Sunday, July 25, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases more detailed "Compassionate Release Data Report" for 2020

As detailed in this post, last month the US Sentencing Commission released a short data report titled "Compassionate Release Data." That report provided notable but very basic numbers on the grants and denials of federal compassionate release motions nationwide for calendar year 2020.  The report revealed, as further discussed in this follow-up post, that judges granted a good number of these motions once COVID hit, but that the Bureau of Prisons approved stunningly few compassionate release applications and that there were considerable disparities in grant rates in different judicial districts.

I was quite pleased to see the USSC promulgate any compassionate release data, but I was eager for additional data beyond circuit and district breakdowns of these motions.  In my prior post, I hoped we might at some point see "a lot more offender demographic information (e.g., race, gender, age of movant) and sentence modification information (e.g., primary sentenced offense and amount of sentence reduction)."  Excitingly, the USSC has now released this updated expanded data report that provides a lot more details about compassionate release grants for calendar year 2020.

Specifically, this latest report includes data on "Demographic Characteristics Of Offenders Receiving Compassionate Release" and on "Selected Sentencing Factors For Offenders Receiving Compassionate Release" and on "Type Of Crime For Offenders Receiving Compassionate Release" and on "Original Sentence Length For Offenders Receiving Compassionate Release." I am so very pleased to see this additional data, although the extent of sentence reductions is still a data point not covered which seems to me to be important to understand the full compassionate release story (e.g.,ten granted sentence reduction motions that reduce sentences by five months seem quite different than ten granted motions reducing sentences by five years.)   

Upon first glace, it is hard to see if there are any particularly distinctive or disturbing patterns in this enhanced USSC compassionate release data.  Interestingly, looking at the demographics, I noticed that the percentage of black prisoners securing a sentence reduction in 2020 (which was 45.2% according to the USSC data) appears to be greater than the percentage of black prisoners in federal prison (which was 34.9% as of this USSC report with March 2021 data).  Likewise, I was intrigued to see that the percentage of prisoners convicted of drug trafficking securing a sentence reduction in 2020 (which was 53% according to the USSC data) appears to be greater than the percentage of such prisoners in federal prison (which was 43% as of this same USSC report).   

I hope that the US Sentencing Commission not only continues to release more and more granular data about sentencing reduction grants.  I also hope the USSC will (a) track recidivism rates for this population over time, and (b) learn about which guidelines might be seen to produce excessively long sentencing in retrospect as documented through these grants.  The kind of second-look sentencing mechanism now operating the the federal system is not only valuable and important as a means to achieve better justice in individual cases, but also should serve as an important feedback loop providing a kind of on-going audit of the operation of the entire federal sentencing system. 

A few of many prior related posts:

July 25, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

BJS releases new reports on "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2019" and "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2019"

Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics always produces terrific reports on national criminal justice realities, though there is necessarily a time lag in the data reported.  But given they ways the COVID pandemic has changed (and not changed) our criminal justice systems, I think it is especially timely that BJS has just released to big new reports on the state of US correctional populations at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic hit.  Via email, I got news and short descriptions of these new BJS reports:

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics today released two reports that present statistics on adults in the U.S. correctional system. Correctional Populations in the United States, 2019 – Statistical Tables provides data on both incarcerated persons and those on probation or parole, while Probation and Parole in the United States, 2019 focuses on persons under community supervision on probation or parole.

Correctional Populations in the United States, 2019 – Statistical Tables presents statistics on persons supervised by U.S. adult correctional systems at year-end 2019, including those supervised in the community on probation or parole and persons incarcerated in state or federal prison or local jail.  It describes the size and change in the total correctional population from 2009 to 2019.  Findings are based on various BJS data collections, including the Annual Probation Survey, Annual Parole Survey, Annual Survey of Jails, Census of Jails, National Prisoner Statistics program and Survey of Jails in Indian Country.

Probation and Parole in the United States, 2019 presents national data on adult offenders under community supervision on probation or parole in 2019.  It includes characteristics of the population such as sex, race or Hispanic origin, and most serious offense.  The report details how offenders move onto and off community supervision, such as completing their term of supervision, being incarcerated, absconding or other unsatisfactory outcomes while in the community.  Findings are based on data from BJS’s 2019 Annual Probation Survey and Annual Parole Survey.

July 22, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Helpful review of some modern US capital punishment realities

FT_21.07.15_DeathPenaltyFacts_2Over at the Pew Research Center, John Gramlich has this effective new piece headlined "10 facts about the death penalty in the U.S." In fact, many of the "facts" discussed in this article are facts about polling regarding the death penalty in the U.S. (which makes sense given Pew's recent poll work on this topic). Nevertheless, the piece is well worth a read in full, and here are a few of the highlights I though most bloggy-notable:

1. Six-in-ten U.S. adults strongly or somewhat favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, according to the April 2021 survey. A similar share (64%) say the death penalty is morally justified when someone commits a crime like murder....

5. Support for the death penalty is consistently higher in online polls than in phone polls. Survey respondents sometimes give different answers depending on how a poll is conducted. In a series of contemporaneous Pew Research Center surveys fielded online and on the phone between September 2019 and August 2020, Americans consistently expressed more support for the death penalty in a self-administered online format than in a survey administered on the phone by a live interviewer. This pattern was more pronounced among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents than among Republicans and GOP leaners, according to an analysis of the survey results....

7. A majority of states have the death penalty, but far fewer use it regularly. As of July 2021, the death penalty is authorized by 27 states and the federal government – including the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. military – and prohibited in 23 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But even in many of the jurisdictions that authorize the death penalty, executions are rare: 13 of these states, along with the U.S. military, haven’t carried out an execution in a decade or more.

A growing number of states have done away with the death penalty in recent years, either through legislation or a court ruling. Virginia, which has carried out more executions than any state except Texas since 1976, abolished capital punishment in 2021. It followed Colorado (2020), New Hampshire (2019), Washington (2018), Delaware (2016), Maryland (2013), Connecticut (2012), Illinois (2011), New Mexico (2009), New Jersey (2007) and New York (2004)....

8. Death sentences have steadily decreased in recent decades. There were 2,570 people on death row in the U.S. at the end of 2019, down 29% from a peak of 3,601 at the end of 2000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). New death sentences have also declined sharply: 31 people were sentenced to death in 2019, far below the more than 320 who received death sentences each year between 1994 and 1996....

9. Annual executions are far below their peak level. Nationally, 17 people were put to death in 2020, the fewest since 1991 and far below the modern peak of 98 in 1999, according to BJS and the Death Penalty Information Center. The COVID-19 outbreak disrupted legal proceedings in much of the country in 2020, causing some executions to be postponed.

July 20, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 19, 2021

New UNODC report details interesting global realities and trends in incarceration

A section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has released this interesting new data report highlighting on its cover page "Nearly twelve million people imprisoned globally; nearly one-third unsentenced; with prisons overcrowded in half of all countries."  This release about the report provides some context and highlights: 

One in every three prisoners worldwide are held without a trial, which means that they have not been found guilty by any court of justice, according to the first global research data on prisons published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The research brief, released ahead of Nelson Mandela International Day on 18 July, examines the long-term trends of imprisonment, stating that over the past two decades, between 2000 and 2019, the number of prisoners worldwide has increased by more than 25 per cent, with a global population growth of 21 per cent in the same period, with 11.7 million people incarcerated at the end of 2019.  This is a population comparable in size to entire nations such as Bolivia, Burundi, Belgium, or Tunisia.

At the end of 2019 — the latest year data is available — there were around 152 prisoners for every 100,000 population. While Northern America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe have experienced a long-term decrease in imprisonment rates of up to 27 per cent, other regions and countries, such as Latin America and Australia and New Zealand, have seen growth over the last two decades of up to 68 per cent.

At 93 per cent, most of the persons detained in prison globally are men.  Over the past two decades, however, the number of women in prisons has increased at a faster pace, with an increase of 33 per cent versus 25 per cent for men.

For those concerned about mass incarceration in the US and elsewhere, this report provides a terrific global snapshot of recent trends and some of the latest data. For example:

As of 2019, there were an estimated 152 prisoners for every 100,000 population globally.  This global rate has not changed much over the last two decades — it stood at 151 prisoners in 2000.  There is, however, considerable sub-regional variation: as of 2019, a much larger share of the population was imprisoned in Northern America (577 per 100,000 population), Latin America and the Caribbean (267) and Eastern Europe (262), than in Sub-Saharan Africa (84), Melanesia (78), or Southern Asia (48).  Furthermore, gender-specific rates also vary substantially across sub-regions. The high male imprisonment rate in the Northern American sub-region (1,048 male prisoners per 100,000 male population) is particularly noteworthy.

July 19, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 17, 2021

"Reducing Racial Inequalities in Criminal Justice: Data, Courts, and Systems of Supervision"

The title of this post is the title of this short report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine capturing the proceedings of a notable workshop. Here is how the report is described:

The Committee on Reducing Racial Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a workshop in April 2021 as part of its exploration of ways to reduce racial inequalities in criminal justice outcomes in the United States.  This workshop, the third in a series of three, enabled the committee to gather information from a diverse set of stakeholders and experts to inform the consensus study process. Speakers at the workshop presented on deeply rooted inequalities within the criminal justice system, which exist not only in readily measured areas such as incarceration, but also in a much larger footprint that includes contact with police, monetary sanctions, and surveillance and supervision.  This publication highlights the presentations and discussion of the workshop.  

July 17, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 15, 2021

New fact sheets from Sentencing Project on disparities in youth incarceration

Via email this morning, I received details and links about notable new data assembled by The Sentencing Project. Here is the heart of the email:

Profound racial and ethnic disparities in youth incarceration define the American juvenile justice system. New publications released today by The Sentencing Project detail the scope of the problem and should raise alarms among policymakers and advocates committed to racial justice.

Our new fact sheets show state-by-state incarceration rates by race and ethnicity and highlight where the problem is getting worse and better. 

  • Black Disparities in Youth Incarceration
    • Black youth are more than four times as likely as their white peers to be held in juvenile facilities, a modest improvement since 2015’s all-time high.
    • In New Jersey, Black youth are more than 17 times as likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. 
  • Latinx Disparities in Youth Incarceration
    • Latinx youth are 28 percent more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, a sharp improvement over the course of the decade.
    • In Massachusetts, Latinx youth are five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.
  • Tribal Disparities in Youth Incarceration
    • Tribal youth’s disparities have grown worse over the course of the decade, and they are now more than three times as likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.
    • In Minnesota, Tribal youth are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.

The Sentencing Project has long recommended the use of racial impact statements to divulge the source of disparities such as these. To overcome them, states and localities must invest heavily in community programs that address inequality at all stages of life, with particular focus on accommodating the needs of children of color.

July 15, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 08, 2021

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

In a number of prior post, I have praised 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"). This is another such post intended to flag these newest publications:

July 8, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Prosecutors, court communities, and policy change: The impact of internal DOJ reforms on federal prosecutorial practices"

Crim12275-fig-0007-mThe title of this post is the title of this important and impressive new empirical federal criminal justice research just published in Criminology and authored by Mona Lynch, Matt Barno and Marisa Omori. Here is the article's abstract:

The current study examines how key internal U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) policy changes have been translated into front-line prosecutorial practices. Extending courts-as-communities scholarship and research on policy implementation practices, we use U.S. Sentencing Commission data from 2004 to 2019 to model outcomes for several measures of prosecutorial discretion in federal drug trafficking cases, including the use of mandatory minimum charges and prosecutor-endorsed departures, to test the impact of the policy changes on case processing outcomes. We contrast prosecutorial measures with measures that are more impervious to discretionary manipulation, such as criminal history, and those that represent judicial and blended discretion, including judicial departures and final sentence lengths. We find a significant effect of the policy reforms on how prosecutorial tools are used across DOJ policy periods, and we find variation across districts as a function of contextual conditions, consistent with the court communities literature. We also find that a powerful driver of changes in prosecutorial practices during our most recent period is the confirmation of individual Trump-appointed U.S. Attorneys at the district level, suggesting an important theoretical place for midlevel actors in policy translation and implementation.

This article includes a data set of over 300,000(!) federal drug cases, and the findings are extremely rich and detailed. I have reprinted one of many interesting charts above, and here is the article's concluding paragraphs (without references):

Recent developments call into question whether the existing workgroup dynamics in the federal system that we have documented here — with prosecutors generally pushing for more punitive outcomes, and judges and defense attorneys acting as a counter to this punitiveness — are likely to persist in the future.  Although there was bipartisan Congressional support for the First Step Act, suggesting that the late twentieth-century punitive policies may continue to wane in appeal, the federal criminal system has also undergone significant change, particularly in the judiciary where lifetime appointments prevail.  The Trump administration was extremely active in appointing new judges to existing vacancies, and as a result, nearly a quarter of active federal judges were appointed during his presidency.  Given the conservative political leanings of many of these judges, it is fair to question whether these judges might in fact oppose a move toward less punitive practices among federal prosecutors.

Even if the Biden administration is successful in scaling back punitive policies and installs U.S. Attorneys who are in ideological alignment with such reforms, prosecutorial power is not limitless in determining case outcomes.  Under advisory guidelines, judges have considerable power to sentence above the guidelines, as long as it is within the generous statutory limits that characterize federal criminal law.  In the face of this possibility, federal prosecutors may opt to exercise their most powerful tool—the discretionary decision to file charges, or not.  Thus, should the dynamics shift to where the current roles are reversed, prosecutors could come to rely on their discretion not to charge in those drug cases where they seek to eliminate the chance that those potential defendants receive long sentences.  In any case, as our results suggest, we should expect that any potential future conflicts among federal prosecutors and judges are likely to play out differently across different court contexts, depending on the conditions and make-up of each local district.

July 8, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

US Sentencing Commission issues big new report on "Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography: Non-Production Offenses"

Cover_CP-non-prodDespite only having a single commissioner, the US Sentencing Commissioner is continuing to produce interesting federal sentencing data and reports.  This latest USSC report, running nearly 100 pages, was released today under the titled "Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography: Non-Production Offenses."   This report drills into data from fiscal year 2019, and this webpage sets out these "key findings" from the report:

  • Facilitated by advancements in digital and mobile technology, non-production child pornography offenses increasingly involve voluminous quantities of videos and images that are graphic in nature, often involving the youngest victims.
    • In fiscal year 2019, non-production child pornography offenses involved a median number of 4,265 images, with some offenders possessing and distributing millions of images and videos.
    • Over half (52.2%) of non-production child pornography offenses in fiscal year 2019 included images or videos of infants or toddlers, and nearly every offense (99.4%) included prepubescent victims.
  • Constrained by statutory mandatory minimum penalties, congressional directives, and direct guideline amendments by Congress in the PROTECT Act of 2003, § 2G2.2 contains a series of enhancements that have not kept pace with technological advancements.  Four of the six enhancements — accounting for a combined 13 offense levels — cover conduct that has become so ubiquitous that they now apply in the vast majority of cases sentenced under § 2G2.2.
    • For example, in fiscal year 2019, over 95 percent of non-production child pornography offenders received enhancements for use of a computer and for the age of the victim (images depicting victims under the age of 12).
    • The enhancements for images depicting sadistic or masochistic conduct or abuse of an infant or toddler (84.0% of cases) or having 600 or more images (77.2% of cases) were also applied in most cases.
  • Because enhancements that initially were intended to target more serious and more culpable offenders apply in most cases, the average guideline minimum and average sentence imposed for nonproduction child pornography offenses have increased since 2005.
    • The average guideline minimum for non-production child pornography offenders increased from 98 months in fiscal year 2005 to 136 months in fiscal year 2019.
    • The average sentence increased more gradually, from 91 months in fiscal year 2005 to 103 months in fiscal year 2019.
  • Although sentences imposed remain lengthy, courts increasingly apply downward variances in response to the high guideline ranges that apply to the typical non-production child pornography offender.
    • In fiscal year 2019, less than one-third (30.0%) of non-production child pornography offenders received a sentence within the guideline range.
    • The majority (59.0%) of non-production child pornography offenders received a variance below the guideline range.
    • Non-government sponsored below range variances accounted for 42.2 percent of sentences imposed, and government sponsored below range variances accounted for 16.8 percent.
  • Section 2G2.2 does not adequately account for relevant aggravating factors identified in the Commission’s 2012 Child Pornography Report that have become more prevalent.
    • More than forty percent (43.7%) of non-production child pornography offenders participated in an online child pornography community in fiscal year 2019.
    • Nearly half (48.0%) of non-production child pornography offenders engaged in aggravating sexual conduct prior to, or concurrently with, the instant nonproduction child pornography offense in fiscal year 2019.  This represents a 12.9 percentage point increase since fiscal year 2010, when 35.1 percent of offenders engaged in such conduct.
  • Consistent with the key aggravating factors identified in the Commission’s 2012 Child Pornography Report, courts appeared to consider participation in an online child pornography community and engaging in aggravating sexual conduct when imposing sentences, both in terms of the length of sentence imposed and the sentence relative to the guideline range.
    • In fiscal year 2019, the average sentence imposed increased from 71 months for offenders who engaged in neither an online child pornography community nor aggravating sexual conduct, to 79 months for offenders who participated in an online child pornography community, to 134 months for offenders who engaged in aggravating sexual conduct.
    • In fiscal year 2019, offenders who engaged in aggravating sexual conduct were sentenced within their guideline ranges at a rate nearly three times higher than offenders who did not participate in online child pornography communities or engage in aggravating sexual conduct (44.3% compared to 15.6%).
  • As courts and the government contend with the outdated statutory and guideline structure, sentencing disparities among similarly situated non-production child pornography offenders have become increasingly pervasive. Charging practices, the resulting guideline ranges, and the sentencing practices of judges have all contributed to some degree to these disparities.
    • For example, the sentences for 119 similarly situated possession offenders ranged from probation to 228 months though these 119 possession offenders had the same guideline calculation through the application of the same specific offense characteristics and criminal history category.
    • The sentences for 52 similarly situated receipt offenders ranged from 37 months to 180 months though these 52 receipt offenders had the same guideline calculation through the application of the same specific offense characteristics and criminal history category.
    • The sentences for 190 similarly situated distribution offenders ranged from less than one month to 240 months though these 190 distribution offenders had the same guideline calculation through the application of the same specific offense characteristics and criminal history category.
  • When tracking 1,093 nonproduction child pornography offenders released from incarceration or placed on probation in 2015, 27.6 percent were rearrested within three years.
    • Of the 1,093 offenders, 4.3 percent (47 offenders) were rearrested for a sex offense within three years.
    • Eighty-eight offenders (8.1% of the 1,093) failed to register as a sex offender during the three-year period.

June 29, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Post-Libby commutation developments, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 28, 2021

Updating the Buckeye State's progress creating a needed felony sentencing database

In a few posts at the start and end of last year, I flagged the work of some Ohio jurists in advocating for the development of a statewide sentencing database. See :A notable judicial pitch for better sentencing data in the Buckeye State" (from Jan. 2020) and "Making a great case for greater data to improve sentencing decision-making and sentencing systems" (from Dec. 2020).  Since then, work on, and debates over, such a database have picked up steam and also garnered some press attention:

From the Columbus Dispatch, "Can a spreadsheet improve fairness and justice in sentencing in Ohio courts? Some judges say yes"

From the Court News Ohio, "Justice, Judges Stand By Value Of Sentencing Database"

Also from the Court News Ohio, "New Platform Provides Path to Accessible Sentencing Data"

From The Plain Dealer editorial board: "Should Cuyahoga County run a pilot to show a criminal sentencing database can work?"

Here are excerpts from the the Dispatch article, which appears in today's papers, providing an update on the efforts:

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly is spearheading a project to collect criminal sentencing data in a uniform way across courts.  And Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor is backing it as well.  "I've become convinced that this isn't just a good idea, it's an absolute necessity to deal with the problem of disparate treatment and implicit bias that permeates our sentencing laws," Donnelly said....

The goal is to be able see how similar cases compare county to county, court to court.  It isn't as simple as it sounds.  The courts operate with antiquated information technology systems. There isn't a uniform way that courts collect information.  Ohio has 723 elected judges across 88 counties — some of whom may be worried about what trends the data may show, Donnelly said....

Ohio is making some progress.  The Ohio Sentencing Data Platform project now has a template so courts can collect the same information in the same fields — a crucial early step for building a common database.  

Courts in Allen and Lawrence counties are testing the project and courts in Highland, Lake and Summit counties are scheduled to join in the coming months.  Courts in 11 other counties including Hamilton, Warren, Franklin and Stark are holding meetings about joining.

 The April 2021 issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter, which is available online here, includes discussions of efforts to build out the Ohio Sentencing Data Platform.

June 28, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 18, 2021

"Bargained Justice: Plea Bargaining and the Psychology of False Pleas and False Testimony"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Lucian Dervan now available via SSRN Here is its abstract:

Plea bargaining is an institution that has come to dominate the American criminal justice system.  While little psychological research was done in the decades following the 1970 Supreme Court decision that approved the practice of plea bargaining, many advances have been made in this field in the last decade.  We now know, for example, that a significant number of defendants will falsely plead guilty in return for the benefits of a bargain.  Further, we know that the presence of counsel can actually increase, not decrease, the prevalence of false pleas of guilty.  We also know that pretrial detention can drastically increase the rate of false pleas of guilty by the innocent.  Finally, we know that defendants will not only falsely plead guilty, but that they will also falsely testify against a co-defendant in return for the benefits of the deal.  This piece examines each of these findings and considers what this research means for the future of bargained justice. 

June 18, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Local report on federal compassionate release in Rhode Island raises questions about US Sentencing Commission data

A helpful reader made sure I saw this new reporting about federal compassionate release practices from a local source in the Ocean State under the headline "Federal inmates seeking early release in RI approved 40% of the time in 2020."  Here are excerpts (with a little emphasis added):

More than one of every three federal inmates sentenced in Rhode Island who sought compassionate release last year was let go early from prison, according to data from the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island.

A new report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission found Rhode Island federal judges were second only to jurists in Oregon for districts granting compassionate release requests during 2020.  While data directly from federal court in Providence shows the Sentencing Commission undercounted denials during that time period, U.S. District Judge William Smith said he wasn’t surprised to learn Rhode Island was more likely than other districts to grant early release.  “I think we’ve been really, really aggressive and careful about compassionate release petitions that have come before us,” Smith said. “We’ve paid a lot of attention to them and I am really proud of the way we’ve handled them.”

A Target 12 review of data provided by the federal court found 78 inmates who were sentenced in Rhode Island requested an early release in 2020.  Of those requests, 45 were denied, 30 were granted, and three were withdrawn.

Smith said weighing whether they should grant an early release is a balancing test between the risk to an inmate, and a risk to the community.  “There were various points in the pandemic when some federal prisons were literally on fire with the virus,” Smith said.

He added that the judges were keenly aware that a denial of an early release could be tantamount to a death sentence at the height of the pandemic. “There were times when you would go to bed at night hoping you wouldn’t wake up in the morning to find someone you had under consideration for compassionate release was now on a ventilator in a hospital,” he said. “That was going on all across the country.”

Despite those concerns, the answer was still “no” more often than “yes.” “If [an inmate] is in for a very long period of time for a crime of violence – let’s say – that is much more difficult and probably don’t grant that one,” Smith said.

That was the case with inmates Gregory Floyd and Harry Burdick, who were convicted in the horrific June 2000 execution-style slaying of Jason Burgeson and Amy Scute at a golf course in Johnston. The couple was carjacked after leaving a club in Providence before being gunned down. Both Floyd and Burdick had their compassionate release requests denied.

A Target 12 review of the cases that were granted an early release found none of the inmates were serving time for crimes of violence.  The vast majority of the convictions – 19 of 30 – were primarily drugs cases, five were financial crime convictions, two were firearm possession cases, and one each of art theft, escape from prison, bank robbery, and a conviction of “transportation with intent to prostitute.”...

Thousands of inmates across the country [filed CR motions] as COVID-19 was ripping through congregate care facilities, including prisons. According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, more than 44,000 inmates contracted the virus and 238 of them died. Four BOP staff members also succumbed to the disease. “I am really proud to say as far as I know, not a single inmate from Rhode Island died of coronavirus in prison,” Smith said, adding just one inmate who was released committed a violation that sent them back to prison.

With the pandemic seemingly receding, 2021 has been a different story. Of the 23 inmates who have asked for compassionate release since January, just one has been granted. “The medical issues are not as chronic, not as severe, the prisons are in a much better shape in terms of controlling the virus,” Smith said. “Then the third piece is the vaccination rate has been rising.”...

But for those who refused to get the vaccine, especially out of personal preference, Smith said that wouldn’t likely help any of their future arguments for compassionate release on the basis of being at heightened risk of contracting the virus. “I think it is on them,” he said.

I lamented last week in this post that the US Sentencing Commission's data run on CR motions in 2020 provided no information about the persons in prison or the crimes that were resulting in grants and denials of sentence reductions.  It is thus quite valuable to see this local report detail that nearly two-thirds of persons getting sentence reductions were in drug cases and apparently none involved crime of violence.  It will be interesting to see if this pattern holds true if and when we get more details from more districts.

But while pleased for this additional data from Rhode Island, I am troubled to see that the US Sentencing Commission may be (drastically?) under-reporting denials of relief.  I do not want to assume anything hinky is going on, because there may be valid data collection question and challenges here explaining the discrepancy between the USSC data report and the data reported by the local news source.  For example, if a defendant is initially denied a motion for a sentence reduction, perhaps on procedural grounds, and then a month later prevails on such a motion, is this is coded as just one grant or is it one denial and one grant?

For all sort of reasons, I think it will prove very important to try to be very careful assembling accurate data here on all sorts of sentence reduction particulars.  The US Sentencing Commission, if and when it ever has Commissioners, will at some point need to modify various policy statements about these matters, and good data will be critical for the USSC and others advising the USSC to do their work in sound ways.

A few of many prior related posts:

June 17, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Massive new RAND report provides "Statistical Analysis of Presidential Pardons"

I received an email yesterday from the Bureau of Justice Statistics with a link to this 220+ page report produced by RAND Corporation titled "Statistical Analysis of Presidential Pardons."  The report is so big and intricate that the introduction runs 40 pages with lots of complicated data.  And, disappointingly, it seems the detailed statistical analysis includes data only running through April 2012 (through most of Prez Obama's first term) and so does not include the flush of pardons and commutations granted over the last decade. Still, the report provides a lot of coverage that should be of great interest to those who follow the use of federal clemency powers and possibilities.  Here is a snippet from Chapter 1 of the report that details its coverage:

Chapter 2 presents a model of the deliberative process employed by OPA in evaluating incoming pardon petitions.  Chapter 3 provides descriptive statistics on measures collected during our abstraction of sample petition files.  Chapter 4 reports on the findings from our statistical analysis intended to identify petitioner and petition characteristics most strongly associated with grants of pardon — with a special emphasis on the effects of race and ethnicity on final actions — and also describes the assumptions and techniques utilized for this work.  In Chapter 5 we discuss what these descriptions and findings may reveal about OPA’s pardon petition processing.

June 16, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 14, 2021

More good coverage of the not-so-good (but still not-so-bad) realities of federal compassionate release realities

As noted here, last Thursday the US Sentencing Commission released some fascinating (and bare bones) data on compassionate release motions in 2020 in this short data report.  In this post, I flagged coverage by the Marshall Project lamenting that the Bureau of Prisons approved so very few compassionate release applications.  I have since seen three more press piece noting ugly stories in the data:

I am quite pleased to see a a series of articles based on the new USSC data that rightly assail the BOP for being so adverse to supporting sentence reduction 3582(c)(1)(a) motions and that highlights broad variations in how compassionate release is functioning in different federal judicial districts.  But, those persistent problems notwithstanding, I hope nobody loses sight of what the FIRST STEP Act accomplished by allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences without awaiting a motion by the BOP.  As of this writing, BOP reports on this data page that nearly 3500 federal defendants have now received "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences" since the FIRST STEP Act became law. (For point of reference, that is more than the total number of prisoners in New Hampshire and Vermont combined.)  

I am eager for more details from the US Sentencing Commission about who is and is not receiving sentence reductions because there are surely some uneven (and likely ugly) patterns to be found in all the data.  But the one pattern that is clear and should be appreciated is that judges are regularly using their new powers to reduce sentences that are excessive.  As I suggested in this recent post, new legal rulings and all sorts of other developments can and should continue to provide sound reasons for federal judges to keep reconsidering extreme past federal sentences.  I hope they continue to do so, and I hope we do not lose sight of a beautiful compassionate release forest even when we notice a some ugly trees.

A few of many prior related posts:

June 14, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 10, 2021

How many federal prisoners might now be serving illegal sentences after Borden?

I will be blogging in a future post about just how current federal prisoners serving Armed Career Criminal Act sentences might seek relief from now-illegal long sentences based on the Supreme Court's important ruling in Borden v. US, No. 19–5410 (S. Ct. June 10, 2021) (available here), limiting applicable ACCA precedents.  (Spoiler: they should not forget "compassionate release" as a means of seeking relief.)  But my inquiry for this post is the preliminary question in the title of this post: can we figure out how many federal prisoners might now be serving illegal sentences after Borden because they were sentenced on the basis of a reckless predicate ACCA offense?

Figuring out a precise answer to this question is very intricate, though it is aided greatly by this recent US Sentencing Commission report detailing in Figure 1 how many ACCA sentences have been handed down over the last decade.  Based on that data and with a bit of extrapolation, I think it possible that there could be as many as 10,000 persons (though likely somewhat fewer) in federal prison now serving ACCA sentences.  [UPDATE with better numbers: an astute commentor notes that the USSC report actually has a Figure 7 reporting that a "total of 3,572 offenders in
Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody as of June 27, 2020 were sentenced pursuant to the ACCA."  A year later, I would guess that number is about the same.] However, I suspect the vast majority of those prisoners would not have clear or even viable Borden claims.  In fact, I would be tempted to guest that less than 1 out of every 10 ACCA prisoners has a strong Borden-based claim for undoing his sentence. 

But I am truly making a wild guess here, and I am eager to hear from folks in the field about whether they agree that only hundred of sentences may be potentially disrupted by Borden or if in fact it could end up being thousands.  Whatever the exact number, as I will explain in a future post, every ACCA defendant with a viable Borden claim should be thankful for the FIRST STEP Act making "compassionate release" motions available o bring directly to court.  But more on that will come in a future post.

June 10, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

US Sentencing Commission releases fascinating (and bare bones) "Compassionate Release Data Report"

I just received an email from the US Sentencing Commission with an alert about new data reports from the USSC.  Any new data from the USSC gets me excited, and I got even more jazzed upon seeing the heading "Compassionate Release Data" followed by this text in the email:

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the courts received thousands of compassionate release motions. This report provides an analysis of those compassionate release motions decided through December 31, 2020 for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the U.S. Sentencing Commission by May 27, 2021.

Data Overview

Through December 31, 2020, the Commission received the following information from the courts:

  • 2,549 offenders were granted compassionate release. This represents 21% of compassionate release motions.
  • 9,589 offenders were denied compassionate release. This represents 79% of compassionate release motions.
  • 96% of granted motions were made by the defendant.

Somewhat disappointingly, the full report linked here provides precious little additional data beyond circuit and district breakdowns of these motions and their dispositions. I would be especially interested in seeing a lot more offender demographic information (e.g., race, gender, age of movant) and sentence modification information (e.g., primary sentenced offense and amount of sentence reduction).  But I am excited to learn that the USSC data staff is keeping track of these matters and seemingly planning to regularly report of what it is tracking.   

June 10, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

A different assessment of "America’s Dangerous Obsession" with innocence on death row

Thirteen years ago, in an article titled Reorienting Progressive Perspectives for Twenty-First Century Punishment Realities, 3 Harv. L.& Pol'y Rev. Online (2008), I explained the basis for my concern that "progressive criminal justice reform efforts concerning innocence issues, abolition of the death penalty, and sentencing disparities may contribute to, and even exacerbate, the forces that have helped propel modern mass incarceration."  That old article feels fresh again upon seeing this new lengthy Atlantic piece by Elizabeth Bruenig titled "America’s Dangerous Obsession With Innocence."  Here are a few excerpts from the piece:

It goes without saying that the state should not kill innocent people, and that it is a good thing to save the innocent from a fate no one thinks they deserve.  I believe it is a good thing, too, to save the guilty from a fate some would argue they have earned.  That the one stance may occlude the other reflects the death penalty’s bizarre moral universe....

According to the national Registry of Exonerations, more than 1,000 people have been exonerated for murder in the United States since 1989.  Many of these cases were initially decided when forensic techniques and technologies were less advanced and less accurate than they are now.  People with plausible innocence claims have, in some instances, been able to bring new technology to bear on preserved evidence to great effect.  That phenomenon spurred the innocence movement in capital-punishment advocacy as we know it.

“Around the year 2000, there’s this ferment all over the place to create innocence programs,” David R. Dow, the founder and director of one such program, the Texas Innocence Network, told me. “They’re kind of sexy. Funders want to fund them. People are beginning to pay attention to the fact that there are innocent people in prison.”

Marissa Bluestine, the assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, told me that more than 50 innocence organizations now operate in the United States.  They differ in size, scope, region, and budget, but they “all have the same goals: They work to identify people who did not commit the underlying crime they were convicted of and they try to exonerate them.”

That’s well and good, except that the number of innocence claims that can be confidently settled in labs is not infinite, and may in fact be dwindling. Dow, who teaches law at the University of Houston, has represented more than 100 clients on death row in his 30 years of practice; out of that number, he counts only eight as credibly innocent. He doesn’t suspect that his future will hold many more....

More generally, a 2014 published by the National Academy of Sciences found that if all of American death-row inmates were to remain condemned indefinitely, approximately 4.1 percent would eventually be exonerated — a proxy for the share of innocent inmates. That’s an admittedly conservative estimate. But even if the number of innocent inmates were doubled, the number of guilty ones would still make up more than 90 percent of death row....

To put it succinctly: Innocence cases indicate that some capital sentences are unfair, but decades of studies on death-qualified juries; race, gender, and immigration-status bias among jurors; law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct; weak forensic science and poor representation at trial all suggest that a fair capital sentence is virtually impossible.  Ultimately the fight should be waged not against particular injustices, but against the unjust system itself.

Especially for those inclined toward capital abolition, I fully understand the logic of speculating that there many not be that many innocent persons left on death row and so even more fight needs to be directed toward the guilty on death row.  However, the fight against against all of death row has been pretty robust and pretty effective over the last 20 years (surely aided by the innocence movement).  Nationwide, since 2000, death row has shrunk about 30%, the number of executions has shrunk about 75%, and the number of death sentences imposed has shrunk 85%.

But, shifting our focus from formal death sentences to what are sometimes called "death in prison" sentences, the modern story changes dramatically.  As detailed in a recent Sentencing Project report (discussed here), the "number of people serving life without parole — the most extreme type of life sentence — is higher than ever before, a 66% increase since ... 2003."   Moreover, while there are currently around 2500 people on death row who have all been convicted of capital murder, there are now roughly 4000 people "serving life sentences [who] have been convicted for a drug-related offense."  And well over 200,000 persons are now "serving a life sentence, either life without parole (LWOP), life with parole (LWP) or virtual life (50 years or more)."  

If we keep the focus on innocence, and use the 4% number discussed in this Atlantic article and extrapolate, these data mean we could have 100 innocent persons on death row, but also 160 innocent persons serving life for a drug-related offense and over 8000 innocent persons serving LWOP or LWP or virtual life.  If there are lots of innocent groups and not a lot of "good" capital client, there would seem to be no shortage of innocent lifers needing help.  (And, on the data, I am always inclined to speculate that there are now an even larger number of innocent persons serving life than death because capital cases historically get more scrutiny.)

That all said, I obviously share this article's sentiment that guilty persons ought not endure unfair sentences and its advocacy for assailing "the unjust system itself."  However, the capital punishment system, for all its persistent flaws, still strikes me as somewhat less unjust than so many other parts of our sentencing system.  There are no mandatory death sentences, jurors play a central role in every death sentence, and state and federal appellate judges often actively review every death sentence.  There are nearly 100 people serving some type of life sentence for every person serving a death sentence in large part because life sentences are imposed so much more easily as subject to so much less scrutiny. 

Put simply, and I have said before, I worry it is a continued obsession with the death penalty, and not with innocence, that may be problematic in various ways.  But since that very obsession is largely what accounts for capital punishment's modern decline, I am disinclined to be too critical of capital obsessives.

June 9, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Prison Policy Initiative highlights data showing "State prisons are increasingly deadly places"

Prison Policy Initiative published today this new report (with helpful charts and data visuals) under the title "New data: State prisons are increasingly deadly places." The subtitle of this report captures the essence of the data discussed in the report: "New data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that state prisons are seeing alarming rises in suicide, homicide, and drug and alcohol-related deaths." Here are some excerpts from the start of the report (with links from original):

The latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) on mortality in state and federal prisons is a reminder that prisons are in fact “death-making institutions,” in the words of activist Mariame Kaba.  The new data is from 2018, not 2020, thanks to ongoing delays in publication, and while it would be nice to see how COVID-19 may have impacted deaths (beyond the obvious), the report indicates that prisons are becoming increasingly dangerous — a finding that should not be ignored.  The new numbers show some of the same trends we’ve seen before — that thousands die in custody, largely from a major or unnamed illness — but also reveal that an increasing share of deaths are from discrete unnatural causes, like suicide, homicide, and drug and alcohol intoxication....

Deaths in jail receive considerable attention in popular news, and here on our website — which they should, given the deplorable conditions that lead to tragedy among primarily unconvicted people.  State prisons, on the other hand, are regarded as more stable places, where life is slightly more predictable for already-sentenced people.  Why, then, are suicides up 22 percent from the previous mortality report, just two years prior?  Why are deaths by drug and alcohol intoxication up a staggering 139 percent from the previous mortality report, just two years prior?

The answer isn’t just because there are more incarcerated people.  The very slight net change in the state prison population since 2001 pales in comparison to the increase in overall deaths occurring in these facilities. (Prison populations have actually decreased since peaking in 2009, but they’re still larger in 2018 compared to 2001.)  Prisons have been, and continue to be, dangerous places, exposing incarcerated people to unbearable physical and mental conditions.  State prison systems must greatly improve medical and mental healthcare, address the relationship between correctional officers and the health of their populations, and work with parole boards to accelerate release processes.  Then, maybe, a state prison sentence would not become a death sentence for so many....

In 2018, state prisons reported 4,135 deaths (not including the 25 people executed in state prisons); this is the highest number on record since BJS began collecting mortality data in 2001.  Between 2016 and 2018, the prison mortality rate jumped from 303 to a record 344 per 100,000 people, a shameful superlative.  It may seem like a foregone conclusion that more people, serving decades or lifetimes, will die in prison.  But for at least 935 people, a sentence for a nonviolent property, drug, or public order offense became a death sentence in 2018.

June 8, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases "Capital Punishment, 2019 – Statistical Tables"

This morning the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics released this new report with data on the administration of capital punishment in the United States through the end of 2019. As I have noted before, though BJS sometimes provides the best available data on criminal justice administration, 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 still provides notable and clear statistical snapshots about the death penalty, and the document sets out these initial "highlights":

June 8, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 07, 2021

Vera Institute reports on "People in Jail and Prison in Spring 2021" and finds US total below 1.8 million

The Vera Institute of Justice is continuing to do terrific work on the challenging task of collecting (close-to-real-time) data on the number of people in state and federal prisons and jails.  Vera is now regularly reporting much more timely information on incarceration than the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which often releases data that lags a full year or more behind.  Impressively, and as reported in this post, Vera produced a great report titled "People in Jail and Prison in 2020" in January, and now it already produced this updated report titled "People in Jail and Prison in Spring 2021" with the latest nationwide prison and jail population headcounts. Here is part of the start of the report (with a few sentences I have emphasized):

When the COVID-19 pandemic was first detected in the United States, it was clear that the virus would cause widespread suffering and death among incarcerated people. Advocates were quick to call for prison and jail releases. However, a little more than a year later, decarceration appears to have stalled.  After an unprecedented 14 percent drop in incarceration in the first half of 2020 — from 2.1 million people to 1.8 million — incarceration declined only slightly from fall 2020 to spring 2021.  Generally, states that started 2020 with higher incarceration rates made fewer efforts to reduce incarceration through spring 2021. This pattern speaks to the political, economic, and social entrenchment of mass incarceration.

At the federal level, the number of people in civil custody for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is less than one-third of the 2019 population, while the number of people detained for the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) facing federal criminal charges reached an all-time high.

Jail populations in rural counties dropped by 27 percent from 2019 through March 2021, the most of any region.  The historic drop in the number of people incarcerated was neither substantial nor sustained enough to be an adequate response to the pandemic, and incarceration in the United States remains a global aberration.

Recent evidence from the Bureau of Justice Statistics also shows that racial inequity worsened as jail populations declined through June 2020.  Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) researchers collected data on the number of people incarcerated throughout 2020 and into early 2021 to provide timely information about how incarceration is changing in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Vera researchers estimated the incarcerated population using a sample of approximately 1,600 jail jurisdictions, 50 states, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the USMS, and ICE.

I find all this data fascinating, and I am actually encouraged that prison populations as reported by Vera is now below 1.2 million, which is the lowest it has been in over 25 years (and probably the lowest per capital in more than three decades).  This Vera report is clearly eager to stress that incarceration is still "mass" in the US, but I am still eager to note that we are still generally trending in the right direction.  Whether that will hold as we get closer to getting past COVID, as as murders and gun assaults are spiking, is the story I will be watching closely in the months and years ahead.

June 7, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Arnold Ventures releases detailed reports from multi-year community initiatives on Data-Driven Justice

Via this new press release, today "three pilot sites, Arnold Ventures, and the National Association of Counties publish findings and recommendations from a multi-year initiative aimed at using data and community coordination to better align resources to respond to people with complex health and social needs." Here is more from the release:

Arnold Ventures is proud to release the final reports from Data-Driven Justice (DDJ). These documents include a DDJ Insights brief that provides an overview of the pilot initiative and recommendations to policymakers, and an updated DDJ Playbook that provides detailed implementation guidance — a suite of materials that will help communities, both in the DDJ network and across the country, better respond to their most vulnerable residents. The three DDJ pilot test sites — Middlesex County, Massachusetts, Johnson County, Iowa and the City of Long Beach, California — are also releasing their final reports.

DDJ is a project of the National Association of Counties (NACo) and AV that aims to help local jurisdictions use data to better align resources to respond to people with complex health and social needs, particularly those who are frequent utilizers of justice, health, and human services systems....

These reports are key for practitioners and stakeholders charged with introducing DDJ in their own communities to gain insights into the details and processes behind implementation.  They will be especially helpful in demonstrating how DDJ can improve outcomes for frequent utilizers in communities starting with little to no capacity to share, integrate, and analyze data.

The lessons from the three pilot sites are incorporated into two overarching documents: the Insights Report, by AV, and a Playbook, by AV and NACo.

The Insights report presents an overview of the DDJ Pilot Site Initiative.  It reflects on the successes and challenges of the pilot initiative and provides recommendations for policymakers who seek to sustain and scale similar efforts. It is intended for use by the DDJ Network communities, funders, and policymakers interested in sustaining and scaling similar efforts to the pilot initiative.

The DDJ Playbook outlines step-by-step how communities and governments can use data and coordinate across criminal justice, behavioral health, and service providers to better align resources to respond to people with complex health and social needs for communities, and apply these lessons to community-specific contexts.

It can be used to inform DDJ Network communities and communities nationwide, provide recommendations for policymakers and funders, provide key insights into data analysis and integration, and further resources to explore and learn about how to improve outcomes for frequent utilizers through data integration and analysis.

June 1, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Latest Federal Sentencing Reporter issue explores data and sentencing from many perspectives

M_fsr.2021.33.4.coverI am so very pleased to report on that the latest issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter is now available online here.  This issue is titled "Making Sense of Sentencing Data" and it has a number of terrific articles from an array of authors examining sentencing data issues from a number of perspectives.  I highly encourage everyone to check out the full issue, and here is a list of the original articles in this FSR issue:

Deciphering Data by Steven L. Chanenson & Douglas A. Berman

Mapping The Modern Sentencing Data Landscape From the Bird’s Eye: The Sixth Circuit’s Efforts to Breathe Life into Substantive Reasonableness Review by Xiao Wang

Harnessing the Power of Data: The Role of Sentencing Commissions in the Information Age by Mark H. Bergstrom, Brett A. Miller & Jordan T. Zvonkovich

The Ohio Data Story in Three Part: The Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution by Sara Andrews

The Relationship of Judicial and Prosecutorial Elections to the Availability of Sentencing Data in the United States by Niki Hotchkiss

Anticipating the Judicial Response to Ohio’s Proposed Statewide Sentencing Database by Scott A. Anderson

Here Come the Judges: A Judicial Response to Anticipated Concerns over a Statewide Criminal Sentencing Database—Aligning Algorithmic Risk Assessments with Criminal Justice Values by Justice Michael P. Donnelly, Judge Gene A. Zmuda & Judge Pierre H. Bergeron

Under a Microscope? Show Them the Data by Judge Jeffrey L. Reed

Overview of State Sentencing Commissions’ Drug Data Reporting Practices by Benjamin L. Chanenson

Why and How We Need to Fill Criminal Justice Data Gaps by Arthur Rizer & Dan King

Good Data, Good Law by John Tilley, Serena Chang & Richard J. Peay

Using Data to Achieve Justice Reform by Ashley Nellis

Seeking Racial Justice Through Data in 2021 and Beyond by Melba V. Pearson

COVID-19 Vaccine Refusal and Related Factors: Preliminary Findings from a System-Wide Survey of Correctional Staff by Jordan M. Hyatt, Valerio Baćak & Erin M. Kerrison

Juveniles Are Not So Different: The Punishment of Juveniles and Adults at the Crossroads by Mugambi Jouet

May 25, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases lots of notable new data and "Quick Facts" reports

I was pleased to receive an email from the US Sentencing Commission today titled "What's New in Federal Sentencing?".  This email provided links and brief highlights of a lot of new items and data just posted to the USSC's website.  Here is a sampling from the email:

NEW First Step Act Data

The U.S. Sentencing Commission published updated data on sentence reductions pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018. Under Section 404, defendants sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 are eligible for a retroactive sentence reduction. 

Data Highlights

Through September 30, 2020, the Commission received the following information from the courts: 

  • 3,705 offenders were granted a sentence reduction under Section 404.
  • 65% were assigned to the highest Criminal History Category (VI). 
    • 56% were Career Offenders.
  • 45% received a weapon-related sentencing enhancement.
  • Offenders received an average decrease of 6 years in their sentence. 
    • The original average sentence was 274 months.
    • The new average sentence was 202 months.
  • 87% of granted motions were made by the defendant, 9% by the attorney for the government, and 4% by the court.

Quick Facts 

The Commission continues to update QuickFacts with new data. Recently updated QuickFacts include:

QuickFacts publications give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format. The Commission releases new QuickFacts periodically.

May 19, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, May 16, 2021

More details on "Justice Counts," a notable (and needed) criminal justice data collection effort

Justice-Counts-Powerpoint2-scaled-500x500-c-defaultI flagged in this post a few weeks ago the great online panel event hosted by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, in collaboration with National Association of Sentencing Commissions, titled "Justice Counts: Using Data to Inform Policy and Bolster Public Safety."  I am pleased to be able to now report that the video and transcript of this event are now available at this DEPC webpage, and the discussion has me quite excited for the Justice Counts data collection efforts that, as this website explains, aspires to provide "public, aggregate criminal justice data, which will provide policymakers in every state with timely information about their criminal justice systems, existing gaps in data collection, and opportunities to do better." 

Helpfully, the folks at ASU Crime and Justice News covered this event and provided an effective written summary of the discussion at this link.  Here are excerpts of this accounting of efforts to account for justice:

Criminal justice policy makers long have been plagued by a lack of good data on how the justice system operates, from arrests to imprisonments. In an effort to fill many of the gaps, the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG) has launched a project called Justice Counts that will provide state-by-state numbers on important parts of the justice process.  A website under development for the last year is expected in June to begin displaying numbers from state corrections systems, including counts of prisoners and people on probation and parole. 

In the past, such national data has been available on a consistent basis from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, which collects it from the states but often publishes it a year or more later, making it immediately out of date....  The new corrections data to be published should be timely after a year in which there have been more shifts than usual in prison and jail populations during the coronavirus pandemic, with many states and localities freeing inmates in advance of their expected release dates.

CSG staffers gave a preview of the new site on Tuesday to a webinar sponsored by the National Association of Sentencing Commissions and the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University. 

All states were asked to provide data to the central site. It is not yet available on a uniform basis because states compile it at different intervals, whether daily, weekly or monthly.

As of now, CSG has current prison population data from 36 states and numbers on various aspects of corrections, such as the number of state prisoners sent by courts or behind bars because they violated parole conditions, from varying numbers of states, ranging from seven in one category to 19 in another.  Eventually, the website will feature metrics such as the cost of corrections systems and whether they are achieving their goals.

Some recent related posts:

May 16, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 13, 2021

"Sentence Length and Recidivism: A Review of the Research"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new working paper authored by Elizabeth Berger and Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.  Here is the paper's abstract:

In response to increasing concerns about jail and prison overcrowding, many officials and legislatures across the U.S. have undertaken different efforts aimed at reducing the prison population, such as reduced sentence lengths and early release of prisoners.  Thus, there is currently a high degree of public interest regarding how these changes in policy might affect recidivism rates of released offenders.  When considering the research on the relationship between incarceration and recidivism, many studies compare custodial with non-custodial sentences on recidivism, while fewer examine the impact of varying incarceration lengths on recidivism.  This article provides a review of the research on the latter.

While some findings suggest that longer sentences may provide additional deterrent benefit in the aggregate, this effect is not always consistent or strong.  In addition, many of the studies had null effects, while none of the studies suggested a strong aggregate-level criminogenic effect.  Overall, the literature on the impact of incarceration on recidivism is admittedly limited by important methodological considerations, resulting in inconsistency of findings across studies.  In addition, it appears that deterrent effects of incarceration may vary slightly for different offenders.  Ultimately, the effect of incarceration length on recidivism appears too heterogenous to be able to draw universal conclusions.  We argue that a deepened understanding of the causal mechanisms at play is needed to reliably and accurately inform policy.

May 13, 2021 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Federal prison population holding steady at just over 152,000 through first 100 days of the Biden Administration

The day after Joe Biden was inaugurated as President, I authored this post posing a question in the title: "Anyone bold enough to make predictions about the federal prison population — which is now at 151,646 according to BOP?".  That post highlighted notable numerical realties about the the federal prison population (based on BOP data) during recent presidencies: during Prez Obama's first term in office, the federal prison population (surprisingly?) increased about 8%, climbing from 201,668 at the end of 2008 to 218,687 at the end of 2012; during Prez Trump's one term in office, this population count (surprisingly!) decreased almost 20%, dropping from 189,212 total federal inmates in January 2017 to 151,646 in January 2021.

Of course, lots of factors play can and do play lots of different expected and unexpected roles in shaping federal prosecutions and sentencings, and these case processing realities in turn can have unpredictable impacts on the federal prison population.  Consequently, I was disinclined in this January 2021 post to make any bold predictions about what we might see in the Biden era, though I suggested we should expect the federal prison population to be relatively steady at the start because it could take months before any major DOJ policy changes and many more months before any big policy changes start impacting the federal prison population.  

Sure enough, we are now well past the "100 days" milestone for the Biden Administration, and the prison population numbers that the federal Bureau of Prisons updates weekly at this webpage show little change.  Specifically, as of May 6, 2021, the federal prison population clocks in at 152,085. 

Given that the federal prison population has not been anywhere near 150,000 in over two decades, folks troubled by modern mass incarceration should perhaps be inclined to celebrate that the considerable yearly population declines that got started in 2014, and that kicked into a higher gear during to the pandemic, may now have set something of a "new normal" for these population totals.  But, few should forget that, in historical and comparative terms, the modern federal prison population is still quite massive, that almost half of this population is incarcerated for a drug offense, that almost a third of this population has "little or no prior criminal history," and that only around a quarter of this group is "serving a sentence for an offense involving weapons" (details drawn from this USSC quick facts as of June 2020).

A few prior related posts:

May 6, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

"Tip of the Iceberg: How Much Criminal Justice Debt Does the U.S. Really Have?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from The Fines and Fees Justice Center.  Here are some excerpts from the report's "Introduction and Executive Summary":

Over the past two decades, advocates, researchers, government agencies and the media have drawn increasing attention to the dangerous effects of fines and fees, particularly on communities of color and low-income people.  While those moving through the criminal justice system often experience fines and fees as a single, ongoing burden, there are key distinctions between how each of these revenue sources are assessed and imposed.

Fines are monetary sanctions imposed for violating the law. Fees (also known as costs, assessments and surcharges) are additional charges imposed to fund the criminal legal system and other government services.  Fines and some fees are imposed by courts when a person is convicted of a criminal or traffic offense or a municipal code violation. Typically, these fines and fees are owed to the court.  Fees are also often imposed by local governments or their agencies both before and after a person is convicted.  For example, probation fees may be imposed by a local probation department either before trial or after a conviction.  These fees are typically owed to either a city or county government.

Considerable research has uncovered the financial burden and unintended consequences wreaked on the people charged with paying fines and fees.  Yet there has been little, if any, investigation into how much debt is outstanding or delinquent nationwide.  One of the few studies to address the issue found that none of the eight jurisdictions studied had a central repository where information on the total amount of fines and fees owed could be found.  Understanding the full scope of our nation’s criminal justice debt problem is vital to the task of creating an equitable justice system.  Without this information, we cannot accurately evaluate the true impact of fines and fees as a source of government revenue or, more importantly, as a financial burden on those who owe court debt.  The absence of data also results in the absence of accountability for policymakers and justice system stakeholders who support and enact harmful fines and fees policies.

This report addresses fines and fees imposed at conviction in felony, misdemeanor, traffic and municipal ordinance violation cases.  We refer to these fines and fees as “court debt” because it is debt imposed by the court and typically collected by courts or private collection agencies working on a court’s behalf.

This court debt is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system.  Depending on the jurisdiction, the fines and fees imposed at conviction can be just a fraction of the total amount of unpaid fines and fees owed by people who are or were involved in the criminal legal system.  California, a state which maintains relatively robust data on fines and fees, serves an example — outstanding debt owed to California from the fines and fees imposed at conviction is equal to roughly $10 billion; roughly $16 billion is owed to the state’s counties for one or more of the 23 administrative fees that counties are authorized by state law to impose; and approximately $360 million was owed to counties in juvenile fees.

We chose to focus our investigation on court debt because courts keep a record of every case, and those records should specify the amount of fines and fees imposed at conviction.  We assumed that courts routinely aggregated that data, allowing them to determine the amount of fines and fees assessed.  We also assumed that courts would track how much of those fines and fees were actually collected.  In an effort to obtain this critical information, the Fines and Fees Justice Center contacted judicial offices and government agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia that might have data related to outstanding court debt. In a few states, the information related to the data request was already publicly available, but for most of the jurisdictions, a formal request was submitted....

But for half the country ... the full extent of our nation’s problem with court debt is shockingly untraceable and unknown.  And it’s not just the numbers that matter.  If states do not have the means (technological or otherwise) to determine how much money they are owed, there is a strong possibility that reliable data about who holds that debt may also be out of reach.  Without this vital information, stakeholders cannot appropriately weigh other socio-economic factors (apart from poverty) that may correlate with an inability to settle one’s court debt. How can we intelligently assess policy solutions when we can’t obtain a complete view of the problem?...

Knowing how much court debt exists will also allow us to accurately assess whether government resources are being wasted trying to collect debt that people will never be able to pay.  According to a report published by the Brennan Center for Justice, it costs New Mexico’s largest county, Bernalillo, at least $1.17 to collect every dollar of revenue it raises from fines and fees.  The report also found that some Texas and New Mexico counties spend 121 times what the IRS spends to collect taxes on fines and fees collection efforts.  These are valuable funds that could be invested in our communities....

Based on the information that was received, we can document that at least $27.6 billion of fines and fees is owed across the nation.  This figure grossly understates the amount of court debt that people living in the U.S. cannot afford to pay because only 25 states provided data, and the information that many provided was incomplete.  Information concerning the debt totals for the remaining 25 states and the District of Columbia could not be provided or was not available. 

May 4, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 29, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases FY 2021 first quarter sentencing data showing COVID's continued impact on federal sentencings (and USSC data)

A helpful colleague made sure that I did not overlook the fact that the US Sentencing Commission this week published here its latest quarterly data report which covers "Fiscal Year 2021 - 1st Quarter Preliminary Cumulative Data (October 1, 2020, through December 31, 2020)."  These new data provide another official accounting of how COVID challenges continued to dramatically reduce the number of federal sentences imposed through the end of 2020.  Specifically, as reflected in Figure 2, while the three quarters prior to COVID averaged roughly 20,000 federal sentencings per quarter, the three quarters closing out 2020 had only between about 12,000 and 13,000 cases sentenced each quarter.  Figure 2 also shows that it is a steep decline in immigration cases that primarily accounts for the decrease in overall cases sentenced.

Also quite interesting is the big jump reported in these data of the number of below-guideline variances granted in the last two quarters (as detailed in Figures 3 and 4).  My colleague had this to say about this data: 

The overall rate of downward variances shot up recently and is staying up, while not surprisingly, the rate of within Guidelines sentences have dropped considerably.  The only apparent explanation is that judges are varying downward more frequently in light of the pandemic: COVID Variances to help lower the prison population and likelihood of infection spread.  Hopefully, if the Commission ever gets a quorum, it addresses the issue of infectious diseases and variances.  After all, 28 USC 994(g) states that “The sentencing guidelines prescribed under this chapter shall be formulated to minimize the likelihood that the Federal prison population will exceed the capacity of the Federal prisons, as determined by the Commission.”  Currently, 81 of the 193 BOP facilities are over their rated capacities making them that much more susceptible to outbreaks. 

Though I certainly want to believe more federal judges are imposing lower sentences because of COVID issues in prison, other data suggest there may be more to the story.  Specifically, in this new quarterly report, the USSC data still show that only 8.6% of offenders received a sentence of probation (in FY 2019, the last pre-COVID year, 7.7% of offenders receive probation; in FY 2018, 8.4% did).  In addition, the average sentence for drug trafficking and firearms and fraud seem largely unchanged when compared to pre-COVID years (though they have ticked down a month or two).  Still, if federal prosecutors during COVID are only moving forward with the most aggravated of cases, then having a few more more persons getting probation and many getting a few months less in prison may still reflect a real and consequential change in sentencing practices. 

In the end, though, I think the sharp increase in variances is primarily a product of the altered mix of cases now that the number of immigration cases being sentenced has declined dramatically.  Immigration sentences are, generally speaking, the least likely to include a variance; drug and fraud sentences are the most likely to include a variance.  Thus, when the case mix includes significantly fewer immigration cases, the overall sentenced population will have a greater percentage receiving variances.  Notably, this case mix story also surely explains why Figure 5 reports that the "Average Guideline Minimum" and the "Average Sentence" have been higher the last two quarters than any time in the last five years.  Immigration cases, generally speaking, have lower guideline minimums and lower average sentences; take a lot of these cases out of the overall mix, and the average for all the other cases will increase.

Ah, the many joys of complicated sentencing data!

April 29, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

DEPC and NASC present "Justice Counts: Using Data to Inform Policy and Bolster Public Safety"

NASC-Workshop-Series-May-4_for-web-and-email2I am pleased to report that next week, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) is kicking off its 2021 Sentencing Workshop Series in collaboration with National Association of Sentencing Commissions (NASC) with a terrific event titled "Justice Counts: Using Data to Inform Policy and Bolster Public Safety."  This is how this event is described on this page (where you can register):

Please join the National Association of Sentencing Commissions and the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center for a series of virtual sentencing workshops that bring together leaders from sentencing commissions, the judiciary, and academia.

Justice Counts: Using Data to Inform Policy and Bolster Public Safety.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021 at 12–1 p.m. CDT / 1–2 p.m. EDT | Zoom

This moderated panel discussion will focus on a new national initiative designed to help states make criminal justice data more accessible, clear, and usable for policymakers.  Backed by a coalition of 21 national partner organizations and funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, Justice Counts brings together state and local leaders to reach consensus about a limited set of criminal justice metrics that leaders can use to inform budget and policy decisions. The initiative also includes a scan of public, aggregate-level criminal justice data and identifies existing gaps in data reporting.

Panelists:

Megan Grasso, Deputy Program Director, The Council of State Governments Justice Center

Sarah Lee, Policy Analyst, The Council of State Governments Justice Center

Carl Reynolds, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor, The Council of State Governments Justice Center

Ken Sanchagrin, Executive Director, Oregon Criminal Justice Commission

Scott Schultz, Executive Director, Kansas Sentencing Commission

Moderator:

Bennet Wright, Executive Director, Alabama Sentencing Commission

Resources:

Justice Counts website
Justice Counts project overview document

April 27, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 19, 2021

New report highlights need for improved criminal justice data and means thereto

OG-imgI was very pleased to see that Arnold Ventures has produced this great new report focused on the need for, and means to, better criminal justice data infrastructure. At this webpage, Stuart Buck describes the effort this way:

One of the most notorious process problems with America’s criminal justice system is the lack of data. For an institution charged with administering justice and responsible for decisions that profoundly impact people’s lives, it is frighteningly antiquated when it comes to collecting and analyzing data. Experts say long-term, sustainable change is doomed if we can’t track our changes and their impacts.... For years, criminologists and other experts have made the point that criminal justice data is so scarce or unreliably reported that in most jurisdictions, we can barely come up with a simple count of the number of people charged with misdemeanors each year.

Arnold Ventures released a list of six recommendations for how the new Biden administration could improve criminal justice data and research in order to support reform. The report is the product of an expert roundtable that we organized with the guidance of Jane Wiseman from the Harvard Kennedy School, and it has been signed by over 25 national experts. The report addresses the Biden administration because the federal government must take the leadership role on this issue — indeed, a major problem with criminal justice data is that there are many thousands of county and state agencies reporting data in inconsistent ways (or not at all).

The 25-page report should be read in full, but its executive summary provides a helpful overview.  Here are excerpts from that summary:

The Biden administration has shown a willingness to push for bold ideas, with early executive orders advancing racial equity, making greater use of facts and data in federal policymaking, and ending for-profit federal prisons. Comprehensive criminal justice reform should be an important next step on the Biden administration’s agenda... 

An ambitious criminal justice reform agenda will require a strong commitment to building a modern, nimble, comprehensive data infrastructure.  Accomplishing this goal will serve multiple purposes.  An effective data infrastructure will promote transparency and allow the public to hold its officials accountable.  A modern data architecture will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of justice agencies.  A strong data system will provide a baseline for measuring progress toward better outcomes, in particular progress toward racial equity.

Unfortunately, criminal justice reform is made more difficult by data that is incomplete and fraught with error.  Indeed, due to the lack of reliable data, it is often difficult even to document systemic racism in the justice system (such as racial disparities in misdemeanor arrests), let alone to promote solutions to the fair and impartial administration of justice. 

In this moment of heightened awareness of the fragile compact between the public and those whose job it is to make our communities safe, it is time to reimagine both the system and its underlying data infrastructure.  Recommendations toward that end developed by a group of experts include:

• Recommendation #1: Establish an accurate baseline of facts about the criminal justice system, and envision a 21st century system

• Recommendation #2: Radically increase accountability of the justice system through data transparency

• Recommendation #3: Modernize the production and dissemination of criminal justice statistics

• Recommendation #4: Improve the integrity of data used for decision-making, research, and policy

• Recommendation #5: Make criminal justice data more actionable, by linking data for greater insight, and by building capacity to turn insight into action

• Recommendation #6: Harness modern technology to equip decision-makers with more timely and accurate information

This report describes each recommendation, along with implementation action steps.

April 19, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Interrogating recent research indicating nonprosecution of certain misdemeanors lowers reoffense

A few weeks ago in this post I flagged the notable new empirical research indicating that nonprosecution of nonviolent misdemeanor offenses produced a large reductions in the likelihood of new criminal complaints.  This research is rightly getting a lot of attention, though this new National Review piece wonders if it might be getting too much attention.  The piece, by Charles Fain Lehman, is headlined "Progressives Are Overreacting to a Startling Crime Study."  And though I might dicker with some points made in the piece, I recommend the full discussion.  Here are excerpts:  

Every year, something like 13 million misdemeanor charges are filed in the United States. These charges, ranging from traffic violations to serious assaults, may be less flashy than felonies, but they are the main way Americans experience the criminal-justice system.

We prosecute misdemeanors because, among other things, we want there to be fewer of them, and we believe prosecution deters reoffending.  But a recent blockbuster paper makes a startling claim to the contrary: Prosecuting misdemeanants actually increases the likelihood that they will offend again.

The paper has been heralded by supporters of progressive district attorneys who have used their position to unilaterally impose reforms on the criminal-justice system, including refusing to prosecute many misdemeanants.  Boston D.A. Rachael Rollins, who provided the data for the study, has claimed it confirms the wisdom of her approach.  So have other reformers such as Chicago-area state’s attorney Kim Foxx and San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin.

Policy-makers, however, should exercise caution before reaching such expansive conclusions.  The paper can just as easily be read to endorse more modest reforms — especially keeping in mind long-established principles of criminal justice on which it is silent....

Most of the non-prosecution effect they measure is the result of first-time offenders, who become much more likely to commit crime if prosecuted.  By contrast, prosecuting repeat offenders of any sort has little discernible effect on the likelihood they will offend again in the future....  Diverting [first-time misdemeanants] offenders, with the threat of more serious punishment if they reoffend, could help clear dockets while minimizing crime. It would also free ADAs to focus on repeat misdemeanants....

The above approach is different from the idea that we should in general prosecute misdemeanants a lot less — a valid interpretation of the paper’s findings, but not necessarily the right one, for two reasons.

First, deterrence is not the only reason to prosecute an offender.  Advocates of not prosecuting misdemeanors tend to invoke “victimless” crimes such as drug possession and prostitution. But misdemeanors can also include offenses such as simple assault and auto theft — crimes that harm others.  Such crimes reasonably elicit a demand for retributive justice. It offends our moral sensibilities to think that a person who commits a serious but not felonious assault could get off scot-free.

Second, systematic reductions in leniency may affect all criminals’ decision-making, increasing their propensity to offend in the long-run. The paper shows that Rollins’s move toward non-prosecution of misdemeanors did not in the aggregate increase misdemeanor offenses, but the data it uses account only for the period between her election in January 2019 and March 2020, when the coronavirus crisis began.  It’s entirely possible that criminals will adapt, and misdemeanor offending will increase, in the long run....

Coming face to face with the justice system can be time-consuming and exhausting, and may, at the margins, increase rather than reduce a person’s propensity to offend.  Even those of us highly concerned with public safety should be interested in creative solutions that minimize crime and disorder.

At the same time, policy-makers should not get ahead of themselves — as some have in the rush to defund police departments and decrease the use of more serious charges.  Good research is the basis of good policy, and this research makes a valuable contribution to public-safety policy.  But we should be cautious in how far we go with it — careful changes around the edges are always safer than blanket transformations.

Prior recent related post:

April 18, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Noticing federal prison flow from "Federal Justice Statistics, 2017-2018"

I often blog about the "stock" of federal prisoners (examples here and here and here), aided by the weekly reporting on the number of federal inmates by the Federal Bureau of Prisons at this webpage.  But, without information about the "flow" of persons in and out of prison, any snapshot of the prison population at a particular moment only tells part of the data story of modern mass incarceration.  Helpfully, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has released this new lengthy report, titled ""Federal Justice Statistics, 2017-2018," which includes data on the flow of federal prisoners over one year.

I recommend this new BJS report for all federal criminal justice fans, as it includes all sorts of data about about all stages of criminal case processing.  And I found this passage especially interesting when thinking about federal prison populations:

In FY 2018, a total of 59,248 sentenced offenders were admitted to the BOP, of whom 47,620 had been committed by a U.S. district court (table 8).  The remaining 11,628 offenders were returning to federal prison for violating conditions of their probation, parole, or supervised release or were admitted for a reason other than a U.S. district court commitment. Most prisoners admitted to the BOP had been convicted of a drug offense (36%), and the majority of them received a prison sentence of more than one year (74%).

A total of 64,397 prisoners were released from federal prison in FY 2018, of whom 52,404 were released for the first time since their commitment by a U.S. district court.  From the start to the end of FY 2018, the number of federal prisoners declined by 5,419.  This included decreases in immigration offenders (down 3,180) and drug offenders (down 2,323) and increases in public-order offenders (up 953) and weapons offenders (up 477).

Table 8 in this document reported a total federal prisoner population of 167,034 at the state of Fiscal Year 2018, which means that significantly more than a third of the entire federal prison population "turned over" in just one year. (My sense is that the "flow" numbers are comparable in state prison systems, and that they are especially dramatic for jails where most persons a serving terms less than a year long.)

April 7, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 05, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases, Fiscal Year 2020"

The US Sentencing Commission, despite the persistent lack of a quorum, can still churn out federal sentencing data and can still produce helpful reports about that data.  One such report is its annual review of federal criminal cases, which was released  today under tht title "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases, Fiscal Year 2020."  The full 27 page report is available here, and the USSC describes and summarizes the report this way on this webpage

Summary

The United States Sentencing Commission received information on 64,659 federal criminal cases in which the offender was sentenced in fiscal year 2020.  Among these cases, 64,565 involved an individual offender and 94 involved a corporation or other “organizational” offender.  The Commission also received information on 5,859 cases in which the court resentenced the offender or otherwise modified the sentence that had been previously imposed.  This publication provides an overview of these cases.

Highlights

A review of cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2019 reveal the following:

  • The 64,565 individual original cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2020 represent a decrease of 11,973 (15.6%) cases from fiscal year 2019, reflecting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the work of the courts.
  • Cases involving drugs, immigration, firearms, and fraud, theft, or embezzlement accounted for 86.4% of all cases reported to the Commission.
  • Immigration cases were the most common federal crimes in fiscal year 2020 (41.1%)..
  • Drug possession cases continued a five-year downward trend, decreasing 22.0 percent from fiscal year 2019, while the number of drug trafficking cases reversed a slight upward trend from 2019 — falling 17.3 percent.
  • Methamphetamine offenses were the most common drug cases.  The 7,537 methamphetamine cases represented 45.7% of all drug crimes.

April 5, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Seemingly encouraging, but quite complicated, analysis of racial disparities in federal drug sentencing

The past week's Washington Post included this notable op-ed by Charles Lane under the headline "Here’s some hope for supporters of criminal justice reform." A focal point of the op-ed was this newly published paper by sociologist Michael Light titled "The Declining Significance of Race in Criminal Sentencing: Evidence from US Federal Courts."  Here is how the op-ed discusses some key findings with a positive spin:

How many more months in prison do federal courts give Black drug offenders as opposed to comparable White offenders?

The correct answer, through fiscal 2018, is: zero.  The racial disparity in federal drug-crime sentencing, adjusted for severity of the offense and offender characteristics such as criminal history, shrank from 47 months in 2009 to nothing in 2018, according to a new research paper by sociologist Michael Light of the University of Wisconsin.  For federal crimes of all types, there is still a Black-White discrepancy, but it, too, has shrunk, from 34 months in 2009 to less than six months in 2018....

What went right?  Basically, decision-makers unwound policies that had provided much higher maximum penalties for trafficking crack cocaine than the powdered variant and, crucially, had encouraged federal prosecutors to seek those maximum penalties.  Supreme Court rulings, in 2007 and 2009, gave federal judges latitude to impose more-lenient sentences for crack dealing. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced the crack vs. powder punishment disparity, from a maximum of 100 times as much prison time to 18.

And starting that same year, the Obama administration Justice Department actively sought to diminish the disparity. As part of this effort, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. instructed federal prosecutors in 2013 not to seek the maximum penalty for drug trafficking by low-level, nonviolent defendants.

The upshot was that the average federal drug sentence for Black offenders fell 23 months, while that for White offenders rose 23 months, possibly due to the growing prevalence of opioids and methamphetamine in White communities.  For all federal crimes, sentences for White offenders rose from 47 months to 61, while those for Black offenders fell from 81 to 67.

The United States has now restored the racial parity in federal sentencing that — perhaps surprisingly — existed before the war on crack’s start in the late 1980s.  As of the mid-1980s, Black and White offenders had received roughly 26 months in prison.

Though I am disinclined to be too much of a skunk at a sentencing equity party, I do not believe the Light study really should be the cause of too much celebration in our era of modern mass incarceration.  For starters, the Light study documents that greater racial parity was achieved as much by increases in the length of federal drug sentences given to white offenders as decreases in these sentences to black offenders.  More critically, in 2018, the feds prosecute a whole lot more drug defendants and the average federal sentence for both White and Black drug offenders is still a whole lot longer (nearly 300% longer) than in an earlier era.  I find it hard to be too celebratory about they fact that we now somewhat more equally send a whole lot more people to federal prison for a whole lot longer for drug offenses.

Moreover, the Light analysis highlights that it is largely changes in the composition of cases being sentenced in federal court that account for why average drug sentences are now more in parity among whites and blacks.  The longest federal drug sentences are handed out in crack cases (disproportionately Black defendants) and meth cases (disproportionately White defendants), so as crack prosecutions declined and meth prosecutions increased over the last decades (see basic USSC data here), it is not that suprising that average federal drug sentences for black offenders went down and those for white offenders went up. 

I do not want to underplay the importance of the harsh federal system now being directed more equally toward whites and blacks, but I do want to be sure to highlight one more key finding from the Light stidy: "In 2018, black offenders received an additional 1.3 mos. of incarceration relative to their white peers.  In drug cases, they received an additional 5 mos.  These results are not explained by measures of offense severity, criminal history, or key characteristics of the crime and trial."  In other words, while Light finds that average federal drug sentences have come into parity across all cases, looking at individual drug cases reveals black offenders are still sentenced to nearly a half-year longer than comparable white offenders.  

That all said, it is fascinating to see the data that Light spotlights and effectively unpacks (I highly recommend his paper), and I am grateful Lane spotlights what still might reasonably be viewed as a hopeful story.  I especially hope folks will keep an eye on these data as we now work our way through the COVID era and its unpredicatable impact on case composition and processing.

April 4, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Four notable new short reports on prison populations from the Bureau of Justice Statistics

I received this press release this morning pointing me to a number of new notable publications. Here is the text of the release, with links to the materials:

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics today released Time Served in State Prison, 2018.  This report presents findings on the time served by prisoners released from state prison in 2018, including the length of time served by most serious offense and the percentage of sentence served.  Findings are based on data from BJS’s National Corrections Reporting Program, which is an annual voluntary data collection of records on prisoners submitted by state departments of corrections.

BJS also released three briefs: Veterans in Prison, Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children, and Disabilities Reported by Prisoners. The brief on veterans describes their demographics, offenses, sentence length, military branch and combat experience.  The brief on parents provides demographic information about prisoners who have at least one minor child and the number of minor children reported by parents in prison.  The brief on disabilities details statistics about demographics and types of disabilities reported by prisoners.  The findings are based on data collected in the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, a survey conducted through face-to-face interviews with a sample of state and federal prisoners.

Time Served in State Prison, 2018 (NCJ 255662) by BJS Statistician Danielle Kaeble

Veterans in Prison: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016 (NCJ 252646) by BJS Statisticians Laura M. Maruschak, Jennifer Bronson, Ph.D. (former) and Mariel Alper, Ph.D. (former)

Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016 (NCJ 252645) by BJS Statisticians Laura M. Maruschak, Jennifer Bronson, Ph.D. (former) and Mariel Alper, Ph.D. (former)

Disabilities Reported by Prisoners: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016 (NCJ 252642) by BJS Statisticians Laura M. Maruschak, Jennifer Bronson, Ph.D. (former) and Mariel Alper, Ph.D. (former)

The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice is the principal federal agency responsible for collecting, analyzing and disseminating reliable statistics on crime and criminal justice in the United States. Doris J. James is the acting director.

March 30, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 15, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases 2020 Annual Report and Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics

This morning I receive an email from the US Sentencing Commission alerting me to the exciting news that "today the U.S. Sentencing Commission published its 2020 Annual Report and Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics." Here are the highlights as described in the email:

Agency Highlights

The Annual Report presents an overview of the Commission's work in FY20—a year that brought unique challenges and opportunities for technological advancement as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • COVID-19 significantly impacted how the Commission performs its daily work; however, sustained and strategic investments in technology, automation, and cybersecurity allowed for a quick pivot and continuity of operations culminating in this seasonable publication of the 2020 Sourcebook.
  • The Commission’s website traffic increased by more than 20% for the second year in a row, demonstrating that interest in the Commission's work by sentencing courts, Congress, the Executive Branch, and the general public continues to increase.
  • The Commission launched a new Interactive Data Analyzer--a tool for Congress, judges, litigants, the press, and the general public to easily and independently analyze sentencing data by their state, district or circuit, and refine their inquiry by a specific crime type or time period.
  • COVID-19 forced the Commission to suspend all in-person training and seminars; however, the Commission’s ongoing investments in eLearning allowed its training efforts to continue unabated.
  • The Commission collected, analyzed, and reported data on implementation of the First Step Act of 2018, and continued its recidivism research to help inform Congress and others on how best to protect public safety while targeting scarce prison resources on the most dangerous offenders.

FY20 Fast Facts

The Sourcebook presents information on the 64,565 federal offenders sentenced in FY20 — a sentencing caseload that decreased by nearly 12,000 cases from the previous fiscal year.

  • Immigration, drug trafficking, firearms, and fraud crimes together comprised 86% of the federal sentencing caseload in FY20.
  • Immigration was the most common federal crime type sentenced, accounting for 41% of the caseload (up from 38% in FY19).
  • Methamphetamine continued to be the most common drug type in the federal system, and a steadily growing portion of the drug caseload (up from 31% in FY16 and 42% in FY19 to 46% in FY20).
  • Methamphetamine trafficking continued to be the most severely punished federal drug crime (holding steady at an average sentence of 95 months). (Average sentences across all other major drug types (crack cocaine, powder cocaine, heroin, and marijuana) decreased.)
  • Two-thirds (67%) of drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, up slightly from the previous year (66%).
  • Three-quarters (74%) of federal offenders were sentenced under the Guidelines Manual in FY20.

March 15, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases new report on "Impact of COVID-19 on the Local Jail Population, January-June 2020"

The Bureau of Justice Statistics yesterday released this notable new report titled "Impact of COVID-19 on the Local Jail Population, January-June 2020."  Here is part of the start of the document and its listed "Highlights."

Local jails in the United States experienced a large decline (down 185,400 inmates) in their inmate populations from June 30, 2019 to June 30, 2020, which can be attributed mainly to the COVID-19 pandemic (figure 1 and table 1). The inmate population confined in local jails was 549,100 at the end of June 2020, down from 734,500 at the end of June 2019. The midyear 2020 inmate population was the lowest since 1996, when 518,500 inmates were confined in local jails (not shown in tables).

The impact of COVID-19 on local jails began in March 2020, with a drop of 18% in the inmate population between the end of February and the end of March, followed by an 11% drop by the end of April. By the last weekday in April 2020, the number of jail inmates dropped to a low of 519,500. By the end of May 2020, the population increased about 3% and was up another 2% by the end of June 2020.

The decline in the inmate population since midyear 2019 resulted from both a reduction in admissions to jails and expedited releases in response to the COVID-19 pandemic from March to June 2020.

Local jails reported 8.7 million admissions during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2020, which was about 16% lower than the 10.3 million admissions during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2019 (appendix table 10)....

This special report is the first of two that describe the impact of COVID-19 on the local jail population. BJS will release a final report that will include results from July to December 2020.

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • From March to June 2020, about 208,500 inmates received expedited release in response to COVID-19.

  • During the pandemic, jail facilities became less crowded, as indicated by the decrease in occupied bed space from 81% at midyear 2019 to 60% at midyear 2020.

  • The number of inmates held for a misdemeanor declined about 45% since midyear 2019, outpacing the decline in the number of inmates held for a felony (down 18%).

  • The percentage of inmates held for a felony increased from 70% at midyear 2019 to 77% at midyear 2020.

  • From March to June 2020, jails conducted 215,360 inmate COVID-19 tests. More than 11% of these tests were positive.

  • Jails in counties with confirmed residential COVID-19 infection rates of 1% or more tested nearly 21% of persons admitted to their jails from March to June 2020. 

  • From March to June 2020, nearly 5% (10,850) of all local jail staff (233,220) tested positive for COVID-19.

March 11, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 08, 2021

Stories highlight that the west is no longer so wild about the death penalty

These three newspaper pieces from three different western states strike a similar theme relating to the decline in political support for capital punishment:

"California has undergone a sea change on the death penalty" from the Los Angeles Times

"Poll: Nevadans divided over abolishing the death penalty, a shift from previous poll" from The Nevada Independent

"Bill to repeal death penalty in Wyoming advanced by legislative committee" from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Notably, as well detailed by the Death Penalty Information Center in this map of US executions, there have never actually been all that many executions west of Texas in the modern capital era. Indeed, Missouri alone has has more executions (90) than all states combined; leave out Arizona, and Ohio at 56 executions has had more than all those other weterns states combined. But, as also well detailed by this DPIC map of US death rows, a number of western states have sizeable death rows (with California's death row twice as big as any other states').

March 8, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 04, 2021

New Sentencing Project fact sheet provides updated data on private prison populations in US

The Sentencing Project has this new fact sheet titled simply "Private Prisons in the United States."  The document has lots of data and helpful graphics in a short space, and here is how it gets started:

Private prisons in the United States incarcerated 115,954 people in 2019, representing 8% of the total state and federal prison population.  Since 2000, the number of people housed in private prisons has increased 33% compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 3%.

However, the private prison population has declined 16% since reaching its peak in 2012 with 137,220.  Declines in private prisons’ use make these latest overall population numbers the lowest since 2006 when the population was 113,791.

States show significant variation in their use of private correctional facilities.  Indeed, Montana held 47% of its prison population in private facilities, while 19 states did not employ any for-profit prisons. Data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and interviews with corrections officials find that in 2019, 32 states and the federal government incarcerated people in private facilities run by corporations including GEO Group, Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), LaSalle Corrections, and Management and Training Corporation.

Twenty-one states with private prison contracts incarcerate more than 500 people in for-profit prisons. Texas, the first state to adopt private prisons in 1985, incarcerated the largest number of people under state jurisdiction, 12,516.

Since 2000, the number of people in private prisons has increased 33%, compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 3.5%. In eight states the private prison population has more than doubled during this time period: Arizona (480%), Indiana (313%), Ohio (253%), North Dakota (221%), Florida (205%), Montana (125%), Tennessee (118%), and Georgia (110%).

March 4, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

US Sentencing Commission issues big new report on "Federal Armed Career Criminals: Prevalence, Patterns, and Pathways"

The US Sentencing Commission has just released this big report providing "information on offenders sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act, including an overview of the Act and its implementation in the federal sentencing guidelines. The report also presents data on offender and offense characteristics, criminal histories, and recidivism of armed career criminals."  Here are the "Key Findings" appearing in the first part of the report:

Key Findings
• Armed career criminals consistently comprise a small portion of the federal criminal caseload, representing less than one percent of the federal criminal caseload.  During the ten-year study period, the number of armed career criminals decreased by almost half, from 590 in fiscal year 2010 to 312 in fiscal year 2019.
• Armed career criminals receive substantial sentences.  Offenders who were subject to the ACCA’s 15-year mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing received an average sentence of 206 months in fiscal year 2019.  Offenders who were relieved of the mandatory minimum for providing substantial assistance to the government received significantly shorter sentences, an average of 116 months in fiscal year 2019.
• Armed career criminals have extensive criminal histories. Even prior to application of the armed career criminal guideline, 90.4 percent of armed career criminals qualified for the three most serious Criminal History Categories under the guidelines, and almost half (49.4%) qualified for Criminal History Category VI, the most serious category under the guidelines. 
• The overwhelming majority of armed career criminals had prior convictions for violent offenses. In fiscal year 2019, 83.7 percent of armed career criminals had prior convictions for violent offenses, including 57.7 percent who had three or more such convictions.  Despite the predominance of violence in their criminal history, the most common prior conviction for armed career criminals was for public order offenses, with 85.3 percent having at least one such prior conviction.
• More than half (59.0%) of armed career criminals released into the community between 2009 and 2011 were rearrested within an eight-year follow-up period. When armed career criminals recidivated, their median time to rearrest was 16 months and the most serious common new offense was assault (28.2%).
• Recidivism rates of armed career criminals varied depending on whether they had prior convictions for violent offenses and the number of such prior convictions.
      ◦ Nearly two-thirds (62.5%) of armed career criminals with prior violent convictions and no prior drug trafficking convictions, and more than half (55.0%) of armed career criminals with both prior violent and drug trafficking convictions were rearrested within the eight-year follow-up period.  In comparison, only 36.4 percent of armed career criminals with prior drug trafficking convictions and no prior violent convictions were rearrested during the study period, but there were only 12 such offenders.
     ◦ Furthermore, 61.7 percent of armed career criminals with three or more prior violent convictions were rearrested during the eight-year follow-up period compared to 48.9 percent of armed career criminals with one or two prior violent convictions

March 3, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Sentencing Project releases "No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment"

The Sentencing Project has done remarkable work in recent years tracking (and advocating against) the growth of life and functional life sentences in the United States. This great work continues with the release today of this big report authored by Ashley Nellis titled "No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment." The whole 46-page report is worth a close read for anyone concerned about extreme punishments and mass incarceration, and here the start of the report's initial "Findings and Recommendations" section:

Before America’s era of mass incarceration took hold in the early 1970s, the number of individuals in prison was less than 200,000.  Today, it’s 1.4 million; and more than 200,000 people are serving life sentences — one out of every seven in prison. More people are sentenced to life in prison in America than there were people in prison serving any sentence in 1970.
Nearly five times the number of people are now serving life sentences in the United States as were in 1984, a rate of growth that has outpaced even the sharp expansion of the overall prison population during this period.  The now commonplace use of life imprisonment contradicts research on effective public safety strategies, exacerbates already extreme racial injustices in the criminal justice system, and exemplifies the egregious consequences of mass incarceration.
In 2020, The Sentencing Project obtained official corrections data from all states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to produce our 5th national census on life imprisonment.
KEY FINDINGS
• One in 7 people in U.S. prisons is serving a life sentence, either life without parole (LWOP), life with parole (LWP) or virtual life (50 years or more), totaling 203,865 people;
• The number of people serving life without parole — the most extreme type of life sentence — is higher than ever before, a 66% increase since our first census in 2003;
• 29 states had more people serving life in 2020 than just four years earlier;
• 30% of lifers are 55 years old or more, amounting to more than 61,417 people;
• 3,972 people serving life sentences have been convicted for a drug-related offense and 38% of these are in the federal prison system;
• More than two-thirds of those serving life sentences are people of color;
• One in 5 Black men in prison is serving a life sentence;
• Latinx individuals comprise 16% of those serving life sentences;
• One of every 15 women in prison is serving life;
• Women serving LWOP increased 43%, compared to a 29% increase among men, between 2008 and 2020;
• The population serving LWOP for crimes committed as youth is down 45% from its peak in 2016;
• 8,600 people nationwide are serving parole-eligible life or virtual life sentences for crimes committed as minors.

February 17, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Examples of "over-punishment", Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Notable reviews of extreme sentences in Pennsylvania

The tail end of this week brought a number of notable stories about notably extreme sentences (and a few releases therefrom) in Pennsylvania.  I will use headlines and links to cover a lot of ground involving a number of intersecting and overlapping stories:

"Report raises questions with second-degree murder sentencing in Pennsylvania"

"Pa.’s second-degree murder charge is outdated, unfair, Fetterman says"

"‘They don’t deserve to die in prison’: Gov. Wolf grants clemency to 13 lifers"

"The nation’s oldest juvenile lifer, Joe Ligon, left a Pa. prison after 68 years"

The first pair of stories relate to this notable new report by the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity titled "Life Without Parole for Second-Degree Murder in Pennsylvania: An Objective Assessment of Sentencing."

February 13, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 29, 2021

"The Transparency of Jail Data"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN and authored by William Crozier, Brandon L. Garrett and Arvind Krishnamurthy. Here is its abstract:

Across the country, pretrial policies and practices concerning the use of cash bail are in flux, but it is not readily possible for members of the public to assess whether or how those changes in policy and practice are affecting outcomes.  A range of actors affect the jail population, including: law enforcement who make arrest decisions, magistrates and judges who rule at hearings on pretrial conditions and may modify such conditions, prosecutors and defense lawyers who litigate at hearings, pretrial-service providers who assist in evaluation and supervision of persons detained pretrial, and the custodian of the jail who supervises facilities.  In the following Essay, we present the results of a case study in Durham, North Carolina.  We began this project in the fall of 2018 by scraping data portraying daily pretrial conditions set for individuals in the Durham County Jail.  The data was scraped from the Durham County Sheriff’s Inmate Population Search website and details the individual’s name, charges, bond type, bond amount, court docket number and time served.  Scraping was initiated on September 1, 2018, and continues to the present.

Beginning in early 2019, the judges and prosecutors in Durham, North Carolina, adopted new bail policies, reflecting a shift in the pretrial detention framework.  This Essay provides a firsthand look into the pretrial detention data following these substantive policy changes. Our observations serve as a reflection on how the changes in Durham reflect broader pretrial detention reform efforts.  First, we observe that a dramatic decline in the jail population followed the adoption of these policy changes.  Second, we find that the policy changes corresponded with changes in aggregate conditions imposed pretrial. We describe, however, why public data that simply reports initial pre-trial conditions cannot answer additional questions concerning the jail population or outcomes for the released population.  Nor can this data fully answer questions concerning which actors can be credited with the observed changes.  During a time in which jail populations are a subject of pressing public concern, we have inadequate information, even in jurisdictions with public jail websites, to assess policy.  We conclude by discussing the implications of data limitations for efforts to reorient bail policy.

January 29, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Vera Institute reports on "People in Jail and Prison in 2020" and finds US total now well below two million

Images (7)The Vera Institute of Justice has been taking on the challenging task of collecting data on the number of people in state and federal prisons and jails to provide more timely information on incarceration that the Bureau of Justice Statistics releases in its annual reports. Impressively, Vera has already produced this great new report, titled "People in Jail and Prison in 2020," with the latest nationwide prison and population headcounts. Here his part of the start of the report (with a few sentences I have emphasized):

The United States saw an unprecedented drop in total incarceration between 2019 and 2020.  Triggered by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and pressure from advocates to reduce incarceration, local jails drove the initial decline, although prisons also made reductions.  From summer to fall 2020, prison populations declined further, but jails began to refill, showing the fragility of decarceration.  Jails in rural counties saw the biggest initial drops, but still incarcerate people at double the rate of urban and suburban areas.  Despite the historic drop in the number of people incarcerated, the decrease was neither substantial nor sustained enough to be considered an adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and incarceration in the United States remains a global aberration.

Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) researchers collected data on the number of people in local jails and state and federal prisons at both midyear and fall 2020 to provide timely information on how incarceration is changing in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Vera researchers estimated the national jail population using a sample of 1,558 jail jurisdictions and the national prison population based on a sample of 49 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons....

Generally, jails and prisons do not make race and gender data available.  However, preliminary results from other studies suggest that race inequity in incarceration may be worsening during the pandemic.

The number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails in the United States dropped from around 2.1 million in 2019 to 1.8 million by mid-2020 — a 14 percent decrease.  This decline held through the fall. This represents a 21 percent decline from a peak of 2.3 million people in prison and jail in 2008.  State and federal prisons held an estimated 1,311,100 people at midyear 2020 — down 124,400, or 9 percent, from 2019.  Prisons declined by an additional 61,800 people in late 2020, bringing the total prison population to 1,249,300 people, a 13 percent decline from 2019 to late 2020 (the end of September or beginning of October).

Local jails had steeper population declines than prisons in the first part of 2020. From June 2019 to June 2020, the jail population decreased by 182,900 people, or 24 percent.  However, from June to September, jail populations increased substantially, growing 10 percent in just three months. By late 2020, there were 633,200 people in local jails, up from an estimated 575,500 people at midyear.  In total, the national jail population declined 17 percent from midyear 2019 to late 2020, with jail incarceration trending upward in recent months.

The national jail population counts hide stark divergence across the urban-to-rural continuum. In the past year, the largest and most sustained jail population declines were in rural areas, where the jail population dropped by 60,400 (33 percent) between midyear 2019 and midyear 2020, and subsequently grew by 10,600 (9 percent) between midyear 2020 and late 2020.  Urban areas and small and midsized metro areas had smaller incarceration declines followed by slightly higher subsequent growth from June to September 2020. Even with dramatic declines, rural areas still have the highest incarceration rates by far.  Three out of five people incarcerated in local jails are in smaller cities and rural communities.

This four-page fact sheet goes with the report and provides a lot of its highlights and includes recommendations for policy-makers.

January 27, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

"The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Recidivism Studies: Myopic, Misleading, and Doubling Down on Imprisonment"

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

Recidivism is now the guiding principle of punishment and has become the new hallmark of criminal justice reform, as reflected in the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recidivism project.  So far, the Commission has issued three reports in 2020 alone, which outline the parameters within which “safe” criminal justice reform can proceed.  Yet the overly broad definition of “recidivism” and the focus on easily measurable and static risk factors, such as prior criminal record, create a feedback loop.

The Commission’s work should come with a warning label.  Its recidivism studies should not be consumed on their own.  Instead, they must be read in conjunction with U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services recidivism research, which includes data on the impact of programming, treatment, and services on reentry success.  Yet, concerns about undercounting recidivism events drive the entire U.S. approach.  Western European studies reflect different philosophies and values that explain some of the underlying reasons for the dramatically different imprisonment rates on the two sides of the Atlantic.

These recidivism studies raise also questions about the Commission’s role.  Its ongoing preference for imprisonment indicates that it continues to consider itself the guardian of incarceration-driven guidelines.  The studies reenforce the status quo and the Commission’s role in it.  They threaten to propel us into data-driven selective incapacitation and continuously long prison terms for those with prior criminal records, all in the name of public safety.

January 26, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 25, 2021

US Sentencing Commission publishes report on "Fentanyl and Fentanyl Analogues: Federal Trends and Trafficking Patterns."

The United States Sentencing Commission, despite its status as an incomplete agency due to the absence of confirmed commissioners for years, keeps churning out notable data reports.  Today brings this notable new publication, clocking in at 60 pages, titled "Fentanyl and Fentanyl Analogues: Federal Trends and Trafficking Patterns."  Here is this report's "Key Findings" from this USSC webpage:

January 25, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 22, 2021

"Can We Wait 60 Years to Cut the Prison Population in Half?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this new publication authored by The Sentencing Project's Senior Research Analyst Nazgol Ghandnoosh.  Here is how it gets started:

The U.S. prison population declined 11% in 10 years after reaching an all-time high in 2009.  This modest reduction follows a nearly 700% increase in the prison population between 1972 and 2009.  As of year end 2019, 1.4 million people were in U.S. prisons; an imprisonment rate unmatched worldwide.  At the recent pace of decarceration, it will take nearly six decades to cut the U.S. prison population in half.

This analysis is based on the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on people serving sentences greater than one year.  Since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, a number of states and the federal system have made additional, albeit limited, reductions in their prison populations.  This analysis underscores the need to reduce unnecessarily high levels of imprisonment amidst a public health crisis and going forward.  Meaningful decarceration, as explained below, requires reducing excessive prison terms for violent convictions.

January 22, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 01, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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