Tuesday, January 05, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases more 2020 sentencing data revealing COVID's impact on federal sentencings

Regular readers know I have been keenly eager to see any US Sentencing Commission data providing a window into the COVID state of federal sentencing.  Back in October, as blogged here, the USSC released here its "3rd Quarter ... Preliminary Fiscal Year 2020 Data Through June 30, 2020."  And I just saw that yesterday, the USCC released here its 4th Quarter ... Preliminary Fiscal Year 2020 Data Through September 30, 2020." 

These new data provide another official accounting of federal sentencing outcomes that make clear that COVID concerns dramatically reduced the number of federal sentences imposed in the third and fourth quarters of Fiscal Year 2020.  Specifically, as reflected in Figure 2, it appears that the previous three quarters averaged roughly 20,000 federal sentencings, whereas the quarter ending in June 2020 saw only around 12,000 federal sentences imposed and the quarter ending in September 2020 had about 13,000 sentencings. 

Digging into these numbers, Figure 2 also reveals that the mix of cases being sentenced changed considerably from quarter 3 to quarter 4 in 2020.  In quarter 3, all major categories of cases declined considerably in total number sentenced.  But in quarter 4, immigration cases kept declining while drug, firearm, and economic cases bounced back somewhat closer to "pre-COVID normal."  (Of course, quarter 4 ended in September 2020 before the big second wave of COVID cases; it will be interesting to see what case processing data looks like in in quarters 1 and 2 of Fiscal Year 2021.) 

Critically, the change in the caseload would seem to help explain a dramatic uptick in average sentence imposed during the last quarter of FY 2020.  As detailed in Figure 5, average sentences pre-COVID were pretty stable, clocking in each quarter for many years between 38 and 43 months.  But in the quarter ending in June 2020, the average federal sentence averaged only roughly 30 months; but in the next quarter ending in September 2020, the average sentence jumped to nearly 48 months.  This leads me speculate that the sentencings that went forward during the early COVID period may have generally been the less serious cases; into the late summer, it would appear, more serious cases moved forward to sentencing despite COVID concerns.  In addition, because immigration cases typically have lower sentences than drug, firearm, and economic cases, the average sentence for all cases is likely to increase when the number of immigration cases in the pool declines so considerably.

In sum, these latest USSC data show that the total number of federal sentences imposed in the first six months of the COVID era (April to September 2020) dropped about 30% below historical normal, but the mix of cases and the length of the sentences imposed in this period varied dramatically between the two quarters of existing USSC data.  Very interesting, and now I am even more eager for the next data run and for even more intricate reporting and analysis from the US Sentencing Commission.

January 5, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 01, 2021

Chief Justice's "2020 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary" provides pandemic perspectives (and pictures)

The Chief Justice of the United States always closes out a calendar year by releasing a year-end report on the federal judiciary, and nobody will be surprised to hear that the 2020 version of this report from Chief Justice John Roberts is focused on how the judiciary has responded, past and present, to pandemics.  The full 2020 year-end report can be found at this link, and it is worth checking out in full (in part for the pictures showing outdoor court activities in 1918 and 2020).  Here are a few passages that capture the report's substantive spirit:

[J]udges who serve on the Judicial Conference of the United States and its committees — in particular, the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure — sprang into action to make possible video and audio conferencing in certain criminal proceedings, with help from Congress through authorization in the CARES Act.  By April, judges around the country were guiding critical court functions from their home offices — or their kitchen tables.

Hearings of all sorts went virtual. Judges quickly (or at least eventually) learned to use a wide range of available audio and video conferencing tools....  Courts have used every available avenue to prepare for resumption of jury trials, the bedrock of fairness in our system of justice.  Judges and court staff have reconfigured spaces in courtrooms around the country.  Many courts have repurposed their largest courtrooms for physical distancing and reconfigured jury boxes to extend into public gallery areas....

All this is a credit to judges and court staff, but also to the citizens who serve as jurors. Judges from around the country report that, where jury trials have resumed, responses to jury summonses have met or exceeded their high hopes for the public’s willingness to participate in the legal system during these very challenging times....  None of this would be achievable without unsung heroes in the judicial branch and throughout government.

Because I had the honor of working within the federal judiciary for a couple of years way back when, and especially because I have an inkling for how challenging judicial work can be even under the very best of circumstances, I am keenly appreciative of all the work being done by federal and state courts nationwide.  It is thus nice to see the Chief Justice conclude his substantive remarks by saying that he is "privileged and honored to thank all of the judges, court staff, and other judicial branch personnel throughout the Nation for their outstanding service."  It is also nice to see the report includes an Appendix on the "Workload of the Courts" with these notable federal criminal justice caseload data:

In the regional courts of appeals, filings fell less than one percent from 48,486 to 48,190.... Criminal appeals fell three percent.

Cases with the United States as defendant grew 16 percent, primarily reflecting increases in social security cases and prisoner petitions....

Criminal defendant filings (including those for defendants transferred from other districts) dropped 20 percent to 73,879.  Defendants charged with immigration offenses, who accounted for 32 percent of total filings, were 25 percent fewer, largely in response to a 70 percent reduction in defendants accused of improper entry by an alien.  The southwestern border districts received 84 percent of 23,618 national immigration crime defendant filings.  Drug crime defendants, who accounted for 29 percent of total filings, fell 17 percent.  Defendants prosecuted for firearms and explosives offenses declined 13 percent.  Filings for defendants accused of fraud decreased 27 percent.  Reductions also occurred in filings related to traffic offenses, property offenses, sex offenses, general offenses, regulatory offenses, justice system offenses, and violent offenses.

A total of 126,970 persons were under post-conviction supervision on September 30, 2020, a reduction of two percent from the total one year earlier.  Of that number, 112,849 persons were serving terms of supervised release after leaving correctional institutions, a decrease of less than one percent.  Cases activated in the pretrial services system, including pretrial diversion cases, decreased 26 percent to 80,603.

January 1, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

DPIC releases year-end report stating "Death Penalty Hits Historic Lows Despite Federal Execution Spree"

Death-sentences-by-yearThis new press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "Executions and Death Sentences Drop to Historic Lows in 2020, even as Federal Government Ramps Up Executions," provides a three-page summary of the DPIC's 36-page year-end 2020 report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States.  The full reports carries this intricate full title "The Death Penalty in 2020: Year End Report; Death Penalty Hits Historic Lows Despite Federal Execution Spree; Pandemic, Racial Justice Movement Fuel Continuing Death Penalty Decline." Here is how the report's introduction starts:

2020 was abnormal in almost every way, and that was clearly the case when it came to capital punishment in the United States. The interplay of four forces shaped the U.S. death penalty landscape in 2020: the nation’s long-term trend away from capital punishment; the worst global pandemic in more than a century; nationwide protests for racial justice; and the historically aberrant conduct of the federal administration.  At the end of the year, more states had abolished the death penalty or gone ten years without an execution, more counties had elected reform prosecutors who pledged never to seek the death penalty or to use it more sparingly; fewer new death sentences were imposed than in any prior year since the Supreme Court struck down U.S. death penalty laws in 1972; and despite a six-month spree of federal executions without parallel in the 20th or 21st centuries, fewer executions were carried out than in any year in nearly three decades.

The historically low numbers of death sentences and executions were unquestionably affected by court closures and public health concerns related to the coronavirus.  But even before the pandemic struck, the death sentences and executions in the first quarter of the year had put the United States on pace for a sixth consecutive year of 50 or fewer new death sentences and 30 or fewer executions.  The execution numbers also were skewed by a rash of executions that marked the federal government’s death-penalty practices as an outlier, as for the first time in the history of the country, the federal government conducted more civilian executions than all of the states of the union combined.

The erosion of capital punishment at the state and county level continued in 2020, led by Colorado’s abolition of the death penalty.  Two more states — Louisiana and Utah — reached ten years with no executions. With those actions, more than two-thirds of the United States (34 states) have now either abolished capital punishment (22 states) or not carried out an execution in at least ten years (another 12 states). The year’s executions were geographically isolated, with just five states, four of them in the South, performing any executions this year.  The Gallup poll found public support for the death penalty near a half-century low, with opposition at its highest level since the 1960s.  Local voters, particularly in urban centers and college towns, rejected mass incarceration and harsh punishments, electing new anti-death-penalty district attorneys in counties constituting 12% of the current U.S. death-row population.

A majority (59%) of all executions this year were conducted by the federal government, which in less than six months carried out more federal civilian executions than any prior president in the 20th or 21st centuries, Republican or Democratic, had authorized in any prior calendar year.  The Trump administration performed the first lame-duck federal execution in more than a century, while scheduling more transition-period executions than in any prior presidential transition in the history of the United States.  The executions reflected systemic problems in the application of capital punishment and drew widespread opposition from prosecutors, victims’ families, Native American leaders, religious leaders, regulatory law experts, and European Union officials.  In addition to the legal issues, the executions also presented public health problems, likely sparking an outbreak in a federal prison, infecting members of the execution teams, and causing two federal defense attorneys to contract COVID-19.

Death sentences, which were on pace for sustained low levels prior to the pandemic, plunged to a record low of 18.  While the resumption of trials delayed by the pandemic may artificially increase the number of death verdicts over the next year or two, the budget strain caused by the pandemic and the need for courtroom space to conduct backlogged non-capital trials and maintaining a functioning court system may force states to reconsider the value and viability of pursuing expensive capital trials.

As I have done in past posts, I have reprinted here one of DPIC's graphics on number of death sentences imposed because I think that data may prove the most critical and consequential for the fate and future of the death penalty. Helpfully, the DPIC report has lots of other important data about a remarkable year. Ninth months ago in a post, I wondered aloud "Might COVID-19 ultimately bring an end to the death penalty in the United States?."  This DPIC report details that the death penalty is still alive, but it seems COVID has certainly contributed to capital punishment's extended decline.

December 16, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 14, 2020

US Sentencing Commission issues big new report on "The Influence of the Guidelines on Federal Sentencing: Federal Sentencing Outcomes, 2005–2017"

I am pleased to see that the United States Sentencing Commission is continuing to release notable data reports despite being an incomplete agency due to the absence of confirmed commissioners for years.  Today brings this notable new publication, clocking in at nearly 100 pages, titled "The Influence of the Guidelines on Federal Sentencing: Federal Sentencing Outcomes, 2005–2017."  Here is this reports "Key Findings": 

In this report, the Commission analyzes the difference between average guideline minimums and average sentences imposed.  These differences, measured in a raw number of months and average percentage difference, are analyzed for all cases in the aggregate and selected individual guidelines across three time periods between 2005 and 2017: the Booker, Gall, and Post-Report Periods.  While the extent of those differences vary depending on the individual guideline, the Commission found several overarching trends indicating that the guidelines generally continue to have a substantial influence on sentences imposed after Booker.

  • In the wake of Booker and Gall and continuing into the Post-Report Period, the difference between the average guideline minimum and average sentence imposed widened for the federal caseload overall, indicating that the influence of the guidelines generally decreased after Booker rendered them advisory.  However, this trend has not continued in the most recent years of the Post-Report Period, suggesting that the influence of the guidelines may have stabilized.

  • The influence of the guidelines continued to vary substantially depending on the type of offense throughout the Post-Report Period.  As indicated by the difference between the average guideline minimum and average sentence imposed, the guidelines continued to exert a strong influence on sentences imposed in firearms and illegal reentry offenses, a more moderate influence on sentences imposed in fraud and drug offenses, and a weakening influence in non-production child pornography offenses and career offender cases.

  • Major amendments by the Commission to the drug trafficking and illegal reentry guidelines appear to have strengthened their influence during the most recent years of the Post-Report Period.  The difference between the average guideline minimum and average sentence imposed for these two guidelines narrowed after the Commission reduced the Drug Quantity Table by two offense levels in 2014 and comprehensively revised the illegal reentry guideline in 2016.

  • The guidelines generally exert a greater influence on sentences imposed in cases in which judicial discretion could be meaningfully assessed.  Excluding cases in which judicial discretion could not be meaningfully assessed narrowed the difference between the average guideline minimum and the average sentence imposed for the federal caseload overall, and for all but one individual offense type studied, across every time period studied.  This narrowing was largely attributable to the exclusion of cases with substantial assistance departures, which resulted in an average sentence reduction of 51.8 percent.  Sentence reductions for substantial assistance require a government motion and afford substantial weight to the government’s evaluation.

In short form, and at the risk of being too flip or summary about these findings, I take this all to mean that the USSC has through its data analysis found: (a) federal judges generally follow the less-crazy-severe guidelines somewhat more than the more-crazy-severe guidelines, AND (b) when the USSC finally gets around to amending the guidelines to make some of the more-crazy-severe guidelines a bit less crazy-severe, judges are inclined to follow those guidelines a bit more.  Oh, and (c) we really have no clear idea what the heck may be going on when prosecutors exercise their discretionary sentencing powers through substantial assistance departures (since, I assume, the DOJ shares no information with the USSC about the decision-making of federal prosecutors).

December 14, 2020 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 (4)

Making a great case for greater data to improve sentencing decision-making and sentencing systems

I was very pleased this morning to see this new Atlantic piece authored by two Ohio state jurists, Judge Pierre H. Bergeron of the Ohio Court of Appeals and Justice Michael P. Donnelly of the Ohio Supreme Court.  Because I have had the honor of participating in ongoing efforts to improve sentencing data in the Buckeye State, I knew I was going to like the piece when I saw its full title: "How a Spreadsheet Could Change the Criminal-Justice System: A lack of data instills trial-court judges with enormous, largely unrestrained sentencing power."  And the full piece, which I fully recommend, does a terrific job of advocating against allowing sentencing to occur in dangerous darkness because of the absence of sound and accessible sentencing data.  Here are some excerpts from the piece (with links from the original):

Judges have various restrictions on what they can say publicly, and for that reason, you don’t often hear our voices in contemporary public-policy debates.  But as momentum builds to address deep inequities in our criminal-justice system, we feel it’s important to highlight a problem lurking in the background that could jeopardize these efforts: Many court systems lack basic data about themselves, including about their criminal-sentencing decisions.  This means that when a judge considers a sentence for a criminal defendant, he or she has no way to evaluate it against others handed down for similar crimes in the same state, or even the same county....

A lack of data collection and analysis is a nationwide problem.  Many states, including Ohio, where we serve, do not have reliable statewide numbers on the criminal sentences they impose.  The states that do compile statistics have significant gaps.  The problem extends beyond sentencing — many states also can’t measure, for instance, what the average bail rate is for various offenses, or even the effectiveness of the bail system.

All of this may strike one as inconceivable: How does a court system lack basic statistics in this technological day and age?  The answer varies by state, but typically, antiquated IT infrastructure in state courts, no uniform requirements on compiling numbers, and a lack of coordination across jurisdictions precludes gathering meaningful numbers and demographics.  And, in many corners, institutional interests are aligned to resist transparency out of a fear of what might show up....

For states that are starting to gather statistics, they are finding troubling, but not surprising, results.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court commissioned an analysis of statewide numbers to evaluate racial disparities.  Plagued by many data challenges, this effort took several years.  The recently published report showed what many of us know: People of color are vastly overrepresented in the criminal-justice system as defendants; they receive longer sentences than white defendants; and they are typically charged with more serious offenses to begin with (a leverage tool to force plea agreements). When judges see reports that show this is happening in their own courts, they must ask themselves hard questions about their own complicity in these results.   

In 2016, investigative reporters with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune conducted a comparison study that confirmed racial disparities in Florida’s criminal-justice system. One of the examples from their study examined two cases involving armed robbery.  The same judge sentenced a white defendant to two years, but a Black defendant to 26 years — for essentially the same offense.  These two individuals were almost the same age, both had a single prior misdemeanor, and they were rated the same based on Florida’s sentencing guidelines.  When judges have virtually unchecked discretion, and they lack ready access to sentencing data, these discrepancies are bound to continue happening....

Although data challenges are pervasive and a key barrier to criminal-justice reform, they can be solved. In response to the statewide analysis conducted by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Florida legislators passed groundbreaking legislation to standardize the way the state gathers and shares information.  The state has already missed some deadlines, but the legislation as designed would render Florida one of the most transparent states in the country from a criminal-data perspective.

Other states are also starting to create comprehensive databases so that informed criminal sentences are accessible to all stakeholders — judges, prosecuting and defense attorneys, defendants, and policy makers.  Currently, the nonprofit Measures for Justice has compiled statistics for 16 states.  Ohio, led by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, is in the process of developing a felony-sentencing database with the objective of making information accessible, shareable, and reportable.  It can’t come soon enough.  Indeed, if every state acted quickly, we could solve this issue in short order, and then move on to implement lasting criminal-justice reform that would end mass incarceration.

The goal of these efforts is not to eliminate judicial discretion (judges aren’t robots, after all) but to provide sound analysis to inform judges in the exercise of that discretion.  If everyone has complete access to information, the prosecutor can make an informed sentencing recommendation, the defense counsel can use the data to make his or her case, and the judge can feel secure in knowing that the sentence imposed fits well within the range from other courts around the state.  If the sentence deviates up or down, the judge can give a reason on the record, providing greater transparency in the process.  Objective measures that are comparable, consistent, and reliable can better ensure the equalized application of justice....

The judicial system relies on the trust of our citizenry; public confidence is its lifeblood.  We must act in deliberate and real ways to create change in our courts. And that requires working with all stakeholders — including the community, legislators, and law enforcement.  No one, including judges, can sit back and pretend that the problem of inequality is too intractable or the result of someone else’s decisions any longer.  Collecting and utilizing sentencing data will help build a better, more equitable justice system.

December 14, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 10, 2020

BJS seeking comment on data collection regarding state and federal prison responses to COVID

A helpful reader suggested helpfully that I note this new Federal Register notice from DOJ's Bureau of Justice Statistics which seeks to "encourage comments for 60 days until February 8, 2021, on a new data collection: National Prisoner Statistics program: Coronavirus Pandemic Supplement (NPS-CPan)."  The email I received linking to the notice describes the request this way:

The Bureau of Justice Statistics encourages comments for 60 days until February 8, 2021, on a new data collection: National Prisoner Statistics program: Coronavirus Pandemic Supplement (NPS-CPan).  Your comments to BJS's request to the Office of Management and Budget, published in the Federal Register, should address points such as—

  • whether the proposed data collection is necessary, including whether the information will have practical utility
  • the accuracy of the agency's estimate of the burden of the proposed collection of data, including the validity of the methodology and assumptions
  • whether and how the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected can be enhanced
  • the burden of the information collection on respondents, including the use of appropriate automated, electronic, mechanical, or other technological collection techniques.

This data collection will provide data on the state and federal prison response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) between March 1, 2020 and February 28, 2021, including: monthly counts of admissions and stock populations in all publicly and privately operated facilities within each state, the total number of persons who received expedited release from prison due to the COVID-19 pandemic and criteria for deciding which prisoners received expedited release, the number of tests performed on prisoners and staff, the number of unique prisoners and staff testing positive for COVID-19, the age, sex, and race distributions of prisoners testing positive for, and dying from COVID-19, the number of prison staff who died from COVID-19, and the use of common mitigation tactics in facilities to identify persons with the disease and prevent its spread.  Respondents will be staff in state departments of corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

December 10, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 05, 2020

The new death penalty: COVID has now killed in nine months more US prisoners than capital punishment over last 50+ years

I am sad to report that we have passed yet another remarkable milestone in COVID prisoner deaths, which prompts another one of my series of "new death penalty" posts.  The Marshall Project continues the critical job of counting via this webpage deaths from coronavirus reported among prisoners, and as of Friday, December 4, this accounting had tabulated "at least 1568 deaths from coronavirus reported among prisoners." 

As I have said in other posts, this considerable and still ever-growing number is sad and disconcerting on its own terms, but it is even more remarkable given that it now amounts to more than the total  number of prisoner deaths resulting from carrying out formal death sentences in the United States for the entire "modern era" of capital punishment.  According to DPIC data, there were a total of 1527 executions from the 1970s through today.  (Because of Supreme Court litigation, there were no US executions between 1967 and 1977, and death sentences and executions since the 1970s are generally considered the "modern" capital punishment era in the United States.) 

As I have mentioned in prior posts, I think comparing capital punishment and COVID incarceration carnage is problematic in various ways.  All persons executed in the US in modern times have been convicted of the most aggravated forms of murder.  The vast majority of prisoners to die of COVID were not criminally responsible for a death (although, as noted here, some persons on California's death row are part of the COVID prisoner death count).  In a few older posts here and here, I noted that nearly half of the early reported deaths of federal prisoners involved individuals serving time for drug crimes.  

Another problem with comparing capital punishment and COVID incarceration carnage relates to the facct that correctional staff do not die from administering capital punishment, but many have died from COVID.  The Marshall Project reports "at least 105 deaths from coronavirus reported among prison staff."  I am still pleasantly surprised that this too-big number is not even larger, but I will be ever troubled by the thought that these COVID casualty numbers could have been lower if more aggressive depopulation efforts were taken to move the most vulnerable and least risky persons out of the super-spreader environment that prisons represent.

A few of many prior related posts:

December 5, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

New Sentencing Project fact sheet on "Incarcerated Women and Girls"

The Sentencing Project has released today this notable new fact sheet titled "Incarcerated Women and Girls" which examines (pre-COVID) female incarceration trends. I recommend the full piece (which includes lots of informative graphics), and here are excerpts:

Over the past quarter century, there has been a profound change in the involvement of women within the criminal justice system.  This is the result of more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women.  The female incarcerated population stands over seven times higher than in 1980. More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.

Between 1980 and 2019, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 222,455 in 2019....

Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense.  Twenty-six percent of women in prison have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 13% of men in prison; 24% of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime, compared to 16% among incarcerated men.

The proportion of imprisoned women convicted of a drug offense has increased from 12% in 1986 to 26% in 2018.

November 24, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

"The Rule of Judicial Political Affiliation in Criminal Sentencing Outcomes"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authred by Wendy Calaway, Jennifer Kinsley and Taylor Wadian.  Here is its abstract:

Legislative efforts to bring consistency to criminal sentencing outcomes has been much discussed in academic literature and Congressional hearings alike.  Despite these efforts disparate sentencing outcomes persist.  Researchers have studied many variables seeking to understand these disparities but have been unable to form a consensus around the cause. Perhaps because of the lack of a firm understanding of the issue among researchers, legislative intervention at both the state and federal level has largely failed to address the issue of judicial characteristics that may drive sentencing disparities.  As a result, absent from the conversation on criminal sentencing reform is empirical and anecdotal evidence about how judges make determinations within the range of outcomes specified by the legislature.  New data on federal sentencing outcomes collected by Harvard researchers, however, finds a direct connection between the political party of the President who appointed the federal judge and the length of a defendant’s sentence.  As the Harvard study reports, federal judges appointed by Republican presidents sentence defendants on average to three more months in prison than federal judges appointed by Democratic presidents.  Republican-appointed judges in the federal system also sentence black defendants more harshly than Democratic-appointed judges.

As will be discussed in this Article, the central premise of the Harvard political sentencing study — that judicial political affiliation influences sentencing outcomes, even those that are highly guided by legislative criteria — also holds true on the state level with respect to elected, rather than appointed, judges.  As we report, empirical evidence from the state of Ohio demonstrates that elected Republican judges sentence defendants to lengthier terms of incarceration than elected Democratic judges by a statistically significant margin.  This evidence suggests that, rather than being entirely guided by specified statutory criteria, judges bring preexisting sentencing ideologies to the bench and make decisions with a range of sentencing outcomes based at least in part on their individual philosophies and beliefs.  Based on these findings, we argue that in order to address the issue of sentencing disparities, reform efforts should take action to specifically address the behavior and motivation of individual judges.

November 17, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

So much great data and analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative

I have been behind on reading and blogging on various fronts, particularly with respect to a number of notable new items from the Prison Policy Initiative.  I will "catch up" poorly through this set of links to recent PPI works:

November 17, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Data on sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 16, 2020

Hoping Garden State can germinate a bounty of new criminal justice data

This new Law360 article, headlined "NJ Criminal Justice Data Law Could Spur Reforms Elsewhere," reports on a great new data development in the great state of New Jersey.  Here are excerpts from the piece:

A new law pulling back the curtain on New Jersey's criminal justice system by requiring its attorney general to compile and analyze a wide range of information could serve as a model for the rest of the nation and fuel future reform efforts in the Garden State, experts say.

The measure, which was signed into law on Nov. 9 by Gov. Phil Murphy, calls on Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal to set up a program to "collect, record and analyze data" on defendants 18 or older, including their race, ethnicity, gender and age, and what happens to their cases, including systematic plea negotiation information that typically goes unrecorded.

Following other initiatives in the state in recent years including sweeping bail reforms, the data collection and analysis will provide a closer look at potential problems in the system and better equip lawmakers to tackle those issues.  For example, the data could provide insight on racial disparities in prosecutions and mass incarceration, experts say.

"Until we have a full picture of what's happening, there's no way to offer a solution that will be comprehensive," said Jesse Kelley, government affairs manager for the criminal justice and civil liberties policy team at the R Street Institute, a libertarian think tank....

Mikaela Rabinowitz, director of national engagement and field operations at criminal justice research organization Measures for Justice, said the law could be a national model in terms of the breadth of the data collection and the recognition of "the need to centralize these disparate sources" of information.

In a country where criminal justice data is spread across various agencies and "you can't actually assess what is going on systemwide," the law is an acknowledgment that "in order to actually understand how the criminal process is working, we need to take data from these disparate agencies and disparate sources and put it all in one place," Rabinowitz said....

The data will include "warrants, arrests, charges, filing of criminal complaints, and indictments," "dismissed or downgraded charges," and "plea agreement negotiations, including data concerning plea offers extended and accepted or rejected by the defendant, plea agreements entered or rejected by the court, and whether the plea agreements involved probation or incarceration," according to the bill.

For cases involving victims, the data will include "the race, ethnicity, gender and age" of the defendant and the victims, the bill says.  "This is potentially groundbreaking legislation, and it calls for data collection and reporting that currently exists nowhere in the United States," Duke University law professor Brandon Garrett told Law360.

Garrett, who leads the university's Wilson Center for Science and Justice, pointed out that states rarely "collect any data on victims, and yet in study after study, we have found that in serious cases, the race of the victim in particular matters a great deal to sentencing."

Data on plea talks also is "typically not recorded by anyone, including prosecutors," Garrett said.  Collecting "such systematic data would be enormously impactful" and "open the black box on charging in criminal cases," he said.  "One hope could be that not only will the public better understand outcomes in the system, but judges, public defenders and prosecutors will themselves better understand their work," he said.

November 16, 2020 in Data on sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Eager to honor our veterans caught up in our nation's massive criminal justice systems

5fa97d96f3264.imageEvery year when Veterans Day rolls around, I find myself giving a lot more thought to all the veterans who get caught up in our criminal justice systems.  I often see exhortations to honor "all who served" on this important day, and that necessarily means we need to be sure to honor the disconcerting large number of veterans who spend this day behind bars, or under active criminal justice supervision, or struggling with the enduring burdens of a criminal record.

According to these latest (but dated) BJS statistics, "in 2011–12, an estimated 181,500 veterans (8% of all inmates in state and federal prison and local jail excluding military-operated facilities) were serving time in correctional facilities."  Even if the present-day percentage had shrunk considerably, we can still state without any question that there are tens of thousands of veterans spending Veterans Day behind bars today.

And though I cannot find any detailed data on veteran status and probation/parole rate, even if veterans were only 5% of all persons on probation/parole in the US, that would still means that there are hundreds of thousands of veterans currently spending Veteran's Day subject to active community supervision today.

And though I cannot find any detailed data on veteran status and criminal convictions, even if veterans were only 5% of all persons with a criminal record in the US, that would still means that there are millions of veterans currently burdened with a criminal record on Veterans Day 202.

As highlighted in some posts below, I have often used this day to urge the President of the United States to use his clemency pen to honor this day with some grants to veterans.  But, of course, the vast majority of veterans involved in our nation's criminal justice systems are caught up in a state system.  So, those of us eager to really honor all who served ought to be advocating that all chief executives play their part in doing something meaningful for a population that has done something meaningful for all of us.

Some older (some very older) prior related posts: 

November 11, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 09, 2020

"The Intersectionality of Age and Gender on the Bench: Are Younger Female Judges Harsher with Serious Crimes?"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Morris Hoffman, Francis Shen, Vijeth Iyengar and Frank Krueger. Here is its abstract:

We analyzed sentencing data from sixteen years of criminal trials in the State of Colorado, consisting of almost 3,000 individual sentences, and discovered an interaction effect of harm, gender, and age not reported in any of the empirical or experimental literature.  Young female judges punished high harm crimes substantially more than their male and older female colleagues.  These results, if confirmed, could have significant strategic and tactical implications for practicing lawyers.  They may also inform policies surrounding judicial selection, education, training, and retirement.

November 9, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, November 01, 2020

"Life Without Parole Sentencing in North Carolina"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Brandon Garrett, Travis Seale-Carlisle, Karima Modjadidi and Kristen Renberg now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

What explains the puzzle of life without parole (LWOP) sentencing in the United States?  In the past two decades, LWOP sentences have reached record highs, with over 50,000 prisoners serving LWOP.  Yet during this same period, homicide rates have steadily declined.  The U.S. Supreme Court has limited the use of juvenile LWOP in Eighth Amendment rulings. Further, death sentences have steeply declined, reaching record lows.  Although research has examined drivers of incarceration patterns for certain sentences, there has been little research on LWOP imposition.

To shed light on what might explain the sudden rise of LWOP, we examine characteristics of the more than 1,627 cases in which LWOP was imposed from 1995 to 2017, in North Carolina, one of the states that imposes the largest numbers of these sentences.  We begin by analyzing defendant race, crime, and sentence patterns by county.  We associate LWOP with homicide rates, and examine interactions between homicide, victim race, and prior LWOP sentencing. 

This first empirical analysis of adult LWOP sentences finds important local variations in its imposition.  We find that as the homicide rate increases within a county, we observe fewer LWOP sentences.  We find that fewer LWOP sentences are predicted to occur as the number of black victim homicides increase in a county, but no such relationship is found when considering the number of white victim homicides.  Finally, we find a strong path dependency and concentration of LWOP sentences in counties, where counties that have imposed LWOP sentences in the past are more likely to continue to do so.  These findings have implications for efforts to reconsider the most severe sentences in the U.S., and they suggest that prosecutorial discretion in seeking long sentences will be important subjects for future research and policy.

November 1, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Federal prison population, per BOP report of "Total Federal Inmates," drops below 155,000

Regular readers know that I have been closely watching COVID-era changes in the federal prison population because of dramatic declines in the federal Bureau of Prisons' weekly updated "Total Federal Inmates" numbers.  At the start of the COVID era, the reported federal prison population was around 175,000.  As detailed in a series of prior posts, BOP's weekly reporting showed that most weeks through much of the spring the federal prison population shrunk around or over 1,000 persons per week.  Into and through the summer months, weekly declines continued but at a rate closer to about 500.  In early September, as reported in this post, the BOP reported that the "Total Federal Inmates" count was down to 155,483; but then, as noted here, the BOP reported federal prison population ticked up a few hundred persons the following week for first time in COVID era.

In recent weeks the total population seemed to be creeping down again, and checking today the new BOP numbers at this webpage report "Total Federal Inmates" at a new modern low of 154,894.  Though weekly federal prison population declines are no longer consistent or dramatic, we still seem to be experiencing small decreases many weeks and thus it now seems quite that we have not yet hit "the bottom" as to COVID-era federal prison population declines.   

I have wondered repeatedly in these posts whether COVID-delayed sentencings or stalled federal prison transfers or any number of other factors may largely account for these declines.  Helpfully, as noted in this post, the US Sentencing Commission finally released some COVID-era sentencing data, and these data showed that the number of federal sentences imposed between April and June 2020 dropped about 40% from the usual rate.  The reduction in number of sentences imposed surely accounts in part for fewer persons entering federal prisons during the COVID era, though I suspect a lot of other factors have also contributed to the overall prison population declines.  

A few of many prior related posts:

October 29, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 26, 2020

US Sentencing Commission releases data revealing COVID's impact on federal sentencings

Regular readers know I have been complaining for many months about the general failure of the US Sentencing Commission to address or release data concerning the COVID state of federal sentencing (example here).  But as of today, I cannot complain quite so much because the US Sentencing Commission has just released here its "3rd Quarter ... Preliminary Fiscal Year 2020 Data Through June 30, 2020."

These new data provide the first official accounting of federal sentencing outcomes for the period from October 1, 2019 through June 20, 2020, and it is clear from these data that COVID concerns dramatically reduced the number of federal sentences imposed in the quarter comprised of the months of April, May and June 2020.  Specifically, as reflected in Figure 2, it appears that the previous three quarters averaged roughly 20,000 federal sentencings, whereas the quarter ending in June 2020 saw only around 12,000 federal sentences. This is still a lot of sentencings, but seemingly the lowest quarterly number in decades.

In addition, as reflected in Figure 5, it appears that, along with total number of imposed sentences decreasing, so too did the average sentence imposed decrease significantly during the quarter ending in June 2020.  Specifically, it appears that the previous quarters had federal sentences averaging roughly 38 months, whereas the quarter ending in June 2020 saw federal sentences averaging roughly 30 months.  This leads me speculate that the sentencings that went forward during the COVID period may have generally been the less serious cases and/or that many federal judges were somewhat less inclined to impose longer federal prison terms during the COVID era.

In sum, these latest USSC data show that the number of sentences imposed in the first COVID quarter (April to June 2020) dropped about 40% and the length of the sentences imposed in this period drop over 20%.  Very interesting, and now I am even more eager for the next data run and for even more intricate reporting and analysis from the US Sentencing Commission.

October 26, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Bureau of Justice Statistics reporting that, as of end of 2019, "US imprisonment rate at its lowest since 1995."

I was pleased this morning to get see this press release from the Bureau of Justice Statistics with this ALL CAPS heading: "U.S. IMPRISONMENT RATE AT ITS LOWEST SINCE 1995." Here are the details from the press release, which are drawn from this latest BJS report titled "Prisoners in 2019":

The combined state and federal imprisonment rate of 419 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2019 was the lowest imprisonment rate since 1995, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today.   The imprisonment rate in 2019 marked a 17% decrease from 2009 and a 3% decrease from 2018, and it marked the 11th consecutive annual decrease.  The imprisonment rate — the portion of U.S. residents who are in prison — is based on prisoners sentenced to more than one year.

The imprisonment rate rose 23% from 1995 to its peak in 2007 and 2008 (506 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents in both years).  It then fell back below the 1996 level (which was 427 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents) in 2019.  Across the decade from 2009 to 2019, the imprisonment rate fell 29% among black residents, 24% among Hispanic residents and 12% among white residents.  In 2019, the imprisonment rate of black residents was the lowest it has been in 30 years, since 1989.

At year-end 2019, there were 1,096 sentenced black prisoners per 100,000 black residents, 525 sentenced Hispanic prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic residents and 214 sentenced white prisoners per 100,000 white residents in the U.S.  Among sentenced state prisoners at year-end 2018 (the most recent data available), a larger percentage of black (62%) and Hispanic (62%) prisoners than white prisoners (48%) were serving time for a violent offense.

An estimated 14% of sentenced state prisoners were serving time for murder or non-negligent manslaughter at year-end 2018, and 13% were serving time for rape or sexual assault.  At the end of fiscal-year 2019, 46% of sentenced federal prisoners were serving time for a drug offense (99% for drug trafficking), and 8% were serving time for a violent offense.

The total prison population in the U.S. declined from 1,464,400 at year-end 2018 to 1,430,800 at year-end 2019, a 2% decrease.  This marked the fifth consecutive annual decrease of at least 1% in the prison population.  At year-end 2019, the prison population had declined 11% from its peak of 1,615,500 prisoners in 2009.

In 2019, privately operated facilities held 7% of state prisoners and 16% of federal prisoners. Public and private adult prisons held 653 prisoners age 17 or younger at year-end 2019, down 11% from the 730 held at year-end 2018.

This news and the broader trends represented are good news for those who care about human liberty, though I am disinclined to celebrate too much given that the US incarceration rate remains the highest in the world and still reflects worrisome disparities.  Still, progress is worth appreciating, and so I am today appreciative of this latest reporting of (modest) good news.

October 22, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 19, 2020

US Sentencing Commission releases its latest updated "First Step Act of 2018 Resentencing Provisions Retroactivity Data Report"

I just noticed that the US Sentencing Commission today released this updated new version of its data report titled "First Step Act of 2018 Resentencing Provisions Retroactivity Data Report." The introduction to the report provides this context and overview:

On December 21, 2018, the President signed into law the First Step Act of 2018.  Section 404 of that act provides that any defendant 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 is eligible for a sentence reduction as if Sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 were in effect at the time the offender was sentenced.  The First Step Act authorizes the defendant, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, the attorney for the Government, or the court to make a motion to reduce an offender’s sentence.

The data in this report represents information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act which the courts have granted. The data in this report reflects all motions granted through June 30, 2020 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by October 15, 2020.

These new updated data from the USSC show that 3,363 prisoners have been granted sentence reductions.  The average sentence reduction was 71 months of imprisonment (roughly a quarter of the original sentence) among those cases in which the the resulting term of imprisonment could be determined.  Though this data is not exact and may not be complete, it still seems sound to now assert that this part of the FIRST STEP Act alone, by shortening nearly 3361 sentences by nearly 6 years, has resulted in nearly 20,000 federal prison years saved! (That is an eliminations of two hundred centuries of scheduled human time in federal cages, if you want to think of it another way.)

Of course, as I have noted before, the FSA retroactivity provision of the FIRST STEP Act was only a small piece of the legislation. But these latest data show yet again how this small piece has had big impact in lots of years of lots of lives. And, of critical importance and note to be overlooked, people of color have been distinctly impacted: the USSC data document that nearly 92% of persons receiving these FSA sentence reductions were Black and more than another 4% were Latinx.

October 19, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Sentencing Project releases new disenfranchisement report, "Locked Out 2020: Estimates of People Denied Voting Rights Due to a Felony Conviction"

Via email this afternoon I received news of this notable new Sentencing Project report titled "Locked Out 2020: Estimates of People Denied Voting Rights Due to a Felony Conviction." Here is part of its "overview":

In the past 25 years, half the states have changed their laws and practices to expand voting access to people with felony convictions.  Despite these important reforms, 5.2 million Americans remain disenfranchised, 2.3 percent of the voting age population.

In this presidential election year, the question of voting restrictions, and their disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities, should receive greater public attention....

For the first time, we present estimates of the percentage of the Latinx population disenfranchised due to felony convictions.  Although these and other estimates must be interpreted with caution, the numbers presented here represent our best assessment of the state of felony disenfranchisement as of the November 2020 election.  Our key findings include the following:

• As of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a figure that has declined by almost 15 percent since 2016, as states enacted new policies to curtail this practice.  There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, 5.85 million in 2010, and 6.11 million in 2016.

• One out of 44 adults — 2.27 percent of the total U.S. voting eligible population — is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.

• Individuals who have completed their sentences in the eleven states that disenfranchise at least some people post-sentence make up most (43 percent) of the entire disenfranchised population, totaling 2.23 million people.

• Rates of disenfranchisement vary dramatically by state due to broad variations in voting prohibitions.  In three states — Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee more than 8 percent of the adult population, one of every thirteen people, is disenfranchised.

• We estimate that nearly 900,000 Floridians who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised, despite a 2018 ballot referendum that promised to restore their voting rights.  Florida thus remains the nation’s disenfranchisement leader in absolute numbers, with over 1.1 million people currently banned from voting — often because they cannot afford to pay court-ordered monetary sanctions or because the state is not obligated to tell them the amount of their sanction.

• One in 16 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 3.7 times greater than that of non-African Americans.  Over 6.2 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.7 percent of the non-African American population.

• African American disenfranchisement rates vary significantly by state.  In seven states — Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming — more than one in seven African Americans is disenfranchised, twice the national average for African Americans.

• Although data on ethnicity in correctional populations are still unevenly reported, we can conservatively estimate that over 560,000 Latinx Americans or over 2 percent of the voting eligible population are disenfranchised.

• Approximately 1.2 million women are disenfranchised, comprising over one-fifth of the total disenfranchised population.

October 14, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Data on sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

DPIC releases big new report on "Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty"

Enduring-Injustice-CoverThe Death Penalty Information Center this morning released this big new report highlighting the history of racialized application of the ultimate punishment in the US.  This DPIC press release partially summarizes its coverage and context, and here are excerpts:

As social movements pressure policymakers to redress injustices in the criminal legal system and to institute reforms to make the process more fair and equitable, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) today released, “Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty.”  This report provides an in-depth look at the historical role that race has played in the death penalty and details the pervasive role racial discrimination continues to play in the administration of capital punishment today.

“The death penalty has been used to enforce racial hierarchies throughout United States history, beginning with the colonial period and continuing to this day,” said Ngozi Ndulue, DPIC’s Senior Director of Research and Special Projects and the report’s lead author.  “Its discriminatory presence as the apex punishment in the American legal system legitimizes all other harsh and discriminatory punishments.  That is why the death penalty must be part of any discussion of police reform, prosecutorial accountability, reversing mass incarceration, and the criminal legal system as a whole.”  Ms. Ndulue previously served as the NAACP’s Senior Director of Criminal Justice Programs and as a capital appeals lawyer.

“Racial disparities are present at every stage of a capital case and get magnified as a case moves through the legal process,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the report’s editor.  “If you don’t understand the history — that the modern death penalty is the direct descendant of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow-segregation — you won’t understand why. With the continuing police and white vigilante killings of Black citizens, it is even more important now to focus attention on the outsized role the death penalty plays as an agent and validator of racial discrimination.  What is broken or intentionally discriminatory in the criminal legal system is visibly worse in death-penalty cases. Exposing how the system discriminates in capital cases can shine an important light on law enforcement and judicial practices in vital need of abolition, restructuring, or reform.”

Racial bias persists today, as evidenced by cases with white victims being more likely to be investigated and capitally charged; systemic exclusion of jurors of color from service in death-penalty trials; and disproportionate imposition of death sentences against defendants of color. The report provides compelling evidence of racial bias in the modern death penalty, including:

  • A 2015 meta-analysis of 30 studies showed that the killers of white people were more likely than the killers of Black people to face a capital prosecution.

  • A study in North Carolina showed that qualified Black jurors were struck from juries at more than twice the rate of qualified white jurors. As of 2010, 20 percent of those on the state’s death row were sentenced to death by all-white juries.

  • Since executions resumed in 1977, 295 African-Americans defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, while only 21 white defendants have been executed for the murder of an African-American victim.

  • A 2014 mock jury study of more than 500 Californians found that white jurors were more likely to sentence poor Latinx defendants to death than poor white defendants.

  • Exonerations of African Americans for murder convictions are 22 percent more likely to be linked to police misconduct.

September 15, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 07, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior recent related posts:

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

Thursday, September 03, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 31, 2020

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

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

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

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

REDUCING DRUG RECIDIVIST PENALTIES

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

EXPANDING SAFETY VALVE 

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

LIMITING 924(c) “STACKING”

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

RETROACTIVELY APPLYING THE FAIR SENTENCING ACT OF 2010

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

COMPASSIONATE RELEASE

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases report on "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2017-2018"

Though I am sad that data in reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics is often a bit dated, I am always grateful for the work BJS does to assemble and detail criminal justice data. And I am especially pleased to see this latest BJS report, titled "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2017-2018," in part because it details the continued decline in correctional populations for now more than a decade (which I certainly believe has continued into 2019 and 2020). This BJS webpage provides this context and highlights:

This report is the 23rd in a series that began in 1985. It provides statistics on populations supervised by adult correctional systems in the United States, including persons held in prisons or jails and those supervised in the community on probation or parole. It provides statistics on the size of the correctional populations at year-end 2017 and year-end 2018, and changes in populations over time.

Highlights:

  • The adult correctional-supervision rate (adults supervised per 100,000 adult U.S. residents) decreased 21% from 2008 to 2018, from 3,160 to 2,510 per 100,000 adult U.S. residents.
  • The percentage of adult U.S. residents under correctional supervision was lower in 2018 than at any time since 1992.
  • The adult incarceration rate (adults in prison or jail per 100,000 adult U.S. residents) has declined every year since 2008, and the rate in 2018 was the lowest since 1996.
  • The portion of adult U.S. residents in prison or jails fell 17% from 2008 to 2018.
  • The correctional population declined 2.1% from 2017 to 2018, due to decreases in both the community-supervision (down 2.4%) and incarcerated (down 1.4%) populations.

August 27, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Oregon drug decriminalization initiative would produce "significant reductions in racial/ethnic disparities" according to state commission

Download (12)As reported in this local press piece, headlined "Oregon Criminal Justice Commission: Initiative Petition 44 Will Nearly Eliminate Racial Disparities for Drug Arrests, Convictions," a notable state commission has reported that a notable state ballot initiative will have a notable impact on equity in the criminal justice system. Here are the basics from the press piece:

Racial disparities in drug arrests will drop by 95% if Oregon voters pass a drug treatment and decriminalization measure in November.  That’s according to a new, independent government research report written by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.  Oregon voters will see a summary of the report in the voter pamphlet that the Oregon Secretary of State mails to every registered Oregon voter in November.

In addition to a reduction in arrest disparities, conviction disparities would be “narrowed substantially” if Initiative Petition 44 passes, the report said, and overall convictions would fall.  For example, convictions of Black and Indigenous Oregonians would drop by 94%....

The analysis by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission is the first one ever prepared for a ballot measure.  Lawmakers have had the ability to ask for such an analysis since 2014 and did this year after being urged to do so by the More Treatment campaign, which supports Initiative Petition 44....

Initiative Petition 44, which will soon get a ballot measure number, changes Oregon’s approach to drugs.  The initiative would expand access around the state to drug addiction treatment and recovery services, paid for with a portion of taxes from legal marijuana sales. In addition, the measure decriminalizes low-level drug possession.  It does not legalize drugs.

About 8,900 Oregonians are arrested every year in cases where simple drug possession is the most serious offense, according to the latest numbers from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.  That’s the equivalent of about one arrest an hour.  Black and Indigenous Oregonians are disproportionately targeted....

In addition to decriminalizing drug possession, Initiative Petition 44 would specifically provide funding for treatment, peer support, housing, and harm reduction. Marijuana tax revenue that’s in excess of $45 million a year would help pay for it.  Oregon expects to collect roughly $284.2 million in marijuana tax revenue during the 2021-2023 biennium, or roughly $140 million a year.

Initiative Petition 44 has received more than 70 endorsements from organizations across the state, including the Coalition of Communities of Color, NAACP Portland, Eugene-Springfield NAACP, Unite Oregon, Central City Concern, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and more.  The MoreTreatment campaign to pass Initiative Petition 44 does not face any organized opposition.

The full seven-page analysis by the Oregon Criminal Sentencing Commission is available at this link, and here is part of the conclusion:

Overall, if IP 44 were to pass, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission estimates that approximately 1,800 fewer Oregonians per year would be convicted of felony PCS [possession of controlled substances]  and nearly 1,900 fewer Oregonians per year would be convicted of misdemeanor PCS.  Prior research suggests this drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement (Ewald and Uggen, 2012), which include the reduced ability to find employment, reduced access to housing, restrictions on the receipt of student loans, inability to obtain professional licensure, and others.

The CJC estimates that IP 44 will likely lead to significant reductions in racial/ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests....

Similarly, it is estimated that disparities in arrests for PCS would fall as well. If arrests follow the same trends as were estimated for convictions, then the overall number of PCS arrests would fall from just over 6,700 to 615. In this case, the significant overrepresentation of Black Oregonians as measured by the RDR among those arrested for PCS would fall substantially, being reduced by nearly 95 percent. In addition, Native American Oregonians would go from being overrepresented, to underrepresented compared to white individuals.

August 9, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

The newest (not-so-new) data from BJS on parole and probation populations throughout the United States

The Bureau of Justice Statistics just released this 40+-page report, titled "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2017-2018," providing its latest official data on offenders under community supervision throughout the nation.  Though already a bit dated, the report still provides a notable view on the largest group of persons subject to criminal justice control in the US.  Here are data from the "Highlights" section at the start of the report:

August 4, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

"Visualizing the racial disparities in mass incarceration"

Prisonratesbyracesex2018The title of this post is the title of this notable new briefing by Wendy Sawyer at the Prison Policy Initiative.  The subtitle of this piece provides an overview: "Racial inequality is evident in every stage of the criminal justice system - here are the key statistics compiled into a series of charts." I recommend the whole briefing, and here is a taste in text and visuals:

Recent protests calling for radical changes to American policing have brought much-needed attention to the systemic racism within our criminal justice system. This extends beyond policing, of course: Systemic racism is evident at every stage of the system, from policing to prosecutorial decisions, pretrial release processes, sentencing, correctional discipline, and even reentry. The racism inherent in mass incarceration affects children as well as adults, and is often especially punishing for people of color who are also marginalized along other lines, such as gender and class.

Because racial disparity data is often frustratingly hard to locate, we’ve compiled the key data available into a series of charts, arranged into five slideshows focused on policingjuvenile justicejails and pretrial detention, prisons and sentencing, and reentry. These charts provide a fuller picture of racial inequality in the criminal justice system, and make clear that a broad transformation will be needed to uproot the racial injustice of mass incarceration.

Following the slideshows, we also address five frequently asked questions about criminal justice race/ethnicity data....

Q: Where can I find data about racial disparities in my state’s criminal justice system?

A: Unfortunately, the more specific you want to get with race/ethnicity data, the harder it is to find an answer, especially one that’s up-to-date. State-level race and ethnicity data can be hard to find if you are looking to federal government sources like the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).  BJS does publish state-level race and ethnicity data in its annual Prisoners series (Appendix Table 2 in 2018), but only every 6-7 years in its Jail Inmates series (most recently the 2013 Census of Jails report, Table 7).  The Vera Institute of Justice has attempted to fill this gap with its Incarceration Trends project, by gathering additional data from individual states.  Individual state Departments of Correction sometimes collect and/or publish more up-to-date and specific data; it’s worth checking with your own state’s agencies.....

Q: How are the data collected, and how accurate are the data?

A: Finally, the validity of any data depends on how the data are collected in the first place. And in the case of criminal justice data, race and ethnicity are not always self-reported (which would be ideal). Police officers may report an individual’s race based on their own perception – or not report it at all – and the surveys that report the number of incarcerated people on a given day rely on administrative data, which may not reflect how individuals identify their own race or ethnicity. This is why surveys of incarcerated people themselves are so important, such as the Survey of Inmates in Local Jails and the Survey of Prison Inmates, but those surveys are conducted much less frequently. In fact, it’s been 18 years since the last Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, which we use to analyze pretrial jail populations, and 16 years since the last published data from the Survey of Inmates were collected.

July 29, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

US Sentencing Commission publishes "Federal Probation and Supervised Release Violations"

Cover_violations-report-2020The US Sentencing Commission today released this lengthy notable new report titled simply "Federal Probation and Supervised Release Violations." This USSC webpage provides a summary and a extended account of "key findings":

Summary

Federal Probation and Supervised Release Violations presents data on approximately 108,000 violation hearings that occurred between 2013 and 2017.  The report examines the prevalence, types, and locations of federal supervision violations as well as the characteristics of more than 82,000 violators. The report also compares supervision violators to the population of federal offenders originally sentenced to probation or a sentence including a term of supervised release during the same time period. (Published July 28, 2020)

Key Findings
  • Nationally, the number of individuals under supervision was relatively stable during the study period, ranging from 130,224 to 136,156 during the five years. Half of the individuals under supervision, however, were concentrated in only 21 of the 94 federal judicial districts.
  • Nationally, the rate of violation hearings for individuals on supervision also was relatively stable, ranging from 16.2 to 18.4 percent during the five years, with an overall rate of 16.9 percent.  The prevalence of supervision violations, however, varied considerably among the federal judicial districts.
    • Violations accounted for more than one-third of individuals on supervision in the Southern District of California (42.1%), District of Minnesota (37.4%), Western District of Missouri (34.3%), District of Arizona (33.7%), and District of New Mexico (33.4%).  In contrast, violations accounted for less than five percent of individuals on supervision in the Districts of Connecticut (4.5%) and Maryland (4.7%).
  • Supervision violators tended to have committed more serious original offenses than federal offenders whose original sentence was probation or included a term of supervised release during the same time period.
    • For example, the rates of supervision violators originally sentenced for violent and firearms offenses (7.9% and 20.4%, respectively) were approximately twice as high compared to offenders originally sentenced during the study period (3.7% and 12.8%, respectively), a finding which is consistent with prior Commission recidivism research.
  • Drug offenses were the most common primary offense type for both supervision violators and federal offenders whose original sentence was probation or included a term of supervised release during the same time period.  There were, however, notable variations by drug type.
    • For example, crack cocaine offenders accounted for only 9.9 percent of drug offenders whose original sentence was probation or included a term of supervised release, but they accounted for almost one-third (32.1%) of supervision violators, a greater proportion than any other drug type.  The disproportional representation of crack cocaine offenders among supervision violators is consistent with prior Commission recidivism research.  On the other hand, drug offenders who received the safety valve at their original sentencing were underrepresented among supervision violators (19.1% compared to 30.7%), a finding that also is consistent with prior Commission recidivism research.
  • Supervision violators tended to have more serious criminal histories than federal offenders whose original sentence was probation or included a term of supervised release.
    • Approximately one-quarter (24.6%) of offenders with supervision violations were in the lowest Criminal History Category (CHC I) at the time of their original sentencing compared to almost half (44.9%) of offenders whose original sentence was probation or included a term of supervised release during the study period. On the other end of the spectrum, 18.3 percent of offenders with supervision violations were in the highest Criminal History Category (CHC VI) at the time of their original sentencing compared to 9.9 percent of offenders whose original sentence was probation or included a term of supervised release during the study period. This pattern is consistent with prior Commission recidivism research.
  • The majority of supervision violations were based on the commission of an offense punishable by a term of one year or less or a violation of another condition of supervision not constituting a federal, state or local offense (Grade C Violation).
    • More than half (54.9%) of violations were Grade C (the least serious classification), nearly one-third (31.5%) were Grade B, and 13.6 percent were Grade A (the most serious classification).
  • Offenders who were originally sentenced for more serious offenses tended to commit more serious supervision violations.
    • For example, over four-fifths of the Grade A violations were committed by offenders originally sentenced for drug offenses (52.0%), firearms offenses (24.5%), or violent offenses (6.3%).
  • Offenders who violated their conditions of supervision typically did so within the first two years.
    • On average, 22 months elapsed from the time supervision commenced to the commission of the supervision violation, but the elapsed time was notably longer for Grade A violations (the most serious) at 33 months.
  • The majority of supervision violators were sentenced in accordance with the Chapter Seven Revocation Table.
    • More than half (59.8%) were within the applicable range, just over one-quarter (29.1%) were below the range, and 11.1 percent were above the range. Courts tended to impose sentences within the applicable guideline range less often for more serious supervision violations. For example, for Grade A violations (the most serious classification), 39.4 percent were sentenced within the applicable range, and 54.2 percent were sentenced below the range. In contrast, for Grade C violations (the least serious classification), 63.6 percent were sentenced within the range, and 22.1 percent were sentenced below the range.

July 28, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

"Open Risk Assessment"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by Brandon Garrett and Megan Stevenson. Here is its abstract:

As criminal justice actors increasingly seek to rely on more evidence-informed practices, including risk assessment instruments, they often lack adequate information about the evidence that informed the development of the practice or the tool.  Open science practices, including making scientific research and data accessible and public, have not typically been followed in the development of tools designed for law enforcement, judges, probation, and others.  This is in contrast to other government agencies, which often open their processes to public notice and comment.

Lack of transparency has become pressing in the area of risk assessment, as entire judicial systems have adopted some type of risk assessment scheme.  While the types of information used in a risk tool may be made public, often the underlying methods, validation data, and studies are not.  Nor are the assumptions behind how a level of risk gets categorized as “high” or “low.”  We discuss why those concerns are relevant and important to the new risk assessment tool now being used in federal prisons, as part of the First Step Act.  We conclude that a number of key assumptions and policy choices made in the design of that tool are not verifiable or are inadequately supported, including the choice of risk thresholds and the validation data itself.  Unfortunately, as a result, the federal risk assessment effort has not been the hoped-for model for open risk assessment.

July 21, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"The United States of Risk Assessment: The Machines Influencing Criminal Justice Decisions"

The title of this post is the title of this very useful Law.com/Legaltech News article and related research project by Rhys Dipshan, Victoria Hudgins and Frank Ready. The subtitle of the piece provides an overview: "In every state, assessment tools help courts decide certain cases or correctional officers determine the supervision and programming an offender receives. But the tools each state uses varies widely, and how they're put into practice varies even more."  This companion piece, titled "The Most Widely Used Risk Assessment Tool in Each U.S State," provides this introduction:

There are dozens of risk assessment tools in use in local criminal justice systems around the country.  Not all have a far reaching impact, such as those specialized to a specific risk like domestic violence or those assessing risk for a certain demographic like juvenile offenders.  Tools that have the broadest impact and deployment, however, are ones that look at recidivism pretrial risk in adult populations.

Below, we highlight these specific tools in use in each state, and the criminal justice decisions point they influence.  These findings are part of a broader research project examining how jurisdictions implement risk assessment tools, and how they determine they accurately work and are implemented as intended.  The project also dives into how risk assessment tools generate their scores and the debate around whether these instrument exacerbate or mitigate bias in criminal justice decision making.

July 14, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 13, 2020

When might we get any data (or even a statement) from US Sentencing Commission about the COVID state of federal sentencing?

Today marks exactly four months since Prez Trump, on March 13, officially proclaimed that "the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States constitutes a national emergency."  In this post back in March, I expressed disappointment, but understanding, regarding the US Sentencing Commission's failure at that time to put out any data or statement about the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on the federal criminal justice system.  As I said in that post, USSC is not really geared up for producing real-time data even under the best of circumstances, and these are obviously not the best of circumstances.

But since March, the USSC has actually managed to produce and disseminate an impressive array of new publications even during a global pandemic. Here are links to the posts I have done in the last four months reporting on notable new USSC publications:

And this list is an incomplete accounting of the USSC's pandemic productivity, as it has also produced nearly 30 new insightful little data documents in its terrific series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications, as well as a number of other notable and valuable documents like an updated new set of training  "Primers" on a wide array of topics. 

But, disappointingly, amidst all this impressive continued productivity, we are still awaiting the US Sentencing Commission producing any data (or even some kind of statement) about COVID's on-going (and evolving?) impact on the federal criminal justice system.  As I have mentioned before, it would prove extremely helpful to advocates, researchers and surely persons involved in the federal sentencing system to know just about anything about how and how many sentencings are being conducted in federal courts.  I suspect I am not the only one eager to see any data on, for example, how many sentencings are going forward each week given that, in normal times, about an average of 1500 federal sentences are imposed in federal courts every week of the year.  I would also be eager to know if a larger number than usual non-prison sentences are being imposed in those sentencings that are going forward.  And any data on sentence reductions motions involving § 3582(c)(1)(A) would also be so very interesting.

I do not mean to unduly assail the USSC during these challenging times, but I fear its failure to say publicly a single word about the COVID state of federal sentencing can make these times even more challenging for those working in the federal system.  In my view, having the USSC discuss ASAP what data it is trying to collect and when the USSC might report on this data could be of great service and could help advance the cause of thoughtful and consistent federal sentencing amidst uncertain times.

July 13, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 06, 2020

Death Penalty Information Center releases "Mid-Year Review" detailing "Record-Low Death Penalty Use in First Half of 2020"

I just saw that the Death Penalty Information Center published here just before the holiday weekend a short report titled "DPIC MID-YEAR REVIEW: Pandemic and Continuing Historic Decline Produce Record-Low Death Penalty Use in First Half of 2020."  Here are some highlights:

Introduction

The combination of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the continuing broad national decline in the use of capital punishment produced historically low numbers of new death sentences and executions in the first half of 2020.

Even before the pandemic, the U.S. was poised for its sixth consecutive year with 50 or fewer new death sentences and 30 or fewer executions.  At the midpoint of 2020, there had been 13 new death sentences, imposed in seven states, and six executions carried out by five historically high-execution states. Florida (4), California (3), and Texas had imposed multiple new death sentences, but only Texas (with 2) had carried out more than one execution....

First-Half 2020 Death Sentences

2016 through 2019 produced four of the five lowest death-sentencing years in the U.S. since the Supreme Court struck down existing death-penalty statutes in Furman v. Georgia in 1972.  With new death sentences already near historic lows and most capital trials and sentencings now suspended or delayed, 2020 is expected to produce the fewest death sentences of any year in the modern history of the U.S. death penalty....

Only two death sentences have been imposed since the pandemic began shutting down courts in mid-March.  Neither of those sentences — a trial before a three-judge panel in Ohio and a California trial court’s acceptance of a jury verdict issued in January — involved new jury action, nor did the last sentences imposed prior to the pandemic.

The last death sentences imposed before the widespread court closures were handed down by a Florida trial judge on March 13, who sentenced Jesse Bell and Barry Noetzel to death after they pled guilty and were permitted to waive their rights to counsel and a jury sentencing.  The next new death sentence came on May 18, when an Ohio three-judge panel sentenced Joel Drain to death. Drain had waived his right to a jury trial and sentence, presented no guilt defense and refused to present mitigating evidence in the penalty-phase of his trial.  The 66 days between those two death sentences was the longest the United States had gone without a new death sentence since 1973....

First-Half 2020 Executions

Midway through 2020, it appears that U.S. states are likely to carry out fewer executions than in any year since 1991, when there were 14 executions.  Of the 54 executions dates set for 2020, six executions have been carried out, with nine scheduled executions still pending.  The few jurisdictions that are attempting to carry out executions are outliers in both their criminal justice and public health policies, prioritizing immediately executing prisoners over public health and safety concerns and fair judicial process.  Eight executions have been stayed or rescheduled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am always grateful for how DPIC assembles and reports essential capital punishment data, but I find it notable that this report does not discuss  that the federal government may be poised to resume executions in the second half of 2020 thanks to key decisions by the DC Circuit and SCOTUS in the first half of 2020.  Though I doubt that the resumption of federal executions will dramatically impact the declining fate of the death penalty throughout the US, I do think the pending federal executions could prove to be one of the biggest death penalty stories of 2020 (and could even become a presidential campaign issue in the coming months).  It seems worth a mention.

July 6, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 03, 2020

"Proposition 47’s Impact on Racial Disparity in Criminal Justice Outcomes"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely report from the Public Policy Institute of California.  Here is its "Summary":

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes to correctional systems and law enforcement’s interactions with the community, widespread protests focused on the deaths of African Americans in police custody have intensified concern about racial and ethnic disparities in our criminal justice system.  In recent years, California has implemented a number of significant reforms that were not motivated by racial disparities but might have narrowed them in a number of ways. In this report, we extend our previous arrest work to examine the impact of Proposition 47, which reclassified a number of drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, on racial disparities in arrest and jail booking rates and in the likelihood of an arrest resulting in a booking.

While significant inequities persist in California and elsewhere, our findings point to a reduction in pretrial detention and a narrowing of racial disparities in key statewide criminal justice outcomes.

  • After Prop 47 passed in November 2014, the number of bookings quickly dropped by 10.4 percent.  As a result, California’s use of pretrial detention has declined.
  • Prop 47 also led to notable decreases in racial/ethnic disparities in arrests and bookings.  The African American–white arrest rate gap narrowed by about 5.9 percent, while the African American–white booking rate gap shrank by about 8.2 percent.  Prop 47 has not meaningfully changed the disparities in arrest and booking rates between Latinos and whites, which are still only a small fraction of the African American–white gap.
  • The narrowing of African American–white disparities has been driven by property and drug offenses.  The gap in arrests for these offenses dropped by about 24 percent and the bookings gap narrowed by almost 33 percent.  Even more striking, African American–white gaps in arrest and booking rates for drug felonies decreased by about 36 percent and 55 percent, respectively.
  • The likelihood of an arrest leading to a jail booking declined the most for whites, but this is attributable to the relatively larger share of white arrests for drug offenses covered by Prop 47. When we account for arrest offense differences, the decreases in the likelihood of an arrest being booked are similar across race and ethnicity.

We also looked at the cumulative impact of reforms and prison population reduction measures in California since 2009 on racial disparities in incarceration.  We found that the sizable reduction in the overall incarceration rate produced by these efforts has led to a narrowing of racial disparities in the proportion institutionalized on any given day.  In particular, the African American–white incarceration gap dropped from about 4.5 percentage points to 2.8 percentage points, a decrease of about 36 percent.

In addition to meaningfully reducing racial disparities in key criminal justice outcomes, the reclassification of drug and property offenses led to significant decreases in arrests and bookings, and hence pretrial detention. These decreases have the potential to reduce and/or redirect the use of public resources.  However, more work is needed.  Given evidence that the reforms have led to some increases in property crime, it is important for policymakers and practitioners to identify effective programs and policies that can reduce recidivism and maintain public safety while also continuing to address racial disparities.

July 3, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 18, 2020

BOP accounting of "Total Federal Inmates" continues to drop, though pace may be slowing

This morning's check on the federal Bureau of Prisons' updated "Total Federal Inmates" numbers show a continuation of historic declines, though it now seems that the pace of the decline is slowing a bit.  In a prior post here, I highlighted that, according to BOP's reporting, most weeks through April the federal prison population shrunk around or over 1,000 persons per week.  And through May 2020, as detailed here, the pace of decline increased to around 1,200 fewer reported prisoners in federal facilities.  But as we headed into and now though June, the new numbers at this webpage continue to show significant, but slightly reduced, weekly declines: the BOP reported population dropped from 166,647 (as of May 21) to 165,575 (as of May 28) to 164,438 (as of June 4) to 163,441 (as for June 11) to now a BOP reported total of 162,578.

I continue to suspect that these persistent declines in total inmates is mostly a function of delays in federal case-processing pipelines from COVID shutdowns; I keep expecting that we will, eventually, see some (considerable?) move upward in these numbers.  But maybe, as I have wistfully speculated before, we are still some ways from the bottom here and are still moving toward a much lower "new normal" for the federal prison population.  Time will tell.

Critically, though, dare anyone start wanting to think federal prisons are full of good stories, this new Marshall Project piece provides a reminder of grim realities in its full headline: "'I Begged Them To Let Me Die': How Federal Prisons Became Coronavirus Death Traps. The Bureau of Prisons was unprepared and slow to respond. Then officials took steps that helped spread the virus." 

A few of many prior related posts:

June 18, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"A Comparison of the Female and Male Racial Disparities in Imprisonment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now appearing on SSRN and authored by Junsoo Lee, Paul Pecorino and Anne-Charlotte Souto.  Here is its abstract:

We examine the behavior of the incarceration rate and the racial disparity in imprisonment for black women and compare this to the results for black men over the period 1978-2016.  At the beginning of our sample, the racial disparity is high and of similar magnitude for both groups.  Black women and black men both experience a large run-up in incarceration between 1978-1999, where this run-up can be entirely explained by the increase in overall incarceration in the United States during this period.  Black women and black men both experience a decrease in incarceration between 1999 and 2016, but the decline for women is much steeper.

The decline in incarceration for black women is entirely explained by a decline in the racial disparity, where for men, a decline in the disparity and a decline in the overall male incarceration rate are both important.  At the state level, there are frequent upturns in the racial disparity in the 1980s for both black women and black men, followed by frequent downturns in the 1990s.  The data provide no prima facie evidence that the 1994 Crime Bill exacerbated the racial disparity in imprisonment.  By the end of the sample, the racial disparity for females is 1.8, and the disparity for males is 5.2, where this disparity measures the per capita black imprisonment rate divided by the per capita white imprisonment rate for each group.

June 17, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 08, 2020

US Sentencing Commission releases awesome new data tool, "Interactive Data Analyzer"

Download (1)I was pleased to receive today from the US Sentencing Commission an email blaring "JUST LAUNCHED: Interactive Data Analyzer." Here is part of the text of the email:

You've got questions, IDA has data! The U.S. Sentencing Commission's Interactive Data Analyzer (IDA) is an online tool that can be used to explore, filter, customize, and visualize annual federal sentencing data. 

Some of IDA's features include:

  • Simple visualization and navigation of complex datasets (tutorial video);

  • Readymade dashboards for the most common federal crime types;

  • Combined annual data and trend analyses spanning five years;

  • Data filters by geography, demographics, crime and drug types;

  • Cross-sectional variable analysis; and

  • Export options that include formatted tables and raw data (tutorial video);

This great new tool is also explained at this USSC webpage, which includes this text:

The Interactive Data Analyzer (IDA) is an online tool that can be used to explore, filter, customize, and visualize federal sentencing data. IDA presents annual data that is stored in a secure data warehouse and refreshed periodically with the latest information collected, received, and edited by the Commission.

IDA offers prebuilt data dashboards for the four most common crime types in the federal caseload and for other common areas of interest. You can navigate to these sections using the main menu.

If you're looking for more granular data, use the filtering menu along the left side of any page. You can select data by fiscal years, jurisdictions, offender characteristics, or other variables. Filtering options will vary based on the topics you choose.

Kudos to the USSC for creating this now and helpful way to access its data. I am already having fund with IDA, and I am certain it will prove to be a useful resource for academics, policy-makers and practitioners.

June 8, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

New Federal Defenders fact sheet highlights flaws in recent USSC report on incarceration lengths and recividism

This post from late April flagged this notable report by the US Sentencing Commission, titled "Length of Incarceration and Recidivism," which reported, inter alia, that the "Commission consistently found that incarceration lengths of more than 120 months had a deterrent effect."  The empiricism of this report was quickly questioned by two academics with empirical props, Jennifer Doleac and John Pfaff, and now the Sentencing Resource Counsel of the Federal Public and Community Defenders have produced this lengthy fact-sheet and this two-pager detailing problems with this USSC's report.

The nine-page "fact sheet" from the defenders is titled "Flawed U.S. Sentencing Commission Report Misstates Current Knowledge," and here is its initial "Summary":

In April 2020, the U. S. Sentencing Commission issued a report entitled “Length of Incarceration and Recidivism.”  In its report, the Commission claimed that “incarceration lengths of more than 120 months had a deterrent effect.” No effect was found for sentences 60 months or less, while sentences between 60 and 120 months yielded inconsistent results.

None of the findings in this report should be used by judges, legislators, or the Commission to make decisions of any kind.  The report badly misrepresents the research literature (Section I), uses a weak methodology for inferring causation (Section II), and fails properly to control for defendants’ criminal history (Section IV).  The report states its findings in a misleading form prone to misinterpretation and exaggeration (Section III).  The anomalous pattern of findings fits no theory of deterrence (Section VI), and no previous study has found the same pattern.  Further, it is unlikely the report’s findings would replicate or withstand tests for robustness, but because the Commission will not release data underlying the report, independent evaluation is impossible (Section IX). 

As a bipartisan agency, charged with being a “clearinghouse” for information on the effectiveness of sentencing practices, the Commission should issue accurate reports on the current state of knowledge regarding important policy questions. This report fails to meet that standard.

Prior related post:

June 8, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 25, 2020

Is the number of federal prisoners about to spike up as BOP moves nearly 7000 new inmates into federal facilities?

The question in the title of this post is my reaction to this new BOP press release titled "Bureau of Prisons Announces Update on Inmate Movement." The press release is dated May 22, and it starts this way:

The Bureau of Prisons (Bureau) and the United States Marshals Service (USMS) announced today that they will begin movement of approximately 6,800 new inmates who have been committed to the Bureau in recent months.

The Bureau, in coordination with the USMS, has decreased internal movement of inmates by 90% as compared to this time last year.  While inmate movement was significantly curtailed for several months, newly sentenced and newly admitted inmates have been held in local detention facilities across the country.  As the federal judiciary has continued to process new criminal cases and begins to phase-in expanded operations, the Bureau must, on a limited basis, move these inmates to alleviate population pressures in these local detention centers and allow inmates to begin serving their sentences.

This AP article provides addition background, including these details and context:

The inmates will be sent to one of three designated quarantine sites — FCC Yazoo City in Mississippi, FCC Victorville in California and FTC Oklahoma City — or to a Bureau of Prisons detention center.  All the inmates who are being moved will be tested for COVID-19 when they arrive at the Bureau of Prisons facility and would be tested again before they are moved to the prison where they would serve their sentence.

The prisoners have already been sentenced to federal crimes but were unable to be moved from local facilities as the coronavirus pandemic struck over concerns the virus would spread rampantly.... The federal prison system is continuing coronavirus-related restrictions, including a ban on visitors and minimal inmate transfers, at least through the end of June.

Regular readers know I have been tracking and wondering about the historic declines in the federal prison population in the last few months that the BOP has been reporting through its usual BOP weekly "Total Federal Inmates" population counts.  Specifically, as noted here, on April 9, the BOP reported population has already gone down to 173,686 inmates; six weeks later, as noted here, the BOP reported population was down to 166,647.  Notably, that reported difference in the BOP population represent almost exactly a 7000 inmate decline, which seemingly matches up pretty closely with the 6,800 new inmates being held in local detention facilities that are now to be moved into federal facilities.  In other words, it seems possible that what I thought might be an historic COVID decline is really largely just an artifice of 6,800 federal prisoners not being officially counted while being held in local detention facilities. 

Because I find BOP accounting opaque in many ways, I am not sure whether we should now expect to see a huge spike in the official BOP inmate count this week, nor am I sure there is any single predictable accounting metric for just how and why BOP inmate counts will fluctuate either in normal times or in these crazy COVID times.  But these stories provide further confirmation that the massive federal prison system has an extraordinary inflow and outflow of humans in all times.  It is dangerously easy to look at the federal prison population as relatively stable in some periods without realize that many, many thousands of persons move in and out of this system of human caging every year.

May 25, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

TRAC data report provides snapshot into impact of COVID-19 on referrals for federal criminal prosecution

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) has this great new online report under the title "How Is Covid-19 Impacting Federal Criminal Enforcement?". The figures in the report are worth checking out by clicking through, but this introductory text highlights the main story:

Law enforcement agencies across the country have been referring fewer criminal cases to federal prosecutors since the coronavirus pandemic began.  While weekly referrals for federal prosecution during February and the first half of March averaged around 4,500 per week, referrals fell to only 1,800 during the last week of March.  The Trump administration issued new guidance on Sunday evening, March 15, allowing some federal employees to work from home.  Previously, only those at high risk of health problems could telework.

Figure 1 plots the number of referrals recorded as received by these federal prosecutors day-by-day during the first six months of FY 2020 (October 2019 - March 2020). Starting in mid-March the numbers decline sharply. (As the plot shows, normally few referrals are recorded during Saturday or Sunday producing a predicable weekly cycle in the plot. A decline during the holidays over Christmas is also evident.)

Each weekday, U.S. Attorney offices from around the country typically receive hundreds of referrals.  Most of these came from federal investigative agencies.  Some originate from local and state law enforcement.  Each referral is typically assigned to an assistant U.S. attorney who determines whether or not to charge the suspect with committing one or more federal crimes.

I am inclined to guess that this 60% decline in federal prosecutions persisted through April, and that into May there might have started to be a rebound. Whatever the particulars, these TRAC data provide one accounting of how the cornoavirus and lockdowns have dramatically impacts the usual flow of cases into the federal criminal justice system.  Lockdown realities have surely disrupted this flow at other junctures (e.g., indictments, trials/pleas, sentencings), and I suspect it will be many months (maybe even years) before we can take full stock of COVID shock.

May 20, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

"U.S. Prison Decline: Insufficient to Undo Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new short report from The Sentencing Project authored by Nazgol Ghandnoosh. The charts and graphs alone make this piece a must-read, and here is some of its text:

By yearend 2018, the U.S. prison population reached 1.4 million people, declining by 9% since reaching its peak level in 2009.  This follows a nearly 700% growth in the prison population between 1972 and 2009.  This research brief reveals significant variation across states in decarceration and highlights the overall modest pace of reforms relative to the massive imprisonment buildup.

This analysis is based on the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on people serving sentences greater than one year.  Since the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, a number of states and the federal system have made additional, albeit modest, reductions in their prison populations. This analysis underscores the need to address excessively high levels of imprisonment amidst a public health crisis.

All but six states have reduced their prison populations since reaching their peak levels.  For twenty-five states, the reduction in imprisonment levels was less than 10%.  The federal prison population was downsized by 17% relative to its peak level in 2011.  Seven states lead the nation, having decarcerated by over 30% since reaching their peak imprisonment levels: New Jersey, Alaska, Connecticut, New York, Alabama, Rhode Island, and Vermont.  These prison population reductions are the result of a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce prison admissions and lengths of stay.  But six states had their highest ever prison populations in 2018: Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Oregon.

Although 44 states and the federal system have reduced their prison populations since reaching peak levels, the pace of reform has been slow to reverse nearly four decades of aggressive annual imprisonment growth.  At the pace of decarceration since 2009, averaging 1% annually, it will take 65 years — until 2085 — to cut the U.S. prison population in half.  Clearly, waiting over six decades to substantively alter a system that is out of step with the world and is racially biased is unacceptable.

A few recent related posts:

May 19, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

"People in Prison in 2019" ... as well as a partial 2020 update

The title of this post is the title of this great new Vera institute of Justice publication that provides the latest nationwide prison population headcounts.  Here his how the first part of the report gets started:

Effective advocacy and policy making require up-to-date information.  Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) researchers collected data on the number of people who were incarcerated in state and federal prisons as of December 31, 2019, 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 next annual report — likely in early 2021 — which will include additional data, such as population breakdowns by race and sex.  In response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Vera collected updated data on people in prison at the end of the first quarter of 2020 to reflect any changes that had occurred as a result of the outbreak.

At the end of 2019, there were an estimated 1,435,500 people in state and federal prisons, down 33,000 from year-end 2018 (2.2 percent decline).  There were 1,260,400 people under state prison jurisdiction, 28,200 fewer than in 2018 (2.2 percent decline); and 175,100 in the federal prison system, 4,800 fewer than in 2018 (2.7 percent decline).

The prison incarceration rate in the United States was 437 people in prison per 100,000 residents, a 2.6 percent drop from 449 per 100,000 in the previous year.  This represents a 17.5 percent decline in the rate of prison incarceration since its peak in 2007.

A decrease in the number of people in federal prisons, along with at least 5 percent declines in incarceration rates in eight states, account for the overall decline in the national prison incarceration rate.  Of those eight states, only three — Missouri, New York, and Oklahoma—have relatively large prison populations.  Prison incarceration continued to rise in some states, such as Nebraska, Idaho, and West Virginia....

Population data collected for March/April 2020 from 44 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons in response to the COVID-19 pandemic showed negligible declines in numbers (a 1.6 percent decrease) during the first three months of 2020.  During the first months of 2020, U.S. prisons emerged as epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic.  In light of this crisis, advocates and public health officials made repeated calls for elected officials to use clemency and other immediate measures to reduce state and federal prison populations. Vera requested additional data for the end of March or beginning of April 2020 to account for any prison population changes during the first quarter of the year.  Data from 44 states and the BOP show that none had moved with the urgency required to meet the recommendations of public health officials to reduce incarceration.  Across all jurisdictions that reported data to Vera, prison populations had decreased by only 1.6 percent.

Five states — Idaho, Iowa, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming — had more people in prison on March 31, 2020, than they did on December 31, 2019.  The remaining states showed only small declines.  While Missouri’s prison population declined 14.2 percent in 2019, it had declined only 1.2 percent during the first quarter of 2020. 

The largest percentage reductions were in Vermont (down 11.6 percent), North Dakota (down 9.8 percent), and Oregon (down 8.3 percent).  The largest reductions in the number of people in prison were from large states: Florida (down 2,100 people), California (down 1,700 people), and New York (down 1,500 people).

May 14, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 01, 2020

"While jails drastically cut populations, state prisons have released almost no one"

The title of this post is the title of this timely and important new analysis by Emily Widra and Peter Wagner at the Prison Policy Initiative.  I recommend the whole piece (especially to see all the charts and tables), and here are excerpts:

In recent weeks, local governments across the U.S. have drastically reduced their jail populations to slow the spread of the coronavirus.  Many have reduced the number of people in jail by 25% or more, recognizing that the constant churn of people and the impossibility of social distancing in jails make them inevitable hotbeds of viral transmission. But state prisons — where social distancing is just as impossible, and correctional staff still move in and out every day — have been much slower to release incarcerated people....

The strategies jails are using to reduce their populations vary by location, but they add up to big changes.  In some counties, police are issuing citations in lieu of arrests, prosecutors are declining to charge people for “low-level offenses,” courts are reducing the amounts of cash bail, and jail administrators are releasing people detained pretrial or those serving short sentences for “nonviolent offenses.”

Meanwhile, state Departments of Correction have been announcing plans to reduce their prison populations — by halting new admissions from county jails, increasing commutations, and releasing people who are medically fragile, elderly, or nearing the end of their sentences — but our analysis finds that the resulting population changes have been small....

Of the states we analyzed, those with smaller pre-pandemic prison populations appeared to have reduced their populations the most drastically.  The prison population has dropped by 16% in Vermont and almost 8% in Maine and Utah. But the median percentage of people released from jails hovers around 20%, still surpassing Vermont’s state prison reduction of 16%.

States clearly need to do more to reduce the density of state prisons.  For the most part, states are not even taking the simplest and least controversial steps, like refusing admissions for technical violations of probation and parole rules, and to release those that are already in confinement for those same technical violations.  (In 2016, 60,000 people were returned to state prison for behaviors that, for someone not on probation or parole, would not be a crime.)  Similarly, other obvious places to start are releasing people nearing the end of their sentence, those who are in minimum security facilities and on work-release, and those who are medically fragile or older.

May 1, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, April 30, 2020

"Resentencing of Juvenile Lifers: The Philadelphia Experience"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report authored by Tarika Daftary-Kapur and Tina Zottoli.  Here is its executive summary and key findings:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

We examined the Philadelphia District Attorney Office’s approach to juvenile lifer resentencing, which began in 2017 under the administration of District Attorney Seth Williams and has continued under the administration of District Attorney Larry Krasner.  For cases resentenced as of December 31st, 2019, we describe similarities and differences between the Williams and Krasner administrations in decision making and sentence length reductions, and we report on the recidivism rate and estimated cost savings for Pennsylvania as a result of release.

In June 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without-parole (LWOP) sentences were unconstitutional for individuals who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offense (hereafter, juveniles).  In January 2016, SCOTUS, ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller applied retroactively.  Following Montgomery, individuals previously sentenced to mandatory LWOP as juveniles (hereafter, juvenile lifers) became eligible for resentencing.  Accordingly, in almost all such cases, the district attorney’s office makes an offer for a new sentence to the defendant, who is free to accept the offer or to have his new sentence decided by the judge.

At the time Miller was decided, Philadelphia had the largest number of juveniles sentenced to LWOP in the country (approximately 325).  Yet, they have been at the forefront of the resentencing process nationally, and at the time of this writing have only 10 juvenile-lifers left to re-sentence; the main reasons for delay being an open Post Conviction Relief Act petition or a pending appeal.

In Philadelphia, re-sentence offers are decided by The Juvenile Lifer Resentencing Committee ("The Lifer Committee"), which comprises 8 members of the executive staff at the District Attorney's Office.  The Lifer Committee’s decisions are based primarily on the consideration of case-summary memos prepared for the Committee by the Assistant District Attorney leading the resentencing process. Memos include information on the facts of the original case, demographic information on the victim and offender, mitigating information, the offenders’ prison adjustment (e.g.misconducts,rehabilitative programming), information on acceptance of responsibility and remorse, the victim’s family’s perspective on release, and reentry plans.

In January 2018, as the resentencing process was underway, Larry Krasner was sworn in as the District Attorney of Philadelphia after having run on a reform platform, ushering in dramatic change to the culture and policies of the District Attorney’s Office.  This change in administrations, during a crucial resentencing project, provided us with a unique opportunity to examine how the priorities and policies of the new administration have affected prosecutorial decision making.  Moreover, in light of the growing recognition that addressing the incarceration epidemic will necessitate re-evaluation of long-term prison sentences for individuals who were convicted of violent offenses, these outcome data have implications far beyond just those that pertain to the resentencing and release of juvenile lifers....

KEY FINDINGS

  • Pennsylvania has resentenced 88% of its juvenile lifers as compared to Michigan (52%) and Louisiana (approx. 15-22%); the three states in combination account for 2/3rd of all juvenile lifers in the United States.

  • Juvenile lifers can be considered low-impact releases in terms of risk posed to public safety.  At the time of our analyses, 269 lifers have been re-sentenced in Philadelphia and 174 have been released.  Six (3.5%) have been re-arrested.  Charges were dropped in four of the cases and two (1%) resulted in new convictions (one for Contempt and the other for Robbery in the Third Degree).  In comparison, nationally, an estimated 30% of individuals convicted of homicide offenses are rearrested within two years of release.

  • A subset of 38 cases were considered for resentencing by both the prior and current administrations.  The average sentence offered in these cases by the prior administration was 38.8 years; under Krasner, the average offer in these cases was 27.6 years.  Across all cases, this difference equates to an additional reduction of 394 years.

  • Overall, release of Philadelphia's juvenile lifers, to date, will result in an estimated minimum $9.5M savings in correctional costs for Pennsylvania over the first decade.

  • For both the Williams and Krasner administrations, Lifer Committee offers were explained by years in custody at time of resentencing, charge severity, whether the defendant was the primary actor, and whether a re-entry plan is in place.  There were some differences. While both administrations considered the maturity of the offender, the Williams administration relied on defendant age at the time of the offense and the level of planning, whereas the Krasner administration relied on a more holistic evaluation of the juvenile nature of the crime (e.g., involvement of an adult co-defendant, presence of peers, context in which the murder was committed).  Prior convictions also weighed more heavily under Krasner than the prior administration.

April 30, 2020 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

"Length of Incarceration and Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of of this notable new report just released today by the US Sentencing Commission.  Here is a basic summary and key findings from this USSC webpage:

Summary

Length of Incarceration and Recidivism is the seventh publication in the Commission’s recent series on recidivism. This study examines the relationship between length of incarceration and recidivism, specifically exploring three potential relationships that may exist: incarceration as having a deterrent effect, a criminogenic effect, or no effect on recidivism. (Published April 29, 2020)

Report Findings
  • The Commission consistently found that incarceration lengths of more than 120 months had a deterrent effect.
    • Each of the research designs estimated that offenders incarcerated for more than 120 months were less likely to recidivate eight years after release. In the two models with the larger sample sizes, offenders incarcerated for more than 120 months were approximately 30 percent less likely to recidivate relative to a comparison group receiving less incarceration. In the third model, offenders incarcerated for more than 120 months were approximately 45 percent less likely to recidivate relative to a comparison group receiving less incarceration.
  • In two models, the deterrent effect extended to incarceration lengths of more than 60 months.
    • Specifically, offenders incarcerated for more than 60 months up to 120 months were approximately 17 percent less likely to recidivate relative to a comparison group sentenced to a shorter period of incarceration.
  • For incarceration lengths of 60 months or less, the Commission did not find any statistically significant criminogenic or deterrent effect.
    • When focusing on the shortest period of incarceration studied (12 to 24 months), the research designs yielded varying results, neither of which were statistically significant nor sufficiently reliable to make evidence-based conclusions.

April 29, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Texas postpones a sixth execution due to coronavirus

As reported in this new AP piece, a "sixth scheduled execution of a Texas death row inmate has been delayed following the coronavirus spread around the state."  Here is more:

Edward Lee Busby’s execution had been set for May 6, but it was stayed for 60 days by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday.

Busby, 47, was condemned for the 2004 suffocation of a retired 77-year-old college professor abducted in Fort Worth and whose body was later recovered in Oklahoma.

While the appeals court didn’t mention COVID-19 in its order, Busby’s attorneys had argued the execution should be delayed because they and others, including judges and personnel who carry out the execution, could be put at risk for getting the virus if it proceeded.

Three other executions that had been scheduled this year were also delayed by the appeals court while two others were delayed by local judges.

The next execution scheduled in the Lone Star State is slated for May 13 according to this Death Penalty Information Center listing. Given that Texas is opening a lot of facilities by the end of this week, it will be interest to see if the state tries to get its machinery of death operational by the middle of May.

Some prior related capital COVID posts:

April 28, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

According to BOP reporting, federal prison population now shrinking about 1,000 persons per week

Every Thursday morning, one can see at this webpage an official refreshed count of the total number of federal inmates as calculated weekly by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  As noted before, that page also has data on the total number of federal inmates for each fiscal year going back to 1980.   For some numerical context, these data show that in FY1995 the federal prison population first hit six digits and stood at 100,958; in FY2007, federal prison population had nearly doubled to 200,020; and in FY2013, the federal prison population hit a modern high of 219,298.

After 2013, a range of political, legal and practical realities helped create a new and steady trend of reduced federal incarceration levels.  Retroactively applied reductions in crack sentences and then in all drug sentences contributed, but the most important factor may have been fewer federal prosecutions: data here from the US Sentencing Commission shows roughly 20,000 fewer offenders being sentenced in the federal system between 2011 (when 86,201 persons were sentenced in federal courts) and 2017 (when "only" 66,873 persons were sentenced).  Yet, starting in 2018, the number of offenders being sentenced in the federal system started to tick back up; in 2019, according to the USSC, there were 76,538 sentenced federal offenders.  New good-time credit flowing from the FIRST STEP Act and other reforms in that Act helped thwart a complete reversal in the downward trends of the total number of persons in federal prison.  I noted in this post back in July 2019 that the federal prison population had dropped under 180,000 prisoners for the first time since back in FY 2003.

Though we are now really only a little more than a month into our COVID world, it is not too early to notice how the virus and reactions thereto is now driving federal prison populations down even more.  Specifically, here are a few recent dates and BOP population counts:

March 19: 175,500 persons reported by BOP as "Total Federal Inmates"

April 2:    174,837 persons reported by BOP as "Total Federal Inmates"

April 9:    173,686 persons reported by BOP as "Total Federal Inmates"

April 16:  172,349 persons reported by BOP as "Total Federal Inmates"

April 23:  171,434 persons reported by BOP as "Total Federal Inmates"

After a slow start, we have now seen over the last three weeks an average drop in federal inmates as reported by BOP of around 1,100 persons.  And we are now at the lowest federal prison population since 2002.

Though pleased to see this trend, I am inclined to take a "glass half empty" perspective on these numbers.  For starters, these numbers include the 24 federal inmate deaths that BOP has officially reported, and I cannot help but wonder if they also reflect some (large?) number of sick federal inmates who have been moved to medical facilities outside of the BOP network. Moreover, even a 4000-person reduction in the federal prison population from March 19 to April 23 represents less than a 2.5% overall reduction at a time when there likely are tens of thousands of vulnerable persons confined in high-risk federal prison environs.  (I suggested in this post right after Attorney General Barr issued his first restrictive home-confinement memo that more than 10,000 might be eligible for home confinement under even those guidelines.)

Reflecting on these numbers raises some other interesting issues and questions.  The BOP's COVID-19 Update page, as of midday April 23, is reporting that "the BOP has placed an additional 1,440 inmates on home confinement."  That number represents only about one third of the 4000-person reduction in the federal prison population from March 19 to April 23, and so I am left to speculate about other factors in play here.  I have been noting many sentence-reduction motions being granted by federal judges, but that likely accounts for only a few hundred additional releases.  More grants of pretrial release may also be part of the story, but I also wonder about the impact of (a) deferred prison report dates and (b) reductions in the number of new sentencings and/or new persons getting sentenced to prison.  

Remarkable times.

A few of many prior related posts:

April 23, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 20, 2020

US Sentencing Commission continue to publish helpful data about the pre-COVID federal sentencing world

I keep waiting, impatiently, for the US Sentencing Commission to produce some data or information about federal sentencing realities in our modern COVID world.  I would love to see some data on, for example, how many sentencings are going forward each week given that, in normal times, about an average of 1500 federal sentences are imposed in federal courts every week of the year.  I would also be eager to know if a larger number than usual non-prison sentences are being imposed in those sentencings that are going forward.  And data on sentence reductions motions involving § 3582(c)(1)(A) would also be so very interesting. 

That said, I understand the challenges for the USSC in trying to produce accurate real-time data in even the best of times, and so I will just keep praising the USSC for what they are producing even while I keep hoping for COVID-era data.  Specifically, the USSC merits praise for continuing to produce new reports and data collections and Quick Facts based on its recently completed 2019 Annual Report and Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics.  Specifically, federal sentencing fans will want to check out these newer item from the USSC website:

OVERVIEW OF FEDERAL CRIMINAL CASES (Published April 16, 2020)  This publication provides a brief, easy-to-use reference on the types of criminal cases handled by federal courts in fiscal year 2019 and the punishments imposed on offenders convicted in those cases.

2019 GEOGRAPHIC SENTENCING DATA (Published April 17, 2020)  These data reports compare fiscal year 2019 federal sentencing statistics for each judicial district, judicial circuit, and state to the nation as a whole.

QUICK FACTS

April 20, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

US Sentencing Commission released new report on "Path of Federal Criminality: Mobility and Criminal History"

Cover_mobilityI find it more than a little ironic and depressing that the US Sentencing Commission, amidst a viral pandemic requiring lockdowns for everyone and creating unique risks for inmates who are confined with so many others, has today released a new research report with "mobility" in its title.  Tone-deaf timing aside, this new report serves as another interesting bit of criminal history research being done by an agency that has been functionally crippled for now the better part of two years because of the lack of confirmed commissioners. 

Though I keep hoping the USSC might step up to the current moment with some real-time data on federal sentencing practices and outcomes during this remarkable moment, I suppose we should all still be grateful that the USSC staff is still able to get its regular work done.  This latest report is focused on interesting aspects of past state convictions for federal offenders, and here is how it is summarized on the USSC's website:

Summary

(Published Aprill 14, 2020)  This study expands on prior Commission research by examining the geographic mobility of federal offenders. For this report, mobility is defined as having convictions in multiple states, including the location of the conviction for the instant offense. This report adds to the existing literature on offender criminal history in two important ways. First, the report provides information on how mobile federal offenders are, as measured by the number of offenders with convictions in multiple states. Second, the report provides information on the proportion of offenders with convictions in states other than the state in which the offender was convicted for the instant offense. The report also examines the degree to which out-of-state convictions in offenders’ criminal histories contributed to their criminal history score and their Criminal History Category.

Key Findings
  • Almost one-third (30.0%) of the total federal offender population in fiscal year (FY) 2018 had convictions in more than one state.
  • The mobility of federal offenders varies by offender characteristics:
    • Immigration offenders were the most likely to have convictions in more than one state (38.7%), while child pornography offenders were the least likely (16.4%) to have convictions in more than one state.
    • Just under one-third (31.8%) of male offenders had convictions in two or more states compared to 17.8 percent of female offenders.
    • Hispanic offenders (31.0%) were the most likely to have convictions in more than one state, closely followed by White (29.3%), Black (28.5%) and Other race (27.8%) offenders.
  • The percentage of offenders having convictions in states other than the state of their instant offense varied from a high of 59.2 percent in North Dakota to a low of 10.5 percent in the territory of Puerto Rico.
  • A total of 13,904 FY 2018 offenders had out-of-state convictions that received criminal history points. Almost three-quarters of these offenders (73.9%) had a higher Criminal History Category due to these convictions.

April 14, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

"Reforms without Results: Why states should stop excluding violent offenses from criminal justice reforms"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Prison Policy Initiative report authored by Alexi Jones.  Here is how the data-rich report gets started:

States are increasingly recognizing that our criminal justice system is overly punitive, and that we are incarcerating too many people for too long.  Every day, 2.3 million incarcerated people are subject to inhumane conditions, offered only limited opportunities for transformation, and are then saddled with lifelong collateral consequences.  Yet as states enact reforms that incrementally improve their criminal justice systems, they are categorically excluding the single largest group of incarcerated people: the nearly 1 million people locked up for violent offenses.

The staggering number of people incarcerated for violent offenses is not due to high rates of violent crime, but rather the lengthy sentences doled out to people convicted of violent crimes.  These lengthy sentences, relics of the “tough on crime” era, have not only fueled mass incarceration; they’ve proven an ineffective and inhumane response to violence in our communities and run counter to the demands of violent crime victims for investments in prevention rather than incarceration.

Moreover, cutting incarceration rates to anything near pre-1970s levels or international norms will be impossible without changing how we respond to violence because of the sheer number of people — over 40% of prison and jail populations combined — locked up for violent offenses.  States that are serious about reforming their criminal justice systems can no longer afford to ignore people serving time for violent offenses.

There are, unquestionably, some people in prison who have committed heinous crimes and who could pose a serious threat to public safety if released.  And by advocating for reducing the number of people incarcerated for violent offenses, we are not suggesting that violence should be taken any less seriously.  On the contrary, we suggest that states invest more heavily in violence prevention strategies that will make a more significant and long-term impact on reducing violence, which, again, reflects what most victims of violent crime want.  The current response to violence in the United States is largely reactive, and relies almost entirely on incarceration, which has inflicted enormous harms on individuals, families, and communities without yielding significant increases in public safety.

April 8, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Wondering again about pace and number of federal sentencings after another Varsity Blues defendant gets imprisonment term

This AP article, headlined "Mother Sentenced to 7 Months in College Admissions Scam," reports on the high-profile federal sentencing that went forward in Boston by video conference yesterday.  Here are the basics:

A California woman was sentenced Tuesday to seven months in prison for paying bribes to rig her two daughters' college admissions exams and get one of them into Georgetown University as a fake tennis recruit.

In an unusual hearing held via videoconference due to the coronavirus pandemic, the judge rejected Elizabeth Henriquez's bid to avoid prison because of the public health crisis but is allowing her to remain free until at least June 30 in the hopes that the outbreak will have diminished by then. “I have every hope that the coronavirus crisis will abate in a matter of months and that Ms. Henriquez will be able to serve her sentence safely and rebuild her life,” U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton said.

Henriquez and her husband were charged with paying $400,000 in bribes to get their oldest daughter into Georgetown as a bogus tennis recruit in 2016. They also paid bribes to have someone cheat on their daughters' college entrance exams, authorities said. In one instance, the purported proctor sat next to her daughter while she took a test and fed her the answers and then “gloated” with Henriquez and the teen about how they had cheated and gotten away with it, authorities said....

Her husband, Manuel Henriquez, is the founder and former CEO of Hercules Capital, a finance firm in Palo Alto, California. He is scheduled to be sentenced April 8.

Her lawyers had urged the judge to give her home confinement, citing a memo written by Attorney General William Barr who said some nonviolent inmates who are particularly at risk to the virus may be safer at home than behind bars....

Henriquez was sentenced via videoconference to keep people from gathering at the federal courthouse in Boston amid the pandemic. The judge talked to Henriquez and lawyers over video chat while news media and other members of the public listened on the phone. The Boston court and halls of justice across the country have delayed jury trials and moved to video and telephone hearings to keep the criminal justice system moving while people are hunkered in their homes.

Prosecutors had argued in court documents that she deserved more than two years behind bars. Gorton ordered Henriquez to begin serving her prison sentence on June 30 but said he would consider a request to push that back further if necessary.

As I mentioned here a few weeks ago, under normal circumstances 300 federal sentences are imposed every work day, 1500 federal sentences are imposed every work week, 6200 federal sentences are imposed every month in US courts nationwide.  Clearly, some number of federal sentencings are going forward, but I am so very eager to know how many.  I am hoping that before too long, the US Sentencing Commission or the Justice Department will try to provide some real-time data on the administration of federal criminal justice amidst the COVID crisis.

A few prior recent related posts:

April 1, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)