Calling the appointment of Supreme Court justices “the most important decision a president can make,” the president cast the decision to release his potential picks up front as an obligation White House hopefuls have to their voters, though he was the first candidate to do so, in 2016....

Trump’s decision to nearly double his existing pool of choices could upset those who favored slashing the original list by as much as half, arguing for a more stringent vetting process, as well as the removal of those with limited records from which to judge the consistency of their judicial philosophy. Those in favor of expanding the list argued that Gorsuch departed from such consistency in his ruling this summer. “The whole purpose of the list is to give hard-line conservatives a guarantee that we will not be betrayed again,” one Republican close to the White House told POLITICO in July....

The president’s campaign blasted out appreciative messages from members of Trump’s gun owners and Catholics advisory boards, as well as the campaign’s legal advisers. Democrats and progressive groups, meanwhile, held up Trump’s new list as their own measure of the stakes in the coming election....

Yet, many Republicans noted — and some left-leaning activists lamented — that the issue of the high court and judicial nominees generally was essentially ignored at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Thus far, Biden has declined to follow in Trump’s footsteps and release his own list of potential Supreme Court nominees. He has promised to appoint a Black woman to the court and has said his campaign is compiling a shortlist of such picks “who are qualified and have the experience to be on the court,” but would not release their names “until we go further down the line in vetting them.”

Trump slammed that decision on Wednesday, calling on Biden to release a list of potential Supreme Court picks and musing that Biden’s refusal to do so was “perhaps because he knows the names are so extremely far left that they could never withstand public scrutiny or receive acceptance.” Biden, Trump said, “must release a list of justices for people to properly make a decision as to how they will vote.”

As detailed in post linked below, I have been suggesting for quite some time that Joe Biden should be able to produce a SCOTUS list which could excite progressives and highlight that there diversity of impressive legal talent in our nation which includes persons who have worked on behalf of criminal defendants. 

Prior related post:

September 9, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Ugly details from federal defenders' latest fact sheet on COVID-19 and federal detention

Sentencing Resource Counsel for the Federal Public Community Defenders has just released this new two-page fact sheet dense with information and links on "The COVID-19 Crisis in Federal Detention."  I recommend the full document, and here are some of the details (absent the links):

COVID-19 is ripping through the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), infecting incarcerated individuals at a rate 4 times the general population, and causing deaths at nearly twice the national rate. BOP is “making it worse,” said Joe Rojas, the regional vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals. “They’re making the virus explode.”

There have now been 126 reported deaths of incarcerated individuals, an incalculable loss.  They were parents, siblings, and children.  They were us.  Some of their deaths were surely preventable.  BOP’s press releases reveal that the majority — 93 — were at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 and BOP knew it.  At least a quarter of those who have died in BOP’s care were seventy or older.  Last month, BOP told the Washington Post that at least 18 individuals died while their requests for compassionate release were pending.  To date, we have identified 19 individuals who died in BOP custody after filing — and in some cases, even after being granted — requests for release....

BOP and DOJ have ignored the tools Congress gave them to lower prison populations safely.  The bipartisan CARES Act authorized AG Barr to dramatically expand the use of home confinement to protect the most vulnerable from COVID-19.  But in response, AG Barr and BOP have issued restrictive guidance and memos, each “more confusing than the next,” that together establish a “complex set of procedural and logistical hurdles to home confinement.”  To date, BOP has approved for transfer to home confinement only 4.4% of the 174,923 who were in custody on February 20.  The DOJ OIG examined BOP’s response to COVID-19 at one of BOP’s hardest-hit facilities, Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex, and found that BOP’s use of home confinement at FCC Lompoc was “extremely limited.”  The Department of Justice (DOJ) has not released demographic data on the individuals BOP has approved for home confinement, despite congressional demands.  At a time when transparency is more important than ever, the federal incarceration system is a black box. “The problem is that prisons in the U.S. are not accustomed to oversight and transparency.”

Thanks to the First Step Act of 2018, individuals no longer must depend on BOP to initiate a motion for compassionate release. Post-FSA, defendants may file a motion directly with the court 30 days after the warden’s receipt of a request.  But during the COVID-19 crisis, this 30-day delay, coupled with DOJ’s routine opposition, prevents vulnerable defendants from obtaining critical relief.  At FMC Carswell, a medical facility that houses the most medically vulnerable women in BOP, “fewer than 20 women” have reportedly received compassionate release.  Based on a survey of defense attorneys representing clients across the country, we are not aware of a single BOP-initiated motion for compassionate release based on heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19 infection.

September 9, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

New report details racial disparities in every stage of the Massachusetts criminal justice system

Via email I received word of this notable new report released today by the Harvard Law School Criminal Justice Policy Program (CJPP) titled simply "Racial Disparities in the Massachusetts Criminal System."  Here is a brief account of the 100+-page report and its findings from the text of the email that I received:

People of color are drastically overrepresented in Massachusetts state prisons.  According to the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission’s analysis of 2014 data, the Commonwealth significantly outpaced national race and ethnicity disparity rates in incarceration, imprisoning Black people at a rate 7.9 times that of White people and Latinx people at 4.9 times that of White people.

In an attempt to better understand the sources of these disparities, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts asked Harvard Law School to research racial disparities in the Massachusetts criminal system.

CJPP collected administrative data from several criminal justice agencies, analyzing over 500,000 cases. In our report, we detail the results of our analysis of every stage of the criminal process. Our findings include:

  • Black and Latinx people are overrepresented in the criminal system.  Although Black people make up only 6.5% of the state’s population, African Americans are the subjects of 17.1% of criminal court cases. Similarly, Latinx people constitute only 8.7% of the Massachusetts population but 18.3% of the cases.  By contrast, White people, who make up roughly 74% of the Massachusetts population, account for only 58.7% of cases in the criminal system.
  • Black and Latinx people sentenced to incarceration in Massachusetts receive longer sentences than their White counterparts, with Black people receiving sentences that are an average of 168 days longer and Latinx people receiving sentences that are an average of 148 days longer.
  • Racial and ethnic differences in the type and severity of initial charge account for over 70 percent of the disparities in sentence length, overshadowing all other factors, including defendants’ criminal history and demographics, court jurisdiction, and neighborhood characteristics.
  • Among the subset of cases where the person was sentenced to incarceration in a state prison (i.e. cases involving charges that carry the longest potential sentences and where the racial disparity is largest), Black and Latinx people are convicted of charges roughly equal in seriousness to their White counterparts despite facing more serious initial charges and longer sentences.
  • Black and Latinx people charged with drug offenses and weapons offenses are more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer incarceration sentences than White people charged with similar offenses. This difference persists after controlling for charge severity and other factors.

September 9, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

September 8, 2020

"The Many Roads to Reintegration: A 50-State Report on Laws Restoring Rights and Opportunities After Arrest or Conviction"

Many-Roads-Cover-1-768x994The title of this post is the title of this big new report by Margaret Love and David Schlussel of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center. The report, among other valuable elements, provides a "National Ranking of Restoration Laws" for all states and DC. Here is part of the 100+ page report's executive summary:

This report sets out to describe the present landscape of laws in the United States aimed at restoring rights and opportunities after an arrest or conviction. This is an update and refresh of our previous national survey, Forgiving and Forgetting in American Justice, last revised in 2018.  Much of the material in this report is drawn from our flagship resource, the Restoration of Rights Project.  We are heartened by the progress that has been made toward neutralizing the effect of a criminal record since the present reform era got underway in a serious fashion less than a decade ago, especially in the last two years.

This report considers remedies for three of the four main types of collateral consequences: loss of civil rights, dissemination of damaging record information, and loss of opportunities and benefits, notably in the workplace.

Its first chapter finds that the trend toward restoring the vote to those living in the community — a long-time goal of national reform organizations and advocates — has accelerated in recent years.  Further reforms may be inspired by the high-profile litigation over Florida’s “pay-to-vote” system, which shines a national spotlight on financial barriers to the franchise.  This chapter also finds that systems for restoring firearms rights are considerably more varied, with many states providing relief through the courts but others requiring a full pardon.

The second chapter deals with laws intended to revise or supplement criminal records, an issue that has attracted the most attention in legislatures but that has benefited the least from national guidance. It is divided into several parts, based on the type of record affected (conviction or nonconviction) and the type of relief offered (e.g. pardon, expungement, set-aside, certificates, diversion, etc.).  The wide variety in eligibility, process, and effect of these record relief laws speaks volumes about how far the Nation is from common ground.

The third chapter concerns the area in which perhaps the most dramatic progress has been made just since 2018: the regulation of how criminal record is considered by public employers and occupational licensing agencies.  Legislatures have been guided and encouraged by helpful model laws and policies proposed by two national organizations with differing regulatory philosophies: The Institute of Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, and the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ rights research and advocacy group.  Regulation of private employment has also been influenced by national models, although to a lesser extent and more needs to be done in this area.

This report makes clear that substantial progress that has been made in the past several years toward devising and implementing an effective and functional system for restoring rights and status after arrest or conviction.  The greatest headway has been made in restoring rights of citizenship and broadening workplace opportunities controlled by the state. The area where there is least consensus, and that remains most challenging to reformers, is managing dissemination of damaging criminal record information.  Time will tell how the goal of a workable and effective relief system is achieved in our laboratories of democracy.

September 8, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

September 7, 2020

Reviewing how much and how little the FIRST STEP Act has achieved

Jacob Sullum has this great new Reason piece that spotlights key data from this recent US Sentencing Commission report on the first year under the FIRST STEP Act.  The full headline details the themes: "The FIRST STEP Act Has Reduced Prison Terms for More Than 7,000 People. While that's nothing to sneeze at, it is a modest accomplishment in the context of a federal prison system that keeps more than 150,000 Americans behind bars." I recommend the piece in full, and here are snippets (with links from the original):

During the first full calendar year in which the law applied, it resulted in shorter sentences for more than 4,000 drug offenders. While that is nothing to sneeze at, it is a modest accomplishment in the context of a federal prison system that keeps more than 150,000 Americans, including more than 68,000 drug offenders, behind bars....

In 2019, the USSC report says, 2,387 already imprisoned crack offenders qualified for shorter sentences under the FIRST STEP Act's retroactivity provision. The average reduction was 71 months, making the average sentence for this group 187 months (more than 15 years), down from 258 months (more than 21 years).... The second most significant FIRST STEP Act sentencing reform in 2019 (again, measured by the number of people affected), was its widening of the "safety valve" that allows low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to avoid mandatory minimums they otherwise would receive. The USSC reports that 1,369 defendants benefited from that expansion in 2019....

The law also expanded the "good time" credits that allow prisoners to be released early. Although the USSC report does not analyze the impact of that provision, the Justice Department reported last year that more than 3,100 prisoners had benefited from it. 

By the end of last year, then, more than 7,000 people either had been released from prison earlier than they otherwise would have been or were serving sentences that will end sooner than would have been the case before the FIRST STEP Act took effect. That is a meaningful accomplishment. Thousands of people will spend less time behind bars, and more time with their families, friends, and neighbors, thanks to this law, and that number will rise each year.

At the same time, the law's beneficiaries at this point represent less than 5 percent of the federal prison population, less than 11 percent of drug offenders in federal prison, and less than 10 percent of federal criminal cases each year. And while a crack offender who serves 15 years rather than 21 years in prison surely is better off, the reduced penalty is still draconian, especially if you think peaceful transactions involving arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants should not be treated as crimes to begin with.

Prior recent related posts:

September 7, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation | Permalink | Comments (2)

September 6, 2020

"Racial Sympathy and Support for Capital Punishment: A Case Study in Concept Transfer"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper from multiple authored that I just noticed on SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Beliefs about race, especially racial resentment, are key predictors of public support for capital punishment and punitiveness generally.  Drawing on a conceptual innovation by political scientist Jennifer Chudy, we explore the utility of transferring into criminology her construct of racial sympathy — or Whites’ concern about Blacks’ suffering.

First, across three data sets, we replicate Chudy’s finding that racial sympathy and resentment are empirically distinct constructs.  Second, based on a national-level 2019 YouGov survey (n = 760 White respondents) and consistent with Chudy’s thesis, racial sympathy is then shown to be significantly related to the race-specific view that capital punishment is discriminatory but not support for the death penalty or harsher courts.  Racial sympathy also is positively associated with advocacy of rehabilitation as the main goal of prison. Notably, in all models, racial resentment has robust effects, increasing punitive sentiments.  Taken together, the results suggest that racial sympathy is a concept that can enrich criminologists’ study of how race shapes crime policy preferences in the United States and beyond.

September 6, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Lives on the Line: Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones and the Impact of COVID-19 Behind Bars"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting recent report I just came across from the "Lives on the Line Campaign." Here is part of the start of the report's executive summary:

Incarceration has always posed a grave threat to public health. Jails, prisons, and detention centers subject people to dangerous, unhealthy, inhumane conditions and experiences by design.  So, when COVID-19 became a pandemic, we knew that our loved ones’ lives were on the line. We knew that the crowded, unsanitary conditions behind bars and a lack of access to medical care would mean that incarcerated people would be among those hit hardest by the virus.  We knew that the patriarchal, punitive values embedded into the prison industrial complex would prevent incarcerated people from receiving the kind of care they need to survive a pandemic.  And we knew that this harm would ripple out to cause profound physical, emotional, and economic harm for the communities that mass incarceration targets: historically marginalized people, especially Black and Brown communities and women.

In response, Essie Justice Group, in partnership with Color of Change, created the Lives on the Line survey for people with incarcerated loved ones.  Knowing that carceral spaces are designed to obscure their own violence, the survey sought out concrete data that could illustrate what was happening behind bars and buoy the efforts of advocates across the country fighting to free incarcerated people amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.  Carceral facilities are using COVID-19 as poor justification to further isolate incarcerated women, men, and people of all genders from the outside.  Therefore, we put out a public call to people with incarcerated loved ones to share information and testimonies, acknowledging that women with family members behind bars are uniquely material witnesses to what is happening in prisons, jails and detention centers during COVID-19. Our survey ran over a four-week period from May 5th to June 7th, 2020.  We received 709 responses.

The data we collected makes clear that what is happening with COVID-19 behind bars is a humanitarian and public health disaster.  Jails, prisons, and detention centers are callously failing to take bare minimum measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such as instating distancing protocols or providing adequate supplies of free soap, disinfectant, or masks to incarcerated people.  Facilities have exploited the virus as an opportunity to further sever connections between incarcerated people and their support networks, including their lawyers and their loved ones.  In a moment when people need to be released faster than ever, court dates, hearings, and release dates are being delayed.  As a result, incarcerated people are suffering and dying from COVID-19 at alarmingly high rates.  They and their loved ones live with fear, extraordinary anxiety, and extreme isolation.  Incarceration is fundamentally incompatible with human dignity and human health; COVID-19 makes that undeniable.

A key objective of this report is to highlight the disparate impact of COVID-19 behind bars on Black people and Black women, uplifting the crisis as a gender and racial justice issue.

September 6, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)