Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Council on Criminal Justice releases new papers on "Federal Sentencing Provisions of the 1994 Crime Bill"

Sentencing_Report_LinkI noted in this post this past summer the notable new group working toward criminal justice reform called the Council on Criminal Justice.  In September, I flagged in this post that the Council on Criminal Justice had gotten started on a great new set of  papers and resources taking a close look at the 1994 Crime Bill.  The first two paper in the series, Overview and Reflections by Richard Rosenfeld and Impacts on Prison Populations by William Sabol and Thaddeus Johnson, both provided terrific perspectives and details on the import and impact of the 1994 Crime Bill.

I am now very pleased to report that the third paper in this series has been published under the title "Tough and Smart: Federal Sentencing Provisions of the 1994 Crime Bill."  If you click through to the full paper, you can see that one of the reasons I am pleased to see it published is because I am its author.  I was very honored to get a chance to work with the CCJ team on this project, and all the folks involved with CCJ were quite effectively invested in helping me work through the various complicated federal sentencing stories that emerged from the 1994 Crime Bill.

I recommend that interested persons read this piece in full, as there are lots of intricacies to this story that I was only able to partially capture in what is meant to be a short read.  The start and end of the piece provides a hint of its essential points:

When President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (the Crime Bill), he called it the “toughest and smartest crime bill in our history.” Enhancing penalties across a wide range of offenses, the Crime Bill included many provisions that not only justified the “tough” label, but also fueled “get-tough” rhetoric and behavior by federal, state, and local officials nationwide.  This well-known legacy, however, obscures what may be one of the most consequential sentencing provisions in this massive law — a “smart” sentencing section that has allowed tens of thousands of people convicted of drug crimes to avoid certain severe mandatory minimum terms enacted by Congress in the 1980s....

Reflecting the “tough-on-crime” attitudes of the times, some federal lawmakers criticized the Crime Bill as not tough enough despite its many punitive elements. Just weeks after passage of the landmark legislation, Republican lawmakers introduced the Contract with America, which included a promise to adopt a Taking Back Our Streets Act within the first 100 days of what signers hoped would be a Republican-held Congress.  This pursuit of even harsher penalties and even more federal funding for prison construction than what was authorized in the Crime Bill was not surprising; in fact, such calls reflected much of the political and policy thinking of the time — on both sides of the aisle.  In this era, talking tough was widely seen not only as essential to success at the ballot box, but also as the sound policy response to all crime concerns.

While the spirit and text of the Crime Bill focused on a tougher approach to crime and punishment, its sentencing provisions with among the greatest tangible impact were those that enabled people convicted of lower-level drug offenses to receive less severe sentences, and laid the foundation for future crack cocaine sentencing reforms.  Despite that often overlooked reality, the Crime Bill fostered and reinforced tough-on-crime attitudes in Washington and among state and local criminal justice officials that contributed to historic growth in national prison populations.

January 22, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission releases new report on "Inter-District Differences in Federal Sentencing Practices"

As reported via this USSC webpage, the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released this big new report under the full title "Inter-District Differences in Federal Sentencing Practices: Sentencing Practices Across Districts from 2005 - 2017." Here is a summary and key finding from the USSC's webpage:

This report is the third in a series of reports. It examines variations in sentencing practices—and corresponding variations in sentencing outcomes—across federal districts since the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in United States v. Booker.

The Commission’s ongoing analysis in this area directly relates to a key goal of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984: reducing unwarranted sentencing disparities that existed in the federal judicial system. In particular, the Act was the result of a widespread bipartisan concern that such disparities existed both regionally (e.g., differences among the districts) and within the same courthouse. Having analyzed the differences within the same courthouse in its Intra-City Report, the Commission now turns in this report to examining regional differences since Booker....

Key Findings

While the extent of differences in sentencing practices vary depending on the specific primary guideline, the overarching trends indicate that, consistent with the findings of the Commission’s 2012 Booker Report, sentencing outcomes continue to depend at least in part upon the district in which the defendant is sentenced. In particular, the Commission finds that:

  • Variations in sentencing practices across districts increased in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Booker.  These inter-district sentencing differences have persisted in the 13 years after Booker and six years after the Commission’s 2012 analysis.

  • Sentencing differences increased for each of the four major offense types analyzed (fraud, drug trafficking, firearms related offenses, and illegal reentry) during the Gall Period.  This trend continued for some, but not all, of the four offense types in the six years following the last period analyzed in the Commission’s 2012 Booker Report.

  • Guideline amendments intended to promote uniformity by addressing judicial concerns regarding severity have had an inconsistent impact on inter-district disparity.  Specifically, despite multiple significant revisions to the drug trafficking guideline, including the two-level reduction of the base offense level for all drugs, districts increasingly diverged in their sentencing practices for drug trafficking offenders.  However, the comprehensive amendment to the illegal reentry guideline contributed to increasing uniformity in sentencing practices in the Post-Report Period.

  • Certain districts have consistently sentenced more — or less — severely in relation to the guideline minimums than other districts, both over time and across offense type.

I am already looking forward to finding time to review and assess this latest big report from the USSC. But I cannot help but note at the outset that detailed data work which focuses almost exclusively on sentencing differences without any detailed discussions of sentencing severity or sentencing efficacy seems largely out of sync with the current political and policy criminal justice concerns expressed by both public officials and advocates.

Prior related post:

January 22, 2020 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 20, 2020

"'Ban the Box' Policies and Criminal Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this new empirical paper authored by Ryan Sherrard available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Employment has long been seen as a mechanism for reducing criminal recidivism. As such, many states and municipalities have tried to increase the employment prospects of ex-offenders through "Ban the Box" (BTB) policies, making it illegal to ask about an individual's criminal history on a job application.  There are, however, questions as to how effective these policies are at helping ex-offenders successfully stay out of prison.  In addition, recent research has shown that BTB policies may lead employers to racially discriminate in hiring.  Using administrative prison data, this paper examines the direct effect of BTB policies on rates of criminal recidivism.  I find that while BTB policies don't appear to reduce criminal recidivism overall, these policies may be exacerbating racial disparities.  In particular, I show that being released into a labor market with a BTB policy is associated with higher rates of recidivism for black ex-offenders, with little to no effect for white ex-offenders.  This result is robust to a number of specifications and sub-samples.

January 20, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Data on sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Lots of items of capital interest at Death Penalty Information Center

I frequent the Death Penalty Information Center website on a regular basis for all sorts of data and other detailed information about the administration of the death penalty in the modern era. But the site also keeps up with some capital punishment news and research (with DPIC's abolitionist bent), and the last few weeks have had a number of notable new postings. Here is a sampling that seemed worth flagging here:

"Louisiana Reaches Ten Years Without an Execution"

"Criticism by Government Leaders, Victim’s Son Fuel Growing Doubts About Viability of Ohio’s Death Penalty"

"Death Sentences Decline by More than Half in Decade of the 2010s"

"Report Addresses Death-Row Family Members’ Barriers to Mental Health Care"

"Law Review: New Article Highlights Decline of Judicial Death Sentences"

"Controversial Mississippi Prosecutor Recuses Himself from Further Involvement in Curtis Flowers’ Case"

January 9, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

A notable judicial pitch for better sentencing data in the Buckeye State

In this post yesterday, I noted a recent commentary discussing the role of Ohio's Chief Justice in advocating against certain state sentencing reform.  Today I can spotlight another kind of sentencing reform advocacy by two different Ohio jurists, Justice Michael Donnelly and 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals Judge Ray Headen, which appears in this new cleveland.com opinion piece headlined "Create centralized criminal-sentencing database to reduce mass incarceration in Ohio."  Here are excerpts:

As two members of our state’s judiciary, we write to include our names in support along with the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission for the creation of a centralized criminal database and repository to track all criminal sentences in Ohio.  The commission has stated that criminal justice data in Ohio “is disparate, mismatched, and complex, and lacks the capacity to fully and completely narrate the comprehensive criminal justice story in Ohio.”

With a sentencing database, the Ohio General Assembly would be arming judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and Ohio’s citizens with information that is currently unavailable to them, and that would make the administration of justice more fair, equitable, and most importantly, transparent.  Without this information, many criminal defendants will continue to believe that whether they receive a five-year or a 20-year sentence is largely determined by which judge is assigned to their case at arraignment, rather than the actual record of their case....

A sentencing database and repository developed and maintained by the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission -- among data-gathering reforms the 19-year-old commission recommended a year ago -- would provide all stakeholders and appellate courts charged with reviewing sentences with the ability to ensure that criminal sentences are consistent with what our General Assembly has indicated are the overall purposes and principles of felony sentencing, as embodied in Ohio Revised Code 2929.11 and 2929.12. Those purposes and principles are to punish the offender, protect the community, set the offender on a course towards rehabilitation, and use the least amount of state resources necessary to achieve these goals. Uniformity and proportionality of sentences are essential to maintaining the public’s confidence in our courts.

We agree with the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission’s view that policymakers and enforcers must be able to access comprehensive criminal justice information to maximize public safety and develop effective policies.  A criminal sentencing database and repository will help reduce mass incarceration and will be an investment in a safer, fairer, and more cost-efficient justice system.

January 8, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Chief Justice's "2019 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary" again provides federal criminal caseload highlights

The Chief Justice of the United States always closes out a calendar year by releasing a year-end report on the federal judiciary.  The 2019 version from Chief Justice John G. Roberts can be found at this link, and here are a few sentences that capture the spirit of its timely substantive message:

In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital. The judiciary has an important role to play in civic education, and I am pleased to report that the judges and staff of our federal courts are taking up the challenge.

The report includes an Appendix on the "Workload of the Courts" which includes some notable federal criminal justice caseload data.  Here are excerpts:

In the regional courts of appeals, filings fell two percent to 48,486.... Criminal appeals rose two percent....

Criminal defendant filings (including those for defendants transferred from other districts) [in U.S. district courts] rose six percent to 92,678.  Defendants charged with immigration offenses went up 13 percent, largely in response to an 81 percent increase in defendants accused of improper entry by an alien.  The southwestern border districts received 81 percent of national immigration crime defendant filings.  Drug crime defendants, who accounted for 28 percent of total filings, grew five percent, although defendants accused of crimes associated with marijuana decreased 28 percent.  Defendants prosecuted for firearms and explosives offenses climbed eight percent, continuing an upward trend that began in 2014.  Increases also were reported for filings involving general offenses, regulatory offenses, justice system offenses, and violent offenses.  The number of filings related to traffic offenses and sex offenses decreased....

Cases activated in the pretrial services system, including pretrial diversion cases, rose nine percent to 108,606.  A total of 128,904 persons were under post-conviction supervision on September 30, 2019, a reduction of less than one percent from the total a year earlier.  Persons on that date serving terms of supervised release after leaving correctional institutions changed little, increasing by 9 persons to 113,198.

January 1, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 20, 2019

"Punishing Pill Mill Doctors: Sentencing Disparities in the Opioid Epidemic"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Adam Gershowitz just posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Consider two pill mill doctors who flooded the streets with oxycodone and other dangerous opioids.  The evidence against both doctors was overwhelming.  They each sold millions of opioid pills.  Both doctors charged addicted patients hundreds of dollars in cash for office visits that involved no physical examinations and no diagnostic tests.  Instead, the doctors simply handed the patients opioids in exchange for cash.  To maximize their income, both doctors conspired with street dealers to import fake patients — many of them homeless — so that the doctors could write even more prescriptions.  Both doctors made millions of dollars profiting off the misery of people addicted to opioids.  Even though juries convicted both doctors of similar criminal charges, they received drastically different sentences.  The first doctor was sentenced to 5 years, while the second doctor received a 35-year-sentence.

This article reviews 25 of the worst opioid pill mill doctors to be sentenced in the last five years, and it details drastic sentencing disparities in the federal system.  In more than half the cases, judges departed well below the Federal Sentencing Guidelines to impose sentences that were decades less than would be expected.

The sentencing variations in pill mill cases are not driven by traditional explanations such as the trial penalty or the defendant’s criminal history.  Instead, the sentencing variations are explained primarily by the age of the doctors.  Many pill mill doctors are in their 60s and 70s, and judges appear to be tailoring their sentencing decisions to ensure that older doctors will not spend the rest of their lives in prison.  Additionally, prosecutors face an uphill battle in proving the drug quantity against white-collar doctors (rather than street dealers) who can claim that some of their prescriptions were legitimate.  This article documents the difficulty of equitably punishing pill mill doctors, as well as the significance of age in sentencing older, white-collar offenders.

December 20, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

DPIC releases year-end report asserting that "capital punishment continued to wither across the United States in 2019"

2019SentenceTrendsThis new press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "Death Penalty Erodes Further in 2019 as New Hampshire Abolishes and California Imposes Moratorium," provides a summary of the DPIC's on-line 2019 year-end report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States.  Here are excerpts from the report's introduction:

Capital punishment continued to wither across the United States in 2019, disappearing completely in some regions and significantly eroding in others.  New Hampshire became the 21st state to abolish the death penalty and California became the fourth state with a moratorium on executions.  With those actions, half of all U.S. states have abolished the death penalty or now prohibit executions, and no state in New England authorizes capital punishment at all.

The use of the death penalty remained near historic lows, as states conducted fewer than 30 executions and imposed fewer than 50 new death sentences for the fifth year in a row.  Seven states executed a total of 22 prisoners in 2019.  With several penalty-phase outcomes still undetermined, DPIC projects that between 35 and 37 new death sentences will be imposed in 2019.

In the Midwest, Ohio suspended executions in the wake of a court decision comparing its execution process to waterboarding, suffocation, and being chemically burned alive.  On December 11, Indiana marked the ten-year point without an execution.  Death sentences in the American West set a record low, Oregon substantially limited the breadth of its death-penalty statute, and — also for the fifth straight year — no state west of Texas carried out any executions.  32 U.S. states have now either abolished the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in more than a decade.

Public opinion continued to reflect a death penalty in retreat.  Support for capital punishment remained near a 47-year low and 60% of Americans — a new record — told Gallup they preferred life imprisonment over the death penalty as the better approach to punishing murder.

While most of the nation saw near-historic lows in death sentences and executions, a few jurisdictions bucked the national trend. Death sentences spiked in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Ohio to three in 2019 and five in the last two years, more than in any other county in the country.  The U.S. government attempted to restart federal executions after a 16-year hiatus, using an execution protocol that had not been submitted to the public for comment or the courts for review.  However, its plan to carry out five executions in a five-week period fizzled when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to disturb a lower court injunction temporarily halting the executions....

Executions continued to be geographically isolated, with 91% of all executions taking place in the South, and 41% in Texas alone.  Scott Dozier, a mentally ill death-row prisoner who gave up his appeals and unsuccessfully attempted to force Nevada to execute him, committed suicide on death row....

In an unusually rancorous Supreme Court year, the Justices sparred over the circumstances in which stays of execution should be granted.  The Court ruled that potentially torturous executions were not unconstitutional unless they involved “superadded pain” and the prisoner — even if impeded by state secrecy practices — proved that an established and less painful alternative method to execute him was available to the state.  There were few decisions on the substance of death penalty law and the term was more notable for significant allegations of discriminatory practices that the Court chose not to review.

I have reprinted here the DPIC graphic on number of death sentences imposed, as the steep decline in the number of death sentences strikes me as the most telling and consequential aspect of the decline of the modern use of the death penalty. But there is a lot of other notable data in the DPIC report that ought to hearten those who disfavor capital punishment.

December 17, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 16, 2019

"Algorithmic Risk Assessment in the Hands of Humans"

The title of this post is the title of this new empirical paper authored by Megan Stevenson and Jennifer Doleac.  Here is its abstract:

We evaluate the impacts of adopting algorithmic predictions of future offending (risk assessments) as an aid to judicial discretion in felony sentencing.  We find that judges' decisions are influenced by the risk score, leading to longer sentences for defendants with higher scores and shorter sentences for those with lower scores.  However, we find no robust evidence that this reshuffling led to a decline in recidivism, and, over time, judges appeared to use the risk scores less.
Risk assessment's failure to reduce recidivism is at least partially explained by judicial discretion in its use.  Judges systematically grant leniency to young defendants, despite their high risk of reoffending.  This is in line with a long standing practice of treating youth as a mitigator in sentencing, due to lower perceived culpability.  Such a conflict in goals may have led prior studies to overestimate the extent to which judges make prediction errors.  Since one of the most important inputs to the risk score is effectively off-limits, risk assessment's expected benefits are curtailed. 
We find no evidence that risk assessment affected racial disparities statewide, although there was a relative increase in sentences for black defendants in courts that appeared to use risk assessment most. We conduct simulations to evaluate how race and age disparities would have changed if judges had fully complied with the sentencing recommendations associated with the algorithm.  Racial disparities might have increased slightly, but the largest change would have been higher relative incarceration rates for defendants under the age of 23.  In the context of contentious public discussions about algorithms, our results highlight the importance of thinking about how man and machine interact.

December 16, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Vera Institute produces new report highlighting big increases in rural jail populations

This recent New York Times piece, headlined "‘A Cesspool of a Dungeon’: The Surging Population in Rural Jails," fills out the picture presented by the statistical story set out in this new Vera Institute report on jail populations in the United States. Here is part of the NY Times piece:

Jail populations used to be concentrated in big cities. But since 2013, the number of people locked up in rural, conservative counties such as Hamblen has skyrocketed, driven by the nation’s drug crisis.

Like a lot of Appalachia, Morristown, Tenn., about an hour east of Knoxville, has been devastated by methamphetamine and opioid use. Residents who commit crimes to support their addiction pack the 255-bed jail, which had 439 inmates at the end of October, according to the latest state data. Many cities have invested in treatment options and diversion programs to help drug users. But those alternatives aren’t available in a lot of small towns.

“In the big city, you get a ticket and a trip to the clinic,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, which released a report on Friday analyzing jail populations. “But in a smaller area, you might get three months in jail.”

The disparity has meant that while jail populations have dropped 18 percent in urban areas since 2013, they have climbed 27 percent in rural areas during that same period, according to estimates in the report from Vera, a nonprofit group that works to improve justice systems. The estimates are drawn from a sample of data from about 850 counties across the country.

There are now about 167,000 inmates in urban jails and 184,000 in rural ones, Vera said. Suburban jail populations have remained about the same since 2013, while small and midsize cities saw a 7 percent increase.

Rural jails now lock up people at a rate more than double that of urban areas. And increasingly, those inmates are women.

Here is part of the summary from the Vera report, which is titled "People in Jail in 2019":

At midyear 2019, there were an estimated 758,400 people in local jails, up 13,200 (1.8 percent increase) from midyear 2017, which is the most recently available BJS data.  This is the highest number of people in jail since midyear 2009, and the number is up 31,000 since the recent trough in 2015 (4.3 percent increase).  Most people in jail have not been convicted of the charges they are facing, and many are being detained in civil matters, such as people incarcerated pretrial for immigration cases or those incarcerated due to unpaid child support or fines and fees.

The jail incarceration rate in the United States was an estimated 230 people in jail per 100,000 residents, up from 229 per 100,000 in 2017, representing a 0.5 percent increase. This brings the rate of jail incarceration up 1.3 percent since the recent trough in 2015.  Jail incarceration rates are 2.8 times higher than they were in 1960.

The national increase in the local jail population hides stark diverging trends across the urban to rural continuum.  Since 2013, jail populations have grown 27 percent in rural counties and 7 percent in small and mid-sized metropolitan areas.  During the same period, jail populations have declined 18 percent in large urban counties and are down 1 percent in the suburban counties surrounding those large urban counties.  In 2019, rural counties’ jail incarceration rates were more than double those of urban counties.

December 16, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Texas completes last scheduled execution for 2019

As reported in this local article, a "Texas inmate was executed by lethal injection Wednesday evening for killing a supervisor at a state prison shoe factory in Amarillo nearly 17 years ago."  Here is more:

Travis Runnels, 46, was convicted of slashing the throat of 38-year-old Stanley Wiley on January 29, 2003. Runnels was the state’s final execution in 2019.

Runnels, belted to the death chamber gurney, responded “No” when the warden asked if he had a final statement.  As the lethal dose of the powerful sedative pentobarbital began, he smiled and mouthed words and a kiss toward three female friends and two of his attorneys who watched through a window a few feet from him.  Then he blurted out “Woof, woof!” just before taking four quick breaths and snoring four times before all movement stopped.

Runnels was pronounced dead at 7:26 p.m., 22 minutes after the drug began flowing into his arms, making him the 22nd inmate put to death this year in the U.S. and the ninth in Texas.

He never looked at the sister and brother-in-law of his victim, who watched through a window in an adjacent witness room.  Outside the Huntsville Unit prison, several hundred Texas corrections officers stood in formation, and Wiley’s sister, Margaret Robertson, hugged or shook the hands of many of them as she and her husband left the prison.

Prosecutors say Runnels killed Wiley at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Clements Unit because he didn’t like working as a janitor at the shoe factory.  They said Runnels had wanted to transfer to a job at the prison barber shop and was angry at Wiley because that hadn’t happened....

He had been serving a 70-year sentence for an aggravated robbery conviction from Dallas when he killed Wiley with a knife used to trim shoes.  The factory makes shoes for inmates in the state prison system.

Earlier Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down an appeal by Runnels’ attorneys, who said a prosecution witness at his 2005 trial provided false testimony and that no defense was presented because his lawyers advised him to plead guilty and called no witnesses....  Lower courts and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had also turned down Runnels’ attorneys’ requests to stop his execution.

Four inmates who were convicted in the deaths of state correctional officers or other prison employees have been put to death since 1974, while three others remain on death row, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

With only 22 total executions in the US, the year 2019 marks the third lowest total number of executions in a year in the last three decades. (There were only 20 executions in 2016 and only 14 in 1991.)

Also, as we close out the third year of the Trump administration, we have now had a total of only 70 executions in the United States. In comparison, the first three years of Prez Clinton's first term saw 125 executions; the first three years of Prez GW Bush's first term had 202 executions; the first three years of Prez Obama's first term saw 141 executions.

December 11, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Terrific new Intercept series on capital punishment titled "The Condemned"

I received an email yesterday alerting me to exciting news that "The Intercept has published "The Condemned,” an investigative series by award-winning reporters Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith focused on the modern application and history of the death penalty in the United States. Here is more from the email:

The death penalty entered its “modern era” in 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a new set of statutes in the landmark decision Gregg v. Georgia. This new Intercept series examines the use of capital punishment since 1976 and is partially based on an analysis of an unprecedented dataset that The Intercept began compiling in the summer of 2016, on all individuals sentenced to die in active death penalty jurisdictions during the past 43 years.

Amazingly, this data did not exist. Previously available information was often flawed, and many states either do not track this data or do so in a haphazard way. The Bureau of Justice Statistics collects demographic and other data about states’ death row populations, but Congress has blocked the public disclosure of this information.

With this new dataset, now available on GitHub, The Intercept is offering journalists, activists, lawyers, and anyone interested in the topic, a single and comprehensive resource covering the state of the death penalty as it exists in the U.S. today. .

“We limited our inquiry to active death penalty states, to focus on capital punishment as it exists today,” write Segura and Smith. “We were curious not only about who had been executed, but how many people had been removed from death row — a sizeable but largely invisible population. We wanted to see how many people had been re-sentenced, commuted, or released; how many had died awaiting execution; and how long people spent on death row. And we wanted to see who is on death row today.”

Their findings show that capital punishment remains as “arbitrary and capricious” as ever –– and “that the ‘modern” death penalty era remains animated by the same racial dynamics that have always defined capital punishment,” writes Segura.

The series’s four initial stories have been written by reporters Jordan Smith and Liliana Segura: in “Counting the Condemned,” Segura and Smith outline the many ways in which capital punishment has failed as a policy, particularly in its racism, arbitrary application and failure to deliver on claims of public safety.

The Abolitionists,” also bylined by Segura and Smith, show how the abolition of the death penalty has become a bipartisan issue — and a national movement;

The Power to Kill,” by Jordan Smith, looks at the pushback against Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala after she determined that capital punishment is an unjust practice;

and “Death and Texas,” by Liliana Segura, shows that racial disparities on the Texas death row have increased even as death sentences decline.

December 4, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Council on Criminal Justice releases new report on "Trends in Correctional Control by Race and Sex"

This morning the Council on Criminal Justice released this interesting new report detailing notable modern changes in the modern demographics of prison, jail, probaton, and parole populatons.  Like all good data-driven reports, this one defies easy summary, and so I will just here reprint the report's page of "Key Findings":

• From 2000 to 2016, racial and ethnic disparites declined across prison, jail, probaton, and parole populatons in the U.S. For example, the black-white state imprisonment disparity fell from 8.3-to-1 to 5.1-to-1, and the Hispanic-white parole disparity fell from 3.6-to-1 to 1.4-to-1.i

• Black-white disparites in state imprisonment rates fell across all major crime categories. The largest drop was for drug ofenses.  In 2000, black people were imprisoned for drug crimes at 15 tmes the rate of whites; by 2016, that rato was just under 5-to-1.

• Among women, the black-white disparity in imprisonment fell from 6-to-1 to 2-to-1, a sharper decrease than the decline among men. The disparity among women fell because of an increase in the imprisonment rate for whites for violent, property, and drug crimes, and a decrease in the imprisonment of black women for drug crimes.

• The change in the black-white male imprisonment disparity occurred as the number of black men in state prisons declined by more than 48,000 (to about 504,000) and the number of white men increased by more than 59,000 (to roughly 476,000). Comparatvely, the black-white female disparity decreased as the number of black women in state prison fell by more than 12,000 (to about 24,000) and the number of white women increased by nearly 25,000 (to about 60,000).

• Reported ofending rates of blacks for rape, robbery, and aggravated assault declined by an average of 3% per year between 2000 and 2016, decreases that contributed to a drop in the black imprisonment rate for these crimes. This decrease was ofset in part by an increase in the expected tme to be served upon admission, which increased for both blacks and whites.

• Hispanic-white disparites in all four correctonal populatons have narrowed steadily since 2000. For Hispanics and whites on probaton, the data showed no disparity in rates by 2016.

For some context and perspectives on the report, the Marshall Project has this new piece headlined "The Growing Racial Disparity in Prison Time: A new study finds black people are staying longer in state prisons, even as they face fewer arrests and prison admissions overall."

December 3, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

"Is it me, or is the government releasing less data about the criminal justice system?"

Delayed_bjs_dataThe question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new posting by Wendy Sawyer over at Prison policy Initiative.  I recommend the full extended posting, and here is part of its start and conclusion:

We’ve heard this question from a few advocates and journalists who, like us, depend on the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and other government data sources for timely information about the justice system.  And while monitoring changes in federal data collections isn’t a core part of our work, we have observed a troubling trend: Since 2017, data releases are slowing down.

We aren’t the only ones who have noticed.  Last month, a coalition representing thousands of academic and nonprofit researchers and advocates wrote to the Office of Justice Programs with questions about missing and delayed data releases as well.

I probably don’t have to convince our regular readers that timely data is essential for identifying both social problems and effective policy solutions — and that it’s especially important in the context of criminal justice, where the human costs are so high.  And admittedly, it’s not news that government justice data has long been less well-funded, less timely, and less comprehensive than, say, labor statistics.

Even so, these publications have slowed even further — and even been curtailed — under the current administration.  To see the extent of this trend, I went through the BJS’ list of publications since 2000 and compared the time between the data collection reference dates and the corresponding report publication dates for six annual report series. I found that there has indeed been a dramatic change in the past several years....

The reasons behind these decisions and delays are unclear — is it funding problems?  Staff shortages?  Changes in leadership?  It could well be any, or all, of these problems.

BJS has been “flat funded” for years, despite the massive growth in the number and size of the correctional agencies they survey, and despite increasing demands for justice system data under laws mandating annual data collection, like the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act.  A National Academies publication explains that this has been a problem under both Democratic and Republican administrations, going back decades.

The Crime and Justice Research Alliance and COSSA — the coalition that wrote the October letter to the DOJ I mentioned earlier — suggest that staffing problems may explain the delays.  They write, “[M]any in the criminal justice research community have heard of an alarming decline in the number of BJS staff as a consequence of hiring freezes, staff attrition, and failure to replace departing staff and experts.”  Again, this is an agency that has been chronically underfunded and understaffed relative to the herculean task of collecting and analyzing the nation’s decentralized justice system data.

And then there is the issue of leadership.  With its mandate to produce reliable, large-scale studies with national, state, and local policy implications, effective leadership at BJS requires “strong scientific skills, experience with federal statistical agencies, familiarity with BJS and its products, [and] visibility in the nation’s statistical community,” among other qualities.  That’s according to four former BJS Directors and the President of the American Statistical Association, who wrote to former Attorney General Sessions in 2017 to encourage the appointment of an experienced research director to head up BJS.

That didn’t happen.  Instead, since late 2017, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has been under the leadership of Jeffrey Anderson, whose only prior statistical experience appears to be the co-creation of a college football computer ranking system in 1992.  On criminal justice, all I could find in his history were a handful of 2015-2016 articles in which he argues against criminal justice reform.  In a National Review article, he called Obama-era Washington “tone-deaf on crime,” despite the widespread bipartisan support of criminal justice reform.  Sadly, the problems we’re seeing with data delays and politicized language suggest that the current leadership may not agree about the importance of the agency they lead.

November 14, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 10, 2019

"The Effect of Scaling Back Punishment on Racial Disparities in Criminal Case Outcomes"

The title of this post is the title of this recent research paper authored by John MacDonald and Steven Raphael that I just came across.  Here is its abstract:

Research Summary

In late 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47 that redefined a set of less serious felony drug and property offenses as misdemeanors.  We examine how racial disparities in criminal court dispositions in San Francisco change in the years before (2010-2014) and after (2015-2016) the passage of Proposition 47.  We decompose racial disparities in court dispositions into components due to racial differences in offense characteristics, involvement in the criminal justice system at the time of arrest, pretrial detention, criminal history, and the residual unexplained component.  Before and after Proposition 47 case characteristics explain nearly all of the observable race disparities in court dispositions. However, after the passage of Proposition 47 there is a narrowing of racial disparities in convictions and incarceration sentences that is driven by lesser weight placed on criminal history, active criminal justice status, and pretrial detention in effecting court dispositions.

Policy Implications

The findings from this study suggest that policy reforms that scale back the severity of punishment for criminal history and active criminal justice status for less serious felony offenses may help narrow racial inequalities in criminal court dispositions.  Efforts to reduce the impact of racial inequalities in mass incarceration in other states should consider reforms that reduce the weight that criminal history, pretrial detention, and active probation status has on criminal defendants’ eligibility for prison for less serious drug and property offenses.

November 10, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 04, 2019

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

Late week the US Sentencing Commission 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 September 30, 2019 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by October 23, 2019.

These new data from the USSC show that 1,987 prisoners have been granted sentence reductions, and that the average sentence reduction was 70 months of imprisonment 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 state that this part of the FIRST STEP Act, by shortening nearly 2000 sentences by nearly 6 years, has now resulted in nearly 12,000 prison years saved.

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 course, people of color have been distinctly impacted: the USSC data document that over 91% of persons receiving FSA sentence reductions were Black and more than another 4% were Latinx.

November 4, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Encouraging new data on reduced arrests for low-level offenses (while national crime rates continue to decline)

This new Wall Street Journal article gets my week off to an encouraging start.  The full headline of the piece sets for the essentials: "Arrests for Low-Level Crimes Are Plummeting, and the Experts Are Flummoxed: Data collected from U.S. cities revealed declines in driving and alcohol-related violations, disorderly conduct, loitering and prostitution." Here are excerpts:

Major police departments around the country are arresting fewer people for minor crimes, according to a growing body of criminal justice data. New statistical studies show a deep, yearslong decline in misdemeanor cases across New York and California and in cities throughout other regions, with arrests of young black men falling dramatically.

New York City’s misdemeanor arrest totals have fallen by half since peaking in 2010, with rates of black arrests sinking to their lowest point since 1990. The arrest rate for black men in St. Louis fell by 80% from 2005 to 2017, a period that saw steep declines in simple assault and drug-related offenses. In Durham, N.C., arrest rates for blacks fell by nearly 50% between 2006 and 2016.  While racial disparities in enforcement persist, researchers say they are surprised by the downward misdemeanor trend, which pushes against ingrained assumptions about overpolicing in urban areas.

At the moment, experts can only speculate about what’s behind the decline.  It is expected to be the subject of more study that could yield better understanding in the future. Some say the falling arrest rates signal a fundamental shift in crime prevention. The shrinking misdemeanor system, they say, is evidence that police departments are pulling back on sweeping quality-of-life enforcement and focusing instead on “hot spots,” neighborhood strips and streets with clusters of gun violence and gang activity.

The decline, some experts say, could also be driven by technologies like the internet and mobile phones that help to keep social interaction off the streets and inside homes. The growing decriminalization and legalization of marijuana has also contributed, they say.  “The enforcement powers of the police are being used far less often,” said Jeremy Travis, a former president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. It is a “very deep reset of the fundamental relationship between police and public.”

Millions of Americans are swept into the misdemeanor system every year, but only recently have scholars sought to dig into the numbers of low-level crime. Criminal data and research have focused on violent felonies like rape and murder and more serious drug-dealing offenses, while statistics on misdemeanors have been notoriously inconsistent and spotty.

Historically, few jurisdictions made it possible to track how many people were arrested for crimes like turnstile jumping, disorderly conduct, marijuana possession, shoplifting, trespassing, drunken-driving and fist fight assaults.  Federal investigations into policing practices in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, and scrutiny of aggressive policing tactics like “stop-and-frisk,” helped to raise the visibility of misdemeanor justice and its impact on poor minority communities.  Most defendants charged with petty offenses serve little or no time behind bars but pay court fines and fees or get their cases conditionally dismissed.

Researchers saw misdemeanors as another unchecked, racially unbalanced police power creating barriers to housing, employment and education.  With millions of dollars in grants, a network of scholars led by John Jay collected data from several cities and released reports over the past year.  Other studies revealed similar patterns.  A December report by the Public Policy Institute of California found that misdemeanor rates in California declined by close to 60% between 1989 and 2016.  Los Angeles police made 112,570 misdemeanor arrests in 2008 and 60,063 by 2017, largely driven by declines in driving and alcohol-related offenses, according to John Jay’s research network.

A forthcoming paper by law professors at George Mason University and the University of Georgia also found sizable arrest declines in rural Virginia, San Antonio and other jurisdictions.  Other indications include shrinking caseloads reported by the National Center for State Courts and arrest tallies by the Federal Bureau of Investigation showing steady declines in disorderly conduct, drunkenness, prostitution and loitering violations....

Compared with the felony system, misdemeanor enforcement is much less sensitive to actual crime rates and more influenced by changing political and cultural winds, says Alexandra Natapoff, a University of California-Irvine law professor.

In addition to the great news that we are finally gathering better data on misdemeanor systems, it is even greater news that we are using it less. In this post some months ago, I spotlighted LawProf Alexandra Natapoff's terrific book highlighting how much harm and punishment can come with the misdemeanor process.  And, though not mentioned in the WSJ article, I think it critical to note that the reduction in low-level arrests has come at the same time as a great reduction in violent and property crimes over the last decade (details here on latest FBI crime data).  I think we all ought to hope and aspire for a world with less crime and less punishment, and that seems to be what we are starting to achieve in recent years.

October 6, 2019 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 23, 2019

Highlighting (just some of) the many challenges of gathering good criminal justice data

This new Los Angeles Times editorial, headlined "Police, prosecutors and courts are keeping California’s criminal justice data a secret," provide a useful reminder of an evergreen reality — namely that good criminal justice data is ever elusive.  Here are excerpts:

A quick flip through the statute books could leave the false impression that California has the nation’s most transparent criminal justice system, the most comprehensively compiled and carefully analyzed crime data, the most penetrating public access — even without a new bill on its way to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

Since the 1950s, California law has required the state Department of Justice to collect names, numbers and other key facts from every state and local agency dealing in any way with crime, criminals or “juvenile delinquents.”  In the 1970s, lawmakers set standards for sorting and sharing justice data among courts, police, prosecutors, jails and prisons.  In 2016, a new law required the state attorney general to post basic criminal statistics online....

Yet retrieving useful information about California’s justice system is nearly impossible.  More than half of all arrest records fail to show whether the suspect ultimately was convicted, so police can’t tell whether the person they just stopped has a serious felony record.  Innocent people might sit in jail while courts or probation departments try to track down complete rap sheets that really ought to be available with a couple keystrokes.  Violent felons may be left free to buy guns despite being legally barred from doing so. Potential employers can’t tell the difference between a job applicant with a criminal past and one who was once mistakenly arrested.

Meanwhile, inadequate numbers and other data leave the public with no idea whether criminal justice reforms or other new laws are working as they were intended, or whether their courts, cops, prosecutors, probation departments and public defenders are working efficiently and effectively.

How can a state that requires so much information-gathering be so in the dark about its justice system?  In part, it comes down to lack of resources and lack of technological know-how.  Some courts and county agencies (barely) meet their legal requirements by sending paper records to the Justice Department, which then must transcribe the documents into its own data system.  Other agencies have some tech savvy but use systems or software that are incompatible with one another or are no longer supported by the companies that developed them.  And standards for collecting data vary around the state, so all that carefully compiled information has limited utility....

One problem that sets California apart is scale.  The state is huge, and so are the numbers of arrests, dismissals, convictions, sentences, probation orders.  It takes money and expertise to manage all those records.  But it may also be that criminal justice agencies have little enthusiasm for opening their operations to public scrutiny. For example, until recently the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prohibited researchers from publishing findings that officials believed might reflect poorly on the department, according to an April 2019 report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and Measures for Justice (an organization seeking to improve justice data collection practices).

The same may be true of other agencies.  A district attorney, for example, has a political incentive to jealously guard data about conviction rates, reversals on appeal and the like.  Judges are wary of being graded on how swiftly cases move through their courts or how many African American defendants, for example, are convicted in their courtrooms, and how long their sentences are compared with convictions and sentences for white defendants.

Assembly Bill 1331, whose fate now rests with Newsom, would close some of the current gaps in criminal history records by tightening reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies and courts.  It would require release of anonymized information to research agencies, which would then be able to sift through data to discover trends or biases.  It would promote better and faster sharing of information among public agencies.

It’s a step forward, and it deserves Newsom’s signature.  But like all those older laws on California’s books, it won’t solve the state’s criminal justice information problem without serious buy-in by courts, police and other participants in the system.  They will have to more fully embrace — on their own or through public and political pressure — their role in producing useful data.

September 23, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

"How many people in your state go to local jails every year?"

The question in the title of this post is the heading of this new posting at the Prison Policy Initiative building off the the group's recent big report Arrest, Release, Repeat.  Here is part of the set up to the latest state-by-state data analysis (which requires a click through to see in detail):

County and city jails have been called “mass incarceration’s front door,” but campaigns to reform or close jails often don’t receive the attention they deserve. Why? Because the traditional way we measure the impact of jails — the average daily population — significantly understates the number of people directly affected by these local facilities.

Because people typically stay in jail for only a few days, weeks or months, the daily population represents a small fraction of the people who are admitted over the course of a year. But the statistic that better reflects a jail’s impact on a community — the number of people who go to jail — is rarely accessible to the public.

Thankfully, we can now get close to closing this gap in the data and making the impact of jails clearer.  Building on our new national report Arrest, Release, Repeat, we’re able to estimate the number of people in every state who go to local jails each year.

September 18, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission releases FY 2018 third-quarter sentencing data showing continued growth of immigration cases

US Sentencing Commission has this week published here its "3rd Quarter ... Preliminary Fiscal Year 2019 Data."  As previously noted in this post when the USSC released data on offenders sentenced during the first half of fiscal year 2018, the Commission has recently tinkered with how it accounts and reports sentencing data.  This new data run notes some additional tweaking, though the very first chart about federal offenders by type is quite straight-forward and always notable. 

What strikes me as especially notable is that, through the first three quarters on FY19 (which runs through June 30, 2019), a full 37.4% of all federal cases sentences involved immigration offenses.  In FY18, "only" 34.4% of the sentenced case caseload involved immigration offenses, and in FY17 only 30.5% of the sentences cases were immigration cases.  Among other consequences, the fact that so much of the federal sentencing docket is now comprised of immigration cases necessarily impact lots of other sentencing statistics (e.g., the race an nationality of offenders).

As always, many stories might be mined from the latest USSC data, and I welcome reader thoughts on which stories might be the most interesting or important these days.

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

"U.S. Prison Population Trends: Massive Buildup and Modest Decline"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new briefing paper authored by Nazgol Ghandnoosh who is a Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project. The short paper is full of great charts and data, and here is the start of the text:

By yearend 2017, 1.4 million people were imprisoned in the United States, a decline of 7% since the prison population reached its peak level in 2009.  This follows a nearly 700% growth in the prison population between 1972 and 2009.

The overall pace of decarceration has varied considerably across states, but has been modest overall. Thirty-nine states and the federal government had downsized their prisons by 2017.  Five states — Alaska, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, and New York — reduced their prison populations by over 30% since reaching their peak levels.  But among the 39 states that reduced levels of imprisonment, 14 states downsized their prisons by less than 5%. Eleven states, led by Arkansas, had their highest ever prison populations in 2017.

If states and the federal government maintain this pace of decarceration, it will take 72 years — until 2091 — to cut the U.S. prison population in half.

The United States has made only modest progress in ending mass incarceration despite a dramatic decline in crime rates.  Reported crime rates have plummeted to half of their 1990s levels — as they have in many other countries that did not increase imprisonment levels.  Expediting the end of mass incarceration will require accelerating the end of the Drug War and scaling back sentences for all crimes, including violent offenses for which half of people in prison are serving time.

September 17, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

"Arrest, Release, Repeat: How police and jails are misused to respond to social problems"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Prison Policy Initiative authored by By Alexi Jones and Wendy Sawyer.  Here is how the report gets started:

Police and jails are supposed to promote public safety. Increasingly, however, law enforcement is called upon to respond punitively to medical and economic problems unrelated to public safety issues.  As a result, local jails are filled with people who need medical care and social services, many of whom cycle in and out of jail without ever receiving the help they need.  Conversations about this problem are becoming more frequent, but until now, these conversations have been missing three fundamental data points: how many people go to jail each year, how many return, and which underlying problems fuel this cycle.

In this report, we fill this troubling data gap with a new analysis of a federal survey, finding that at least 4.9 million people are arrested and jailed each year, and at least one in 4 of those individuals are booked into jail more than once during the same year. Our analysis shows that repeated arrests are related to race and poverty, as well as high rates of mental illness and substance use disorders.  Ultimately, we find that people who are jailed have much higher rates of social, economic, and health problems that cannot and should not be addressed through incarceration.

August 27, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Yet another great set of new Quick Facts publications from US Sentencing Commission

I am always eager to praise the US Sentencing Commission for continuing to produce a steady stream of its insightful little data documents in its terrific series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications (which are designed to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format").  In this post four week ago, I noted a whole bunch of new Quick Facts released in July 2019.  I now see the USSC has this month released a bunch more Quick Facts on a lot of major federal sentencing topics based on the USSC's recently released 2018 fiscal year data.  Here are these newer releases:

Sentencing Issues

Offender Groups

Immigration

Economic Crime

Other Chapter Two Offenses

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

Sunday, August 25, 2019

"Whom the State Kills"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper authored by Scott Phillips and Justin Marceau now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Through original quantitative research we show that persons convicted of killing a white victim and sentenced to death are more likely to be executed than persons convicted and sentenced to death for killing a black victim.  Previous research documents numerous forms of arbitrariness and racial disparity in the administration of the modern death penalty, but focuses exclusively on the charging and sentencing patterns of prosecutors and juries.  Previous research also reveals that implicit bias operates within the institutions tasked with seeking and obtaining sentences of death.  Our original research shows that the problem of disparate racial outcomes is actually exacerbated through the work of our most trusted check on the death penalty, appellate courts.

Building on David Baldus’s storied dataset from Georgia, we demonstrate that the racial disparities he discovered in the penultimate stage of the case — death sentences — were amplified in the ultimate stage of the case — executions.  Combining both phases reveals a stunning pattern: the execution rate is roughly 17 times greater in white victim cases than black victim cases.  Although Baldus could not have known how the cases would unfold post-sentencing, our findings indicate that the racial disparities described in McCleskey v Kemp (1987) underestimated the extent of the death penalty’s arbitrariness problem.

August 25, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 01, 2019

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

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

Drugs

Firearms

Offender Groups

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

Saturday, July 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 25, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

"Capital Punishment, 2017: Selected Findings"

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

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

Sunday, July 21, 2019

"The Vanishing of Federal Sentencing Decisions"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posed at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

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

Thursday, July 18, 2019

US Sentencing Commission begins new "Research Notes" publication

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

RESEARCH NOTES

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

Research Notes

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

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

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 05, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 29, 2019

"Recidivism of Felony Offenders in California"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 27, 2019

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

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

Summary

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

Highlights

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

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

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

Thursday, June 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"Most US drug arrests involve a gram or less"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Interesting new data on declining capital habeas petitions in federal court

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 07, 2019

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

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

Summary

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

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

Data Highlights [FN1]

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Spotlighting the enduring business of jails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Spotlighting how federal drug prosecution patterns have changed in recent years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

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

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

Newly Released Sentencing Data

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

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

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

Quick Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Questions of governance, transparency, and accountability.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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