Tuesday, August 13, 2019

"Gatekeepers: The Role of Police in Ending Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new Vera Institute report.  Here is a paragraph from the report's introduction:

With a growing consensus that local jails are a primary locus of mass incarceration, data on arrest trends points to an urgent need to focus more deliberately on one of the problem’s primary points of origin: policing practices.... Police officers, as gatekeepers of the criminal justice system, hold almost exclusive authority — by way of citations, arrests, and even physical force — to enforce and regulate the law.  And they have increasingly been asked to do this in situations that involve societal problems that would be better resolved in the community — problems like homelessness, mental illness, and substance use.  Although arrest volume is down across almost all offense categories since its high-water mark of 15 million in 1997, nationally there are still roughly 28,000 arrests every day, which equates to one arrest every three seconds or approximately 10.5 million every year.  By virtue of their arrest, all these people face probable jail incarceration.  This volume does not reflect an increase in arrests for serious crimes.  In fact, the proportion of serious violent crimes among all arrests — less than 5 percent — has not changed in decades.  Rather, arrests most often occur in response to minor offenses — including drug use violations and disorderly conduct — which account for more than 80 percent of total arrests.  This mass enforcement of relatively minor law violations suggests that policing practices currently tend toward punitive approaches — that is, those that prioritize arrest and frequently lead to time behind bars—in ways that are often not necessary to achieve public safety.

August 13, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 11, 2019

"Between 2007 and 2017, 34 States Reduced Crime and Incarceration in Tandem"

The title of this post is the title of this recent posting over at the Brennan Center for Justice authored by Cameron Kimble and Ames Grawert. The subheading provide a summary of its main points: "Some still argue that increasing imprisonment is necessary to reduce crime. Data show otherwise." Here are excerpts:

It’s now been several decades since states around the country began experimenting with criminal justice reform — specifically, by reducing the number of people behind prison bars. Now we can start to take stock of the results. They’re encouraging — but with the prison population still sky-high, there’s a lot more to do.

Between 2007 and 2017, 34 states reduced both imprisonment and crime rates simultaneously, showing clearly that reducing mass incarceration does not come at the cost of public safety. The total number of sentenced individuals held in state prisons across the U.S. also decreased by 6 percent over the same decade. And these drops played out across the country....

While it’s tempting to focus on the Southern states — which were some of the most notable early adopters of reform — reductions in the last decade occurred across the board. The Northeast saw the largest average decline in imprisonment rate (24 percent), with only Pennsylvania recording an increase (3 percent). Crime rates also dropped fastest in the Northeast region, falling by just over 30 percent on average.

By contrast, the Midwest saw imprisonment rates drop by only 1 percent on average, and that modest reduction was driven by Michigan (20 percent), where recent criminal justice reforms are focused on reducing recidivism. With returns to prison down 41 percent since 2006, the state is home to one of the most comprehensive statewide reentry initiatives in the country....

It’s tough to say why some states successfully reduced their prison population while others failed. One possible commonality relates to socioeconomic well-being. Over half of the states where imprisonment rates grew had poverty rates above the national average as well. Those states were also some of the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic. West Virginia typifies this experience: crime rates dropped, but incarceration rose amidst the state’s struggles with opioid abuse and poverty....

The data clearly demonstrate that the United States’ prison population can be reduced without sacrificing the public safety gains of recent decades. Thirty-four states seem to have accepted this notion, as reflected by their (often) sharp declines in rates of imprisonment. Others lag far behind.

To this day, the United States imprisons its citizens at a higher rate than any other Western democracy. Though recent progress is surely encouraging, at the current rate of decarceration it would take nearly 40 years to return to imprisonment rates observed in 1971 — the last time the national crime rate was this low. And some aspects of justice reform are moving backwards. According to one recent study, jail reform is a purely urban phenomenon, as rural incarceration rates are actually increasing.

There’s no single solution to mass incarceration. Instead, states must continue making efforts to reduce imprisonment. And the minority of states that have not embraced decarceration need not look far to see that overreliance on incarceration is an ineffective and expensive means of keeping the public safe.

August 11, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Another round of great new Quick Facts publications from US Sentencing Commission

I am always eager to praise the US Sentencing Commission for continuing to produce a steady stream of its insightful little data documents in its terrific series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications ( (which are designed to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format"). And I have recently seen that there are a number of new Quick Facts on a lot of major federal sentencing topics based on the USSC's recently released 2018 fiscal year data. Here are some these newer publications:

Drugs

Firearms

Offender Groups

August 1, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Is "comprehensive data" necessary and sufficient to "guide good policymaking" in the criminal justice system?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent commentary in Governing authored by Chris Sprowls under the full headline "The Transparency the Criminal Justice System Needs: We can't have effective policymaking without comprehensive data. By mandating standardized data collection across the state, Florida is leading the way."  Here are excerpts:

What does justice in America look like?  Policymakers, law enforcement officers and academic researchers across the country have been struggling with that question, particularly as it applies to the local jails and state prisons where most offenders are held.  This issue differs from other public debates because all of us -- conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat -- share a common goal: We all want to reduce unnecessary incarceration while maintaining public safety and freeing up tax dollars to be used for other public priorities.

Unfortunately, when it comes to incarceration, this debate has been long on passion and painfully short on facts.  That became clear two years ago, when an organization called Measures for Justice came to Florida to talk about criminal justice reform. What did criminal justice in Florida look like?  Was the system keeping communities safe? Were our tax dollars being used in efficient and effective ways?  Measures for Justice told us that we didn't know enough to answer those simple questions.

This rang true based on my experience as a gang and homicide prosecutor.  When you prosecute a case, you are focused on a snapshot of the system -- this victim, that perpetrator, these facts. It becomes very easy to lose sight of how a single case fits into the larger picture and how our actions compare to what prosecutors, judges and juries are doing in other jurisdictions.  Without access to data, we had no objective measures to use to validate our theories, disprove our assumptions or test our biases.  Even when we tried non-traditional solutions, such as the veterans court I helped to create in my state judicial circuit, we made decisions based more on instinct and observation than on information....

Florida is known as the Sunshine State, and we take that moniker seriously.  A year ago, the legislature passed a landmark criminal justice data transparency law that will go a long way toward tearing down institutional barriers and shedding light on a system that has mostly operated in the shadows.  The law mandates the standardized collection of common-sense data points in all of Florida's counties, and the legislature appropriated $1.67 million for its implementation.

This comprehensive data, spanning the criminal justice process from arrest to post-conviction, will be aggregated and made available to the public, for free, in one centralized repository.  The public, law enforcement, prosecutors, advocates and lawmakers will be able to compare the quality of justice across counties within the state.  We will finally have the data necessary to spot trends in the system and guide good policymaking.  In the this year's legislative session, lawmakers appropriated another $5.7 million to ensure that this is the nation's most ambitious pursuit of criminal justice transparency.

Other states are following suit with their own approaches to criminal justice transparency.  Colorado just passed a bill that requires jail administrators to collect data on individual cases and jail populations, and to report to a statewide agency quarterly.  Connecticut just passed a bill that requires prosecutorial data to be collected and shared alongside data germane to parole revocations.  These measures are a start in the right direction, as is a California bill making its way through the legislative process that would expand collection of criminal justice system data.   And more states are poised to follow Florida's lead.

With reliable, standardized and publicly available data, we will be able to make criminal justice policy decisions that are freer of assumptions, stereotypes and prejudice. We will be able to build the kind of criminal justice system that every American can have faith in. This is one issue where the truth really can set people free.

I share this author's affinity for "reliable, standardized and publicly available data" about the operation of our criminal justice system. But, to answer the question in the title of this post, I think that such data is necessary, but not sufficient, for good policymaking. We have really good data about the operation of death penalty systems, but few think we have use this data to drive policy in a good direction in many jurisdictions. Similarly, we have long had pretty good data about the federal sentencing system, but it is still one of the most punitive in the world.

July 27, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Federal prison population, thanks in part to the FIRST STEP Act, hits lowest level in over 15 years

Federal prison populationEvery Thursday morning, one can see at this webpage an official refreshed count of the total number of federal inmates as calculated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That page also has a chart and data on the total number of federal inmates for each fiscal year going back to 1980. A quick look at these data reveal that in FY 2013, the federal prison population hit a modern high of 219,298.

But this morning, we were down to "only" 177,619 inmates.  I put "only" in quotes because back in 1980, we had truly only 24,640 federal prisoners. But the last time there were fewer prisoners than this morning in federal facilities was way back in FY 2003. So I think it is quite notable and exciting to see such a decline over the last six years after such enormous growth the previous 33.

I have been following these numbers closely for a number of years, and I have been especially focused on week-to-week changes during the years of the Trump Administration because I feared that an uptick in federal prosecutions and various new sentencing directive begun under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions might reverse the trend of prison population reduction that started during the second part of the Obama Administration.  But it seems that a lot of forces worked in various ways to kept the federal prison population at just over 180,000 inmates for much of the last three years.  And now, thanks to the FIRST STEP Act's "good time fix" finally kicking in, we are this week significantly below that 180,000 inmate threshold.

I would love to be able to predict that the FIRST STEP Act will ensure that the federal prison population keeps going down, but I am not sure that would be a sound prediction.  It is possible that the continued robust implementation of various components of the FIRST STEP Act will keep the downward trends moving.  But continued increases in the number of cases prosecutors by the Justice Department could get us back to an era of federal prison population growth (though that growth would likely be relatively modest).

July 25, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

"Capital Punishment, 2017: Selected Findings"

The title of this post is the title of this just released report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Though BJS is often the provided of the best available, in the capital punishment arena the Death Penalty Information Center tends to have more up-to-date and more detailed data on capital punishment.  In any event, this new BJS report includes "statistics on the number of prisoners executed each year from 1977 through 2017, the number and race of prisoners under sentence of death at year-end 2017 by state, and the average elapsed time from sentence to execution by year from 1977 through 2017."  And the short document sets out on its initial page these "highlights":

July 23, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, July 21, 2019

"The Vanishing of Federal Sentencing Decisions"

The title of this post is the title of this notable recent Forbes commentary authored by Brian Jacobs. I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

In civil cases, the most important decisions that federal district judges make typically are recorded in the form of written opinions that are collected in the Federal Supplement, widely available for free online, and available in searchable databases on Westlaw and LexisNexis, among other places.  In criminal cases, by contrast, some of the most important decisions that federal district judges make — regarding what sentences to impose — are, in the vast majority of cases, lost in the ether of PACER, where they are available only to those who know precisely where to look.  This state of affairs is far from ideal for prosecutors, defense attorneys, and district judges, and it is patently unfair for criminal defendants themselves.

The scale of this problem is hard to overstate. Federal district judges make an enormous number of sentencing decisions every year. In the 12-month period ending September 30, 2018, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reported that 71,550 (about 90%) of the 79,704 defendants whose cases were disposed of in federal courts entered guilty pleas, and another 1,559 were convicted at trial.  As a result, in just this single one-year period, the United States Sentencing Commission reported that there were close to 70,000 federal criminal cases in which an offender was sentenced....

District court decisions resolving sentencing disputes are typically delivered orally and memorialized only in the transcript of the sentencing proceeding itself, where judges must “state in open court the reasons for [the] imposition of the particular sentence.”  (See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c).) (Judges also are required to complete the form entitled “Statement of Reasons.”)  Rarely do judges reduce their sentencing decisions to written opinions.  A Westlaw search of opinions published between October 2017 and September 30, 2018 (the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s last fiscal year) referencing 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) resulted in approximately 600 federal district court opinions and 1,300 appellate decisions.  Thus, an attorney or defendant trying to research a given Guidelines issue, for example — such as the weight that district judges have given to the loss amount in fraud cases under Section 2B1.1 of the Guidelines in the last year — cannot simply run a Westlaw search in a database of district court cases for “2B1.1.”  Such a search would turn up but a small fraction of the relevant material.

Although not memorialized in written opinions, many federal sentencing proceedings are transcribed by a court reporter, and most of those transcripts are ultimately posted to PACER, an electronic service that allows public access to case and docket information for federal court proceedings for a fee.  Users can conduct simple searches on PACER by party name, judge, or keyword, for example.  Thanks to PACER, a well-heeled defendant could, for example, with substantial effort and expense, pull and review all of the sentencings that have taken place before one particular judge, or that have been handled by one particular prosecutor.  Such a search, however, would again merely scratch the surface of potentially relevant decisions (which are accruing at a rate of 70,000 a year), and would be a cumbersome, expensive, and ineffective way to mine sentencing transcripts for persuasive authority on any particular issue.  PACER does not, unfortunately, allow for searches of the text of posted documents, and there is no other way to perform such a search in a comprehensive way.

It thus remains the case today that despite technological advancements, sentencing decisions are not nearly as readily accessible as other sorts of judicial decisions, and this vanishing of federal sentences serves nobody’s interest.  A defendant facing a sentencing in a federal criminal case — one of the most important days of his or her life — is hampered in his or her ability to effectively research the hundreds of thousands of federal sentencings that have taken place in our country in recent years, any one of which might have the sort of persuasive power that could make a difference.  If this defendant had access to a searchable database of transcripts of the 70,000 sentencings that take place each year in federal district courts, perhaps the defendant would be able to find the handful of on-point and persuasive cases to highlight for the sentencing judge.  In addition, perhaps the defendant could identify and highlight trends in sentencings around the country that, in the aggregate, would persuade the sentencing court to exercise its large amount of discretion in a particular way. Because the widespread availability of federal sentencing transcripts would benefit prosecutors, defendants, and judges alike, there is a long-term need for a readily accessible searchable database of transcripts of all federal sentencings, capable of handling complex queries....

[I]t is well past time for a searchable database of federal sentencing transcripts similar to the database of district court opinions available on Westlaw and LexisNexis.  The availability of such transcripts is important to ensure, among other things, that all criminal defendants, regardless of resources, are able to present effective sentencing arguments.

July 21, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Two notable new stories of marijuana's still notable criminal justice footprint

Throughout most of the Unites States, millions of Americans are able to "legally" buy and sell marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.  (Of course, I put "legally" in quotes because all these activities are violations of federal law, but the laws and practices of states and localities define enforcement realities.)  Given all the "legal" marijuana activity, it can be dangerously easy to forget that the criminalization of marijuana is still a significant criminal justice reality for a significant number of individuals.  But these two new stories about arrests in two states provides an important reminder of this reality:

From the Washington Post, "Marijuana arrests in Va. reach highest level in at least 20 years, spurring calls for reform."  An excerpt: 

Nearly 29,000 arrests were made for marijuana offenses in Virginia last year, a number that has tripled since 1999, according to an annual crime report compiled by the Virginia State Police. Marijuana busts account for nearly 60 percent of drug arrests across Virginia and more than half of them were among people who were under 24, according to the data. The vast majority of cases involved simple possession of marijuana....

The Virginia Crime Commission found that 46 percent of those arrested for a first offense for possession of marijuana between 2007 and 2016 were African Americans, who represent about only 20 percent of Virginia’s population....

In Virginia, a first conviction for possessing marijuana is a misdemeanor that can result in up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Subsequent arrests can result in up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. A defendant’s driver’s license is also revoked for six months for a drug conviction. The Virginia Crime Commission study found that only 31 people were in jail in July 2017 solely for a conviction of possessing marijuana in the state. The libertarian Cato Institute estimated Virginia spent $81 million on marijuana enforcement in 2016.

From Wisconsin Watch, "Blacks arrested for pot possession at four times the rate of whites in Wisconsin." An excerpt:

Almost 15,000 adults in Wisconsin were arrested in 2018 for marijuana possession, a 3% increase from 2017, according to data from the state Department of Justice.  Prison admissions in Wisconsin for marijuana also were higher in 2016 for black individuals than for whites, according to the state Department of Corrections. Some experts believe this disparity can be attributed to policing practices in low-income neighborhoods that tend to have more residents of color....

Under state law, possession of marijuana of any amount for a first-time offense can lead to up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Any offense after that is classified as a felony and can result in a sentence of three and a half years in prison with a maximum fine of $10,000. 

I want to believe that recently increases in marijuana arrests are mostly a product of increased marijuana activity and not an extra focus on marijuana enforcement. But whatever the reason, I sincerely wonder if anyone sincerely believes that all of the time, money and energy expended for all these marijuana arrests serves to enhance justice or safety in these jurisdictions.

Cross-posed at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

July 20, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 18, 2019

US Sentencing Commission begins new "Research Notes" publication

At a time of great interest and great change in the federal sentencing system, the US Sentencing Commission for many years now has lacked a full complement of Commissioners.  And throughout 2019, because there are only two Commissioners in place, the USSC lacks a quorum needed to do any "official" work involving changes to the federal sentencing guidelines.  But the USSC staff clearly remains hard at work with the regular production of research reports.  And, as detailed on this webpage, the USSC is now producing a new set of research documents:

RESEARCH NOTES

Research Notes give background information on the technical details of the Commission’s data collection and analysis process. They are designed to help researchers use the Commission’s datafiles by providing answers to common data analysis questions.

Research Notes

  • Issue 1: Collection of Individual Offender Data This first edition of Research Notes explains how the Commission collects and analyzes sentencing information, and describes the Commission’s many datafiles. (Published July 17, 2019)

July 18, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Philly DA argues, based on study of local capital cases, that "death penalty, as it has been applied, violates the Pennsylvania Constitution"

As reported in this local article, headlined "DA Krasner wants Pa. Supreme Court to strike down state’s death penalty and declare it unconstitutional," a notable local prosecutor has filed a notable state court brief that surely could have national consequences.  Here are the basics:

In a response to a death penalty case that could have far-reaching ramifications, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to strike down the state’s death penalty and declare it unconstitutional.  “Because of the arbitrary manner in which it has been applied, the death penalty violates our state Constitution’s prohibition against cruel punishments,” District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office wrote in a motion filed with the court Monday night....

The DA’s Office was responding to a petition filed by federal public defenders representing Philadelphia death-row inmate Jermont Cox, convicted of three separate drug-related murders in 1992 and ordered to die for one of them.  The defense attorneys, who also represent a Northumberland County inmate, Kevin Marinelli, sentenced to death for a 1994 killing, have asked the high court to end capital punishment, arguing that the death penalty violates the state Constitution’s ban on cruel punishment.

Krasner’s office agrees with that assessment.  The office’s position does not come as a surprise — Krasner had campaigned against the death penalty while running for district attorney in 2017, saying he would “never seek the death penalty” — but Monday night’s motion in the Cox case is the first time Krasner has articulated it to the state’s highest court....

The justices’ eventual decision on Cox and Marinelli could affect not just future death-penalty cases, but also the approximately 130 other inmates awaiting execution, potentially forcing the courts to resentence them.  After a June 2018 bipartisan legislative Joint State Government Commission report found troubling deficiencies in the state’s death-penalty system, Philadelphia-based federal defenders in August filed separate petitions for Cox and Marinelli, asking the state high court to find the death penalty unconstitutional.

The defense attorneys asked the high court to invoke its King’s Bench authority, which gives the court the power to consider any case without waiting for lower courts’ rulings when it sees the need to address an issue of immediate public importance.  The court consolidated the two cases in December.  In its February joint petition for Cox and Marinelli, the federal defenders asked the high court to “strike down the Commonwealth’s capital punishment system as a prohibited cruel punishment” and heavily relied on the joint commission’s report in finding problems with the death penalty....

The DA’s Office response to the defense petition was initially expected in March.  City prosecutors three times requested a deadline extension.  The high court then set a July 15 deadline. The court has set a Sept. 11 hearing date for oral arguments on the petition from Cox and Marinelli....  

Pennsylvania’s death penalty has been used three times since it was reinstated by the state in 1978.  The last person executed was Gary Heidnik of Philadelphia in 1999.

The full brief from DA Larry Krasner's office is available at this link, and it is a must-read in part because it makes much of the office's own study of Philadelphia capital cases. Here are a few paragraphs from the the brief's introduction:

To assess whether Pennsylvania’s capital sentencing regime ensures the heightened reliability in capital cases required by our Constitution, there is no better place to start than Philadelphia — the jurisdiction that has sought and secured more death sentences than any other county in the state.  In order to formulate its position in this case, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO) studied the 155 cases where a Philadelphia defendant received a death sentence between 1978 and December 31, 2017.

As will be detailed below, the DAO study revealed troubling information regarding the validity of the trials and the quality of representation received by capitally charged Philadelphia defendants — particularly those indigent defendants who were represented by under-compensated, inadequately-supported court-appointed trial counsel (as distinguished from attorneys with the Defender Association of Philadelphia).  Our study also revealed equally troubling data regarding the race of the Philadelphia defendants currently on death row; nearly all of them are black.  Most of these individuals were also represented by court-appointed counsel, often by one of the very attorneys whom a reviewing court has deemed ineffective in at least one other capital case....

Where nearly three out of every four death sentences have been overturned— after years of litigation at significant taxpayer expense—there can be no confidence that capital punishment has been carefully reserved for the most culpable defendants, as our Constitution requires. Where a majority of death sentenced defendants have been represented by poorly compensated, poorly supported court-appointed attorneys, there is a significant likelihood that capital punishment has not been reserved for the “worst of the worst.” Rather, what our study shows is that, as applied, Pennsylvania’s capital punishment regime may very well reserve death sentences for those who receive the “worst” (i.e., the most poorly funded and inadequately supported) representation....

As this Court observed in Zettlemoyer, our 1978 statute attempted to establish a reliable, non-arbitrary system of capital punishment. Decades of data from Philadelphia demonstrates that, in its application, the system has operated in such a way that it cannot survive our Constitution’s ban on cruel punishment. Accordingly, the DAO respectfully requests this Court to exercise its King’s Bench or extraordinary jurisdiction and hold that the death penalty, as it has been applied, violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Some additional good discussion of this brief and its context can be found in discussions at The Appeal and Reason.

July 16, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

ABA releases "The State of Criminal Justice 2019" (with capital punishment chapter online)

The American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section produces a terrific annual review of criminal justice developments, and the latest version is now available here under the title "The State of Criminal Justice 2019."  Here is how the text is described:

This publication examines and reports on the major issues, trends and significant changes in the criminal justice system. The 2019 volume contains chapters focusing on specific aspects of the criminal justice field, with summaries of all of the adopted official ABA policies passed in 2018-2019 that address criminal justice issues.

Authors from across the criminal justice field provide essays on topics ranging from white collar crime to international law to juvenile justice. The State of Criminal Justice is an annual publication that examines and reports on the major issues, trends and significant changes in the criminal justice system during a given year. As one of the cornerstones of the Criminal Justice Section's work, this publication serves as an invaluable resource for policy-makers, academics, and students of the criminal justice system alike.

In addition, the Capital Punishment chapter from this collection is available at this link, and it starts with this interesting data on capital sentences imposed in 2018:

The number of death penalties imposed in the United States in 2018 was an estimated 42.  The number of death sentences imposed between 2015 and 2018 was half the number imposed in the preceding four years. 

To put this in context, death sentences, after peaking at 315 in 1996, declined over time to 114 in 2010, and then dropped considerably in 2011 to 85, and were 82 in 2012 and 83 in 2013, before a large drop to 73 in 2014, and a bigger drop to 49 in 2015, and then fell to 31 in 2016, before rising to 2017’s 39 and 2018’s 42.

For the first year since the death penalty resumed after Furman v. Georgia, there was not in 2018 a single county in the entire United States in which more than two death sentences were imposed.  Some states that used to be among the annual leaders in imposing death sentences have now gone years without any new death sentences.

One notable state in this regard, Georgia, as of March 2019 has gone five full years without a new death penalty.  In explaining why, Bill Rankin of the Atlanta Journal Constitution pointed to the facts that life without parole (“LWOP”) can now be imposed in Georgia without the prosecutor’s having sought capital punishment and is now recognized by jurors to really mean a life sentence with no chance of parole; that the quality of trial-level defense lawyers’ performance has greatly increased; and that it is now far more difficult to get juries to vote for death sentences -- even when the crimes are especially aggravated.

July 10, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 05, 2019

"The rapid expansion of the US prison population since the 1970s might have contributed substantially to the ongoing increase in overdose deaths"

The quote in the title of this post is a line from this notable new Lancet Public Health study titled "Economic decline, incarceration, and mortality from drug use disorders in the USA between 1983 and 2014: an observational analysis."  This new study, authored by Elias Nosrati, Jacob Kang-Brown, Michael Ash, Martin McKee, Michael Marmot and Lawrence King, starts with this summary:

Background Drug use disorders are an increasing cause of disability and early death in the USA, with substantial geographical variation.  We aimed to investigate the associations between economic decline, incarceration rates, and age-standardised mortality from drug use disorders at the county level in the USA.

Methods In this observational analysis, we examined age-standardised mortality data from the US National Vital Statistics System and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, household income data from the US Census Bureau, and county-level jail and prison incarceration data from the Vera Institute of Justice for 2640 US counties between 1983 and 2014.  We also extracted data on county-level control variables from the US Census Bureau, the National Center for Health Statistics, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  We used a two-way fixed-effects panel regression to examine the association between reduced household income, incarceration, and mortality from drug use disorders within counties over time.  To assess between-county variation, we used coarsened exact matching and a simulation-based modelling approach.

Findings After adjusting for key confounders, each 1 SD decrease in median household income was associated with an increase of 12·8% (95% CI 11·0–14·6; p<0·0001) in drug-related deaths within counties.  Each 1 SD increase in jail and prison incarceration rates was associated with an increase of 1·5% (95% CI 1·0–2·0; p<0·0001) and 2·6% (2·1–3·1; p<0·0001) in drug-related mortality, respectively.  The association between drug-related mortality and income and incarceration persisted after controlling for local opioid prescription rates.  Our model accounts for a large proportion of within-county variation in mortality from drug use disorders (R²=0·975).  Between counties, high rates of incarceration were associated with a more than 50% increase in drug-related deaths.

Interpretation Reduced household income and high incarceration rates are associated with poor health. T he rapid expansion of the prison and jail population in the USA over the past four decades might have contributed to the increasing number of deaths from drug use disorders.

UPDATE: I see now that this journal issue also has this related editorial titled "US mass incarceration damages health and shortens lives." Here is an excerpt:

The findings of this study support a plausible case that mass incarceration has added to the damaging effects of economic decline in increasing drug use and mortality. Incarceration can lead to drug addiction and death by feeding feelings of stigmatisation, by entrenching poor economic prospects, by breaking up families and communities, and by worsening individual mental health.

Over the past 40 years, US politicians of all stripes have sought to appear tough on crime, which has led to an over-reliance on incarceration across many types of offences and damaged public health.  Drastic changes to the justice system will be needed to seriously reduce the prison population.  Legislators need to repeal regressive sentencing laws that inflate the use of imprisonment (such as the three strikes law) and allow judges to pass sentences that are proportional to the crime.  Discriminatory policies and those that unfairly pull the poor into incarceration — such as money bail, plea bargaining, and arrests for crimes of poverty — must also be addressed.  Finally, chronic substance abuse should be confronted with treatment, not criminalisation.  As Natasa Gisev and colleagues' study shows, also in this issue, consistent opioid agonist treatment can reduce criminal involvement.  Drug misuse is a public health issue; more than a criminal one, and like many other petty crimes, it would be more effectively addressed by investment in social and community services, and not in steel bars.

July 5, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, June 29, 2019

"Recidivism of Felony Offenders in California"

The title of this post is the title of this intricate new report from the Public Policy Institute of California. Here is part of the report's summary:

California has undertaken numerous corrections reforms in the past decade — including public safety realignment in 2011 and Proposition 47 in 2014 — in hopes of reducing the prison population, maintaining public safety, and improving persistently high recidivism rates.  These reforms lowered incarceration levels, and in their aftermath, crime rates have fluctuated.  Recidivism rates provide another important window into public safety and the effectiveness of correctional interventions under these policy changes.

For the first time, this report provides recidivism rates for all types of felony offenders in California — including those sentenced to prison, jail only, jail followed by probation, or probation only.  Previously, statewide recidivism outcomes could only be tracked for individuals leaving prison custody.  This study draws on unique data from 12 representative counties, allowing us to estimate two-year recidivism rates for felony offenders released in the four years following realignment from October 2011 to October 2015.  We focus on felony offenders to provide insight into outcomes for those who have been convicted of more severe offenses.

Our analysis of recidivism relies on rearrest and reconviction rates, which are often used to capture changes in reoffending in response to a policy change.  However, it is important to note that these rates may also reflect changes in the practices of criminal justice agencies.  For example, if a policy change led to a shift in policing strategies, such as reduced enforcement for drug possession offenses, we may observe changes in rearrest rates even if there is no change in the underlying behavior of former offenders. We find:

  • Overall recidivism rates have declined for felony offenders. The share of felony offenders rearrested for any offense within two years declined somewhat from 68 percent to 66 percent over the four-year period.  The two-year reconviction rate for any offense dropped substantially from 41 percent to 35 percent.
  • Reductions in recidivism rates were largest for felony offenses. The share of offenders rearrested for a felony offense decreased moderately from 56 percent to 53 percent in the four years after realignment. The felony reconviction rate dropped markedly from 30 percent to 22 percent.  These reductions were concentrated in later years and may be linked to Proposition 47.
  • Rearrest rates for felony offenses increased toward the end of the period. When we examine the last several months for which we have data, we see that 50 percent of individuals released in June 2015 were rearrested for felonies within two years, compared with 53 percent for those released in October 2015....
  • Individuals released from prison had the highest reconviction rates. This group also served the longest and most costly incarceration terms. This finding is consistent with previous research that has found little evidence linking more severe sanctions to lower recidivism.
  • Recidivism rates are likely to be related to multiple factors. Offender behavior is one factor. But policy changes can also play a role in that they may affect the practices of criminal justice agents, such as police officers and district attorneys. More and better data are needed to pinpoint the relevant causes of changes in recidivism.

Additional efforts to improve our understanding of the relationships among policy, implementation, and recidivism outcomes are essential to move the state toward a more evidence-based criminal justice system.  Facilitating better data connections across correctional institutions, intervention programs, and law enforcement would help further the state’s goals of improving public safety, reducing costs, and ensuring equity in its correctional systems.

June 29, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 28, 2019

"Plus a Life Sentence? Incarceration’s Effects on Expected Lifetime Wage Growth"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new empirical paper available via SSRN and authored by two economists, Theodore S. Corwin III and Daniel K. N. Johnson. Here is its abstract:

The United States incarcerates citizens at rates higher than those of any other developed nation, with impacts on not only government budgets but economic growth rates.  Using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth for 1997, we model the effects of incarceration on wage growth rates using inverse probability weighted regression adjusted (IPWRA) propensity score matching to recognize the selection bias among the members of the sample who serve prison terms.  Results show that incarceration reduces average lifetime income growth by one-third even for a relatively short earning period, with that depth depending on length of sentence, employment history, and education level in some surprising ways.

June 28, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 27, 2019

US Sentencing Commission releases "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases, Fiscal Year 2018"

Though the US Sentencing Commission cannot currently make any guideline amendments due to the lack of a quorum due to a lack of Commissioners, the Commission is still able to churn out federal sentencing data and produce helpful reports about that data.  One such helpful report released this week, and available here, is titled simply "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases, Fiscal Year 2018," and the USSC describes and summarizes the report on this webpage in this way: 

Summary

The United States Sentencing Commission received information on 69,524 federal criminal cases in which the offender was sentenced in fiscal year 2018.  Among these cases, 69,425 involved an individual offender and 99 involved a corporation or other “organizational” offender.  The Commission also received information on 3,241 cases in which the court resentenced the offender or otherwise modified the sentence that had been previously imposed.  This publication provides an overview of those cases.

Highlights

A review of cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2018 reveal the following:

  • The federal caseload increased 3.8% from the previous fiscal year, halting a six-year decline in the number of federal offenders sentenced annually.
  • Cases involving drugs, immigration, firearms, and fraud, theft, or embezzlement accounted for 82.8% of all cases reported to the Commission.
  • Immigration cases were the most common federal crimes in fiscal year 2018 (34.4%).  This number is a 16.5% increase from fiscal year 2017.
  • Drug trafficking offenses fell by 14.1% over the past five years, with 4.5% fewer cases reported than in fiscal year 2017.
  • Methamphetamine offenses were the most common drug cases.  The 7,554 methamphetamine cases represented 39.8% of all drug crimes.

June 27, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Georgia completes execution making a total of 1,500 in modern death penalty era

Because Texas has executed so many more murderers than any other state in the modern era, it really should have the "honor" of carrying out any landmark execution.  But, as this CNN article details, Georgia was the state to conduct a landmark execution tonight.  The article is headlined "Georgia inmate is the 1,500th person executed in the US since the death penalty was reinstated," and here are excerpts:

A Georgia inmate convicted in the killing of man who gave him a ride in 1997 died by lethal injection Thursday, the state's Department of Corrections said.  Marion Wilson Jr. is the 1,500th person to be executed in the United States since the return of the death penalty in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

His execution was carried at 9:52 p.m. ET at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia after the US Supreme Court denied a stay of execution.

Wilson was sentenced to death in 1997 for the murder of Donovan Corey Parks in southeast Atlanta.  Parks was found dead on a residential street after he gave Wilson and another man a ride from a Walmart store.  Parks had gone to the store to buy cat food and accepted to give them a ride when they approached him in the parking lot, authorities said.

June 20, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

"Confined and Costly: How Supervision Violations Are Filling Prisons and Burdening Budgets"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new dynamic online report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Everyone should check out the link to the report to see the dynamic features built therein, and here is some of the text from the report (with all caps from the original):

Probation and parole are designed to lower prison populations and help people succeed in the community. New data show they are having the opposite effect. Until now, national data regarding the impact of probation violations on prison populations have been unavailable, resulting in a lopsided focus on parole. The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center recently engaged corrections and community supervision leaders in 50 states to develop the first complete picture of how probation and parole violations make up states’ prison populations. The analysis revealed a startling reality.

45% OF STATE PRISON ADMISSIONS nationwide are due to violations of probation or parole for new offenses or technical violations.

Technical violations, such as missing appointments with supervision officers or failing drug tests, account for nearly 1/4 OF ALL STATE PRISON ADMISSIONS.

On any given day, 280,000 PEOPLE in prison — nearly 1 IN 4 — are incarcerated as a result of a supervision violation, costing states more than $9.3 BILLION ANNUALLY.

Technical supervision violations account for $2.8 BILLION of this total amount, and new offense supervision violations make up $6.5 BILLION. These figures do not account for the substantial local costs of keeping people in jail for supervision violations.

IN 13 STATES, MORE THAN 1 IN 3 PEOPLE in prison on any given day are there for a supervision violation.

IN 20 STATES, MORE THAN HALF OF PRISON ADMISSIONS are due to supervision violations.

Variation in these proportions across states is shaped by the overall size of each state’s supervision population, how violations are sanctioned, whether those sanctions are the result of incarceration paid for by the state or county, and how well state policy and funding enable probation and parole agencies to employ evidence-based practices to improve success on supervision.

June 19, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"Most US drug arrests involve a gram or less"

The title of this post is the title of this new short piece by Joseph Kennedy (which condenses some of his really important work set forth in this recent full article, "Sharks and Minnows in the War on Drugs: A Study of Quantity, Race and Drug Type in Drug Arrests"). Here are excerpts:

U.S. drug laws are designed as if every offender was a dedicated criminal like Walter White, treating the possession or sale of even small quantities of illegal drugs as a serious crime requiring serious punishment.

I have studied the war on drugs for a number of years.  Last December, my colleagues and I published a study on U.S. drug arrests, showing that roughly two out of every three arrests by state and local law enforcement target small-time offenders who are carrying less than a gram of illegal drugs.

Virtually all states treat as felonies the sale of any amount of illegal drugs.  The thinking behind these laws is that you cannot catch the big fish without catching some minnows as well.  Many states also treat the mere possession of any amount of a hard drugs, such as cocaine, heroin or meth/amphetamine, as a felony....

We wanted to find out how often the police made arrests involving large quantities of drugs.  To make things manageable, we narrowed our study to three evenly spaced years, 2004, 2008 and 2012.  The resulting data set contained over a million cases, with usable data found in over 700,000 cases.  We believe our study is the most comprehensive study of drug arrest quantity undertaken to date....

Our study found that, by and large, state and local police agencies are arresting small fish, not big ones.  Two out of three drug offenders arrested by state and local law enforcement possess or sell a gram or less at the time of arrest. Furthermore, about 40% of arrests for hard drug are for trace amounts — a quarter of a gram or less.

Because possessing any amount of a hard drug and selling any illegal drug is a felony in virtually every state, the small size of these quantities matter.  They suggest that very minor offenders face felony liability.  Felony convictions make it difficult for ex-offenders to secure good jobs.  They carry many other harmful collateral consequences.

There are few truly big, or even medium-sized, offenders in the remaining arrests.  Arrests for quantities of hard drugs above five grams range between 15 and 20 percent of all arrests, and arrests for a kilogram or more are less than 1%.

What’s more, the racial distribution of these small quantity arrests reveal importance differences between arrests for different types of drugs.

Our study confirms that blacks are disproportionately arrested for crack cocaine offenses, as are whites for meth/amphetamine and heroin offenses.  When it comes to possession of a quarter gram or less, police arrest almost twice as many blacks as whites for crack cocaine.  However, they arrest almost four times as many whites as blacks for heroin and eight times as many whites as blacks for meth/amphetamine.

Offenders of color are, by and large, not significantly more serious offenders in terms of quantity of drugs.  They just possess and sell drugs that are the most frequent target of arrest.  Our study showed about twice as many arrests for crack cocaine as for meth/amphetamine and almost four times as many arrests for crack cocaine as for heroin.

Finally, this study shows that 71% of drug arrests are not for hard drugs, but for marijuana.  The majority of those arrests are also for tiny quantities: 28% for trace amounts and almost 50% for a gram or less.  Once again, blacks are disproportionately arrested for marijuana offenses, making up about a quarter of all marijuana arrests despite being about 13% of the population.

Illegal drugs are ultimately sold in small quantities to users, so it’s not surprising that there are more small quantity offenders in the pool of drug arrestees.  But this study suggests that the majority of state and local drug enforcement resources are spent catching these small fish.  The drug war is not being waged primarily against the Walter Whites, but against much less serious offenders.

Prior related post:

June 18, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Interesting new data on declining capital habeas petitions in federal court

The folks at TRAC recently produced this interesting little data report under the heading "Death Penalty Prisoner Petitions Fall Sharply."  Here is part of the text:

The latest available data from the federal courts show that during April 2019 the government reported only 5 new prisoner petitions challenging their death penalty sentence. According to the case-by-case court records analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, there were just 62 death penalty challenges for the first seven months of FY 2019.  They have fallen over fifty percent (51.6%) over the last two years. Petitions are on pace to be the lowest number filed in over a decade.

The comparisons of the number of civil filings for death penalty-related suits are based on case- by-case federal court records which were compiled and analyzed by TRAC...  Since FY 2008, death penalty petitions reached a peak during FY 2009 when they totaled 245. The previous low was five years ago in FY 2014 when they fell to 162. If the current pace of filings continues during the remaining months of FY 2019, filings are projected to be only slight above one hundred this year.

Absent some other data or distinctive explanation, this seems like a pipeline story: in the 198-s and 1990s, there were lots of state death sentences imposed, resulting in lots of capital habeas challenges reaching the federal courts decades later. In years, the number of state death sentences have declined (see DPIC data here), meaning that the number of subsequent federal habeas challenges have declined.

June 12, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 07, 2019

US Sentencing Commission releases data report on resentencings pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018 (making retroactive provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010)

I was very pleased to receive in my email in-box this afternoon news that the US Sentencing Commission has released this short new report titled "First Step Act of 2018 Resentencing Provisions
Retroactivity Data Report."  Here is how the 10-page report was summarized via the email:

Summary

The U.S. Sentencing Commission published new information on resentencings pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018 (enacted December 21, 2018).

Defendants sentenced before the effective date of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (August 3, 2010) who did not receive the benefit of the statutory penalty changes made by that Act are eligible for a sentence reduction under Section 404 of the First Step Act.

Data Highlights [FN1]

    • 1,051 motions were granted for a reduced sentence.
    • 78.9% of granted motions were made by the defendant, 11.8% by the attorney for the government, and 9.3% by the court.
    • Offenders received an average decrease of 73 months (29.4%) in their sentence.
      • The original average sentence was 239 months.
      • The new average sentence was 166 months.

[FN1] The data report includes motions granted through April 30, 2019 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the U.S. Sentencing Commission by May 17, 2019.

Importantly, the FSA retroactivity provision of the FIRST STEP Act was only a small piece of the legislation, and yet this report shows it already has had a big impact.  Specifically, within just over four months, this part of the FIRST STEP Act has shortened more than 1000 sentences by an average of over 6 years. With six thousand years(!) of extra prison time (and taxpayer expense) saved, this report shows that even a modest reform can have a very big impact for some folks.

June 7, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Spotlighting the enduring business of jails

Keith Humphreys has this notable new Washington Post piece headlined "How jails stay full even as crime falls."  Here are excerpts:

Crime has fallen dramatically in recent decades.  The number of people in jail for committing crimes hasn’t.

New Bureau of Justice Statistics data reveal that jails held 745,200 inmates in 2017, virtually identical to the 747,500 they held in 2005, and significantly higher than the 584,400 they held in 1998.  How does the correctional system keep jails full when there just aren’t as many crimes as there used to be?  By locking up an increasing number of people who are awaiting trial and could well be innocent.

The number of individuals held in jail while awaiting trial has soared 45.3 percent, from 331,800 in 1998 to 482,000 in 2017.  By contrast, the number of convicted inmates is almost the same as it was 20 years ago (252,600 in 1998 vs. 263,200 in 2017).  About 95 percent of the jail population’s growth is thus accounted for by people who haven’t been convicted of a crime.

By jailing more and more people who are awaiting trial, the criminal justice system can keep jails full no matter how much crime falls.  This may be seen as a good thing by the hundreds of thousands of people who work in jails, the companies that supply services to jails (i.e., food), and the communities that value correctional facilities as a form of economic stimulus.  But it’s a world-class bug from the point of view of innocent people who are jailed while awaiting trial, not to mention taxpayers.

Given the internal incentives to keep jails full, change will have to come from outside the criminal justice system.  The most obvious lever available, which is picking up steam in multiple states, is bail reform.  States could simply mandate that individuals accused of low-level crimes are automatically released on their own recognizance before trial. Jurisdictions that have experimented with this approach have found rates of appearing at trial in excess of 98 percent....

States, cities and counties should also consider closing or at least downsizing jails.  If the system is going to find ways to keep every bed full regardless of the crime rate, cutting the number of beds available may be the only way to prevent an increasing number of people accused of crimes from being punished as harshly as those who are actually convicted.

June 6, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Spotlighting how federal drug prosecution patterns have changed in recent years

Screen-Shot-2019-05-08-at-10.43.47-AM-768x588I noted here that yesterday the US Sentencing Commission released its 2018 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics covering Fiscal Year 2018.  There are lots of interesting data to mine from this big new resource, and I am pleased to see the folks at Marijuana Moment highlighting one particular story under the headline "The Feds Prosecuted Even Fewer Marijuana Trafficking Cases In 2018." Here are the details:

Federal marijuana trafficking cases dropped again in 2018, continuing a trend that seems linked to increasingly successful state-level cannabis legalization efforts.

A report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission that was released on Wednesday shows that while drug-related offenses still constitute a sizable chunk of federal prosecutions — larger than fraud and firearms combined — marijuana trafficking cases have significantly declined since states started repealing their cannabis prohibition laws.

There were just over 2,100 federal marijuana trafficking cases in 2018, compared to nearly 7,000 in 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis but hadn’t yet implemented their programs.

Trafficking cases for other drugs remained mostly stable during that period, with the exception of methamphetamine. Those cases have been on the rise, reaching about 7,500 last year.

All told, drug-related crimes represented 28 percent of federal prosecutions in 2018.  The only larger category was immigration, which accounted for 40 percent of cases.

The average sentence for marijuana trafficking cases was slightly higher in 2018 compared to the previous year, with the average offenders receiving 18 months in prison.

The reasons behind the decline in cannabis trafficking cases isn’t certain, but advocates believe that the data bolsters the case they have long made about how consumers would prefer to purchase marijuana from legal and regulated businesses instead of from the criminal market.

Technically, these US Sentencing Commission data are only specifically reflecting cases that were sentenced in FY 2018, so it is not quite right to say these data reflect precise prosecution numbers for FY 2018. (Some number of cases that get prosecuted will be dropped or will not result in a conviction for various reasons, to total number of cases prosecuted is likely a bit larger than total number of cases sentenced.)  Nevertheless, number of cases sentenced is a pretty good proxy for prosecution patterns, and the trends in all drugs noted in the graph above is interesting.  The slight uptick in federal heroin sentences and the huge uptick in federal meth sentences stand in sharp contrast to the notable declines in sentences for crack cocaine, powder cocaine, and marijuana. 

May 9, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

US Sentencing Commission (finally) releases 2018 Annual Report and Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics

Via email, I received this morning this notice from the US Sentencing Commission about the publication of lots of new federal sentencing data:

Newly Released Sentencing Data

Today the U.S. Sentencing Commission published its 2018 Annual Report and Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics. 

The Annual Report presents an overview of the Commission's work in fiscal year 2018. The Sourcebook was expanded this year to include more analyses of drug and immigration offenses, as well as new sections on firearms and economic offenses to give readers more complete information about the most frequently occurring federal crimes. 

The Sourcebook contains information collected from 321,000 federal sentencing documents on 69,425 federal offenders. 

Quick Highlights

  • The federal sentencing caseload increased by 2,552 cases from fiscal year 2017, representing the first increase since fiscal year 2011.

  • Immigration offenses accounted for the largest single group of federal crime — a position held by drug offenses in fiscal year 2017.

  • Immigration offenses increased from 30.5% in fiscal year 2017 to 34.4% in fiscal year 2018 while drug and firearms offenses decreased.  

  • Methamphetamine offenses, the most common drug type in the federal system, continued to rise (up from 30.8% of drug offenses in fiscal year 2016 and 34.6% in fiscal year 2017 to 39.8% in fiscal year 2018).

  • 75% of federal offenders were sentenced under the Guidelines Manual in fiscal year 2018.

Interestingly, as reveled by this prior post, these annual materials were released by the USSC last year in early March.  I presume the government shutdown and the lack of commissioners has something to do with these data coming out a few months later this year.  I am hopeful it will not take me a few months to find a few data stories to highlight from these latest USSC documents, and I welcome the help of readers to identify just how the Trump era is now looking through the lens of federal sentencing statistics.

May 8, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

"Report on Algorithmic Risk Assessment Tools in the U.S. Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report "written by the staff of the Partnership on AI (PAI) and many of [its] Partner organizations."  Here is part of the report's executive summary:

This report documents the serious shortcomings of risk assessment tools in the U.S. criminal justice system, most particularly in the context of pretrial detentions, though many of our observations also apply to their uses for other purposes such as probation and sentencing.  Several jurisdictions have already passed legislation mandating the use of these tools, despite numerous deeply concerning problems and limitations. Gathering the views of the artificial intelligence and machine learning research community, PAI has outlined ten largely unfulfilled requirements that jurisdictions should weigh heavily and address before further use of risk assessment tools in the criminal justice system.

Using risk assessment tools to make fair decisions about human liberty would require solving deep ethical, technical, and statistical challenges, including ensuring that the tools are designed and built to mitigate bias at both the model and data layers, and that proper protocols are in place to promote transparency and accountability.  The tools currently available and under consideration for widespread use suffer from several of these failures, as outlined within this document.

We identified these shortcomings through consultations with our expert members, as well as reviewing the literature on risk assessment tools and publicly available resources regarding tools currently in use. Our research was limited in some cases by the fact that most tools do not provide sufficiently detailed information about their current usage to evaluate them on all of the requirements in this report.  Jurisdictions and companies developing these tools should implement Requirement 8, which calls for greater transparency around the data and algorithms used, to address this issue for future research projects.  That said, many of the concerns outlined in this report apply to any attempt to use existing criminal justice data to train statistical models or to create heuristics to make decisions about the liberty of individuals.

Challenges in using these tools effectively fall broadly into three categories, each of which corresponds to a section of our report:

-- Concerns about the validity, accuracy, and bias in the tools themselves;

-- Issues with the interface between the tools and the humans who interact with them; and

-- Questions of governance, transparency, and accountability.

Although the use of these tools is in part motivated by the desire to mitigate existing human fallibility in the criminal justice system, it is a serious misunderstanding to view tools as objective or neutral simply because they are based on data.  While formulas and statistical models provide some degree of consistency and replicability, they still share or amplify many weaknesses of human decision-making.  Decisions regarding what data to use, how to handle missing data, what objectives to optimize, and what thresholds to set all have significant implications on the accuracy, validity, and bias of these tools, and ultimately on the lives and liberty of the individuals they assess....

In light of these issues, as a general principle, these tools should not be used alone to make decisions to detain or to continue detention.  Given the pressing issue of mass incarceration, it might be reasonable to use these tools to facilitate the automatic pretrial release of more individuals, but they should not be used to detain individuals automatically without additional (and timely) individualized hearings.  Moreover, any use of these tools should address the bias, human-computer interface, transparency, and accountability concerns outlined in this report.

This report highlights some of the key problems encountered using risk assessment tools for criminal justice applications.  Many important questions remain open, however, and unknown issues may yet emerge in this space.  Surfacing and answering those concerns will require ongoing research and collaboration between policymakers, the AI research community, and civil society groups.  It is PAI’s mission to spur and facilitate these conversations and to produce research to bridge these gaps.

May 7, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Noting the encouraging story of reduced rates of incarceration for African Americans

Charles Lane and Keith Humphreys have this nice new Washington Post commentary spotlighting one notable part of the last BJS numbers on prison populations (discussed here).  The piece is headlined "Black imprisonment rates are down.  It’s important to know why."  Here are excerpts:

The imprisonment rate for African Americans is falling, has been falling since 2001 and now stands at its lowest level in more than a quarter-century.  These remarkable data are hidden in plain sight, in the latest annual statistical survey of prisoners issued last week by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Comparing 2017 survey results with prior years shows that the African American male imprisonment rate has dropped by a third since its peak and is now at a level not seen since 1991.  African American women’s rate of imprisonment has dropped 57 percent from its peak and is now at a 30-year low.

How big a change does this represent? Had African American imprisonment held steady at its highest point (2001 for men, 1999 for women) instead of declining, about 300,000 more African Americans would be in prison right now.  Instead they are free to live in the community, to raise families, to hold jobs, to be healthy and happy.

Dramatic failures command attention and therefore often drive efforts at policy reform and innovation. Yet success can be just as informative. It’s just as vital to understand why black imprisonment rates have fallen as it was to understand why they rose.  Yet, so far, there is still more discussion about the latter than the former.

It’s time for the debate to catch up with the data.  Collapsing crime rates in black neighborhoods surely reduced imprisonment rates, but how did that increase in public safety come about?  Did programs to make policing and sentencing more equitable also contribute?  Do prisoner reentry programs deserve any credit for reducing incarceration, and if so, which ones?  What is being done right that should be expanded to accelerate the positive trends?

Obviously, there is a risk of feeding complacency in taking note of — and celebrating — the decrease in black imprisonment. Yet to do otherwise risks feeding defeatism in the face of clear evidence that progress is possible. It also would miss an opportunity to break down racist myths: The declining imprisonment rate for African Americans definitively rebuts any notion of intractable black criminality....

Undeniably, today’s still-high and still-disproportionate rate of black imprisonment represents the appalling legacy of institutional racism.  Equally undeniably, the continuing presence of about 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons poses a challenge to public policy and the nation’s conscience.  But in important respects, the situation is getting better.  We need to say so: The nation’s reformers could use the recognition and the inspiration.

May 1, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Spotlighting that, within top incarceration nation, it is not quite clear which state tops the per capital incarceration list

A helpful reader sent me this notable little local article headlined "Is Louisiana still the incarceration capital of the U.S.?". The piece serves as a useful reminder that data on incarceration (like data on just about everything in criminal justice systems) is subject to some interpretation. Here are excerpts:

For close to a year, Gov. John Bel Edwards has championed that Louisiana has lost its title as the incarceration capital of the United States after law changes he backed got through the Louisiana Legislature in 2017.  “I made a promise that, by the end of my first term, Louisiana would not have the highest incarceration rate in the nation,” Edwards said last June at a press conference.  “We have fulfilled that promise to Louisiana.”

Yet a report released by the Vera Institute of Justice last week [blogged here] called that victory into question.  The nonprofit, a leader in criminal justice research, concluded that Louisiana still had the top of incarceration rate in the country at the end of 2018, five months after the governor announced the state had lost that title to Oklahoma.

The discrepancy appears to be not so much about Louisiana’s prison population, but how prisoners in Oklahoma are counted.  Those who believe Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate count hundreds of people who have been sentenced to prison time -- but are still in county jails and haven’t become part of the prison system officially yet -- as part of that state’s prison population. Without those inmates included in the prison population count, Louisiana still has the highest incarceration rate.

As of the end of December 2018, the number of people waiting to enter the Oklahoma prison system at county jails totaled 753.  If they’re included in the state count, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is 702 people per 100,000 residents, higher than Louisiana’s rate of 695. If they aren’t included, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is 683.

Pew Charitable Trusts and the Edwards administration use the higher Oklahoma count, therefore concluding that Louisiana has fallen to second place. Vera Institute used the lower count. “It seems like right now, the two states are really close . If a statistician was handling this question, they would say something like they are tied,” Jacob Kang-Brown, one of the authors of the Vera Institute report, said in an interview Thursday (April 25)....

Another nonprofit organization, the Prison Policy Initiative, concluded that Oklahoma passed Louisiana as the state with the highest incarceration rate back in 2016, before Louisiana approved its package of criminal justice changes in 2017.  That analysis took a wider view of incarceration. It counted not just state prisoners but also juveniles in custody, people in local jails and people from Louisiana in federal custody.  That report came out last year, prompting the Tulsa World newspaper to declare Oklahoma the prison capital of the country.

April 30, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, April 29, 2019

"Booker Circumvention? Adjudication Strategies in the Advisory Sentencing Guidelines Era"

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

This article addresses the question of policy circumvention in federal courts by examining how legal actors have differentially adapted their adjudicatory practices after U.S. v. Booker (2005) rendered the federal sentencing guidelines advisory rather than mandatory.  By linking two distinct bodies of scholarship — the courts-as-communities scholarship that assesses and explains locale-based variations in criminal court operations and the socio-legal “law and organizations” scholarship that addresses how organizational actors translate and implement top-down legal policy reforms — this article argues that law-as-practiced is always temporally and spatially contingent.

Expanding on prior quantitative research that addresses district-specific adaptations to Booker, this article reports on findings from a qualitative study recently conducted by the author of four federal districts.  Based on these findings, this article examines within-district changes and between-district variations in: (1) legal actors’ perceptions of whether the Booker policy change impacted local practices and outcomes, and if so, the extent of its impact; (2) how legal strategies and practices have changed at three stages of the criminal process: charging, pre-conviction plea negotiations, and formal sentencing; and (3) interviewees’ perceptions about whether Booker contributed to greater racial or other disparities in case out-comes.

Findings indicate that a dynamic, proactive adaptation process is taking place, conditioned by local norms but not fully dictated by those norms.  They also make clear that changes in sentencing outcomes in the post-Booker period are not simply the result of liberated judges exercising their discretion, but rather are jointly produced by courtroom workgroup members through both contestation and cooperation.  This inquiry is especially timely given both ongoing and proposed changes in federal sentencing policy that aim to maintain severity in punishment, re-impose constraints on legal actors, and threaten to exacerbate racial and ethnic inequalities in the federal criminal system.

April 29, 2019 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 28, 2019

NYU Center reviewing historical state clemency grants ... starting with Pennsylvania

As detailed at this link, the NYU School of Law's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law has long been engaged with clemency reform, and its latest project is focused on important state stories:

The Center has launched a project studying historical state clemency grants and the role that local prosecutors played in the grant process.  As part of the project, Center Fellow Ben Notterman '14 has undertaken a review of historical state clemency grants in a number of states, both to understand the types of crimes for which clemency used to be granted, as well as the role that prosecutors played in recommending or opposing specific grants and advising government decision-makers.  We anticipate publishing reports on individual state practices as we complete them.

The first of these reports is titled "The Demise of Clemency for Lifers in Pennsylvania," and it is available at this link.  Here is hoe it gets started:

Pennsylvania law automatically imposes life imprisonment for first- and second-degree murder, including felony murder, which requires no intent to kill.  It is also one of only five states that categorically excludes lifers from parole consideration; the only way for a lifer to be released is by clemency.  For a time, the State’s harsh sentencing policies were tempered by a practice of commuting several dozen life sentences each year.  That changed around 1980, when commutations in Pennsylvania fell off dramatically.  With few exceptions, clemency in the Keystone State remains in a state of a disuse.

April 28, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 25, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Spotlighting how reduced support for the death penalty is now a bipartisan reality

Alan Greenblatt has this notable lengthy new piece at Governing under the headline "Why the Death Penalty Has Lost Support From Both Parties."  I recommend the piece in full and here are excerpts:

Twenty years ago, most politicians in both parties supported the death penalty.  But today, opposition to it has become increasingly bipartisan.  Democrats have always been more wary, but now more conservatives have also become convinced that capital punishment is another failed government program.  In part, that's because the legal process for such cases is enormously expensive, even though few executions are ever carried out.

“When you look at how much money we’re spending, no one looks at that and thinks the death penalty works fine,” says Hannah Cox, national manager for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a pro-abolition group.  “We’re seeing a real escalation as far as the number of Republican legislators who are sponsoring repeal bills.”...

Lately, the spotlight has shifted to New Hampshire, where last week the legislature sent the governor a bill to repeal the death penalty.  Both chambers passed the bill by veto-proof margins, with bipartisan support.  Once the legislature overrides GOP Gov. Chris Sununu’s expected veto, New Hampshire will be the 21st state to outlaw capital punishment.  Colorado and Nevada could be next -- both have repeal bills currently pending.

For the first time since the death penalty was put back into practice during the 1970s, a majority of Americans now live in states that have abolished the practice or imposed a moratorium on it, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which researches the issue.  Still, support for capital punishment has not vanished.  Polls show that a majority of Americans continue to back it....

“When you talk about death penalty, a lot of people immediately want to have a criminal justice angle on it or a morality angle,” Chad McCoy, the Kentucky House Republican whip and sponsor of an abolition bill, told The Hill. “Mine is purely economics.”...

It’s not only lawmakers who have grown more skeptical about capital punishment.  Prosecutors have, too. In part due to the costs associated with capital cases, the death penalty has essentially disappeared from rural counties, says [Prof Brandon] Garrett, author of End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.  Fewer than 2 percent of the counties in the nation are responsible for half the death row convictions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Not long ago, jurisdictions like Philadelphia County, Los Angeles County and Harris County, which includes Houston, were imposing 10 or more death sentences apiece per year.....  But there’s been a changing of the guard in many large counties over the past two or three years, including Harris and Philadelphia.  Voters are electing reform-minded prosecutors who are less likely -- or completely unwilling -- to seek execution as a punishment. 

Last year, no county in the United States imposed more than two death sentences.  During the mid-1990s, there were more than 300 death sentences imposed annually for three years running. Last year, the total was 42.  There hasn’t been more than 100 since 2010....

In 2016, the same year Trump was elected, Nebraska voters overturned a death penalty repeal that had been passed by the legislature, while California voters rejected a ballot measure to end capital punishment.  But if 2016 seemed to signal a shift back in favor of capital punishment, the momentum hasn't been sustained.  Under Trump, just three federal prisoners have been sentenced to die.  In last year’s elections, two governors who imposed moratoriums on the death penalty -- Democrats Kate Brown of Oregon and Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania -- both won reelection.  Conversely, two governors who vetoed abolition bills -- Republicans Pete Ricketts of Nebraska and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire -- also won reelection....

If crime rates increase, support for the death penalty could make a comeback. And many politicians and prosecutors want to keep execution available for punishing the “worst of the worst.”  In Florida, for example, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the alleged shooter in last year’s Parkland high school massacre.

Death penalty experts agree that the practice will not be completely abolished anytime in the foreseeable future.  But both the use of the death penalty and political support for it has declined markedly since the 1990s, when it was a wedge issue that moved many voters.  The list of states abolishing the death penalty continues to grow.  “I see the death penalty ending with a whimper, not a bang,” Garrett says. “It may be that the best thing is to allow states and communities to decide what’s best for them.”

This effectively review of the state of the capital mood in the United States will be interesting to revisit as we move into the 2020 election cycle. It seems quite possible that advocates and perhaps the base of the Democratic party will seek a Prez nominee who will actively embrace death penalty abolition. Prez Trump, who clearly likes to talk up his support for the death penalty, might well be eager to turn capital punishment into a wedge issue once again.

April 16, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 15, 2019

"Death by Stereotype: Race, Ethnicity, and California’s Failure to Implement Furman’s Narrowing Requirement"

The title of this post is the title of this new empirical article now available via SSRN and co-authored by an especially impressive list of folks: Catherine M. Grosso, Jeffrey Fagan, Michael Laurence, David C. Baldus, George G. Woodworth and Richard Newell.  Here is its abstract:

The influence of race on the administration of capital punishment in the United States had a major role in the United States Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia to invalidate death penalty statutes across the United States.  To avoid discriminatory and capricious application of capital punishment, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment requires legislatures to narrow the scope of capital offenses and ensure that only the most severe crimes are subjected to the ultimate punishment.  This Article demonstrates the racial and ethnic dimension of California’s failure to implement this narrowing requirement.

Our analysis uses a sample of 1,900 cases drawn from 27,453 California convictions for first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter with offense dates between January 1978 and June 2002.  Contrary to the teachings of Furman, we found that several of California’s “special circumstances” target capital eligibility disparately based on the race or ethnicity of the defendant.  In so doing, the statute appears to codify rather than ameliorate the harmful racial stereotypes that are endemic to our criminal justice system.  The instantiation of racial and ethnic stereotypes into death-eligibility raises the specter of discriminatory intent in the design of California’s statute, with implications for constitutional regulation of capital punishment.

April 15, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Lots of good diverse weekend criminal justice reads

I have already spent a very large number of hours this weekend watching sports (congrats Tiger and Let's Go Jackets), and I still have lots more sports (deGrom and Alonso are on my fantasy team) and a series premier still to watch tonight.  But amidst all the nice distractions (and finally some nice weekend weather in central Ohio), I was able to catch up with some notable recent criminal justice commentary from an array of notably diverse sources.  Each of these linked pieces merit their own blog post, but a busy weekend requires just this round-up:

April 14, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Impressive (and growing) accounting of studies on racial disparities in criminal justice system

In this posting at the Washington Post last year, Radley Balko assembled an extraordinary amount of research on crimianl justice administration under the headline "There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal-justice system is racist. Here’s the proof." He has an update now posted here, headlined "21 more studies showing racial disparities in the criminal justice system," and it starts this way:

Last September, I put up a post listing more than 120 studies demonstrating racial bias in the criminal-justice system. The studies covered nearly every nook and cranny of our carceral system — from police to prosecutors to prisons; from misdemeanor offenses to the death penalty; from sentencing to parole; and from youth offenses to plea bargaining to clemency.  The post also included nine studies I could find that suggested racial bias was not a factor in some part of the criminal-justice system,

I also asked readers to send me any studies I missed, and I promised that I’d keep the list up to date as new studies came along.  So here is our first update.  I’ll both list the new studies here, and add them to the master list.  As before, if you know of something I’ve missed or are aware of a forthcoming study, please let me know via email.

April 10, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (5)

Spotlighting the important (and problematic) metrics used by prosecutors

This great New York Law Journal commentary, authored by Rachel Barkow, Lucy Lang, Anne Milgram and Courtney Oliva, is headlined "How We Judge Prosecutors Has to Change." Its subheadline highlights its theme: "Despite a wealth of evidence showing public safety can be improved by connecting people to needed social and health services, the internal metrics of prosecutors’ offices do little to incentivize this course of action."  Here is how the piece gets started:

The criminal justice reform movement has rightfully focused on prosecutors as key actors in bringing about much-needed change.  Dozens of reform-minded prosecutors have been elected throughout the country promising to tackle mass incarceration while keeping their communities safe.  They will not succeed unless they redefine what it means to be a “successful prosecutor.”

Today, local prosecutors measure themselves by three core metrics: how many people are indicted on criminal charges, how many cases they try and how many convictions they secure (either through guilty pleas or convictions after trial). For too long, these metrics have been used to decide promotions and raises, and to confer professional capital, dictating who gets the best cases and whose work is celebrated.

Not surprisingly, then, these are the metrics around which prosecutors orient their work and judge their professional self-worth.  This rewards prosecutors who excel at managing large caseloads and processing people through the system. But these metrics do not necessarily recognize the prosecutors who are most effective at achieving public safety and promoting equality.  These goals require additional metrics.  Decisions about what crimes and people to focus on, and whether or not to incarcerate, matter enormously.  The existing metrics take us further away from the goal of building a better criminal justice system.

April 10, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Might White House provide "impact data" on FIRST STEP Act as Prez Trump celebrates the law next week?

Download (12)In this post last week, I wondered aloud "Might the US Sentencing Commission provide some real-time updates on the implementation of the FIRST STEP Act?".  Today, after seeing this heart-warming article in the Washington Examiner, I am now wondering and hoping that the White House might be a source of FIRST STEP data now that they have a celebration of the law in the works.  The Examiner article is headlined "Jared Kushner called Walmart to get job for first woman freed by First Step Act," and here are excerpts:

Catherine Toney began February in prison and ended the month with a job at Walmart after White House adviser Jared Kushner called the Arkansas-based retailer on her behalf.  Toney, 55, is believed to be the first woman freed by the First Step Act, which President Trump signed in December. She was released Feb. 1 after serving 16 years, benefiting from the law's retroactive crack cocaine sentence reductions.

Toney will join Trump on Monday for an event celebrating the criminal justice reform law, his first major bipartisan policy achievement. Other recently released inmates were invited to attend.

Toney met Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and an architect of the reform law, on Feb. 21 when she attended a White House Black History Month event. Kushner asked about Toney's plans — and she said she wanted to work at the Walmart in Daphne, Ala. He volunteered to call Walmart for her, according to Toney and two others in the room.

"He promised me he was going to do it," Toney said. One day later, she got a call from a woman named Becky at Walmart's corporate office, saying that Kushner had called, and that the company wanted to help. "I went to the White House, but I came home to nothing, not anything at all. By him calling corporate himself, he made sure I got in this Walmart where I asked," Toney said. "He was a man of his word and he did what he said he would."...

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a Walmart representative confirmed that Kushner personally called. The representative said Toney met the standards for employment, and that the company wanted to help other former prisoners.

Jessica Sloan, national director of the prison reform group #cut50, said Toney is part of a bigger-picture effort by Kushner to enlist businesses to hire formerly incarcerated people, including by helping reduce re-entry barriers, such as poor Internet literacy. "Catherine is a test case" for the retail giant, said Sloan, whose group offered Toney a temporary contract job, before she landed the Walmart position, to help her buy a car.

Also attending the Monday celebration is April Johnson, 40, who was freed from prison in January under a compassionate release provision to care for her daughter, who is suffering from terminal cancer, and for her daughter's two sons. "I would like to thank [Trump] for putting the new law in effect," she said.

Troy Powell, 41, wants to thank Trump, while urging a second step for others. Powell, now working at a lumber company, served nearly 16 years of a crack cocaine sentence and was freed under the same retroactive provision as Toney. In prison, Powell said there's some surprise at Trump's role.  "When the election was going, no one was looking forward to Trump being in there," Powell said. "People thought the Democrats were going to change the laws and get them out of prison, but then it was the Republicans and Trump who changed the laws."

Powell notes, however, that the First Step Act reduces certain future prison sentences, including limiting gun sentencing enhancements, without retroactively reducing the same sentences for those now in prison. Another section of the law expanding "good time" credit to give near-immediate release to about 4,000 people, a provision meant to apply retroactively, has been stalled due to a drafting error.

Amy Povah, the founder of the CAN-DO Foundation, said that despite criticism, the First Step Act "has actually exceeded some expectations," particularly with compassionate releases for elderly or ailing inmates.  Still, Povah advocates for Trump to supplement the law with more grants of clemency to prisoners.

Monday's events at the White House will feature a "strategy session" on how to move forward on reforms, a workforce re-entry event with Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, and an afternoon celebration with Trump.

I am very pleased to see Amy Povah continue to urge Prez Trump to follow-up the FIRST STEP Act with clemency grants, especially because we are already getting close to a full year since Prez Trump started generating lots of clemency excitement by talking up the possibility of lots and lots of clemency grants.  I also think she is right to note that, as I discussed in this prior post, there could be a huge impact from the FIRST STEP Act allowing inmates to bring directly to court so-called compassionate release motions to "modify a term of imprisonment"  under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(C)(1)(A)

But, as the question in the title of this post hints, I find it really hard to judge whether the FIRST STEP Act is meeting or exceeding (or falling below) expectations because I have not yet seen even a partial accounting of how many persons have been released from prison thanks to various provisions of the Act.  In addition, the heart of the bill's prison reforms, both the increase in "good time" credit and the creation of an "earned time" credit system, are already having an array of early implementation challenges.  And, problematically, because the federal Bureau of Prisons lacks a permanent director and because the US Sentencing Commission lacks a quorum of commissioners, two key agencies for implementing the Act are operating at a significant deficiencies.

Put simply, I am very excited the White House will be having an exciting event to celebrate the exciting FIRST STEP Act, and now I hope that this event will help give everyone more reasons to be excited about the reality of FIRST STEP Act implementation.

A few prior related posts on FIRST STEP Act implementation:

March 28, 2019 in Data on sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

"The Effects of Voluntary and Presumptive Sentencing Guidelines"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical article authored by Griffin Sims Edwards, Stephen Rushin and Joseph Colquitt.  Here is its abstract:

This Article empirically illustrates that the introduction of voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines at the state-level can contribute to statistically significant reductions in sentence length, inter-judge disparities, and racial disparities.

For much of American history, judges had largely unguided discretion to select criminal sentences within statutorily authorized ranges.  But in the mid-to-late twentieth century, states and the federal government began experimenting with sentencing guidelines designed to reign in judicial discretion to ensure that similarly situated offenders received comparable sentences.  Some states have made their guidelines voluntary, while others have made their guidelines presumptive or mandatory, meaning that judges must generally adhere to them unless they can justify a departure.

In order to explore the effects of both voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines on judicial behavior, this Article relies on a comprehensive dataset of 221,934 criminal sentences handed down by 355 different judges in Alabama between 2002 and 2015.  This dataset provides a unique opportunity to address this empirical question, in part because of Alabama’s legislative history.  Between 2002 and 2006, Alabama had no sentencing guidelines. In 2006, the state introduced voluntary sentencing guidelines.  Then in 2013, the state made these sentencing guidelines presumptive for some non-violent offenses.

Using a difference-in-difference framework, we find that the introduction of voluntary sentencing guidelines in Alabama coincided with a decrease in average sentence length of around seven months.  When the same guidelines became presumptive, the average sentence length dropped by almost two years.  Further, using a triple difference framework, we show that the adoption of these sentencing guidelines coincided with around eight to twelve-month reductions in race-based sentencing disparities and substantial reductions in inter-judge sentencing disparities across all classes of offenders.  Combined, this data suggests that voluntary and presumptive sentencing guidelines can help states combat inequality in their criminal justice systems while controlling the sizes of their prison populations.

March 26, 2019 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Interesting new TRAC data on intra-courthouse judge-to-judge differences in sentences

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University maintains lots of data on the work of federal courts and federal agencies. Seemingly inspired by the recent sentencing(s) of Paul Manafort, TRAC completed a "study of judge sentencing differences at 155 federal courthouses across the country" in which "the judge with the lowest average prison sentence was compared with the judge with the highest average sentence at each courthouse."  At this page, TRAC summarizes its findings this way:

Based upon case-by-case sentencing records, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University found that half of federal judges served at courthouse where the average prison sentence differed by at least 23 months depending upon which judge handled the case.  Sixty-six of these judges served at six courthouses where the average prison sentence length differed by more than 48 months.

The Orlando courthouse in the Middle District of Florida with seven judges had a range of over 80 months between the judge with the shortest versus the longest average prison sentence.  This was followed by the Greenbelt courthouse in Maryland with over 64 months difference among the seven judges serving there....

To examine current sentencing differences at each of the 155 federal courthouses included in the study, read the full report [at this link].

Because TRAC is comparing average sentences for each federal judge directly without controlling for the specific caseloads of these judges, variations in average sentences could reflect caseload differences as much as judicial differences. But in the full report, TRAC reasonably notes that due to "the fairly large number of defendants sentenced by each judge, where there is random assignment of cases to judges then statistically speaking each judge should have closely comparable caseloads so that differences in the nature of the offenses and defendants' histories are roughly comparable."

Ultimately, this TRAC report provides a crude and incomplete account of intra-courthouse judge-to-judge differences because just one or two outlier judges could and would make a courthouse look bad in this TRAC accounting.  Still, it is interesting and useful to be reminded statistically of what all federal criminal justice practitioners know well, namely that most judges have their own distinctive and unique approaches to sentencing decision-making.

March 24, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Might the US Sentencing Commission provide some real-time updates on the implementation of the FIRST STEP Act?

The question in the title of this post first came to mind when I first came across this local article a couple weeks ago reporting that "so far, 14 Rhode Islanders convicted under stiff mandatory-sentencing laws have gained early release under the newly enacted federal law called the First Step Act."  More recently, I saw this extended piece from the Indiana Lawyer with this interesting data report:

Already in the Southern District of Indiana, some 15 offenders have been released from federal prison pursuant to the First Step Act, and another 15 to 20 releases are expected soon.  Though Northern District judges have not yet reduced any sentences under the act, federal defender Jerry Flynn expects reductions and releases to begin in his district soon.

These reports of prison releases from Indiana and Rhode Island appear to be a function of the initial implementation of Section 404 of the FIRST STEP Act, the retroactive application of Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which lowered crack mandatory minimums.  And these reports have me already wondering about (1) which districts may (or may not) be doing a particularly good job implementing the latest round of crack retroactivity, and (2) whether most defendants now benefiting from crack retoractivity are securing immediate release from prison or are just getting long sentences reduced a bit.

To its credit, the US Sentencing Commission has a long and impressive track record of keeping track of guideline retroactivity and producing lots of good data and analysis of who benefits from retroactivity.  So I am pretty confident the USSC will eventually produce good data on how this crack retroactivity part of the FIRST STEP Act gets implemented.  But, of course, there are many more part of the new Act that may (or may not) be getting implemented effectively right now, and I am less confident that the USSC is tracking or planning to report on developments in these other areas.

To again credit important and helpful work already done by the USSC, the Commission has published an Overview & FAQs (updated Feb. 15, 2019) and a Prison & Sentencing Impact Analysis (published Jan. 18, 2019) on the FIRST STEP Act.  But these documents do not even discuss some facets of the Act that concern matters related to sentencing and the work of federal judges.  I am thinking particularly about sentence modification under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(C)(1)(A) (often called compassionate release).  As noted in this prior post, the FIRST STEP Act now provides that an inmate can bring a request to "modify a term of imprisonment" directly to a sentencing court (rather than needing a motion by the Bureau of Prison) based on the claim that "extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction."  As noted in this prior post, the press is reporting on some sentence modification motions are being granted.

I think it would be a great service to the federal criminal justice community if the US Sentencing Commission would give focused attention to reporting on FIRST STEP Act implementation.  Indeed, because the USSC has only two active commissioners and seems unlikely to have any more anytime soon, the Commission cannot formally do much more these days than produce research and data.  Today happens to make the three-month anniversary of the FIRST STEP Act being signed in to law, and I think data always makes a great anniversary present.

March 21, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019"

Pie2019The Prison Policy Initiative has today posted the latest, greatest version of its remarkable incarceration "pie" graphic and associated report on the particulars of who and how people are incarcerated in the United States.  The extraordinary pies produced by PPI impart more information in one image than just about any single resource I can think of.  Here is part of the report's introductory text and the concluding discussion on my favorite law-nerd version of pie day:

Can it really be true that most people in jail are being held before trial?  And how much of mass incarceration is a result of the war on drugs?  These questions are harder to answer than you might think, because our country’s systems of confinement are so fragmented.  The various government agencies involved in the justice system collect a lot of critical data, but it is not designed to help policymakers or the public understand what’s going on.  As public support for criminal justice reform continues to build, however, it’s more important than ever that we get the facts straight and understand the big picture.

This report offers some much needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement.  The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.  This report provides a detailed look at where and why people are locked up in the U.S., and dispels some modern myths to focus attention on the real drivers of mass incarceration.

This big-picture view allows us to focus on the most important drivers of mass incarceration and identify important, but often ignored, systems of confinement.  The detailed views bring these overlooked systems to light, from immigration detention to civil commitment and youth confinement.  In particular, local jails often receive short shrift in larger discussions about criminal justice, but they play a critical role as “incarceration’s front door” and have a far greater impact than the daily population suggests.

While this pie chart provides a comprehensive snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities, nor the far larger universe of people whose lives are affected by the criminal justice system.  Every year, over 600,000 people enter prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year.  Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted.  Some have just been arrested and will make bail within hours or days, while many others are too poor to make bail and remain behind bars until their trial.  Only a small number (less than 150,000 on any given day) have been convicted, and are generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year....

Now that we can see the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States in the various types of facilities, we can see that something needs to change.  Looking at the big picture requires us to ask if it really makes sense to lock up 2.3 million people on any given day, giving this nation the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Both policymakers and the public have the responsibility to carefully consider each individual slice in turn to ask whether legitimate social goals are served by putting each group behind bars, and whether any benefit really outweighs the social and fiscal costs.

Even narrow policy changes, like reforms to money bail, can meaningfully reduce our society’s use of incarceration.  At the same time, we should be wary of proposed reforms that seem promising but will have only minimal effect, because they simply transfer people from one slice of the correctional “pie” to another. Keeping the big picture in mind is critical if we hope to develop strategies that actually shrink the “whole pie.”

March 19, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Important new empirical work on expungement realities in Michigan

Via this great new post at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, I see that Sonja Starr and J.J. Prescott have this great new article titled "Expungement of Criminal Convictions: An Empirical Study."  Here is the article's abstract:

Laws permitting the expungement of criminal convictions are a key component of modern criminal justice reform efforts and have been the subject of a recent upsurge of legislative activity.  This debate has been almost entirely devoid of evidence about the laws’ effects, in part because the necessary data (such as sealed records themselves) have been unavailable.  We were able to obtain access to deidentified data that overcomes that problem, and we use it to carry out a comprehensive statewide study of expungement recipients and comparable non-recipients.

We offer three key sets of empirical findings.  First, among those legally eligible for expungement, just 6.5% obtain it within five years of eligibility.  Drawing on patterns in our data as well as interviews with expungement lawyers, we point to reasons for this serious “uptake gap.”  Second, those who do obtain expungement have extremely low subsequent crime rates, comparing favorably to the general population — a finding that defuses a common public-safety objection to expungement laws.  Third, those who obtain expungement experience a sharp upturn in their wage and employment trajectories; on average, within two years, wages go up by 25% versus the pre-expungement trajectory, an effect mostly driven by unemployed people finding jobs and very minimally employed people finding steadier or higher-paying work.

The CCRC posting about this article highlights that the good news in the form of positive outcomes for those who get records expunged are dimmed by the bad new of low rate of expungement. The CCRC posting goes on:

Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, few of the people who are intended beneficiaries of Michigan’s expungement law actually obtain this relief, either because they don’t apply for it or because their applications for expungement are not approved.  The authors find six reasons that account for this “uptake gap” (which is greater for people with misdemeanors than felonies):

  • lack of information about the availability of relief;
  • administrative hassle and time constraints;
  • cost (including court filing fees, lost wages, and transportation costs);
  • distrust and fear of the criminal justice system;
  • lack of access to counsel; and
  • insufficient motivation to remove conviction.

In addition, while not a part of the “uptake gap” strictly speaking, the authors note that “every advocate that we spoke to also emphasized the stringency of the eligibility requirements, which in their view exclude a great many worthy candidates.” 

March 19, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Misdemeanor Appeals"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical article authored by Nancy King and Michael Heise. Here is its abstract:

Misdemeanor cases affect far more people than felony cases, outnumbering felony cases by more than three to one.  Yet very little empirical information exists on many aspects of misdemeanor prosecutions.  This Article provides the first quantitative look at appellate review in misdemeanor cases, nationwide.  It uses data drawn from a random sample of direct criminal appeals decided by every state appellate court in the nation, unpublished aggregate data on misdemeanor trial court cases provided by the Court Statistics Project, and published state court statistics.

We provide the first estimate of the rate of appellate review for misdemeanors, concluding that appellate courts review no more than eight in 10,000 misdemeanor convictions, and disturb only one conviction or sentence out of every 10,000 misdemeanor judgments.  This level of oversight is much lower than that for felony cases, for reasons we explain.  To develop law and regulate error in misdemeanor cases, particularly in prosecutions for the lowest-level offenses, courts may need to provide mechanisms for judicial scrutiny outside the direct appeal process.

Additional findings include new information about the rate of felony trial court review of lower court misdemeanor cases, ratios of appeals to convictions for various misdemeanor-crime categories, detailed descriptive information about misdemeanor cases that reach state appellate courts, the results of a complete statistical analysis examining which features are significantly associated with a greater or lesser likelihood of success, including crime type, claim raised, judicial-selection method, and type of representation, and the first quantitative look at how misdemeanor appeals differ from felony appeals.

March 19, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 11, 2019

In praise of Collateral Consequences Resource Center for new major study of non-conviction records

Regular readers know I have regularly urged folks to regularly check out the work and commentary over at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, and today brings a new post at CCRC that seems important to highlight because it talks about filing a very important gap in our understanding of modern law, policy and practice.  Here is the start of the post:

CCRC is pleased to announce that we are undertaking a major study of the public availability and use of non-conviction records – including arrests that are never charged, charges that are dismissed, deferred dispositions, and acquittals.   Law enforcement agencies and courts frequently make these records available to the public through background checks, and allow their widespread dissemination on the internet.  This can lead to significant discrimination against people who have not been judged guilty of any wrong-doing, and result unfairly in barriers to employment, housing, education, and many other opportunities.  While almost every U.S. jurisdiction makes some provision for limiting public access to non-conviction records through mechanisms like sealing or expungement, such relief provisions vary widely in availability and effect, and are often hard to take advantage of without a lawyer.  What’s more, arrest records may remain accessible on the internet long after official files have been made confidential or even destroyed.  While CCRC’s Restoration of Rights Project now includes state-by-state information on how non-conviction records may be sealed or expunged, our new project will examine applicable laws more closely.

The first phase of this project, which is nearing completion, will produce a detailed inventory of the laws in each U.S. jurisdiction for limiting public access to arrests and/or judicial proceedings that do not result in conviction.  Among other things, this inventory will examine eligibility criteria, procedures (including any filing fees), and scope of relief.  We will also note where state law or court rulings permit sealing of dismissed charges where one or more charges in a case do result in conviction.  In a second phase of this project, we will consult with policy experts to conduct a nationwide analysis, examining specific issues across all jurisdictions, identifying patterns and gaps in existing policies.  The goal of a third phase will be to produce model legislation.

March 11, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Data on sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Notable review of juvenile lifers in Tennessee

This local article, headlined "3 takeaways from our review of all 185 Tennessee teen lifers," provides an effective review of the maxed-out incarceration of certain youth in the Volunteer State. Here are excerpts:

In December, activists confronted former Gov. Bill Haslam at an education event and demanded that he grant clemency to Cyntoia Brown, a Nashville woman serving a life sentence in prison for a murder she committed at 16.

At the time, the outgoing Republican governor said he wanted to treat the case fairly, along with cases that were similar but had not received the same level of publicity as Brown's case.  Indeed, Brown had celebrities — including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West — advocating on her behalf, and she had a team of powerful lawyers who volunteered to pursue her freedom.

Ultimately, Haslam decided to grant Brown clemency, calling her sentence too harsh.  And he acknowledged her case was not unique, saying he hoped "serious consideration of additional reforms will continue, especially with respect to the sentencing of juveniles."

In the wake of his decision, the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee spent weeks reviewing the cases of each of the 185 men and women serving a life sentence — or life without parole — for crimes they committed as teens....

Nearly three-quarters of those serving life sentences for crimes they committed before the age of 18 are African-American men.

Here are some of the other breakdowns of the 185 people serving life.  Seven are serving life sentences for crimes committed at age 14; 26 were 15 years old at the time of their crimes; 53 were 16. The rest were 17.  Ten are women.

Fourteen are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, while the remainder face at least 51 years behind bars before their first chance for a parole hearing.  The oldest is Robert Walker, sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1972 at age 16. He is now 63....

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, said many young defendants face childhood hardships and traumas that can be overcome with time and treatment. “There are so many others like Cyntoia,” Akbari said. “It’s so complicated when you’re dealing with loss of life, but we are talking about children,” she said. “As horrific as it sounds that a child committed murder, the person they are now is not the person they will be in 20 years.”

Indeed, in many of the cases the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee reviewed, court records document a history of abuse suffered by the convicted teens.

A 16-year-old girl sentenced to life in prison in the stabbing death of her mother was repeatedly forced to watch her mother have sex with multiple men.

A 15-year-old boy whose stepfather regularly beat his mother got into a confrontation with the man while asking if he would let them peacefully leave. The boy beat the stepfather to death with a baseball bat.

A 17-year-old boy killed his father after what he and his mother described as years of physical and emotional abuse that had been reported to the state. The father threatened to beat the boy after a suicide attempt and withheld mental health medication, according to the mother. The boy shot his father with a rifle and stole his truck.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings in recent years that found mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional except in rare circumstances....  In Tennessee, the Supreme Court's rulings have not had an impact because there is no mandatory life sentence. Life sentences with the possibility of parole include a mandatory review after at least 51 years served — a length of time advocates call a virtual life sentence.

This companion article, headlined "In Tennessee, 185 people are serving life for crimes committed as teens," includes this discussion of some talk of legislative change:

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, said many young defendants face childhood hardships and traumas that can be overcome with time and treatment. “There are so many others like Cyntoia,” Akbari said....

Gov. Bill Lee's spokeswoman said he is “open to proposals addressing juvenile sentencing,” and a new state panel is considering future reforms. But there remains little consensus among Tennessee policymakers on what to do when children kill.

Akbari is trying to change Tennessee law to lower the minimum time served before a chance for parole to as low as 30 years for juveniles. The proposal could give many of the 185 a second chance at life outside prison walls for the first time in their adult lives.

Her effort is grounded in research about adolescent brain development that shows people do not fully develop rational decision-making abilities until their 20s. Other research has highlighted the impact of adverse childhood experiences on the developing brain, including sexual and physical abuse, poverty and incarcerated parents — events that can negatively wire some children’s brains.

March 9, 2019 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 21, 2019

"Juvenile Life Without Parole in North Carolina"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN and authored by Ben Finholt, Brandon Garrett, Karima Modjadidi and Kristen Renberg.  Here is its abstract:

Life without parole is “an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile,” and as the U.S. Supreme Court noted in Graham v. Florida.  The United States is the only country in the world that imposes juvenile life without parole sentences. Many of these individuals were sentenced during a surge in LWOP sentences in the 1990s.  In the past decade, following several Supreme Court rulings eliminating mandatory sentences of LWOP for juvenile offenders, juvenile LWOP sentencing has declined.  This Article aims to empirically assess the rise and then the fall in juvenile LWOP sentencing in a leading sentencing state, North Carolina, to better understand these trends and their implications.

We examine the cases of 94 people in North Carolina who were sentenced to LWOP as juveniles.  Their ages at the time of the offense ranged from 13 to 17.  Of those, 51 are currently serving LWOP sentences (one more is currently pending a new trial).  These cases are detailed in the Appendix.  In North Carolina, JLWOP sentencing has markedly declined.  Since 2011, there have been only five such sentences.  Of the group of 94 juvenile offenders, 42 have so far been resentenced to non-LWOP sentences, largely pursuant to the post-Miller legislation in North Carolina.  Over one third of the juveniles sentenced to LWOP, or 32 individuals, were not the killers, but were convicted under a felony murder theory. 

These sentences are concentrated in a small group of counties.  A total of 61% or 57 of the 94 juvenile LWOP sentences in North Carolina were entered in the eleven counties that have imposed more than three such sentences.  We find an inertia effect: once a county has used a JLWOP sentence they have a higher probability of using a JLWOP sentence again in the future.  In contrast, homicide rates are not predictive of JLWOP sentences. 

We ask whether it makes practical sense to retain juvenile LWOP going forward, given what an unusual, geographically limited, and costly sentence it has become.  In conclusion, we describe alternatives to juvenile LWOP as presently regulated in states like North Carolina, including a scheme following the model adopted in states like California and Wyoming, in which there is period review of lengthy sentences imposed on juvenile offenders.

February 21, 2019 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

"The Dark Figure of Sexual Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Nicholas Scurich and Richard John now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Empirical studies of sexual offender recidivism have proliferated in recent decades. Virtually all of the studies define recidivism as a new legal charge or conviction for a sexual crime, and these studies tend to find recidivism rates on the order of 5-15% after 5 years and 10-25% after 10+ years.  It is uncontroversial that such a definition of recidivism underestimates the true rate of sexual recidivism because most sexual crime is not reported to legal authorities, the so-called “dark figure of crime.”

To estimate the magnitude of the dark figure of sexual recidivism, this paper uses a probabilistic simulation approach in conjunction with a.) victim self-report survey data about the rate of reporting sexual crime to legal authorities, b.) offender self-report data about the number of victims per offender, and c.) different assumptions about the chances of being convicted of a new sexual offense once it is reported.  Under any configuration of assumptions, the dark figure is substantial, and as a consequence, the disparity between recidivism defined as a new legal charge or conviction for a sex crime and recidivism defined as actually committing a new sexual crime is large.  These findings call into question the utility of recidivism studies that rely exclusively on official crime statistics to define sexual recidivism, and highlight the need for additional, long-term studies that use a variety of different measures to assess whether or not sexual recidivism has occurred.

February 14, 2019 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

Friday, February 01, 2019

"Unusual: The Death Penalty for Inadvertent Killing"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Guyora Binder, Brenner Fissell and Robert Weisberg that was just posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Can a burglar who frightens the occupant of a house, causing a fatal heart attack, be executed?  More generally, does the Eighth Amendment permit capital punishment of one who causes death inadvertently?  This scenario is possible in the significant minority of American jurisdictions that permit capital punishment for felony murder without requiring a mental state of intent to kill or reckless indifference to human life.  Thus far, Eighth Amendment death penalty jurisprudence has required a culpable mental state of recklessness for execution of accomplices in a fatal felony but has not yet addressed the culpability required for execution of the actual killer.

In this Article, we urge the recognition of a new Eighth Amendment norm against executing even actual killers who lack a culpable mental state of at least recklessness, with respect to the victim’s death.  Using the methods employed by the Supreme Court for determining “evolving standards of decency,” we survey the pertinent homicide and sentencing laws of the fifty-three criminal law jurisdictions in the United States.  Second, we evaluate the facts of the cases that resulted in the nearly five hundred executions that have taken place since 1973, when the post-Furman statutes became operative, and 2016, in those jurisdictions permitting execution for inadvertent killing. We did the same for the facts of the 1755 cases of all death row inmates convicted in those jurisdictions and alive at the time of the study (2016).  This analysis shows that capital punishment for inadvertent killing has become “truly unusual,” and therefore, unconstitutional.

February 1, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 31, 2019

US Sentencing Commission releases new report titled "Revocations Among Federal Offenders"

Research reports are coming so fast and furious from the US Sentencing Commission, it seems that all I have time for on a busy Thursday is to blog about yet another notable USSC report. Yesterday, as flagged in this post, the new USSC report was on economics crimes; today, the USSC released this 41-page report titled "Revocations Among Federal Offenders." This USSC webpage provides this "Summary" and "Key Findings":

Summary

This publication explores a subset of the Commission’s criminal history rules—those regarding the revocation of terms of probation, parole, supervised release, special parole, and mandatory release.  These rules affect an offender’s criminal history score and Criminal History Category.  This report analyzes the nature and prevalence of revocations, and explores the impact of revocations upon safety valve relief and the career offender guideline.

Key Findings

The key findings of the Commission’s study of revocations are that:

  • Only a minority of offenders (35.0%) with criminal history points under the federal sentencing guidelines had at least one scored conviction with a revocation. Most often such offenders had only one such conviction.

  • For the minority of offenders who did have at least one scored conviction with a revocation, it often increased their criminal history score and resulting Criminal History Category. Among offenders with at least one scored conviction in their criminal history, three-fifths (60.2%) received additional criminal history points, and just under a third (30.9%) received an increase in Criminal History Category. For those offenders who received an increase into a higher Criminal History Category, the impact was generally limited to one Criminal History Category.

  • The rate at which offenders had at least one scored conviction with a revocation varied significantly depending on the type of federal offender. Firearms offenders were the most likely (54.3%) and immigration offenders the least likely (20.9%) to have at least one scored conviction with a revocation. However, the impact of such convictions on their criminal history scores and Criminal History Categories varied much less. Among offenders with at least one such conviction, firearms offenders were the most often (66.2%) and immigration offenders least often (55.9%) to receive additional criminal history points. Furthermore, among offenders who received additional criminal history points, those points resulted in a higher Criminal History Category most often for drug trafficking offenders (53.1%) and least often for firearms offenders (42.9%).

  • The Commission cannot state with certainty how often revocations are based on new crimes versus technical violations because the underlying basis for the revocation could not be determined in 38.7 percent of the cases studied. However, between 38.9 percent and 77.5 percent of the revocations studied were for new crimes, and between 22.5 and 61.1 percent were for technical violations.

  • Prior revocations did not significantly limit offender eligibility for the statutory safety valve, which relieves certain drug trafficking offenders from otherwise applicable statutory mandatory minimum penalties. Of the drug trafficking offenders studied, only 2.3 percent appear to be ineligible for the safety valve based solely on scored convictions with revocations.

  • Prior revocations had a more significant impact on offenders who received the career offender enhancement at §4B1.1. Of the career offenders studied, 10.7 percent qualified for the career offender enhancement in part because of scored convictions with revocations.

January 31, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)