Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Another round up of post-election criminal justice analysis

As noted before, I did a number of pre-election posts with a round-up of news and commentary focused on criminal justice policy and politics as the 2022 voting approached (see here and here and here).  In turn, late last week, I did a first post-election round-up (and update) with news and commentary as all the 2022 mid-term votes were being counted.  With counting now almost complete, here are another set of new pieces in this space:

From the ACLU, "Three Key Criminal Legal Reform Takeaways from the 2022 Midterms"

From Colorado Public Radio "For losing Republicans, a silver lining: They pushed the conversation on crime and public safety during the election"

From The Crime Report, "Reform – Not Crime – Was the Winning Message in 2022"

From Filter, "Midwest Offers Only Real Reform Highlights in 2022 Prosecutor Elections"

From The Marshall Project, "7 Key Criminal Justice Takeaways From the Midterms"

From The Washington Post, "How Democrats can win voters’ trust on crime"

November 15, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Rounding up a few post-election accountings and commentary on the crime and justice front

I did a number of pre-election posts with a round-up of news and commentary focused on criminal justice policy and politics as the 2022 voting approached (see here and here and here).  It now seems only fitting to do a (first?) post-election round-up of news and commentary as we get closer to all the 2022 mid-term votes being counted:

From The Appeal, "Midterm Elections Deliver Some Good News For Criminal Legal Reform"

From The Crime Report, "Crime and the Midterms"

From Democracy Now!, "Progressive Prosecutors Win Key Races Despite GOP Attacks on Criminal Justice Reform"

From the New York Times, "For Republicans, Crime Pays, No Matter What Else Happens"

From Reason, "The Crime Backlash Mostly Failed To Materialize on Election Night"

From the Washington Post, "How Democrats can win back trust on the issue of crime"

 

UPDATE:  I now have seen some more pieces in this vein since my initial posting:

From The Appeal, "Voters Didn’t Buy The ‘Crime Panic’ Narrative. Democrats Should Take Note."

From BuzzFeed News, "Progressive Prosecutors Won In Midterm Elections Across The US In Spite Of Tough-On-Crime Rhetoric From Republicans"

From Mother Jones, "Republicans Hoped a 'Crime Wave' Was Their Ticket to a Red Wave. It Wasn’t."

From Religion Unplugged, "Recreational Marijuana Use Becomes New Front In The Culture Wars Following Midterms"

From Vera Action, "As Voters Reject Crime Scare Tactics in the 2022 Midterms, Democrats Must Seize the Opportunity for a New Path Forward on Safety and Justice"

From The Watch (Randy Balko), "What the midterms told us about voters and crime"

November 10, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

So, does anyone already have "hot takes" on what election results might mean for criminal justice reforms?

Because votes are still being counted nationwide and especially because control of the US Senate may not be resolved until a Georgia run off in December, it is way too early to make any confident predictions about the national policy landscape for the next few months or the next few years.  But with marijuana reform getting mixed results in five states — winning in the big states of Maryland and Missouri, losing in the smaller states of Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota — there is already a basis to make a lot of mixed predictions about the short- and long-term future of marijuana reforms.  Likewise, with crime and punishment being a big part of lots of other candidate campaigns that have been called, maybe it is not too early for folks to have interesting views on what the 2022 election means for crime and punishment issues in 2023 and beyond.

So, dear readers, please feel free to use the comments to flag any especially notable races (or exit polls) that you think are especially important for informed political or policy view on criminal justice issues post-election 2022.  And, as the title of this post suggests, "hot takes" are more than welcome.

November 9, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Is the US "on the verge of a new wave of mass incarceration"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Time commentary by Udi Ofer given the headline "Politicians' Tough-on-Crime Messaging Could Have Devastating Consequences."  Here are some extended excerpts from a piece that merits reading in full:

In the majority of hotly contested 2022 midterm races across the country, tough-on-crime rhetoric is at the top of the agenda.  Close to 60% of Republican spending on campaign ads since September has been on the topic of crime, with tens of thousands of ads running on the issue, and Democrats have responded with their own $36 million war chest.  Not since the height of America’s mass incarceration era has the nation seen law and order politics play such an outsized role in candidate races up and down the ballot.  The outcome could put the country in danger of entering a new era of more mass incarceration....

While Republicans are leading this charge, both parties are playing with fire, as the political rhetoric being deployed this election season has the potential to trigger a new surge in incarceration, as occurred following previous election cycles that starred tough-on-crime rhetoric.  Between 1973-2009, the nation saw an exponential growth in incarceration, from approximately 200,000 people in prisons and jails in 1973 to 2.2 million by 2009, making the U.S. the largest incarcerator in the world, with a rate 5 to 10 times higher than Western Europe and other democracies.  Hundreds of new laws and practices passed at the local, state, and federal levels, including new mandatory minimums with harsh sentences, more cash bail and pretrial detention, and more aggressive prosecutorial and policing practices like stop-and-frisk....

Along with mass incarceration came extreme racial inequities that spread well beyond the carceral system.  A Black boy born in the 2000s had a 1 in 3 chance of ending up incarcerated, compared to a 1 in 17 chance for a white boy.  Mass incarceration has contributed significantly to the racial achievement gap, poorer health outcomes in Black communities, and economic hardship for Black families....

This crisis in mass incarceration, which only recently began to dip, has roots that run deep in efforts to politicize and racialize crime.  Mass incarceration has been fueled by moments like the one we are living in today, where following years of gains on civil rights, a backlash ensues and crime is conflated with reforms and civil rights protests....

It wasn’t until the past 10 years that a bipartisan movement for criminal justice reform formed, pushing for an alternative approach.  This movement by Democrats and Republicans has worked together in states across the country to pass bipartisan reforms, such as sentencing reform in Louisiana and Oklahoma, bail reform in New Jersey and Colorado, second chance laws in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Utah, drug law reform in Oregon and Rhode Island, and much more.  The nationwide prison population began to drop to 1.2 million, and the U.S. moved from first to fifth place in the global ranking of imprisonment rates, right between Cuba and Panama.  Families were reunited with their loved ones, and some of the states that have seen the largest decrease in incarceration are also some of the safest states in the nation, like New Jersey.

But today, just as nationwide incarceration rates were beginning to slowly drop, public anxiety over crime is being turned into a wedge issue between the two political parties to undermine progress made on civil rights and criminal justice reform.  Bail reform, police reform, parole reform, and sentencing reform are wrongfully being blamed for a rise in crime....

Candidates for office can resist the tough-on-crime impulse that has grown so common since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 run for office. They can provide a new vision for safety, one that many communities have been calling for — one the emphasizes prevention and investments in public health, schools, jobs, housing and community support structures, and relegates incarceration to the last possible option, after all other intervention efforts have failed.

In fact, research conducted by organizations like Vera Action and HIT Strategies has found that while voters care deeply about crime, they want more than the one-dimensional tough-on-crime message being delivered.  Candidates benefit by articulating a vision that recognizes that public safety is achieved when we provide people with the resources they need to thrive, like earning a living wage, receiving a good education, and having stable housing.  Voters understand that police shouldn’t be the ones charged with solving every social problem, from kids skipping school to mental health needs to homelessness. Instead, voters are seeking long term solutions rooted in prevention, like a good education and a good job.

So far, too few politicians on both the right and left are moving away from the reflexive tough-on-crime rhetoric that has proven to be so devastating in the past.  It won’t be clear until after the midterms how much this rhetoric has impacted voter choices, but the damage may have already been done.  Unless more politicians change course, the U.S. is on the verge of a new wave of mass incarceration — as history repeats itself.

There is much to commend in this piece (including in parts I did not reprint here), and I think there is a very sound basis to expect and fear that heightened concerns about crime and the new wave of political rhetoric being deployed this election season likely will slow or even impede various parts of the agenda in the bipartisan movement for criminal justice reform.  One obvious "for example" here is the now-stalled effort to equalize crack and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level.  The US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in Sept 2021, by a tally of 361-66, to pass the EQUAL Act to equalize powder and crack cocaine sentences, but concerns about "soft-on-crime" attacks have seemingly kept the Senate from moving forward.  

But slowing down on-going reform efforts is a long way from "a new wave of mass incarceration."  As this commentary suggests, both voters and their representatives now understand the importance of a variety of policy responses to crime concerns.  More broadly, we now generally see a far more nuanced discussion of mandatory minimum sentences, drug policy issues and even the death penalty than we did a generation ago.  For example, though a number of GOP Senators have now come out against the EQUAL Act, their competing bill still involves reducing crack sentences a good deal (while also raising cocaine sentences a bit).  And at least one GOP Senator, Mike Lee, is still actively campaigning on his bipartisan criminal justice reform work in the FIRST STEP Act.  In other words, while we may only see a "one-dimensional tough-on-crime message" in 30-second TV ads, I sense most policy-makers still recognize the need for so-called "smart-on-crime" reform efforts.

Ultimately, a lot of political and policy forces that developed over decades provided the infrastructure for modern mass incarceration, and a lot of countering political and policy forces also developing over decades have contributed to the (slow) decline in incarceration rates in recent years.  I do not think one political cycle alone will dramatically change all the trends and dynamics that have brought us to this somewhat fraught moment.  But I do think, as this commentary stresses in many ways, there are plenty of political and policy lessons to learn from both older and more recent developments.  Interesting times.

November 3, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Some more criminal justice policy and politics as 2022 mid-term election approaches

There are any number of commentaries about crime and punishment issues in this mid-term election cycle as we close in on a final vote.  Here a few pieces that caught my eye recently:

From The Marshall Project, "Why Millions of Americans Will Be Left Out of the Midterms"

From the Niskanen Center, "Voters care about crime. Here’s what lawmakers should do about it."

From Stateline, "The Push to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession Continues, Town by Town"

From the Vera Institute, "How Mass Incarceration Shapes Our Elections"

From Vox, "The reason Republican attacks on crime are so potent"

From the Washington Examiner, "Democrats struggle against Republicans on crime issue"

UPDATE: I just saw this notable new American Prospect piece headlined "How Democrats Mishandled Crime: The most effective issue for Republicans in this midterm is a result of Democratic elites failing to understand what their diverse base of working-class voters wants."

November 3, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Interesting accounting of what we know about violent crime and voter concerns a week before Election Day 2022

In the first part of most election years, I tend to enjoy seeing early political commercials and commentary to get a flavor for how various policy issues are being framed and engaged by candidates and advocacy groups.  But, once we reach the homestretch in a major election year, I often start counting down the days to the election while growing ever weary of the non-stop political ads and chatter.  So, I am quite pleased we are finally just a week from Election Day 2022, and I am even more pleased about this interesting and timely new Pew Research Center piece titled "Violent crime is a key midterm voting issue, but what does the data say?".  Here is the start and numbered items from the piece (links from the original):

Political candidates around the United States have released thousands of ads focusing on violent crime this year, and most registered voters see the issue as very important in the Nov. 8 midterm elections. But official statistics from the federal government paint a complicated picture when it comes to recent changes in the U.S. violent crime rate.

With Election Day approaching, here’s a closer look at voter attitudes about violent crime, as well as an analysis of the nation’s violent crime rate itself. All findings are drawn from Center surveys and the federal government’s two primary measures of crime: a large annual survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and an annual study of local police data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

1. Around six-in-ten registered voters (61%) say violent crime is very important when making their decision about who to vote for in this year’s congressional elections....

2. Republican voters are much more likely than Democratic voters to see violent crime as a key voting issue this year....

3. Older voters are far more likely than younger ones to see violent crime as a key election issue....

4. Black voters are particularly likely to say violent crime is a very important midterm issue....

5. Annual government surveys from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show no recent increase in the U.S. violent crime rate....

6. The FBI also estimates that there was no increase in the violent crime rate in 2021....

7. While the total U.S. violent crime rate does not appear to have increased recently, the most serious form of violent crime – murder – has risen significantly during the pandemic....

8. There are many reasons why voters might be concerned about violent crime, even if official statistics do not show an increase in the nation’s total violent crime rate.

November 1, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 31, 2022

"Guns, Mass Incarceration, and Bipartisan Reform: Beyond Vicious Circle and Social Polarization"

The title of this post is the the title of this new paper authored by Mugambi Jouet now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Gun violence in modern America persists in the face of irreconcilable views on gun control and the right to bear arms.  Yet one area of agreement between Democrats and Republicans has received insufficient attention: punitiveness as a means of gun control.  The United States has gravitated toward a peculiar social model combining extremely loose regulations on guns and extremely harsh penalties on gun crime.  If someone possesses a gun illegally or carries one when committing another crime, such as burglary or drug dealing, draconian mandatory minimums can apply.  These circumstances exemplify root causes of mass incarceration: overreliance on prisons in reaction to social problems and unforgiving punishments for those labeled as “violent” criminals.  Contrary to widespread misconceptions, mass incarceration does not primarily stem from locking up petty, nonviolent offenders caught in the “War on Drugs.”  Most prisoners are serving time for violent offenses.  Steep sentence enhancements for crimes involving guns illustrate how American justice revolves around counterproductive, costly practices that disproportionately impact minorities.

This multidisciplinary Article envisions future reforms with the capacity to transcend America’s bitter polarization.  A precondition to change is not for conservatives and liberals to wholeheartedly agree on issues like systemic racism or the right to bear arms.  Rather, possibilities for penal reform are likelier when each side can come to the negotiating table for its own reasons.  A paradigm shift in conservative America may prove especially indispensable, as Republicans tend to be more supportive of harsh punishments and Democrats are unlikely to achieve reform nationwide on party-line votes.  This shift has already occurred to an extent given the rise of penal reform in red states.  But both conservatives and liberals have failed to significantly reduce mass incarceration by recurrently excluding “violent” offenders from reform initiatives.

The Article explores how conservatives and liberals could gradually converge toward sentencing reform on gun crime.  This could ultimately have a ripple effect on American sentencing norms, leading them closer to those of Western democracies with more effective and humane penal systems.  Such bipartisanship is less elusive than it might seem.  A rehabilitative approach toward gun crime fits with the evolution of American conservatism, which believes that guns should not be vilified since they are part of the nation’s identity.  Similarly, the rehabilitation of people convicted of gun crime is consistent with cornerstones of modern American liberalism, namely stricter gun control and opposition to mass incarceration as an unjust, racist system.  As opposite sides will probably retain much of their worldview even if their perspectives evolve to a degree, new ways of thinking could help bring reformers together.  These social transformations cannot be predicted but should be theorized.

October 31, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

A few crime and punishment stories from the campaign trail

Last month, I noted in this post that the 2022 election campaign has seen a lot more crime and punishment talk than we have seen in a long time.  Of course, this is partly of function of the fact that violent crime clearly has spiked since the COVID pandemic and the fact voters have clearly expressed concern about this spike

I have mentioned in few settings that, while crime and punishment talk has become more prominent this election cycle, seemingly few 2022 candidates are talking up expanding the death penalty or seeking to increase the number of death sentences and executions nationwide.  (This DPIC fact sheet highlights the modern capital punishment lows during the Trump/Biden years.)  But, as this partial round-up of recent stories shows, lots of other tough-on-crime ideas and talk are part of this cycle's political discourse:

From the AP, "Michels wants changes to Wisconsin parole system"

Also from the AP, "Zeldin’s crime message resonates in New York governor’s race"

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "In final campaign stretch, Georgia candidates clash on crime"

From the Marshall Project, "Fetterman and Oz Battle Over Pennsylvania’s Felony Murder Law"

From the New York Times, "As Republican Campaigns Seize on Crime, Racism Becomes a New Battlefront"

From Politico, "The other issue driving the midterms"

October 25, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 13, 2022

"A Nat-Con Case for Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Marc A. Levin at Law & Liberty. I recommend the full piece, and here is just a taste from the start and closing of the piece:

From the halls of Mar-a-Lago to the streets of Chicago, all Americans have a stake in the fair application of criminal law by a system they can trust. Indeed, there cannot be a policy area in which a principled approach is more important than in criminal justice, where lives and liberties are at stake.  So how do the principles of the emergent national conservatism movement apply to criminal justice policy?  Can they inform a center-right approach to public safety that draws on the overlap between national conservatism’s Christian worldview and universal truths?

A July 2022 manifesto entitled “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles” crystallizes the tenets of this movement that seeks to address many Americans’ apprehension about the coarsening of our culture and erosion of our national identity.  These concerns naturally implicate the criminal justice system, which becomes the last backstop when society’s norms and institutions from the family to the education system prove inadequate, leaving the law as the only remaining form of social control, weak as it often is....

[N]either conservatives of any stripe nor anyone else should back policies that are inconsistent with public safety. However, within that universe, the principles of the manifesto are consistent with four factors for evaluating criminal justice policies: 1) Are they deeply rooted in our best traditions and in alignment with our founding principles of liberty?; 2) Do they protect and strengthen families?; 3) Do they address not just individual culpability but also drivers of criminal activity, including family breakdown, exposure to trauma, addiction, mental health, and the neighborhood environment; and 4) Do they nurture and sustain the public’s confidence in the rule of law as an expression of our shared morality?

Those policies that check these boxes can lead to a stronger, fairer, safer, and more unified nation, an objective that both national conservatives and all Americans can embrace.

October 13, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Noticing how crime has become a leading issue in 2022 campaign

Way back in 2008, I remember complaining on this blog about the fact that crime and mass incarceration (which was peaking around that time) was getting very attention in the 2008 campaign (see, e.g., posts here and here and here).  But, as highlighted by these recent major press pieces, the 2022 campaign is already seeing plenty of crime talk:

From Fox News, "GOP hopes tough-on-crime message defuses abortion backlash with suburban women"

From the New York Times, "G.O.P. Redoubles Efforts to Tie Democrats to High Crime Rates"

From the New York Times, "Fetterman’s Push for Clemency Becomes an Attack Line for Oz"

From the News Nation, "Republicans bet crime will be winning issue in midterms"

From Roll Call, "At the Races: Cop votes and crime ads"

From the Washington Post, "GOP strategy elevates clashes over crime, race in midterm battlegrounds"

September 27, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

San Francisco voters recall progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin by a large margin

As polls had suggested they would, voters in a supposedly progressive city yesterday voted overwhelmingly to recall a high-profile progressive prosecutor. This local piece, headlined "Voters oust Chesa Boudin as San Francisco district attorney," provides the details and some context:

Voters recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin on Tuesday, ending a brief and tumultuous experiment with embedding San Francisco’s staunch progressive values in The City’s top law enforcement position.  Initial results showed 60% of ballots cast in favor of recalling Boudin, with 40% opposed.

The effort to recall Boudin catalyzed voter frustration over property crime and what proponents alleged was leniency in the way serious crimes are prosecuted.  "This is not a message to the rest of the country, but to take care of our community ... it's really making sure you have balance around the idea of progressive reform and safety.  They are one in the same, and we got off track,” recall organizer Andrea Shorter said.

Boudin’s defenders framed the recall as an effort backed by Republicans that misled voters about the realities of crime rates in San Francisco. Addressing supporters on Tuesday, Boudin provided his theory for the crushing defeat at the polls. "The right wing billionaires outspent us three to one. They exploited an environment in which people are appropriately upset and they created an electoral dynamic where we were literally shadowboxing," Boudin said.  "Voters were not asked to choose between criminal justice reform and something else. They were given the opportunity to voice their frustration and their outrage and they took that opportunity.”

The recall movement rode a wave of broader discontent among city voters. Although Boudin became the face of San Franciscans' anger, public polling has shown voters disapprove of the jobs done by the Board of Supervisors, Mayor London Breed and the Police Department.  Less than four months ago, voters recalled three school board members.

It might take another election to discern whether voters rejected Boudin’s guiding principles or Boudin himself, who was elected in 2019 with less of a mandate than a modest margin in another low-turnout contest.  Boudin defeated establishment-favorite Suzy Loftus with 50.8% of the vote in the final round of ranked-choice voting. Though Tuesday’s election saw no shortage of think pieces written by out-of-town media outlets in recent days, it’s unclear what lessons to take from a low-turnout election.

Though Boudin’s approval rating proved abysmal in a recent poll commissioned by The Examiner, his broader philosophies — including sending low-level offenders to diversion programs instead of jail — still scored highly among San Franciscans....  In an effort to upend and rebuild the criminal justice system, Boudin increasingly relied on diversion programs to resolve criminal cases instead of lengthy jail sentences.  The son of left-wing radical parents who served long jail sentences for their role in a botched fatal robbery, Boudin spoke often about the negative consequences of incarceration.

With the exception of homicides, violent crime has remained near historic lows.  Property crime has been mixed under his tenure — larcenies and robberies are down since 2018 while motor vehicle thefts and burglaries are up — but Boudin has abdicated responsibility for that fact, arguing that much of what has happened in the last two years is a result not of his office’s work but of the pandemic.

Boudin’s opponents, who coalesced around his recall shortly after his election, argued his policies have made San Francisco less safe, his office is rife with turnover and that the interests of crime victims had been pushed aside in the name of his cause.  Rather than jump to cite crime data, proponents of the recall leaned heavily on individual stories. There was 6-year-old Jace Young, whose 17-year-old killer was convicted of murder in juvenile court.  Critics of Boudin, including Jace’s father, wanted the juvenile tried as an adult to secure a longer jail sentence, but Boudin refused.  There was 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapkadee, who was pushed to his death by a man Boudin later described as having a “temper tantrum,” enraging the DA’s critics.

More broadly, recall proponents tapped into frustrations felt by San Franciscans tired of smash-and-grab robberies and a sense of lawlessness in The City.  “The condition of the streets are getting intolerable. I know it’s not all his fault because of the pandemic, but it’s because he refuses prosecution that crime has been further encouraged,” Kevin Wakelin, who lives near City Hall, told The Examiner. “There are so many car break-ins, house break-ins and stolen bicycles.  No one can afford a brand new bicycle every other week but that truly happens to some of us, and it’s terrible.  He (Boudin) needs to take responsibility for that.”...

Boudin’s recall leaves a vacancy that will be up to the mayor to fill. Crucial to her decision is the fate of Proposition C, which failed.  Prop. C would have, among other reforms to the recall process, prohibited a person appointed to a vacancy created by a recall from seeking election to the same post in the upcoming election. Put more clearly, Prop. C would have prevented whomever Breed appoints from seeking election to a full term in the following election.  Had Prop. C passed, it would have effectively limited the potential pool of candidates to those who have no interest in seeking the job long-term.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, an ally of Breed’s and former deputy district attorney in Contra Costa County, has been floated as a potential candidate to replace Boudin. Brooke Jenkins, a former prosecutor who quit under Boudin’s tenure, has been a leading face of the recall movement.  She, too, could be under consideration for the post. Breed will be responsible for making the appointment after the election results are certified.

A lot can be said, and a lot surely will be written, about this outcome and what it may mean for the progressive prosecutor movement and criminal justice reform more generally.  For now, I will be content to just note that, when it comes to elected politics, perception can often matter a whole lot more than policy.  This may be a trite and obvious point, but it surely helps explain why "individual stories" may resonate with voters in San Fran and elsewhere a lot more than data runs or policy statements.

June 8, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (21)

Sunday, May 01, 2022

An (incomplete) account of the dynamic state of federal criminal justice reform politics

This new Politico article, headlined "Trump’s criminal justice reform bill becomes persona non grata among GOPers," provides an interesting (but I think incomplete) account of the current state of federal criminal justice reform politics.  I recommend the full piece, and here are some excerpts:

The First Step Act was not just hailed as a rare bipartisan achievement for the 45th president but as the beginning of a major shift in GOP politics, one that would move the party past the 1980s tough-on-crime mindset to a focus on rehabilitation, racial fairness and second chances.

Three-and-a-half years later, few Republicans — Trump included — seem not at all interested in talking about it. With spikes in crime registering as a top concern for voters, Republicans have increasingly reverted back to that 1980s mindset. Talk of additional legislation has taken a back seat to calls for enhanced policing and accusations that Democratic-led cities are veering toward lawlessness....

For some advocates, the Republican Party’s cooling to criminal justice reform confirms the belief the interest wasn’t ever sincere. But for lawmakers and advocates on the right who worked on the First Step Act, the shift has been similarly disconcerting, raising concern it freezes political momentum for further reform.

“I personally think there’s just as many people that want to do criminal justice reform as the last several years, but I think their voices are quiet now, and those that are opposed to the First Step Act are still opposed and have gotten louder,” said Brett Tolman from the conservative group Right on Crime.  Tolman added that much work continues behind the scenes. “It feels like we just have to bide our time a bit and get past when the emotion of all of the political rhetoric is at the forefront.”...

Republicans who support reforms say the party can be both in line with that vision and adopt a tough-on-crime posture — that voters will be able to differentiate between crackdowns on violent crime and accountability in the justice system. “Reform and calling out truths can coexist. It’s not a binary decision.  And there are achievable solutions available,” said Zack Roday, a Republican political strategist.

But trends aren’t helping the reformer’s cause. In the past year, violent crime rates have risen dramatically, with at least 12 major U.S. cities breaking annual homicide records in 2021.  Recent polling reflects public concerns about rising crime rates and dissatisfaction with how public leaders are addressing the problem.  Republicans pointed to the trends as evidence of a Democratic failure....

Despite the changing political winds, reform advocates still say they are optimistic that Congress will pass the EQUAL Act, which would end federal sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine offenses.  Supporters of the bill, which the House passed in September with the support of some of the most conservative members, say it would address racial disparities, noting 90 percent of those serving federal time for crack offenses are Black....

So far, the bill has the support of 11 Republican senators, the National District Attorneys Association, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.  But congressional aides warn the legislation is not a slam dunk, especially without the support of Grassley, now the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.  This week, the senator introduced a separate bill tackling crack and cocaine sentencing disparities.  And in a midterm election year when public focus is on rising crime in communities, some conservatives say they do not see a path forward for federal reforms.

“From the federal government I don’t see anything passing this year on criminal justice reform, I think they’re done. I think the politics of it are too difficult,” said Charles Stimson, a crime expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “People will probably be motivated in the fall to vote for folks who take the law and order approach and they’re not going to believe people who say they don’t have a crime problem.”

Though covering a lot of ground well, this Politico piece seem to me to fail to highlight how much crime and punishment had become a part of this era's broader culture wars.  Of particular note, I think George Floyd's murder, which brought "defund the police" to the forefront of the political arena, served to derail some of the bipartisanship that got the FIRST STEP Act to the finish line.  And thereafter with rising crime concerns, the GOPs recent affinity for a certain brand of populism makes it ever more likely for a return to the classic tough-on-crime tune.  (It also bears noting, in this context and others, that while Prez Trump leaned into prison reforms all through 2018 and actively helped get the FIRST STEP Act done, Prez Biden has made no public effort to push criminal justice reforms others than politically-fraught policing reforms.) 

And yet, adding ever more nuance to a complicated political story, there still seems to be persistent bipartisan energy for not just the EQUAL Act, but also for other smaller reforms. For example, as noted here, just six weeks ago, the US House overwhelmingly voted, by a margin of 405-12, for the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021.  And various modest proposed marijuana reforms, such as the SAFE Banking Act and a variety of bills to enhance research or expand expungements, are garnering bipartisan support in one form or another.     

Stated differently, I share Brett Tolman's general view that there are still plenty of folks on both sides of the aisle that are considerably interested in considerable criminal justice reforms.  But, critically, as political and criminal justice realities on the ground have changed, leaders of Congress must change their vision of the possible circa May 2022.  More modest bills may have to get more attention, and the "best" cannot be the enemy of the "good enough."   Small reform victories are still victories, and I would hope that the type of criminal justice reform bills that pass by a margin of 405-12 in one chamber should be able to make some progress in the other.  But hoping for Congress to do better obviously does not mean it will anytime soon.  

May 1, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Remaining (overly?) upbeat about bipartisan criminal justice reform

Marc Levin has this notable new Hill commentary, headlined "Confirmation combat can’t crush bipartisan criminal justice reform," making an important case for staying bulling on the prospects for bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The “soft on crime” critique of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has prompted obituaries for the era of bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, a détente that the country has enjoyed since Texas kicked off a wave of policy change 15 years ago.  While the coalition may be fragile, the prospects remain encouraging for continued progress on both public safety and justice.

Optimism stems in part from the fact that the primary responsibility for criminal justice policy rests at the state level, and the most significant reforms continue to occur there. Indeed, it was state-level reforms that first led to prison closures and reduced recidivism through treatment courts and other alternatives to incarceration, including in red states like Texas and Georgia. Those advancements, in turn, inspired the federal First Step Act signed by President Trump in 2018, a law that pared back mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and allowed low-risk individuals to shave time off their prison terms by completing rehabilitative programs.

Today, state legislators remain the most significant actors in this arena, given that about 90 percent of all criminal cases and incarcerated populations are at the state and local levels. In Oklahoma, which has the nation’s highest incarceration rate, a bipartisan measure that brings consistency and proportionality to sentencing for nonviolent offenses overwhelmingly passed the state’s Senate on March 23.... Another red state, Ohio, is advancing a handful of significant bipartisan criminal justice reforms in its current legislative session....

While continued momentum on the state level promises to have the most far-reaching impact on the justice system, strong possibilities remain this election year for bipartisan congressional action.  One area with potential for progress is marijuana policy. There are a variety of proposals for unwinding failed federal policy on cannabis with varying levels of bipartisan support....

Also, in recent weeks, additional Republican senators have become cosponsors of a bill that would end the pronounced disparity in penalties between crack and powder cocaine, which would affect some 1,500 new sentences every year....  Other bipartisan federal legislation that could reach President Biden’s desk this year include bills that abolish federal life without parole sentences for juveniles, prevent the use of acquitted conduct in sentencing, extend Medicaid to otherwise eligible individuals within 30 days of their release from incarceration, and invest in treatment for people with mental illness in the justice system.

Undoubtedly, the recent rise in some types of violent crime, most notably homicides, has strained bipartisan coalitions around sensible reforms. While fearmongering is unwarranted, rigorously evaluating the impact of recent justice system changes is not just desirable, but necessary....

Criminal justice policy is too important to leave to any one political party, and all Americans, regardless of ideology, rightly demand a system that protects both their lives and liberties. While hearings for both Republican and Democratic administration Supreme Court nominees have become circus-like, there is reason to believe that our political leaders can move from confirmation combat to considerable consensus on the next steps to achieve safety and justice for all.

This commentary effectively highlights that there is still continued momentum for some forms of criminal justice reforms on both sides of the aisle at both the state and federal levels. But, even before the SCOTUS confirmation hearings, a pandemic-era spike in homicides and other crimes concerns were already creating headwinds for many reform efforts. And the SCOTUS hearings served as a significant reminder that "tough/soft on crime" rhetoric can often still quickly become a central part of the modern political atmosphere. How these matters play out in our politics and policy-making in the months and years to come is going to be important and interesting to watch closely.

April 6, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 31, 2022

An effective (though incomplete) review of current GOP views on criminal justice reform

Li Zhou has this lengthy new Vox piece about the state of GOP politics on criminal justice issues headlined "The Republican Party is still fractured on criminal justice reform."  The piece is worth a full read, and here are excerpts:

The rhetoric in Jackson’s hearing and in broader GOP messaging have seemed like a departure from the focus on criminal justice reform that the party had as recently as 2018, when the majority of Senate Republicans backed sentencing changes for nonviolent offenders in the First Step Act.  The party back then was eager to show it had made progress on an issue that arose from Congress’s efforts to crack down on crime decades ago.  (Many of these efforts notably excluded violent offenders or sex offenders that Jackson was spuriously accused of going easy on.)

There are some Republicans who are reluctant to evangelize criminal justice reforms now, advocates say, since increases in crime have become a GOP talking point.... “I think your average conservative, or average Republican, may have supported the First Step Act, but I have the impression that the average conservative has backed off from where they were,” says Clark Neily, a senior vice president of legal studies at the Cato Institute.

Experts emphasize, however, that the most aggressive moments in the hearing are not indicative of how open a segment of Republicans still is to important but limited criminal justice reforms. Just last week, 10 Republicans signed on to cosponsor the Equal Act, legislation that would reduce the sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  The legislation — which would make penalties the same for the two substances — has yet to be considered on the floor but could pass with the GOP support it has....

For years, the party has been fractured on the subject with senators like Tom Cotton (R-AR) opposed to virtually any reforms, while others like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Tim Scott (R-SC) have led efforts for sentencing reforms for nonviolent drug offenses and police reforms....

At the state and local level, many Republican officials have also pushed back on progressive prosecutors, policies like changes to cash bail, and reduced prosecutions for low-level offenses. “I think they’re often scared that if … crime continues to increase, no one wants the blame placed on them,” says Jillian Snider, the policy director for the criminal justice and civil liberties team at R Street Institute.

There’s also the Trump factor.  During his presidency, Trump’s support of the First Step Act helped to get Republicans who were on the fence on board. Without his advocacy on the issue now, some lawmakers are likely less open to this idea.

Because there are so many moving part to this story, even a strong press piece cannot cover the ground completely.  For example, the piece does not discuss the conventional wisdom that the slogan "abolish the police" proved extremely unpopular with voters in the 2020 election cycle, nor does it engage much with all sorts of interesting and diverse political reform dynamics at the state level (especially on topics like marijuana reform and record clearing).  Still, this piece reflects a notable moment in the ever-changing ebb and flow over crime policy and crime politics.

March 31, 2022 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 13, 2021

"Prison Reform Should Be a Bipartisan Issue"

This title of this post is the headline of this effective Wall Street Journal commentary authored by Marc M. Howard. I recommend the full piece and here are excerpts:

I was happy to learn that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and several other members of Congress visited the District of Columbia Jail recently.  And I was flattered that her ensuing report, “Unusually Cruel,” quoted from my book and even borrowed its title.  As someone who frequently visits prisons, I believe it is vital that people see firsthand the conditions of incarceration around the country — and realize the humanity of those behind bars.

Mrs. Greene’s report focuses on the “inhumane” conditions in which the Jan. 6 defendants are being held. “Cells in the January 6 wing of the CTF were extremely small, composed of a single toilet, sink and a small bed cot,” she notes. “The walls of the rooms had residue of human feces, bodily fluids, blood, dirt and mold. The community showers were recently scrubbed of black mold — some of which remained.”  The report adds that inmates said they “did not have access to their attorneys, families or proper nutrition.”

These observations match the standard story of incarceration in America, and they should lead people to reflect on how they would feel if they or a loved one were held in such conditions.  This isn’t an abstract exercise, as 45% of Americans have had an immediate family member incarcerated.

Deplorable physical conditions are shockingly common, with prisons and jails across the country characterized by filth, violence, overcrowding and lack of privacy.  Most correctional facilities allow limited movement and communication, scant access to work or educational programming, and hostile and dehumanizing relations with staff....

Across the country, prison reform has been a largely bipartisan issue for nearly a decade.  The First Step Act of 2018 passed overwhelmingly in both houses of Congress and was signed by President Trump.  It was the most significant federal criminal-justice reform aimed at reducing incarceration in the past 50 years.  States led by Republicans (including Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina) and Democrats (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California) have made conscious efforts to reduce their incarceration levels.

Although the events of Jan. 6 have become polarizing in American politics, the situation at the D.C. Jail has created an opportunity for both sides to appreciate the disturbing realities of prison in America.  I hope Mrs. Greene and others on the right who are appalled by the physical conditions they witnessed will become advocates for reforming the laws and policies that support a system that currently treats prisoners inhumanely.

I also hope that people on the left — including those who already favor prison reform but view it primarily through a racial-justice lens — will resist their own vindictive impulses, stop demonizing their political opponents, and support Jan. 6 defendants’ right to proper treatment.

December 13, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Two new NPR pieces spotlight frustrations with Biden Administration among criminal justice reform advocates

This weekend has brought these two versions of NPR coverage of a topic familiar to readers of this  blog, namely the failure to see much tangible criminal justice reform action from the Biden Administration so far:

"Criminal justice advocates are pressing the Biden administration for more action"

"Activists wanted Biden to revamp the justice system. Many say they're still waiting"

Here are excerpts from the second piece:

People working to overhaul the criminal justice system say they're frustrated with the Biden administration after they've waited nearly a year for the White House to take major steps on clemency and sentencing reform. "I think we're at a point where we're saying, mere lip service isn't enough," said Sakira Cook, senior director of the justice reform program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "We want to see some concrete action."

For them, concrete action could include granting clemency to the few thousand people who were released to home confinement by the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic. President Biden could ensure those people remain free with the stroke of a pen. But he hasn't done that yet, despite months of pressure....

Michael Gwin, a White House spokesman, told NPR in a written statement that the president has taken steps to reform the system "since his first day in office." "This includes restoring the Department of Justice's Office for Access to Justice, implementing new restrictions on chokeholds and no-knock warrants for federal law enforcement, ending contracts with private detention facilities, and expanding access to re-entry services for formerly incarcerated individuals," Gwin said.

The advocates say they're happy to give credit where it's due.  They praised the Justice Department for rescinding a Trump-era memo that directed prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges they could for any crime. And they're happy the DOJ has launched four big civil rights investigations of police departments.

But they've also taken note of this fact: the federal prison population has increased by some 5,000 people during Biden's tenure, according to Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a researcher at the Sentencing Project....  While homicides and shootings have increased in many parts of the country, the vast majority of those crimes are handled by state and local authorities, not the federal government.  Most people in federal prison are there for breaking drug or immigration laws, Ghandnoosh said.

Ghandnoosh had expected to see more than "small tinkering" by the new team in Washington. "We would expect to hear from the attorney general and the president very vocal and unequivocal support for federal sentencing reform that's being considered right now and that could help to give those initiatives an important boost," she added.

Another criticism is about personnel.  The White House hasn't taken any action to fill vacancies on the Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentencing guidelines for many crimes.  "In the past, some of the best reforms [that] have been achieved in the last 10 years have been at the Sentencing Commission and they haven't even nominated people to fill this vacant body," said Ring of FAMM.

Meanwhile, key allies of the White House, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are going public with their demand that the Justice Department fire the head of the federal prison system.  They say the Federal Bureau of Prisons mismanaged the pandemic and that there are several other serious problems in the system.

Democrats control both chambers of Congress with small majorities.  But the administration hasn't used the bully pulpit to promote the EQUAL Act, a bill that would equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine.  Those laws have punished Black people more harshly than white people for decades for essentially the same crime.

December 12, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (20)

Monday, December 06, 2021

Noting differing perceptions of whether prison time is too long or too short or just right in the US

FT_21.11.17_TimeInPrison_1Over at the Pew Research Center, John Gramlich has this interesting new piece under the headline "U.S. public divided over whether people convicted of crimes spend too much or too little time in prison."  The graphic reprinted here captures the heart of the story, and here is some of the text (with links from the original):

Americans are closely divided over whether people convicted of crimes spend too much, too little or about the right amount of time in prison, with especially notable differences in views by party affiliation, ideology, race and ethnicity.

Overall, 28% of U.S. adults say people convicted of crimes spend too much time in prison, while 32% say they spend too little time and 37% say they spend about the right amount of time, according to a Pew Research Center survey of 10,221 adults conducted in July 2021.  The question was asked as part of a broader survey examining differences in Americans’ political attitudes and values across a range of topics.  The survey asked about prison time in a general way and did not address penalties for specific crime types.

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are much more likely to say people convicted of crimes spend too much time in prison than to say they spend too little time behind bars (41% vs. 21%).  The reverse is true among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents: 44% of Republicans say people convicted of crimes spend too little time in prison, while 14% say they spend too much time behind bars.  Around a third of Democrats and Democratic leaners (35%) and a slightly higher share of Republicans and GOP leaners (39%) say people convicted of crimes spend about the right amount of time in prison.

Views differ by ideology within each partisan group.  Liberal Democrats are more likely than conservative and moderate Democrats (54% vs. 30%) to say convicted people spend too much time in prison.  Conservative Republicans are more likely than moderate and liberal Republicans (49% vs. 35%) to say people convicted of crimes spend too little time in prison.

Democrats who describe their political views as very liberal and Republicans who describe their views as very conservative stand out even more.  Very liberal Democrats are much more likely than Democrats who describe their views as simply liberal (70% vs. 47%) to say convicted people spend too much time in prison.  And very conservative Republicans are more likely than Republicans who describe their views as simply conservative (56% vs. 47%) to say people convicted of crimes spend too little time in prison.

Attitudes about many aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system differ by race and ethnicity, as previous Pew Research Center surveys have shown, and a similar pattern appears in views of time spent in prison.  Black adults (40%) are more likely than White (26%), Asian (26%) and Hispanic adults (25%) to say people convicted of crimes spend too much time in prison.  Conversely, White adults (36%) are more likely than Hispanic (28%) and Black adults (17%) to believe that convicted people spend too little time behind bars.  Around a third of Asian adults (34%) also say convicted people do not spend enough time in prison, but their views are not statistically different from those of White and Hispanic adults.

Among Democrats, similar shares of Black and White adults say prisoners spend too much time behind bars, even as Black and White Democrats express different views on some other survey questions related to criminal justice.  Black Democrats, for example, are modestly more likely than White Democrats to favor increased funding for police in their area, according to a September Pew Research Center survey.

December 6, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Are more conservatives really turning away from the death penalty?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Wall Street Journal article headlined "More Conservatives Turn Away From Death Penalty."  In addition, Demetrius Minor his this new opinion piece from Newsweek, headlined "Republicans Across the Country Are Joining the Fight to End the Death Penalty," provides this accounting:

[I]n deep red Utah are considering ending the state's death penalty. Governor Spencer Cox, who has previously revealed his support for the death penalty, says he is now open to "reevaluating" his stance on the issue. He is joined by Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, another Republican who has said his office would no longer seek death penalty prosecutions....

And this isn't just occurring in Utah. There is a nationwide trend of Republican- controlled state legislatures re-thinking capital punishment driven by the fiscal, moral, and cultural conservative values that should lead us to oppose the death penalty. Virginia repealed the death penalty in March 2021 with bipartisan support. Pennsylvania, Kansas, Wyoming, Kentucky, Georgia, Montana, Washington, and Ohio all have had Republican-sponsored bills this year, with a total of 40 Republican sponsors.

In Ohio, a political bell-weather state that has become very red in recent election cycles, former Congresswoman and now State Representative Jean Schmidt and Sen. Stephen Huffman are Republican prime sponsors of bills to end the death penalty. They are clear that the death penalty is a contradiction to their conservative beliefs.

I do sense that a few more GOP leaders are a bit more comfortable expressing capital opposition, and yet I am unclear if this is a major trend or really anything all that new.  Notably, I have seen (and blogged) about stories claiming or advocating for softer support for capital punishment among those on the right, and yet polling numbers do not show any real shift.  Gallup released its latest polling on the death penalty this past week, and here is its discussion of the political dynamics:

Gallup began asking its historical death penalty trend question in its annual Crime survey beginning in 2000. During this time, there have been two notable shifts in death penalty attitudes. Between 2011 and 2016, the percentage expressing support showed a drop to 61% from 66% in the preceding decade. In the past four years, support has fallen further to an average 56%.

Both Democrats and independents show declines in their support for the death penalty, including similar drops (eight and seven percentage points, respectively) since 2016. Between the 2000-2010 and 2011-2016 time periods, Democratic support dropped more (eight points) than independent support did (three points). Now, 39% of Democrats and 54% of independents are in favor of the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Republicans' support for the death penalty has held steady, with 79% currently supporting it, unchanged since 2016 and barely lower than the 80% registered between 2000 and 2010.

Here is a sampling of some older posts on this front through the years:

November 21, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

"Elections have consequences": Virginia criminal justice edition

I now have seen a couple of noteworthy articles related to criminal justice issues coming from Virginia in the wake of GOP candidates prevailing in last week's election.  Here are headlines and excerpts:

"What Youngkin’s parole board promise signals for Virginia’s criminal justice system":

Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin promises to fire and replace the board after an investigation last year found its members weren’t following the board’s own rules. Attorney general-elect Jason Miyares also says his office will re-investigate what happened.  Come January of next year, Virginia will have a republican governor for the first time since 2014. The new leadership is expected to bring new policies — and a new, Republican-appointed parole board.

While claiming victory last week in northern Virginia, Youngkin echoed what was one of his key campaign promises.  “We will replace the entire parole board on day one,” he said....  The promise comes during the ongoing parole board scandal.  Last year, the state’s watchdog agency found Virginia’s parole board violated the law, specifically failing to notify local prosecutors and victims’ families of some releases.  “The most that we can kind of conclude from that whole saga was that the board was not following its own rules and needed to do a better job of doing that,” said 8News Political Analyst Rich Meagher, on Monday....

Meagher said with a new, Youngkin-appointed board, we should expect changes.  “The parole board is considered more of a politicized board and it represents the interest of the party and the party’s ideology,” he said. All of the board’s five current members were appointed by Democratic governors Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam between 2014 and 2020.

The state’s new self-described “top cop” Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares doesn’t have any direct control over the board or its decisions. However, Miyares said he’s expecting Youngkin’s appointees to more heavily consider victim input when considering paroles. “I think that’s a critical component,” Miyares said last week.

This is perhaps bad news for some convicts seeking a second chance and good news for victims’ families.  “Youngkin very clearly wants to take a very tough law and order approach so we will definitely see fewer of these parole releases almost guaranteed over the next few years,” Meagher said.

Since parole was abolished in 1995, the parole board only considers eligible people convicted before then. Meagher said what will likely impact even more Virginians is Youngkin and Miyares’ approach to criminal justice. “It signals that there is a change coming,” Meagher said. “I think the democrats have been trying to push for more rehabilitation, less of a focus on incarceration in previous years, and that’s most likely going to change with Youngkin,” Meagher said.

"Virginia AG-elect Miyares seeks legal way to override 'social justice' DAs and 'do their job for them'"

Virginia Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares said that he and Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin will pursue legislation to enable the state's attorney general to circumvent "social justice" commonwealth's attorneys who refuse to vigorously prosecute crimes.

At a news conference on Thursday, Miyares laid out "one of our major legislative initiatives" which Youngkin "has already indicated that he would sign… into law."

Under current law, the AG's office can prosecute a case on behalf of a commonwealth's attorney — Virginia's version of a district attorney (DA) — so long as the DA requests it.

The new bill "would essentially say, if the chief law enforcement officer in a jurisdiction — either the chief of police or the sheriff — makes a request because a commonwealth's attorney is not doing their job, then I'm going to do their job for them," Miyares said.  "I'm thinking specifically, some of the so-called ‘social justice’ commonwealth's attorneys that have been elected particularly in Northern Virginia. We're obviously aware of some pretty horrific cases" where these DAs have not pursued justice.

November 9, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

On Election Day, an encouraging report about moves away from prison gerrymandering

NBC News has this new encouraging piece that seems fitting for Election Day 2021. The article is fully headlined "States rethink 'prison gerrymandering' in 2020 redistricting process: More than a dozen states are changing how they handle incarcerated Americans in redistricting maps, unwinding a practice critics call 'prison gerrymandering'." Here are excerpts:

More than a dozen states are changing how they factor incarcerated Americans in redistricting maps this year, unwinding a longstanding practice that critics call “prison gerrymandering.”

The changes were spurred by state and national advocacy over concerns on how mass incarceration and the increasingly partisan process of drawing political district lines for elections was affecting people of color in state and local elections, and research that helped indicate how much communities of color were losing because of these changes.

"When you have people sharing their stories about what it feels like to have your body counted to inflate the vote of prison staff who honestly might be abusing you on any given day, to hurt your family and community's representation back home is just so emotional and really moving," said Villanova University Professor Brianna Remster, who has studied the effects of this practice on states. "People sharing their stories is really what got lots of folks thinking about it."...

Counting incarcerated residents at the site of their prison puts large blocks of residents in districts where the vast majority cannot vote and likely have no ties.  In practice, experts say, it allocates prisoners' political representation to often rural and white districts where prisons are located at the expense of urban, more diverse districts where incarcerated people lived before their convictions.  Changing the maps so that prisoners are counted in their home districts would reverse that in many places.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan criminal justice-focused think tank, Washington, Virginia, New Jersey, Nevada, Illinois, Connecticut, Colorado, and California have all passed legislation in the last few years adding or expanding policies to count at least some prisoners in their home districts in some or all local, state, or federal district lines, instead of at the location of their prison.  Those states join Maryland and New York, which started placing incarcerated residents at their last known address in the 2010 redistricting cycle; Maryland does so for both state, federal, and county districts, while New York made the change in state and local districts.

Other states are making the change during this cycle, including Delaware, where legislation from 2010 will be implemented this year.  Pennsylvania’s redistricting commission also recently decided to return prisoners whose sentences would expire by the end of the decade to their home districts, and more states are lining up to follow.  Montana’s redistricting commission is reportedly considering similar reforms while Rhode Island’s commission has said it will address the issue soon.  In New York, voters will weigh a ballot measure on Tuesday that would expand the reform to the state’s Congressional districts and codify the change into the state constitution....

Illinois’ legislation won’t be implemented until the next redistricting cycle, but in total, at least 12 states will deploy legislative maps that put some incarcerated Americans back in their home districts this year. In total, approximately half the nation now lives in a state that's formally rejected the practice.  The laws and policies vary on the mechanics — like how prisoners are returned to their home districts within the data, which legislative district lines are affected, whether the change applies to federal or state prisoners or both — but experts say the change will have a considerable effect on communities of color....

The numbers aren't big enough to influence Congressional districts, experts said, but significant numbers are seen in state and more local level districts.  According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 40 percent of one state House district in New Hampshire is incarcerated people.  In Connecticut, state House District 59 is 14 percent incarcerated, the group said. Drill down into the smallest county-level district maps and the numbers get bigger.  In Juneau County, Wisconsin, 80 percent of the county's District 15 are incarcerated, giving the handful of eligible voters there enormous political power.

November 2, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 25, 2021

Notable survey results about violent crime perceptions and partisanship

This new release discusses the interesting (but not all that surprisng) results from an Axios/Ipsos poll conducted last week with a series of questions about perceptions of violent crime. Here are some of the details:

A new Axios-Ipsos poll finds that Americans’ concern about crime is high, but for most it is a more abstract than immediate concern.  For instance, three-quarters of Americans say they feel mostly or very safe when out in their communities, and among that one-quarter who report feeling less safe, only half cite crime as a major reason why (or about one in eight Americans).  However, a majority of Americans feel violent crime is on the rise since last year — which is broadly accurate — but also feel it is higher than observed 30 years ago — which is incorrect.  Potentially because concerns about crime are more abstract for most people, opinions about what to do about crime tend to fall along lines of national politics.  Democrats broadly support gun control and investment in social services while Republicans support a more armed populace and more spending on police....

There is some consensus on what steps could reduce gun violence and violent crime in the U.S. Just over six in ten (61%) Americans believe tighter gun laws would have an impact.

A large majority believe increased funding to police (70%) would curb gun violence and violent crime, while nearly as many (63%) also believe diverting police budget to community policing and social services would do this.

Over two thirds (68%) believe increased funding to social safety net programs would have an impact on combatting violent crime.

However, partisanship is central to what and who Americans believe is the cause of increased violent crime and which solutions would be most impactful.  Majorities of Republicans say Democrats in Congress (59%), reduced police funding (58%), and President Joe Biden (54%) are most responsible for increases in violent crime. Meanwhile, majorities of Democrats blame loose gun laws (54%) and rising gun sales (52%). 

When it comes to solutions, a majority of Republicans believe increased police funding (59%) would have a major impact on reducing violent crime compared to roughly a third of Democrats (31%).  Conversely, a majority of Democrats (63%) think tighter gun control regulations and increased funding to social programs that combat poverty (54%) would have a major impact on reducing violent crime — compared to 16% and 18% of Republicans, respectively.

The full poll is available at this link.

October 25, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 11, 2021

"Fatalism and Indifference — The Influence of the Frontier on American Criminal Justice"

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

American criminal laws and criminal justice systems are harsher, more punitive, more afflicted by racial disparities and injustices, more indifferent to suffering, and less respectful of human dignity than those of other Western countries.  The explanations usually offered — rising crime rates in the 1970s and 1980s, public anger and anxiety, crime control politics, neoliberal economic and social policies — are fundamentally incomplete.  The deeper explanations are four features of American history and culture that shaped values, attitudes, and beliefs and produced a political culture in which suffering is fatalistically accepted and policy makers are largely indifferent to individual injustices.

The four elements are the history of American race relations, the evolution of Protestant fundamentalism, local election of judges and prosecutors, and the continuing influence of political and social values that emerged during three centuries of western expansion.  The last, encapsulated in Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” is interwoven with the other three.  Together, they explain long-term characteristics of American criminal justice and the extraordinary severity of penal policies and practices since the 1970s.

October 11, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Making the case for conservatives to advance criminal justice reforms

Mark Holden and Jason Pye has this new Fox News commentary headlined "Trump made conservatives criminal justice reform leaders. Here's how to keep it that way." Here are excerpts:

Since the signing of the First Step Act, the conservative movement has become a leader in criminal justice reform.  What could be more conservative than fixing the features in our justice system that promote unequal punishment, inhibit work, waste taxpayer money and law enforcement resources?

Voters, Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike, also believe in criminal justice reform and want these issues to be fixed.  A survey conducted in July by Public Opinion Strategies showed that 67 percent of Iowa voters, for example, believe that too many low-level drug offenders are in prisons.  The poll also reflected support for eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences and having government resources focus more on treating those with addictions instead of prosecuting them....

We have found that harsher drug penalties do not deter use.  Congress imposed five- and ten-year mandatory minimum prison sentences for heroin, but the prevalence of its use is nearly identical today as it was in 1988.  These penalties have not deterred use of heroin nor expanded treatment options for those suffering from addition.  This policy choice fails to solve the root causes of substance abuse and addiction in America...

As conservatives, we must continue to establish ourselves as leaders in criminal justice reform.  It is a proven political winner, judging from President Trump`s expanded GOP coalition, especially black voters, who cited his support for criminal justice reform as a reason for their vote.  It is a proper platform to assert conservative principles.  Our system is badly broken, and we can use our values of public safety, restraining costs, small government, equality and due process to help fix it.

October 10, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 20, 2021

Senator Cotton: "our severe federal drug sentences are ineffectual, so let's not try to reform them"

Bluto-Being-a-Douche-Punching-A-Horse-In-Popeye_408x408.jpgSenator Tom Cotton can usually be relied upon to provide the "tough-and-tougher" perspective on federal criminal justice laws and policies, and he yet again plays the role of cruel Bluto via this new National Review commentary.  The piece is fully headlined "No More Jailbreaks: Republicans should oppose Democratic efforts to reduce or soften sentencing for drug crimes."  The first paragraph of the piece does not exactly say what I have in quotes in the title of this post, but it strikes me as pretty close:

Last year, for the first time in American history, more than 100,000 Americans died as a result of drug overdoses and homicides.  This deadly contagion of crime continues to afflict our communities and even shows signs of worsening.  Yet politicians in Washington plan to reduce federal sentences for criminals and release thousands of drug traffickers and gang members back onto the streets.

The rest of the piece goes on to largely mischaracterizes various current reform bills — e.g., I believe Senator Cotton is referencing the bill prohibiting sentence enhancements based on acquitted conduct when he assails a proposal "prohibit judges from taking into account certain past criminal activity in sentencing" — and does so using all sorts of silly rhetoric about "jailbreak" bills while making a bizarre claim that small reforms to the federal sentencing system might somehow "hurt the American rule of law and render our federal prison system impotent." 

Senator Cotton never tires of beating the drum for more and more and more incarceration in the United States, despite the fact we remain the most incarcerated nation in the world.  Notably, though, as he rails against the FIRST STEP Act, he fails to note that this reform was championed by Prez Trump and many on the far right of his party.  And most of those on the GOP side who pushed for the FIRST STEP Act are also supportive of additional federal reforms. Given that Senator Cotton these days seems to be one of the very few, even on the GOP side of the aisle, to be calling for "tough-and-tougher" lock-them-all-up approaches to complicated problems, perhaps we ought all just marvel at what it looks like as he spits into the criminal justice reform wind.

September 20, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

After being a modern criminal justice reform success story, is Texas back to its "tough and tougher" past?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Texas Monthly article fully  headlined "Who Killed Criminal Justice Reform?: The state was once a model of how to safely move away from mass incarceration.  Now the old politics of 'law and order' are back."  The lengthy piece is worth reading in full, in part because it details some political dynamics that extend far past the Lone Star State. Here are excerpts:

Rick Perry ... often boasted about his role in downsizing the Texas prison system.  When he became governor in 2000, the Texas prison population had quintupled over the previous twenty years — swelled by thousands of small-time drug offenders and others convicted of nonviolent crimes, who cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year to incarcerate with little clear benefit to public safety. Faced with this profligate use of tax dollars, Perry explained, he had had no choice but to speak truth to power.  “Let my people go,” the governor said, like Moses to Pharaoh.  Armed with this conviction, he signed dozens of bills that helped free the wrongfully convicted and kept nonviolent offenders from going to jail. 

The incarcerated population declined enough that Texas was able to close three prisons. The state’s reforms became a model for others, and justice rolled down like water.  As lawmakers were quick to point out, however, Perry was hardly parting the seas.  Mostly, he managed not to stand in the way of bills passed by the Legislature.  But even that was significant.  While the rest of the country was still carrying on in the tradition of the tough-on-crime nineties, Texas stood apart.

How times have changed.  If Perry’s successor, Governor Greg Abbott, launches his own presidential run, he will do so while proudly proclaiming that, like Pharoah to Moses, he held his ground and said, “Not so fast.” Abbott has joined a counterrevolution, allowing his antipathy toward Democratic officials to outweigh the effectiveness of policies embraced by much of his party.  Take, for instance, his treatment of Dallas judge John Creuzot, who years earlier convinced Perry to support drug courts, which offer treatment rather than incarceration for low-level offenders. In 2018 Creuzot was elected Dallas County district attorney and soon announced that his office would no longer prosecute small-time drug offenses and other petty crimes that often involve the poor, mentally ill, and unhoused.  He was quickly pilloried by Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who accused him of “abandon[ing] the rule of law.”

These days, the Legislature isn’t doing much reforming either.  During recent sessions, proposed improvements to the criminal justice system have been blocked by powerful police lobbies and their supporters in state government.  One of the most anticipated pieces of legislation this year would have barred police from arresting Texans for most Class C misdemeanors — including traffic violations, such as the one that prompted the confrontation that led to Sandra Bland being placed in the Waller County jail cell where she reportedly killed herself.  A somewhat watered-down version of the bill passed the House during the regular session with the support of the Republican Speaker — the culmination of years of effort from disparate groups. But it never even received a hearing in the Senate, where Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has revived the law-and-order crusade of decades past.  Its demise marked the third time in three sessions that a version of the bill has failed to pass.

Reformers have watched with a mixture of disbelief and dismay as the bipartisan consensus has crumbled. “This year it became evident that police reform of even the smallest sort cannot occur in Texas while Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick remain in office,” Austin writer Scott Henson recently noted on his criminal justice blog, Grits for Breakfast.

And it’s not just on police reform that progress has stalled. During the special sessions he called this summer, Abbott pushed legislation intended to reverse some of the gains made in fixing Texas’s archaic bail system.  For years, Texas cities, particularly Houston, have taken strides to reduce their reliance on cash bail, which ensures that many poor and mentally ill defendants arrested for comparatively minor crimes stay stuck in county jails for months. Bail reform is supported not just by criminal justice activists and Democratic local elected officials; Nathan Hecht, the Republican chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, has called for a complete overhaul of the way courts handle pretrial detention. But the bail bill pushed by state leaders aimed to strengthen the role cash bail plays.

Abbott and his allies are responding to a real issue, as well as a political opportunity.  Rising rates of violent crime, especially in large cities, have prompted politicians of all stripes to offer solutions.  For many, and particularly for conservatives, a well-worn playbook — more police, less tolerance toward even petty crimes — is an obvious answer.  In addition, the racialized backlash to the Black Lives Matter protests of last year has made some Republicans skittish about criminal justice reform.  Calls by some progressives to “defund” the police at a time when crime is rising have handed Republicans a winning campaign issue....

Many conservatives are wobbling because of larger political dynamics.  Police reform went from a relatively sleepy matter to a supercharged issue intertwined with the culture wars.  Republicans in Austin are peeved with the state’s big-city mayors, district attorneys, and county officials.  These figures, mostly Democrats, now serve as the face of the reform movement, loudly declining to prosecute low-level offenses and attempting to hold police responsible for misconduct.  The conservative news outlets and Facebook feeds that have amplified an endless stream of footage of protests and riots have made many viewers feel as if anarchy were descending on the country — and that the thin blue line needed to be strengthened, not “defunded.”

The rising murder rates in most Texas cities during the pandemic haven’t helped the movement either.  Violent crimes such as homicide and robbery are still less common than during much of the seventies, eighties, and nineties.  But that doesn’t make much of a difference in public perception.

There’s another significant factor contributing to the backsliding.  “This is a Trump thing,” Henson says.  During his time in office, the former president — who, on the campaign trail, exploited fears of crime, especially when suspects were Black or Latino — promised to punish wrongdoers and maintain order in ways that Republicans had recently deemphasized.  Henson says Trump’s approach rubbed off.  Patrick and Abbott have started talking tougher.  Speaker Dade Phelan, meanwhile, often talks like a reformer of the Perry era.

Those brief years may have been an aberration, rather than a fundamental shift in the state’s approach to criminal justice, Henson says.  The post–Civil War era saw the introduction of a regime of forced labor designed to control freed slaves and others who were regarded as undesirable.  During the sixties the Legislature responded to the civil rights movement by effectively trying to criminalize nonviolent protest.  In the nineties, Ann Richards bragged that she had added 75,000 prison beds and “cut parole by two thirds.”  And it’s easy to overstate how much progress Texas has made: Yes, the number of Texans who are incarcerated as a percentage of the state’s population continues to decrease.  But according to the most recent figures, our incarceration rate ranks higher than that of all but five other U.S. states.

Still, not everyone is as pessimistic as Henson. Marc Levin, the former Right on Crime policy director, thinks the sour national political climate could shift.  “We’re kind of seeing the crime rate level off” in major cities, he says.  (Though the murder rate has continued to climb, statisticians say the growth in the rate has slowed in the first six months of this year.)  It’s possible, he says, that last year’s crime spike was caused in large part by the disruptions of the pandemic and that things will soon settle down.

Though Trump’s rhetoric was often harsh, he signed important reforms into law, notably the First Step Act, which reduced some draconian federal prison sentences and sought to improve conditions in federal lockups.  Conservatives are now more willing to make substantial investments in the mental health-care system (such as updating the state’s aging psychiatric hospitals) and other alternatives to incarceration, Levin says.  He believes that the elements of the criminal justice debate that seem to trigger right-leaning voters — “antifa” and “defunding” the police — may lose their power to terrify.

September 7, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 06, 2021

"If Democrats don't think Robert Kennedy’s assassin deserves parole, do they really support criminal justice reform?"

The question in the title of this post is the subtitle of this new MSNBC commentary authored by Chris Geidner.  The main headline is "California may parole Robert Kennedy's assassin. Liberals aren't happy."  Here are excerpts:

Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted of murdering Robert F. Kennedy 53 years ago, has been recommended for release by the California Board of Parole Hearings.  But, in a misguided effort that serves to reinforce the harsh practices that led to our incarceration explosion, some Democrats are fighting against the 77-year-old’s release. In doing so, they’re helping fuel the tough-on-crime rhetoric most often voiced these days by Republicans.

Sirhan was originally sentenced to death for murdering the presidential candidate and former attorney general as he campaigned in Los Angeles, but in 1972 his sentence was commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Sirhan has been denied parole 15 times — most recently in 2016. But on Aug. 27, the California parole board recommended his release.  After that recommendation, we quickly were reminded that the assassination from 53 years ago remains a present and painful memory to many Americans. It also became clear that some Democrats and progressives are willing to make exceptions to the criminal justice reforms they’ve claimed to support.

“I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in people’s minds,” Sirhan’s lawyer, Angela Berry, told me after the parole board’s recommendation.  “I think that wound is just so strong for people. They just can’t see that the board followed the law.”

That “they” includes opportunistic, “tough on crime” conservatives — but also liberal and progressive Democrats. “The news of Sirhan’s potential release hit me hard this weekend,” filmmaker Michael Moore wrote. “No, this assassin must not be set free.”

Few have voiced their opposition as loudly as Harvard Law School Professor Emeritus Laurence Tribe.  A longtime prominent liberal voice, Tribe has been on a nonstop campaign to stop Sirhan’s parole. Before the parole panel even met — with no apparent investigation, let alone evidence — Tribe, referring to Sirhan, wrote on Twitter, “Even at 77, he could be a threat.”...

Sirhan has been eligible for parole for several decades.  “The law presumes release unless the person poses a current unreasonable risk to the public,” Berry said.  “There wasn’t one iota of evidence to suggest this man is still dangerous.” The documents Sirhan submitted to the parole board included evidence from the state’s own experts that Sirhan “represents a Low risk for violence” and noted that his current age qualifies him for “elderly prisoner consideration” and the age at which he committed his crime means he should be treated as a “youthful offender.”...

Our system has become extremely carceral, but in 1972, when Sirhan was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, the idea that someone would serve more than 50 years in prison was way outside the norm.  As his submission to the parole board noted, “The proscribed punishment for first degree murder in 1968 was life with parole eligibility after 7 years.”  Throughout the country, we've not only increased sentences exponentially since then, but we've also decreased the use and availability of parole and clemency and deemed more activities criminal.

Democratic opposition to letting California’s parole system work as intended is a problem for a party that claims to support criminal justice reform.  Reformers in both parties have set goals to end over-sentencing, expand the use of clemency and parole and end overcriminalization.  But when Tribe, and even the Kennedys, speak in opposition to Sirhan’s parole, opponents of reform hear their “tough on crime” refrains being justified....

After initially arguing against Sirhan’s release, Moore wrote that his sister, a public defender, persuaded him to think more deeply about his position.  “If the Governor decides to let him go, I will try to find my peace with that,” Moore wrote.  “While offering my love to Kennedy’s family. And recommitting myself to the efforts of bringing about a more just system.”

A more just system means so many things, but, specifically here, it means letting parole work, and it means understanding that turning prisons into nursing homes for people who were practically children when they committed crimes is not only a financial mistake, it misunderstands our knowledge that people change and that older people overwhelmingly do not commit crimes.

Prior related posts:

September 6, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Notable response to notable attack on conservatives role in modern criminal justice reform

Lars Trautman and Brett Tolman have this interesting new Washington Examiner commentary headlined, "No, criminal justice reform isn’t causing the current crime wave." Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

Conservative criminal justice reformers have faced occasional skepticism over our tried-and-true criminal justice solutions, but never something quite so outlandish as a recent suggestion, by an avowed conservative, no less, that conservative reformers somehow bear blame for rising violent crime in liberal bastions such as New York City and Portland.

Sean Kennedy, in his recent Washington Examiner article , attacks our organization, Right on Crime, using just such an argument.  Kennedy actually acknowledges our record of helping Texas and other conservative states simultaneously reduce their crime rates, prison populations, and criminal justice spending.  But he then claims, without evidence and employing a classic logical fallacy , that this activity then caused subsequent increases in crime in Texas.  Note that he makes this claim even though crime spiked at exactly the same time he refers to in many states where none of our reforms were enacted....

But those of us who have served in law enforcement, as prosecutors or in corrections, have learned that if you invest properly in police, evidence-based programming, and prison alternatives, you can consequently achieve reductions in crime, recidivism, and ultimately prison construction costs.  Further, the evidence is clear that it is the certainty and not the severity of punishment that deters potential criminals.  A few more years on a potential sentence doesn’t change many minds about crime — it’s the long odds of getting away with it entirely.

Too often, people do get away with murder and a host of other crimes.  Homicide clearance rates nationally hover around 50%. Whether a killer meets justice is a coin flip . If you’re worried about public safety, it’s more productive to spend your time improving clearance rates, not bemoaning the elimination of ineffective mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses.

This is why we are so adamant about reducing our overreliance on prison beds and other costly, unproductive interventions so that we can redirect this money and focus toward law enforcement and other strategies that actively improve our crime prevention and investigative capabilities.  Practically speaking, this means more funding for police departments, especially homicide and other specialized units focusing on serious and violent crime — a commonsense solution backed by research.  It also means helping shift to others, such as social workers and truant officers, at least a few of the dozen different jobs we currently expect law enforcement to complete, so that police can concentrate on actual police work.

August 31, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Is the politics of crime and punishment now different than in our recent history?

The question in the title of this post is promoted by this recent Politico piece by Joshua Zeitz headlined "'Law and Order' has Worked for the GOP Before. This Crime Boom Might be Different." I recommend the piece in full, and here are a few excerpts:

In the 1970s and 1980s, Republican candidates successfully used violent crime as an issue to attract white voters. Fused with concerns over the economy, busing and neighborhood integration, “law-and-order” politics dislodged millions of working- and middle-class white voters from their former home in the Democratic Party. No politician did it better than Richard Nixon, whose White House staff aimed, in their own words, “to orient the Silent Majority toward issues other than foreign policy (e.g.: inflation, crime, law and order, etc.) and then to increase support for the President’s foreign and domestic proposals.”

But 2021 is not 1971. Even allowing for the public’s very real perception of violent crime as a top national priority, the nation’s political demography has changed dramatically over the last half century. Then, many working-class and middle-class voters lived in cities or inner-ring suburbs where crime was not a hypothetical concern; it was an everyday reality. By contrast, today most voters the GOP hopes to claw back inhabit increasingly diverse suburban areas where crime is not an everyday reality. Polls show that while most voters believe crime is on the rise, they don’t believe it threatens their neighborhoods.

It’s true that crime might function as a mechanism to motivate the conservative base. But to move voters from the Democratic to the Republican column, it will need to capture the independent voters who swung from Trump to Biden in the last election. And here the historical analogy breaks down....

[V]ast demographic changes over the past 50 years have re-sorted the American population.  Today’s swing voters are affluent suburbanites, not working-class residents of transitional urban neighborhoods.  The places where violent crime is on the rise — namely, cities — are deep blue and unlikely to change.  The places where violent crime is not on the rise — namely, suburbs — are the new political battleground....

Of course, none of this is to say that some of the urban voters affected by today’s rise in crime might not be up for grabs. Studies show that low-income non-white families are far more exposed to violent crime and more likely to perceive it as an immediate threat.  Republicans have made inroads with Latino voters, and in recent months, it has become clear that last year’s racial justice awakening obscured a more complicated reality about the Black electorate, which is diverse — not a monolith — but generally concerned about crime and welcoming of a greater police presence on the streets if and when that presence is protective of their safety....

The 2022 election cycle is still in the distant future, and in politics, things change quickly.  Judging by history and by polling, however, crime may not provide the winning message that the GOP is looking for.  Yesterday’s swing voters are not today’s swing voters, and in 2021, “law and order” doesn’t mean the same thing it did in 1971.

This article is focused on demographics to rightly observe that the politics of crime and punishment has evolved over the last half-century.  But I also think there is a lot more to the story of the changing political landscape, ranging from bipartisan disaffinity for (some parts of) the war on drugs and much greater public awareness — especially among younger Americans and libertarian-leaning conservatives — of the racial and economic impacts of mass incarceration and collateral consequences.  What all this means for elections in the 2020s remains to be seen, but nobody should forget that Donald Trump ran in 2016 on a "law and order" message and then signed a major federal criminal justice reform bill into law just two years later.  Put simply, in this century, I think both the politics and the practice of crime and punishment are quite nuanced and often quite unpredictable.

July 28, 2021 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Helpful review of some modern US capital punishment realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 06, 2021

"Election Contestation and Progressive Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now on SSRN authored by Ronald Wright, Jeff Yates and Carissa Byrne Hessick. Here its abstract:

A group of change-oriented chief prosecutors use the label “progressive prosecutor” to describe their distinctive approach to the prosecutor’s work.  But it is not yet clear how deep those proposed changes go.  Did media accounts focus on vivid but exceptional election campaigns, or did the last decade deliver a widespread change in U.S. prosecution leadership? We explore this question by collecting the results in prosecutor elections in 200 high-population districts in the United States, between 2012 and 2020.  Prosecutor elections have traditionally been sleepy affairs, where incumbents most often ran unopposed and won re-election more often than incumbents in other public offices.  Setting aside the difficult issues of measuring how “progressive” each candidate might be, we simply ask whether prosecutor election campaigns are becoming more contested, now that progressive prosecutors offer an alternative vision of the job.

Based on our data, elections in these high-population districts did in fact become more contested over the last decade.  The likelihood that an incumbent would run unopposed fell by roughly eight percent for each passing year.  This steady disappearance of uncontested elections applied most strongly to non-white incumbents.  The incumbent win rate also fell by significant amounts during this period.  Today, prosecutor elections involve more candidates presenting more varied and viable choices.  Prosecutor elections reveal a growing popular interest in and control over local criminal justice policy.

June 6, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Prosecutors and Politics Project releases amazing "Prosecutor Lobbying in the States, 2015-2018"

The Prosecutors and Politics Project, a research initiative at the University of North Carolina School of Law, has just published this remarkable new report titled "Prosecutor Lobbying in the States, 2015-2018." Here are brief excerpts from the report's extended executive summary (which everyone should read in full):

American prosecutors are active lobbyists who routinely support making the criminal law harsher.  During the years 2015 to 2018, state and local prosecutors were involved in more than 25% of all criminal-justice-related bills introduced in the 50 state legislatures.  Prosecutors were nearly twice as likely to lobby in favor of a law that created a new crime or otherwise increased the scope of criminal law than a law that would create a defense, decriminalize conduct, or otherwise narrow the scope of criminal law.  And when state prosecutors lobbied in favor of a bill, it was more than twice as likely to pass than an average bill.

Prosecutors appeared to have more success when they lobbied in favor of a bill than when they opposed a bill.  Although bills with prosecutor support were twice as likely to pass, prosecutor opposition to a bill did not reduce its likelihood of passing.

Notably, prosecutors were more successful when they supported criminal justice reform bills than when they supported traditional law-and-order bills.  Approximately 60% of bills that narrowed the scope of criminal law and 55% of bills that decreased punishment passed when supported by prosecutors.  In contrast, when prosecutors supported bills that increased the scope of criminal law, only 40% of those bills passed; and bills that increased punishments did not fare much better, passing only 42% of the time.

More than 22,000 criminal law and criminal justice bills were introduced in the 50 state legislatures during the four-year period from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2018. The number of bills introduced varied wildly by state.  The most bills (1536) were introduced in New York; the fewest bills (80) were introduced in Alaska.  The median state introduced 296 bills....

Overall, state lawmakers were more likely to introduce bills that made the criminal justice system harsher than bills that made the law more lenient.  More 40% of the bills introduced either increased the scope of criminal law or increased the sentencing range.  In contrast, only 11% of bills narrowed the scope of criminal law or decreased punishment.  Many criminal justice bills dealt with procedural issues. 35% of bills proposed changes in procedural limits or altered the rights, responsibilities, or liabilities of criminal justice actors.  And less than 5% of bills dealt with funding issues.....

Some prosecutor lobbying comes from specific prosecutor offices. An individual elected prosecutor or an employee in her office may choose to testify in favor or against a bill. The same is true for state attorneys general — some state AGs were active lobbyists.

But in many states the prosecutor lobbying was more coordinated. Most states have one or more organizations — often called associations or councils — that exist in part to lobby the state legislature.  Some of these organizations are private non-profit corporations; others were created by statute.  The organizations also serve other, non-lobbying purposes, such as providing training materials to local prosecutor offices or appointing members to serve on statewide commissions.

The existence of these state organizations did not necessarily supplant the lobbying of individual prosecutors or the state AG.  And, from time to time, the various prosecutors or their organizations took inconsistent positions on bills.  When that occurred, we treated the bill as having both been supported and opposed by prosecutors.

June 3, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

OG progressive prosecutor Larry Krasner wins big in Philadelphia DA primary

This week's primary election for Philadelphia District Attorney was reasonably seen as a kind of referendum on the progressive prosecutor movement.  (See this AP piece, headlined "Prosecutor’s reelection pits reform against rising gun crime.")  Larry Krasner is seeking a second term after pushing a wide array of criminal justice reforms during his first three years in office; former assistant DA Carlos Vega had the backing of the city's police as he sought to dislodge Krasner during the Democratic primary. 

Some polling seemed to suggest this could be a close race, but tonight it appears that DA Krasner has secured the Democratic nomination by a wide margin (and thus all-but-certain re-election in a deep blue city).  As of this writing (around midnight), this election website reports, with over 80% of the divisions reports, Krasner has roughly 65% of the vote to Vega's 35%.

UPDATE: This piece from The Intercept, headlined "Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner Trounces Police-Backed Primary Challenger," provides lots of context, and I found these passages notable as DA Krasner considers his plans for the coming years:

Since his election in 2017, Krasner has become a symbol of the burgeoning movement to elect reform-minded prosecutors. “Krasner has been kind of a model,” said Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color of Change, a racial justice group that supported several such prosecutors’ bids and endorsed Krasner.  “I can’t tell you how many potential DA candidates I have talked to who lead with, ‘I’m going to be the Larry Krasner of fill-in-the-blank city.’”

But Krasner’s election and the reforms he enacted as soon as he took office also sparked a fierce backlash — making him a national target for law enforcement groups and prominent Republicans.  Former President Donald Trump, for example, claimed in 2019 that prosecutors in Philadelphia and Chicago “have decided not prosecute many criminals” who pose a threat to public safety.

Krasner’s reelection bid came as an increase in gun violence in many U.S. cities — including Philadelphia — and calls to reduce the scope of policing prompted a return to tough-on-crime rhetoric and rebuke of reformist efforts.  But other reform-oriented DAs in cities with considerable gun violence — like Chicago’s Kim Foxx and St. Louis’s Kim Gardner — recently won reelection bids despite sometimes vicious attacks on them.

According to a recent poll by Data for Progress, many of the reforms Krasner enacted remain popular with voters in Pennsylvania. Sixty-four percent of people surveyed expressed support for limitations to the use of cash bail, 60 percent were in favor of the decriminalization of drug possession, 75 percent favored sentence reductions for good behavior, and 68 percent supported terminating probation when supervision is no longer needed.  Just this week, a Philadelphia City Council committee advanced a measure outlining procedures for a new police oversight board that will go to a full council vote later this week — the result of years of organizing by local activists who have pushed to create a body with power and funding to hold police accountable for misconduct, with renewed energy after police met protests last summer with brute force.

“With all the noise that goes on, the attacks, what have you, we know that the agenda is still very popular,” said Roberts. “People want to see these prosecutors’ offices being focused on bringing down incarceration rates, and holding police accountable.  And they’re actually looking for other solutions for violence, they’re not willing to buy into the narrative that they hear from police unions and conservative politicians.”

May 19, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 30, 2021

Prez Biden gets timely reminder that criminal justice reform presents unique bipartisan opportunity

I complained in this post that Prez Biden did not have all that much to say about criminal justice issues in his lengthy speech to Congress this week. But I now see from a number of news reports that criminal justice reform got some brief, but especially notable, bipartisan attention after the speech.  This Washington Post piece, headlined "GOP lawmaker who voted to overturn Biden’s election win wants to help him on criminal justice reform," provides these details:

Moments after President Biden concluded his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, he was greeted by lawmakers aiming to get in some coveted face time with the president.  Among them was Rep. Troy E. Nehls (R-Tex.), who helped barricade the entrance of the House Chamber during the insurrection Jan. 6 but still voted to overturn the election that Biden won.

But in a brief exchange Wednesday night, Nehls, wearing a Texas-flag mask, introduced himself to Biden as “a sheriff from Texas” and offered his experience policing Fort Bend County to help with the president’s efforts on criminal justice reform.  “I want to help with the criminal justice reform. I want to be a part of it. It’s needed,” he said to the president. “I don’t know how to reach out to you, but I have the experience.”

In response, Biden assured him they’d be in touch, saying, “I’ll reach out to you.”... A White House official told The Washington Post on Thursday that Biden “appreciated Rep. Nehls’s offer and their conversation.”...

During last year’s GOP primary for an open seat in Congress, Nehls painted himself as a fierce Trump advocate.  Texas Monthly reported that he stated on his campaign website how he would “stand with President Trump to defeat the socialist Democrats, build the wall, drain the swamp, and deliver on pro-economy and pro-America policies.”  After he secured the nomination, Nehls pivoted to a more moderate approach for the general election, focusing on health care and criminal justice reform.  He also removed the “Standing with Trump” section from his website as Trump’s approval among Republicans was waning, according to the Houston Chronicle.  He went on to defeat his Democratic opponent, Sri Preston Kulkarni, by seven percentage points in November....

On Wednesday night, Nehls tweeted during the speech about the president’s handling of the southern border and slammed Democrats for reportedly handing out masks in the Chamber that were made in China. But in their exchange on criminal justice reform, Nehls took on a much different tone than the one he used on Twitter.

“I don’t want to hurt your reputation,” the president said to Nehls of his offer, according to video of the moment. Before Biden went to talk to another lawmaker, Nehls made his final plea: “I can do a whole lot of good in that conversation.”

This Texas Tribune article, headlined "Freshman GOP Texas congressman made a personal pitch to Joe Biden: Let me help with criminal justice reform," provides some more details concerning the type of reforms that Rep Nehls seems eager to champion:

Biden administration staff reached out to Nehls' office on Thursday morning, according to Nehls spokesman Daniel Gribble.  Gribble added that Nehls is "optimistic about common sense reforms they can accomplish" and the congressman's focus is "recidivism reduction through inmate training programs."

"As Sheriff, Rep Nehls implemented HVAC and welding programs for non-violent inmates at the county jail," Gribble said.  "He had wild success reducing the 2 year re-arrest rate with participating inmates.  He’d like to see similar programs available in County jails across the country and is working on legislation that will make that possible."

April 30, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (11)

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Can capital punishment be another part of a bipartisan criminal justice reform story?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new Marshall Project piece fully titled "Can The Death Penalty Be Fixed? These Republicans Think So: A growing number of conservative lawmakers want to overhaul capital punishment, or end it."  Here are excerpts:

As Oklahoma officials seek to resume putting prisoners to death later this year, [state Rep. Kevin] McDugle has pursued bills in the state legislature to help those on death row prove their innocence ... in a deep-red state at a time when Republicans across the country are increasingly split on the future of capital punishment.  Support for the death penalty used to be popular in both parties, but over the last three decades, Democrats have turned away from the punishment, leaving Republican legislators, governors, prosecutors and judges to fight for its continued use.  At the same time, a small conservative movement — including groups like Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty — has been openly questioning capital punishment. It’s now clear their efforts are paying off.

Earlier this year, Virginia became the first Southern state to repeal the death penalty after three Republicans voted with the state legislature’s Democratic majority.  A Marshall Project review found that in roughly half the states with an active death penalty system, Republican lawmakers have recently sponsored or written bills to ban or constrain the punishment, or to help potentially innocent prisoners avoid it.

Although many of these bills are unlikely to pass, their sheer volume suggests a significant shift in conservative views.  Some of these Republican legislators see their bills as incremental steps toward ending the punishment. But others, like McDugle, don’t want to end the death penalty — they just want to fix it. “I want to make darn sure that if we as Oklahoma are putting someone to death, they deserve to be there,” McDugle said. “I know there is human error all the way through.”

Conservatives have been slowly turning away from the death penalty for years, as high-profile innocence cases have helped frame capital punishment as a problem of out-of-control big government.  In 2000, after a series of exonerations of people who had been sentenced to death, the Republican governor of Illinois, George Ryan, declared a moratorium on executions.  At the time, Texas Gov. George W. Bush was running for president, and the national press questioned whether an innocent person had faced execution under his watch; soon after, his fellow Republicans in the state legislature voted to make DNA testing more available for prisoners.  From 2014 to 2019, Republican support for the death penalty, as opposed to life sentences, dropped from 68% to 58%, according to Gallup Polls. Republican legislators in Nebraska voted to repeal the punishment in 2015, although the state’s residents then voted to bring the punishment back.

Some lawmakers have been motivated by anti-abortion arguments about the sanctity of human life and stories of Christian redemption on death row.  Others talk about the cost to taxpayers. South Dakota state Sen. Arthur Rusch previously served as a judge in a capital case.  “My case cost at least $1 million if not more,” he said, noting that the court paid for counseling for some jurors who suffered from post-traumatic stress after the lengthy trial. He was elected to the senate in 2015, and has filed numerous bills to abolish or restrict the punishment; none have succeeded, he said, but each time he brings along a few more peers.

“Changing your mind on an emotional subject like this can be difficult,” said Hannah Cox, who writes columns for Newsmax, a conservative web outlet, and serves as national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. She’s found that efforts to fix the system can serve as “baby steps,” as she tries to show her fellow conservatives that the system can’t be saved. “If you fix one of 13 problems with the death penalty, there are still another 12.”...

Many conservatives focus on the moral calculation of who deserves the ultimate punishment.  Ohio recently passed a bill, sponsored by a Republican legislator, to ban the execution of anyone with a serious mental illness. Republicans are pushing similar bills in Florida, Kentucky and Missouri.  In Texas, state Rep. Jeff Leach has filed a bill that would ban the death penalty for people who were technically “accomplices” to murders but played a minor role, including getaway drivers.  Much like the Oklahomans, he was motivated by a single case — that of Jeff Wood, who was sentenced to die after his friend killed a store clerk while Wood waited outside in the car, after what they thought would be an easy robbery.

April 15, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Spotlighting progressive prosecutor challenges and politics circa spring 2021

Politico has this extended and timely new article headlined "Left-wing prosecutors hit fierce resistance: An uptick in murders across the country is testing their resolve — and their electability."  Here are excerpts:

Larry Krasner’s election in 2017 was a triumph for progressives nationwide: The man who had sued cops 75 times, represented Black Lives Matter, promised to end cash bail — and was widely seen as the most liberal district attorney candidate in the country — won.

Four years later, Philadelphia’s top prosecutor — and one of the leading figures of the country’s criminal justice reform movement — is under siege.  Homicides are skyrocketing in the city, and local officials are grumbling. A former assistant district attorney backed by the local police union is challenging Krasner in the May primary.  And in recent weeks, the Philadelphia Democratic Party broke with years of tradition and declined to endorse the incumbent.

The primary battle is a test of whether the left can maintain its successful campaign electing progressive district attorneys amid an uptick in murders in cities around the country. If Krasner wins, it could signal the arrival of a new era, one in which the public doesn’t recoil from liberal criminal justice policy — even when crime statistics go up.  If he fails, it would be a jolt for politically beleaguered police unions, and a sudden halt to what has been a steady shift leftward in urban DA races.

“His reelection means everything,” said Shaun King, a civil rights advocate and former surrogate for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.  “We always knew that Larry, a lifelong civil rights attorney, would come in and change the system from the inside out, and that doing so would make him a major target.”

Krasner isn’t the only big-city progressive prosecutor meeting fierce resistance.  In California, both San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón are facing recall efforts.  Opponents of the left-wing DAs have accused them of letting criminals loose on the streets and turning a blind eye to victims — all criticisms lobbed at Krasner, too.

Krasner has framed his reelection campaign as a choice between the future and the past, “a past that echoes with names like [Frank] Rizzo,” Philly’s former tough-on-crime, racially polarizing mayor, as he put it at a recent candidates forum.  He says that he delivered on his campaign promises by lowering the jail population, exonerating the innocent and reducing the amount of time people are on probation and parole.

He has taken a tack against his Democratic challenger — ex-homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega, who was among the group of employees he fired when he became DA — that once might have been unthinkable.  Krasner is using the local police union as a foil, and reminding voters that Vega is endorsed by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, whose national union endorsed former President Donald Trump.

As for the spike in homicides — they are up 29 percent compared with this time in 2020, which was the most violent year in three decades — Krasner blames larger societal forces.  “What has happened, and essentially every criminologist agrees on this, is that the pandemic, closing of society and closing of so many different aspects of what protects and surrounds especially young men have disappeared,” Krasner said in an interview.  “So in every single city, you have the elimination of high schoolers being in classrooms at least for periods of time, summer camp, summer job programs, open swimming pools, open recreation centers, organized sports in school, organized sports out of school and after-school programs."...

Murders rose last year in cities around the country, both big and small, suggesting that local explanations alone cannot explain the phenomenon.  Asked whether it’s fair to blame Krasner amid a national trend, Vega said that “the issue is what is happening to our community, our city — he cannot and I cannot address all the ills happening across the nation.”

But Krasner’s approach of declining to accept any blame whatsoever has rubbed some voters and party officials the wrong way.  The politically influential Democratic ward leaders who declined to endorse Krasner were frustrated that “there’s an epidemic of gun violence here, everybody’s been touched by this, and Krasner takes no responsibility,” said a person familiar with their meeting with the district attorney....

Krasner has expressed confidence in his prospects in the May 18 primary, pointing to the reelection of other liberal prosecutors around the country such as Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx and Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby.  He doesn’t fear a 1990s revival of the tough-on-crime ethos due to the recent gun violence.  “I do not believe that people who have had the wisdom to elect progressive prosecutors all over the country, and increasingly, all of a sudden are going to get the stupids,” said Krasner, “and decide that a phenomenon that is affecting essentially every major city — and is affecting traditional prosecutors’ cities and Republican cities just as much as progressive prosecutors’ cities and Democratic cities — I do not believe all of a sudden they're going to get that stupid and go for this kind of dumb scapegoating.”

April 8, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Notable back-and-forth on how "conservatives" ought to respond to this moment in crime and punishment

I have put "conservatives" in quotes in this title of this post because I have never really found traditional political labels that helpful in explaining people and positions, and I sometimes find such labels can prove particularly problematic in the criminal justice arena.  In fact, it is because of these realities that I found interesting a pair of new pieces from right-leaning sources.  First, writing at City Journal, Josh Hammer has this piece titled "Recover the Moral Imperative of Law and Order: Conservatives should lead the way in moving the pendulum back toward the rule of law."  Here are excerpts:

[T]he time is ripe for a more aggressive, sustained campaign against the de-carceral, de-civilizational agenda pushed by many libertarians and progressives alike. Citizens of all political stripes, especially conservatives, must recover and publicly advocate anew the time-tested and common-sense notion that a free and just society is impossible without a robust commitment to a strictly enforced rule of law....

[A] pro-rule-of-law national campaign is now necessary.  Activists can start at the local level, getting involved in district attorney races to oppose anti-enforcement, de-carceral candidates.  Voters should punish statewide attorneys general and federal legislators alike for throwing law enforcement under the bus and focusing their ire on the “qualified immunity” legal doctrine over substantive commitments to support law enforcement.  Citizens should make themselves heard at city council meetings in support of more police officers on the beat, a proven and effective crime deterrent.  Conservative commentators must grow comfortable calling out the excesses of light-on-crime libertarianism that come from their own side of the aisle.  Republican politicians, cognizant of both the disturbing on-the-ground crime reality and the political truth that the small-government rhetorical emphasis of the Tea Party era is over, must recalibrate and shift back toward a traditional pro-law-and-order political platform.  Such a platform would be both proper and popular.

We have reached the point where the pendulum has swung too far back toward decarceration, under-prosecution, and light-on-crime policies. The moral primacy of order and public safety must take precedence over fashionable peddling of pro-criminal “bail reform” and “criminal-justice reform” initiatives. We have been here before; we know what we have to do. Now it’s time to execute the game plan.

But over at the Cato Institute blog, Clark Neily and Shon Hopwood have this response titled "To a Man With a Hammer, Every Criminal Justice Problem Looks Like a Nail." Here is the closing part of their take which questions whether Hammer is really advocating for "conservative" reforms:

[P]uzzling — particularly from a self‐​styled “common‐​good” originalist — is Hammer’s embrace of qualified immunity, a judicially confected legal doctrine specifically designed to ensure that police and other “state actors” who have been plausibly alleged to have violated people’s rights don’t have to answer for it in court.  More thoughtful conservatives, including Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, Judge Don Willett, and University of Chicago Law Professor Will Baude, have challenged the legitimacy of qualified immunity on originalist grounds, while scholars of all stripes have shown what an unmitigated disaster it has been for justice, accountability, and the “moral primacy of order and public safety” that Hammer himself extols in his piece.

Another surprise coming from a conservative is Hammer’s apparent disdain for democracy, at least when it involves electoral majorities choosing reform‐​minded district attorneys who entertain the heresy that it might actually be possible — as such notoriously crime‐​friendly states as Texas, Georgia and Mississippi discovered — to reduce crime rates while locking up fewer people.

The leave‐​no‐​prison‐​unfilled approach Hammer touts goes well beyond what even Jeff Sessions and William Barr implemented during their respective tenures as Attorney General. There are over 5,000 federal crimes, yet neither Sessions nor Barr tried to charge everyone who violated those statutes.  They couldn’t.  The federal criminal justice system would be overwhelmed if they did, which is why they used prosecutorial discretion the same way so‐​called “progressive” prosecutors have — to prioritize and target the worst behaviors.

Americans should be wary of enthusiastic dilettantes who think a one‐​year spike in crime rates during a global pandemic represents a civic emergency for which the only prescription is to abandon decades of progress on criminal justice reform and simply put even more people behind bars.  We tried that approach, and we learned that it doesn’t work — those of us who did our homework, anyway.

March 28, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Flagging federal criminal justice reform as great bipartisan legislative opportunity

Van Jones and Louis Reed have this great new CNN piece under the headlie "The one issue that could bring Democrats and Republicans together."  Here are excerpts:

Political commentators continue to wonder whether President Joe Biden can deliver on his promise of national unity and healing.  While his prospects for doing so seem increasingly limited, there is one area that offers some hope: criminal justice reform....

Biden has a unique opportunity to build on his predecessors' progress. To start, he can:

1. Increase funding for the First Step Act. Biden can build on the existing bipartisan consensus by allocating more money to the kinds of educational and job training programs prescribed in the First Step Act. One of the core features of this legislation is "earned time credits," which lets people shorten the length of their sentences by completing various programs.

Demand is high. There is a waiting list of more than 11,000 people even for basic literacy programs. Access to these kinds of programs has been diminished even further during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it's worth the investment because increasing educational and job training, treatment, and compassionate release programs can significantly reduce the federal prison population and recidivism rates.

2. Fix federal supervision systems.  When people are released from federal custody, many enter an incredibly harsh supervised release system.  Due to laws requiring mandatory supervision sentences and mandatory prison time for noncriminal "violations," many people get saddled with years or even decades of invasive monitoring and additional time behind bars for things like missing a meeting.

Biden could push for smart bipartisan reforms like capping the amount of time people spend under supervision, preventing people from returning to prison for noncriminal violations and allowing people to get off supervision early based on good behavior and participation in educational programs.  Reforms like these are already winning favor in red states (like Louisiana), purple states (like Michigan) and blue states (like California).

3. Back existing bipartisan legislative efforts. There are some measures that already have support from both sides of the aisle. None are perfect; the legislative process would likely strengthen many of them.  But if Biden is looking for common ground issues, these measures offer him a great starting point:

  • Safer Detention Act....
  • Smarter Pretrial Detention for Drug Charges Act....
  • The Driving for Opportunity Act....
  • Reintroduce the Smarter Sentencing Act....
  • Reintroduce the Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act.

March 9, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 01, 2021

"Why American Exceptionalism Abroad Requires Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by Marc Levin published in The National Interest.  Here are excerpts:

Beyond eroding U.S. credibility as a beacon of human rights, diminishing confidence in America’s justice system, stemming in part from persistent racial disparities, threatens the unity that undergirds our fiscal strength as well.  Racial tensions drain U.S. economic vitality, and, considering that 43 percent of military members are racial or ethnic minorities, the dangers of white supremacy and the efforts to delegitimize our democracy and justice system are far from merely theoretical.

On the surface, national security and criminal justice policy may seem to be otherwise unrelated, but in fact, some of the major foreign policy lessons Americans have learned apply in great measure to justice reform.  Both require that policymakers are clear-eyed about the limits of government intervention, recognize the value of peace through strength and leverage the vitality and web of relationships that only a robust private sector and civil society can sustain....

Just as society must recognize the limits of military power to change civilizations that are centuries old, we must also confront limits to the efficacy of government-imposed punishment to change individuals.  The late criminologist Mark Kleiman captured this truth in his book When Brute Force Fails.  While penitentiaries in the United States originally stemmed from a Puritan inclination to “fix people,” prisons are often the worst environments to deliver treatment programs.  Reasons for this include separation from supportive family and employment, negative peer influences, depressing and even unhealthy conditions and frequent lockdowns that disrupt programming. Additionally, research shows that longer prison terms do not reduce recidivism.

Our overconfidence in punishment rests in part upon an incorrect presumption that criminal activity is entirely rational, even though research tells us that crime is often impulsive. Indeed, the average street-corner drug dealer makes less than minimum wage and takes significantly more risk than legal employment. But many young people don’t perform the cost-benefit calculations and find a sense of belonging in gangs that they may not have found in their families or schools. The efficacy of consequences in deterring crime is also undermined by the high percentage of defendants who suffer from mental illness and traumatic brain injuries, which impair judgment. In fact, suicide rates are nearly five times higher in U.S. jails than in the general population....

As with national security policy, those who are rational actors can potentially be deterred by the prospect of force, whether through police presence or punishment. Research suggests, however, that increasing the perceived chance of being caught is a much more effective crime-control tool than increasing the severity of the penalty. Moreover, the incapacitation effect of incarceration must be measured against the degree to which the conditions behind bars, isolation from society and challenges of reentry can increase the proclivity to offend.

Still, there is substantial evidence that a strategic police presence on city streets in certain hotspots can deter some types of crime, such as auto thefts, without simply displacing it to other areas. There is also the “carrot and stick” approach to community supervision where research has shown it is the swiftness and sureness of the sanction, not its duration, that affects behavior, along with positive incentives. Additionally, long probation terms do not lead to more public safety, but instead cause larger caseloads, meaning that those in their first year or two on supervision who can benefit from significant attention are less likely to get it....

The “defund the police” slogan was intended by all but the most radical advocates to communicate that other types of interventions, such as using clinicians to respond to some mental health calls, could contribute as much or more to safety as a police-led response.  Another innovation, READI Chicago, is a non-profit program that promotes peace in the most dangerous parts of Chicago by targeting men who are most likely to commit or be victims of violence.  It provides them with subsidized transitional jobs along with cognitive behavioral therapy and services such as case management, skill-building and peer mentoring by credible messengers.  Additionally, when it comes to incarcerated people who are reentering society, non-profit initiatives like the Prison Entrepreneurship Program that similarly tap into the power of relationships can reduce recidivism through efforts that go beyond reliance solely upon government-operated programming.

Coming to terms with the limits of brute force, the value of peace through strength and the central role of the private sector and civil society can prove challenging, in different ways, for both the Right and Left.  In general, neoconservatives have supported regime change abroad and more incarceration at home.  Meanwhile, some on the left were reluctant to acknowledge the deterrent effect of our Cold War military power and, in the criminal justice context, often place too much faith in government programs to rehabilitate people, without enough emphasis on the role of relationships fostered by families, religious congregations and non-profit organizations.  Just as America will always need military and police forces, strengthening the other parts of the country’s arsenal for promoting peace and justice at home and abroad can reduce its need to use them.

In both national security and criminal justice policy, the nation is well-served when Americans check their ideological predispositions long enough to consider what history and research teaches them about these concepts as they build both a better justice system and a stronger nation.

March 1, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Noticing some notable criminal justice panels at CPAC 2021

As highlighted by this NPR preview, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) kicks off tonight and concludes Sunday with former Prez Trump giving his first big speech since leaving office. Though there are lots and lots of storylines surrounding this year's CPAC, and I was intrigued to see a few criminal justice reform programs appearing on the CPAC 2021 agenda

Notably, one theme for various CPAC panels is the Bill of Rights, with Senator Mike Lee slated to give a speech tomorrow morning titled "Why the Left Hates the Bill of Rights... and We Love It."  But it is not exactly clear that the CPAC folks really loves ALL of the Bill of Rights: the CPAC agenda has a whole lot more folks slated to speak about those parts of the Bill of Rights that primarily deal with civil rights rather than criminal defendant rights.  For example, the Fifth Amendment panel on the first day has four participants focused on "Freedom from Confiscation of Private Property" and nobody speaking about the array of criminal procedure protections also in the Fifth Amendment.  Still, it is encouraging to see that there will be these panels on the even Amendments dealing with criminal issues:

Amendment IV: Unreasonable Search and Seizures

Louis Reed, Dream Corps Justice
Pastor Darrell Scott, CEO of National Diversity Coalition for Trump
Moderated by David Safavian, American Conservative Union

Amendment VI: Rights of the Accused

KT McFarland, American Conservative Union Foundation Board Member

Amendment VIII: Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Does Tough on Crime Messaging Work on Election Day?

Doug Deason, Deason Capital Services LLC
Rep. Byron Donalds (FL-19)
Jim McLaughlin, Pollster for President Trump
Fmr. Rep. Mark Walker (NC-06)
Moderated by Brett Tolman, American Conservative Union Foundation

I find it a bit discouraging to see only two panelists scheduled to discuss the Fourth Amendment and a single person due to talk about the Sixth Amendment (while panels on the "hot button" Third and Seventh Amendments are together bigger).  I find it even more discouraging that the panel on the Eighth Amendment, an amendment intended to preclude certain extreme forms of punishment no matter their political support, is going to be all about about whether extreme forms of punishment are still politically popular.

Still, I am glad these topics will be covered, and this one additional CPAC 2021 panel is especially interesting:

Conservative Prosecutors: Conservative Reforms

David O. Leavitt, Prosecutor for Utah County
Brett Tolman, American Conservative Union Foundation
Kent Volkmer, Pinal County Attorney
Tori Verber Salazar, DA for San Joaquin County, CA
Moderated by Chelsea Murphy, Right on Crime

As regular readers know, the so-called "progressive prosecutor" movement truly is a hot topic in criminal-justice reform and academic circles.  I am quite intrigued to see a panel at CPAC embrace the label "Conservative Prosecutors," and I am very interested to hear what conservative prosecutors would consider "conservative reforms."

February 25, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 08, 2021

"Who Punishes More? Partisanship, Punitive Policies, and the Puzzle of Democratic Governors"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new research published in Political Research Quarterly authored by Anna Gunderson. Here is its abstract:

The growth of the carceral state over the last few decades has been remarkable, with millions of Americans in prison, jail, on parole or probation.  Political science explanations of this phenomenon identify partisanship as a key explanatory variable in the adoption of punitive policies; by this theory, Republicans are the driving force behind growing incarceration.  This article argues this explanation is incomplete and instead emphasizes the bipartisan coalition that constructed the carceral state.  I argue Democratic governors are incentivized to pursue more punitive policies to compete with Republicans when those Democrats are electorally vulnerable.  I test this proposition using a series of regression discontinuity designs and find causal evidence for Democrats’ complicity in the expansion of the carceral state. Democratic governors who barely win their elections outspend and outincarcerate their Republican counterparts. This article highlights Democrats’ role as key architects in the creation of vast criminal justice institutions in the states when those Democrats are electorally vulnerable.

February 8, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 01, 2021

Highlighting bipartisan accomplishments and opportunities in the arena of criminal justice reform

Marc Levin has this notable new Hill commentary headlined "Build a bridge, not a wall, between administrations on justice reform," which emphasizes ground for bipartisan criminal justice reform work past and present.  I recommend the full piece and here are excerpts:

Few would dispute that the First Step Act was the crown jewel of bipartisan achievements over the last four years.  It contributed to the shrinking of the federal prison population through provisions such as lowering mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses and making retroactive a reduction in the crack and powder sentencing law disparity.  Additionally, the CARES Act earlier this year expanded medical parole eligibility in the face of the wrenching impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated people and staff.

Other bipartisan accomplishments flew under the radar.  In 2018, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was reauthorized with provisions added to phase out the shackling of pregnant girls, require the separation of jailed youth from incarcerated adults, and ensure that racial disparities are tracked and addressed. In 2019, legislation was passed to stop abusive IRS prosecutions for “structuring,” which put some law-abiding small business owners through a dragnet simply because they made bank deposits of $10,000 or more.

Just two days before leaving office, Trump took action on another justice-related topic, overcriminalization.  In an effort to rein in the proliferation of obscure criminal penalties that can unwittingly trip up individuals and businesses, Trump issued an executive order mandating that when federal agencies create criminal offenses through regulations, they specify the culpable mental state required for conviction.

While the Biden administration should seek continuity in these areas, there is no shortage of work to do on other aspects of criminal justice reform.  In June 2020, the Council on Criminal Justice convened a bipartisan Task Force on Federal Priorities, chaired by former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, that issued numerous recommendations, including the reinstatement of Pell grants for people in prison that was adopted in December.  Among the most important items deserving action by the White House and Congress are Task Force recommendations to abolish federal drug mandatory minimums, expand record sealing, and allow courts to take a second look at certain sentences after individuals have spent many years behind bars.

Fortunately, many of these priorities are already teed up for bipartisan action in Congress.  For example, acquitted conduct legislation backed by lawmakers ranging from Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) to Sen. Mike Lee (R- Utah) would prohibit prosecutors from contaminating the sentencing phase of a trial with references to conduct that the jury determined the defendant was not guilty of.

Another priority is marijuana reform, which — at a minimum — should include waiving federal laws that interfere with state legalization of medicinal or recreational marijuana. All but six states have now legalized marijuana in some form, and yet federal law inexplicably continues to classify it as a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin, LSD, and crack cocaine.  This continued federal war on cannabis drives underground what should be legitimate activity going through reputable financial institutions.  The new administration and Congress must not only start a new chapter on marijuana policy, but also remedy the injustices and inequities of the past by authorizing actions such as automatic record clearing of marijuana convictions....

Criminal justice policy is too important to leave to any one political party.

February 1, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

"Reimagining the Death Penalty: Targeting Christians, Conservatives"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper by SpearIt that is available via SSRN. Though posted a few months ago, I just came across the paper and it certainly remains timely.  Here is its abstract:

This Article is an interdisciplinary response to an entrenched legal and cultural problem.  It incorporates legal analysis, religious study and the anthropological notion of “culture work” to consider death penalty abolitionism and prospects for abolishing the death penalty in the United States.  The Article argues that abolitionists must reimagine their audiences and repackage their message for broader social consumption, particularly for Christian and conservative audiences. Even though abolitionists are characterized by some as “bleeding heart” liberals, this is not an accurate portrayal of how the death penalty maps across the political spectrum.  Abolitionists must learn that conservatives are potential allies in the struggle, who share overlapping ideologies and goals.  The same holds true for Christians — there is much in the teachings of Jesus to suggest that he aligned more with forgiveness than capital retribution.  As such, abolitionists would do well to focus on these demographics more earnestly than in the past.  The notion of “culture work” underscores these groups as natural allies in the quest to end the death penalty.

January 19, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

"Legitimacy Matters: The Case for Public Financing in Prosecutor Elections"

The title of this post is the title of this new article in the latest issue of the Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice authored by Rory Fleming.  Here is a part of its introduction:

Part I of this Article will present the results of two interlinked studies on candidate campaign finance in every election with a progressive prosecutor candidate from 2015 through 2019.  The first study examines campaign funding disparities between incumbent prosecutors and progressive challengers, while the second examines the differentials using the Cost Per Vote (CPV) metric.  Part II will discuss the major findings of the two studies, such as how progressive challengers in Democratic primaries seem to only win when a sufficient amount of Soros PAC money is granted, and how higher CPV values translate to greater tensions between local prosecutor offices and their communities.  Part III traces how the Soros-reliant funding model for progressive prosecutors has created an unprecedented crisis of prosecutorial legitimacy in many major urban counties.  Part IV presents public funding for prosecutor selections as one solution that can balance the desirability of competitiveness in prosecutor elections with the need to curb the backlash against prosecutors working to end mass incarceration.  V concludes.

January 12, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 11, 2021

Interesting accounting of the "Top 5 Criminal Justice Reforms Advocates Want Under Biden"

Law360 has this notable new piece under the headline "Top 5 Criminal Justice Reforms Advocates Want Under Biden." Here is the preamble to the annotated Top 5 list, as well as the list itself:

Joe Biden's election as president has sparked hope among criminal justice advocates and organizations that his administration will overhaul the U.S. criminal justice system and implement reforms they have been seeking for years.

Biden's campaign website promises that the Democratic president-elect will "strengthen America's commitment to justice and reform our criminal justice system," and includes dozens of proposed changes to be made under his administration. But whether he will achieve all of these promises is unclear.

Advocates told Law360 that Biden's biggest challenge will be fighting political opposition and uniting Congress. However, they believe having a president who prioritizes criminal justice reform could sway lawmakers to pass legislation that has been collecting dust on their desks.

"Even though there's bipartisan consensus around the need for criminal justice reform, what that means in practice, what the fine print is, is where all the challenge is, and there isn't necessarily consensus right now," said Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives for The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research organization seeking to reduce incarceration rates.

Here are the top five criminal justice reforms that advocates told Law360 they want under Biden's administration and what the president-elect has promised he will do:

1.  Address COVID-19 in Prisons and Jails...

2.  End Mandatory Minimum and Life Sentences...

3.  Expand Decriminalization of Drug Use...

4.  More Policing Accountability and Alternatives...

5.  Expand Incarceration Alternatives and Community Programs...

Especially because there are three federal executions scheduled for this week, I am a bit surprised that this list did not include abolishing the federal death penalty.  I also know many advocates are eager to see clemency reform as part of the Biden agenda (though the commentary includes suggestions that aggressive use of clemency by Prez-elect Biden could help achieve these other goals).

Because there is so much criminal justice reform work to do, it will be quite interesting to see what CJ issues are given priority in the weeks and months ahead.  Of course, what gets prioritized and what actually gets done will not just be shaped by Biden's appointments to the Justice Department, but also by what folks on Capitol Hill might have in mind.  Especially with certain GOP legislators now talking about the importance of "unity," perhaps federal legislators can unify around getting some significant criminal justice reform enacted in the first 100 days of the Biden Adminstration.

Some prior related posts:

January 11, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 18, 2020

"How States Transformed Criminal Justice in 2020, and How They Fell Short"

The title of this post is the title of this big retrospective put together masterfully by Daniel Nichanian at The Appeal: Political Report.  I highly recommend review of the whole piece, so that you can fully understand its subhealine: "This year of crises, revisited. Nearly 90 state-level bills and initiatives. 17 themes. 7 maps." And here is the lengthy piece's preamble to the issue-by-issue review of reforms:

Throughout 2020’s unprecedented challenges, criminal justice reform advocates called for sweeping changes.  But state officials and legislatures largely ducked the COVID-19 pandemic that is raging inside prisons and jails, and the protests against police brutality and racial justice that followed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s murders.  With some exceptions, they forgoed the sort of reforms that would have significantly emptied prisons amid the public health crisis or confronted police brutality and racial injustice in law enforcement.

Still, on other issues there was headway, and states — whose laws and policies control a lot about incarceration and criminal legal systems—set new milestones: They decriminalized drug possession, expanded and automated expungement availability, repealed life without parole for minors and the death penalty, and ended prison gerrymandering, among other measures.

Throughout the year, The Appeal: Political Report tracked bills, initiatives, and reforms relevant to mass incarceration.  Just as in 2019, here’s a review of major changes states adopted in 2020.

Jump to the sections on: the death penaltydrug policyearly release and paroleyouth justicepolicingfines and feespretrial detentiontrials and sentencingvoting rightsexpungement and re-entryprison gerrymandering — and then there’s more.

December 18, 2020 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Lots of recommendations for criminal justice reform for the incoming Biden Administration

The PBS News Hour has this recent piece headlined "What a Biden administration could mean for criminal justice reform," and it does a nice job providing a broad overview of the wide array of issues of concern to criminal justice reform advocates.  Here is the first paragraph of the extended piece:

President-elect Joe Biden will face pressure when he takes office to make swift changes to the Department of Justice.  But while he’ll be able to implement some reforms on his own, expected pushback from Congress and legal fights could make it hard for Biden to deliver many of the sweeping criminal justice reforms that advocates say are necessary.

I recommend the PBS piece for a quick and summary account of "the sweeping criminal justice reforms that advocates say are necessary."  But anyone interested in a fuller accounting of criminal justice issues of interest and concern on the eve of a new administration, be sure to check out these three big recent reports from prominent reform organizations setting forth ideas and recommendations for the incoming Biden Administration:

There reports collectively run well over a hundred pages, which serves to highlight just how robust and agenda some groups have for criminal justice reform as we anticipate a new administration and Congress.  I would welcome reader input and feedback (in the comments or via email) about whether any particular pieces of advice and specifics recommendations in these reports seem especially astute (or especially misguided).

December 17, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Interesting advocacy for Senator Durbin to take over top Dem spot on Senate Judiciary Committee

In my upper-level sentencing class, I spend a lot of time highlighting for students how many different system players have an impact on sentencing law, policy and practice.  Too often, a cursory discussion of sentencing looks only at trial judges and judicial decision-making.  But at the case-specific level, decisions by victims and police and prosecutors and defense attorneys can often have a profound and even controlling impact on sentencing outcomes.  System-wide, players inside and around all levels of legislative, executive and judicial branches can directly and subtly impact sentencing law and policy.  These realities are on my mind upon seeing this recent Hill piece headlined "Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot."  Here are the details:

A coalition of criminal justice groups is signaling support for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in his bid to take over the top Democratic spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Justice Roundtable, a coalition of more than 100 groups, sent a letter to Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), obtained exclusively by The Hill, signaling support for Durbin, citing his previous work on criminal justice reform.

"At this inflection point in the nation’s history, particularly as we confront a devastating pandemic and systemic racial inequality, we are comforted to know Senator Durbin’s long-standing commitment to human rights, fairness and justice will guide him at this critical time.  He is a trusted and experienced leader, and we welcome his ascension in the Judiciary Committee," Justice Roundtable leadership wrote to Schumer.

Durbin, who was recently reelected to serve as the Senate Democratic whip in the next Congress, has worked for years on criminal justice legislation.  Most recently he teamed up with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who was then the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and the First Step Act.  The First Step Act, which incorporated provisions of the first bill, was passed in 2018 after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to give it a vote amid pressure from the White House and a bipartisan group of senators.

"If not for Dick Durbin sentencing reform would not be a part of the First STEP Act. He was very much an ally of the criminal justice groups and the liberal groups," Inimai Chettiar, the federal legislative and policy director for the Justice Action Network, told The Hill, crediting Durbin with "holding people's feet to the fire."

Durbin and Grassley, who will chair the Judiciary Committee if Republicans keep the majority, have also teamed up this year on legislation reforming compassionate release for federal prisoners amid the coronavirus.

Durbin, who is serving in the No. 2 spot as party whip, announced that he would seek the party's top position on the panel after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would step down from the spot. Some progressives, however, have signaled support for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has also been active on criminal justice and prison reform and has been a leading voice in the caucus on issues like campaign finance reform and the judiciary....

"Anyone who cares about criminal justice reform and its impact on racial justice should want [Durbin] to be the top Democrat on Senate Judiciary," Kevin Ring, the head of the FAAM Foundation, tweeted amid the progressive pushback against Durbin. He added on Monday that "this is madness. You don’t pass over Michael Jordan to shake things up. Dems should pick Durbin if they want to pass bolder criminal justice reform."...

The offers of support for Durbin comes as criminal justice groups are gearing up to try to get additional legislation passed under the incoming Biden administration. Biden, during the White House race, vowed to end the government's use of private prisons, end cash bail and work to end the use of the death penalty.

If Durbin or Whitehouse would be chair or ranking member of the Judiciary Committee remains unclear because which party will control the Senate will come down to the two Georgia runoff elections on January 5. "I think it is critically important who the leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee is going to be and I think Dick Durbin has a very proven record of being able to fight for criminal justice reforms," Chettiar said.

It is so interesting to see criminal justice reform advocates advocating to a Senate leader about who should ge given a leadership role in the chamber.  These advocates fully understand the importance of having a vocal proponent for criminal justice reform serving in a key Senate role (although how key that role is to be awaits the run-off results next month in Georgia).  As I explained in this post last month, I am cautiously optimistic that some form of sentencing reform will be an arena for important bipartisan discussion and work in the next Congress no matter who is in charge.  But who is in charge still matters a lot, so it will be interesting to see how the new Senate Judiciary Committee takes shape. 

December 2, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"Here's One Thing Republicans and Democrats Agree on: Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is one headline that I have seen for this new New York Times article (which echoes some themes I have stressed in a few posts here and here from election week). I recommend the article in full, and here are some excerpts:

In a video presenting his closing argument for maintaining Republican dominance of the Senate, the majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, chose three issues — tax cuts, judicial appointments and criminal justice reform.

Mr. McConnell had resisted bringing the First Step Act, which expanded release opportunities for federal prisoners, to the floor under former President Barack Obama and did so during the Trump administration only under extreme pressure.  Its passage firmly established the allure of reform and is now widely cited as President Trump’s most significant bipartisan achievement....

[C]riminal justice reform offers something for just about everyone: social justice crusaders who point to yawning racial disparities, fiscal conservatives who decry the extravagant cost of incarceration, libertarians who think the government has criminalized too many aspects of life and Christian groups who see virtue in mercy and redemption.

At the federal level, both parties have proposed police accountability bills.  Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has recently signaled that he is open to reinstating parole for federal prisoners, which was eliminated during the tough-on-crime 1980s.  President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has promised to reduce incarceration and supports abolishing mandatory minimum sentences and expanding mental health and drug treatment.

Relatively few voters ranked the criminal justice system at the top of their list of concerns, even after the killing of George Floyd in May thrust policing into the national spotlight.  But patient work by advocates, buy-in from conservative groups and the United States’s position as a global leader in incarceration have gradually spread the message that the system is broken, and made fixing it a cause with broad appeal. 

A wide array of criminal justice measures did well on the ballot, including increasing police oversight, legalizing drugs and restoring voting rights to those with felony records.

Fewer Americans than ever believe the system is “not tough enough,” according to a recent Gallup poll.  And in a sign of how much attitudes have changed since lawmakers boasted of locking people up and throwing away the key, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden sparred over who had let more people out of prison.

The fact that it is a niche issue may serve to increase its chances of breaking partisan gridlock....

The pandemic, in which prisons and jails have become some of the biggest viral hot spots, presents an opportunity for advocates, who hope that Covid-19 relief measures like expanded medical release and early parole will outlast the spread of the coronavirus.

Pandemic-related budget shortfalls represent another opportunity. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a progressive group, has called its legislative agenda for next year “Spend Your Values, Cut Your Losses,” arguing that measures like lowering drug penalties and making it harder to revoke probation and parole will save millions of dollars....

Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster, said that criminal justice reform proposals garner support across the board, and help Republicans reach outside their base to groups like suburban women and people of color.

I am pleased to see this article and like many of its themes.  But amidst generations of mass incarceration and criminalization, data showing a third of US adults has a criminal record, and nationwide 2020 protests focused on racial (in)justice, I am still struck and troubled by the blasé statement that criminal justice reform is just a "niche issue."  (Since I read nine of the first ten Amendments to the US Constitution as setting forth formal or informal safeguards against extreme uses of the police power, I suppose I should be grateful the Framers did not view as "niche" the operation of American criminal justice systems.)

This NY Times piece, coming right after a big transition election, leads me to recall this online article I penned for the Harvard Law & Policy Review almost exactly 12 years ago under the title "Reorienting Progressive Perspectives for Twenty-First Century Punishment Realities."  Among other points, I urged progressives to seek to forge bipartisan coalitions for reform in this way:

[P]rogressives can and should be aggressively reaching out to modern conservatives and libertarians in order to forge new coalitions to attack the many political and social forces that contribute to mass incarceration....  If truly committed to their espoused principles of human liberty and small government, modern conservatives and libertarians should be willing and eager to join a serious campaign committed to reversing the incarceration explosion.  Progressives, rather than categorically resisting calls for smaller government, should encourage modern conservatives and libertarians to turn their concerns and energies toward improving America’s criminal justice systems.  Areas where harsh criminal laws appear to be driven by government efforts to hyper-regulate often intangible harms, such as extreme mandatory sentencing statutes related to drug crimes and gun possession, seem especially likely settings for a convergence of views and new alliances for advocacy efforts.  Specific, issue-based advocacy may allow progressives to forge coalitions with unexpected allies in order to work against some of the most unjust modern sentencing laws and policies.

Though a lot of progress has been made in since I wrote these words back in 2008, there is still a whole lot more that needs to get done. I hope political leaders at the federal, state and local levels will continue to keep working together (on this "niche" issue) to continue to move forward aggressively and effectively.

November 25, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 23, 2020

Latest Gallup poll indicates "U.S. Support for Death Penalty Holds Above Majority Level"

Yf68dytyzk6h07t16w_kyqThe quoted portion of the title of this post is the headline of this Gallup report from a few days ago,  Here are excerpts from the report:

Americans' support for the death penalty continues to be lower than at any point in nearly five decades.  For a fourth consecutive year, fewer than six in 10 Americans (55%) are in favor of the death penalty for convicted murderers.  Death penalty support has not been lower since 1972, when 50% were in favor.

Gallup has asked Americans whether they are "in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder" since 1936, when 58% said they were. In all but one survey -- in 1966 -- more Americans have been in favor than opposed.  The 1960s and early 1970s brought many legal challenges to the death penalty, culminating in a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated state death penalty statutes.  After the high court upheld revised state death penalty laws in 1976, support for capital punishment grew, peaking at 80% in 1994, a time of heightened public concern about crime.

This year's results are based on a Sept. 30-Oct. 15 survey.  Gallup occasionally asks another question to gauge death penalty support, with respondents indicating whether they believe the better punishment for murder is the death penalty or life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.  In the most recent update, from 2019, Americans favored life imprisonment over the death penalty by 60% to 36%, a dramatic shift from prior years.

Many Americans are thus conflicted on the death penalty.  The two Gallup trend questions indicate that about one in five Americans express theoretical support for use of the death penalty but believe life imprisonment is a better way to punish convicted murderers....

Both Democrats and independents show declines in their support for the death penalty, including similar drops (eight and seven percentage points, respectively) since 2016.  Between the 2000-2010 and 2011-2016 time periods, Democratic support dropped more (eight points) than independent support did (three points).  Now, 39% of Democrats and 54% of independents are in favor of the death penalty.  Meanwhile, Republicans' support for the death penalty has held steady, with 79% currently supporting it, unchanged since 2016 and barely lower than the 80% registered between 2000 and 2010....

Changes in the U.S. population appear to be a factor in declining death penalty support in recent years. Groups that are constituting a greater share of the U.S. adult population over time -- including millennials and Generation Z, non-White adults and college graduates -- all show below-average support for the death penalty.

Over the past four years, an average of 45% of those in Generation Z (those born after 1996) have favored the death penalty, as have 51% of millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996).  That compares with 57% of those in Generation X, 59% of baby boomers and 62% of those born before 1946.

Forty-six percent of non-White Americans, versus 61% of Non-Hispanic White Americans, support the death penalty. Among college graduates, 46% favor the death penalty, compared with 60% of those without a college degree.

November 23, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Notable new Gallup poll numbers on perceptions of the US criminal justice system

Bnlwz2mfyu2twk35wjqfzwThis new Gallup release, headlined "Fewer Americans Call for Tougher Criminal Justice System," reports on new polling number concerning pubic views on the US criminal justice system.  Here are the details:

Americans' belief that the U.S. criminal justice system is "not tough enough" on crime is now half of what it was in Gallup's initial reading of 83% in 1992.  The latest measure, at 41%, is the lowest on record and down slightly from the previous reading in 2016 -- although it remains the view of the plurality.  At the same time, there has been a seven-percentage-point uptick among those who say the system is "too tough" (21%) and no change among those who think it is "about right" (35%).

Americans' perceptions of whether the criminal justice system in the U.S. is too tough, not tough enough or about right in its handling of crime since 1992.  The percentage saying it is not tough enough has fallen from 83% in 1992 to 41% now.  At the same time, the percentage saying it is about right has risen from 12% in 1992 to the current 35%, and those who think it is too tough has increased from 2% in 1992 to 21% now.

Across the five times Gallup has asked this question since 1992, when public perceptions of national and local crime rates were at or near their highest points, there has been a steady decrease in the percentage saying the system is not tough enough and increases in the percentages saying it is too tough or about right.  These changes coincide with declines in crime rates in the U.S.  The latest reading is from Gallup's annual Crime poll, conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 15, 2020.

Americans' faith in the U.S. criminal justice system remains low according to Gallup's 2020 Confidence in Institutions poll conducted earlier this year, and confidence in one element of that system -- the police -- fell to a record-low level in the same poll.  This decline in confidence in the police followed several high-profile deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks.

Views of the criminal justice system vary by party identification and racial background.  A 58% majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the criminal justice system is not tough enough.  However, this view is shared by less than half as many Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (25%), while 37% think the system is about right and 35% too tough.

More White Americans than non-White Americans say the justice system is not tough enough on crime (45% vs. 31%, respectively).  The plurality of non-White adults, 40%, think it is about right, while 26% believe it is too tough.

Americans across these four party and racial subgroups have become significantly less likely to say the criminal justice system is not tough enough, but it has declined the most among Democrats, falling from 62% in 2000 to 25% today.  Over the same period, Democrats' view that the system is too tough has grown from 6% to 35%.

Given two options for approaches to lowering the U.S. crime rate, more Americans prefer putting money and effort into addressing social and economic problems such as drug addiction, homelessness and mental health (63%) rather than putting money and effort into strengthening law enforcement (34%).

November 17, 2020 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)