Thursday, September 16, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases FY 2021 third quarter sentencing data showing COVID's continued (but reduced) impact on federal sentencings

I just noticed that the US Sentencing Commission this week published here its latest quarterly data report which is described as a "3rd Quarter Release, Preliminary Fiscal Year 2021 Data, Through June 30, 2021."  These new data provide another official accounting of how COVID challenges continued to reduce the usual total number of federal sentences imposed, though in the latest quarter we are seeing a return almost to pre-pandemic norms. 

Specifically, as reflected in Figure 2, in pre-pandemic years, quarterly cases sentenced generally averaged around 17,000 to 19,000.  But in the three quarters closing out 2020, amid the worst early periods of the pandemic, there were only between about 12,000 and 13,000 cases being sentenced each quarter.  In the most recent quarter report, which ran from April 1 to June 30, 2021, about 15,000 cases were sentenced in federal court.  Figure 2 also shows that major declines in the total number of immigration cases sentenced are what primarily accounts for the decrease in overall federal cases sentenced.  For the other big federal case categories -- Drug Trafficking, Firearms and Economic Offenses -- the total number of cases sentenced in recent quarters are not off that much from recent historical norms.

Consistent with what I noted in this prior post about pandemic era USSC data, these data show an interesting jump in the percentage of below-guideline variances granted in the last four quarters (as detailed in Figures 3 and 4).  But I remain unsure if these data reflect significantly different behaviors by sentencing judges over the last year or is just primarily a product of the altered mix of cases now that the number of immigration cases being sentenced has declined dramatically.

Prior recent related post:

September 16, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

"More Community, Less Confinement: A State-by-State Analysis on How Supervision Violations Impacted Prison Populations During the Pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of a great new analysis by the Council of State Governments Justice Center looking at prison populations as impacted by the pandemic and reactions thereto.  This press release provides this overview (and helpful links at the end):

State prison populations shrank by an unprecedented 14 percent in 2020 due to changes spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data released today by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center.  The study, More Community, Less Confinement, was conducted in partnership with the Correctional Leaders Association (CLA) and with support from Arnold Ventures.
 
Despite the decline in total prison population, supervision violations still drive a substantial share of new admissions — accounting for 42 percent of prison admissions in 2020. This included roughly 98,000 people admitted to prison for technical violations, such as missed curfews or failed drug tests.  The share of the population in prison for supervision violations was 20 percent in 2020, down slightly from 23 percent in 2018.
 
“As these data underscore, during the COVID-19 pandemic, probation and parole agencies made significant changes to the way they do business. These changes protected the health and safety of people in the justice system, including corrections staff,” said Megan Quattlebaum, director of the CSG Justice Center.  “Now, we have a unique and important opportunity to explore which of these policy changes should be retained to maximize success for people serving on community supervision.  Each of the 98,000 people admitted to prison—not for new crimes, but for violating the conditions of their probation or parole — represents 98,000 opportunities to improve public safety while saving states money. When people on probation and parole succeed, it is a win-win-win for them, their communities, and all taxpayers.”
 
In response to the threat of COVID-19, many parts of the criminal justice system halted operations to reduce in-person contact and prevent the spread of the virus.  The CSG Justice Center surveyed corrections leaders in all 50 states to understand the impact of community supervision on state prison populations. The resulting data span 3 years — from 2018 to 2020 — and uncover how the number of people sent to prison for supervision violations changed during and prior to the pandemic. 
 
While some states released people from prisons early to help reduce spread of the virus, the population decline in state prisons was largely driven by a drop in the number of people being admitted to prisons.  Roughly 200,000 fewer people were admitted to prison in 2020 due to changes in offending behaviors, local law enforcement, community supervision, and court operations....
  
Overall, there were roughly 167,000 fewer people in state prisons in 2020. One-third of the total drop (57,000 people) was due to fewer people sitting in prison for supervision violations. In addition, about 73,000 fewer people entered prison for supervision violations in 2020 — a 30 percent drop in a single year.  The cumulative result over this 3-year data collection effort showed that there were 31 percent fewer people in prison for technical supervision violations and 18 percent fewer people in prison for new offense violations, while all other populations (primarily new court commitments) dropped just 12 percent....
 
Learn more:

September 1, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 30, 2021

Justice Counts officially unveils its new 50-State scan of all sorts of criminal justice data

7ee4529a-2a57-c490-a090-f44255823417I have previously blogged about the need for better national criminal justice data, and also about a new effort to fill data gaps by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center through a project called "Justice Counts."  (Some of many posts on these topics can be found below.)  I was pleased this morning to get a new email about the CSG effort under the heading "Justice Counts Unveils a New 50-State Scan of Criminal Justice Data."  This email is available at this link, and here is some of its texts and links:

Policymakers are often forced to make critical decisions using limited or stale criminal justice data.  Over the past year, every trend from crime to revocations has shifted quickly and dramatically.  Facing significant challenges, state leaders need up-to-date information from across the justice system, presented in a digestible way.

As part of the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Justice Counts initiative, researchers from Recidiviz and The Council of State Governments Justice Center conducted a 50-state scan of publicly available, aggregate-level corrections and jails data.

The national dashboard demonstrates that while policymakers in several states have access to up-to-date information, data collection still has a long way to go. 

View the national dashboard

Each state’s data dashboard provides a central, practical resource for stakeholders to identify gaps and inconsistencies in data reporting.
 
View your state’s dashboard
 
The scan looked at the availability of eight core corrections indicators scattered across hundreds of agency reports, as well as a review of statewide and county jail confinement rates across all 50 states.  The scan shows how much — and how little — state policymakers have to work with.

Recent related posts:

August 30, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Authors of provocative paper retract judge-specific claims about "most discriminatory" federal sentencing judges

I expressed concerns in this post last month about a new empirical paper making claims regarding the "most discriminatory" federal sentencing judges under the title "The Most Discriminatory Federal Judges Give Black and Hispanic Defendants At Least Double the Sentences of White Defendants."  In addition to articulating some first-cut concerns in my initial post, I also solicited and published here an extended post by Prof. Jonah Gelbach about the work based on this Twitter thread criticizing the paper.  

This new Twitter thread by one of the authors reports that the paper has now been revised to remove judge-specific claims as to the "most discriminatory" sentencing judges, and it is now re-titled "Racial Disparities in Criminal Sentencing Vary Considerably across Federal Judges."  This new New Jersey Law Journal article, headlined "Backpedaling: Authors of Study on Racist Rulings Retract Their Claims Against Pennsylvania, New Jersey Judges," provides some more details:

The authors of a study that accused some federal judges of extreme racial and ethnic bias in sentencing have withdrawn their conclusions about specific jurists following criticism of their methodology.

An earlier version of the study, published in July by the Institute for the Quantitative Study of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, said two Eastern District of Pennsylvania judges and one from New Jersey give Black and Hispanic defendants sentences that are twice as long as those they give to whites.

But a revised version of the study, posted Tuesday, asks readers to disregard the references to specific judges....  “A previous version of this work included estimates on individually identified judges. Thanks to helpful feedback, we no longer place enough credence in judge-specific estimates to make sufficiently confident statements on any individual judge.  We encourage others not to rely upon results from earlier versions of this work,” the revised version of the study said.

The study’s lead author, Christian Michael Smith, explained on Twitter that, “while our initial paper appreciated how random chance, systematic missing data patterns, and/or hidden structural factors for sentencing could affect judge rankings, we now regard the following possibility as less remote than we initially regarded it: that a judge who is actually unproblematic could end up on the extreme end of our discrimination estimates, due to random chance, systematic missing data patterns, and/or hidden structural factors for sentencing.”...

Gelbach, in an email, said of the retraction, ”I applaud the authors for removing the ranking of judges’ sentencing practices and for making clear that people should not rely on those rankings. Given the data limitations, that was the right decision for them to make.”

Prior related posts:

August 18, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 09, 2021

Guest post: another critical look at provocative paper claiming to identify the "most discriminatory" federal sentencing judges

Guest-Posting-ServiceI expressed concerns in this recent post about a new empirical paper making claims regarding the "most discriminatory" federal sentencing judges.  Upon seeing this Twitter thread by Prof. Jonah Gelbach about the work, I asked the good professor if he might turn his thread into a guest post. He obliged with this impressive essay:

---------------

This post will comment on the preprint of The Most Discriminatory Federal Judges Give Black and Hispanic Defendants At Least Double the Sentences of White Defendants, by Christian Michael Smith, Nicholas Goldrosen, Maria-Veronica Ciocanel, Rebecca Santorella, Chad M. Topaz, and Shilad Sen.  Doug Berman blogged about it here, and I’m grateful to him for the opportunity to publish this post here.

As I explained in a Twitter thread over the weekend, I have serious concerns about the study.  The most important concerns I raised in that thread fall into the following categories:

  1. Incomplete data
  2. Endogeneity of included regressors
  3. Small numbers of observations per judge
  4. Use of most extreme judge-specific disparity estimates

I’ll take these in turn.

(1) Incomplete Data.  It’s complicated to explain the data, whose construction involve merging multiple large data sets.  In fact, a subset of the authors have a whole other paper about data construction.  In brief, the data are constructed by linking US Sentencing Commission data files to those in the Federal Judicial Center’s Integrated Data Base, which gives them enough to form docket numbers. They then use the Free Law Project’s Juriscraper tool (https://free.law/projects/juriscraper/) to query PACER, which yields dockets with attached judges’ initials for most cases that merged earlier in the authors’ pipeline.  The authors use those initials to identify the judge they believe handled sentencing, using public lists of judges by district.

As involved as the data construction is, my primary concern is simple: the share of cases included in the data set the authors use is very low.  For 2001-2018, there were 1.27 million sentences in USSC data and 1.46 million in FJC data (these figures come from the data-construction paper, which is why they apply to the 2001-2018 period rather than the 2006-2019 period used in the estimation of “Most Discriminatory” judges).  Of these records, the authors were able to match 860k sentences, of which they matched 809k to dockets via Juriscraper.  After using initials to match judges, they have 596k cases they think are matched.  That’s a match rate of less than 50% based on the USSC data and barely 40% based on the FJC data.  The authors can’t tell us much about the characteristics of missing cases, and it’s clear to me from reading the newer paper that the match rate varies substantially across districts.

I think this much alone is enough to make it irresponsible to report estimates that purport to measure individually named judges’ degrees of discrimination.  As a thought experiment, suppose that (i) the authors have half the data, and (ii) if they were able to include the other half of the data they would find that there was no meaningful judge-level variation in estimated racial disparities in sentencing.  By construction, that would render any discussion of the “Most Discriminatory” judges pointless.  Because the authors can’t explain why cases are missed, they have no way to rule out even such an extreme possibility.  Nor do they determine what share of cases they miss for any judge in the data, because they have no measure of the denominator (perhaps they could do this with Westlaw or similar searches for some individual judges).  Their approach to the issue of missing data is to simply assume that missing cases are missing at random:

“One unknown potential source of error is that we cannot determine what percentage of each judge’s cases were matched in the JUSTFAIR database. If this missingness is as-if random with respect to sentencing variables of interest, that should not bias our results, but we have little way of determining this.” (Pages 18-19, emphasis added.)

I believe it is irresponsible to name individual judges as “The Most Discriminatory” on the basis of data as incomplete as these.

(2) Endogeneity.  The authors include as controls in their model each defendant’s guideline-minimum sentence, variables accounting for the type of charge, & various defendant characteristics.  They argue that these variables are enough to deal not only with the enormous amount of missing data (with unknown selection mechanism; see above) but also any concerns that would arise even if all cases were available.  As Doug Berman previously noted here, if prosecutors offer plea deals of differing generosity to defendants of different races, then the guideline minimum doesn’t account for heterogeneity in cases.  And note that if that happens in general, it’s a problem for all the model’s estimates. In other words, even if the particular mechanism Doug hypothesized (sweet plea deals for Black defendants in the EDPA) doesn’t hold, the whole model is suspect if the guidelines variable is substantially endogenous.

There are other endogeneity concerns, e.g., the study includes as regressors variables that capture reasons why a sentence departed from the guidelines — an outcome that is itself partly a function of the sentence whose (transformed) value is on the left hand side of the model.  And as a friend suggested to me after I posted my Twitter thread, the listed charges are often the result of plea bargains, whose consummation can be expected to depend on the expected sentence.  So the guideline minimum variable, too, is potentially endogenous.

(3) Small numbers of observations per judge. The primary estimates on which the claim about particular judges’ putative discriminatory sentencing are based are what are known as random effect coefficients on race dummies.  It’s lengthy to explain all the machinery here, but I’ll take a crack at a simplified description.

The key model output on which the authors make their “Most Discriminatory” designations are judge-level estimated Black-White disparities (the same type of analysis applies for Hispanic-White disparity).  Very roughly speaking, you can think of the estimated disparity for Judge J as an average of two things: (i) the overall observed Black-White disparity across all judges — call this the “overall disparity”, and (ii) the average disparity in the subset of cases in which Judge J did the sentencing — call this the “judge-specific raw disparity”.

For example, suppose that over all defendants, the average (transformed) sentence is 9% longer among Black defendants than among White ones; then the overall disparity would be 9%.  Now suppose that among defendants assigned to Judge J, average sentences were 20% longer for Black than White defendants; then the judge-specific raw disparity would be 20%.

The judge-level estimated disparity that results from the kind of model the authors use is a weighted average of the overall disparity and the judge-specific raw disparity. So in our example, the estimated disparity for Judge J would be a weighted average of 9% (overall disparity) and 20% (judge-specific raw disparity).  What are the weights used to form this average?  They depend on the variance across judges in the true judge-specific disparity and the “residual” variance of individual sentences — the variance that is unassociated with factors that the model indicates help explain variation in sentences.

The greater the residual variance, the less weight will be put on the judge-specific raw disparity.  This is what’s known as the “shrinkage” property of mixed models — they shrink the weight placed on judge-specific raw disparities in order to reduce the noisiness of the model’s estimated disparity for each judge. (I noted this property in a follow-up tweet to part of my thread.)

However, all else equal, greater residual variance also means that variation in judge-specific raw disparities will be more driven by randomness in the composition of judges’ caseload. Because these raw disparities contribute to the model-estimated disparity, residual variance creates a luck-of-the-draw effect in the mode estimates: a judge who happens to have been assigned 40 Black defendants convicted of very serious offenses and 40 White defendants convicted of less serious ones will have a high raw disparity due to this luck factor, and that will be transmitted to the model’s estimate disparity.

How important this effect of residual variance is context-sensitive. The key relevant factors are likely to be the numbers of cases assigned to each judge for each racial group and the size of residual variance relative to the size of variance across judges in true judge-level disparities.

As I wrote in my Twitter thread, I used the authors’ posted code and data to determine that Hon. C. Darnell Jones II, the judge named by the authors as the “Most Discriminatory”, had a total of 103 cases with Black (non-Hispanic) defendants, 37 cases with Hispanic defendants, and 67 with White defendants. Hon. Timothy J. Savage, the judge named as the second “Most Discriminatory”, sentenced 155 Black (non-Hispanic) defendants included in the estimation, 58 Hispanic defendants, and 93 White defendants.  These don’t strike me as very large numbers of observations, which is another way of saying that I’m concerned residual variance may play a substantial role in driving the model-estimated disparities for these judges.

My replication of the authors’ model shows that true judge-specific disparities in the treatment of Blacks and Whites have an estimated variance of 0.055, whereas the estimated residual variance is nearly 30 times higher — 1.59 for a single defendant.  For a judge who sentenced 40 Black and 40 White defendants, this would mean that residual variance would be 2(1.59)/40~0.08 — which is larger than the 0.055 estimated variance in true judge-level disparity.  It’s more complicated to assess the pattern for judges with different numbers of defendants by race, but I would not be surprised if the residual variance component is roughly the same size as the variance in judge-level effects.

In other words, even given the effect of shrinkage, I suspect that “bad luck” in terms of the draw of defendants might well be quite important in driving the judge-specific estimates the authors provide. Even leaving aside the missing-data problem, I think that makes the authors’ choice to name individual judges as “Most Discriminatory” problematic.

Another issue is that the judge-specific estimated disparity (remember, this is the model’s output, formed by taking the weighted average of overall and judge-specific raw disparities) is itself only an estimate, and thus a random variable.  Thus if one picked a judge at random from the authors’ data, it would be inappropriate to assume that the estimated disparity for that judge was the true value. To compare the judge-specific estimated disparity to other judges’ estimated disparities, or to some absolute standard, would require one to take into account the randomness in estimated disparity.  The authors do not report any such estimates.  Nor does the replication code they posted along with their data indicate that they calculated standard errors of the judge-specific estimated disparities.  There is no indication that I can find in either the code or the paper that they investigated this issue before posting their preprint.

(4) The many-draws problem.  Consider a simple coin toss experiment.  We take a fair coin and flip it 150 times. Roughly 98% of the time, this experiment will yield a heads share of 41.6% or greater (in other words, 41.6% is the approximate 2nd percentile for a fair coin flipped 150 times).  So if we flipped a fair coin once, it would be quite surprising to observe a heads share of 41.6% or lower.  But now imagine we take 760 fair coins and flip each of them 150 times. Common sense suggests it would be a lot less surprising to observe some really low heads shares, because we’re repeating the experiment many times.

To illustrate this point, I used a computer to do a simulation of exactly the just-described experiment — 760 fair coins each flipped 150 times. In this single meta-experiment I found that there were 13 “coins” with heads shares of less than 41.6%, just under two percent of the 760 “coins”, roughly as expected.  Given that we know all 760 “coins” are fair, it would make no sense to say that “the most biased coin is coin number 561”, even though in my meta-experiment it had the lowest heads share (36.7%, more than 3 standard deviations below the mean).  We know the coin is fair; it’s just that we did 760 multi-toss experiments, and with that much randomness we’re going to see some things that would be very unlikely with only one experiment.

Leaving aside differences across judges in the number of cases heard, this is not that different from what the authors’ approach entails.  If all judges had the same number of sentences, then they’d all have the same weights on their raw disparities, and so differences across judges would be entirely due to variation in those raw disparities.  If the residual variance component of these raw disparities is substantial (see above), then computing judge-specific model-estimated disparities for each of 760 judges would involve an important component related to idiosyncratic variation.  Taking the most extreme out of 760 model-estimated disparities is a lot like focusing on “coin” number 561 in my illustrative experiment above.

Another way to say this is that even if there were zero judge-specific disparity — even if all judges were perfectly fair — we might not be surprised to see substantial variation in the authors’ model-estimated disparities.

Now, it’s not really the case that all judges gave the same number of sentences, so there’s definitely some heterogeneity due to shrinkage as discussed above, which complicates the simpler picture I just painted for illustrative purposes.  But I suspect there is still a nontrivial “many-tosses problem” here.  Note that this is really an instance of a problem sometimes referred to as “multiple testing” in various statistics literatures; as responders to my Twitter thread noted, one place it comes up is in attempts to measure teachers’ value added in education research, and another is in ranking hospitals and/or physicians.  In other words, this isn’t a problem I’ve made up or newly discovered.

* * *

In sum, I think the paper has several serious problems.  I do not think anyone should use its reported findings as a basis for deciding which judges are discriminatory, or how much.  This is as true for people who lack confidence in the fairness of the system as for any people who doubt there is discrimination.  In other words, the criticisms I offer do not require one to believe federal criminal sentencing is pure and fair.  These criticisms are about the quality of the data and the analysis.

I want to make one final point, as I did in my Twitter thread.  Like the authors of the study, I believe that PACER should be made available to researchers.  Indeed, I recently have written a whole paper taking that position.  But I am very concerned about the impact of their work on that prospect.  The work involves problematic methods and choices and then calls out individual judges for shaming.  In my experience there’s nontrivial opposition to data openness within the federal judiciary, and I fear this paper will only harden it.

August 9, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (14)

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)

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)

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)

Thursday, June 10, 2021

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)

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

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)

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)

Saturday, May 08, 2021

"Encouraging Desistance from Crime"

The title of this post is the title of this extended literature review authored by Jennifer Doleac and now available via SSRN discussing lots of empirical research that may not be familiar, but should be of great interest, to lawyers and advocates.  Here is its abstract:

Half of individuals released from prison in the United States will be re-incarcerated within three years, creating an incarceration cycle that is detrimental to individuals, families, and communities.  There is tremendous public interest in ending this cycle, and public policies can help or hinder the reintegration of those released from jail and prison.  This review summarizes the existing empirical evidence on how to intervene with existing offenders to reduce criminal behavior and improve social welfare.

May 8, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Detailed sentencing data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 14, 2020 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 10, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 09, 2020

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 01, 2020

"Life Without Parole Sentencing in North Carolina"

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 19, 2020

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

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

On December 21, 2018, the President signed into law the First Step Act of 2018.  Section 404 of that act provides that any defendant sentenced before the effective date of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (August 3, 2010) who did not receive the benefit of the statutory penalty changes made by that Act is eligible for a sentence reduction as if Sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 were in effect at the time the offender was sentenced.  The First Step Act authorizes the defendant, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, the attorney for the Government, or the court to make a motion to reduce an offender’s sentence.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases "Capital Punishment, 2018 – Statistical Tables"

This morning the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics released this new report with notable national data on the administration of the death penalty in the United States through 2018. As I have noted before, though BJS is often the provider of 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":

September 29, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 03, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 31, 2020

"Locking up my generation: Cohort differences in prison spells over the life course"

The title of this post is the title of this new Criminology article authored by Yinzhi Shen, Shawn D. Bushway, Lucy C. Sorensen and Herbert L. Smith.  Here is its abstract:

Crime rates have dropped substantially in the United States, but incarceration rates have remained high.  The standard explanation for the lasting trend in incarceration is that the policy choices from the 1980s and 1990s were part of a secular increase in punitiveness that has kept rates of incarceration high.  Our study highlights a heretofore overlooked perspective: that the crime–punishment wave in the 1980s and 1990s created cohort differences in incarceration over the life course that changed the level of incarceration even decades after the wave. 
With individual‐level longitudinal sentencing data from 1972 to 2016 in North Carolina, we show that cohort effects — the lingering impacts of having reached young adulthood at particular times in the history of crime and punishment — are at least as large (and likely much larger) than annual variation in incarceration rates attributable to period‐specific events and proclivities.  The birth cohorts that reach prime age of crime during the 1980s and 1990s crime–punishment wave have elevated rates of incarceration throughout their observed life course.  The key mechanism for their elevated incarceration rates decades after the crime–punishment wave is the accumulation of extended criminal history under a sentencing structure that systematically escalates punishment for those with priors.

August 31, 2020 in Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)