Thursday, May 07, 2020

"Voting in Jails"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report by Nicole Porter at The Sentencing Project. Here is the report's overview:

Felony disenfranchisement laws bar millions of Americans from voting due to their felony conviction.  Among those excluded are persons in prison, those serving felony probation or parole, and, in 11 states, some or all persons who have completed their sentence.  While these disenfranchisement laws have been closely documented for years by advocacy organizations, academics, and lawmakers, the de facto disenfranchisement of people legally eligible to vote in jails has received less attention.

In local jails the vast majority of persons are eligible to vote because they are not currently serving a sentence for a felony conviction.  Generally, persons are incarcerated in jail pretrial, sentenced to misdemeanor offenses, or are sentenced and awaiting transfer to state prison.  Of the 745,0001 individuals incarcerated in jail as of 2017 nearly two-thirds (64.7%), or 482,000, were being held pretrial because they had not been able to post bail.  Of the 263,000 who were serving a sentence, the vast majority had been convicted of a misdemeanor offense that does not result in disenfranchisement.

Despite the fact that most persons detained in jail are eligible to vote, very few actually do.  Jail administrators often lack knowledge about voting laws, and bureaucratic obstacles to establishing a voting process within institutions contribute significantly to limited voter participation. Indeed, acquiring voter registration forms or an absentee ballot while incarcerated is challenging when someone cannot use the internet or easily contact the Board of Elections in their community.  In addition, many persons in jail do not know they maintain the right to vote while incarcerated, and there are few programs to guarantee voting access.

Problems with voting in jail disproportionately impact communities of color since almost half (48%) of persons in jail nationally are African American or Latino.  Other racial groups, including Native Americans and Asians, comprise about 2% of the jail population, or 13,000 persons as of 2017.

In recent years, some jurisdictions have adopted policies and practices to ensure voting access for persons incarcerated in local jails because of initiatives developed by jail leadership and advocacy organizations.  This report examines six programs designed to expand voting access for eligible incarcerated citizens.  The success and expansion of these efforts will improve democracy.

May 7, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Collateral consequences, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 30, 2020

Polls showing considerable public support for decarceration in response to COVID-19 crisis

I have seen two distinct reports of distinct polls showing public support for reducing incarceration levels in response to the coronavirus crisis:

From the ACLU, "ACLU Poll Shows Wide-Ranging Support For Releasing Vulnerable People From Jails And Prisons"

The American Civil Liberties Union released today a new poll from Bully Pulpit Interactive that demonstrates far-ranging, bipartisan support for releasing people from prisons and jails as part of the COVID-19 public health response. According to the poll:

  • 63 percent of registered voters support releasing people from jails and prisons to stop the spread of COVID-19
  • 72 percent of voters support clemency for elderly incarcerated people in the midst of this pandemic

From The Justice Collaborative, "Poll Shows Strong Cross-Ideological Support for Dramatically Reducing Jail and Prison Populations to Slow the Spread of Coronavirus."   Executive Summary from this report

  • Public health experts agree that jails and prisons pose special risks to the spread of the coronavirus.  These risks extend to the incarcerated, and to the correctional officers, medical professionals, and other people who work inside and visit jails and prisons. Moreover, because these workers and other vendors travel in and out of these facilities, this poses a heightened risk for the general public.

  • We found strong, cross-ideological support for the strategy of dramatically reducing jail and prison populations to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Sixty-six percent of likely voters, including 59% of those who are “very conservative,” said that elected officials should be considering measures to reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails as a response to coronavirus.

  • Fifty-six percent of voters support releasing people who are within six months of completing their sentence in order to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus within jails and prisons. Support for this includes 52% of “very conservative” voters. 

  • Voters also support releasing especially at-risk populations. Fifty-eight percent of voters support releasing incarcerated people who are elderly; while 53% support releasing those whom the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has classified as vulnerable, including those with asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes.

  • Voters also overwhelmingly support reducing unnecessary jail admissions: 63% support encouraging law enforcement to make use of summons or tickets as alternatives to jail where necessary.

March 30, 2020 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Former NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg, on eve of his first Prez debate, releases full criminal justice reform plan

In this post from December, I noted this page on the campaign website of Mike Bloomberg that reported on "three criminal justice reform policy proposals" then announced by the then-new Democratic presidential candidate.  Unsurprisingly, that partial plan has not deflected criticisms of Bloomberg's record and past comments on criminal justice matters.  And, also unsurprisingly, Bloomberg has now announced more of a criminal justice platform via this piece headlined "Mike Bloomberg Expands Criminal Justice Reform Plan With Bold Initiatives to End Era of Mass Incarceration."  Here are excerpts (with emphasis and links in the original):

Commits $22.5 billion to reduce prison population by 50% by 2030, will slash youth incarceration by half in four years, and expands funding for public defenders

Invests $1 billion in programs to support young men of color and creates justice reclamation centers at historically black colleges and universities

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg today released his comprehensive plan to restructure our country’s criminal justice system. On December 3, 2019, Mike released three key pillars of his criminal justice reform policy as the first policy announcement of his campaign.  In the 12 weeks since, the campaign and Mike have met with leaders, advocates, and activists to receive input and feedback, which culminates in today’s release of Mike’s full criminal justice reform platform. As president, Mike will end the era of mass incarceration by heavily investing federal resources to halve the prison population within the next decade, increase funding for public defenders, and confront deep-seated racial and economic inequities that fall largely on Black, Latino, and other underserved communities.

Mike’s plan promises to protect people at every touchpoint in the justice system, from innovative pre-trial efforts that stop the reliance on incarceration to addressing unjust and excessive sentencing in the courtroom, and from re-imagining our prisons as a place for rehabilitation to a new work program and robust services for people returning to their communities. Mike will also commit $22.5 billion over 10 years for reform at the state and local level, with a new Justice Reform Office at the Department of Justice to fund the most-needed reforms on a state-by-state basis....

Mike’s Plan to Reform America’s Criminal Justice System

The United States has a mass incarceration problem. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s people, yet confines nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. America’s criminal justice system has dramatic racial disparities: Latino adults are three times more likely to be incarcerated than White adults, and Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population but are 40% of all incarcerated people. The system unfairly punishes people for their poverty, often further entrenching them in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration.

In Jackson, Mississippi last December, Mike pledged to prioritize juvenile justice, fund local violence interrupter programs, reform the bail system, and bring new re-entry and career-training programming to prisons. Mike’s full plan, announced today, will:

  • Protect the public and rebuild community trust: Mike will invest in innovative community-led partnerships, focused deterrence programs and smart and just policing. Mike will sign a bill raising the standard for federal officers’ use of force, ensuring deadly force is used only when necessary to prevent serious injury or death — and will pressure states to enact similar statutes. He will require de-escalation and bias training, body-worn cameras and early intervention for police who present warning signs. He will promote independent police oversight boards, re-invigorate civil rights investigations to keep police accountable and make it a national priority to expand and analyze data on police use of force.
  • Cut incarceration rates and re-imagine prison as a place for rehabilitation from day one: Mike will invest $22.5 billion to launch a Department of Justice reform hub to evaluate and fund state-level criminal justice reform efforts, set a goal to reduce incarceration by 50% by 2030 and cut crime across the U.S., and spread the use of alternatives to prison pioneered in New York City. Additionally, he will increase funding to improve health and safety in federal, state and local prisons, along with education and job training.
  • Address injustice in the legal system: Mike will boost funding for public defense, end cash bail, court fines and punitive fees and roll back punitive sentencing practices. Public defense is underfunded in the states, leading to longer sentences and wrongful convictions. Mike will fund $2.5 billion over ten years for public defense – requiring grantees to have pay parity for defenders and prosecutors, as well as workload limits that ensure fair representation. He will also end federal cash bail, end court fines and punitive fees and propose new federal sentencing structure to reverse an overly punitive legacy. Mike’s plan will decriminalize possession and use of marijuana nationwide, commute any existing sentences and expunge any records.
  • Help formerly incarcerated people re-enter society: Mike will start a federal work program for the formerly incarcerated, including providing employers with a multi-year tax incentive and expanding “ban the box initiatives.” He will bolster federal funding for re-entry services and also expand social services for children whose parents are incarcerated.
  • Increase support and services for victims of domestic violence, gun violence, hate crimes and human trafficking: Mike will increase funding to build family justice centers, which provide holistic services for survivors of domestic violence—and make it easier for victims to seek justice. He will also re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act, with necessary improvements; eliminate the national rape kit backlog; start a national helpline for gun violence and make hate crimes and human trafficking a top federal priority.
  • Invest in young men of color: Mike’s plan will invest $100 million annually to revive and sustain the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative as a federal program. Using the Neighborhood Equity and Opportunity Office (NEO), proposed in the Greenwood Initiative, Mike will launch a permanent funding stream to invest in young men of color. Building on the Young Men’s Initiative that Mike created as mayor, this national program will focus on creating opportunity while preventing entry into the criminal justice system. He will also establish a National Trauma-Informed Care Task Force to study the effects of early trauma – and to recommend practices to formalize the delivery of quality care across federal agencies that touch low-income families and justice-involved people.
  • Create restorative justice centers at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs): Mike’s plan also includes funding justice reclamation centers at HBCUs across the country. Mike will set up a network of justice reclamation as hubs of history and public education that will chronicle an era, create the conditions for healing based on the best social science and devise constructive strategies for policing, remediation and community involvement. These centers will be a collaborative place to gather existing expertise and develop best new solutions — with a special focus on restorative justice. The centers will partner with local My Brother’s Keeper projects, helping give communities the tools to drive meaningful criminal justice reform.

Given the recent buzz around the Roger Stone sentencing and Prez Trump's latest clemencies, as well as Bloomberg's first appearance on the Democratic debate stage and his "stop and frisk" record, I am thinking tonight's debate in Nevada is likely to include some (perhaps even a lot) of criminal justice issues.  Notably, Nevada is the first state to vote this season that has fully legalized marijuana, so that too could perhaps be a topic for tonight discussion.

Prior related post:

February 19, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Can a new conservative group help get the death penalty abolished in Ohio?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent local press piece, headlined "Conservative group vows to end the death penalty."  Here are excerpts:

Activists have pushed to end the death penalty for years but there's a new effort to abolish it by a new group of more recent converts — conservative Republicans.  "Conservatives Concerned with the Death Penalty" includes prominent former lawmakers like Governor Bob Taft and former Congressman Pat Tiberi.

Governor Mike DeWine has delayed several upcoming executions because the state's previous methods of lethal injection are on hold in the courts. An alternative that will pass legal muster hasn't been figured out. House Speaker Larry Householder said in December the death penalty may not be enforceable.

“I’ve been pro-death penalty pretty much my entire career as a political operative," said Michael Hartley, a Republican operative for more than 20 years.  Hartley said he saw the toll executions had on the attorneys general and governors he worked for and that made him re-evaluate his stance.  “It is a pro-life state, it’s a fiscally responsible state and when you look at that, a lot of people question if it matches their values," he said. “We can’t even deliver our own mail.  Why should they be in charge of executing humans?”

He is part of the group "Conservatives Concerned with the Death Penalty."  That group will formally launch in Ohio on Tuesday....  Hartley said some conservatives have soured on the death penalty because it doesn't make fiscal sense. Executing an inmate costs more money in legal fees than imprisoning them for life.  Morally, Hartley said he can't stand for it after learning of people being exonerated after they've already been killed. “If we’ve executed one person that was innocent, this shouldn’t exist," Hartley said.

When state lawmakers might vote on abolishing the death penalty is unknown.  Not all Republicans, who have large majorities in both the Ohio House and Senate, have changed their minds about it.  Hartley said if Ohio were to end the death penalty, it could spark similar bans across the Midwest and rest of the nation.

This press notice from the national Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty group reports on speakers schedule for an Tuesday morning press conference that includes one active member of the Ohio General Assembly, namely Representative Laura Lanese, R-Grove City.  If there were another dozen or so Republican Ohio House members prepared to support abolition (and a comparable number in the state Senate), I might actually start thinking this could possibly happen.

Prior related posts:

February 16, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Prosecutors and Politics Project releases "National Study of Prosecutor Elections"

The Prosecutors and Politics Project at the University of North Carolina School of Law this past week released this massive new report titled simply "National Study of Prosecutor Elections." Here is the start of the 350+-page report's "Executive Summary":

American prosecutors wield significant power in the criminal justice system.  They must decide when to file charges, which crimes to prioritize, and how lenient or harsh to be in plea bargaining.  Prosecutors are entrusted with this power, in part, because they are accountable to voters.

In most states, that accountability comes in the form of direct elections.  Forty-five states elect prosecutors on the local level.  These local elections provide a powerful check on the power that prosecutors wield — at least in theory. But how does that check operate in practice?  Put differently, how much of a choice do voters have about who will make important criminal justice decisions in their communities?

This report presents the results of a nationwide study of prosecutor elections. The first of its kind, the study gathered data from every jurisdiction that elects its local prosecutors in a recent election cycle.  The study showed great variation in elections across the country.  Some elections gave voters choices in both primary and general elections to choose their local prosecutor.  But other elections were entirely uncontested. And some elections did not even have a single candidate on the ballot.

Whether an election gave voters a choice seems to depend on two different factors.  The first of those factors is the population in the district where the election was held. Communities with large populations tended to have more than one candidate in their elections, while communities with small populations tended to have uncontested elections.

Beginning in February 2018, the Prosecutors and Politics Project began collecting information about the most recent election cycle in each state that elects its local prosecutor. For most states, that meant we collected data from the 2014 or 2016 election cycle.  But in some states the most recent election had occurred as far back as 2012 and as recently as 2017.  In total, we collected election results for 2,318 districts across 45 states.

January 19, 2020 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

"Who challenges disparities in capital punishment?: An analysis of state legislative floor debates on death penalty reform"

the title of this post is the title of this new article just published in the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice and authored by David Niven and Ellen Donnelly.  Here is its abstract:

In McCleskey v. Kemp, the Supreme Court tasked legislatures, rather than courts, with redressing racial disparities in capital punishment.  Elected officials must then decide to amend disparate death penalty procedures.  Analyzing floor debates, we explore why legislators make arguments for racial disparity or fairness in deliberations of death penalty reforms.  Results suggest views on race and the death penalty are products of partisanship, constituency composition, and the race/ethnicity of legislators, with the interaction of these factors being most predictive of argumentation.  Findings illuminate who leads discourse on fairness in criminal justice and the limits of legislative responses to racial injustice.

January 14, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Might the 2020 campaign bring back "law and order" as a political wedge issue?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this extended new New York Times opinion piece authored by Thomas Edsall. The piece's full headline captures its main point: "Trump Wants Law and Order Front and Center; The president and his allies are trying to make Democratic plans to reform law enforcement a potent campaign issue." The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts:

Unexpectedly, the 2020 presidential campaign is drilling down on petty crime and homelessness.  Donald Trump and his Republican allies are reviving law-and-order themes similar to those used effectively by Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in the late 1960s and early 1970s to demonize racial minorities.

To this end, Republicans seek to discredit liberalized law enforcement initiatives adopted by a new breed of Democratic prosecutors.  These Democratic district attorneys — in cities, counties and suburbs from Philadelphia, Orlando, Chicago and St. Louis to Contra Costa County, Calif., Suffolk County, Mass., and Durham County, N.C. — are pursuing policies intended to decriminalize vagrancy, and eliminate cash bail, and they are aggressively pursuing charges in cases of shootings by police officers.

They are playing a key role in a hotly politicized movement to curb mass incarceration and to roll back what has become known as “the carceral state.”  The decarceration movement is backed by a wide array of organizations tightly aligned with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party: the Real Justice PAC, Black Lives Matter, the Brennan Center for Justice, the ACLU, Justice Democrats, MoveOn.org and Brand New Congress....

At the same time, as this movement has been gaining momentum, it has provided ammunition for a powerful counterattack from President Trump, his attorney general, William Barr, and other law-and-order Republicans.

The result is that the 2020 election is expanding the 50-year-old culture war into new territory as Democrats — often under pressure from younger voters — seek to extend broader rights to those who have been previously stigmatized or marginalized, now moving beyond protection for minorities, women and gays, to provide more freedom to criminal defendants, the homeless, the mentally ill and unknown numbers of men and women imprisoned through prosecutorial misconduct, judicial error or other forms of systemic failure.

Republicans, in turn, are betting that the Democratic presidential candidates have moved substantially farther to the left on issues of crime and punishment than the voting public. Leading Democratic presidential candidates, for their part, are not shying away from the challenge, endorsing in whole or in part the decarceration and decriminalization agenda.

Even Joe Biden, one of the more moderate 2020 candidates, argued at the September Democratic presidential debate that “We should be talking about rehabilitation. Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime” and that “Nobody should be in jail for a drug problem. We build more rehabilitation centers, not prisons.” Once a strong supporter of the death penalty, Biden now calls for its elimination....

While many of the Democratic presidential candidates have effectively joined the decarceration movement, the same unity cannot be found among House and Senate Democrats. At this level, the movement is one more source of conflict between the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wing and the many members of the House and Senate who must fight for re-election in more moderate districts and states, including those that cast majorities for Trump in 2016....

Republicans are responding to the initiatives of progressive prosecutors with a vengeance. In a fiery speech on Aug. 12 at the Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police’s conference in New Orleans, Barr warned that progressive prosecutors in cities across the nation are “demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety.”...

Three days later, William M. McSwain, the Trump-appointed United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, called a news conference to explicitly attack the Philadelphia district attorney, Larry Krasner.... Most recently, President Trump, at a rally on Dec. 10 in Hershey, Pa., told the crowd “You have the worst district attorney,” referring to the Philadelphia D.A., roughly 95 miles east. “I’ve been hearing about this guy, he lets killers out almost immediately. You better get yourself a new prosecutor.”

Turning the decarceration movement into a 2020 campaign issue fits into Trump’s go-to strategy of inflaming divisive conflicts, especially those involving disputed rights — particularly those benefiting minorities — in order to activate racial resentment, to mobilize his core voters and to goad swing voters into lining up against the Democratic Party....

Over the past four years, many progressive Democrats have turned sharply against the aggressive policing that broken windows enforcement produced, arguing that it has contributed to excessive incarceration that results in the disproportionate imprisonment of African-Americans and other minorities.  At the presidential debate in September, virtually every candidate voiced strong opposition to mass incarceration and support for the release or sentence reduction of those convicted of nonviolent crime....

On this issue, one of Trump’s key allies is Tucker Carlson.  Every night this week, Carlson is devoting segments of his Fox News show to homelessness. His show will reinforce the 2020 Republican election theme that Democrats are fostering endemic social disorder.  On Jan. 3, Carlson tweeted: “Drugs.  Homelessness.  Third world inequality.  San Francisco’s radical left wing government has turned their city into an American Dystopia.”

This week’s series is the second time in less than a year that Carlson has devoted five straight nights to homelessness, with footage of men and women injecting themselves, evidence of public defecation, the vagrant mentally ill, and sidewalks in California lined for blocks with tents....

The Trump campaign is gambling that Democrats are outside the mainstream of public opinion on these issues, while the leading Democratic candidates are convinced that enough of the electorate has become sufficiently skeptical of law-and-order strategies — and the accompanying racial undertones (and overtones) — to produce a Democratic victory on Nov. 3, 2020.  Over the past 50 years, Democratic strategies based on the presumption of increasing liberalism among voters at large have rarely succeeded. Perhaps 2020 will be different.

January 8, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Two modern takes on the modern politics of criminal justice reform

I have recently seen these new commentaries that both speak to the interest state of modern criminal justice reform politics:

From The Conversation by Jody Armour, "How being ‘tough on crime’ became a political liability." Excerpts:

Kamala Harris recently dropped out of the presidential race after months of attacks from the left for her “tough-on-crime” record as San Francisco’s district attorney and as California’s attorney general.  A few years ago, the idea that being tough on crime would be a liability — not an asset — was unthinkable for both Democrats and Republicans.

Bill Clinton, during the 1992 presidential race, interrupted his campaign so he could return to Arkansas to witness the execution of a mentally disabled man. During Harris’ 2014 reelection campaign for attorney general, she actively sought — and won — the endorsements of more than 50 law enforcement groups en route to a landslide victory.

But something has changed in recent years. Harris’ failure to gain traction as a presidential candidate has coincided with a growing number of “progressive prosecutors.”  In the past, I would have scoffed at the notion of a progressive prosecutor. It would have seemed like a ridiculous oxymoron.

But in one of the most stunning shifts in American politics in recent memory, a wave of elected prosecutors have bucked a decades-long tough-on-crime approach adopted by both major parties. These prosecutors are refusing to send low-level, non-violent offenders to prison, diverting defendants into treatment programs, working to eradicate the death penalty and reversing wrongful convictions....

Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow,” deserves some credit for changing the way activists thought about crime and punishment.  Alexander cast mass incarceration as a civil rights crisis by showing that people didn’t simply end up in jail because they were bad people who made poor choices.  Nor did prison populations explode simply because there were more crimes being committed.  Instead, mass incarceration was closely intertwined with race, poverty and government policy.

Among civil rights activists, issues like affirmative action in higher education had been consuming a lot of time, energy and resources.  Alexander’s book helped redirect attention to racialized mass incarceration as a main battlefront in U.S. race relations.  Since its formation in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has made criminal justice reform a centerpiece of their activism.

From The Hill by Paul Samuels and Gabrielle de la Gueronniere, "Candidates take note: Strong bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform."  Excerpts:

From the headlines these days, you might think that there is little that Republicans and Democrats agree on — but that is simply not true.  After decades of failed policies and devastating consequences, Americans on both ends of the political spectrum strongly agree about the need for bold action to reform the nation’s drug and criminal justice policies.  The question is: Will policymakers hear their unified voices urging action?

Polling recently conducted on behalf of Legal Action Center (LAC) found most Americans (71 percent) believe that treatment for addiction to opioids and other drugs should be readily available and affordable for all who need it, including 80 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans.  Most Americans (67 percent) also believe we should treat addiction to opioids and other drugs more as a health problem than a criminal problem, including 78 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans.  And there is strong support (61 percent) for expanding programs that send people arrested for drug use to treatment instead of prison.

As the polling makes clear, Americans recognize this essential truth: Addiction treatment is less expensive, more effective and simply more sensible than the current law enforcement approach, which has not worked, is racially biased and has devastated communities.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans (62 percent) believe that we should provide legal protections that help individuals leaving prison reenter society and find employment, housing and educational opportunities, including 71 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans. A majority of Americans (56 percent) also support sealing non-violent criminal records after people complete their sentences to facilitate their successful reentry into society.

December 24, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

New Prez candidate Mike Bloomberg releases new (partial) criminal justice reform proposals

This page on the campaign website of Mike Bloomberg reports that yesterday, after "a roundtable discussion with Mayor Chokwe Lumumba and community leaders focused on criminal justice reform in Jackson, Mississippi, Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg ... unveiled three criminal justice reform policy proposals."  Here is more:

The proposals focus on reducing the U.S. incarceration rate — the highest in the world — and addressing the failings of a criminal justice system that disproportionately harms communities of color. Bloomberg will unveil a comprehensive plan for criminal justice reform in the coming weeks....

The key pillars of Bloomberg’s initial criminal justice reform proposals include:

1. Launching a national initiative to reduce the incarceration of young people, by building on New York City’s success in cutting youth incarceration rates...

2. Expanding federal funding of effective alternatives to adult incarceration and investing in policies that help formerly incarcerated individuals re-enter society, find employment and escape the cycle of crime.

3. Investing in proven, community-based violence-interruption strategies that address the root causes of crime and prevent violent behavior before it occurs.

December 4, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

"The Politics of Decarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new Yale Law Journal article by Rebecca Goldstein which reviews Rachel Barkow's book, "Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration." Here is the article's abstract:

In Prisoners of Politics, Rachel Barkow convincingly argues that the criminal-justice system is deeply broken: the United States’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world, and there is little evidence that this system, with all its devastating human and monetary costs, is contributing to improved public safety.  Prisoners of Politics argues that at the root of this broken system is electoral politics, and that elected officials (legislators, prosecutors, and judges) will tend toward punitiveness.  The book proposes a range of reforms, most notably the use of expert criminal-justice policymakers who would be insulated from the electoral process and devoted to ensuring that the system promotes public safety and avoids arbitrariness.  The introduction of expertise can certainly help make the criminal-justice system less punitive, and policymakers should heed the book’s detailed policy recommendations.

However, this Review argues that electoral politics are more likely than the book suggests to help bring about criminal-justice reform.  There is nothing inherent about electoral participation’s punitive influence.  To the contrary, we might be at the dawn of a new era of electorally motivated criminal-justice reform.  In the past decade, reform has become orthodoxy in the Democratic Party and has been embraced by significant parts of the Republican Party.  Recent grassroots mobilization and subnational elections provide hope that criminal-justice reformers can achieve significant gains through the electoral process.  Additionally, original public-opinion analysis shows that younger Americans are less punitive than their older counterparts, and evidence suggests that tomorrow’s electorate might be less punitive than the electorate of the late twentieth century.  For those reasons, this Review argues that electoral politics can offer a path forward for those who seek to end mass incarceration.

November 27, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Making the case that "progressive prosecutors" are acting "downright conservative" (and should be embraced conservatives)

Lars Trautman has this notable new Washington Examiner commentary under the headline "The criminal justice reforms pushed by ‘progressive prosecutors' are surprisingly conservative." I recommend the piece in full, and here are some excerpts:

The term “progressive prosecutor” has catapulted into the national consciousness and has dominated discussions about prosecutorial reform that it has become nearly synonymous with the idea of reform itself....  But strip away the “progressive” branding of the policies and the left-leaning personalities advocating on their behalf, and most of these initiatives are not intrinsically left-wing. Indeed, some even look downright conservative.

One of the reforms instituted by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, the poster child of the "progressive prosecutor" movement, provides one particularly emblematic example.  In 2018, Krasner ordered his prosecutors to consider the costs of incarceration associated with each sentencing recommendation. With its potential to deter unnecessarily lengthy sentences, the policy was a natural fit within Krasner’s larger push to fight mass incarceration.  Yet if you remove that description and Krasner’s name, the proposal, framed as an innovative way to extend consideration of taxpayer dollars to government decision-making, looks like something straight out of a fiscal conservative’s playbook.

Nor does it take much imagination to envision even more dramatic “progressive” reforms as part of a conservative prosecutorial platform.

Take, for instance, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s decision to make alternatives to prosecution the default disposition for a host of low-level misdemeanors. This charging policy has appealed to the activist Left as a step toward a fairer, more restrained criminal justice system.  Yet with its redirection of scarce government enforcement resources to the pursuit of more serious offenses, a prosecutor could just as easily promote the policy as an effort to enhance government efficiency and improve public safety, two hallmarks of traditional conservatism.

Although no national movement or label as powerful as that of the “progressive prosecutor” has coalesced on the political Right, the handful of Republicans bucking aspects of the traditional prosecutorial paradigm shows that the potential for other conservatives to do so is not purely theoretical.

In Florida, for example, State Attorney Melissa Nelson ousted an incumbent in part by stressing the need for reforms geared toward smarter, fairer prosecutions, many of which she has since delivered — including Florida’s first conviction integrity unit.  Likewise, District Attorney Constance Filley Johnson won election in Texas while associating herself with the conservative criminal justice reform movement.  Barry Johnson, another Texas district attorney, explicitly rejected the label “reform” yet nevertheless dismissed hundreds of misdemeanor cases in order to reduce the jail population and save taxpayer money.

Conservatives shouldn't allow these right-leaning reformers to remain somewhat rare examples.  Voters across the ideological spectrum continue to support criminal justice reform by wide margins, and, as the high-profile actions of "progressive prosecutors" show, district attorneys are in a position to deliver real change.  Ceding prosecutorial reform to liberals would put conservatives on the wrong side of an electorate hungry for a break in the status quo.

And while that fate may seem politically attractive to Democrats, they should resist the urge to encourage it.  Attempting to make the liberal vision of prosecutorial reform its only possible manifestation is a recipe for ensuring that it never reaches millions of Americans.  Vast swathes of the country have no interest in anything remotely associated with the phrase “progressive.”  Thus, prosecutorial reform will only reach at least half the country if it has a more conservative cast and bent.  Many of the same policies that reduce mass incarceration also make us safer and save taxpayer money.  Undermining a conservative district attorney because he or she emphasizes the latter is self-limiting to the movement.

November 26, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 25, 2019

An early review of an eventful first year for the FIRST STEP Act

Though the official one-year anniversary of the passage of the FIRST STEP Act is still four weeks away, I suppose it is not too early for some review and reflection on the eventful year that was.  Here is a new NBC News piece in this spirit which has this lengthy full headline: "The First Step Act promised widespread reform.  What has the criminal justice overhaul achieved so far?  The law's effects are real almost a year later, experts say.  But some are concerned whether the bipartisan alliance that produced it can hold together."  I recommend this lengthy piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Nearly a year after the First Step Act's passage, NBC News spoke to over a dozen people, including former and current elected officials, liberal and conservative advocates, and formerly incarcerated individuals, among others, who championed the reforms. They all agreed that the law's effects are tangible, and many believe the bipartisan coalition that produced it appears durable.

“I think the biggest win is that this is now a safe issue after years and years and years of the two parties trying to use criminal justice as a way to tear each other down,” said Jessica Jackson, co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice reform nonprofit.

However, some are skeptical the alliance can hold. Many of the next steps advocates have underscored as necessary to bring about true change, like reexamining lengthy sentences for violent offenses and restructuring policing practices, may be a tougher sell. "As some people might say, it's easier to kind of agree on some of the low-hanging fruits, but the higher you reach, the more difficult consensus is going to be,” said Tim Head, the executive director for the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a conservative nonprofit that supports the act as well as other criminal justice reform efforts.

More than 3,000 inmates have been released and another roughly 1,700 people convicted of crack cocaine offenses have seen their sentences reduced thanks to the First Step Act, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Sentencing Commission....

But the effects of the act's other major provision — the relaxing of the notorious "three strikes" rule to mean a 25-year sentence, rather than life in prison, for three or more convictions — are so far difficult to measure. A year in, little data has been collected around how many people had been sentenced under the new guidelines.

The act also a required the development of a new risk assessment tool that aims to determine which inmates are most likely to re-offend if released and to identify ways to assist those who are released. It was completed in July. Meanwhile, roughly 16,000 federal prisoners have enrolled in drug treatment programs created by the act, according to the Justice Department.

The success — or limitations — of the tool and the new programs still remain to be seen, but advocates say the overall represent a major shift in thinking. "It's part of wider system transformation from one that was based on gut instinct and anecdotes and headlines to decisions that are made based on evidence and research," said Adam Gelb, the founder of the Council on Criminal Justice, a bipartisan criminal justice nonprofit.

However, he added, the nuances of implementation matter. "We're talking about human behavior and it's never going to be a perfect assessment of someone's readiness for release nor a perfect judgment about the length of time they deserve to spend behind bars for the purposes punishment," he said.

Head, the executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the act's changes, which also include mandating BOP train its 31,000 employees on de-escalation techniques and mental health awareness, intended to shift "the culture of our federal system from pure punishment, to one of at least considering rehabilitation in a much more meaningful way."...

Advocates for the First Step Act, particularly left-leaning ones, described its reforms as historic but modest. True change will require looking to the heart of the system — police interactions and what happens inside courtrooms, experts said. Right now, black Americans are more likely to be arrested for the same activities as white Americans, and more likely to be prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to longer jail terms....

To make a more significant dent in the nation’s prison population, attention must shift toward the roots of mass incarceration, said Tony J. Payton Jr., a Democrat and former Pennsylvania state lawmaker who championed state-level criminal justice reforms. “We’ve got to basically dismantle that entire system,” said Payton, who is now affiliated with the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, a national and bipartisan coalition of black criminal justice reformers.

Payton's list of targets, however, points to some of the remaining contentious matters in criminal justice reform that could threaten the bipartisanship needed to implement them, such as sentencing reform for both non-violent and violent offenders, eliminating mandatory minimums, reforming police departments and eliminating prosecutorial immunity.

November 25, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Very different looks on criminal justice reform for governors in Oklahoma and New York

As spotlighted in prior posts here and here and here, Oklahoma this week saw a series of interesting and important criminal justice reform efforts culminate in the release of more than 400 prisoners as part of the largest mass commutation in U.S. history (details here).  Thanks to Twitter, I saw this video clip of persons being released from the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center.  Notably, in addition to being greeted by friends and families, the released individuals also saw Governor Kevin Stitt and First Lady Sarah Stitt awaiting their release to congratulate them.

Not long after I saw this video and the heartening involvement of Oklahoma Governor Stitt in this historic criminal justice reform story, I saw this press article discussing the disheartening work of New York Governor Cuomo is a much more discouraging criminal justice story.  The piece is headlined "Gov. Cuomo's Program for More Clemency Applications Appears to Stall, As Prisoners Wait and Hope for a Second Chance," and here are excerpts:

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s program to help more prisoners apply for clemency in New York State appears to be stalled and the Governor’s office is declining to explain why.

In 2017, Cuomo asked lawyers to volunteer to help identify prisoners worthy of his mercy, and assist them in making their best case for a shortened sentence. More than two hundred lawyers stepped up. But two years and thousands of pro bono hours later, Governor Cuomo has neither approved nor denied any of the 107 clemency applications filed through the program.

“It’s discouraging. We’ve put a lot of resources into it.” said Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which partnered with Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the State at the Governor’s request. “We put people away for ridiculous amounts of time, often for mistakes they made when they were very young,” Reimer added.

Lawyers involved in the NACDL/FAMM project tell News 4 because there has been no action in these cases, they are reluctant to take on new prisoners. More than 1,600 prisoners are currently waiting to be assigned attorneys through the project. “The idea that you can’t find a single one of those to grant is inconceivable to me. There’s just no greater feeling than giving somebody freedom,” said NYU Law Professor Rachel Barkow and author of "Prisoners of Politics."

The power to commute a prisoner’s sentence rests solely with the Governor. NACDL says the Cuomo administration has been highly cooperative, producing records and helping to vet cases.

Cuomo administration insiders familiar with the clemency review process say the problem is not that these cases are being ignored. Sources with first hand knowledge say the cases submitted by NACDL/FAMM were carefully reviewed by a team of attorneys inside the office of the Counsel to the Governor. They say the team identified a group of worthy candidates for a possible mid-year clemency grant this past Spring, but the Governor did not act.

Timing, they speculated, may have played a role, citing pushback from some law enforcement groups for Cuomo’s role in the early release of Judith Clark in May 2019. Clark was the getaway driver in the deadly 1981 Brink’s robbery and the Governor commuted her sentence to make her eligible for early parole. One person who has discussed the project at length with the Governor’s senior staff described a sense that politically speaking, “the bang was not worth the buck.”

Several sources familiar with the internal review process say the Governor’s office may have been taken aback by the large number of applications lawyers submitted on behalf of prisoners who committed violent felonies. These cases are more politically sensitive for a governor, because it is not uncommon for district attorneys, law enforcement groups and family members of victims to oppose early release.

But Norman Reimer says if the severity of the crimes is the reason for Cuomo’s inaction, that’s not how the governor’s office promised to approach this process. “What I like about Governor Cuomo’s initiative is he didn’t limit it based on the nature of the crime," said Reimer. "We pressed that issue and it was an affirmative decision by them to let the person’s record of rehabilitation speak the loudest, even in violent crimes.”

Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to repeated requests for an explanation for his inaction on the NACDL/FAMM cases, nor for a breakdown of the clemency grants he has issued. According to public reports, Cuomo has commuted at least 18 sentences in almost nine years, including three in 2018.

Barkow says compared with some other Democratic governors, Cuomo has used his executive clemency powers sparingly. Gavin Newsom of California commuted the sentences of 23 prisoners since September of this year, including prisoners involved in violent felonies....

In last year's primary, the progressive wing of the Democratic party hammered Cuomo for what they considered insufficient criminal justice reforms. “The people who care about these issues want to see real results,” said Professor Barkow. “They want to see that people are walking the walk and not just kind of throwing talk out there.” As for Cuomo’s record on justice issues like clemency and marijuana legalization, Barkow added “It seems like the pattern is to wait and just make sure where the political winds are blowing.”

November 5, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 03, 2019

"Criminal Justice Reform Is About People, Not Posturing"

The title of this post is the title of this recent Real Clear Politics commentary authored by John Koufos.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

It’s a shame that Sen. Kamala Harris sought to politicize a celebration of the historic First Step Act at Benedict College in South Carolina last week.  Criminal justice reform has benefited millions of Americans — most especially the minorities the Democratic presidential candidate says she advocates for.  This reform restores victims, redeems former prisoners and rebuilds communities....

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the First Step Act has overwhelming helped remedy historic injustice to minorities; African Americans make up more than 91% of those released.  It is no secret that minority communities were hurt most by the 1994 Clinton crime bill, which was originally drafted by Sen. Joe Biden.  At Benedict College, the president demonstrated his support for a “second step” of criminal justice reform....

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the First Step Act is its effect on state policy.  States are following the national criminal justice reform trend led by the White House. The president identified recent reforms in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Tennessee, which can be expected to lead to safer streets, increased employment and opportunity, and restored dignity and self-worth.

Goals — and results — like these should not be politicized.  I have seen the commitment of the president and White House first-hand, as part of a bipartisan coalition working on criminal justice reform.  I had the privilege of being in the Oval Office when the First Step Act was signed, and was humbled when the president asked me to speak about criminal justice reform at the White House.  I witnessed Jared Kushner’s leadership, and the commitment of Republican and Democrat legislators.  As I work with governors and state leaders across the country, I see the excitement for criminal justice reform regardless of party.

Criminal justice reform is a nonpartisan idea whose time has come.  President Trump summed it up best at Benedict College when he said: “I knew criminal justice reform was not about politics.  I’m … not sure that what I did was a popular thing or an unpopular thing, but I know it was the right thing to do.”

November 3, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

"On One Issue, Americans Are United. Too Many Are Behind Bars."

The title of this post is the title of this New York Times commentary authored by Tina Rosenberg.  Here are excerpts:

Across America, Democrats and Republicans demonize each other — and then sit down to hammer out legislation to reduce mass incarceration.  Last December, Congress passed the First Step Act, which applies to federal prisons.  It increases opportunities for education and rehabilitation in prison, gives inmates more time off for good behavior, requires prisoners be placed closer to their families, and reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses.

But the real progress is in the states — a broad range of them.  Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Colorado, California, New Jersey and New York, among others, have all passed major criminal justice reforms.  This momentum shows what can be done.  At the same time, it highlights the rarity of bipartisan progress.

So what is it about criminal justice? It’s certainly not the case that crime lends itself to dispassionate, rational analysis. In the past, no issue seemed more politicized.  Many local politicians won because of 30-second ads showing how tough on crime they were.  Lee Atwater’s infamous Willie Horton ad for George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign was perhaps the nadir of American political communication until recently. Democrats also competed to be the toughest on crime and terrified voters — wrongly — with the specter of superpredators.

Creating mass incarceration 30 years ago was a bipartisan project.  So it’s fitting that undoing it is as well.

One reason for bipartisanship is that the criminal justice system has affected so many people — 30 percent of American adults have a criminal record, which the F.B.I. defines as an arrest on a felony charge.  “Every single American family is impacted by the broken justice system,” said Holly Harris, the executive director of Justice Action Network, which works with Republicans and Democrats at the federal and state level to reform criminal justice....

On criminal justice reforms, the language from left and right seems to be converging.  “Originally, conservatives talked about these issues in terms of public safety, recidivism reduction, curbing government spending and big government,” Ms. Harris said.  (The prison system is a perfect conservative target: a hugely expensive failure of a government program that deprives people of their freedom.)  “And progressives talked in terms of reducing racial disparities and increasing fairness.  But I’ve watched that evolve.”

October 30, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable review and reflection on Prez candidate criminal justice reform forum at Eastern State Penitentiary

Earlier this week, there was an historical (but ultimately disappointing) forum for Democratic Prez candidates at the historic Eastern State Penitentiary.  Here are two links providing an overview of the event: 

The headline of the Inquirer piece highlights the main reason I am inclined to call the event disappointing, though this effective Intercept piece by Alice Speri capture my mood even more fully.  The lengthy piece is headlined "The Presidential Town Hall On Mass Incarceration Was A Historic Moment And A Missed Opportunity," and here are excerpts:

The candidates who showed up on Monday — Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and billionaire Tom Steyer — sat close to a few dozen audience members representing a wide range of justice reform organizations led by those who know the system best. There were hugs, selfies, and some hard questions. But most notable was the absence of most of the presidential candidates, including all the frontrunners, and the sometimes evasive answers of the candidates who did show up.

“In that room, you had some of the foremost leaders in the country, folks who have been working for decades to lift the systemic oppression of incarcerated people,” said J. Jondhi Harrell, a Philadelphia activist who spent 25 years in federal prison. “To those who say that they want to be president and have specific ideas about how to reform the system, you have the opportunity to speak to the experts in the field. To just wave this off and say it’s not important really speaks to what you feel not only about justice reform, but also about black and brown people.”

Erica Smith, a California-based organizer with a group that provides transitional housing for formerly incarcerated people, made a similar point. “I was disappointed that some of the other candidates didn’t value what we have to say enough to come have a discussion with us,” she said. “We are 70 million deep in the United States, people who are system-impacted. It’s just the feeling of being discarded once again.”...

In the end, those leaving the event said they were elated that something so unprecedented could have even happened, but they were hardly impressed with candidates’ turnout or commitments....

But while attendees gave the three candidates who showed up in Philadelphia credit for being there to hear them out, several said they left more convinced than ever that any real changes to the system would need to happen without politicians.

“Historically, I’ve seen the United States just ignore our communities and so I won’t feel hopeful until I see results,” said Josh Glenn, who runs a Philadelphia-based group for incarcerated youth and felt that Booker had skirted around a question he had asked about the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. “I hope whatever president comes into office, that they do the right thing by our communities. But if they don’t, we’re going to stand up for ourselves, and we’re going to make sure that we get what we need on our own.”

October 30, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Prez candidate Beto O'Rourke releases a "comprehensive plan to end mass incarceration"

Via this extended Medium posting, Beto O'Rourke has released what he titles "Beto’s Comprehensive Plan to End Mass Incarceration and Reform Our Criminal Justice System to Prioritize Rehabilitation." The plan is too lengthy and detailed for ready summary, but here are a few of the sentencing parts:

October 29, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Mayor Pete Buttigeig releases extensive criminal justice reform plan expanding on prior Douglass Plan

Back in July, as detailed in this post, Mayor Pete Buttigieg introduced this notable platform titled "The Douglass Plan: A Comprehensive Investment in the Empowerment of Black America."  The plan, which aspires to "dismantle old systems and structures that inhibit prosperity and builds new ones that will unlock the collective potential of Black America," gives considerable attention to "Criminal Justice Reform," with nearly a quarter of this 18-page document focused on such matter. 

Not content, this weekend Mayor Buttigieg released an even more detailed an ambitious criminal justice reform plan at his campaign website under the heading "Securing Justice: Reforming Our Criminal Legal System." The full plan, which is available here and runs 16 dense pages with more than 70 footnotes, defies simple summarization. So here are a few sentencing part that caught my eye (with some formatting lost):

Pete is committed to reducing the number of people incarcerated in the United States at both the federal and state levels by 50%.... To remedy this, Pete will:

Double funding for federal grants for states that commit to meaningful reform and prioritize funding for programs aimed at pretrial reforms, decarceration, and expansion of alternative to incarceration (ATI) programs....

On the federal level, eliminate incarceration for drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug offenses, and apply these reductions retroactively....

Legalize marijuana and automatically expunge past convictions. Pete will push Congress to pass legislation requiring that a significant percentage of tax revenue flowing from legalization is directed back to the communities and people most devastated by the war on drugs....

Eliminate mandatory minimums. The average sentence for someone subject to a mandatory minimum penalty in 2017 was 138 months, compared to 28 months as the average sentence of people convicted of an offense that did not have a mandatory minimum sentence. Eliminating mandatory minimums and decreasing overall sentence length for a significant number of crimes is critical to ensuring that people are not incarcerated when there is no effect on public safety, and it will reduce incarceration. It also will eliminate the role mandatory minimums plays in incentivizing people to plead guilty for crimes they did not commit.

Direct the U.S. Sentencing Commission to explore sentencing caps for all crimes. America’s mass incarceration crisis has been driven in large part by excessive sentencing. Powerful evidence confirms that long sentences have not made Americans safer. Further, we know that people often “age out” of crime as they move through the course of their lives. For this reason, Pete is committed to exploring innovative policy solutions to address the nation’s over-incarceration crisis, such as caps on sentencing.

Commute the sentences of people who are incarcerated in the federal system beyond what justice warrants by establishing an independent clemency commission that sits outside the Department of Justice. An independent clemency commission, with diverse professional backgrounds and lived experiences, will make the process more streamlined and comprehensive....

Support a constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty.

Reduce the over-reliance on solitary confinement and abolish its prolonged use, bringing the United States in line with international human rights standards, which define the use of solitary confinement in excess of 15 days as per se torture.

October 27, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, October 25, 2019

"Tipping the Scales: Challengers Take On the Old Boys' Club of Elected Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting short report from the Reflective Democracy Campaign. Here is how it gets started:

After someone gets arrested, a prosecutor holds the power over what happens next.  Charge the defendant, or release them?  Charge them with a felony, or a misdemeanor? Since the vast majority of cases don’t go to trial, it’s mostly prosecutors — not judges — who determine whether defendants go to prison and for how long.  In the words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, a prosecutor “has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”

In 2014, as a prosecutor in Ferguson failed to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, we were conducting our historic study of the race and gender of prosecutors. What we found made headlines:  95% of prosecutors were white, and 79% were white men.  Perhaps most alarming, most prosecutors ran for office unopposed, leading to an entrenched status quo which is highly resistant to bipartisan calls for criminal justice reform.

With race and gender inequality baked into the criminal justice system, repairing the broken demographics of prosecutorial power is an urgent goal, and the data are clear:When voters have a choice, they reject the white male status quo.  Competitive elections for prosecutor can fix the demographic crisis and level the playing field for system reform.

Five years after our initial analysis of elected prosecutors, we returned to see how their demographics have — and haven’t— changed.  Here’s what we found:

White control of elected prosecutor positions has not changed: In 2015, prosecutors were 95% white. In 2019, they are still 95% white.

The gender (im)balance of elected prosecutors is changing: While nearly 75% of prosecutors are white men, women have increased at a rate of 34% since 2015, from 18% to 24% of prosecutors.

Change is possible — when there is competition: Prosecutors run unopposed 80% of the time, but in competitive races, the old boys' club starts to give away. White male over-representation is rampant, but not unsolvable.

When women of all races and men ofcolor run for prosecutor in competitive elections, they're more likely to win than white men: In competitive 2018 elections, white men were 69% of candidates, but only 59% of winners. Women and people of color were 31% of candidates and 41% of winners.

Despite overall low numbers, women of color are making notable gains: There are nearly 50% more women of color prosecutors today as in 2015.

October 25, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Julian Castro sets forth criminal justice agenda as "The First Chance Plan"

With this extended discussion on his campaign website, Julian Castro on Wednesday joined the sizeable group of prominent candidates for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination with a detailed agenda for criminal justice reform.  (Prior posts have links and highlights from Joe BidenCory BookerPete Buttigeig, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.)  Castro's plan is called "The First Chance Plan" and has three major sections: "1. Prevention Not Prison  2. Restorative Justice  3. Healing Wounds Of Incarceration."  Here is a paragraph from the plan's intor and a few of many parts of the plan that caught my eye:

At the core of the First Chance Plan is the principle that everyone deserves an effective first chance to succeed. For decades, communities of color have been disproportionately punished by the justice system while at the same time having the odds stacked against them from the beginning.  Many people never had a first chance and this plan will right that wrong. As a nation, we need to focus on preventing crime in the first place, not creating pipelines into prison.  We can build a system that advances real justice, not incarceration, to protect public safety and build stronger communities....

End the War on Drugs. Drug use and addiction is primarily a public health challenge.  In dealing with it primarily as a criminal issue, we have shattered communities, strengthened criminal groups, and locked up those who did not deserve it.  As president, I will bring our misguided War on Drugs to an end....

Plea Reform and Accountability. More than 95 percent of all federal and state cases that end in conviction involve a plea deal.  These decisions happen without a judge or a jury of one’s peers, and often involve prosecutors and police exerting immense pressure, such as pre-trial detention and the threat of excessive sentences on defendants to drive people to take a plea bargain. Under these circumstances, even innocent people have accepted plea deals that involve years in jail,prison, years of monitoring, and permanent records. This is a travesty of justice that must end.  As president, I will require open-file, pre-plea discovery for federal cases, requiring the prosecution to turn over evidence to the defense prior to a plea or trial, with appropriate safeguards to protect the safety of witnesses and individuals who may be at risk.  Additionally, I will require juries to be informed of plea offers as well as potential sentences so they can understand how much a case is truly worth to the state.

Eliminate Mandatory Minimums. Three strikes laws and mandatory minimums are a major driver of mass incarceration. In addition, these laws create steep disparities between the terms of a plea bargain and the likely sentence at trial that defendants face, causing many to abandon their trial rights regardless of the strength of the government’s case or even their own innocence.  As president, I would repeal the 1994 Crime Bill’s mandatory minimums and three strikes laws, and encourage State efforts to do the same.

Invest in Public Defenders. Every defendant deserves to have effective representation and a fair trial.  As president, I will give our nation’s under-resourced and overstretched public defenders the resources they need. We will reopen and expand the Obama-era Office for Access to Justice that President Trump shut down.  Second, we will ensure fair caseload limits and pay equality with prosecutors for public defenders at the federal level, and create a new $500 million federal grant program to achieve these standards at the state and local level. I will also pass legislation creating a new loan forgiveness program for public defenders, and will support ushering in a new wave of proggressive prosecutors.

Legalize Marijuana and Expunge the Records. In 2017, there were almost 700,000 marijuana-related arrests in the United States, with over 80 percent of them related to possession alone. As president, I will legalize marijuana and expunge the records of those convicted for non-violent marijuana offenses.  We will regulate the market and place a tax on all recreational sales, investing billions in revenue generated in the communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs.  Lastly, I will support equity in the legal marijuana industry, including by creating new grant programs that support minority-owned businesses and prioritize people directly affected by the war on drugs in receiving marijuana business licenses.

End Racial Sentencing Disparities. I will eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and order a federal review of all other sentencing guidelines to identify and eliminate other racial disparities....

Abolish the Death Penalty.  There is no moral justification for state-sanctioned killings. Even the worst criminals in our society do not deserve to be put to death. With the pernicious existence of racial bias, the high financial cost of executions, and the disturbing reality that the innocent may be among the condemned, there is simply no justification for continuing the death penalty.  As president, I would order an immediate halt to all federal executions and commute the sentences of those on federal death row’s to life in prison.  I support federal grants for States to end the death penalty and to re-investigate the cases of those sentenced to death by State courts with new technology and renewed attention, in an effort to end the death penalty once and for all in the United States.

End Solitary Confinement as Punishment. Long term isolation in solitary confinement is one of the most harmful policies that remains sadly common in our prisons, jails, and even juvenile justice institutions. It particularly harms those with disabilities and who require mental health treatment.  As president, I will support efforts to end our nation’s use of solitary confinement by banning its use for purposes of punishment.

A few of many prior recent related posts:

October 24, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Prez Trump and all the leading Democratic Prez candidates now slated to speak at 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum

As reported in this CNN article, "President Donald Trump will attend a criminal justice forum in South Carolina ... along with several of his 2020 Democratic challengers, the White House confirmed to CNN." Here are the interesting details:

The 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum is also expected to be attended by former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts -- all of whom have confirmed their attendance.

Trump will speak on Oct. 25, while the Democrats are slated to speak at various times throughout the day on Oct. 26 and 27, according to the event schedule [basics here].

The event which is billed as a "bipartisan forum of presidential candidates exclusively focused on criminal justice reform as it affects the Black community," will feature the first-ever "HBCU Straw Poll," according to the news release, in which "all students and alumni of the eight HBCUs in South Carolina will vote online for the presidential candidate that best addresses their concerns on all issues facing African-Americans, not solely limited to criminal justice reform."  The forum will be held at the historically black Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina.

Last month, Trump announced that his administration would lift a ban on federal funding for faith-based historically black colleges and universities, hailing his administration's work advancing HBCUs. At that time, the President said the "nation owes a profound and enduring debt of gratitude to its HBCUs," later adding, "You've seen this administration's commitment -- bigger and better and stronger than any previous administration by far."  Trump has also previously cast himself as the best leader for African Americans, despite securing only 8% of the black vote in 2016 and frequently stoking racial tensions.

The forum will give him the opportunity to discuss the First Step Act, bipartisan criminal justice legislation that was enacted into law last year and includes measures that have allowed thousands of federal inmates to leave prison earlier than they otherwise would have, eases some mandatory minimum sentences and gives judges more leeway in sentencing, among other things.

October 20, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Marshall Project reviews where 2020 Democratic Prez candidates stand on various criminal justice reform issues

The folks at The Marshall Project has put together this attractive and handy guide reporting and organizing all the position of the 2020 Democrats on criminal justice. I recommend the resource, and here are the issues on which positions are assembled:

How would you reform the bail system?

Should people in prison have the right to vote while they are incarcerated?

Should marijuana be legalized nationwide?

Should sentencing include mandatory minimums?

Do you support the death penalty?

Do you support decriminalizing illegal border crossings?

October 10, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Making a righteous call for Prez candidates to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk, on criminal justice reform

This new USA Today commentary, authored by four criminal justice reform advocates who have all been previously incarcerated, astutely stresses that candidates for political office can and should do more than just talk about criminal justice reform in order to show real commitment on justice reform. Authored by Daryl Atkinson, Norris Henderson, DeAnna Hoskins and Vivian Nixon, I recommend the piece in full. Here are extended excerpts:

An examination of the criminal justice reform proposals of the Democratic presidential candidates shows similarities in policy priorities. Most, if not all, favor ending cash bail, prohibiting private companies from operating prisons, legalizing marijuana and reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences.

Yet, nagging questions remain: Who is fully committed to fixing these problems? In other words, which candidate will take action when they stop campaigning and start governing?

It’s important to examine more than policy positions and take a look at candidates in their entirety.  Some have prioritized criminal justice reform throughout their careers. Others have announced policies during this campaign that are at odds with their legislative votes.  Others still have made controversial decisions while they worked within the criminal justice system. But most have not been heavily involved in the movement to end mass incarceration....

At long last, the American public has started to recognize the harmful impact of tough-on-crime policies.  It is no longer a risk for Democrats to say that mass incarceration must end — a testament to the tireless work and dedication of thousands of advocates and practitioners, many of whom have a criminal record or have returned to their communities after incarceration.  It also is not politically audacious to issue position papers on eliminating mandatory minimum sentences or providing better services for people reentering society.  In this day and age, the fact that we cannot punish our way into public safety has been definitively concluded.

But those running for the highest office in the country must go above and beyond these safe ideas if they want to show that they’re committed to more than just political rhetoric.  After all, even the current president has claimed to be a criminal justice reformer.  To set themselves apart from politics as usual, candidates must speak directly to the constituencies that have the most at stake on every issue, including mass incarceration.

There are plenty of criminal justice reform groups out there just like ours, and activists are waiting for the opportunity to talk to candidates about policy. Democrats have given time to groups that deal with gun-control issues and that are led by survivors of mass shootings and family members who have lost loved ones.  Beto O'Rourke of Texas met with a little over a dozen veterans in South Carolina to talk about issues that affect them.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren spent time in Philadelphia taking questions from teachers....

We are formerly incarcerated.  But we are citizens.  We vote.  And, we are influencers in progressive movements that address mass incarceration and related issues.  Candidates who commit to direct engagement with us will send a message of hope to energize an army of supporters whose numbers have unfortunately and regrettably grown way too big.

October 5, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Prez Trump has reportedly soured on politics of criminal justice reform after FIRST STEP Act achievement

This lengthy new Politico piece portends some dark clouds for federal criminal justice reform efforts in the months and perhaps years ahead. The full headline summarizes the essential: "Trump snubs Jared Kushner’s signature accomplishment; The president thinks criminal justice reform is a political loser, and hasn't been shy about saying so."  Here are some extended excerpts:

When President Donald Trump huddled with campaign aides in the late spring to discuss his bid for reelection, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner told his father-in-law he should highlight last year’s historic passage of the First Step Act — a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that eluded previous administrations and has earned celebrity support.

Kushner reiterated the positive selling points of that bill during the Oval Office meeting as Trump campaign officials and White House aides ticked through the president’s achievements, wondering which would resonate most with his adoring base.  But Trump wasn’t interested and told Kushner he didn’t think his core voters would care much about a bipartisan deal for which he’s since accused Democrats of trying to steal credit. “It was clear he thinks it’s a total dud,” said a person familiar with the meeting. “He made it abundantly clear he doesn’t think it’s worth talking about.”

Kushner, whose own father spent more than a year in federal prison, worked closely with Democratic and Republican senators to get the criminal justice reform bill over the finish line last year — often telling his tough-on-crime boss it was worth expending political capital to seize a rare opportunity to overcome the deeply partisan divide on Capitol Hill and solidify his image as a pragmatic deal-maker.

But now, Trump “is telling people he’s mad” at how criminal justice reform has panned out, according to a person close to the president. “He’s really mad that he did it.  He’s saying that he’s furious at Jared because Jared is telling him he’s going to get all these votes of all these felons.”

Indeed, for months, the president has glossed over his son-in-law’s signature legislative achievement at his campaign rallies. If he brings up criminal justice reform, it’s almost always to mock his predecessors for their inability to get it done. Otherwise, as he did at his three most recent campaign events, he skips it entirely, indulging in long-winded rants about unresolved issues like trade and immigration instead of plugging one of the few bipartisan triumphs of his administration.

The subject’s notable absence from Trump’s 2020 stump speech offers a raw look at the president’s political instincts, which strongly veer toward partisan fights and away from the soaring appeals to national unity of past White House incumbents. And it lacks appeal to his base of rural and older white voters, who often respond better to hard-line rhetoric on the topic of law and order.

The nub of the issue for Trump, say White House officials, congressional aides and friends of the president, who were granted anonymity to speak candidly on the matter, is that he no longer sees criminal justice reform as a résumé booster heading into 2020.  He brings it up at official events, in response to reporters, and to religious groups — and it was a key part of Trump’s State of the Union address in January, when he welcomed home the first inmate to be released under the First Step Act — but it’s far from a permanent fixture of his reelection campaign.

“It would be difficult to say it’s a change of heart. I don’t think his heart was ever really in it,” said one White House official, adding that some Trump aides questioned why the president — who once declared himself “the law and order candidate” — endorsed the First Step Act in the first place....  In response to this story, a White House official said, “This false premise is another convoluted contradictory, media-manufactured joke. The president is clearly proud of all of his record-setting accomplishments — including the landmark bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform that data shows will save money, reduce crime and make communities safer.”

During the Oval Office meeting this spring, Trump complained that Democratic co-sponsors of the First Step Act skipped the bill signing at the White House last December (Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island was the only Democrat to attend) and have refused to give him credit for passing prison reform when his immediate predecessor couldn’t, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting.  He’s said as much publicly in recent days, tweeting earlier this month: “I got it done with a group of Senators & others who would never have gone for it. Obama couldn’t come close.”

The tweet came after NBC’s Lester Holt omitted any mention of Trump’s role in advancing criminal justice reform during a televised town hall on the network. The president felt the televised special was disingenuous and thought singer John Legend, who participated in it, “paraded himself out like he was the great savior of criminal justice reform,” according to a senior administration official....

“He’s been telling Jared, ‘I got nothing from that,’” a person close to the White House said of criminal justice reform, adding that the president feels duped by claims that his popularity has grown and that he is frustrated with Kushner’s attempts to “jawbone” the issue into every speech he delivers.  “Jared has got all these stats like ‘every rapist in Florida is now going to vote Republican,’” quipped the person close to Trump.  “Trump doesn’t believe it and he’s mad Jared sold him this thing,” the same person said. (The First Step Act gives only certain nonviolent offenders a chance to shorten their sentences, and excludes sex offenders from early release.)

Kushner has claimed publicly that more nonviolent ex-felons in Florida, where they recently became eligible to vote, are registering as Republicans than as Democrats. In a rare television appearance in April, he told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that he found that statistic “very pleasing” and one “that will surprise a lot of people when they see the new coalition that President Trump is building.”  But it is unclear how Kushner and his team procured such data. As of March, more than 2,000 formerly incarcerated felons had registered to vote in Florida, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, which did not disclose the new registrants’ party affiliations. An aide to Kushner did not provide details on the source of the data in time for publication.

Some Trump allies argue that Kushner, who continues to monitor implementation of the First Step Act, is unlikely to persuade media personalities and Democratic lawmakers who support either to credit Trump with working across the aisle to get the measure passed.

“Van Jones was happy with Trump for a day. That’s all Trump got,” said the person close to Trump, referring to the liberal CNN pundit and former Obama adviser, who once described the First Step Act as “a Christmas miracle.”  Jones did attend a White House summit on prison reform this April — months after the bill passed — and recently met with Kushner to discuss its impact.  Jones, who co-founded the bipartisan criminal justice reform nonprofit #cut50, noted that he’s continued to sing Trump’s praises on the topic, including in a recent interview with CNN in which he celebrated Trump’s role in signing the First Step Act into law.... “There’s always been a bunch of people in the building, they didn’t like it before, during or after, and they’ve always been able to leak out anonymous bullshit quotes that then very quickly have egg on their faces because Trump does something else positive in this direction or throws in another line in a speech,” said Jones, who confirmed that Trump has been frustrated with the lack of credit he’s received....

Some Trump allies worry that the more the president talks about criminal justice reform, the more vulnerable he becomes if a prisoner released early under the restructured sentencing guidelines is ever accused of committing another crime.  When Republicans battled over criminal justice reform last fall, a small group of conservative senators who ultimately opposed the bill warned Trump of the dire consequences he could face if an inmate who won early release became a repeat offender.  “You let people out of jail early, commute sentences, something bad happens because of this effort [and] it’s going to be one more egg on their face — or even worse, blood on their hands,” said a former Senate Republican staffer.

Another GOP aide pointed to a negative ad campaign Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone recently launched against Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards over his support for statewide sentencing reform. The ad accuses Edwards of putting “dangerous” and “violent” ex-felons “back on our streets where they robbed, attacked, [and] murdered.” A person familiar with the ad buy said it was prompted by the September arrest of a Louisiana man on burglary charges who was released early last year as part of a parole reform bill passed by the state Legislature in 2016. “Any smart political person would not go out bragging that they let criminals out of jail,” the GOP aide said.

This reporting is quite interesting, but not really all that surprising in light of Prez Trump's personal and political history. It also has me wondering whether Attorney General William Barr, who seems to be in good with Prez Trump and does not seem inclined to be a big fan of the FIRST STEP Act, might be having some influence on how the Prez thinks about these issues. Most fundamentally, this story serves as yet another reminder of just how fragile political support for criminal justice reform can be and how critical it can be to get reform work done whenever a window of opportunity is open.

September 24, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

"Are We Still Cheap on Crime? Austerity, Punitivism, and Common Sense in Trumpistan"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Hadar Aviram available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Literature on “late mass incarceration” observed a contraction of the carceral state, with varying opinions as to its causes and various degrees of optimism about its potential.  But even optimistic commentators were taken aback by the Trump-Sessions Administration’s criminal justice rhetoric.  This paper maps out the extent to which federal, state and local actions in the age of Trump have reversed the promising trends to shrink the criminal justice apparatus, focusing on federal legislation, continued state and local reform, and the role of criminal justice in 2020 presidential campaigns.  The paper concludes that the overall salutary trends from 2008 onward have slowed down in some respects, but continued on in others, and that advocacy concerns should focus on particular areas of the criminal justice apparatus.

September 4, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Notable Govs make the case for pressing forward with additional criminal justice reforms

Jerry Brown, former governor of California, and Matt Bevin, current governor of Kentucky, have this new Hill commentary under the headline "The US has barely scratched the surface on criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

In these highly polarized times, our nation is awash in loud and public fights about immigration, health care, global warming, and other daunting challenges. Criminal justice used to be on that list of divisive topics.  But now Americans of nearly every political and demographic perspective agree — we need a public safety approach that works better and costs less.

As current and former governors who prioritize greater justice and safety, we believe this historic moment carries great opportunity, but even greater responsibility.  We must ensure that our momentum does not slip away, and we must push forward with nonpartisan purpose toward a criminal justice system worthy of our nation.

Our states of Kentucky and California are very different.  But we and other leaders across the country have coalesced around the principle that while people must be held accountable for breaking our laws, we cannot build our way to a safer society with ever-more prisons....

But while several dozen states and the federal government have made laudable progress, we’ve barely scratched the surface of all that must be done.  Taxpayers spend a quarter trillion dollars per year to arrest, try, sentence, and supervise the 7 million adults behind bars or on probation and parole.  Yet return-to-prison rates remain high, too many communities struggle with violence and substance abuse, and new technologies are increasing our vulnerability to cybercrime and other threats.

Fortunately, we know a lot more about what works in criminal justice than we did 40 years ago, when our nation began an incarceration boom that has exacted a heavy toll, in both fiscal and human costs.  While there are no magic bullets, research has spotlighted effective strategies to stop the cycle of reoffending and better equip people leaving prison to resume stable lives....

We’ve witnessed the power of shifting political winds, and we know that, particularly with criminal justice reform, we must double down on our efforts and guard against backward-looking proposals that are borne of emotion or recycle failed ideas of the past.

August 6, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 05, 2019

Are pretrial risk assessment algorithms really part of "socialist agendas that are sweeping this country"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this curious new Fox News commentary authored by US Senator John Kennedy under the headline "Bail, bond decisions are being made today with algorithms -- That puts your safety at risk."  Here are excerpts:

Jurisdictions across the U.S. are snapping up algorithms as tools to help judges make bail and bond decisions. They’re being sold as race- and gender-neutral assessments that allow judges to use science in determining whether someone will behave if released from jail pending trial.

Really, they’re a dangerous collision of the poorly vetted cost cuts and socialist agendas that are sweeping this country.

The algorithms scare me because they’re being implemented for the same reason as the early release programs that are getting people killed.  The goal isn’t to protect public safety.  It’s to empty jail cells and release dangerous criminals on their own recognizance.

As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’m concerned about the recklessness of public policy that endangers people’s lives, especially in minority communities, where crime often is such a scourge.  These algorithms -- called pretrial assessment release tools -- are the equivalent of using a Magic 8 ball in courtrooms.  The results are disastrous to communities and great for criminals.

In my home state of Louisiana, New Orleans decided a few years ago to reduce the jail population. City officials started using a pretrial assessment release tool that was available for free from a nonprofit founded by a former hedge fund manager who became a billionaire through risky investments that turned into gold.

Do you know what happens when you allow a hedge fund manager to restructure your criminal justice system? You get a model that’s fraught with risk.

The new tool comes into play when someone is arrested on a felony charge, such as robbery or rape. The tool comes up with a score of one to five based on the defendant’s age, criminal history and several other factors. A “one” is considered a low risk to public safety. A “five” is considered justification for maximum supervision.

You would think that a risk level of “one” would be limited to people who jaywalk or shoplift. You would be wrong. In practice, a “five” apparently is reserved for people who kill busloads of nuns.  Ordinary thugs get a “one” as long as they promise that they’ll spend all their time in church and attend every court appearance.  They don’t have to regularly check in with a court officer or even call once a month....

The Metropolitan Crime Commission found that 37.6% of the people arrested for violent felonies in New Orleans during the third and fourth quarters of 2018 received the lowest risk level of “one.”  That included more than 32% of the people arrested for homicide and 36.5% of the people arrested for rape.

Algorithms diminish public safety in this country.  They ask us to pretend that lengthy arrest records and violent crimes don’t matter. They ask police to scoop up the bad guys only for the courts to immediately release them.  They turn us into a bad joke.

The use of risk assessment algorithms, whether pretrial or at sentencing or in the prison system, is an important modern criminal justice development that justifies much scrutiny and can be criticized on many grounds. But this commentary by Senator Kennedy reads a bit like a parody.

For starters, one of the main reasons risk assessments are appealing is because judicial decision-making without the help of data can itself often seem a lot like "Magic 8 ball" decision-making.  Moreover, all sound risk-assessment tools factor in arrest records and violent crimes, so they cannot properly be attacked for pretending that these past acts "don’t matter."  And, most amusingly, I cannot  quite fathom how efforts to make criminal justice decisions based on useful and relevant data amounts to part of "socialist agendas." 

I would welcome Senator Kennedy encouraging the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings about the pros and cons of using risk assessment algorithms in modern criminal justice systems.  But, since he suggests giving judges more information is part of "socialist agendas that are sweeping this country," I worry he might think informing Senators more about these matters also somehow has mysterious sinister socialist undertones.

August 5, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Expressing concern about potential capital distraction from bipartisan criminal justice reform momentum

Laura Arnold has this notable new commentary at Law360 under the headline "Death Penalty Return May Undermine Criminal Justice Reform."  Here are excerpts:

Reasonable minds vociferously differ on, and will continue to debate, the morality of the death penalty. At this critical juncture and moment of opportunity for criminal justice, we must resist the urge to allow this debate to derail large-scale reform.

From a public policy, public safety and cost perspective, the federal death penalty pales in comparison to larger-scale reforms that we could enact today — areas where the White House could add to its bipartisan accomplishments.

There are roughly 171,000 convicted inmates in federal facilities and yet [AG Barr's restarting of executions] decision wastes precious political capital and national attention on a mere 62. Even if we end executions, those 62 will likely never set foot outside a prison for the rest of their lives. Their hearts will continue to beat, but their exile from the living world is immutable.

Meanwhile, there is much greater value in getting the system right for those among the 171,000 federal inmates and nearly 2 million in state and local facilities who have a chance of getting out. Those are the people helped by the First Step Act, and that is where we should continue to focus our efforts....

The death penalty raises a confluence of serious concerns that aren’t easily solved, ranging from constitutional questions to sheer public expense. No wonder that jurisdictions from coast to coast have stopped pursuing capital punishment. The number of death sentences declined by 50% between 2009 and 2015. In fact, only 16 counties out of 3,143 imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015.

Many advocates want to lower that number to zero. It’s a debate worth having, both at the federal level and in every state. Jurisdictions should, and will, make their own determinations, as they do on numerous issues of policy relevance.

But now is not the time to stoke this fight. We should focus all our bipartisan efforts on positively affecting the more than 2 million lives currently under incarceration nationwide, and on systemic improvements that will result in fewer people facing incarceration in the first place.

The Trump administration has demonstrated a passion for this mission, and a keen skill at building momentum amid an otherwise chaotic political atmosphere. Let’s not lose that momentum by derailing the conversation.

I very much like the message and spirit of this commentary, and long-time readers know I have long discussed in various settings the various problems I see from advocates and others giving so much attention to capital cases. (Some examples of my writings in this vein include A Capital Waste of Time? Examining the Supreme Court’s “Culture of Death,” 34 OHIO N.U. L. REV. 861 (2008) (available here) and Reorienting Progressive Perspectives for Twenty-First Century Punishment Realities, 3 Harv. L.& Pol'y Rev. (2008) (available here).)

But, at the same time, I am not sure AG Barr's decision to try to kick-start the death penalty necessarily will or should have to negatively impact other bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts.  Though this may be wishful thinking, one might hope that the recent death penalty move by the Trump Administration may help mollify the "tough-and-tougher" crowd (likely Senators Cotton and Kennedy and certain pundits) who always pose challenges for further federal reforms.  

In months ahead, robust engagement with the federal death penalty will be taking place in federal courts, and I think it somewhat unpredictable whether and how this litigation will impact broader criminal justice reform politics.  But this commentary rightly flags an issue worth watching in the months and years ahead.

August 5, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Rounding up some 2020 criminal justice reform press pieces

In the wake of the latest debate among Democrats vying for a 2020 Prez nomination, the Marshall Project had these two great pieces on the Democratic field and modern political realities:

"Beyond One-Liners: A Guide to the Democratic Debate on Criminal Justice"

"Are Voters Ready to Move on From Willie Horton?  Democratic debates show how far the conversation has come on justice reform."

In addition, a few other media outlets have had recent pieces in a somewhat similar same vein:

"Criminal Justice Reform Advocates See Prime Opportunity in 2020 Election"

"What's wrong with America's criminal justice system? 6 questions for an expert"

August 3, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Former Veep Joe Biden releases extended "Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice"

5cc204a166ae8f499c6db764-750-563As reported in this new Washington Post piece, headlined "Biden announces criminal justice policy sharply at odds with his ’94 crime law," the former Vice President and now Dem nominee front-runner Joe Biden has today release a big bold criminal justice reform plan that is new in various ways.  The Post piece provides some highlights and context, and it starts this way:

Former vice president Joe Biden, who has faced criticism from liberals for spearheading a 1994 law when he was a senator that cracked down on criminals, announced a proposal Tuesday that would eliminate the death penalty and embrace other changes at odds with that earlier legislation.

The Democratic presidential candidate would aim to pass legislation to abolish the death penalty at the federal level and offer incentives to states to follow suit, his new plan says. Convicted criminals who would face execution under current law would instead be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Biden’s plan also would decriminalize marijuana and expunge past cannabis-related convictions; end the disparity between sentences for powder and crack cocaine; and do away with all incarceration for drug use alone. In addition, it would create a $20 billion grant program to spur states to move from incarceration to crime prevention and eliminate mandatory-minimum sentences.

Attitudes about race and criminal justice have changed significantly over the years in both parties, partly as a result of decreasing crime rates. Democrats in particular have moved sharply away from ideas that give greater powers to the police and prosecutors, instead committing to addressing inequities that they say have damaged minority communities.

The release of Biden’s criminal justice plan comes about a week before the next round of televised Democratic primary debates, when his record is expected to come under renewed scrutiny. His support for the 1994 crime bill has been criticized by both Republicans and Democrats, who argue that it led to mass incarceration and tilted the system unfairly against African Americans.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of Biden’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, offered a preview Monday morning of what is expected to come on the debate stage. “It’s not enough to tell us what you’re going to do for our communities, show us what you’ve done for the last 40 years,” Booker wrote on Twitter. “You created this system. We’ll dismantle it.”

The full "Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice" is available at this link, and it merits a read in full because it has a number of interesting elements. Here are a few excerpts from the start and from parts that caught my eye (without links and formatting):

Today, too many people are incarcerated in the United States — and too many of them are black and brown.  To build safe and healthy communities, we need to rethink who we’re sending to jail, how we treat those in jail, and how we help them get the health care, education, jobs, and housing they need to successfully rejoin society after they serve their time.  As president, Joe Biden will strengthen America’s commitment to justice and reform our criminal justice system.

The Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice is based on several core principles:

-- We can and must reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country while also reducing crime. No one should be incarcerated for drug use alone. Instead, they should be diverted to drug courts and treatment.  Reducing the number of incarcerated individuals will reduce federal spending on incarceration.  These savings should be reinvested in the communities impacted by mass incarceration....

-- Our criminal justice system cannot be just unless we root out the racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the system.... 

-- Our criminal justice system must be focused on redemption and rehabilitation. Making sure formerly incarcerated individuals have the opportunity to be productive members of our society is not only the right thing to do, it will also grow our economy....

-- Create a new $20 billion competitive grant program to spur states to shift from incarceration to prevention.  To accelerate criminal justice reform at the state and local levels, Biden will create a new grant program inspired by a proposal by the Brennan Center.  States, counties, and cities will receive funding to invest in efforts proven to reduce crime and incarceration, including efforts to address some of the factors like illiteracy and child abuse that are correlated with incarceration.  In order to receive this funding, states will have to eliminate mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes, institute earned credit programs, and take other steps to reduce incarceration rates without impacting public safety....

-- Establish an independent Task Force on Prosecutorial Discretion.  Law enforcement officials’ decisions regarding when to arrest, when to charge, and what charges to bring are critical decision-points in our criminal justice system.  The charges, for example, can dramatically impact not only what sentence someone ends up with but also whether they are compelled to take a plea bargain.  The Biden Administration will create a new task force, placed outside of the U.S. Department of Justice, to make recommendations for tackling discrimination and other problems in our justice system that results from arrest and charging decisions....

-- Eliminate mandatory minimums. Biden supports an end to mandatory minimums. As president, he will work for the passage of legislation to repeal mandatory minimums at the federal level. And, he will give states incentives to repeal their mandatory minimums.

-- End, once and for all, the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity.  The Obama-Biden Administration successfully narrowed the unjustified disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.  The Biden Administration will eliminate this disparity completely, as then-Senator Biden proposed in 2007.  And, Biden will ensure that this change is applied retroactively.

-- Decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions.  Biden believes no one should be in jail because of cannabis use.  As president, he will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.  And, he will support the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes, leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, and reschedule cannabis as a schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.

-- End all incarceration for drug use alone and instead divert individuals to drug courts and treatment. Biden believes that no one should be imprisoned for the use of illegal drugs alone. Instead, Biden will require federal courts to divert these individuals to drug courts so they receive treatment to address their substance use disorder. He’ll incentivize states to put the same requirements in place. And, he’ll expand funding for federal, state, and local drug courts.

-- Eliminate the death penalty. Over 160 individuals who’ve been sentenced to death in this country since 1973 have later been exonerated. Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.  These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole.

-- Use the president’s clemency power to secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes. President Obama used his clemency power more than any of the 10 prior presidents. Biden will continue this tradition and broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes.

July 23, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 14, 2019

"Some Doubts About 'Democratizing' Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by John Rappaport and recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The American criminal justice system’s ills are by now so familiar as scarcely to bear repeating: unprecedented levels of incarceration, doled out disproportionately across racial groups, and police that seem to antagonize and hurt the now-distrustful communities they are tasked to serve and protect.  Systemic social ailments like these seldom permit straightforward diagnoses, let alone simple cures.  In this case, however, a large, diverse, and influential group of experts — the legal academy’s “democratizers” — all identify the same disease: the retreat of local democratic control in favor of a bureaucratic “machinery” disconnected from public values and the people themselves.  Neighborhood juries, for example, internalize the costs of punishing their own; neighborhood police, “of” and answerable to the community, think twice before drawing their weapons or stopping a local boy on a hunch. The experts and detached professionals who populate our dominant bureaucratic institutions, in contrast, are motivated by different, less salubrious, incentives.  Across the gamut of criminal justice decisionmaking, the democratizers maintain, the influence of the local laity is a moderating, equalizing, and ultimately legitimating one.  A generous dose of participatory democracy won’t solve all our problems, but it’s our best shot to get the criminal justice system back on its feet.

This Article’s warning is plain: don’t take the medicine.  “Democracy” and “community” wield undeniable rhetorical appeal but will not really fix what ails us — and may just make it worse.  The democratization movement, the Article argues, rests on conceptually problematic and empirically dubious premises about the makeup, preferences, and independence of local “communities.”  It relies on the proudly counterintuitive claim that laypeople are largely lenient and egalitarian, contrary to a wealth of social scientific evidence.  And ultimately, democratization’s dual commitments are on a collision course.  The democratizers simultaneously devote themselves to particular ends — amelioration of the biased and outsized carceral state — and to a particular means — participatory democracy.  What happens if, as this Article predicts, the means do not produce the ends? Which commitment prevails?  Worse yet, venerating lay opinion distracts from alternative visions of “democratic” criminal justice that more credibly tackle the critical question of how best to blend public accountability with evidence and expertise.

July 14, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Noting that nearly all Democratic candidates are against the death penalty

This lengthy new San Francisco Chronicle article, headlined "Nearly all Democratic candidates oppose death penalty as public opinion shifts," reports on the new political reality surrounding death penalty view of leading candidates.  Here are excerpts:

Not so long ago, opposing the death penalty was pretty much a death knell for a presidential candidate.  Michael Dukakis, for one, sank his remaining hopes in 1988 when he told a debate questioner he would oppose execution even for someone who had raped and murdered his wife.

Now, in what appears to be another sign of a public turnabout on the issue, nearly all of the Democratic presidential hopefuls — with the notable exception of former Vice President Joe Biden — say they are against capital punishment....

If candidates “thought they were going to hurt themselves by coming out against the death penalty, I really think very few would do it,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in election law and governance.  “I think the consensus (among candidates) is, this is where public opinion is or is about to be.”

Opinion polls indicate a decline in nationwide support for the death penalty, from 80% in a 1994 Gallup survey to 56% in October 2018.  A Quinnipiac University poll in March 2018 found that respondents favored life without parole over the death penalty for murder by 51% to 37%. And the polls say Democrats, who will vote in next year’s primaries, are more than three times as likely as Republicans to oppose the death penalty.

The president ... has direct authority over only the federal death penalty, which accounts for a fraction of the more than 2,700 death sentences now pending in the United States, including 735 in California.

Condemned federal prisoners include a few notorious cases — like Tsarnaev and Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who slaughtered nine African Americans at a South Carolina church in 2015 — but most of the 62 were convicted of murders that came under federal jurisdiction because they took place in federal prisons or other U.S. property or were connected to federal drug crimes.  The last federal execution took place in 2003.

Somewhat relatedly, Nicholas Kristof has this lengthy essay in the New York Times proving arguments for death penalty opposition unde the headline "When We Kill: Everything you think you know about the death penalty is wrong."

June 16, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 14, 2019

"The Myth of Bipartisan Death Penalty Abolitionism"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent commentary by Charles Fain Lehman at the Washington Free Beacon. I recommend the whole piece, which is a response in part to a recent Atlantic commentary noted here.  Here is how Lehman's piece starts and ends (with links from the original):

Did you know that Republicans are "quietly turning against the death penalty"?  So sayeth the Atlantic, in a lengthy story published Sunday in the wake of New Hampshire's abolition of the death penalty.  Sunday's article is just the latest in "conservatives who oppose the death penalty" coverage.  Google some combination of "death penalty," "conservative," and "oppose" and you will find similar stories from outlets like the GuardianWall Street Journal, and Washington Post.

The Atlantic piece neatly summarized the tenor of such stories: "death-penalty reform has quietly broken through as a bipartisan issue — one that could portend a shaky future for capital punishment in the U.S."

The basis of this argument is that a handful of Republican state legislators have authored or signed on to legislative proposals to end the death penalty.  But the implication is that conservatives are slowly but steadily getting in line behind the liberal consensus against the death penalty.  That's total nonsense.  Let's look at the data.

The General Social Survey, a major survey of public opinion administered by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, has routinely asked respondents about their views on the death penalty since 1974; it also tracks respondents' political views.  The results are pretty clear: Roughly three in four conservatives support the death penalty, and have done so at at least that rate since the 1970s....

To be sure, there are self-identified conservatives who oppose the death penalty, in much the same way that there are self-identified conservatives who call themselves pro-choice or reject the right to keep and bear arms.  But the survey data show that abolition has been and remains a clear minority view, among conservatives and indeed among Americans generally.

Why, then, does the mainstream media keep pushing the narrative that there is some emerging conservative consensus against the death penalty?  Why do they keep regurgitating the talking points of the same few advocates?  (The Atlantic article conspicuously lacks a quote from any expert who represents the majority of Americans who support the death penalty.)

On this we can only speculate.  But one thing is clear: When it comes to the death penalty, most of the media is on one side, and most conservatives — indeed the majority of Americans — are on the other.

June 14, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Has death penalty reform "quietly broken through as a bipartisan issue"?

About four years ago, I asked in this 2015 post "Is there really a "growing conservative movement" that will create "bipartisan coalition opposing" the death penalty?".  That post was prompted by a commentary noting various anti-death penalty movements in various red states.  This new Atlantic piece, headlined "GOP Lawmakers Are Quietly Turning Against the Death Penalty," is written in this same spirit and inspired by the repeal of the death penalty in New Hampshire.  Here are excerpts:

Though law-and-order conservatives have long championed the death penalty, New Hampshire is one of a growing number of states where Republicans ... are joining Democrats to push for a ban.  Last week, New Hampshire became the 21st state to outlaw capital punishment, one of 11 states this year — including GOP strongholds such as Kansas, Wyoming, Kentucky, and Missouri — where Republican lawmakers have sponsored bills to end the practice.  The movement is the result of several political factors, including Republican and Democratic concern over the country’s criminal-justice system.  But it’s also been motivated by lawmakers’ personal experiences....  Death-penalty reform has quietly broken through as a bipartisan issue — one that could portend a shaky future for capital punishment in the U.S.

Lawmakers in New Hampshire had tried and failed to outlaw the death penalty for two decades.  In 2018, they got close: The GOP-controlled state legislature passed a repeal bill, though it didn’t have enough votes to override Republican Governor Chris Sununu’s quick veto.  This year was different.  A repeal bill, co-sponsored by Welch, passed both chambers with just enough bipartisan support to narrowly best the governor.

Of course, many Republican state lawmakers — not to mention the president — still support the death penalty.  So does their base: A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that three-quarters of Republican voters favor capital punishment, compared with just 35 percent of Democrats.  And the overwhelming majority of executions take place in red states: Of the 25 prisoners put to death in the United States last year, 13 were in Texas alone.  Democrats still continue to lead the charge to abolish the death penalty throughout the country, and starting in 2016, the national party included it in its official platform.  Nevertheless, like other states, New Hampshire wouldn’t have been successful without the support of dozens of Republicans in the legislature....

It wasn’t always this way.  Politicians from both parties have historically used the death penalty as a wedge issue to show that they were “tough on crime,” says Robert Dunham, the executive director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center.  A rise in the number of executions in the 1990s coincided with a push toward mass incarceration. While calls for reform escalated in the 2000s, as late as 2008, the then–presidential candidate Barack Obama voiced his disagreement with a Supreme Court ruling limiting the use of the death penalty in Louisiana.

One significant reason the tide has started to shift is the rise in conservative support for criminal-justice reform in the past few years.  Conservative groups such as Right on Crime and the Charles Koch Institute have advocated for reforms, including the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill President Donald Trump signed into law in late 2018 that changed some sentencing laws and targeted recidivism....

“As conservatives, we know the government’s flawed. We hate the government,” says Hannah Cox, the national manager of the advocacy group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “Why would we give it power over life and death?”...

Overall, the opposition to the death penalty among Republicans represents a genuine, if slim, fault line in the party, one that could grow in parallel with concerns about the criminal-justice system as a whole. State lawmakers seem like the ones to watch: From 2000 to 2016, the number of GOP legislators sponsoring death-penalty-repeal bills increased by more than a factor of 10, according to Cox’s group. Repeal efforts have made it strikingly far in some conservative states. In February, Wyoming’s repeal bill passed the House and came within seven votes of passing the Senate. In Utah, a 2016 repeal effort passed the Senate but was just eight votes shy in the House. And in 2015, Nebraska lawmakers successfully overrode the governor’s veto to ban the death penalty, although it was later reinstated....

But for conservatives in New Hampshire who were key in getting death-penalty repeal past his veto, their concerns about capital punishment were too hard to ignore.  Bob Giuda, a Republican state senator, told me he also used to support the death penalty, but then slowly changed his mind.  “What do we accomplish by executing people?” he said.  “What statement do we make?” Giuda’s wife lives in a vegetative state, and he told me that he aspires to view all lives as equal, whether it’s his wife’s or Addison’s. “We don’t get to assign that value,” he said.

That type of deeply intimate answer may be why Republicans and Democrats in New Hampshire, and in other states, are joining together to scrap death-penalty laws, even as they remain deeply polarized on a whole set of other issues.  “I never hear, ‘Well, my caucus thinks’ or, ‘My party says,’” Hruska said. “It’s always a personal answer.”

June 9, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Spotlighting eagerness to elect state judges as well as prosecutors committed to criminal justice reform

This new Atlantic article, headlined "The Search for Progressive Judges," highlights how activists who have sought to elect a new wave of progressive prosecutors are now turning attention to judicial elections. Here are excerpts:

It used to be unheard of for Philadelphia judges to reject a negotiated sentence in these resentencings — until Larry Krasner, arguably the most progressive prosecutor in the country, took over the city’s district attorney’s office in January 2018 and started delivering on a promise to minimize incarceration.  In response, several Philadelphia judges have shut down his attempts to keep people out of prison or release them earlier.... Recently, some judges reportedly declined to consider an initiative, developed by Krasner, to seek shorter probation sentences.

After watching these developments with growing dismay, Rick Krajewski, an organizer for a leftist political group called Reclaim Philadelphia, convened about 30 Philadelphia activists in January at the offices of a prisoner-advocacy organization to float a radical proposal.  Many of them had been instrumental in getting Krasner elected.  But clearly, electing a progressive prosecutor hadn’t been enough.  This time, Krajewski wanted to persuade them to spearhead a rare grassroots campaign for the typically sleepy judicial race....

Krasner, elected in 2017, came to office during a nationwide wave of reform-minded prosecutors: In Houston, Chicago, Brooklyn, and other left-leaning cities, prosecutors have been winning races on platforms to end mass incarceration.  A prosecutor has tremendous sway when, for example, suggesting bail, negotiating plea agreements, and recommending sanctions for parole and probation violations.  But judges and magistrates have the final say — and their decisions have been thrown into relief in jurisdictions that have elected reformist prosecutors.  “What we are seeing is that the judges are deciding to take it upon themselves to be the obstacle for a progressive district attorney,” says Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, a former juvenile lifer who now works as a policy adviser at Amistad Law Project, a prisoner-rights advocacy organization.

Recently, justice-reform advocates in a couple of other places have also turned their eye to judges.  In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, voters swept out the old guard to completely flip all 59 contested seats in civil, criminal, family, juvenile, and probate courts from Republican to Democrat; the new judges are preparing to stop detaining people accused of low-level crimes who aren’t able to post cash bail.  Organizers in Texas are starting to scout for judicial candidates in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, and in Dallas County, who support scaling back the use of cash bail.

In theory, judges should be impartial arbiters of justice, motivated by the law rather than politics.  Since the birth of America, legal scholars and politicians have debated the best method to create an independent judiciary: Should it be elected, or appointed by other elected officials?  That question has yet to be resolved, and currently each state institutes its own system for choosing local judges.  However, the majority — 87 percent as of 2015 — of state-court judges are elected officials.  “I think that the overwhelming majority of judges are trying to do their jobs in good faith,” says Alicia Bannon, the deputy director for program management of the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, “but those political pressures are real.”

Historically, that pressure has been applied by advocates for a more punitive justice system.  The authors of a 2015 Brennan Center study analyzed television ads for judicial candidates nationwide and found that an increasing number of ads focused on how harshly the candidate would punish bad actors: In 2013 and 2014, a record 56 percent of campaign ads lauded tough-on-crime records or lambasted opponents for being soft.  In the past, advocates on the left have lamented how these political pressures have influenced judges.

Now, the progressive activists in the Philadelphia election, and the ones in Texas, are unapologetically supporting judges whose politics align with their own.  The primary election on May 21, rather than the actual election in the fall, will essentially determine who will win the judgeships, since the city’s electorate votes overwhelmingly for Democrats, leaving Republican candidates with little chance of victory.  The primaries are technically partisan, but only one Republican is running.  “The reality is no matter how you pick judges, they are going to be political,” says Jed Shugerman, a Fordham law professor who wrote The People’s Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America. In today’s political climate, he says, progressive groups can have significant influence in left-leaning cities.

May 19, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 25, 2019

"Jared Kushner: Fifteen Lessons I Learned From Criminal-Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting Time commentary authored by Jared Kushner, which seems to be something of a follow up to his interview as part of The TIME 100 Summit.  I would recommend the extended piece in full, especially for those interested in more background on how the FIRST STEP Act became a reality and how best to be successful in seeking the next steps in federal criminal justice reform.  Here is a taste:

In the wake of this legislation, hundreds of people have asked me how it was possible in the middle of such a divided political climate to bring both parties together on an issue that initially seemed to have no consensus, no champion and no pathway.  Pursuing the passage of the First Step Act was one of the hardest experiences of my life.  I got a close-up view of how Congress works — and how it doesn’t.  Because this was neither a major issue of the campaign nor one of the first priorities of the new Administration, I did a lot of the staff work on it myself, with a small and dedicated team, and we were able to follow what I designed as a more intuitive process, instead of a standard legislative process. This ended up working even though this bill nearly died dozens of times along the way. Here are the key lessons I learned from the experience.

The first lesson is that you have to reach out and talk to the other side. You will never make a deal in politics by only talking to people who agree with you.  Ivanka and I would frequently host bipartisan groups of six to eight legislators at our home for off-the-record dinners, normally on a specific legislative priority, and the first toast was always by someone saying, “We don’t do this enough. We used to spend more time with people in the other party in safe and productive environments.”  Politics is a tribal business, and my reaching out to Democrats made some on the right uncomfortable.  My politics have been those of an independent.  Since I was new to professional politics, I did not feel that I knew the best way to solve the problems we have in this country so I sought out respected people on both sides of the aisle.  I saw that when people reach out on either side of the aisle, they are subjected to criticism and even being labeled a “traitor” by those in their own party.  By contrast, President Trump is a pragmatist.  He looks to solve problems but is not ideologically fixed. I believed that he deserved thoughtful, researched options on how to pursue the promises that he made to the American people.  There are many different ways to solve problems and no party has a monopoly on good ideas.

The second lesson is that you have to engage early with a diverse group of people.  For the prison reform effort, we started out by hosting multiple listening sessions in which we assembled the right people and allowed everyone to share their perspective. T his included Senators, Congressmen, governors, academics, law enforcement and many others. From these conversations we got good ideas, we saw overlapping areas of agreement, and we made people feel included in the process from the outset. Asking a lot of questions and closely listening, helped me form a more nuanced perspective.  As my close friend and mentor Ambassador Bob Lighthizer would tell me during intense trade negotiations, “I don’t know anyone who ever got smarter by talking.”  While being in the White House and having the President on board was powerful, we could not have gotten this done if it weren’t for the many outside groups supporting the effort.  There are too many to name who worked on this issue for a decade before I got involved, but they laid the foundation for our success.  When we had politicians on the fence about voting with us, we would activate these outside groups and they always knew who the most influential voices were for each Senator or Congressman.  Having many supporters out on TV and in the communities in both liberal and conservative circles helped bring around others who were less familiar with the issue.  This coalition enabled me to cross the most important hurdle of all, which was to get President Trump to support this effort over the objections of others.

The third lesson is to study what was tried and assess why it failed.  Our system was designed to make change hard, and I remind my team all the time not to be afraid to follow intuition over ceremony and to try new approaches. We started by looking at the 2016 legislative effort and sought to understand who supported it and why the effort had failed. We were told that the Senate would not put a new bill on the floor since there was still too much disagreement. The leading opponent in 2016 was then Senator Jeff Sessions, who in 2018 was the Attorney General. Following dozens of discussions with interested parties, I engaged with him and after several meetings I was able to get him to agree not to block prison-reform efforts in exchange for us not working on the sentencing reforms he opposed. I told him that I would assume that we would work in good faith to achieve our shared goals of reducing crime. To that end, we would take all of his comments under advisement and try to incorporate them to the degree possible.  This angered Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin, who had spent considerable time crafting the compromise language on the old bill.  They were skeptical of Sessions’ working in good faith on this issue and thought we were disrespecting their work. After several heated meetings, I told them that we were going to start working in the House on a prison-reform bill.

The other side of this is to study what has worked . The best thing about the federalist system is that the states are laboratories of democracy where ideas are tested. On prison reform we analyzed the many red states where reforms have succeeded.  For instance, in Texas in 2002, Governor Rick Perry saw that the costs of incarceration were rising fast. He determined, with the help of his then policy director Brooke Rollins — who later led this effort with me from the White House — that you can change the prison system to focus it on locking up the worst violent criminals and that by being more targeted with these efforts you can lower incarceration costs and also lower crime rates.

The fourth lesson was to develop a full legislative strategy early, and be prepared to modify as things progressed.  We started working with Representatives Doug Collins and Hakeem Jeffries in the House, who had been the co-sponsors for the previous prison-reform bill.  What we hoped would be easy got complicated very quickly.  When the White House engaged, this raised the profile of the effort making it more political than it was the last time.  We received criticism on all sides.  Law-enforcement groups insisted that the current version of the bill was inadequate and in need of major revisions; Congressman Jeffries was taking heat for working with Trump’s White House; and Senate Democrats even claimed that our version of the bill was potentially racially discriminatory in how it would be implemented.  We had our work cut out for us.

The fifth lesson is that the details really matter.  It’s easy for politicians to disagree on big concepts, but you find compromise and solutions in the details. During the negotiations we had many moments where both sides almost quit.  At one point, those at the table who were against the bill had put so many poison pill provisions into the draft legislation that I got an emergency call from Ja’Ron Smith, the talented legislative staffer who volunteered to work on this with me.  Ja’Ron told me that Jeffries’ team had walked away. The poison pills did not matter to our primary objective, while putting undue pressure on the Congressman, who was already getting a lot of criticism from the left. I didn’t want to let him down.  We reviewed the provisions and determined which ones were reasonable and which were not....

The seventh lesson is that nothing significant in Washington gets done without the President’s buy-in. After a year of research and planning, we were confident that this was a worthwhile effort but could not take any further steps without President Trump’s blessing.  The President was a bit skeptical going into the meeting, saying “Jared, this sounds like a pretty liberal issue.”  So I scheduled a policy meeting in January 2018 with external conservative leaders who could better explain how these reforms would advance his agenda.  Before it began, Sarah Sanders noted that her father had passed similar reforms in Arkansas and that they were some of the most impactful and popular things he had done.  When the President entered the room he was pleased to see many familiar conservative faces.  I made a few introductory points and quickly passed it off to others to make the case.  Having conservative governors, activists and law-enforcement leaders there helped a lot.  But the most important statement made at that meeting was by aide Reed Cordish who said to President Trump, “You promised during your campaign to fight for the forgotten men and women of this country. There is no one more forgotten or underrepresented than the people in prison.” I could see that this statement hit the President and moved him deeply.

After we had gone through the statistics and policy, the President said, “That’s really sad. These people make a mistake, do their time, get out and then have all of these challenges. In some ways, what do we expect them to do?”  He saw immediately why both parties should support these reforms and told me: “I am all in. Let’s get it done, but work with Jeff to make sure this isn’t soft on crime.”

April 25, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Spotlighting how reduced support for the death penalty is now a bipartisan reality

Alan Greenblatt has this notable lengthy new piece at Governing under the headline "Why the Death Penalty Has Lost Support From Both Parties."  I recommend the piece in full and here are excerpts:

Twenty years ago, most politicians in both parties supported the death penalty.  But today, opposition to it has become increasingly bipartisan.  Democrats have always been more wary, but now more conservatives have also become convinced that capital punishment is another failed government program.  In part, that's because the legal process for such cases is enormously expensive, even though few executions are ever carried out.

“When you look at how much money we’re spending, no one looks at that and thinks the death penalty works fine,” says Hannah Cox, national manager for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a pro-abolition group.  “We’re seeing a real escalation as far as the number of Republican legislators who are sponsoring repeal bills.”...

Lately, the spotlight has shifted to New Hampshire, where last week the legislature sent the governor a bill to repeal the death penalty.  Both chambers passed the bill by veto-proof margins, with bipartisan support.  Once the legislature overrides GOP Gov. Chris Sununu’s expected veto, New Hampshire will be the 21st state to outlaw capital punishment.  Colorado and Nevada could be next -- both have repeal bills currently pending.

For the first time since the death penalty was put back into practice during the 1970s, a majority of Americans now live in states that have abolished the practice or imposed a moratorium on it, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which researches the issue.  Still, support for capital punishment has not vanished.  Polls show that a majority of Americans continue to back it....

“When you talk about death penalty, a lot of people immediately want to have a criminal justice angle on it or a morality angle,” Chad McCoy, the Kentucky House Republican whip and sponsor of an abolition bill, told The Hill. “Mine is purely economics.”...

It’s not only lawmakers who have grown more skeptical about capital punishment.  Prosecutors have, too. In part due to the costs associated with capital cases, the death penalty has essentially disappeared from rural counties, says [Prof Brandon] Garrett, author of End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.  Fewer than 2 percent of the counties in the nation are responsible for half the death row convictions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Not long ago, jurisdictions like Philadelphia County, Los Angeles County and Harris County, which includes Houston, were imposing 10 or more death sentences apiece per year.....  But there’s been a changing of the guard in many large counties over the past two or three years, including Harris and Philadelphia.  Voters are electing reform-minded prosecutors who are less likely -- or completely unwilling -- to seek execution as a punishment. 

Last year, no county in the United States imposed more than two death sentences.  During the mid-1990s, there were more than 300 death sentences imposed annually for three years running. Last year, the total was 42.  There hasn’t been more than 100 since 2010....

In 2016, the same year Trump was elected, Nebraska voters overturned a death penalty repeal that had been passed by the legislature, while California voters rejected a ballot measure to end capital punishment.  But if 2016 seemed to signal a shift back in favor of capital punishment, the momentum hasn't been sustained.  Under Trump, just three federal prisoners have been sentenced to die.  In last year’s elections, two governors who imposed moratoriums on the death penalty -- Democrats Kate Brown of Oregon and Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania -- both won reelection.  Conversely, two governors who vetoed abolition bills -- Republicans Pete Ricketts of Nebraska and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire -- also won reelection....

If crime rates increase, support for the death penalty could make a comeback. And many politicians and prosecutors want to keep execution available for punishing the “worst of the worst.”  In Florida, for example, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the alleged shooter in last year’s Parkland high school massacre.

Death penalty experts agree that the practice will not be completely abolished anytime in the foreseeable future.  But both the use of the death penalty and political support for it has declined markedly since the 1990s, when it was a wedge issue that moved many voters.  The list of states abolishing the death penalty continues to grow.  “I see the death penalty ending with a whimper, not a bang,” Garrett says. “It may be that the best thing is to allow states and communities to decide what’s best for them.”

This effectively review of the state of the capital mood in the United States will be interesting to revisit as we move into the 2020 election cycle. It seems quite possible that advocates and perhaps the base of the Democratic party will seek a Prez nominee who will actively embrace death penalty abolition. Prez Trump, who clearly likes to talk up his support for the death penalty, might well be eager to turn capital punishment into a wedge issue once again.

April 16, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Spotlighting how "politicians are catching up with American voters" on criminal justice reforms

Alex Busansky and Eli Lehrer have this notable new Hill commentary under the headline "Voters are driving justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

When crime rates soared between the 1970s and early 1990s, Democrats and Republicans alike did everything possible to avoid being labeled “soft on crime.”  As crime has dropped, however, reforms that ease punitive measures, reduce correctional populations from the current level of more than 2.2 million, and give people who are formerly incarcerated a fresh start have become a bipartisan cause.  Results from the 2018 midterms, particularly ballot measures backed by voters, should provide important advice for gearing up for the 2020 cycle.  Criminal justice reform has become a winning issue with voters and advocates should pay heed.

Polling data make it clear how voters feel nationally. In a recent article, pollster Celinda Lake says that by a two to one margin, voters believe that our country relies too much on incarcerating people.  A national poll last year by Public Opinion Strategies showed that 68 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Independents, and 80 percent of Democrats support significant reform.  Places across the nation with very different politics have followed suit and moved towards significant justice system reforms....

This trend has lessons for what works at the state level and ought to give a significant tailwind to those looking to organize for the next cycle.  Efforts are already underway to make Nebraska and Mississippi the latest states to legalize medical marijuana.  This decriminalization of a drug that is now widely accepted is an important step because it reduces justice system involvement for many, particularly people of color, who are simply not dangerous to anyone.  Likewise, Los Angeles County recently approved a plan to close the downtown Men’s Central Jail, while killing a proposal to convert a detention facility into a women’s jail.  Next year, Los Angeles County voters will decide whether to pass a jail reform ballot measure.

Looking to 2020, citizens are already hearing justice reform touted by candidates of both parties. That is not surprising, and it is only going to increase.  Politicians are catching up with American voters, who have already realized that both easing some unnecessarily harsh measures and helping those who have made mistakes become productive members of society is not just a good and right idea, it is a winning campaign issue.

This piece gives some important (though necessarily incomplete) attention to the vole of ballot initiatives in the criminal justice reform movement. Especially in light of recent election cycles in which significant criminal justice reform has been enacted at the ballot in red states like Oklahoma and Florida, I think this is a story that cannot get too much attention and is worth of extended analysis.

April 4, 2019 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 25, 2019

Another useful reminder of the need for more criminal justice diversity on the federal bench

Long-time readers know I have been talking a long time about the prosecutorial tilt that impacts who gets nominated and confirmed for seats on the US Supreme Court and lower federal courts.  Encouragingly, the need for more balance in the courts is getting more attention as criminal justice reform continues to garner attention (especially among would-be Democratic Prez candidates).   Consider, for example, this piece on this topic at Slate by Kyle Barry under the headline "Democratic Presidential Candidates Should Promise to Appoint This Kind of Judge to the Federal Courts."  Here are  excerpts:

The lawyers who best understand the importance of [the Constitution's] basic protections, of course, are public defenders.  And the Supreme Court hasn’t had a justice with significant experience representing indigent criminal defendants since Thurgood Marshall, who founded the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, retired in 1991.  Two current justices — Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor — worked as prosecutors.  The rest have no hands-on experience with the criminal justice system, creating what Washington Post columnist Radley Balko has called a “massive blind spot” in the court’s decision-making.

This absence of experience extends beyond the Supreme Court to the entire federal judiciary.  Former public defenders are woefully underrepresented on both the trial-level district courts and the circuit courts of appeal, while experience as a prosecutor remains a common and largely unquestioned career path to the federal bench.

The issue is cross-partisan and deeply systemic.  Much like how the policies that created America’s mass incarceration crisis were bipartisan — with Republicans and Democrats competing to appear most tough on crime — so too has been the impulse to tap prosecutors over public defenders as federal judges.  According to the advocacy group Alliance for Justice, more than 40 percent of President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees were prosecutors, outnumbering public defenders by three to one.

The problem has only worsened under President Donald Trump.  Trump’s judicial appointees lack diversity along any metric.  They are 91 percent white and 76 percent male.  Just one of his 91 confirmed judges is black.  Still, the lack of criminal defense experience is extreme.  By reviewing the Senate Judiciary Committee Questionnaires for all of Trump’s 143 confirmed or pending judicial nominees who have submitted one (a handful of recent nominees have not), I learned that not one has worked full-time as a state or federal public defender.  One, Clifton Corker, a pending nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, reports one year as a “volunteer” federal defender.  That’s it.

By contrast, more than one-third of Trump’s nominees have worked as prosecutors, including 38.3 percent of his district court nominees and 33.3 percent of his circuit court nominees.  And that’s with a narrow definition of “prosecutor” that excludes lawyers, like Gorsuch, who served in high-level executive branch positions but did not personally prosecute cases....

Obama’s penchant for choosing prosecutors culminated in the nomination of Merrick Garland, a former prosecutor, over Jane Kelly, a former public defender, to the Supreme Court in 2016.  Once Kelly, a judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was reported to be a finalist, conservative groups used her public defense experience to launch a smear campaign and paint her as a threat to law and order; an especially offensive tactic given that Kelly was herself the victim of a violent assault.  Yet it also betrayed an important truth: While Gideon’s promise of robust public defense is both celebrated and stigmatized, the stigma is baked into traditional notions of the ideal, critique-proof judicial nominee.  Prosecutors have faced no such hurdle.

For progressives, the Trump era has ignited perhaps unprecedented interest in the courts and judicial nominations.  On issues from immigration to the environment to voting rights, just to name a few, the federal courts have been the primary check on the Trump administration’s often cruel and discriminatory policies.  And Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, along with a flock of far-right and in many cases grossly incompetent nominees to the lower courts, sparked outrage that has echoed through the halls of Congress and beyond.

But what is the flip side of that outrage?  What kind of judicial nominees should progressives demand?  Part of the answer is obvious: more public defenders.  Indeed, a pledge to appoint at least as many public defenders as prosecutors to the federal bench is a tangible way for presidential candidates to show commitment to dismantling mass incarceration while at the same time charting a path forward for the courts.  There is now real opportunity to start a new narrative around judicial selection, one that rejects the stigma attached to public defenders and the mythical neutrality of prosecutors.

A few prior related posts from years past:

March 25, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Reviewing the modern reality of robust conservative support for criminal justice reform

Long-time readers know I have been talking for a very long time about a possible "new right" on a range of sentencing and corrections issues.  This post way back in January 2005 asked "Is there a 'new right' on criminal sentencing issues?" and this article in December 2008 explained why principled modern conservatives should be troubled by mass incarceration, and this post in November 2010 wondered "When and how will state GOP leaders start cutting expensive criminal justice programming?". 

But, happily, it is no longer cutting-edge to be talking about folks on the right supporting criminal justice reform.  Three years later, it bears recalling that a majority of the GOP candidates for President in 2016 had a record of support for criminal justice reform.  And, remarkably, the one 2016 GOP candidate with arguably the worst record on these criminal justice reform issues (Donald Trump) went on sign the most significant federal criminal justice reform bill in a generation in the form of the FIRST STEP Act.  And, before and since the 2016 election, many conservative leaders in many red states have been actively advocating and securing significant state-level criminal justice reforms.  

These political realities have found interesting expression in recent days, in part because the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that took place last week had more than its share of notable criminal justice programming.  Here are some new articles and commentaries resulting from that conference and the broader realities that its programming reflects:

March 3, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, February 22, 2019

Brennan Center produces policy brief on "Ending Mass Incarceration: A Presidential Agenda"

2019_02_21_10AMJusticeAgendaforCandidates-1The Brennan Center for Justice yesterday released this notable new 16-page policy brief authored by Ames Grawert, Bryan Furst, and Cameron Kimble under the title "Ending Mass Incarceration: A Presidential Agenda."  Here is its introduction:

For many voters, the past two years have brought a new awareness of profound, continuing injustices in American society.  Among them is the civil rights crisis of mass incarceration.  Even with recent reforms, more than two million Americans remain behind the bars of jails or prisons.  Black men and women are imprisoned at roughly six times the rate of their white counterparts. The overuse of incarceration perpetuates economic and racial inequality, two issues at the top of the public concern.

Going into the 2020 election, contenders for the Democratic nomination — and the Republican incumbent — must have a plan to meet these challenges, or risk being out of step with the American people.

This report delineates how that can be done, outlining policies that would slash America’s incarceration rate, put people back to work, and reduce racial disparities in the process, while keeping the country safe.  These solutions can be a transformative piece of a presidential campaign and help define a new president’s legacy.

Some consensus for these changes already exists.  Late last year, Congress ended years of deadlock over federal sentencing reform by passing the FIRST STEP Act, which will reduce some of the most extreme and unjust sentences in the federal criminal code.  These changes will put families back together, make prison more humane, and help restore trust in law enforcement.

But the bill also raises the bar for any candidates seeking the Oval Office.  President Trump is already treating the act as a signature accomplishment, touting it among his top achievements in his State of the Union address.  Candidates who are serious about combating racial and economic injustice — and want voters to know it — will have to think bigger.

Rather than focusing on individual reforms, candidates for the presidency should commit to tackling some of the most pervasive and damaging parts of our criminal justice system, including overly punitive sentences, bail practices that favor the rich, and drug policies that unfairly target people of color.  These aren’t intractable problems, but they do call for sweeping changes, far more than what has been introduced to date. And enacting these in Washington can also spur more states to take action.

Incremental reforms will not make the history books.  The time for bold action is now, and this report outlines precisely the type of transformative solutions that candidates can champion to define their campaign or cement their legacy.

The report includes a number of large and small action items, all of which are interesting and important and all of which I hope get robustly discussed on the campaign trail.  The report has all prompted me to start a new blog category: "Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues."

February 22, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Contextualizing passage of the FIRST STEP Act and its likely echoes

Sociology Prof Michelle Phelps has this notable new Conversation commentary headlined "Congress’s First Step Act reflects a new criminal justice consensus, but will it reduce mass incarceration?". The piece explains why the author thinks "no" is the sensible answer to the question headlining her commentary.  Here are excerpts (with some links from the original preserved):

I have found in my research that criminal justice policies and practices in the United States have often followed complex trajectories. Reforms often receive support from unlikely coalitions.  But, by focusing on these strange bedfellows, commentators and advocates sometimes paper over the deeper disagreements in ideas about who, how and how much to punish.  Fights over these differences ultimately shape how policies get put into practice — and whether the bill ultimately achieves its intended outcomes.  While the First Step Act’s passage may look like a clear victory for more moderate punishment, its implementation and impact under the Trump administration is likely to be quite limited.

Criminal justice is often described by academics and journalists as a pendulum that swings wildly between harsh punishment focused on retribution, and more lenient treatment focused on redemption or reformation.  In this metaphor, some people saw Trump’s election as a swing of the pendulum away from progressive punishment and back toward punitive policies.

In our book Breaking the Pendulum, my colleagues Joshua Page and Philip Goodman and I argue that a better metaphor is the constant, low-level grinding of tectonic plates that continually produce friction and occasionally erupt in earthquakes. This friction manifests in traditional political combat, mass demonstrations, prison rebellions, and academic and policy work.  Periodically, major changes in conditions like crime rates and the economy change to provide support and opportunities to one side or another.  These changes often bring together unlikely allies.

People typically associate the “law and order” approach to criminal justice with Republicans.  However, new research shows how liberals laid the ground for these policies. It was the Democratic administration of President Lyndon Johnson during the 1960s that first launched the “war on crime” by expanding federal funding to build up the capacity of local law enforcement agencies. In the following decades, the crime rate spiked, due in part to better reporting by police departments, and crime became a hot political issue.

By the 1990s, Republicans and Democrats had all but converged on attitudes toward law enforcement. Not wanting to lose to Republicans by being portrayed as “soft on crime,” Democrats took increasingly “tough” criminal justice stances. President Bill Clinton’s wildly popular 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was the apex of this bipartisan enthusiasm for aggressive policing, prosecution and punishment.  The bill made federal sentencing guidelines more severe, increasing both life sentences and the death penalty, and built up funding streams to increase local police forces and state prison capacity.

Despite the rhetoric of the crime bill, the best evidence suggests that it played little role in the explosion of the national prison population — or what scholars term “mass imprisonment.”  This is because policies focused on harsh punishment had already peaked by 1994.  In addition, it only applied to the federal system, which represents only 10 percent of all people locked up.  Finally, even though there was wide support for the crime bill, activists, politicians, judges and others continued to fight against “tough” punishment, eventually building the momentum for the First Step Act.

What does this history tell us about the First Step Act?

First, it’s not surprising that Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals came together on the bill. Both camps have moved away from the “tough on crime” mantra.  Democrats now talk of “smart on crime” policies while some Republicans support the “right on crime” initiative.  Both agree that aggressive policing and heavy criminal penalties for low-level offenses, particularly drug crimes, do more harm than good.

The rise of a new approach to criminal justice can be tied to a number of changes since the 1990s, including historically low crime rates, strained state and federal budgets and a growing awareness of the negative consequences of mass incarceration.  Critically, a cadre of conservative leaders spent the past two decades working to change Republican orthodoxy on this issue.  They frame mass incarceration as a fiscal and moral failure that wastes tax dollars and violates the Christian principles of “second chances” and redemption....

However, bipartisan consensus is not as seamless as it is sometimes portrayed.  A group of Republican leaders remain aggressively opposed to these criminal justice reforms.  And at the last hour, they nearly killed the First Step Act....

During his confirmation hearing last week, [Attorney General nominee William] Barr promised to “diligently implement” the First Step Act, but then backtracked to support Session’s policies at the Justice Department, adding, “we must keep up the pressure on chronic, violent criminals.”

Like the ‘94 bill before it, this indicates that the First Step Act will likely be more bark than bite.  The First Step Act might provide relief to several thousand current federal prisoners.  But Barr will likely follow Sessions and direct his prosecutors to seek the maximum criminal penalties against current defendants, including for drug offenses, limiting the impact of the First Step Act’s sentencing reform.  And the bill will have no practical effect on state prison systems, which in some cases have already embraced much more radical reforms.

While the First Step Act is a move in the direction of more humane and moderate criminal justice practices, I think it will likely be a very small first step indeed.

January 30, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 12, 2019

New commentary at The American Conservative makes the case for "Why Conservatives Should Oppose the Death Penalty"

In prior posts here and here and here, I highlighted a series of lengthy articles in The American Conservative that were part of "a collaborative series with the R Street Institute exploring conservative approaches to criminal justice reform."   These folks are at it again with this new lengthy essay titled simply "Why Conservatives Should Oppose the Death Penalty."  The extendded essay, authored by Arthur Rizer and Marc Hyden of R Street Institute, merits a full read, and here are some excerpts:

If conservatives want to convince others that a smaller, more nimble government is best, then those values should be reflected in all policy areas, including the death penalty....

Our suspicion of government should not end with the criminal justice system. With respect to capital punishment, the United States has a track record of acting in an arbitrary and biased fashion. Some examples are obvious. For instance, a 19th century North Carolina law mandated the death penalty when a black man raped a white woman, but gave a maximum punishment of one year in prison to a white man for the same crime.

While such blatantly racist laws no longer exist, the disproportionality in death penalty cases has long been an issue. For instance, a Justice Department study established that, between 1930 and 1972, when an individual was sentenced to death for the crime of rape (a crime that no longer carries the death penalty), 89 percent of the defendants put to death were black men. More disturbing was the fact that in every rape execution case, the victim was white. Not one person received a death sentence for raping a black woman, despite black women being up to 12 times more likely to be rape victims.

Furthermore, a murder victim’s race also seems to influence whether or not the accused will be put to death. Indeed, there is a much higher likelihood of this occurring if the victim is white: over 75 percent of victims in cases that resulted in executions were Caucasian. Additionally, only 15 percent were African American even though they represent a far higher percentage of murder victims. This seems to suggest that, at least through the criminal justice lens, some lives are more valuable than others....

Conservatives claim to hold the government and its bureaucrats to high standards. We expect the state to be the flag bearer of moral precepts and criticize it when it fails. Indeed, the Republican platform uses the word “moral” nine times to describe topics ranging from healthcare to the environment. And regardless of a citizen’s source of morality, be it secular or ecclesiastical, the government should reflect those standards.

Despite this expectation, a core belief among conservatives is that the government is too often inefficient and prone to mistakes. Why should the death penalty’s administration by government bureaucrats be any different? We know individuals are wrongfully convicted—and to be sure, some wrongful convictions are unavoidable. However, when dealing with capital punishment, that inevitability could have irreversible consequences and can never be tolerated in a free and law-abiding society.

This is why government should not be in the business of killing its citizens. This view hews to a core conservative tenet, that the government should be inferior to the people from which it derives its power. True, we invest in the state the authority to protect its citizens, which might require lethal protection by police officers in the line of duty. But when it comes to the death penalty, executions aren’t a matter of self-defense or a response to imminent danger. Rather the defendant has already been neutralized as a threat and housed in a correctional facility. In contrast to just wars and police responses, our penal system can and should take all necessary time and devote all appropriate resources to achieve its ultimate end—justice.

Death penalty proponents often claim that executions are beneficial because they serve as a general deterrent to murder. According to this argument, people will hesitate to commit the most heinous crimes for fear of capital punishment, which could mean the firing squad, gas chamber, electric chair, lethal injection, or hanging—which are all legal in some states today. The problem with this theory is that there is very little valid data to support it....

Murder victims’ families deserve better than the system that they must endure, but policymakers are faced with a catch-22. The death penalty process cannot be shorter, less complex, or have its appeals limited without virtually guaranteeing that innocent people will be executed by the state. It seems that if murder victims’ well-being was a primary focus, then prosecutors would more frequently seek a briefer, simpler, surer proceeding like LWOP.

The creation of the Grand Old Party, and in many ways the modern conservative movement, traces its lineage to anti-slavery abolitionists. Their beliefs about human dignity have influenced current conservatives’ views on the sanctity of life. Conservatives should return to the root principles of liberty and dignity to ensure that the criminal justice system is fair, just, and respects life.

Prior related posts:

January 12, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

On cusp of enactment of FIRST STEP Act, a brief trip to the archives via the (not-so-)way back machine

01fbcd89144c25425689e251bd5143038d04f0ceI am so full of ideas and thoughts and ways to celebrate the Senate passage of the FIRST STEP Act, I am not sure what to blog first and in the immediate future.  So, rather than do too much looking forward to what the FIRST STEP Act means when it becomes law (especially because I do not want to jinx anything), I figured I would close out my blogging tonight by doing a little looking back.  Specially, I looked at some archives of posts after Prez Trump got elected, and found these interesting posts (among others) that talked about the possibility of federal criminal justice reform  despite Trump's tough-on-crime rhetoric and his appointment of reform for Jeff Sessions as Attorney General:

I was inspired to review this this interest bit of the recent past in part because the developments this week have has me especially thinking about this post by Bill Otis over at Crime & Consequences from almost exactly two years ago titled "Blowing Smoke on Sentencing Reform."  In that post, Bill Otis explained in his usual manner why he was not convinced by this Bill Keller commentary (also noted above titled) "Why Congress May Bring Criminal Justice Reform Back to Life."   Bill Otis was not entirely off-base to assert that sentencing reform was a uphill battle in this Congress, and he might even defend his analysis by noting that the FIRST STEP Act only includes a few very modest sentencing reforms.  But I bring this up because tonight's overwhelming vote for the FIRST STEP Act ultimately reinforces my belief that there is now a strong (and growing) group of GOP leaders who are very eager to take ownership of criminal justice reform.  And that reality bodes well for the prospects of second and third steps in the next Congress and beyond.

December 18, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Senator Tom Cotton continuing to do everything he can to try to keep the FIRST STEP Act from moving forward

Senator Tom Cotton continues to work with all his might to halt Congress from taking any reform steps via the FIRST STEP Act, and his latest efforts involve this new National Review commentary and what is reported here by Politico under the headline "Cotton wields sex offender report to tank prisons bill."  Here is how Senator Cotton himself gets started at NR:

It remains to be seen whether the lame-duck 115th Congress will debate a sweeping overhaul of our federal criminal-justice system before we adjourn for the year. You may have heard about the legislation at hand, the FIRST STEP Act. I oppose it. I urge my fellow conservatives to take the time to read and understand the bill before signing on in support of this flawed legislation.

The 103-page bill that was released the Friday before Thanksgiving has some good parts, and I don’t question the intentions of the bill’s proponents. But you may have noticed that they talk more about their intentions than about the consequences of the bill. As conservatives, we know that good intentions say little about actual consequences. And to paraphrase Thomas Sowell, intellectuals who generate ideas with good intentions rarely have to face the consequences of those ideas personally.

When proponents of the bill discuss the substance, they claim that “nothing in the FIRST STEP Act gives inmates early release.” Instead of early release, proponents say, it merely provides incentives for inmates to participate in programs. This is nothing but a euphemism. Let there be no doubt: If the bill is passed, thousands of federal offenders, including violent felons and sex offenders, will be released earlier than they would be under current law. Whatever word games the bill’s proponents use will make no difference to the future victims of these felons.

Here is what Politico is reporting:

GOP Sen. Tom Cotton is locked in an awkward fight with fellow Republicans over their push to change federal prison sentencing guidelines. And now he has a new attack line intended to make his rivals squirm: Warnings that sex offenders could get off easy.

A new Justice Department analysis — conducted at Cotton‘s request — found that the Senate’s bipartisan sentencing and prison reform bill could make people convicted of some sex crimes eligible for early release. And though President Donald Trump supports the bill, Cotton says the DOJ confirmation underpins his argument that convicts of certain sex-related crimes could accrue credits making them eligible for supervised release or “pre-release” to a halfway house.

While GOP leaders are beginning to assess the prospects of the bill on the Senate floor, the Arkansas Republican argues that the latest version of the bill has been rushed and contains significant flaws and is hoping to sway undecided Republicans to join him. Cotton and Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have been battling over the specifics of the bill since it was released in mid-November, exactly the type of intraparty firefight Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been hoping to avoid.

The argument over the bill's treatment of sex offenders took center stage on Monday, drawing the latest public shots between the warring Republican senators. “Now that the Department of Justice has confirmed that the Senate FIRST STEP Act offers early release to multiple categories of sex offenders in several provisions of the bill, Congress should fix these problems instead of ramming this bill through. There is no such thing as a ‘low-risk violent sex offender’ who deserves earlier release than under current law," Cotton said in an emailed statement.

A spokesman for Lee defended the legislation in response to the DOJ analysis on Monday and accused the bill’s opponents of “spreading fake news” about the bill. “Just because a federal offense is not on the specific list of ineligible offenses doesn’t mean inmates who committed non-specified offense will earn early release. All inmates must first pass a DOJ risk assessment before they can even begin earning good time credits. And then they must secure certification from their warden that they are not a threat to safety before they can be released,” said Conn Carroll, a Lee spokesman. Carroll added that Lee is open to revising the bill if it turns opponents into supporters: “If adding to the list of specifically forbidden offenses would get some senators to yes, we would love to help them do that on the Senate floor.”

Their colleagues are watching closely. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said that a Cotton op-ed panning the bill made a "compelling argument" and indicated his vote is in play. A number of Trump's allies, from Grassley to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are behind the bill, but in the Senate even a small band of opposed senators can make a floor debate stretch out for a week — all while lobbing attacks at fellow Republicans for being soft on crime.

"I'd like to get it through but we still have a few problems that we ought to work out," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "I'm for doing it if we can. We have a shot at it but we're going to have a lot of cooperation."

Senior Senate Republicans said on Monday they could not predict what McConnell will do. The president has lobbied McConnell to bring up the bill, but the GOP leader has told Trump the Senate's schedule is crowded over the next month. McConnell has emphasized that funding the federal government by the Dec. 7 deadline and finishing a farm bill are his top priorities. And the House would probably have to vote on whatever the Senate passes on criminal justice reform, and ousted House Republicans may want to head home as soon as the funding bill is finished.

November 26, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, November 22, 2018

So very thankful this year that so very many voices on the political right are actively advocating for criminal justice reforms

As regular readers know, I have long thought and advocated that all sorts of conservatives could and should robustly embrace all sorts of criminal justice reform given avowed commitments to personal liberty, small government, human dignity and the rule of law.  Almost exactly a decade ago in this 2008 Harvard Law & Policy Online article, published right after Prez Obama was elected to his first term, I urged progressives to start "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."  I further suggested:

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.

The kinds of coalitions I was hoping to see started to emerge (albeit too slowly for my taste) during the Obama Administration, and now they appear to be on full display as discussion of federal reforms finds expression in the debate over the FIRST STEP Act.  And so today I find myself especially thankful that it is now so much easier to find right-leaning organization and voices calling for the passage of federal reforms rather than resisting such reform.  Here, for example, is just a quick round up of just some recent voices on the political right actively advocating for the FIRST STEP Act:

From Politico, "Religious right to start pressure campaign around criminal justice reform"

From ALEC Action, "Members of the U.S. Senate: Please Support the FIRST STEP Act (S.3649)"

From John-Michael Seibler & Joe Luppino-Esposito at The Heritage Foundation, "How This Criminal Justice Reform Bill Could Make Our Neighborhoods Safer"

Via local NPR, "Kelley Paul Presses McConnell To Move Criminal Justice Reform Forward"

From Michelle Malkin in the National Review, "It’s Time to Pass the First Step Act: It's pro-cop, pro-borders, and tough on injustice."

From Pastor Paula White-Cain in the Washington Examiner, "Prison reform bill represents what’s beautiful about America"

Relatedly, Senator Charles Grassley has this notable new posting titled "Diverse Group of Organizations Endorse Bipartisan First Step Act" that highlights "a letter to Majority and Minority leaders in both the Senate and House of Representatives, [in which] 42 organizations, including faith-based groups and conservative think tanks, called on Congress to pass the comprehensive criminal justice reform package before the end of the year."

November 22, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Another round of news and notes from the front lines of the debate over the FIRST STEP Act

I am not sure I will need to do regular round-ups of stories and commentary surrounding the prospects of the FIRST STEP Act. But I am sure that there have been lots of notable developments and discussion since I did this last round-up of stories just a few days ago. So, from various sources and various authors (including Jared Kushner):

November 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Senator Tom Cotton, rather than argue against FIRST STEP Act, makes case for what should be in a SECOND STEP Act

Senator Tom Cotton, who has been the main and most vocal opponents of federal criminal justice reform, has this notable new USA Today commentary.  I was expecting the piece to argue against the FIRST STEP Act that has been endorse by Prez Trump and has wide bipartisan support.  But, as these excerpts highlight, Senator Cotton in this piece primarily articulates what further statutory reforms are needed to fix a broken federal criminal justice system:

Here’s what genuine criminal-justice reform would do: reduce arbitrary government power over lives and protect us from the drug epidemic ravaging our community. Congress can take three simple steps to achieve these goals.

First, we need to clean out the federal criminal code. Today, no one even knows for sure how many federal crimes are on the books. One estimate found between 10,000 and 300,000 regulations that can be enforced criminally, in addition to the more than 5,000 federal criminal laws.

Many of those federal crimes would be funny, if they weren’t so dangerous to our liberty. For example, there’s a federal law against selling “Turkey Ham” as “Ham Turkey.” Think such laws are never enforced? Think again. Gibson Guitars was prosecuted under a century-old law at a cost of millions of dollars to the taxpayers and the company because it allegedly transported wood in a way that may have violated laws of India. We should scrub the federal criminal code and remove such outdated and arbitrary laws. And we should create a transparent database of this shorter, more concise criminal code.

Second, many federal crimes do not require mens rea, or a “guilty mind.” Mens rea, a common element of most state crimes, means that the offender must have a certain state of mental culpability to be charged with the crime. Coupled with the vast and confusing criminal code, the lack of mens rea leaves Americans at risk of arbitrary prosecution for trivial conduct. Senator Orrin Hatch has been a champion for mens rea reform to ensure that, at a minimum, a defendant should have known his conduct was wrong before facing criminal charges. Congress should incorporate these concepts into criminal-justice legislation.

Third, the federal criminal code hasn’t kept up with the opioid crisis, allowing the epidemic to spread across the country.  For example, current law doesn’t reflect the potency of fentanyl, a highly lethal opioid responsible for killing tens of thousands of Americans each year. A trafficker can carry enough fentanyl to kill 5,000 Americans before the lowest mandatory minimum sentence applies, and these traffickers receive a mere five-year sentence for distributing enough poison to kill more Americans than died on 9/11.

Unfortunately, the legislation moving through Congress includes no mens rea reform, no reduction in the criminal code, and no crackdown on deadly drug traffickers. Astonishingly, the bill goes soft on some of the worst crimes — trafficking heroin and fentanyl — by allowing most traffickers to spend up to a third of their sentence at home, where many of them will no doubt return to dealing drugs.

At this point, it’s best for Congress to pause on criminal-justice legislation and take the time to reform our criminal code, include mens rea as an element of most crimes, and strengthen the sentences for dangerous drug crimes. Congress can also focus on how to rehabilitate felons to help them get off on the right foot after serving their sentence. What Congress ought not do is rush through flawed legislation in a lame-duck session.

I agree with Senator Cotton that we need to reduce the number of federal crimes, include strict mens rea protections in all federal criminal provisions, and better respond to the opioid crisis (although I think history has shown that increased federal mandatory minimums are an ineffective way to respond to drug problems). For that reason, I sincerely hope Senator Cotton is busy drafting bills to address these matters that Congress can and should consider swiftly after the passage of the FIRST STEP Act.  But, as the name suggests, the FIRST STEP Act does not claim to fix all the myriad problems of federal criminal law, and so Congress can and should address Senator Cotton's (second step) concerns right after they take a critical first step.

November 15, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Senator Mike Lee makes the "conservative case for criminal justice reform"

Utah Senator Mike Lee has this new opinion piece at Fox News headlined "A conservative case for criminal justice reform." Here are excerpts:

“Government’s first duty,” President Reagan said in 1981 and President Trump recently tweeted, “is to protect the people, not run their lives.”  The safety of law-abiding citizens has always been a core principle of conservatism.  And it is why we need to take this opportunity to pass real criminal-justice reform now.

Although violent crime rose during the final two years of President Obama’s time in office, it decreased during the first year of Trump’s presidency.  We need to keep that momentum going. And criminal justice reform can help us do that in two ways.

First, commonsense sentencing reform can increase trust in the criminal-justice system, thus making it easier for law enforcement personnel to police communities.  Right now, federal mandatory-minimum sentences for many drug offenses can lead to outcomes that strike many people as unfair, and thus undermine the public’s faith in our justice system....

When the public sees judges handing out unfair punishments, it undermines trust in the entire justice system.  This makes it harder for police to do their job.  As Ronald Reagan explained when he was Governor of California, “[w]ithout respect for the law, the best laws cannot be effective.  Without respect for law enforcement, laws cannot be carried out.  We must have respect, not only for the law, but also for the many who dedicate their lives to the protection of society through enforcement of the law.”  Fairer sentencing laws will increase respect for police, especially in many communities where such respect is currently lacking.

Second, excessive prison sentences break apart families and weaken communities -- the building blocks of American civil society.  Incarceration is tough on any marriage.  Few can survive the loss of marital love and financial strain that happens when a spouse is behind bars.  And the longer the sentence, the more likely a marriage will end in divorce.  One 2011 study found that each additional year behind bars increases the likelihood of divorce by 32 percent.  This has real costs for the families -- and especially the children -- of offenders.

Incarceration is an essential law enforcement tool that protects communities and keeps families safe.  But it also inflicts costs on communities and families, and at some point the negative impact of incarceration on marriage and family can become too stark to ignore.  And for non-violent offenders, especially those with no prior criminal history, excessive sentences often do far more harm than good.

We now have a rare opportunity to pass criminal justice reform that will help restore trust in law enforcement and protect American families.  In May of this year, the House of Representatives passed the First Step Act, which includes some much-needed prison reform measures that would reduce recidivism.  Unfortunately, it did not include any reforms to address manifestly unjust sentences for non-violent offenders.

The Senate now has a chance to add some of those much-needed prison reform measures into the bill.  We won’t get everything we want, but we have an incredible opportunity to reach a compromise that includes meaningful, commonsense reforms to our nation’s mandatory-minimum drug sentencing laws.

It is unlikely we will get another opportunity to enact meaningful reform anytime soon.  President Obama failed to accomplish criminal-justice reform during his eight years in office.  But President Trump and the Republican Congress can get the job done now.  It would be another big step toward making America great again.

November 13, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Some post-election criminal justice commentary from various sources a week later

It is a week after a consequential election, and in some places votes are still being counted. In addition, folks are still doing accountings of what the election (and its aftermath) meant and means for criminal justice reform efforts. Here is a sampling of pieces I have seen on this front from a variety of sources and authors:

From The Brennan Center, "The Big Winners in DA Races: Women and Black Candidates"

From The Brennan Center, "What Does Sessions' Departure Mean for Criminal Justice?"

From The Crime Report, "Post-Midterms Forecast for Justice Reform: Cloudy, But Encouraging"

From The Crime Report, "Are Americans Finally Turning Away From ‘Tough-on-Crime’ Era?"

From The Fix, "Drug Policy and Criminal Justice Reform at the 2018 Midterm Elections"

From The Hill, "The results are in: How the nation voted on criminal justice issues that impact our youth"

From Marijuana Moment, "What The Loss of Marijuana-Friendly Republicans Means For Federal Legalization"

From Marijuana Moment, "Marijuana Got More Votes Than These Politicians In The Midterms"

From The Marshall Project, "Voters Want Criminal Justice Reform. Are Politicians Listening?"

November 13, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)