Sunday, January 17, 2021

"Mass Incarceration, Meet COVID-19"

The title of this post is the title of this paper now available via SSRN authored by Sharon Dolovich. Here is its abstract:

With the global pandemic still unfolding, we are only beginning to make sense of the overall impact of COVID-19 on the people who live and work inside American prisons and jails, and of what effect, if any, the pandemic will have on the nation’s continued commitment to mass incarceration under unduly harsh conditions.  In this Essay, I take stock of where things now stand.  I also consider how we got to this point, and how penal policy would need to change if we are to prevent another round of needless suffering and death when the next pandemic hits.

Part I explains why the incarcerated face an elevated risk of infection and potentially fatal complications from COVID-19. Part II describes the measures various corrections administrators took at the start of the pandemic to try to limit viral spread inside jails and prisons, and why, however well-intentioned, these measures were insufficient to bring the virus under control.  Part III addresses the steps taken by public officials at all levels to reduce the number of people in custody and offers initial thoughts as to why, after a concerted push for releases on the part of many public actors in the first months of the pandemic, these efforts had already considerably slowed by the latter part of May 2020. (Here, the focus is primarily, though not exclusively, on the federal courts’ nonresponse to urgent petitions from incarcerated plaintiffs.)

Part IV draws on the work of the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.  It explores what the data shows regarding infection rates and COVID deaths in custody, describes the limits of the available data, and explains why the impact on people in jails and prisons is likely even greater than the official numbers suggest.  Part V zeroes in on the culture of secrecy that American corrections administrators have long been empowered to cultivate regarding what goes on behind bars.  It argues that this culture has exacerbated the threat COVID poses to the incarcerated as well as to staff, that such secrecy is at odds with the imperatives of a public institution, and that we need to replace the reigning default posture of concealment with an ethos of transparency.  This Essay concludes with a call for a broad normative reorientation toward assessing carceral policy through a public health lens.

January 17, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 15, 2021

"Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2020"

The title of this post is the title of this short paper from Nicole Porter at The Sentencing Project. Here is how it gets started and its concluding paragraph:

The United States is the world leader in incarceration and keeps nearly 7 million persons under correctional control.  More than 2 million are in prison or jail, and 4.6 million are under community surveillance on probation or parole.  At least 19 million persons are living with a felony conviction while an estimated 100 million have a criminal record.  The persistence of extremely punitive sentencing laws and policies, not increases in crime rates, sustain the nation’s high rate of incarceration.  Ending mass incarceration requires a transformative change to sentencing policies and practices aligned with the scaling back of collateral consequences of conviction, and challenging racial disparities in the criminal justice system.  In recent years most states have enacted reforms designed to reduce the scale of incarceration and the impact of the collateral consequences.  This briefing paper highlights key reforms undertaken in 2020 prioritized by The Sentencing Project....

Lawmakers advanced policy reforms to address mass incarceration and scale back collateral consequences.  Too few policy changes were adopted to address COVID-19 and its impact on the incarcerated in overcrowded congregate lock ups.  While reforms help improve criminal justice policy, most measures will have a modest impact on the scale of incarceration.  It will take substantial changes to significantly reduce the nation’s rate of incarceration.  Given the limited impact of incarceration on crime, there continues to be potential for substantial reductions in state prison populations.  Lawmakers and advocates must explore key changes that limit the use of incarceration by retroactively ending mandatory minimum sentencing, adopting universal sentencing review policies, challenging racial disparities through structural reforms, and addressing collateral consequences.

January 15, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 14, 2021

"Incarcerated Activism During COVID-19"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Eve Hanan now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Incarcerated people have a notoriously difficult time advocating for themselves.  Like other authoritarian institutions, prisons severely curtail and often punish speech, organizing, and self-advocacy.  Also like other authoritarian institutions, prison administrators are inclined to suppress protest rather than respond to the grounds for protest.  Yet, despite impediments to their participation, incarcerated people have organized during the pandemic, advocating for themselves through media channels, public forums, and the courts.  Indeed, a dramatic increase in prisoner activism correlates with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic highlights injustice in other areas of criminal legal practice, it reveals both the dangers of silencing prisoner speech and the potential for prisoner self-advocacy.  This Essay first discusses silencing and speech in carceral spaces during the pandemic using a theory of political philosophy called epistemic injustice.  The theory of epistemic injustice addresses how disfavored social groups are excluded from sharing knowledge in public conversations. The stifling of prisoner speech occurs in part because incarcerated people are deliberately separated from the outside world.  But it also reflects their status as a stigmatized — and thus discredited — group.  Even when their speech is heard, it is discounted as manipulative and untrustworthy.

Second, this Essay argues that the self-advocacy efforts made by incarcerated people during the pandemic demonstrates the democratic value of their participation.  Among the necessary predicates to meaningful change in criminal legal practices is the democratic participation of the targets of those practices, including suspects, criminal defendants, and prisoners.  Their participation in the political sphere serves a vital democratic function the absence of which is felt not only in the authoritarian structure of prisons, but in the society-wide failure to enact widespread change to criminal legal practices.

January 14, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

"More states need to use their 'good time' systems to get people out of prison during COVID-19"

The title of this post is the title of this new briefing from the Prison Policy Initiative. The subtitle highlights its themes: "Most states have statutes that allow incarcerated people to earn time off of their sentences. Why aren’t more states using this tool to safely reduce prison populations during COVID-19?".  Here is an excerpt (with links from the original):

With the COVID-19 infection rate in prisons four times that of the general U.S. population, public health and medical experts are urging prisons to reduce their populations to save lives.  But governors and corrections officials are still passing the buck — almost a year into the pandemic. Overlooking existing mechanisms that could be used to release people, states have instead imposed a number of policy changes that have caused further harm to the incarcerated people they are supposed to protect....

What states need now is a simple, equitable way of getting lots of people out of prison safely, rather than continuing to incarcerate them in ever more dangerous and cruel conditions.  A solution — albeit one that will require legislative action in most states — is for states to immediately change their “good time” policies.

Good time” — also called “earned time,” “meritorious credit,” or similar — is a system by which people in prison can earn time off their sentences.  States award time “credits” to incarcerated individuals to shorten the time they must serve before becoming parole-eligible or completing their sentences altogether.  Good time systems vary between states (see the National Conference of State Legislatures’ detailed table) but time credits are often given out for participating in programs.  For example, New York offers a six-month credit for completion of the GED.  26 states have a good time program that offers credits for certain educational programs and attainments, while 23 states offer credits for vocational training, 17 for participation in mental health or substance abuse treatment, 16 for work, 21 for other programming, and five for participating in disaster response (like firefighting).  Almost none of these kinds of programs are being offered consistently during the pandemic, effectively eliminating the option for incarcerated individuals to reduce their sentences while in prison during COVID-19.

People in prison can also often earn time off their sentences by complying with prison rules.  During the pandemic, people in prison have had to comply with much stricter rules than usual, including lockdowns that subject entire prisons to conditions “akin to solitary confinement.”  Yet most have not been rewarded with additional “good time” for compliance with these harsher conditions.

Rather than holding people back from accruing good time credits during the pandemic, states should give out more of those credits, not just because it’s the fair thing to do but because it will allow some people to leave prison immediately.

January 13, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 08, 2021

The new death penalty: Marshall Project reporting COVID has now killed more than 2000 prisoners in the United States

I am always sad to report when we pass yet another remarkable milestone in COVID prisoner deaths, but passing a new big ugly number prompts another one of my series of "new death penalty" posts.  The Marshall Project, which continues the critical job of counting via this webpage prisoner deaths from coronavirus, reports as of Thursday, January 8, 2021 that there are now "at least 2010 deaths from coronavirus reported among prisoners." 

Notably, just a month ago as noted in this post, the COVID prisoner death accounting was "only" at 1568 deaths.  So we have seen a huge uptick in prisoner deaths in just the last month (which is somewhat unsurprising because the same uptick has been seen in the general population).   Sadly, we are also seeing a big increase in correctional staff dying from COVID.  The Marshall Project now reports "at least 139 deaths from coronavirus reported among prison staff," when that number was "only" at 105 deaths as of last month. 

I highlighted here a few weeks ago some of the sound arguments being made that incarcerated persons should be high on the list of who first receives the COVID vaccines.  These latest data should further advance that notion.

A few of many prior related posts:

January 8, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 03, 2021

New year round-up highlights more of the same struggles with COVID in incarceration nation

Gosh knows we all wish we could forget about COVID in this new year, and I sure wish the turn of the calendar would lead to a big turn in the stories of how the coronavirus is impacting prisons and the broader criminal justice system.  But, as this round-up of recent headlines and stories highlight, incarceration nation continues to be ravaged by COVID-19 in so many ways:

From the Anchorage Daily News, "Nearly every inmate in Alaska’s largest prison has now had COVID-19, officials say"

From the New York Times, "States Are Shutting Down Prisons as Guards are Crippled By Covid-19"

From Time, "With Over 275,000 Infections and 1,700 Deaths, COVID-19 Has Devastated the U.S. Prison and Jail Population"

From the Washington Post, "Early vaccination in prisons, a public health priority, proves politically charged"

From the Wisconsin State Journal, "‘They played with our lives’: How one Wisconsin prison failed to contain a COVID-19 outbreak"

 

From the AP, "COVID vaccine being administered at same Indiana prison where DOJ carries out executions"

From The Intercept, "How the Pandemic Exposed the Failures of Capital Punishment"

From NBC News, "Ohio inmate who survived execution attempt dies in prison of probable Covid-19"

I have broken out the "death penalty" pieces even as they highlight how the death penalty is necessarily intertwined with broader stories of incarceration.  I find the last of these pieces especially stunning as it reports that Rommel Broom, who survived a botched Ohio execution attempt way back in 2009 and had a pending US Supreme Court appeal seeking to preclude a second Ohio execution effort, could not survive the new death penalty that is COVID-19.

January 3, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 01, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Federal prison population closes out 2020 at new modern low of 152,184 according to BOP

Screenshot 2020-12-31 at 9.56.12 AMA helpful reader recently reminded me that the last federal prison population headcount from the Bureau of Prisons in 2019 — specifically from December 26, 2019 — reported "175,858 Total Federal Inmates."  That number was itself a pretty notable decarceration achievement for the federal system: just six years earlier, in 2013, the federal prison population clocked in at around 220,000 total inmates according to the BOP.

I am focused on the last federal prison population headcount from last year because the Bureau of Prisons this morning reported at this webpage the "Total Federal Inmates" count at the very end of 2020.  Remarkably, this remarkable year has brought a decline of over 23,500 inmates, as the total now stands at 152,184

The COVID pandemic, of course, accounts in various ways for these 2020 decarceral developments.  It is hard to unpack just how much this year's decline can be attributed to a lot more persons being moved out of federal prisons or a lot fewer people being moved into federal prison.  (As noted in this post, the US Sentencing Commission released some early COVID-era sentencing data showing that the number of federal sentences imposed between April and June 2020 dropped about 40% from the usual rate.)  Interestingly, after the pace of declines in the federal prison population seemed to slow considerably in the late summer and fall, there has now been a 2000-person decline in the BOP population since Thanksgiving.  These data make me a bit more hopeful that we could end up below 150,000 total federal inmates during the first few months of 2021.

A few of many prior related posts:

December 31, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Following the Garden State's path to ending mass incarceration

This new commentary authored by Jeremy Travis and Marc Mauer provides yet another reason to love the Garden State. The piece is headlined "New Jersey shows that we can end mass incarceration," and here are excerpt:

New Jersey is on a path to release more than 3,000 people from prison as part of Gov. Phil Murphy’s attempts to fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the criminal justice system.  While the pandemic has kept far too many of us feeling trapped at home, Murphy is responding to this crisis in a way that prioritizes freedom for thousands of Americans.  In fact, since the beginning of the outbreak, New Jersey’s prison population has shrunk by 35%.

But it shouldn’t take a deadly virus to know that too many Americans remain stuck in prisons, serving sentences that are unnecessarily long and being denied basic human dignities like privacy and safety....

Rather than asking taxpayers to maintain this massive prison system, our nation should be demanding a different investment strategy.  Prison budgets should be cut and the savings directed to support crime prevention strategies of proven effectiveness, including substance abuse treatment programs, early intervention with families at risk, and community-based anti-violence initiatives.  Savings should also be reinvested in Black and brown communities that have borne the brunt of this failed policy.  Achieving this goal will move society toward repairing decades of harm while also advancing a stronger and healthier nation....

The United States has become the world leader in incarceration not simply because we send more people to prison.  We also keep them behind bars far longer than other nations. One in every seven people in prison today — an estimated 206,000 — is serving some form of a life sentence.  People are staying behind bars well into old age, leading modern-day prisons to resemble a network of high-security nursing homes.

These excessive sentences are counterproductive in reducing crime because individuals “age out” of their high crime years.  Long prison terms frequently extend well past the point of diminishing returns for public safety.  Other democracies have recognized this statistical truth and rarely imprison individuals for more than 20 years.

New Jersey is already starting to make these changes.  Following the recommendations of a bipartisan Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, the state is tackling critical reforms that may shrink the prison population and close the racial gap in incarceration rates.  So far, the Legislature has debated policies like ending mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent crimes, expanding compassionate release, and resentencing people assigned multi-decade punishments when they were teenagers.

Under the leadership of Gov. Murphy, New Jersey is becoming a model for how states can use thoughtful, systemic, and data-driven policies to chart the end of mass incarceration and eliminate racial disparities.... In response to the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of people have been released from U.S. prisons.  It took the United States 40 years to quadruple its incarceration rate. With brave leadership and sustained community advocacy, we can end the reality of mass incarceration and its underlying systemic racism within a generation.  Our national promise of freedom demands no less.

December 22, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Is there any chance COVID might halt the three pending federal executions slated for next month?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP piece headlined "Lawyers: 2nd US inmate scheduled to be executed has COVID-19."  Here are the details:

A second federal inmate scheduled to be put to death next month in a series of executions by the Trump administration has tested positive for COVID-19, his lawyers said Friday. The diagnosis of Cory Johnson, who was convicted of killing seven people related to his drug trafficking in Virginia, comes a day after attorneys for Dustin John Higgs confirmed he tested positive at a U.S. prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where both men are on death row.

Johnson, Higgs and a a third inmate, Lisa Montgomery, are scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection at a death chamber at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute just days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Johnson’s lawyers, Donald Salzman and Ronald Tabak, called on federal authorities to strike their client’s current execution date of Jan. 14.  Higgs is scheduled to die a day later. Montgomery’s execution date is Jan. 12, but because she is the only woman on federal death row she is currently held at a separate prison for female inmates in Texas but would need to be brought to Indiana to be executed.

Johnson’s attorneys said his infection would make it difficult to interact with him in the critical days leading up to his scheduled execution, adding that “the widespread outbreak on the federal death row only confirms the reckless disregard for the lives and safety of staff, prisoners, and attorneys alike.” “If the government will not withdraw the execution date, we will ask the courts to intervene,” they said.

The Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Prosecutors alleged that Johnson was one of three crack cocaine dealers who carried out a string of murders and that he killed seven people in 1992 in an attempt to expand the territory of a Richmond, Virginia, gang and silence informants. His legal team has argued that he is intellectually disabled, with a far-below average IQ, and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.

Higgs was convicted of ordering the 1996 murders of three women in Maryland. Montgomery was convicted of using a rope to strangle a pregnant woman in 2004 and then using a kitchen knife to cut the baby girl from the womb, authorities said. She would be the first woman executed federally in more than half a century....

The Bureau of Prisons confirmed in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday that inmates held on federal death row — known as the Special Confinement Unit — have tested positive for COVID-19.  As of Thursday, there were more than 300 inmates with confirmed cases of COVID-19 at FCC Terre Haute.  The Bureau of Prisons said “many of these inmates are asymptomatic or exhibiting mild symptoms.”

Assuming that Higgs and Johnson are asymptomatic or exhibit only mild symptoms in the coming weeks, I greatly doubt that their diagnosis will lead the Trump Administration or courts to decide to postpone their scheduled executions. (In this post a few weeks ago, I wondered if the coming departure of AG Barr might impact somehow federal execution plans.  But, after two more federal executions went forward earlier this month, I somewhat doubt that the incoming Acting AG will be eager to change course absent clear direction from Pez Trump.)

Ironically, if Higgs and/or Johnson were to get seriously ill from COVID and need to be hospitalize for an extended period, such a turn of events might extend their lives.  Despite pending execution dates, it would be unconstitutional for federal prison officials to knowingly refuse to provide needed medical care for Higgs or Johnson.  And if needed medical care kept Higgs and/or Johnson in a hospital facility at the time of their execution dates, I do not think prison officials would be logistically able to carry out the planned executions.  And yet, adding another layer of irony, even if Higgs and/or Johnson were to get very ill and need hospitalization, federal authorities could and likely would work extra hard to nurse them back to health just in time for other federal authorities to move forward their scheduled executions.

December 20, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 19, 2020

"1 in 5 Prisoners in the U.S. Has Had COVID-19"

The title of this post is the headline of this Marshall Proeject accounting of the ugly state of the pandemic in incarceration nation. Here are some excerpts:

One in every five state and federal prisoners in the United States has tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times as high as the general population. In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected, according to data collected by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press.

As the pandemic enters its tenth month — and as the first Americans begin to receive a long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine — at least 275,000 prisoners have been infected, more than 1,700 have died and the spread of the virus behind bars shows no sign of slowing. New cases in prisons this week reached their highest level since testing began in the spring, far outstripping previous peaks in April and August....

Nearly every prison system in the country has seen infection rates significantly higher than the communities around them. In facilities run by the federal Bureau of Prisons, one of every five prisoners has had coronavirus. Twenty-four state prison systems have had even higher rates.

Not all states release how many prisoners they've tested, but states that test prisoners broadly and regularly may appear to have higher case rates than states that don't. Infection rates as of Tuesday were calculated by The Marshall Project and the AP, based on data collected weekly in prisons since March. Infection and mortality rates may be even higher, because nearly every prison system has significantly fewer prisoners today than when the pandemic began, so rates represent a conservative estimate based on the largest known population.

And here are just a few of many recent headlines reporting on some of the ugly particulars in various prison facilities and systems:

From Cincinnati Enquirer, "Coronavirus in Ohio: COVID-19 cases surging among state inmates, prison employees

From FOX10 Pheonix, "Yuma prison warden dies from COVID-19; facility fighting virus outbreak"

From NBC News, "'Like a war zone': Prison that freed Paul Manafort early now ravaged by Covid: Nearly 75 percent of the 856 prisoners at FCI Loretto in Pennsylvania tested positive for Covid-19 in the last month."

From WXYZ, "MDOC hits bleak milestone: Over 100 Michigan prisoners have died from COVID-19"

Sadly, I could links to dozens of stories about COVID outbreaks in prisons all around the country.  Especially given research (some noted here) detailing how COVID caseload grews in the broader community in regions with prisons and fails, I sure hope everyone sees the public health wisdom of prioritizing incarcerated persons for the vaccines.

December 19, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Prison Policy Initiative reports on "Mass Incarceration, COVID-19, and Community Spread"

Gregory Hooks and Wendy Sawyer with the Prison Policy Initiative has authored this important new report titled "Mass Incarceration, COVID-19, and Community Spread." The full report is today's must-read, and here are parts of its introduction and conclusion:

In 2020, a decades-long American policy failure — mass incarceration — collided with a brand new American policy failure: the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. After decades of needlessly locking up ever more people in jails and prisons, state and federal lawmakers now faced a public health disaster if they were unable to decarcerate quickly. In this report, we show that the persistent overuse of incarceration — despite decades of evidence of its inefficacy and harms — has had serious consequences. Mass incarceration and the failure to reduce prison and jail populations quickly led directly to an increase in COVID-19 cases, not just inside correctional facilities, but in the communities and counties that surround them.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, it was abundantly clear that the crowded and unsanitary conditions in American prisons and jails would facilitate the rapid spread of the virus, putting incarcerated people and staff at serious risk once the novel coronavirus entered facilities. Officials across the country ignored the threat for too long, perhaps imagining that confined populations would be too isolated from the outside world to contract the virus. But the boundaries between life “inside” and surrounding communities are actually quite porous, with staff, vendors, volunteers, and visitors constantly flowing in and out of correctional facilities — not to mention the frequent turnover and transfers of incarcerated people themselves....

This report outlines our initial findings so that they may be immediately useful to policymakers and advocates; the full study, which includes an analysis of nursing homes and ICE facilities, will be published by co-author Gregory Hooks separately. In addition, we have compiled Appendix tables with more detailed state and local data. In brief, however, we find that:

  1. COVID-19 caseloads grew more quickly over the summer of 2020 in nonmetro counties with more people incarcerated.
  2. COVID-19 caseloads grew much more quickly over the summer of 2020 among counties in multicounty economic areas with more people incarcerated.
  3. Mass incarceration added to COVID-19 caseloads in multicounty economic areas and states. Nationally, this impact reached a tragic scale: Mass incarceration added more than a half million cases in just three months....

The number of people in prisons and jails has led to more COVID-19 cases, among those working or confined in these facilities and among those who simply live near them. As documented here, the number of new COVID-19 infections over the summer of 2020 was greater in counties and multicounty areas with larger and more concentrated incarcerated populations. In total, we estimate that mass incarceration led to 560,000 additional COVID-19 cases nationwide in just three months....

What is needed immediately, at the policy level, is an increased use of clemency, parole expansion, and other legal mechanisms to depopulate prisons and stop the virus from spreading behind bars.  But there is a greater need over the long term: a profound rethinking of how we use incarceration in this country.  It has never been more obvious that locking up millions of people in crowded and unsanitary conditions is harmful — not only for those who are locked up, but for people outside prisons as well.  With the pandemic dragging on, our ability to radically reduce our use of incarceration is now a life or death matter.  If lawmakers cannot make swift changes to reduce correctional populations and keep them low, we should expect that more COVID-19 outbreaks — and more deaths — in prisons and the communities that surround them are still to come.

December 15, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 14, 2020

"Experience to Action: Reshaping Criminal Justice After COVID-19"

Final-Report-Banner-WebsiteI have noted repeatedly (most recently here) the great work being done by a special commission created by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) titled the "National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice."  This commission today released this important new report with the title that I used for the title of this post.  Here is part of the report's executive summary:

This report, Experience to Action: Reshaping Criminal Justice After COVID-19, provides criminal justice policymakers and practitioners with a priority agenda to prepare the nation’s criminal justice system for future public health crises.

Through its recommendations, the Commission seeks to better balance the roles and responsibilities of the public health and public safety fields.  Launched at the end of July, the Commission received multiple reports and extensive testimony from leading national and local experts.  Key findings include:

  • Crime: Property crime and drug offense rates fell from 2019 to 2020, but violent crime increased significantly. In particular, homicide rates increased by 42% during the summer months (June to August) in a sample of more than 20 medium to large cities, and by 34% in the fall (September to October).

  • Prisons: Prison populations have been reduced by about 5% nationally. On average, the COVID-19 mortality rate within prisons (61.8 deaths per 100,000 people in prison) was double the mortality rate for the general population, after adjusting for the gender, age, and race/ethnicity of those incarcerated.  There are also substantial differences among states in the rate of prison infections and deaths.

  • Jails: Jail populations fell by 31% in the early weeks of the pandemic but have been slowly climbing toward prior levels since May. During the pandemic, the rates at which people have been rebooked on new charges 30, 60, and 180 days after release remain below pre-pandemic rates. Unfortunately, data regarding COVID-related infections and deaths in jails is scarce.

  • Racial and Ethnic Disparities: The COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated some racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.  As jail populations began to fall in March at the onset of the pandemic, there were increases in the proportion of people who were Black, who were booked on felony charges, who were male, and who were 25 or younger.  These changes in the population composition persisted even as jail populations began to rise again in early May.

  • Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders: More than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related fatalities since the onset of the pandemic.  Mandatory lockdowns, restrictions on movement, social distancing guidelines, orders limiting access to facilities for nonessential workers, and the absence of in-person treatment have created gaps in the system's ability to identify and monitor the needs and legal requirements of people with substance abuse and mental health disorders, and to intervene when they are in distress.

  • Budgets: State and local governments face daunting budget deficits that will worsen as the pandemic wears on, and unemployment levels remain high.  Because criminal justice operations (law enforcement, courts, and corrections) are funded more heavily by state and local governments than most other government functions, revenue shortfalls will disproportionately damage the criminal justice system without effective policy interventions....

The report’s findings and recommendations identify weaknesses in the nation’s criminal justice response to the pandemic and provide concrete suggestions for how to build a stronger, fairer, and more resilient system.

As detailed here, there is a webinar to discuss this report is scheduled for midday tomorrow.

December 14, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Highlighting arguments that incarcerated persons should be high on the list for the COVID vaccines

I have been pleased to see recently more than a few commentaries making the case for making sure persons in prisons and jails have access to the coming COVID vaccines.  Here is a round up of some of these recent pieces:

From America: The Jesuit Review, "A Covid-19 vaccine has finally arrived. Prisoners must be prioritized."

From The Appeal, "People in Prisons and Jails Should get COVID-19 Vaccines as Early as Possible"

From the News-Gazette, "Vaccinating inmates — early — would be small step on long path toward justice reform"

From the Orange County Register, "An argument for the early immunization of prisoners"

From USA Today, "Here's why inmates should get vaccinated against COVID-19 before the rest of us"

December 12, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 11, 2020

Rounding up some headlines in incarceration nation

An array of press stories about prison issues and conditions, none encouraging, caught my eye this morning. Here is a round up organized by state:

Alabama: "U.S. Department of Justice sues Alabama over unsafe prison conditions"

Arizona: "Advocates concerned over COVID-19 outbreaks, no running water inside Arizona prisons"

California: "Disabled California Prisoners Say Mistreatment Persists Despite Court Orders"

Connecticut: "Judge says Danbury prison is slow to enforce COVID-19 agreement and orders immediate release of 17 inmates"

Hawaii: "90% of Waiawa’s inmate population has tested positive for COVID in recent months"

New York: "‘A lack of compassion’: Lawyers say New York prisons are dragging their feet releasing eligible inmates amid coronavirus concerns"

Pennsylvania: "More than half the inmates at Pennsylvania federal prison have covid"

Washington: "Nearly 50-percent of Airway Heights Corrections Center inmates infected with COVID-19"

December 11, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 10, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Lots of great updates from CCJ's National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice

Cropped-ccj_nationalcommissioncovid_finallogo_halfreverse-small-2noted here a few month ago that the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) had launched an important, timely and impressive new commission titled the "National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice" and headed by two former US Attorneys General.  That commission has already helped support and has produced a number of important works (examples here and here), and I see that the commission now has a lot of new/updated work linked on the bottom of this webpage.  Here are links to what's there:

Impact Report: COVID-19 and Crime

Two researchers evaluating crime trends in 27 American cities during the pandemic and social unrest over police violence presented new findings through October 2020 in a report for the Commission.

Impact Report: COVID-19 and Jails

A report by researchers with the NYU Public Safety Lab, based on data from 375 jails across 39 states, examined changes in jail populations, their composition, and rebooking trends from Jan. 1 through late October.

Impact Report: COVID-19 and Prisons

Advancing knowledge about the impacts of COVID-19 on state and federal prisons, a report to the Commission updates a previous report on rates of COVID-19 infection and mortality in correctional facilities and describes differences in such rates among states.

December 9, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

"The Court is in Recession: On the Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic for Indigent Defense Spending"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper available via SSRN authored by Andrew Davies, Victoria M. Smiegocki and Hannah E. Hall. Here is its abstract:

What is the likely effect of the recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic on indigent defense budgets in the United States?  To look forward, we look backward.  We examine data on county-level spending on indigent defense in Texas during the Great Recession of 2007-2009.  Redistributive policies — those which use tax payer funds to support individuals who themselves pay little or no tax — are particularly susceptible to cuts during times of fiscal stress. Yet our analysis shows indigent defense policy, measured in terms of spending and access to counsel rates, was generally stable through the Great Recession years, even in counties hit hardest.

We attribute this apparent stability to two general explanations.  First, certain factors made Texas unique: expenditures on indigent defense were already relatively low prior to 2007 and legal changes in the state shored up the mandate to supply representation.  And second, the characterization of indigent defense itself as redistributive seems faulty.  Indigent defense policy is also, in an important sense, a set of mutually-beneficial transactions between lawyers and judges, occurring with comparatively little oversight.  The resilience of indigent defense services during times of scarcity suggests it is not only a policy which allocates funds to help the poor, but also is a policy which allocates funds in support of another clientele — the lawyers.

December 8, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Tangible example of continuing big sentence reductions in COVID era thanks to the FIRST STEP Act

I have highlighted in some recent posts some important new circuit rulings about district courts' sentence reduction authority under 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act (see here and here).  These rulings reinforce that federal judges now have broad authority to consider any and all "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction and need not just focus on medical reasons for granting compassionate release.  But, of course, amidst the worldwide COVID pandemic, lots and lots of vulnerable inmates have lots and lots of medical reasons for requesting compassionate release, and many federal judges have been responsive to these requests.  

As of this writing, the BOP is now reporting at this FSA page that there have been "2,205 Approved" total "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences" since the passage of the FIRST STEP Act in December 2018.  The US Sentencing Commission has previously reported, as noted here, that 145 of these motions were granted in "First Step Year One," which in turn suggests that over 2000(!) compassionate release motions have now been granted by federal district judges in the COVID era. 

These topics are on my mind because a helpful reader sent me a district court ruling granting a sentence modification last week that provides a tangible example of a defendant securing quite a significant sentence reduction.  I sometimes get asked about examples of a defendant securing relief despite having served less than half of their initial sentence, and US v. Ferizi, No. 1:16-cr-42 (LMB) (ED Va. Dec. 3, 2020) (available for download below), is such a case.  The defendant in Ferizi was initially sentenced to 240 months in prison, but that sentence was "reduced to time served" after he served just over 60 months. Here is an excerpt (cites removed):

There is no dispute that defendant has a particularized susceptibility to the disease.  Defendant has had a chronic cough since childhood, and was diagnosed with asthma in 2018. Defendant's obesity is yet another factor that places him at greater risk for severe illness — the CDC has warned that having a body mass index greater than 30 is a risk factor, and defendant's BMI has fluctuated between 30 and 31 during his incarceration.  Considering these multiple risk factors, the government has conceded that Ferizi is at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19, and as such has established 'extraordinary and compelling circumstances' to justify release for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 3582....

Defendant has also satisfactorily responded to the Court's concerns that it might be infeasible to release him if he could not then be promptly deported, either because he might be on a no-fly list or because Kosovo might refuse to accept him.  The government has "confirmed with FBI and ICE" that, in spite of defendant's no-fly status, he would be able to board a specifically-designated deportation flight....

The government argues that even if that is the case, "the seriousness of [defendant's] offense and the danger he poses to the community make him an inappropriate candidate for compassionate release."  There is no doubt that defendant committed a serious offense when he provided the personal information of U.S. government and military employees to ISIL, and as the victim impact letter attached to the Presentence Investigation Report demonstrates, his actions were harmful to the individuals whose names appeared on the list posted by ISIL.  Nevertheless, even defendants who have committed very serious offenses can be appropriately released from custody or supervision where "[t]here is no indication that defendant poses a risk to the public, and reducing defendant's sentence to time served will not diminish the seriousness of his offense or respect for the law."...

In this case, defendant's offense did not involve violence, and none of the individuals whose information he gave to ISIL suffered physical harm. Defendant has explained that he
"totally and completely oppose[s] ISIL and all that it stands for," and that immaturity rather than ideology was the primary motivator of his conduct....  Defendant had no significant criminal history before his arrest for his present offenses, which he committed when he was only 19 years old.  He has incurred only minor infractions while in BOP custody, all of which were more than two years ago.  He has completed educational courses and drug treatment programs, and has been rated by BOP staff as a "low" risk for recidivism....

Given defendant's age; the more than five years he has spent in prison, including the particularly brutal months in the Malaysian prison; his health risks; and the conditions at Gilmer, defendant has established extraordinary and compelling grounds for release, which the § 3552 [sic] factors do not outweigh. 

Download Ferizi Order Granting Compassionate Release

A few of many prior related posts:

December 6, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 05, 2020

The new death penalty: COVID has now killed in nine months more US prisoners than capital punishment over last 50+ years

I am sad to report that we have passed yet another remarkable milestone in COVID prisoner deaths, which prompts another one of my series of "new death penalty" posts.  The Marshall Project continues the critical job of counting via this webpage deaths from coronavirus reported among prisoners, and as of Friday, December 4, this accounting had tabulated "at least 1568 deaths from coronavirus reported among prisoners." 

As I have said in other posts, this considerable and still ever-growing number is sad and disconcerting on its own terms, but it is even more remarkable given that it now amounts to more than the total  number of prisoner deaths resulting from carrying out formal death sentences in the United States for the entire "modern era" of capital punishment.  According to DPIC data, there were a total of 1527 executions from the 1970s through today.  (Because of Supreme Court litigation, there were no US executions between 1967 and 1977, and death sentences and executions since the 1970s are generally considered the "modern" capital punishment era in the United States.) 

As I have mentioned in prior posts, I think comparing capital punishment and COVID incarceration carnage is problematic in various ways.  All persons executed in the US in modern times have been convicted of the most aggravated forms of murder.  The vast majority of prisoners to die of COVID were not criminally responsible for a death (although, as noted here, some persons on California's death row are part of the COVID prisoner death count).  In a few older posts here and here, I noted that nearly half of the early reported deaths of federal prisoners involved individuals serving time for drug crimes.  

Another problem with comparing capital punishment and COVID incarceration carnage relates to the facct that correctional staff do not die from administering capital punishment, but many have died from COVID.  The Marshall Project reports "at least 105 deaths from coronavirus reported among prison staff."  I am still pleasantly surprised that this too-big number is not even larger, but I will be ever troubled by the thought that these COVID casualty numbers could have been lower if more aggressive depopulation efforts were taken to move the most vulnerable and least risky persons out of the super-spreader environment that prisons represent.

A few of many prior related posts:

December 5, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 04, 2020

More terrific work on persistent carceral problems from the Prison Policy Initiative

Regular readers are surelty familiar with all my posts highlighting the curring-edge research and analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, and this week PPI released two more important new reports on pressing and persistent prison and jail problems:

By Emily Widra, "As COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly, state prisons and local jails have failed to mitigate the risk of infection behind bars." Excerpt:

[M]ore than eight months after the World Health Organization declared the pandemic, prisons and jails have generally failed to reduce their populations enough to protect the health and lives of those who are incarcerated.  While state prison populations have slowly declined from pre-pandemic levels, the pace of these modest reductions has slowed since the spring, even as national infection rates continue to rise.  And county jails — which made promising reductions in the spring — have failed to sustain those reforms....

Since July, 77% of the jails in our sample had population increases, suggesting that the early reforms instituted to mitigate COVID-19 have largely been abandoned.  For example, by mid-April, the Philadelphia city jail population reportedly dropped by more than 17% after city police suspended low-level arrests and judges released “certain nonviolent detainees” jailed for “low-level charges.”  But on May 1st — as the pandemic raged on — the Philadelphia police force announced that they would resume arrests for property crimes, effectively reversing the earlier reduction efforts. Similarly, on July 10th, the sheriff of Jefferson County, Alabama, announced that the jail would limit admissions to only “violent felons that cannot make bond.”  That effort was quickly abandoned when the jail resumed normal admission operations just one week later.  The increasing jail populations across the country suggest that after the first wave of responses to COVID-19, many local officials have allowed jail admissions to return to business as usual.

On the other hand, state prison populations have continued to decline, but not quickly or significantly enough to slow the spread of COVID-19. Even in states where prison populations have dropped, there are still too many people behind bars to accommodate social distancing, effective isolation and quarantine, and increased health care requirements.  For example, although California has reduced the state prison population by about 20% since January, the number of large COVID-19 outbreaks in California state prisons suggests that the population reduction needs to be much more drastic.  In fact, as of November 18th, California’s state prisons were still holding more people than they were designed for, at 105% of their design capacity.

By Emily Widra, "No escape: The trauma of witnessing violence in prison."  An excerpt:

Early this year — before COVID-19 began to tear through U.S. prisons — five people were killed in Mississippi state prisons over the course of one week.  A civil rights lawyer reported in February that he was receiving 30 to 60 letters each week describing pervasive “beatings, stabbings, denial of medical care, and retaliation for grievances” in Florida state prisons. That same month, people incarcerated in the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts filed a lawsuit documenting allegations of abuse at the hands of correctional officers, including being tased, punched, and attacked by guard dogs.

While these horrific stories received some media coverage, the plague of violence behind bars is often overlooked and ignored. And when it does receive public attention, a discussion of the effects on those forced to witness this violence is almost always absent.  Most people in prison want to return home to their families without incident, and without adding time to their sentences by participating in further violence.  But during their incarceration, many people become unwilling witnesses to horrific and traumatizing violence, as brought to light in a February publication by Professors Meghan Novisky and Robert Peralta.

In their study — one of the first studies on this subject — Novisky and Peralta interview recently incarcerated people about their experiences with violence behind bars.  They find that prisons have become “exposure points” for extreme violence that undermines rehabilitation, reentry, and mental and physical health. Because this is a qualitative (rather than quantitative) study based on extensive open-ended interviews, the results are not necessarily generalizable. However, studies like this provide insight into individual experiences and point to areas in need of further study.

December 4, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

House Judiciary subcommittee to hold oversight hearing on federal Bureau of Prisons

As detailed at this link, the US House of Representative's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security (of the Committee on the Judiciary) has scheduled for the morning of December 2, 2020 on "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service." The witness list, available at this link, shows Directors of the Bureau of Prisons and of the United States Marshals Service, as the only witnesses.  I believe the hearing can be watched started at 9am on Dec 2 at this link

The written testimony of Michael Carvajal, Director of the Bureau of Prisons, is available at this link. Here is some interesting bits of data from this written  testimony:

The Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), vocational and occupational training, education, and Federal Prison Industries (FPI) have been shown to reduce recidivism. In previous research studies, RDAP participants were 16 percent less likely to recidivate and 15 percent less likely to have a relapse in their substance use disorder within three years after release. Inmates who participate in vocational or occupational training were 33 percent less likely to recidivate, and inmates who participate in education programs were 16 percent less likely to recidivate.

I am pleased to report that since March 26, 2020, BOP has transferred 18,112 inmates to Home Confinement, and there are an additional 175 who are scheduled to transfer to Home Confinement in the coming weeks. These assessments remain ongoing and will continue for the duration of the pandemic.

UPDATE This Courthouse News Service piece, headlined "Officials Spar Over Covid Spread Through Prison System," provides an overview of some parts of the hearing.

December 1, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal Defenders' updated fact-sheet on COVID-19 and federal detention

Sentencing Resource Counsel for the Federal Public Community Defenders now have updated this fact sheet on "The COVID-19 Crisis in Federal Detention."  This two-page document is dense with information and links about the continued ugly state of federal detention amidst the pandemic.  I recommend the full document and all its helpful links, and here are some of the details (absent the links):

Eight months into the pandemic, the failure to control COVID-19 in federal detention remains “both a public health catastrophe and a moral one.”  In the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the disease is infecting incarcerated individuals at a rate at least 4.77 times the general population.  The U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) doesn’t publicly post data on infections, but in statements to the media, it has reported that as of mid-November, 6,676 individuals in its custody had tested positive for COVID-19 and 20 had died. Federal officials have the power to protect individuals in federal custody from harm, but have failed to do so....

There have now been 157 reported deaths of individuals incarcerated in BOP, a devastating loss.  They were parents, siblings, and children.  They were us.  And some of their deaths surely were preventable.  BOP’s press releases reveal that the majority — 117 — were at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 and that BOP knew it.  Nearly a third of those who have died in BOP’s care were sixty-five or older.

At least 25 individuals died in BOP custody after filing—and in some cases, even after being granted — requests for release.  Many wrote to the court to plead for their lives in the days, weeks, and months preceding their deaths....

BOP and AG Barr have barely used the tools Congress gave them to safely lower prison populations.  The CARES Act authorized AG Barr to dramatically expand the use of home confinement to protect the most vulnerable from COVID-19.  Instead, AG Barr and BOP issued restrictive guidance and memos, each “more confusing than the next,” that together establish a “complex set of procedural and logistical hurdles to home confinement.”  The OIG found that BOP failed to use its early-release authorities to transfer vulnerable individuals to safety in its reviews of hard-hit facilities like Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) and Oakdale FCC.  During the first three months of the pandemic, BOP approved only 11 of the 10,940 — 0.1% — of compassionate release requests it received.  The First Step Act of 2018 expanded compassionate release so that individuals may file a motion directly with the court 30 days after the warden’s receipt of a request, but that delay, coupled with routine opposition to release by DOJ, prevents vulnerable defendants from obtaining critical relief.  Based on a survey of defense attorneys representing clients across the country, we are not aware of a single BOP-initiated motion for compassionate release based on heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19 infection.

December 1, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 30, 2020

"Prisons Are Covid-19 Hotbeds. When Should Inmates Get the Vaccine?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times piece.  Here are excerpts:  

They live in crowded conditions, sharing bathrooms and eating facilities where social distancing is impossible.  They have high rates of asthma, diabetes and heart disease.  Many struggle with mental illness. A disproportionate number are Black and Hispanic, members of minority communities that have been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

So should prisoners and other detainees be given priority access to one of the new Covid-19 vaccines?...

[T]he C.D.C. advisory committee has prioritized correctional officers and others who work in jails and prisons for the first phase of immunizations.  The federal prison system will set aside its initial allotment for such employees, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The discrepancy raises a chilling prospect: another prison outbreak that kills scores of inmates after the only preventive was reserved for staff.  Officials at the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Now several groups, including the American Medical Association, are calling for coronavirus vaccines to be given to inmates and employees at prisons, jails and detention centers, citing the unique risks to people in confinement — and the potential for outbreaks to spread from correctional centers, straining community hospitals....

The idea is controversial.  Allocating precious medical resources to people who are serving time may be anathema to much of the public, but it is widely accepted that the nation has an ethical and legal obligation to safeguard the health of incarcerated individuals.

There is also a powerful public health argument to be made for prison vaccination: Outbreaks that start in prisons and jails may spread to the surrounding community.  “Prisons are incubators of infectious disease,” Dr. Toner said. “It’s a fundamental tenet of public health to try and stop epidemics at their source,” he added.

One approach, under consideration by the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, would be to prioritize vaccination only for prisoners and detainees whose medical conditions or advanced age put them at great risk should they become ill.  “This isn’t a criminal justice recommendation,” said Khalil Cumberbatch, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan group focused on criminal justice policy.  “It’s a public health recommendation. The virus is not in a vacuum if it’s in a state prison.”

November 30, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 27, 2020

Thankful the federal prison population is at lowest level in two decades

4o1xpnI am always thankful to have a good reason to express thanks, and this holiday period seems like a fitting time to be thankful about the federal prison population declining to modern lows.  Of course, it is sad that a global pandemic in part accounts for recent declines, but the COVID era was an accerant that continued positive trends which began after the federal prison population hit historic highs in 2013.

In 2013, the federal prison population reach a peak of around 220,000 total prisoners.  As we close out 2020, the latest BOP numbers at this webpage report "Total Federal Inmates" at only 154,125.  A 30% decline in the federal prison poplation in less than a decade strikes me as something to be thankful for, and the last time the federal prison population was this low was way back in the year 2000.  (That said, any celebration of positive federal carceral trends should be tempered the fact that BOP still reports that more than 30,000 federal prisoners are over age 50, and that nearly 50% of persons in federal prison are servng time for drug offenses despite widespread acknowledgement of the many failings of the war on drugs.)

The latest federal prison population numbers represents a small population decline from the numbers noted in this post last month, which suggests that there may still be small continued COVID-era federal prison population declines.  As noted in this post last month, the US Sentencing Commission released some early COVID-era sentencing data showing that the number of federal sentences imposed between April and June 2020 dropped about 40% from the usual rate.  I suspect the pace of federal sentencings increased in the summer and fall, but the latest surge of COVID cases might yet again impact federal criminal case processing.  

A few of many prior related posts:

November 27, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

UC Law Review Online publishes symposium on "COVID-19 and Criminal Justice"

I was intribued to see this new University of Chicago Law Review Online symposium exploring the COVID pandemic's impact criminal justice.  Here are all the great-looking pieces:

Valena E. Beety & Brandon L. Garrett, COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (series introduction)

Sharon Dolovich, Mass Incarceration, Meet COVID-19

Maybell Romero, Law Enforcement as Disease Vector

Valena E. Beety, Pre-Trial Dismissal in the Interest of Justice: A Response to COVID-19 and Protest Arrests

Deniz Ariturk, William E. Crozier & Brandon L. Garrett, Virtual Criminal Courts

Pamela R. Metzger & Gregory J. Guggenmos, COVID-19 and the Ruralization of U.S. Criminal Court Systems

Barry Friedman & Robin Tholin, Policing the Pandemic

Jennifer D. Oliva, Policing Opioid Use Disorder in a Pandemic

November 18, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 16, 2020

Justice Sotomayor dissents at length from SCOTUS refusal to reinstate order for Texas prison to implement COVID protections

As reported in this SCOTUSblog post, the "Supreme Court on Monday afternoon rejected a request from two inmates at high risk for complications from COVID-19 to reinstate an order by a federal district court that would require Texas prison officials to take basic safety precautions to combat the virus."  Justice Sotomayor issued a lengthy dissent from the ruling, which was joined by Justice Kagan, and here are parts from the start and end of this 11-page opinion:

I write again about the Wallace Pack Unit (Pack Unit), a geriatric prison in southeast Texas that has been ravaged by COVID–19.  See Valentine v. Collier, 590 U.S. ___ (2020) (statement respecting denial of application to vacate stay).  The Pack Unit is a “‘tinderbox’” for COVID–19, not only because it is a dormitory-style facility, “making social distancing in the living quarters impossible,” but also because the vast majority of its inmates are at least 65 years old, and many suffer from chronic health conditions and disabilities....

In July, the District Court held a weeks-long trial that revealed rampant failures by the prison to protect its inmates from COVID–19.  In September, the District Court entered a permanent injunction requiring prison officials to implement basic safety procedures.  The Fifth Circuit, however, stayed the injunction pending appeal.  Now, two inmates, Laddy Valentine and Richard King, ask this Court to vacate the stay.  Because they have met their burden to justify such relief, I would grant the application....

The people incarcerated in the Pack Unit are some of our most vulnerable citizens.  They face severe risks of serious illness and death from COVID–19, but are unable to take even the most basic precautions against the virus on their own. If the prison fails to enforce social distancing and mask wearing, perform regular testing, and take other essential steps, the inmates can do nothing but wait for the virus to take its toll.  Twenty lives have been lost already. I fear the stay will lead to further, needless suffering.

November 16, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 13, 2020

The new death penalty: COVID has now killed more US prisoners than capital punishment over last three decades

I am sad to report that we have passed yet another milestone in COVID prisoner deaths, which prompts another one of my series of "new death penalty" posts.  The Marshall Project continues the critical job of counting via this webpage of deaths from coronavirus reported among prisoners, and as of Thursday, November 12, this accounting had tabulated "at least 1412 deaths from coronavirus reported among prisoners." 

As I have said in other posts, this considerable and ever-growing number is sad and disconcerting on its own terms, but it is even more remarkable given that it now amounts to more than the total  number of prisoner deaths resulting from carrying out formal death sentences in the United States for the entire period from 1990 to 2020.  According to DPIC data, there were a total of 1406 executions from the start of 1990 through today.

Of course, as I have mentioned before, comparing capital punishment and COVID incarceration carnage is problematic in many ways.  All persons executed in the US in recent times have been convicted of the most aggravated forms of murder.  The vast majority of prisoners to die of COVID were not criminally responsible for a death (although, as noted here, some persons on California's death row are part of the COVID prisoner death count).  In a few older posts here and here, I noted that nearly half of the early reported deaths of federal prisoners involved individuals serving time for drug crimes.  

Another problem with comparing capital punishment and COVID incarceration carnage relates to that correctional staff do not die from administering capital punishment, but many have died from COVID.  The Marshall Project reports "at least 93 deaths from coronavirus reported among prison staff."  I am still pleasantly surprised that this too-big number is not even larger, but I will be ever troubled by the thought that all these COVID casualty numbers could have been lower if more aggressive depopulation efforts were taken to move the most vulnerable and least risky persons out of the super-spreader environment that prisons represent.

A few of many prior related posts:

November 13, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Detailing the continued public health catastrophe of COVID in incarceration nation

Sadly, I have been blogging for the better part of a year now about the catastrophe of COVID in the United States for persons who are incarcerated persons, prison staff, their families, and the general public.  We have seen some political, legal and social responses, but this new Washington Post article, headlined "Prisons and jails have become a ‘public health threat’ during the pandemic, advocates say," highlights how bad things have been and still are.  Here is the start of a lengthy piece worth reading in full:

Nobody knows how the ­novel coronavirus sneaked through the barbed wire and imposing gates of Ohio’s Pickaway Correctional Institution, where visitors and volunteers were barred from entering in March.  But the first case showed up April 4.  Within a week, 23 inmates and 17 staff members were found to be infected.  One inmate, Charles Viney Jr., a 66-year-old with a collapsed lung, died hours after testing positive.  Within a month, more than three-quarters of Pickaway’s roughly 2,000 inmates were confirmed positive.  By the end of May, 35 were dead.

Pickaway, where officials acknowledged that efforts to control viral spread were hectic and hindered by imperfect testing, exemplifies the broad challenges facing the nation’s jail and prison systems in the grip of the pandemic. Conditions long considered degrading — including overcrowded, unsanitary housing and inadequate inmate health care — have, in many places, become deadly.

“A prison is now a public health threat,” said Armen Henderson, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami.  He and other criminal justice reform advocates have called for massive reductions in incarceration because of the pandemic.  They argue that measures such as distributing masks or allowing access to hand sanitizer do little to stop the spread of the virus in facilities where people live so close together.

More than 173,000 inmates nationwide have contracted the coronavirus, and almost 1,300 have died, according to the UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project.  At least 37,000 corrections workers have tested positive and 78 have died.  A study prepared for the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice reports that the rate of coronavirus cases in federal and state prisons is more than four times the national rate.  When adjusted for age, sex and ethnicity, the mortality rate in federal prisons is twice that of the general population.

In at least 39 states and D.C., governors, local officials or ­sheriff’s departments have taken steps to reduce prison and jail populations since the beginning of the pandemic.  The measures varied widely, from releasing some nonviolent inmates or those who are medically vulnerable to accepting only the most-violent offenders.

Between March and May, prison populations dropped an average of 8 percent and jail populations decreased about 30 percent, according to data reviewed by Sharon Dolovich, a UCLA law professor who directs the Behind Bars Data Project.  The American Civil Liberties Union has filed more than 50 cases aimed at freeing people from prisons, jails and immigration detention facilities, with limited success largely because a 1996 law limits inmates’ ability to sue.

Now, advocates say, those gains are being eroded, leading to fears about additional outbreaks and mounting death tolls.  A recent overview by the Covid, Corrections, and Oversight Project at the University of Texas at Austin found that the death curve in Texas prisons remains “stubbornly high”; in one East Texas prison, the Duncan Unit, nearly 6 percent of inmates have died.  “The truth is, there is really only one way to meaningfully reduce the risk of spread, and that is to release enough people to make it possible for those who remain to socially distance,” Dolovich said.

UPDATE: Here are is just a smattering of additional depressing recent headlines in this space:

November 12, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Federal prison population, per BOP report of "Total Federal Inmates," drops below 155,000

Regular readers know that I have been closely watching COVID-era changes in the federal prison population because of dramatic declines in the federal Bureau of Prisons' weekly updated "Total Federal Inmates" numbers.  At the start of the COVID era, the reported federal prison population was around 175,000.  As detailed in a series of prior posts, BOP's weekly reporting showed that most weeks through much of the spring the federal prison population shrunk around or over 1,000 persons per week.  Into and through the summer months, weekly declines continued but at a rate closer to about 500.  In early September, as reported in this post, the BOP reported that the "Total Federal Inmates" count was down to 155,483; but then, as noted here, the BOP reported federal prison population ticked up a few hundred persons the following week for first time in COVID era.

In recent weeks the total population seemed to be creeping down again, and checking today the new BOP numbers at this webpage report "Total Federal Inmates" at a new modern low of 154,894.  Though weekly federal prison population declines are no longer consistent or dramatic, we still seem to be experiencing small decreases many weeks and thus it now seems quite that we have not yet hit "the bottom" as to COVID-era federal prison population declines.   

I have wondered repeatedly in these posts whether COVID-delayed sentencings or stalled federal prison transfers or any number of other factors may largely account for these declines.  Helpfully, as noted in this post, the US Sentencing Commission finally released some COVID-era sentencing data, and these data showed that the number of federal sentences imposed between April and June 2020 dropped about 40% from the usual rate.  The reduction in number of sentences imposed surely accounts in part for fewer persons entering federal prisons during the COVID era, though I suspect a lot of other factors have also contributed to the overall prison population declines.  

A few of many prior related posts:

October 29, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

"Decarcerating Correctional Facilities during COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity, and Safety"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released yesterday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  This press release about the report provides a helpful summary, and here is the start of the press release:

Where needed to adhere to public health guidelines and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, authorities should use their discretion to minimize incarceration in prisons and jails — and facilitate testing, quarantine, social supports, and individualized reentry plans for those released, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  The report recommends corrections officials and public health authorities work together to determine the optimal population for jails and prisons to adhere to public health guidelines, considering characteristics that facilitate viral transmission, such as overcrowding, population turnover, health care capacity, and the overall health of individuals living in the facility.

Decarcerating Correctional Facilities During COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity, and Safety says as of August 2020, COVID-19 case rates among incarcerated people were nearly five times higher than in the general population, and three times higher among correctional staff.  Jails and prisons in the U.S. are often overcrowded, dense, poorly ventilated, and disconnected from public health systems, making COVID-19 prevention among incarcerated people and staff exceedingly difficult.

Decarceration — reducing the population of prisons and jails by releasing and diverting people away from incarceration as they enter the criminal justice system — can lower the risk of infection for older and other high-risk incarcerated persons, and allow correctional facilities to more easily implement other COVID-19 prevention strategies such as physical distancing.  The report says that while some jurisdictions have taken steps to decarcerate since the onset of the pandemic, these efforts have so far been insufficient to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in jails and prisons.

The report recommends correctional officials identify candidates for release in a fair and equitable manner.  Individuals who are medically vulnerable, nearing the end of their sentence, or who present a low risk of committing serious crime will likely be suitable candidates.  Research on recidivism suggests that decarceration can be done with minimal risk to public safety.  The report points to data from New York City and California that show large reductions in prison populations were followed by crime rates that either fell or remained at low levels.  Research also shows that most returns to a correctional facility are driven by technical violations of parole or release, rather than new crimes.

Additional helpful related resources appear in this Report Highlights and in this Interactive Report Overview.

October 21, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Rounding up yet another important round of recent COVID-19 prison and jail stories

One sign of COVID fatigue for me is my tendency now to just keep scrolling past new press stories about the ugly (new and old) realities of prisons and jails during this persistent pandemic.  But, especially because COVID fear and not just fatigue is a felt reality for many millions of incarcerated persons and corrections staff and their families every day, I still should keep rounding up prison-COVID press pieces on a regular basis.  And, as I have said before, we should be regularly thankful that the press and commentators keep reporting and discussing these stories that keep emerging from prisons and jails:

From the Appleton Post-Crescent, "COVID-19 has infected more than 2,600 people in Wisconsin’s prisons. Should certain inmates be released to stop the spread?"

From BBC News, "Prisoners locked up for 23 hours due to Covid rules is 'dangerous'"

From the (NC) News & Observer, "‘I signed up for a jail sentence, not a death sentence.’ Escapee now seeks leniency."

From the New York Times, "As Coronavirus Cases Soar, One Montana Town Reels: In the Mountain West, an outbreak has revealed the danger that the virus poses to jails and rural communities"

From NJ.com, "Murphy signs bill to release thousands of N.J. prisoners early beginning the day after Election Day"

From PBS News Hour, "Inside the COVID unit at the world’s largest women’s prison"

From Slate, "The Right to Escape From Prison: A 1974 ruling bears revisiting as prisoners flee the COVID-19 pandemic."

From the Washington Post, "Two Baltimore correctional officers died of covid-19 just months apart"

October 20, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, October 16, 2020

Will some (most? all?) federal prisoners transferred to home confinement be returned to prison after the pandemic ends?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Walter Palvo piece at Forbes headlined "US Attorney States Federal Inmates On Home Confinement Will Return To Prison Once 'Pandemic Is Declared Over'."  Here are excerpts:

It is a fact that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has had a difficult time controlling the spread of COVID-19 within its 122 prison facilities located across the country.  As of October 13, 2020, there are over 1,600 active COVID-19 cases among inmates and another 14,000 who were infected but have recovered .... 126 have died.  Prison staff have also been hurt by the virus with 736 currently infected and over 1,200 who have recovered....

On March 26, 2020, Attorney General William Barr’s memo to Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Michael Carvajal stated that even more needed to be done and noted that one of the most effective “tools to manage prison population and keep inmates safe is the ability to grant certain eligible prisoners home confinement in certain circumstances.” Since then, the BOP has transitioned over 7,700 inmates to home confinement from prison to complete their sentence. While many of those had under a year remaining on their sentence, some have years to go with release dates of 2024 and beyond.  The expectation of those placed on home confinement was that their sentence would be served under these same conditions, but a case out of the District of Columbia sheds light on what may lie ahead for some who are on home confinement ... that could include a return to prison....

[In litigation over a compassionate release motion] Michael P. McCarthy of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division Fraud Section [stated in court] ... "the BOP's program [home confinement under the Barr memo], it's a transfer until the end of the pandemic and then a return to prison if the pandemic is declared over."...

While everyone wants an end to the pandemic, those on home confinement may be told that they will be returning to prison ... or they could be asked to be immunized in order to return .... or the inmate could refuse immunization .... or the inmate may have only a few months remaining by the end of the pandemic and might file an appeal.  If people think the courts are bogged down with compassionate release cases now, wait until a return to prison is announced for those on home confinement.

I asked Jack Donson, a retired BOP corrections specialist, about the prospect of such an action.  Donson told me, “Before COVID-19, home confinement was limited to the lesser of 6 months or 10% of the sentence, aside from the Elderly Offender program but the CARES Act removed that cap so we have never had a situation where people were potentially on home confinement for years.  Nobody knows how this will play out but it has been taxing to the BOP to get people out of prison, I can only imagine that it would be even more taxing to get them back in, especially in light of the June 2020, target population reductions in the Low and Minimum security facilities.

Because of the opaque nature of BOP work and data, it is difficult to tell just how many persons have been transferred into home confinement and what percentage of these persons might have long enough still remain on their original sentences to perhaps prompt DOJ to seek their return to prison whenever the pandemic if over.  Sadly, I fear we are still many, many months away from returning to anything we might call post-pandemic normal prison operations, and so the need to start answering the question in the title of this post may still be a long way off.  But, as this Forbes piece highlights, it is probably not too early to start thinking about some of the legal and practical challenges that will come whenever we are "lucky" enough to return to "normal" in the federal prison section of incarceration nation.

October 16, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, October 15, 2020

"COVID-19 and the US Criminal Justice System: Evidence for Public Health Measures to Reduce Risk"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report authored by a bunch of experts at Johns Hopkins.  Here is the report's introduction:

Since its recognition as a pandemic in early 2020, novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has touched nearly every corner of US society.  However, some populations and environments have been affected far more severely than others. Vulnerable populations — especially those subject to structural racism, discrimination due to disability, and financial insecurity — tend also to be particularly susceptible to the economic consequences of and severe disease and death from COVID-19.  In addition, the institutions, industries, and systems that are fundamentally important to our lives and our democracy have, in some cases, become places where severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) spreads readily if allowed to gain a foothold.  In these places, it can be difficult to prevent the introduction of the virus or control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 once it is introduced.

The US criminal justice system is highly susceptible to the spread of COVID-19 because of the structure of carceral facilities, which propagates the spread of respiratory infections, and the comorbidities of many incarcerated individuals. The criminal justice system in the United States is not unique in its vulnerability to COVID-19; other systems and industries — like nursing homes and long-term care facilities, manufacturing and meat processing facilities, and dormitories — are similarly affected. However, many factors converge in the criminal justice system that make viral transmission both more possible and, in some cases, more dangerous than in many other environments.

This report, from scholars at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is intended to summarize the current state and future projections of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, detail the impact that the pandemic has already had on the US criminal justice system, and provide evidence-based recommendations on how to reduce COVID-19 risks to people in the system.  This document was requested by the National Commission on COVID-19 and the Criminal Justice System to inform their discussion and deliberation on this topic.

October 15, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

"COVID-19 in Juvenile Facilities"

The title of this post is the title of this short new report written by Josh Rovner at The Sentencing Project. Here is the start of its coverage:

COVID-19 has infected hundreds of youth housed in and staff working in juvenile facilities.  Given the close proximity that defines life in congregate care settings, such as detention centers and residential treatment centers, such spread was inevitable without significant reductions in population in these facilities.  Since March, The Sentencing Project has urged the release of as many youth as possible to bend the curve of infections within the juvenile justice system.  As of July, four staff members working in these facilities have died from COVID-19.

Among detained youth, COVID-19 cases have been reported in 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Cases among staff have been reported in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

October 13, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Federal prison population hits new modern law at 155,197 according to BOP reporting

Regular readers know that I have been closely watching COVID-era changes in the federal prison population because of dramatic declines in the federal Bureau of Prisons' weekly updated "Total Federal Inmates" numbers.  At the start if the COVID era, the reported federal prison population was around 175,000.  But, as I highlighted in a series of prior posts, according to BOP's reporting, most weeks through much of the spring the federal prison population shrunk around or over 1,000 persons per week.  Into and through the summer months, weekly declines continued but at a rate closer to about 500.  Roughly a month ago, as reported in this post, the BOP reported "Total Federal Inmates" was down to 155,483; but then, as noted here, the BOP reported federal prison population ticked up a few hundred persons the following week for first time in COVID era.

Today, checking the new BOP numbers at this webpage report "Total Federal Inmates" shows seemingly a new modern population low at 155,197.  So, though it seems weekly federal prison population declines are no longer consistent or dramatic, we still seem to be experiencing small decreases many weeks and thus it is possible we have not yet hit "the bottom" as to COVID era federal prison population declines.   

I have wondered repeatedly in these posts whether COVID-delayed sentencings or stalled federal prison transfers or any number of other factors may largely account for these declines.  But a persistent lack of any real-time sentencing data from the US Sentencing Commission and the opaque nature of BOP data make it hard for me to be sure just what these weekly reported population numbers represent.  I remain hopeful that we may eventually get some timely sentencing data from the USSC, but I am not optimistic it will ever be easy to fully understand and account for all the ways the the federal criminal process and prison populations have been impacted by and are adjusting to the COVID era.

A few of many prior related posts:

October 8, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Documenting the (unsurprising) lack of compassion from federal prison officials when considering COVID-era compassionate release requests

The Marshall Project has this lengthy new piece reporting on an old story, namely the utter failure of federal prison officials to discharge effectively their "compassionate release" responsibilities by helping to identify prisoners who ought to have their prison sentences reduced due to serious illness or other compelling factors.  The full piece is worth a full read; it is fully headlined: "Thousands of Sick Federal Prisoners Sought Compassionate Release.  98 Percent Were Denied.  Wardens blocked bids for freedom as COVID-19 spread behind bars, data shows."  Here are a few excerpts, with commentary to follow:

Data recently obtained by The Marshall Project underscores what attorneys, advocates and experts have long suspected: As the pandemic ramped up, federal prison wardens denied or ignored more than 98 percent of compassionate release requests, including many from medically vulnerable prisoners like Neba.  Wardens are the first line of review; ultimately, compassionate release petitions must be approved by a judge.  Though the Bureau of Prisons has previously posted information about the number of people let out on compassionate release, it wasn’t clear until now just how many prisoners applied for it or how frequently wardens denied these requests despite widespread calls to reduce the prison population in the face of the pandemic....

Of the 10,940 federal prisoners who applied for compassionate release from March through May, wardens approved 156.  Some wardens, including those at Seagoville in Texas and Oakdale in Louisiana, did not respond to any request in that time frame, according to the data, while others responded only to deny them all.  Higher-ups in Washington, D.C., reviewed 84 of the warden approvals and overturned all but 11.  Time and again, the only way prisoners were able to win compassionate release was to take the bureau to court to fight the wardens' denials.

For dozens of people stuck behind bars, the virus has proved fatal; so far, 134 federal prisoners have died of COVID-19, and more than 15,800 have fallen ill. A statement from the Bureau of Prisons did not address specific questions, including why some wardens failed to respond to release requests. The wardens referred questions to the bureau.

At Elkton, an early hot spot in Ohio where nine prisoners died of COVID-19 and more than 900 got sick beginning in March, the warden denied 866 out of 867 requests for compassionate release between March 1 and May 31.

In California, the prison at Terminal Island became the site of a major outbreak, with 694 prisoners testing positive by the end of May. But the warden only approved five of the 256 compassionate release requests filed by that time.  At Butner, a four-prison complex in North Carolina where 25 prisoners and one correctional officer died in May and June, officials approved 29 of 524 requests by the end of May.

At some prisons, the low number of requests raised questions about the bureau’s recordkeeping.  For example, at the Oakdale complex, an early hot spot in Louisiana where eight prisoners have died, officials reported just 95 compassionate release applications by the end of May out of a population of more than 1,700. The warden took action on none of them. At the same time, the prison racked up 191 positive cases.  Likewise at Forrest City, a two-prison complex in Arkansas where more than 700 men fell ill, officials reported only three applications by the end of May.  All three were approved.

For more than a dozen institutions, including all 11 of the privately run federal prisons, the bureau listed no compassionate release requests at all.  “The numbers seem incorrect,” said Somil Trivedi, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who has helped coordinate lawsuits against federal prisons. “I just don’t feel like they’re counting them all.  This has to be an undercount because of the informal nature of the process.”

I am very pleased to see the Marshall Project seek to marshal this data, and I would have been shocked if the data showed anything else about how federal prison officials responded to compassionate release requests.  Congress through the FIRST STEP Act wisely altered the process for these requests to authorize prisoners to directly motion courts for a sentence reduction (often called "compassionate release") because federal prison officials had so badly failed for decades to effectively discharge their "compassionate release" responsibilities.   In the past, many hundreds of inmates had died before prison officials would even respond to requests, and Congress should be widely praises for its wise decision to now allow prisoners to motion courts directly after first making the request to prison officials.

That said, the challenges of collecting these data and keeping them updated serves as a reminder that the FIRST STEP Act did not fix everything.  As long known by those involved in this system, the federal BOP still needs to be subject to considerably more independent oversight and reporting requirements.  BOP's overall lack of accountability and transparency was bad enough in normal times, especially since the BOP has been the nation's largest incarcerator for the better part of two decades.  In the COVID era, the federal prisons bureau should be doing a whole lot better and that really seem to now require significant structural change.

That all said, any doom and gloom about federal prison officials can and should be tempered by the broader success stories in the arena of sentence reductions (often called "compassionate release") under 3582(c), and this overall success is usefully documented in real time by the BOP.  Though the BOP does not discuss motions denied of any particulars, the BOP does helpfully report at this FSA page the total number of granted post-FIRST STEP Act "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences."  As of this writing, that number stands at 1752 (and is up over 250 in just the last month since I blogged on this topic here). 

As detailed in this post, the US Sentencing Commission has reported that in the year before FIRST STEP only 24 persons got their sentenced reduced; in the year after FIRST STEP became law, that number of sentence reductions rose to 145.  Doing the math, this all means that in the COVID era there have already been over 1600 sentence reduction motions granted (meaning roughly 80 times as many as pre-FIRST STEP and 11 times as many as post FIRST STEP/Pre-COVID)!  

A few of many prior related posts:

October 7, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 05, 2020

"Remote Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article authored by Jenia Iontcheva Turner now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The coronavirus pandemic has forced courts to innovate to provide criminal justice while protecting public health. Many have turned to online platforms in order to conduct criminal proceedings without undue delay.  The convenience of remote proceedings has led some to advocate for their expanded use after the pandemic is over.  To assess the promise and peril of online criminal justice, I surveyed state and federal judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys across Texas, where virtual proceedings have been employed for a range of criminal proceedings, starting in March 2020.  The survey responses were supplemented with direct observations of remote plea hearings and the first criminal jury trial conducted via Zoom.

The survey responses paint a complicated picture.  They suggest that, on the whole, online proceedings can save time and resources for the participants in criminal cases and can provide broader access to the courts for the public.  Yet respondents also noted the dangers of remote justice, particularly in contested or evidentiary hearings and trials.  These include the inability of the parties to present evidence and confront witnesses effectively, and the challenges of providing adequate legal assistance remotely.  Respondents also expressed concern that the court’s perception of defendants may be negatively skewed by technology and that indigent defendants might be disproportionately harmed by the use of remote hearings. Defense attorneys were especially likely to be concerned about the use of the online format and to believe that it tends to harm their clients.  Federal judges and prosecutors were also more likely than their state counterparts to be skeptical of the benefits of online criminal proceedings outside the context of the pandemic.

Based on the survey responses, an analysis of scholarship and case law, and first-hand observations of virtual criminal proceedings, the Article concludes with several recommendations about the future use of online criminal justice.  It argues that states should be wary of expanding the use of remote proceedings after the pandemic is over.  Online technology could be used more broadly to conduct status hearings and hearings on questions of law and to increase the frequency of attorney-client consultations.  Beyond these narrow circumstances, however, remote hearings post-pandemic should be used only sparingly, as they carry too many risks to the fairness of the proceedings.  If jurisdictions make the choice to use virtual proceedings in circumstances beyond status hearings and legal arguments, this should be done only after obtaining an informed and voluntary consent from the defendant, and with great care taken to reduce the risks of unfairness and unreliable results.

October 5, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Decarceration and community re-entry in the COVID-19 era"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece by multiple authors published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.  Here is its "Summary":

Jails and prisons are exceptionally susceptible to viral outbreaks, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.  The USA has extremely high rates of incarceration and COVID-19 is causing an urgent health crisis in correctional facilities and detention centres.  Epidemics happening in prisons are compounding the elevated risks that COVID-19 poses to people of colour, older people, and those with comorbidities.  Intersectoral community re-entry efforts in the USA and other countries have shown that releasing people from correctional facilities as a pandemic-era public health intervention is safe and can support both public safety and community rebuilding.  Therefore, substantial decarceration in the USA should be initiated.  A point of focus for such efforts is that many people in prison are serving excessively long sentences and pose acceptable safety risks for release.  Properly managed, correctional depopulation will prevent considerable COVID-19 morbidity and mortality and reduce prevailing socioeconomic and health inequities.

October 5, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Council on Criminal Justice's new National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice releases first report on "Recommendations for Response and Future Readiness"

I noted here a few month ago that the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) had launched an important, timely and impressive new commission titled the "National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice" and headed by two former US Attorneys General.   This commission today released this first interim report titled "Recommendations for Response and Future Readiness," and here is a portion of its executive summary:

Since it was established in late July, the Commission has worked quickly, publishing six reports assessing the impact of COVID-19 on crime rates, budgets, and jail and prison populations. It has taken written and oral testimony from a broad spectrum of criminal justice organizations, researchers, advocates and others, including those recently released from correctional facilities.

This interim report, Recommendations for Response and Future Readiness, tackles the second goal. It is intended to assist criminal justice leaders on the front lines by offering actionable guidance on how to respond immediately and directly to the coronavirus pandemic, and to prepare for a possible second wave of infections this fall.  A subsequent report, to be released by the end of 2020, will offer consensus recommendations that address the broader implications of the pandemic and systemic reforms to policy and practice.

Guiding Principles

What should criminal justice leaders do, right now, when responding to COVID-19? What are the most important steps they can take immediately to limit the spread of the virus and improve readiness?

First, they should follow a set of key principles, as detailed in these recommendations.

  • Preserve public health in addition to public safety;
  • Get the facts and rely on strong data and science;
  • Be proactive, going above and beyond normal measures to protect all those connected to the criminal justice system; and
  • Improve equity and increase inclusion in decision-making, being mindful of the racial and other disparities that plague both the health and justice systems.

Cross-Sector Recommendations

Criminal justice leaders should also consider the following general recommendations that apply to all sectors of the system.

  • Stop exponential growth. Leaders should aim to exceed authoritative guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and other authoritative bodies in order to contain the potential exponential spread of COVID-19. Exponential growth means that one person infects many, and those many infect many more. It is imperative for leaders to prevent such growth of COVID-19 cases - and remain vigilant once it is controlled – by consistently implementing and enforcing well-known, scientifically proven measures such as physical distancing, universal masking, and mass testing.
  • Communicate transparently. Criminal justice leaders should be as transparent as possible in addressing the coronavirus pandemic. Leaders must communicate clearly, quickly, and repeatedly with staff, justice-involved populations and their families, and the public. They must also collect, report, and make public critical data related to COVID-19 infection, morbidity, and mortality, taking care to capture data by race and ethnicity in order to produce a full picture of how the virus has affected the groups most impacted by the justice system.
  • Limit contact, maximize distance, reduce density. Given the risks associated with criminal justice contact during the pandemic, leaders should take measures to limit system contact, maximize distance, and reduce density wherever possible. Such measures may include limiting custodial arrests, reducing admissions to and increasing releases from jails and prisons, and moving indoor operations and activities outside, among others.
  • Allocate resources strategically. The coronavirus pandemic has deeply impacted the local, county, and state budgets that fund the vast majority of criminal justice operations in the country. In response to declining revenues and shrinking budgets, leaders should allocate resources strategically rather than order simplistic across-the-board cuts. In particular, leaders should innovate, using technology to do more with less, as well as preserve funding for evidence-based programming and solutions that provide equitable access to justice.
  • Engage impacted communities. Critically, criminal justice leaders should actively collaborate with each other and engage and consider impacted communities in all decision making. Regular opportunities for input from disproportionately impacted groups should be provided, especially poor communities of color. Leaders should be mindful of the racial disparities that continue to plague the criminal justice and health systems and ensure their responses to COVID-19 do not exacerbate such disparities.

Sector-Specific Recommendations

The Commission recommends a series of measures for each of the four major sectors of the criminal justice system. These recommendations provide more detailed, specific guidance for leaders to address the unique realities of each sector.

October 1, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

"Youth Justice Under the Coronavirus: Linking Public Health Protections with the Movement for Youth Decarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report written by Josh Rovner at The Sentencing Project.  Here is the start of its executive summary:

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has infected more than 1,800 incarcerated youth and more than 2,500 staff working in the detention centers, residential treatment facilities, and other settings that comprise the deep end of the juvenile justice system.  More than six months after the first infections emerged, the emergency is not over.

According to data collected by The Sentencing Project, COVID-19 cases have been reported among incarcerated youth in 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.  In five states, more than 100 incarcerated youth have tested positive.  Four staff members working in juvenile facilities have died from the virus.

In congregate care settings, this contagious pathogen’s spread was inevitable.  States and localities have taken steps to mitigate COVID-19’s impact, including releasing confined youth, curtailing admissions, limiting visitation and programming, and isolating youth in a manner that mimics solitary confinement.  Given the persistent racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice, there is little doubt that youth of color are suffering disproportionately from the virus and the changes within facilities that it has brought.

This report summarizes lessons learned through the first months of the pandemic, focusing on system responses, both positive and negative, to slow the virus’s spread and to protect the safety and wellbeing of youth in the juvenile justice system while keeping the public informed.  Drops in admissions during the pandemic, alongside decisions to release youth at a higher rate than during ordinary times, buttress the long-standing case that youth incarceration is largely unnecessary.  Jurisdictions must limit the virus’s damage by further reducing the number of incarcerated youth.

September 30, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Noting encouraging new federal compassionate release realities

I am pleased to see this CBS News new article headlined "Compassionate release, once seldom used, offers some federal inmates hope."  Here are excerpts:

[C]ompassionate release [was] a once seldom used remedy that allows inmates to receive a reduction in their sentence. The process, which is only used in extraordinary circumstances, has seen an uptick during the coronavirus pandemic....

Petitions for compassionate release were rarely approved prior to the passing of the First Step Act in December 2018, which created a procedural change, making it easier for offenders and their families to bring their request to the court.

There were 145 offenders released in 2019 — about five times more than the year before, when 24 people were granted release, according to a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.  On average, the sentences were reduced by 84 months last year, compared to 68 months the year before.  Two-thirds of those who successfully obtained release did so by filing requests through the court, rather than going through the Bureau of Prisons, the report found.

The bureau, in a statement, said it has no direct authority to reduce an inmate's sentence, but rather, a director determines if an inmate is eligible and submits a request to the prosecuting U.S. Attorney's Office to file a motion on behalf of the director.  "Inmates who are found to be ineligible under agency criteria, or who are determined to be inappropriate for agency approval of a reduction in (a) sentence may file a motion themselves directly to the sentencing court per the First Step Act," the statement said.

So far, nearly 1,600 cases have been approved, the bureau said, meaning that in the year of the pandemic, the numbers of those being released have increased tenfold since the year before.

The virus has killed 120 federal inmates, the bureau said.  Saferia Johnson, a 36-year-old with pre-existing health conditions, died from the virus in August after her petitions for release were reportedly denied by a prison warden in Sumterville, Florida.  Johnson was serving a 46-month sentence at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex for conspiracy to steal public money and for aggravated identity theft.  The bureau declined to comment on her case.

Compassionate release differs from home confinement, a program that Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to enforce in March, just as the pandemic began to root itself inside the federal prison system.  Home confinement allows current inmates to serve out the remainder of their sentence from the comfort of their home while still remaining under correctional supervision.  The Justice Department prioritized the elderly, those at high-risk, and non-violent offenders for home confinement.  As time went on, the qualifying factors set by the bureau included those who had already served at least half of their sentence.

Since Barr issued the directive, over 7,600 inmates have been placed into home confinement.  Notable recipients include President Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.  However, in light of the pandemic, judges have been approving more petitions for compassionate release, and organizations like FAMM are helping spearhead the effort.

FAMM, in conjunction with other civil rights groups, created the "Compassionate Release Clearinghouse" in 2019, and has advocated for inmates who qualify for the sentence reduction under the First Step Act.  "We didn't think it was smart to keep sick and elderly people in prison before COVID-19 hit — and it seemed downright immoral to trap them there once it did," said Kevin Ring, the organization's president.

"We don't usually do direct services, but this was a humanitarian emergency.  We are grateful to the hundreds of federal defenders and volunteer attorneys — both in and outside of the Clearinghouse — who helped families get their loved ones out of harm's way."

A few prior recent posts:

September 19, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 17, 2020

BOP reported federal prison population ticks up for first time in COVID era

Regular readers know that I have been closely watching COVID-era changes in the federal prison population because of dramatic declines in the federal Bureau of Prisons' weekly updated "Total Federal Inmates" numbers.  At the start if the COVID era, the reported federal prison population was around 175,000.  But, as I highlighted in a series of prior posts, according to BOP's reporting, most weeks through much of the spring the federal prison population shrunk around or over 1,000 persons per week.  Into and through the summer months, weekly declines continued but at a rate closer to about 500.  As of last week, as reported in this post, the BOP reported "Total Federal Inmates" was down to 155,483. 

Today, on the cusp of fall 2020, the new BOP numbers at this webpage report "Total Federal Inmates" at 155,741.  In other words, there is reason to wonder whether we may have hit "the bottom" as to COVID era federal population declines, as this week we see an increase in the reported population of just ver 250 persons.  

I have wondered repeatedly in these posts whether COVID-delayed sentencings and stalled federal prison transfers may account for most of these declines.  But a persistent lack of any real-time sentencing data from the US Sentencing Commission and the opaque nature of BOP data make it hard for me to be sure just what these reported population numbers represent.  As I have said before, I am hopeful we may eventually get some timely sentencing data from the USSC.  But we are now well over six months into the pandemic, and the USSC still seems in no rush to provide any inkling of how the federal criminal sentencing process has been impacted by and adjusting to the COVID era.

A few of many prior related posts:

September 17, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The new death penalty: The Marshall Project reporting COVID prisoner deaths exceed 1000

In this post back in May, I started what became a series of posts in which I noted what might be called a new kind of death penalty for prison and jail inmates in the United States: by killing many hundreds of incarcerated persons, COVID-19 has turned all sorts of other sentences into functional death sentences.  In prior postings, I have often flagged the death data from the UCLA Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project, but today I see that The Marshall Project has updated data here showing that prisoner deaths have hit another grim milestone:

Deaths

The first known COVID-19 death of a prisoner was in Georgia when Anthony Cheek died on March 26. Cheek, who was 49 years old, had been held in Lee State Prison near Albany, a hotspot for the disease.  Since then, at least 1,016 other prisoners have died of coronavirus-related causes.  By Sept. 8, the total number of deaths had risen by 5 percent in a week.

There have been at least 1,017 deaths from coronavirus reported among prisoners.

Of course, 1000 is just a round number and every single COVID death is individually sad and disconcerting.  I continue to hope that, somehow, we might be getting past the worst of this pandemic that has (predictably) already been so lethal for persons in and around prisons and jails. 

A few of many prior related posts:

September 13, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Federal prison population now down to 155,483 according to BOP reporting

Regular readers likely realize that I am no longer providing weekly updates on COVID-era changes in the federal prison population because declines in the federal Bureau of Prisons' weekly updated "Total Federal Inmates" numbers has slowed considerably.  But I am continuing to notice that the BOP population is still declining and this story seems worth watching closely amidst  continuing efforts to return to some form of new normal.

As I have noted before via this post, according to BOP's reporting, most weeks through April the federal prison population shrunk around or over 1,000 persons per week; through May, as detailed here, the pace of weekly decline increased to an average of around 1,200 fewer reported prisoners; through June, as detailed here, declines continued at a slightly reduced rate of about 950 fewer persons reported in all federal facilities on average per week.  But by the tail end of July, as noted here, weekly reported population declines were trending under 500.

My post on July 30 noted that the federal population was at a another new historic low with the new BOP reported "Total Federal Inmates" at 157,862.  Three weeks later, on August 20, I reported here that we were down to 156,415.  Today, three more weeks on, the new BOP numbers at this webpage report "Total Federal Inmates" at 155,483

As I have said repeatedly before, I still suspect that COVID-delayed sentencings and stalled federal prison transfers continued to account for mot of these declines; but the lack of any real-time sentencing data from the US Sentencing Commission and the opaque nature of BOP data make it hard to be sure just what the reported population numbers represent.  I am hopeful that we will eventually get some sentencing data from the USSC that can help us better understand these prison data, but now well over six months into the pandemic, the USSC still seems in no rush to provide any inkling of how the federal criminal sentencing process has been impacted. Grrr.

A few of many prior related posts:

September 10, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Ugly details from federal defenders' latest fact sheet on COVID-19 and federal detention

Sentencing Resource Counsel for the Federal Public Community Defenders has just released this new two-page fact sheet dense with information and links on "The COVID-19 Crisis in Federal Detention."  I recommend the full document, and here are some of the details (absent the links):

COVID-19 is ripping through the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), infecting incarcerated individuals at a rate 4 times the general population, and causing deaths at nearly twice the national rate. BOP is “making it worse,” said Joe Rojas, the regional vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals. “They’re making the virus explode.”

There have now been 126 reported deaths of incarcerated individuals, an incalculable loss.  They were parents, siblings, and children.  They were us.  Some of their deaths were surely preventable.  BOP’s press releases reveal that the majority — 93 — were at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 and BOP knew it.  At least a quarter of those who have died in BOP’s care were seventy or older.  Last month, BOP told the Washington Post that at least 18 individuals died while their requests for compassionate release were pending.  To date, we have identified 19 individuals who died in BOP custody after filing — and in some cases, even after being granted — requests for release....

BOP and DOJ have ignored the tools Congress gave them to lower prison populations safely.  The bipartisan CARES Act authorized AG Barr to dramatically expand the use of home confinement to protect the most vulnerable from COVID-19.  But in response, AG Barr and BOP have issued restrictive guidance and memos, each “more confusing than the next,” that together establish a “complex set of procedural and logistical hurdles to home confinement.”  To date, BOP has approved for transfer to home confinement only 4.4% of the 174,923 who were in custody on February 20.  The DOJ OIG examined BOP’s response to COVID-19 at one of BOP’s hardest-hit facilities, Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex, and found that BOP’s use of home confinement at FCC Lompoc was “extremely limited.”  The Department of Justice (DOJ) has not released demographic data on the individuals BOP has approved for home confinement, despite congressional demands.  At a time when transparency is more important than ever, the federal incarceration system is a black box. “The problem is that prisons in the U.S. are not accustomed to oversight and transparency.”

Thanks to the First Step Act of 2018, individuals no longer must depend on BOP to initiate a motion for compassionate release. Post-FSA, defendants may file a motion directly with the court 30 days after the warden’s receipt of a request.  But during the COVID-19 crisis, this 30-day delay, coupled with DOJ’s routine opposition, prevents vulnerable defendants from obtaining critical relief.  At FMC Carswell, a medical facility that houses the most medically vulnerable women in BOP, “fewer than 20 women” have reportedly received compassionate release.  Based on a survey of defense attorneys representing clients across the country, we are not aware of a single BOP-initiated motion for compassionate release based on heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19 infection.

September 9, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, September 06, 2020

"Lives on the Line: Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones and the Impact of COVID-19 Behind Bars"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting recent report I just came across from the "Lives on the Line Campaign." Here is part of the start of the report's executive summary:

Incarceration has always posed a grave threat to public health. Jails, prisons, and detention centers subject people to dangerous, unhealthy, inhumane conditions and experiences by design.  So, when COVID-19 became a pandemic, we knew that our loved ones’ lives were on the line. We knew that the crowded, unsanitary conditions behind bars and a lack of access to medical care would mean that incarcerated people would be among those hit hardest by the virus.  We knew that the patriarchal, punitive values embedded into the prison industrial complex would prevent incarcerated people from receiving the kind of care they need to survive a pandemic.  And we knew that this harm would ripple out to cause profound physical, emotional, and economic harm for the communities that mass incarceration targets: historically marginalized people, especially Black and Brown communities and women.

In response, Essie Justice Group, in partnership with Color of Change, created the Lives on the Line survey for people with incarcerated loved ones.  Knowing that carceral spaces are designed to obscure their own violence, the survey sought out concrete data that could illustrate what was happening behind bars and buoy the efforts of advocates across the country fighting to free incarcerated people amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.  Carceral facilities are using COVID-19 as poor justification to further isolate incarcerated women, men, and people of all genders from the outside.  Therefore, we put out a public call to people with incarcerated loved ones to share information and testimonies, acknowledging that women with family members behind bars are uniquely material witnesses to what is happening in prisons, jails and detention centers during COVID-19. Our survey ran over a four-week period from May 5th to June 7th, 2020.  We received 709 responses.

The data we collected makes clear that what is happening with COVID-19 behind bars is a humanitarian and public health disaster.  Jails, prisons, and detention centers are callously failing to take bare minimum measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such as instating distancing protocols or providing adequate supplies of free soap, disinfectant, or masks to incarcerated people.  Facilities have exploited the virus as an opportunity to further sever connections between incarcerated people and their support networks, including their lawyers and their loved ones.  In a moment when people need to be released faster than ever, court dates, hearings, and release dates are being delayed.  As a result, incarcerated people are suffering and dying from COVID-19 at alarmingly high rates.  They and their loved ones live with fear, extraordinary anxiety, and extreme isolation.  Incarceration is fundamentally incompatible with human dignity and human health; COVID-19 makes that undeniable.

A key objective of this report is to highlight the disparate impact of COVID-19 behind bars on Black people and Black women, uplifting the crisis as a gender and racial justice issue.

September 6, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)