Saturday, October 09, 2021

"Creating Cautionary Tales: Institutional, Judicial, and Societal Indifference to the Lives of Incarcerated Individuals"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Nicole Godfrey available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on American society in the spring of 2020, advocates for incarcerated people began sounding alarm bells alerting society to the impending devastation for incarcerated people once the coronavirus scaled the prison walls.  For too many incarcerated people, the alarms fell on deaf ears and the COVID-19 pandemic has had life-shattering consequences for thousands of individuals locked inside American prisons.  But to anyone with an understanding of the historical realities of and legal parameters around the American carceral state, the devastation came as no surprise.

Since the 1980s, America has led the world in imprisoning its own citizens, and, to many, American justice means locking human beings in overcrowded cages and throwing away the key.  This Article explores how American criminal “justice” has created a system wherein three interconnected strands of indifference render incarcerated people particularly vulnerable to devastating harms like those associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.  First, the sheer enormity of the American carceral state has led to the creation of prison bureaucracies that operate with institutional indifference to the lives of the incarcerated.  Sympathetic to the complex task of administering enormous prison systems, the federal judiciary has created a doctrine of judicial indifference to harms experienced to incarcerated people.  Finally, the Article explores how a general societal indifference to the lives of incarcerated individuals in particular and marginalized groups in general has allowed the institutional and judicial indifference to develop and proliferate.  The Article posits that the damaging consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the incarcerated population are directly tied to these interwoven indifferences and calls on widespread reform and decarceration to avoid future cautionary tales.

October 9, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Examining "life-or-death lottery for thousands of federal inmates" from compassionate release

Ai2html-graphic-desktop.93a75d10This lengthy new CNN article, Headlined "Compassionate release became a life-or-death lottery for thousands of federal inmates during the pandemic," takes a deep dive into the realities of compassionate release processes and outcomes. Here are excerpts:

Judge Danny Reeves ... has denied compassionate release motions from at least 90 inmates since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a CNN review of court records found. In Reeves' district, the Eastern District of Kentucky, judges granted about 6% of compassionate release motions in 2020 and the first half of 2021, according to data released by the US Sentencing Commission this week. In some judicial districts, the approval rate was even lower.

But elsewhere in the country, compassionate release is a different story: Nearly 50% of compassionate release motions decided by the federal court in Massachusetts and more than 60% decided by the court in Oregon were approved during the same time period -- including some for inmates with far less serious medical conditions.... [The image shows darker colors based on percentage of motions for compassionate release that were granted, by judicial district.]

Federal judges in all of these districts are applying the same laws, which allow compassionate release in "extraordinary and compelling" cases. But those wide disparities show that whether defendants get released early during the pandemic has had almost as much to do with which courts are hearing their motion as it does with the facts of their cases, legal advocates and researchers say.

The compassionate release process, expanded by Congress in a landmark 2018 criminal justice reform bill, has acted as a safety valve for the federal prison system during the pandemic, with more than 3,600 inmates being released in 2020 and the first half of 2021. But it has given judges broad discretion to interpret which sentences should be reduced, leading to a national patchwork of jarringly different approval rates between federal courts.

The reasons behind the disparities have to do with variations in sentence length and legal representation for inmates, as well as differing approaches between more liberal and conservative judges, according to interviews with more than a dozen lawyers, advocates and experts studying compassionate release.

More broadly, the percentage of motions granted nationwide has fallen this year, as judges and Department of Justice lawyers have been pointing to inmates' vaccination status as a reason to oppose their release. "Judges are looking at the same law and policy but interpreting it differently," said Hope Johnson, a researcher with the UCLA School of Law who's studied compassionate release cases. "There's an arbitrariness in the way these decisions are being made."...

Overall, 17.5% of compassionate release motions were granted in 2020 and the first six months of 2021, newly released sentencing commission statistics show. But that rate ranged from a low of 1.7% in the Southern District of Georgia, where all but four of 230 motions were denied, to a high of 77.3% in the District of Puerto Rico, where 17 of 22 motions were granted.

Judge Charles Breyer, the only current member of the sentencing commission, said in an interview that he thought the lack of updated compassionate release guidelines was exacerbating the wide disparities between districts. He said he would like the commission to pass a new standard urging judges to take "the pernicious effect of Covid" into account in deciding compassionate release cases. "You need a national standard," Breyer told CNN, adding that without one, "it creates a vacuum and it creates uncertainty, and most importantly it creates disparity."

September 30, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, September 24, 2021

"Sex Offender Registration in a Pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece authored by Wayne Logan now posted on SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This Essay, part of a symposium examining how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the criminal justice system, addresses whether, and how, state and local governments maintained their requirement that individuals convicted of sex offenses meet with authorities in person to confirm and update their registry information.  Focusing in particular on the first months of 2020, the tale told highlights the distinctiveness of registration: while many governmental operations were suspended, or went online, in-person registration very often persisted.  As a result, registrants were required to travel to a government office (perhaps by public transport), wait in a closed space very possibly with poor ventilation, sometimes for extended periods of time, where social distancing might not have been feasible.  If they failed to satisfy the registration requirement they faced significant criminal punishment.

The in-person registration requirement remained in effect even though registrants often share many of the same health and age-related characteristics of the broader at-risk population, risks often aggravated by sanitary problems associated with chronic homelessness (e.g., lack of access to soap for hand washing) that registrants often experience.  As a result, in-person registration posed the threat of registrants transmitting and contracting the virus, affecting not only the registrants themselves, but also friends, family, and employers, as well as the governmental authorities with whom they had to interact.  As states and localities undertook aggressive measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, the persistence of in-person registration provides a stark reminder of the continued exceptionalism of registration and the population it targets (individuals convicted of sex offenses).

The Essay explores the reasons accounting for this distinctiveness and provides some thoughts on how and why in-person registration persisted in the early stages of the pandemic when so many other governmental operations were suspended or significantly modified.

September 24, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Law enforcement and prosecutor groups urge Prez Biden to commute sentence of all in home confinement cohort

Via email, I learned this morning about this new letter to Prez Biden from the groups Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, Fair and Just Prosecution, and Law Enforcement Action Partnership. Here is how it starts:

We write as individuals and on behalf of our respective national organizations — Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and Fair and Just Prosecution — as it pertains to the approximately 4,000 individuals placed on home confinement pursuant the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act, who face the continued threat of reincarceration due to the prior administration’s January 15, 2021, Office of Legal Counsel memo (“OLC memo”).  We are pleased to see reports that your Administration is beginning to consider commutations for individuals who have committed nonviolent drug offenses and have been placed on home confinement pursuant the CARES Act.  Joining members of Congress, justice reform advocates across the political spectrum, and companies that currently employ these individuals, we seek to add our law enforcement perspective and urge you to grant clemency to all individuals placed on home confinement pursuant the CARES Act — regardless of underlying offense or sentence.

Some of many prior related posts:

September 24, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Sending a better clemency message while shooting the messenger

This new New Republic commentary, fully headlined " Biden’s Conservative Vision on Clemency: Thousands of incarcerated people went home early thanks to a Covid relief program. Why would the Biden administration send them back to prison?," continues the annoying tendency of blaming the Biden folks for threatening to send the home confinement cohort back to prison when it is the law passed by Congress (as interpreted by two Justice Departments) that has created the problem.  Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

The Cares Act ... gave the Bureau of Prisons discretion to send certain people home early.  The process involved a rigorous vetting, to ensure that the people chosen were low risk and had served a substantial part of their sentence, and it was effective: Of roughly 4,400 people released under the program, only 190 were sent back for violations, a strikingly low number given how easy it is to break the terms of home confinement. No serious crimes have been reported.

But before Donald Trump left office, administration lawyers determined that once pandemic emergency measures were lifted, Cares Act recipients would have to return to prison.  And Biden’s Office of Legal Counsel declined to reverse the memo.  Still, advocates were hopeful that Joe Biden would issue mass clemency.  So far, that hasn’t happened, leaving Cares Act people anxious about their future and frustrating criminal justice advocates....

Last week, Politico reported that some case workers are being encouraged to have their Cares clients apply to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which sounds promising.  But it also suggests that Biden is wedded to an inefficient process that’s created a backlog of close to 16,000 petitions.... 

It’s not clear whether special considerations will be applied to Cares Act recipients, perhaps allowing them to avoid the long trek through the Justice Department.  In fact, not much is clear at all.  Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said that outside of some leaks to the media, both Cares Act inmates and their advocates are in the dark.  “It’s a crazy lack of transparency,” Ring said.  “Friday afternoon, there’s a phone call to BOP halfway houses saying, this person should fill out a clemency petition in the next couple of days.  Who?  Why?  What [are] the criteria?”...

Amy Ralston Povah, who runs the CAN-DO Foundation, which helps nonviolent drug offenders, is hopeful but frustrated....  She added that Biden’s vision for who deserves early freedom is exceedingly conservative.  “Nonviolent drug offenders are such a limited category,” Povah said.  “Why are others left out?” 

I share Kevin Ring's concerns about a "crazy lack of transparency," though I want to be hopeful along with Amy Ralston Povah about where this is headed.  But I am frustrated because so many seem content to assail the Biden Administration about a problem that is clearly of Congress's making.  As I explained in this post some months ago, titled "Why aren't there much stronger calls for CONGRESS to fix post-pandemic home confinement problems?",  though Prez Biden could (and I think should) use his clemency authority to extended home confinement for those at risk of being sent back to federal prison post-pandemic, Congress is the body that created the CARES Act home confinement authority, and Congress can and should amend the CARES Act to do extend that authority though a few words in an express statutory provision.  Put simply, this matter is a statutory problem that calls for a statutory fix, and blaming Prez Biden for not fully fixing this problem strike me as shooting the messenger. 

I get especially frustrated by this discourse when it is members of Congress who are the ones urging Prez Biden to fix the statutory problem created by Congress.  As explained in this Hill piece, late last week a new letter from more than two dozen House Democrats called on "President Biden to commute the sentences of thousands who were placed on home confinement."  Frustrations aside, I do like that this new letter has legislators asking Prez Biden to improve the existing and badly broken clemency infrastructure.  Here is a key paragraph from the letter:

In addition to the 4,000 people who have been released to home confinement, there are another 15,752 people who, in the midst of this infectious and deadly pandemic, have pending clemency petitions with no real insight on the best way forward for their case.   Thousands with pending clemency petitions have been waiting for a response for years as their cases have languished during previous administrations, including most recently the Trump administration.  While the Trump administration made an effort through home confinement to reduce the number of people inside of BOP facilities, thousands more have been ignored.  The dismissal of their petitions serves only to demonstrate just how ambiguous and broken our clemency system has become.  We, therefore, implore you to establish an advisory board — independent of the Department of Justice — to streamline and modernize the decades-old clemency process, and provide expeditious review of the thousands of cases awaiting answers to their clemency petitions.  This advisory board must address the racially disproportionate impacts of our criminal-legal system.  There is no reason to wait.

Even though I am never keen to see folks shooting the messenger, I am always pleased to see a better clemency message being delivered in the process.  If the push for clemency for the home confinement cohort ends up helping to get our clemency process improved, all the frustrations may almost be worthwhile.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: The PBS Newshour had this recent segment on these matters under the headline "Inmates released to home confinement during pandemic fear ‘devastating’ reincarceration."

September 21, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, September 20, 2021

Two notable new Forbes pieces on the state of federal sentencing and clemency practices

Though both piece merit their own posts, a busy time means I have to combine my coverage of two recent Forbes piece that are worth full reads.  I will be content with a link and a paragraph to whet appetites:

From Brian Jacobs, "The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Inadequate Response To Covid-19":

For the past 18 months, federal courts have grappled with the impact of Covid-19 on sentencing proceedings, and a curious disparity has emerged.  On the one hand, anecdotal evidence suggests that federal judges are imposing more lenient sentences in recognition of how the pandemic has made imprisonment harsher and more punitive than in the past. On the other hand, reports available from the U.S. Sentencing Commission tell a different story — at least for now — suggesting that courts have to a great extent ignored the pandemic when imposing sentence.  I have written in the past (here and here) about how the body of sentencing law is effectively hidden from public view (as it exists primarily in court transcripts).  This dearth of readily accessible sentencing law is particularly problematic during the Covid-19 pandemic, as courts are grappling with novel issues in hundreds of cases.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission is uniquely positioned to fill this gap, but so far has largely failed to do so.

From Walter Palvo, "Biden Considering Options To Avoid Returning Federal Inmates To Prison Post Covid-19":

The Biden administration’s Department of Justice has started sending out applications to inmates at home under the CARES Act for consideration of a presidential clemency. To be eligible, the inmate must be home under CARES Act, have been convicted of a drug offense and have 4 years or less remaining in their sentence. I spoke with Amy Povah who runs the non-profit Can Do for Clemency program to help prisoners achieve freedom from federal prison through changing laws and clemency. “President Biden has been handed an easy political gift. There are 4,000 inmates functioning in society, obeying the laws, bonding with family and held accountable for their past actions. There is no better group vetted to be given clemency than this group of CARES Act inmates.

September 20, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable accounting of a decade of decarceration via Decennial Census

The Marshall Project has this notable new piece fully headlined "There Are Fewer People Behind Bars Now Than 10 Years Ago. Will It Last?: Census data show incarceration rates are down. It may have more to do with the pandemic than broad reforms."  The piece highlights census data that ought to be encouraging to those troubled by modern mass incarceration, but also notes why April 2020 incarceration data may not reflect persistent realities.  I recommend the piece in full, in part because it enables drilling down into a lot of great data, and here are excerpts:

Nearly two million adults were incarcerated across the country, according to the 2020 Decennial Census.  The latest figures show a 13% drop in the total number of incarcerated people, or nearly 300,000 fewer people, compared with the 2010 Census.  Roughly one-third of the drop in total numbers occurred in just two populous states — California and New York.  In total, 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico saw reductions in the total number of incarcerated people.

In five states, the number of incarcerated people actually increased compared with a decade ago, but the incarceration rate still shrank because their total population grew more quickly than the prison population. Just four states — West Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska and Arkansas — saw their incarceration rate increase.

The Decennial Census offers a comprehensive and geographically granular look at the U.S. population by attempting to collect information about where everyone lives as of April 1.  By definition though, it is a snapshot of a brief moment in time, which is a limitation in trying to capture fluctuating numbers.

If the Census was held later in the year, for example, it might have shown a more substantial drop.  The Marshall Project’s COVID-19 tracker showed state and federal prisons had 100,000 fewer prisoners in June 2020 than in April, when the census was taken.  Another study estimated that from mid-year 2019 to mid-year 2020, county jails nationwide had 185,000 fewer people.

Experts say that a combination of factors contributed to this decrease: The court system and parole offices slowed down as they moved operations online, which has reduced the number of people who were sentenced or caught up in parole violations.  In many jurisdictions, police departments also cut back on proactive tactics, such as traffic stops, and the number of drug crimes dropped significantly.  Some prison and jail officials also rushed to empty out facilities to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.

Broadly, these numbers have already started to tick back up as criminal courts begin to reopen and the criminal justice system is returning to normal, according to a recent report from the Vera Institute of Criminal Justice.  Given how unstable incarceration rates have been since the start of the pandemic — which overlapped with the entire period of census data collection — it may be impossible to draw any long-term conclusions from the apparent drop seen in Census data....

In most states, the raw numbers of incarcerated people didn’t change much, despite widespread efforts to decarcerate prisons and jails during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Instead, a few populous states lost a larger share.  For example, California’s incarcerated population shrunk by 50,000, and New York’s by 30,000.  Together, they account for approximately one-third of the national decrease in incarcerated population, while representing less than one-fifth of the country’s population.  Nine states saw an increase in the incarcerated population.

The incarceration rate provides another perspective.  Many southern states with slightly higher incarcerated populations also saw the fastest population increase in the past ten years. Because the number of people in these states grew faster than the number of incarcerated people, their incarceration rates still went down.

September 20, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 19, 2021

"Crime, quarantine, and the U.S. coronavirus pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Ernesto Lopez and Richard Rosenfeld just published in Criminology & Public Policy.  Here is its abstract:

Research Summary

Prior research has produced varied results regarding the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on crime rates, depending on the offenses and time periods under investigation.  The current study of weekly offense rates in large U.S. cities is based on a longer time period, a greater number of offenses than prior research, and a varying number of cities for each offense (max = 28, min = 13, md = 20).  We find that weekly property crime and drug offense rates, averaged across the cities, fell during the pandemic.  An exception is motor vehicle theft, which trended upward after pandemic-related population restrictions were instituted in March 2020.  Robbery rates also declined immediately after the pandemic began.  Average weekly homicide, aggravated assault, and gun assault rates did not exhibit statistically significant increases after March.  Beginning in June 2020, however, significant increases in these offenses were detected, followed by declines in the late summer and fall.  Fixed-effects regression analyses disclose significant decreases in aggravated assault, robbery, and larceny rates associated with reduced residential mobility during the pandemic.  These results support the routine activity hypothesis that the dispersion of activity away from households increases crime rates.  The results for the other offenses are less supportive.

Policy Implications

Quarantines and lockdowns, although necessary to reduce contagious illness, are not desirable crime-control devices.  An object lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is to redouble effective crime reduction strategies and improve police–community relations without confining people to their homes.

September 19, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 16, 2021

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

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

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

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

Prior recent related post:

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

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

"COVID-19 Relief and the Ordinary Inmate"

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

As scholars and advocates have lamented the deficiencies of remedies pre- and post-conviction for the extraordinary, the “ordinary” are not saddled with slow and deficient remedies -- they have none.  This Essay explores this absence of such relief for those unable to make an extraordinary claim during the COVID-19 public health crisis of 2020.  For the ordinary men, women, and children held in custody in 2020 and beyond, pretrial detention and sentencing laws make no exception in the face of a potentially fatal contagion or the public health crisis it creates.  Yet, the pandemic highlights the reality that systematic flaws -- carceral systems that permit mass infection within and outside their walls and release triggers premised on extraordinary circumstances or conditions -- are a sort of roulette of disaster for ordinary people in custody who lack access to pre- and post-conviction relief.  As problematic as these flaws are, they also represent an opportunity to reconsider the priorities that animate such relief and to question (or reimagine) systems that rebalance those priorities not just around the lives of the extraordinary, but around the lives of the ordinary. 

September 15, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 13, 2021

Action beginning on Biden clemency plan for some drug offenders in CARES home confinement cohort

As discussed in this post from late last month, there has been talk that Prez Biden might use his clemency powers to help ensure that some member of the CARES home confinement cohort does not have to return to prison after the pandemic.  This new Politico piece, headlined "Biden starts clemency process for inmates released due to Covid conditions," reports on new action on this front:

The Biden administration has begun asking former inmates confined at home because of the pandemic to formally submit commutation applications, criminal justice reform advocates and one inmate herself tell POLITICO.

Those who have been asked for the applications fall into a specific category: drug offenders released to home under the pandemic relief bill known as the CARES Act with four years or less on their sentences.  Neither the White House nor the Department of Justice clarified how many individuals have been asked for commutation applications or whether it would be expanding the universe of those it reached out to beyond that subset.  But it did confirm that the president was beginning to take action.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is working hard every single day to reform our justice system in order to strengthen families, boost our economy, and give Americans a chance at a better future," said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates. "As part of this, President Biden is deeply committed to reducing incarceration and helping people successfully reenter society.  As he has said, too many Americans are incarcerated -- and too many of those incarcerated are Black and Brown. That is why the President is exploring the use of his clemency power for individuals on CARES Act home confinement. The Administration will start the clemency process with a review of non-violent drug offenders on CARES Act home confinement with four years or less to serve.”

The requests from the administration are a concrete sign that the president is planning to use his clemency powers to solve what was shaping up to be one of the thornier criminal justice matters on his desk. The New York Times previously reported that such requests for applications would be coming....

“While we are excited to hear the Biden administration is actively seeking clemency petitions for non violent drug offenders, we pray he will not carve up CARES Act recipients into small subsets,” said Amy Povah, a former prisoner who has become a well known clemency advocate.  “No other president in history has been handed a 'dream come true' opportunity to easily identify a large group of individuals who have already been vetted and successfully integrated into society, many of whom are now gainfully employed, found housing, and are healing the family unit that was injured due to tough-on-crime sentencing policies that previous administrations have acknowledged are horribly unjust.”

Rachel Hanson, 37, was one of those paroled inmates who was at risk of being sent back to her federal facility.  She was 8.5 years into a 151 month sentence for charges of possession with intent to distribute an unspecified amount of cocaine.  She had been released from prison in August of 2021 under the CARES Act but kept in home confinement wearing an ankle monitor.  She was contacted by her case manager on Friday, who told her that her name was submitted by the Department of Justice for expedited clemency and that she needed to fill out her clemency packet right away.

She described the events of the past few days as a blur. “I was so surprised,” she said. “I didn’t expect it.  You hear about clemency. You know it happens to people but you don’t always see.” Hanson has three children, one of whom is a senior in high school. She has a job interview lined up for Tuesday for a production coordinator post at a welding factory.  She has to rush to get her clemency packet completed first....

Udi Ofer, the ACLU’s deputy national political director, said that while he was heartened that the administration was now acting, he faulted the administration for acting in a less than transparent way with advocates and advocacy groups in the criminal justice space.  He said he was troubled by the possibility that it was cleaving off CARES Act recipients into those deserving commutation and those who didn’t.  He noted that the Bureau of Prisons, in originally releasing inmates under the CARES Act, had already made a determination between those who posed a threat of violence and those who didn’t.  “On the other hand, through the anecdotal information we’re seeing, we are worried that the White House is viewing this issue too narrowly and unnecessarily restricting the category of people being asked to apply for clemency,” said Ofer.

Some advocates for clemency and other forms of sentence reduction also expressed concern that the Biden administration’s move essentially put it in the position of working from a list developed by the Bureau of Prisons during the Trump administration, in a process critics said lacked clear guidelines and transparency.  “It’s not clear how the Bureau of Prisons chose people for this home confinement program, which raises the question of whether it’s fair to give a special benefit to these folks not available to those who have filed clemency petitions sometimes years ago and have been patiently waiting,” said Margaret Love, who served as Justice Department pardon attorney under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

I am very pleased to hear of some tangible developments on this long-simmering front, though I would really now be eager to see some detailed accounting of how many members of the CARES home confinement cohort are drug offenders with four years or less on their sentence.  I am also not going to expect or assume that Prez Biden is going to grant clemency to a notable number of individuals until he actually grants clemency to a notable number of individuals.  And I hope this process might prove transparent along the way (as well as robust and just the start of  overdue clemency efforts).

I am now wondering about the expected specifics of clemency grants by Prez Biden for some members of the CARES home confinement cohort.  Through clemency, Prez Biden could shorten the prison terms of individuals so that they have no more time left to serve in prison or on home confinement.  I am assuming that is the working plan, though I think Prez Biden could also opt to just convert remaining prison terms into time to be served only and entirely on home confinement.  As I have highlighted in prior posts here and here, many member of the CARES home confinement cohort could be bringing sentence reduction motions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), and it is interesting to think how pending clemency talk and coming action might impact efforts to secure relief through the courts.

Interesting times.

Some of many prior related posts:

September 13, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

"States of emergency: The failure of prison system responses to COVID-19"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Prison Policy Initiative authored by Tiana Herring and Maanas Sharma giving state-by-state grades to pandemic responses in incarceration nation. As the title suggestion, a whole lot of states received failing grades. Here is how the report gets started:

From the beginning of the pandemic, it was clear that densely packed prisons and jails — the result of decades of mass incarceration in the U.S. — presented dangerous conditions for the transmission of COVID-19. More than a year later, the virus has claimed more than 2,700 lives behind bars and infected 1 out of every 3 people in prison.

A year after we first graded state responses to COVID-19 in prisons, most state departments of corrections and the federal Bureau of Prisons are still failing on even the simplest measures of mitigation.

In this report, we evaluated departments of corrections on their responses to the pandemic from the beginning of the pandemic to July 2021.  We looked at a range of efforts to:

  • Limit the number of people in prisons: States received points for reducing prison populations as well as for instituting policies that reduced admissions and facilitated earlier releases.
  • Reduce infection and death rates behind bars: We penalized prison systems where infection and mortality rates exceeded the statewide COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, because some key decisions were based on correctional agencies’ faulty logic that prisons were controlled environments and therefore better positioned to stop the spread of infection than communities outside prison walls.
  • Vaccinate the incarcerated population: States were rated higher for including incarcerated people in their vaccine rollout plans, as well as for higher vaccination rates among their prison populations.
  • Address basic health (and mental health) needs through easy policy changes: We credited states for waiving or substantially reducing charges for video and phone calls, or providing masks and hygiene products to incarcerated people.  States also received points for suspending medical co-pays (which can discourage people from seeking treatment), requiring staff to wear masks, and implementing regular staff COVID-19 testing.

While some states performed well on one or two of these criteria, no state’s response to COVID-19 in prison has been sufficient.  The highest letter grade awarded was a “C”, and most states completely failed to protect incarcerated people.

September 1, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 30, 2021

Prez Biden reportedly considering, for home confinement cohort, clemency only for "nonviolent drug offenders with less than four years" left on sentence

The New York Times has this notable new report, headlined "White House Weighs Clemency to Keep Some Drug Offenders Confined at Home," which suggests a limited subclass of the home confinement cohort may the focal point for clemency efforts by the Biden White House.  Here are the details, many of which are not that new, but all of which are important as efforts move slowly forward to help this cohort:

President Biden is considering using his clemency powers to commute the sentences of certain federal drug offenders released to home confinement during the pandemic rather than forcing them to return to prison after the pandemic emergency ends, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations.

The legal and policy discussions about a mass clemency program are focused on nonviolent drug offenders with less than four years remaining in their sentences, the officials said. The contemplated intervention would not apply to those now in home confinement with longer sentences left, or those who committed other types of crimes.

The notion of clemency for some inmates is just one of several ideas being examined in the executive branch and Congress. Others include a broader use of a law that permits the “compassionate release” of sick or elderly inmates, and Congress enacting a law to allow some inmates to stay in home confinement after the pandemic.

Interviews with officials in both the executive branch and Congress, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations, suggest there is broad support for letting nonviolent inmates who have obeyed the rules stay at home — reducing incarceration and its cost to taxpayers. But officials in each branch also foresee major challenges and have hoped the other would solve the problem....

Inmate advocates and some Democratic lawmakers have urged the Biden legal team to rescind the Trump-era memo and assert that the bureau can lawfully keep the prisoners in home confinement even after the pandemic ends.

But The New York Times reported last month that the Biden legal team had concluded that the memo’s interpretation of the law was correct, according to officials briefed on the internal deliberations. Officials have subsequently characterized that scrutiny as a preliminary review and said that a more formal one was underway, but suggested that a reversal of the Trump-era legal interpretation continued to be highly unlikely.

Against that backdrop, in a little-noticed comment at a press briefing this month, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, let slip that Mr. Biden was taking a closer look at clemency to help the subgroup who are nonviolent drug offenders....  In interviews, officials have subsequently confirmed that focus.  As a first step, the Justice Department will soon begin requesting clemency petitions for drug offenders who have less than four years left on their sentence, which will then be reviewed by its pardon office, they said.

It is unclear whether the Biden team is leaning toward commuting the sentences of the nonviolent drug offenders to home confinement, reducing the length of their sentences to bring them within the normal window for home confinement or a mix of the two.  The officials said focusing on nonviolent drug offenders, as opposed to other types of criminals, dovetailed with Mr. Biden’s area of comfort on matters of criminal justice reform. In his campaign platform, Mr. Biden had said he pledged to end prison time for drug use alone and instead divert offenders to drug courts and treatment.

Inimai Chettiar, the federal director of the Justice Action Network, called the idea a good start but also questioned the basis for limiting it to some nonviolent drug offenders, saying there was “no scientific evidence” for restricting the help to that category.  She suggested another explanation. “Politically, it’s an easier group to start with,” Ms. Chettiar said.

In addition, officials said, the Justice Department is studying other options that could help keep different groups from being forced back into prison.  Another idea under consideration is to petition the courts to let some individual inmates stay in home confinement under a “compassionate release” law. While the compassionate release law is normally used to permit terminally ill inmates to rejoin their families shortly before dying, the statute includes a broad standard for what a judge could decide warrants a sentence reduction — “extraordinary and compelling reasons” — that is not defined and might be applied to the pandemic-era home confinement population.

Kristie Breshears, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said additional options included expanding a pilot program that allows for the early release of older inmates in order to keep some who are over the ago of 60 in home confinement, and placing some inmates in halfway houses for 12 months.

Separately, Senators Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa — the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee — have also been discussing potential bipartisan legislation that would solve the problem in a simpler way by explicitly authorizing the Justice Department to extend home confinement after the pandemic.

At a hearing in April, Mr. Grassley joined Democrats in voicing support for allowing inmates in home confinement to stay there.  Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Mr. Grassley, said his office had drafted legislation that month that would let “inmates moved to home confinement during the pandemic complete their sentences there rather than returning to prison after the pandemic ends.”

Mr. Durbin had been among those who urged the Biden administration to instead reinterpret existing law as permitting perpetual home confinement for those inmates who were placed there during the emergency period. In a statement, Mr. Durbin embraced the idea of new legislation, but also said he did not think it would be easy — or necessary.  The prospects for legislation in “an evenly divided Senate are uncertain,” he said, reiterating his view that “the Biden administration has ample executive authority to immediately provide the certainty” to the inmates.

I would be eager it see an "all of the above" and more approach move forward in the months ahead. Prez Biden should certainly consider commuting many of the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders on home confinement (and also many others) AND there should be a continued push to seek sentence reductions in the courts for others on home confinement (and also many others) AND BOP should expand its pilot program for releasing older offenders into home confinement AND Senators Grassley and Durbin should keep pushing forward with legislation to expand the authority for placement into home confinement and to prevent those so placed from having to return to prison absent misbehavior.

When campaigning for his current job, Prez Biden promised that he would "take bold action to reduce our prison population."  But the federal prison population has so far grown significantly in the first seven month of the Biden Administration.  Specifically, the federal prison population has grown by over 4000 persons according to BOP numbers, from 151,646 total inmates on Jan 21, 2021 to 155,730 total inmates on Aug 26, 2021.  To date, I cannot really think of any actions (let alone bold ones) that Prez Biden has taken to reduce the federal prison population.  Talk of some clemency action is heartening, but just a start.  And whatever clemency efforts are made, they should extend beyond just a limited group who are already home.

August 30, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 29, 2021

"What's (Really) Driving Crime in New York"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new short report produced by New Yorkers United for Justice (NYUJ), a coalition of criminal justice organizations. Here are parts of the introduction and conclusion:

A rise in certain categories of violent crime, most notably gun-related homicides and shootings, in New York State has created public concern and widespread speculation about its causes.  This publication examines possible causes for this uptick and debunks the assertions that New York’s criminal legal reforms — including the bail reform of 2018 — caused increases in these categories of crimes in our state.

The exceptional increase in homicides coupled with the decreases in other crime categories suggests that novel factors, rather than well-studied criminal justice reforms, are at work.  A careful look at the data, set in the context of national and world events, reveals that a complex blend of factors is likely at play — including the pandemic and its significant economic impacts, a drastic increase in gun sales, and the racial reckoning and discourse on policing that have contributed to a deterioration of police and community relations.

Furthermore, the increases in certain categories of crime in 2020 actually came on the heels of decades of steady downward trends in crime, both in New York and across the nation.  And the recent increases in homicides bring New York nowhere near the levels of homicides experienced in the early 1990s, when numbers peaked.  In fact, New York City’s 2020 homicide rates are lower than those of Houston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

Some local opponents of criminal justice reform are pouncing on the increase in some crimes to stoke fear, slow progress, and double down on failed, outmoded policies.  And yet the increase in homicides — particularly those using guns — is national in scope, affecting communities big and small, and those that have instituted criminal justice reforms as well as those that have not.....

NYUJ’s review of the available crime data for New York State reveals the wholesale lack of a connection between recent upticks in certain categories of crime and recently adopted criminal legal reforms, such as pretrial reform.  Rather, similar upticks have been experienced across communities with varied criminal justice strategies, not just ones that have adopted reforms.

As discussed above, the most likely explanation for the crime data fluctuations is not a single explanation at all, but a confluence of conditions — from a once-in-a-century global pandemic and its attendant economic disruptions to a profusion of guns entering communities already on edge to strained relations between communities and law enforcement.  This toxic stew of factors has produced an environment of fear and mistrust.

Unfortunately, the complexity of this data is not readily apparent in many media reports.  As a result, there is a danger that policy decisions will be made based on unsupportable conclusions that defy consistent, longstanding evidence about what works to reduce crime and recidivism.  In presenting this information, NYUJ hopes to engage in a productive dialogue about what is driving the concerning crime numbers, what the existing data show, and the most effective policies indicated by the evidence.

A few of many prior recent related posts:

August 29, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

"When the Conditions Are the Confinement: Eighth Amendment Habeas Claims During COVID-19"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Michael Zuckerman with an abstract now available via SSRN.  Here is that abstract:

The COVID-19 pandemic cast into harsher relief much that was already true about mass incarceration in the United States.  It also cast into harsher relief much that was already true about the legal barriers confronting people seeking to make its conditions more humane.  This Article offers a brief overview of the legal landscape as the COVID-19 crisis arose and then dives into surveying eight prominent federal cases involving habeas claims related to COVID-19 outbreaks at carceral facilities.  The Article then distills six key tensions from these cases and discusses their implications for future litigation and doctrine. 

Specifically, the Article addresses: (a) the relationship between habeas and classic “conditions of confinement” cases; (b) the nature of Eighth Amendment “deliberate indifference” in this context; (c) the efficacy and availability of class-wide procedures for adjudicating these kinds of claims; (d) issues involving federalism and comity, and how courts may source such concerns through exhaustion requirements; (e) whether temporary release is better conceived of under these circumstances as preliminary or final relief; and (f) the fraught interplay between rights and remedies.  The Article concludes by suggesting potential solutions for courts and legislatures.

August 25, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, August 20, 2021

"Virtual Guilty Pleas"

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

The coronavirus pandemic led criminal courts across the country to switch to virtual hearings to protect public health.  As the pandemic subsides, many policymakers have called for the continued use of the remote format for a range of criminal proceedings.  To guide decisions whether to use remote criminal justice on a regular basis, it is important to review the advantages and disadvantages of the practice.

Remote criminal proceedings have been praised for their convenience and efficiency, but have also raised concerns.  Many have worried that videoconferencing inhibits effective communication between defendants and their counsel, hinders defendants’ understanding of the process, impedes effective confrontation of witnesses, and prejudices the court’s perceptions of the defendant and witnesses.

Previous scholarly work has attempted to evaluate remote criminal proceedings through legal and policy analysis, surveys of practitioners, and a comparison of outcomes of in-person and remote proceedings.  This Article adds insights based on direct observations of over three hundred remote criminal proceedings in misdemeanor and felony courts across Michigan and Texas.

Our observations reveal that judicial review of guilty pleas in the virtual setting is as brief and superficial as it is in person and may fail to detect inaccurate, coercive, or uninformed guilty pleas.  But the virtual format presents additional risks to the fairness and integrity of the plea process, including the disengagement from the process by defendants, the difficulty of counsel and defendant to communicate privately, and the potentially prejudicial effects of inadequate technology and informal settings.

The Article concludes by arguing that states should not use remote plea hearings on a regular basis after the pandemic is over.  To the extent they do continue conducting remote plea hearings, they must bolster procedural safeguards in the proceedings.  Judges must review virtual pleas and plea agreements more closely, verify that defendants are making an informed and voluntary choice to proceed remotely, take measures to ensure that defendants are represented adequately, and address the potentially prejudicial effects of the remote setting.  These measures can help protect fairness in the plea process and ensure that virtual guilty pleas remain constitutionally valid.

August 20, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Still more attention (and some helpful action) for the home confinement cohort

It has now been a full month since the news broke that the Biden Justice Department was going to accept the legal opinion that federal prisoners released into home confinement would have to be returned to prison after the pandemic.  The dilemma of the home confinement cohort continues to generate considerable attention and here are a few new pieces:

From The Bulwark, "Biden Must Act to Ensure Nonviolent Offenders Aren’t Sent Back to Prison"

From Inquest, "Keeping Them Home: During the Trump administration, lawyers at DOJ said thousands of people who were sent home from prison during the pandemic need to be sent back when the COVID emergency ends. They got the law wrong, and DOJ should say so."

Helpfully, in addition to attention, this week also brought action to help this group as detailed in this new press release titled "FAMM, NACDL, and Washington Lawyers’ Committee launch CARES Act Home Confinement Clearinghouse."  Here are the basics:

FAMM, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (WLC) launched the “CARES Act Home Confinement Clearinghouse” today in an effort to prevent up to 4,000 people on CARES Act home confinement from returning to prison.

The Home Confinement Clearinghouse will match people on home confinement with pro bono attorneys or federal public defenders who will consider filing compassionate release motions in federal court on their behalf.

“Sending thousands of people back to prison after nearly two years of being with their families and reintegrating into society is unnecessary and cruel,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring. “The White House has shown no willingness to act so we are turning to the courts.”...

Due to the Biden Administration’s failure to act, FAMM, NACDL, and WLC have determined that it is essential for people on home confinement to pursue other viable options to avoid their unnecessary return to prison. Compassionate release is one such option....

People eligible for free representation through the CARES Act Home Confinement Clearinghouse fall into the extraordinary and compelling circumstances provision in the federal compassionate release law. Many of them have been deemed by the Bureau of Prisons as “low risk,” were released to home confinement during a global pandemic due to their vulnerability to the virus, were never informed about the possible return to prison, have successfully reintegrated into family and community for a year or longer, and face the re-emergence of COVID-19 threat.

The CARES Act Home Confinement Clearinghouse is modeled after the highly successful Compassionate Release Clearinghouse COVID-19 Project launched by the same organizations last year. The Clearinghouse was launched in an effort to protect vulnerable incarcerated people from the spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons and placed over 2,000 cases with pro bono counsel. Federal public defenders helped even more people. Federal judges answered the call by granting more than 3,500 compassionate release motions, despite BOP and Justice Department opposition to nearly every case,

The Cares Act Home Confinement Clearinghouse will turn to federal judges again to help prevent the cruel unnecessary reincarceration of up to 4,000 law-abiding people. We will also urge the Justice Department to not oppose any of the motions as they have done in the past.

Some of many prior related posts:

August 19, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Senators Durbin and Booker write to Prez Biden requesting "immediate action" to prevent home confinement cohort from facing return to prison

As detailed in this new Hill article, "two top Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are calling on President Biden to quickly adopt a plan to keep thousands of federal inmates who were transferred to home confinement during the pandemic out of prison."  Here is more:

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the committee's chairman, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who chairs a subcommittee on criminal justice, are urging Biden in a letter sent to the White House on Thursday to use the "ample executive authority" at his disposal to ensure that those on home confinement are not sent back to prison.

"Given the breadth of available executive authority, no person who has successfully transitioned to home confinement should be required to return to federal prison," Durbin and Booker wrote in the letter, which was shared with The Hill.  "The uncertainty of the current situation unnecessarily interferes with the efforts of those on home confinement to rebuild their lives and participate in our economic recovery.  With the goal of facilitating successful community reentry, we urge you to act immediately to resolve this issue and enable those on release to move forward with their lives."

The full two-page letter is available at this link, and here are excerpts:

We respectfully request that your Administration take immediate action to ensure that thousands of individuals who have successfully transitioned to home confinement from federal prison during the pandemic are not returned to prison without cause.  Your Administration has ample executive authority to immediately provide the certainty these returning citizens deserve as they reintegrate into their communities, reunite with their families, and join in rebuilding our economy....

On January 15, 2021, in the last days of the Trump Administration, the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel issued a memorandum opinion entitled “Home Confinement of Federal Prisoners After the COVID-19 Emergency” (“OLC opinion”).  The OLC opinion incorrectly found that following the emergency period of the pandemic, BOP must recall federal inmates released to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act and require these inmates to complete their sentences at BOP facilities. In fact, the CARES Act does not require or permit BOP to recall these prisoners.

On April 23, 2021, we asked Attorney General Garland to rescind the OLC opinion, and are awaiting his response.  However, the opinion does not prevent you from acting. We urge you to use your unfettered pardon power to immediately commute the sentences of those on home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act.  These individuals, who were released only after careful vetting by BOP, have successfully transitioned to home confinement.  They have reunited with family, obtained jobs, and are abiding by the conditions of their release.

Additional executive authorities are also available. BOP can provide relief for certain individuals through prerelease home confinement, under 18 U.S.C. § 3624(c)(2), and the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program, pursuant to 34 U.S.C. § 60541(g). For those who do not qualify for those provisions, BOP can recommend, and DOJ should support, compassionate release pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A).  Compassionate release is authorized whenever extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant a sentence reduction, and the once-in-a-century global pandemic that led to these home confinement placements certainly constitutes such an extraordinary and compelling circumstance.

Some of many prior related posts:

August 12, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 09, 2021

Is it problematic for sentencing judges to require the COVID vaccine as a probation condition?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new New York Times article headlined "Get a Covid-19 Vaccine or Face Prison, Judges Order in Probation Cases." Here are excerpts:

As cases of coronavirus infections rise in Ohio, some judges have attached unusual conditions for those released on probation: Get a Covid-19 vaccine or face being sent to prison.

On Aug. 4, Judge Christopher A. Wagner of the Court of Common Pleas in Hamilton County told Brandon Rutherford, who was convicted on drug offenses, that as part of his release on “community control,” or probation, he must receive the vaccination within 60 days.

“I’m just a judge, not a doctor, but I think the vaccine’s a lot safer than fentanyl, which is what you had in your pocket,” the judge told Mr. Rutherford, 21, according to a transcript provided by the judge’s office on Monday. “I’m going to order you, within the next two months, to get a vaccine and show that to the probation office,” the judge said. “You violate, you could go to prison.”

On June 22, another Court of Common Pleas judge, Richard A. Frye in Franklin County, gave Sylvaun Latham, who had pleaded guilty to drugs and firearms offenses, up to 30 days to receive the vaccination, according to court records. If Mr. Latham violated that condition and others, he could go to prison for 36 months. Mr. Latham agreed to be vaccinated, the records show.

The sentences were a unique breakthrough in the public health debate taking place in the United States about how civil liberties intersect with mask and vaccination mandates. The judges’ decisions go to the heart of how personal freedoms are being examined through the lens of public health in a pandemic. David J. Carey, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said he saw no “clear cut” violation of civil rights.

“It is a potentially murky area,” he said. “There is certainly a legitimate concern around ordering someone to do something that pertains to their bodily autonomy. They need to have a compelling reason to have to do so.”...

Asked about his decision, Judge Frye said in an email on Monday that he had issued vaccine orders three times so far, and none of the defendants raised medical or religious objections. “Ohio law allows judges to impose reasonable conditions of probation, intended to rehabilitate the defendant and protect the community,” Judge Frye said. He said that, based on medical evidence, the vaccination would protect others and keep those on probation safer as they search for or keep jobs.

Sharona Hoffman, a professor and co-director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law, said it was unusual to pair sentencing with the vaccine. “Judges get creative in order to keep people out of jail,” she said. “They impose all sorts of sentences and, again, this is to the benefit of the person. And if you are going to be out in the community, you can’t run around infecting people with Covid.”

In some states, such as Georgia, judges have offered reduced sentences if defendants get vaccinated, WSB-TV in Atlanta reports. Early this year, prisoners in Massachusetts were offered the possibility of reduced prison sentences for receiving the vaccine, but the decision was later rescinded....

Judge Wagner, in response to questions on Monday, said in an email that “judges make decisions regularly regarding a defendant’s physical and mental health, such as ordering drug, alcohol, and mental health treatment.” He added that Mr. Rutherford was in possession of fentanyl, “which is deadlier than the vaccine and COVID 19.”

August 9, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Advocacy groups argue to DOJ that OLC home confinement memo is "incorrect" and should be rescinded

As highlighted in this Hill article, headlined "Civil rights groups offer DOJ legal strategy on keeping inmates home after pandemic," a number of advocacy groups have this week made a lengthy pitch to the Justice Department seeking to undo DOJ's internal memo concluding that federal prisoners released into home confinement will have to be returned to prison after the pandemic.  Here is an excerpt: 

Civil rights groups on Wednesday urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to reconsider its position on sending back to prison thousands of federal inmates transferred to home confinement during the pandemic, offering a legal analysis they believe would justify keeping them out from behind bars. 

Five organizations sent a 20-page letter to DOJ critiquing a Trump-era legal memo that concluded the department is required by law to revoke home confinement for those transferred during the pandemic as soon as the emergency period is over.  They argued that the memo from the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) is based on a flawed interpretation of the CARES Act....

The letter was signed by the Democracy Forward Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Justice Action Network, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Tzedek Association....

"The reasoning of the Memo is flawed and potentially harmful to the credibility of the office," the organizations wrote. "It overlooks important points of law and does not address reliance or due process issues that might apply to its analysis."

The full 20-page letter is available at this link, and here are portions of its introduction and conclusion:

OLC may reasonably determine that the Memo does not reflect the best (or even a permissible) reading of the relevant statutory language.  Specifically, the Memo read into the CARES Act a new requirement to revoke home confinement — immediately, and without discretion, at the end of the emergency — that does not exist anywhere in that statutory text. Under a plain reading of the CARES Act, the authority of the Bureau of Prisons to grant and revoke home confinement is the same as it always was under the pre-existing statutory scheme, except that BOP was authorized to “lengthen” the period of time a person may serve on home confinement.  Additionally, the Memo did not consider the affected prisoners’ reliance interests, potentially triggering a wave of hundreds or thousands of challenges when and if BOP attempts to implement the Memo’s instructions and placing BOP in legal jeopardy under recent Supreme Court precedent.

We have great respect for OLC’s non-partisan stance and the office’s general practice of stare decisis.  Consistent with OLC policy, however, we encourage you to reassess the Memo because it is incorrect and will present serious practical obstacles to BOP and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, not to mention the thousands of affected prisoners.  We provide the analysis below on why we believe that OLC should reconsider the Memo....

For these reasons, we respectfully request that OLC review the Memo and rescind it.  Time is of the essence. Each day that this Memo remains in place is a day that interferes with the ability of people living on home confinement to make the kinds of investments in families and employment necessary to successfully reintegrate into society.

Some prior recent related posts:

August 5, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

"Empathy and Remote Legal Proceedings"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Susan Bandes and Neal Feigenson now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Do remote legal proceedings reduce empathy for litigants?  Pre-COVID studies of remote bail hearings and immigration removal hearings concluded that the subjects were disadvantaged by the remote nature of the proceedings, and these findings are sometimes interpreted to mean that decision-makers tend to be less empathetic toward remote litigants.  Reviewing both the pre-COVID literature and more current studies, we set out to determine whether empathy is reduced in virtual courts. 

The notion that it is more difficult for decision-makers to exercise empathy toward someone they encounter only on a video screen is consistent with findings that physical distance increases social and hence psychological distance, and may well be borne out by further research.  However, while there are reasons to suspect that the exercise of empathy may be altered on Zoom or comparable platforms, thus far there is no firm evidence that the remote nature of legal proceedings, in itself, reduces empathy for litigants, witnesses, or other participants in legal proceedings.  On the other hand, there are ample grounds for concern that remote proceedings may further disadvantage litigants who are already unequally burdened by empathy deficits based on race, social class, gender, ethnicity, or other factors that may differentiate them from decision-makers.  We call attention to particular ways in which virtual proceedings may exacerbate these empathy deficits.

August 3, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 02, 2021

More encouraging(?) news from Capitol Hill on federal statutory criminal justice reform efforts

Axios has this interesting new piece headlined "Senate plans barrage on crime," which provides an encouraging update on the commitment of some key Senators to get additional federal criminal justice reforms to the finish line soon. Here are some details (with a bit of my emphasis added):

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are working to win Senate passage of a big criminal justice reform package this Congress.

Why it matters: Crime is spiking in big cities. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is still working on a police reform measure.  The bipartisan dynamic duo atop the Senate Judiciary Committee is stepping up, passing three piecemeal bills out of their committee....

What they're saying: It's these three measures, Grassley told Axios, they "hope to package along with potentially other proposals to pass the Senate sometime this Congress." Durbin told Axios in his own statement that he's "committed to bringing these bills to the Senate floor this Congress."

What to watch: The final package also may include a measure for the thousands of inmates who were released to home confinement during the pandemic but will be forced to return behind bars when it's over, a Republican Senate staffer told Axios.  In addition, it may address sentencing disparities in crack and powder cocaine offenses.

One challenge will be the crime spike, which has the potential of sapping support from senators afraid of being branded soft on crime.  "Negotiations have always been an important part of enacting criminal justice reform, and this time will be no different, especially given the increase in crime we are seeing across the country,” Grassley said.

Between the lines: It's still early, but advocates said they need to take advantage of any opening they see for criminal justice reform — especially since police reform has stalled. They pointed to the House Judiciary Committee recently voting out the bipartisan EQUAL Act.  It would eliminate disparities in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine offenses and allow some inmates to appeal their sentence.  Even normally critical Republicans like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) are cosponsors for the bill, which they take as a good sign.  That has supporters believing whatever emerges from the Senate can be packaged with House measures in conference committee and, ultimately, pass Congress.

I use the term "encouraging(?)" to describe this news in my post title because "this Congress" only means sometime before January 3, 2023.  Given how hard it is to get a divided Congress to complete anything these days, I suppose I should find any talk of any serious commitment to getting anything done to be just "encouraging."  But because of the modest nature of the "three piecemeal bills" primarily being discussed here (details in links below), I have been hoping that one or more of these bills might have a real change of getting to the desk of Prez Biden before the end of this year.

That all said, if these three Durbin/Grassley bills were to be combined with the EQUAL bill to reduce crack sentences and with some statutory fix to the pandemic home confinement problem, then I think all sentencing advocates would have something to really get excited about.  Notably, the FIRST STEP Act ended up having a lot of smaller reform proposals rolled into it, and I would love to see  five good reform proposals (and a few more) put together so that reform legislation can really improve a federal criminal justice system broken in so many ways.

Last but not least, I cannot complete this post without emphasizing, yet again, how effective implementation of any congressional reforms demands a well-functioning US Sentencing Commission.  The FIRST STEP Act is now nearly three years old, and the absence of a fully functioning USSC has impeded needed follow-up reforms and analyses that only the USSC can complete.  All the Durbin/Grassley bills and others in this space likewise need a working USSC to aid implementation (and a functional USSC could and would now be able to aid legislative analysis and consideration of various proposals).  But, with no USSC nominations from Prez Biden yet named, I am now fearing we may not ever get a full slate of Commissioners during "this Congress."

Some of many prior related posts:

August 2, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Home confinement cohort at risk of being returned to federal prison garnering still more attention (but still little action)

The news a few weeks ago that the Biden Justice Department is not disputing the legal opinion that federal prisoners released into home confinement would have to be returned to prison after the pandemic continues to generate coverage and commentary.  Here is a round-up of just some recent pieces I have seen:

From Common Dreams, "Advocates Condemn Biden Plan to Send 4,000 Inmates Back to Prison After Pandemic"

From The Hill, "Inmates grapple with uncertainty over Biden prison plan"

From The Intercept, "Biden Has Said Pot Prisoners Should Be Free.  Now He’s Poised To Send Some Back To Prison."

From Politico, "Biden's prisoner's dilemma"

From The Root, "Biden Needs to Grant Clemency to the Over 4,000 People on Home Confinement"

It is understandable, but I still think quite unfortunate, that all of these stories focus almost exclusively on Prez Biden and his potential place in this story.  Most advocates have been talking up blanket clemency as the most efficient way to resolve this issue in order to keep the home confinement cohort from being sent back to prison after the COVID pandemic is over.  But, as I have highlighted in various posts, and stressed in this post titled "Why aren't there much stronger calls for CONGRESS to fix post-pandemic home confinement problems?," Congress readily could (and I think should) enact a statute that provides for the home confinement program to be extended beyond the end of the pandemic.  This problem is fundamentally a statutory one created by Congress in the CARES Act, and it could be readily fixed by Congress simply by adding a sentence or two to pending pieces of legislation.

In addition, as I highlighted in this other post, another important option for case-by-case relief for members of this cohort is through compassionate release motions.  This is how Gwen Levi got relief, and such motions have the potential to reduce lengthy sentences and not merely allow these sentences to be served at home.  Consider the story told here by Jeanne Rae Green, who was transferred to home confinement in May 2020 after serving serving 6.5 years of a 12.5 year sentence for meth distribution.  It sounds like she and other members of this home confinement cohort could bring strong sentence reduction motions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  The legal limbo in which Jeanne and others now find themselves could be perfectly described as constituting "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction, especially if prosecutors cannot show how the 3553(a) factors would be better served by a return to prison.  (Indeed, as I have previously mentioned, I think federal prosecutors could and should actively promote and support sentence reduction motions for now on home confinement at risk of being sent back to prison.)

I am pleased to see so many working so hard to ensure this issue garners continued attention, and I am hopeful that Prez Biden will use his clemency pen to bring relief to the home confinement cohort ASAP.  But in the meantime, I also hope that pressure will be brought to bear on all the others — from members of Congress to members of DOJ to members of the judiciary — who can and should also be doing more help this cohort.

Some prior recent related posts:

August 1, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, July 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few of many prior related posts:

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

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Seventh Circuit panel states (in dicta?) that vaccine availability "makes it impossible" for COVID risks to create eligibility for compassionate release

The Seventh Circuit yesterday released a short panel opinion affirming the denial of a compassionate release motion in US v. Broadfield, No. 20-2906 (7th Cir. July 21, 2021) (available here) (Hat tip: How Appealing).  The opinion has a number of notable passages that make this ruling a useful read in full for those working in this arena, but the closing paragraph seemed especially worth highlighting here:

Section 3582(c)(1)(A) was enacted and amended before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and it will continue to serve a beneficent function long after the pandemic ends.  But for the many prisoners who seek release based on the special risks created by COVID-19 for people living in close quarters, vaccines offer relief far more effective than a judicial order.  A prisoner who can show that he is unable to receive or benefit from a vaccine still may turn to this statute, but, for the vast majority of prisoners, the availability of a vaccine makes it impossible to conclude that the risk of COVID-19 is an “extraordinary and compelling” reason for immediate release.

This final paragraph seems to me to be dicta (though what precedes it might lead some to conclude it is part of the holding).  I suspect the final clause will garner considerable attention no matter how characterized.  Critically, by using the phrase "the vast majority of prisoners," this final sentence still suggests that, at least for a few prisoners, the risk of COVID-19 can still provide an "extraordinary and compelling" reason for compassionate release.  Even more important may be whether lower courts might read this paragraph to mean that COVID risks cannot be combined with other factors to make out extraordinary and compelling reasons. Even if COVID risks are low for the vaccinated, they are not zero and so should be, as I see it, still a potential contributor to assessing what qualifies as an extraordinary and compelling reason when combined with other factors.

July 22, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 19, 2021

New York Times reporting Biden Justice Department agrees with OLC memo stating prisoners transferred to home confinement must return to prison after pandemic ends

As reported in this new New York Times article, headlined "Biden Legal Team Decides Inmates Must Return to Prison After Covid Emergency," it appears that the US Department of Justice is not changing its view of the limits of congressional authority to move people to home confinement under the CARES Act. Here are the details:

The Biden administration legal team has decided that thousands of federal convicts who were released to home confinement to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19 will be required by law to return to prison a month after the official state of emergency for the pandemic ends, officials said on Monday.

The administration has come under pressure from criminal justice reform activists and some lawmakers to revoke a Trump-era memo by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which said inmates whose sentences lasted beyond the “pandemic emergency period” would have to go back to prison.

But the Biden legal team has concluded that the memo correctly interpreted the law, which applies to about 4,000 nonviolent inmates, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity about sensitive internal deliberations.  Several officials characterized the decision as an assessment of the best interpretation of the law, not a matter of policy preference.

The official state of emergency is not expected to end this year because of a rise in new infections caused by the coronavirus’s Delta variant. But the determination means that whenever it does end, the department’s hands will be tied.

That leaves two options if those prisoners are not to be sent back into cells: Either Congress could enact a law to expand the Justice Department’s authority to keep them at home beyond the emergency, or President Biden could use his clemency powers to commute their sentences to home confinement.

The Biden team is said to be wary of a blanket, mass commutation, however, both because it would represent an extraordinary intervention in the normal functioning of the judicial system and it could create political risks if any recipient who would otherwise be locked up commits a serious crime.  Another option is case-by-case assessment for commutations, but the volume of work required to individually evaluate so many people is daunting.

When asked for comment, the White House responded with a general statement about the administration’s support for policies that can reduce incarceration. “President Biden is committed to reducing incarceration and helping people to re-enter society,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman. “As he has said, too many Americans are incarcerated, and too many are Black and brown. His administration is focused on reforming our justice system in order to strengthen families, boost our economy and give people a chance at a better future.”...

The disclosure of the Biden legal team’s internal decision came as an ideologically broad range of advocacy groups — nearly two dozen organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, FreedomWorks and the Faith and Freedom Coalition — stepped up pressure on the Biden administration not to recall inmates from home confinement when the emergency ends.

Notably, however, those organizations issued a letter framing their request in terms of Mr. Biden using his clemency powers to resolve the issue. “On the campaign trail and during your presidency, you have spoken about the importance of second chances,” according to the letter. “This is your opportunity to provide second chances to thousands of people who are already safely out of prison, reintegrating back into society, reconnecting with their loved ones, getting jobs and going back to school. We urge you to provide clemency now to people under CARES Act home confinement.”

I do not find this news especially surprising; if there was any considerable legal wiggle room here, I think the Justice Department would have spoken some time ago.  And, as this article highlights, I have sensed that a number of advocates have been talking up blanket clemency as the most fitting way to resolve this issue.  But I am always eager to highlight the point I made in this recent post, titled "Why aren't there much stronger calls for CONGRESS to fix post-pandemic home confinement problems?," that Congress readily could (and I think should) enact a statute that provides for the home confinement program to be extended beyond the end of the pandemic.

In addition, as I highlighted in this recent post, another option for case-by-case relief is through compassionate release motions.  This is how Gwen Levi got relief, and such motions have the potential to reduce sentences and not just allow these sentences to be served at home.  Of course "the volume of work required" for so many CR motions would be considerable, but the Justice Department could (and I think should) support and even bring sentence reduction motions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).

Some prior recent related posts:

July 19, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 16, 2021

"How the Criminal Justice System's COVID-19 Response has Provided Valuable Lessons for Broader Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new research brief written by multiple authors and distributed by RAND Corporation.  I recommend the full document, and here is how it is introduced:

To better understand the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has created within the criminal justice system and how the various sectors of the system have adapted to those challenges, the Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative conducted a series of panel workshops with representatives of different sectors within the system.  Panels focused on law enforcement, the court system, institutional corrections, community corrections, victim services providers, and community organizations.  This brief presents key lessons learned and recommendations offered by panel workshop participants.

And here is a closing section that is dear to my data-nerd heart:

There is an urgent need to assess what data need to be collected now, as the pandemic continues, for fear of losing the chance to assess what has been learned and how the changes made have performed.  For example, in some agencies, there have been significant differences in the doses of justice intervention received by different people, and solid information about how those doses varied might become very difficult to reconstruct after their program involvement is complete.  What the system did — and the value of it continuing to do some of those things — is part of the story, and the collection of data to support research and evaluation efforts going forward can help support the case for maintaining some of those practices.  And some of the most important lessons from the pandemic come from what the system did not do, including the choice to not arrest many people and not require some individuals to complete their original sentences or periods of detention for particular crimes and violations.  Lessons can be learned from what that inaction means for potential changes that could be made to the justice system of the future.

July 16, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Federal prison population starting to grow again as we approach six months into Biden Administration

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

Of course, lots of factors play lots of expected and unexpected roles in shaping federal prosecutions and sentencings, and broader phenomena like the COVID pandemic can impact the federal prison population more than specific justice policies.  Consequently, I was disinclined to make any bold predictions about what we might see in the Biden era, though I suggested we should expect the federal prison population to be relatively steady at the start because it could take months before we saw any major DOJ policy changes and many more months before any policy changes started impacting the federal prison population count.  

Sure enough, when we hit the "100 days" milestone for the Biden Administration, I noted in this May 6, 2021 post that the federal prison population clocked in at 152,085 according to the federal Bureau of Prisons accounting.  In other words, no significant prison population growth early on in the Biden era.  But two months later, as we approach the six month mark for the Biden Administration, the federal prison population is starting to really grow again according to the prison population numbers that the federal Bureau of Prisons updates weekly at this webpage.  Specifically, as of the ides of July 2021, the federal prison population clocks in at 154,596.

A BOP-measured growth of over 2500 federal inmates in just over two months strikes me as pretty significant, although I would guess that an easing of the COVID pandemic is the primary explanation.  The number of federal sentencings and the number of persons required to report to begin serving federal sentences have likely increased significantly in the last few months; I doubt any new Biden Administration (or AG Garland) policies or practices account for the (now 2%) growth in the federal prison population during the first six months of Joe Biden's presidency.

That said, I hope I am not the only one watching this number closely.  Especially given that the COVID pandemic is not really over and that a lot more surely could be safely "cut" from a bloated federal prison population, it will be quite disappointing if the Biden first term replicates the Obama first term marked by quite significant federal prison population growth.

July 15, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Interesting (but unclear) local report on federal sentencings in NYC impacted by COVID realities

The New York Daily News has this interesting (but less-than-clear) article discussing some federal sentencing issues under the headline "Brutal conditions in NYC jails during COVID pandemic caused federal judges to impose lighter sentences: analysis."  Here are excerpts:

Federal judges handed down dozens of lighter sentences due to brutal conditions in New York City’s federal jails during the coronavirus pandemic, new statistics obtained by the Daily News show.

A Daily News analysis of 43 cases involving people who could not afford their own attorneys shows that judges in Manhattan and Brooklyn federal courts imposed sentences that were on average 58% lower than what federal guidelines recommended.  In nearly all of the cases, judges either cited coronavirus conditions behind bars in their sentences, or attorneys emphasized the conditions in legal briefs.

In one case in July 2020, Judge Paul Engelmayer noted that punishment for Juan Carlos Aracena De Jesus’ illegal reentry into the U.S. after being deported was never supposed to include catching coronavirus. “I am mindful ... that you have served most of your time in prison so far during the worst pandemic in this country during the past 100 years,” Engelmayer said. “I’m mindful that your experience in prison as a result of the pandemic, the preceding lockdown, the ensuing lockdown, and your own illness was frightful. Prison is supposed to be punishment, but it is not supposed to be trauma of that nature or close.” While the sentence guidelines in the case was for 30-37 months, Engelmayer sentenced Aracena to time served.  He had spent six months at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan.

Judge Paul Oetken went so far as to come up with a formula for how much credit inmates should receive toward a sentence if they were behind bars during the pandemic. “I do believe that because it’s been harsher than a usual period that it’s more punitive, that it’s essentially the equivalent of either time and a half or two times what would ordinarily be served,” Oetken said on April 2 while sentencing a low-level crack dealer.  The sentence amounted to time served for the dealer, Daniel Gonzalez, who said he has a recurring foot infection due to unsanitary showers at MCC.

In all the cases, COVID was not the sole factor judges used to determine sentences.  Judges also considered an inmate’s health, the nature of the crime and other factors.  For Victor Marmolejo, 47, the risk of deadly consequences from his diabetes resulted in him receiving an 18-month sentence when prosecutors had asked for up to four years....

Lawsuits have alleged that coronavirus ravaged the MCC in Manhattan and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and that staff failed to implement commonsense preventative measures. Inmates, meanwhile, were kept in lockdown and had limited or no access to family and their attorneys.  Judges have become unusually outspoken about problems at the MCC and MDC since the pandemic began....

The head of the Federal Defenders in Brooklyn, Deirdre Von Dornum, said the cases where incarcerated pretrial detainees received shorter-than-guidelines sentences based on medical and jail conditions were “far more” than they usually get.  “COVID-19 did not change the sentencing calculus.  Consistent with governing sentencing law, judges have always taken medical conditions and medical risks into account.  What changed was the breadth and depth of this medical crisis and the clear inability of MDC and MCC to protect those in their custody and care who had pre-existing medical conditions,” Von Dornum said.

I am not at all surprised to hear accounts of federal judges taking COVID-related matter into account at sentencing.  Indeed, the instructions Congress has set forth for sentencing judges in 18 USC § 3553(a) really mandates consideration of factors that COVID realities can impact in various ways.  So, what is most notable and important is not just how, but really how much, judicial sentencing decision-making is being impacted by COVID matters.

Unfortunately, this Daily News report, which the article describes as an "analysis of 43 cases involving people who could not afford their own attorneys" in Manhattan and Brooklyn federal courts, is too opaque to provide a clear picture of COVID-era sentencing realities.  During the COVID era, there have probably more than 1000 cases sentenced in Manhattan and Brooklyn federal courts, so the 43 cases analyzed by the Daily News are likely not truly representative.  Moreover, even before COVID, judges in the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York typically imposed within-guideline sentences in only about 25% of all cases.  So lots of below-guideline sentences for lots of reasons was the norm even before COVID.

That all said, the impact of COVID on sentencing practices presents critical and hard questions that I am pleased to see this local newspaper discuss.  I hope more media, as well as federal agencies and academics and many others, will keep seeking to explore these important issues.

July 13, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 11, 2021

"Innocence in the Shadow of COVID-19: Plea Decision Making During a Pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Miko Wilford, David Zimmerman, Shi Yan, and Kelly Sutherland published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Here is its abstract:

Over 95% of criminal convictions in the United States are the result of guilty pleas.  Consequently, it is critical that we ensure the process of pleading guilty is as free of coercion as possible.  Yet, research has indicated that incarcerating defendants to await trial could have an undue influence on their decision to plead guilty.  The current research employed a novel computer simulation to examine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on plea decision making among the innocent and the guilty when faced with potential pretrial detention.  While presenting COVID-related information to participants increased both true and false guilty pleas, further analyses indicated that concerns about COVID-19 weighed more heavily on the innocent than the guilty.  These findings illustrate the negative impact a pandemic could have in combination with a system of pleas that often allows prosecutors to provide defendants with just one guaranteed respite from jail — a guilty plea.

July 11, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Gwen Levi, face of federal home confinement cohort at risk of prison return, granted compassionate release

In prior posts (some linked below), I have discussed the Office of Legal Counsel memo which interprets federal law to require that certain persons transferred to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act be returned to federal prison when the pandemic ends.  In this recent post, I noted one person at risk of serving many more years in prison after success on home confinement, Gwen Levi, who was getting particular attention because she had already been re-incarcerated on the basis of a seemingly minor technical violation.

I expressed hope in that post that she might succeed with sentence reduction motions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  I am now happy to be able report that she has prevailed on such a motion, as detailed in this USA Today article headlined "Woman who was arrested after missing officials' phone call while in computer class is headed home":

An elderly woman who was recently arrested after she missed phone calls from officials while attending a computer class — a possible violation of her home detention — is headed back home following a federal judge's decision to grant her request for compassionate release.

In a four-page ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Deborah C. Chasanow said "it would do little" to force Gwen Levi – a 76-year-old who's in remission from lung cancer and whom the Justice Department had deemed nonviolent – to serve the entirety of her sentence. "During her incarceration, she took many courses, worked, and completed drug education," Chasanow wrote, noting Levi's age, medical conditions and lack of major disciplinary problems.

Levi is among the more than 24,000 federal prisoners who, under the Trump administration, were allowed to serve their sentence through home detention to slow the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. But a Justice Department memo issued in the final days of the Trump administration said inmates whose sentences will extend beyond the pandemic must be brought back to prison. That included Levi, who has four years left to serve, and about 4,000 other prisoners, some of whom have secured jobs and gone back to school....

More recently, Levi attracted media attention after a trip to a computer class led to her arrest. Levi believed she had been approved to go to the class, her attorney said. She had turned her phone off, unaware that officials at her halfway house would be calling her several times. Levi was arrested four days later. A Bureau of Prisons report called the incident an "escape."

Levi was serving more than 30 years for drug conspiracy charges. Her sentence was reduced to 24 years as part of the First Step Act, a Trump-era criminal justice bill that shortened punishments for nonviolent drug crimes. Before her arrest last month, Levi had been on home confinement for 13 months.

In her ruling granting the request for compassionate release, Chasanow said Levi "has done well on home confinement," notwithstanding the incident that led to her arrest.

In a statement following Chasanow's decision, Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said: "Sending her back to prison for going to a computer class was shameful. She deserves to be home," Ring said. "But the fight is far from over. It's time for the Biden administration to ensure that the 4,000 people on home confinement get to stay home with their families, too."

Advocacy groups have been urging the Justice Department to rescind the Trump-era legal memo, but the administration does not believe the issue is urgent. The Justice Department said in May that inmates with years left to serve are not likely to be sent back to prison anytime soon because the public health crisis is expected to last for the rest of the year.

Some prior recent related posts:

July 6, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Hoping grandmothers and others on home confinement get compassionate consideration

In prior posts (some linked below), I have discussed the Office of Legal Counsel memo which interprets federal law to require that certain persons transferred to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act be returned to federal prison when the pandemic ends.  There has been particular advocacy directed toward Prez Biden urging him to use his clemency powers to keep these persons from being returned to federal prison, and I have recently argued Congress could and should address this matter with a statutory fix.  But, critically, judges also might be able to grant relief on a case-by-case basis via sentence reduction motions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).

One person at risk of serving many more years in prison after success on home confinement, Gwen Levi, is getting particular attention because she seems like low-risk person who has already been re-incarcerated on the basis of a seemingly minor technical violation.  Here are just some of the stories discussing her plight:  

From The Root, " 76-Year-Old Black Woman Released From Prison Amid Pandemic, Sent Back for Missing Phone Calls While Taking a Class"

extraordinary and compelling reasonsFrom USA Today, "'Scared and confused': Elderly inmate sent home during COVID is back in prison after going to computer class"

From the Washington Post, "A grandmother didn’t answer her phone during a class. She was sent back to prison."

Upon hearing about this story, I expressed on Twitter my hope that Gwen Levi was pursuing a compassionate release motion.  Kevin Ring of FAMM informed me not only that she was, but also that he had submitted a letter in support of her effort to secure a sentence reduction.  Kevin recently sent me a copy of this letter and has allowed me to post it here:

Download ECF 2079 Kevin Ring letter in support of comp. release

Though I do not know all the facts surrounding the crimes and current circumstances of Gwen Levi and the 4000 other persons on home confinement at risk of going back into federal prison, I do know that these situations certainly seem to present "extraordinary and compelling reasons" to consider whether further prison time is needed.  

Some prior recent related posts:

July 1, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 28, 2021

Still more great new essays in Brennan Center's "Punitive Excess" series

highlighted here a few months a terrific new essay series assembled by the Brennan Center for Justice under the title "Punitive Excess."  I am pleased to see that new essays are continuing to be added to the series now on a weekly basis, and here are the three most recent entries everyone should be sure to check out:

Prior related posts:

June 28, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Why aren't there much stronger calls for CONGRESS to fix post-pandemic home confinement problems?

In many prior posts (some linked below), I have discussed the Office of Legal Counsel memo released at the end of the Trump Administration which interprets federal law to require that certain persons transferred to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act be returned to federal prison when the pandemic ends.  I see that there are two more notable new press articles on this topic:

From The Hill, "Biden faces criticism for not extending home confinement for prisoners"

From the Washington Post, "A grandmother didn’t answer her phone during a class. She was sent back to prison."

The somewhat scattered Post article focuses on persons sent from home confinement back into federal prison for minor technical violations while also noting that the Biden Administration could seek to rescind the OLC memo or use clemency powers to keep folks home after the pandemic is deemed over.  The lengthy Hill article is more focused on the political discussion around this issue, but my post title reflects my growing frustration with this discourse.  Here are excerpts:

President Biden is under fire for not announcing an extension of a home confinement program for prisoners that was started during the coronavirus pandemic.  Progressives and criminal justice advocates have pressured the administration for months to rescind a Trump-era policy that kills the program when the pandemic ends.  They are frustrated that Biden's remarks this week didn’t address it....

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), who led a letter of 28 House Democrats in April calling for the policy to be rescinded, “is disappointed he hasn’t officially extended the home confinement program,” a spokesperson said....

The home confinement program during the coronavirus pandemic was launched in response to the CARES Act in March and directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to prioritize home confinement for certain inmates in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.  Roughly 24,000 inmates since have been sent to home confinement.

In the final days of the Trump administration, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel issued a memo stating that under federal law, those inmates released under the CARES Act must report back to prison when the coronavirus emergency is over, unless they are nearing the end of their sentence.  Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland could rescind that policy....

Advocates also argue that those inmates transferred to home confinement have been monitored and largely have not violated the conditions of their situation. “If they’re so low risk and they haven’t violated the conditions, it’s hard to imagine any reason why they should be sent back,” said Maria Morris, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project, adding that it would be a “ridiculous waste of resources.”

Many of the inmates placed in home confinement are elderly or in a vulnerable situation due to COVID-19, which posed a threat to them if they stayed inside a prison.  [Holly] Harris calls it “bad government” to send those inmates back to prisons. “At this point, the president just needs to grant them clemency and let them move on.  They are out because the Trump Administration felt it was safe enough to let them go home.  What more cover does he need?” she said.

I agree entirely with advocates saying it would be "bad government" and a "ridiculous waste of resources" to send back to prison thousands of vulnerable people who have been successful serving their sentences at home during the pandemic.  But I do not think it entirely right to describe the OLC memo as a "Trump-era policy" that is readily changed by the Biden Administration.  The OLC memo is not really a "policy" document; it is an elaborate interpretation of how the CARES Act alters BOP authority to place and keep persons in home confinement.  Though the OLC statutory interpretation requiring a return of persons to federal prison is debatable, the fact that this interpretation of the CARES Act amounts to bad policy does not itself give the Biden Administration a basis to just ignore statutory law.

Of course, statutory law notwithstanding, Prez Biden could (and I think should) use his clemency authority to extended home confinement for those at risk of being sent back to federal prison post-pandemic.  But if members of Congress are "disappointed" that the home confinement program is not being extended, they should amend the CARES Act to do exactly that with an express statutory provision!  This difficult issue stems from the text of the CARES Act; if the statutory text Congress passed when COVID first hit now is clearly operating to creates wasteful, bad government, Congress can and should fix that statutory text.  Put simply, this matter is a statutory problem that calls for a statutory fix. 

I surmise that advocates (not unreasonably) assume that getting a gridlocked Congress to "fix" this CARES Act home confinement problem through statutory reform is much less likely than achieving some other fix through executive action.  But, as I see it, exclusive focus on executive action to fix what is fundamentally a statutory problem itself contributes to legislative gridlock.  Indeed, I am more inclined to criticize the Biden Administration for not urging Congress to fix this CARES Act problem, especially because the notable success of home confinement policies during the pandemic could and should justify statutory reforms to even more broadly authorize ever greater use of home confinement in "normal" times.

Notably, three sentencing-related bill made their way through the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month (basics here).  Because I am not an expert on either legislative procedure or inside-the-Beltway politics, I do not know if it would be easy or impossible to include add "home confinement fix" to one of these bills.  But I do know that I will always want to believe that Congress at least has the potential to fix problems of its own creation.  But, as this post is meant to stress, I think it important not too lose sight of the fact that this is a fundamentally a congressional problem, not a presidential one.      

Some prior recent related posts:

UPDATE:  Achieving a media troika, the New York Times also published this lengthy article on this topic under the headline "Thousands of Prisoners Were Sent Home Because of Covid. They Don’t Want to Go Back."  Like the Post article, this piece is a bit scattered in its focus while also directing most of the attention on the Justice Department and Biden Administration rather than highlighting Congress's critical role in this story.  This passage is especially notable:

Changing the prison system is one of the few areas that has drawn bipartisanship agreement in Washington. Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, joined Democrats in criticizing the Justice Department memo, which was issued in January.

“Obviously if they can stay where they are, it’s going to save the taxpayers a lot of money,” Mr. Grassley said at the hearing [before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April]. “It will also help people who aren’t prone to reoffend and allows inmates to successfully re-enter society as productive citizens.”

The next sentence of this article, if it were telling the full story, should at the very least note that Congress could "fix" the OLC memo through a simple statutory change. I agree with Senator Grassley that it would be wrong to send all these folks back to prison after they have done well on home confinement, and so I think Senator Grassley should get together with his pals on the Capital Hill and pass a statute to that the law no longer could be interpreted to require sending them all back to prison at taxpayer expense.

June 27, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 26, 2021

"The Reintegration Agenda During Pandemic: Criminal Record Reforms in 2020"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by Margaret Colgate Love and David Schlussel now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

This report from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center summarizes legislative efforts and executive orders in 2020 to reduce barriers faced by people with a criminal record in the workplace, at the ballot box, and in many other areas of daily life.  In 2020, 32 states, D.C., and the federal government enacted 106 bills, approved five ballot initiatives, and issued four executive orders to restore rights and opportunities to people with a record.  While states enacted fewer laws than in the preceding two years, evidently because of the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the fact that there was still considerable progress is testament to a genuine and enduring public commitment to a reintegration agenda. The report provides topical discussions of the reforms, a legislative report card of the most and least productive states, and an appendix documenting the laws by jurisdiction.

June 26, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

"The Impact of COVID-19 on Crime, Arrests, and Jail Populations - An Expansion on the Preliminary Assessment"

The title of this post is the title of this new expanded report on COVID impacts on some critical criminal justice metrics.  Here is the 20+ page report's executive summary:

Beginning in March 2020, local and state criminal agencies took several actions to mitigate the rising number of people being infected with the COVID-19 virus.  To address these concerns, a variety of policies were enacted to reduce the number of persons held in jails.  These polices were designed to 1) mitigate the number of people being arrested and booked into local jails and 2) reduce the length of stay (LOS) for those admitted to jail.  Concurrently, public safety concerns were raised that by lowering the jail populations, crime in the community would increase.

To address these concerns, the JFA Institute (JFA), through resources provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) program, began tracking and analyzing six cities and counties participating in SJC (jurisdictions) and their jail and crime data in real time to monitor the impact of these mitigation activities.  In October 2020, JFA expanded the study to eleven jurisdictions and collected the data through December 2020 to examine longer term trends and a potential rebound.

Analysis of the eleven jurisdictions:

  • Analysis of the eleven jurisdictions studied revealed jail populations declined, yet crime and arrests declined as well, giving indication that declining jail populations did not compromise public safety.

  • Overall, total reported crime was 22% lower in December 2020 when compared to December 2019 and 14% lower for the total number of reported crimes for CY 2020 versus CY 2019.

  • When combining all jurisdictions, there was an average 39% decrease in jail bookings, which equates to over 130,000 fewer jail bookings in a one-year time frame.  Jail booking decreases were fueled by the decrease in property crime and arrests, primarily for misdemeanor and lower-level felony charges.

  • As a result of the change in jail bookings, the composition of the jail populations changed postCOVID-19, with a higher proportion being male and charged with violent felony and non-drug felony crimes.

  • The LOS for people in jail has increased due to the changing make-up of the jail populations and a slowdown in court case processing.

  • After the historic initial decrease, jail populations rebounded somewhat but stabilized in October 2020. During this time, there was no substantial increase in overall crime.

There are challenges ahead in keeping jail populations low, namely maintaining lower arrests, jail bookings, and reducing the length of stay by expediting the disposition of criminal cases.  The response to COVID-19 has shown that such reforms are possible and can safely reduce the number of persons held in jail but sustaining lower jail populations will require maintaining these reforms in some manner.

June 23, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

"Dead Man Waiting: A brief profile of deaths in Texas prisons among people approved for parole release"

The title of this post is the title of this remarkable new report that provides a critical reminder the "being paroled" is a nuanced (and not-always-life -saving) reality in Texas.  Here is the report's abstract which also discusses its origin and authors:

A troubling number of people in Texas prisons and jails who have been approved for release on parole are dying in custody before they ever step foot outside prison gates, according to a new report from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. In a first-of-its-kind analysis, “Dead Man Waiting,” shows that while deaths among parole-approved people increased during the COVID period, this population was already dying in large numbers from other chronic health issues while awaiting release.  The findings in this report raise serious questions about the state’s parole system and why people who met the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP)’s stringent approval guidelines could end up dead before their release.  Researchers offer recommendations for safely releasing this population immediately after parole approval. This report was produced as part of the COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, with support from Arnold Ventures. The COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project is led by Michele Deitch, Project Director, and Alycia Welch, Associate Director.

Here are just a few paragraphs from the first part of the short report:

There are more than 10,700 people in Texas prisons who have been approved for release on parole but remain in custody.  This number represents nearly one-tenth of the entire Texas prison population. Despite being approved for parole, some of these people will never walk out the prison gates because they die while waiting for release....

In any given month before COVID, people remained in Texas prisons for an average of 3 to 4 months after their parole approval before they were released.  During the COVID pandemic, the typical delay in release ranged from 5 to 11 months; the overall average was 6 months.

Between March 2020, when TDCJ locked down its facilities due to COVID, and March 2021, at least 42 people who were approved for release on parole died in Texas prisons. These are people who BPP determined are safe enough to be released by a certain date or pending the completion of a required program.  They met some of the nation’s most burdensome standards for parole approval and yet they still died behind bars while awaiting their release.

June 22, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few of many prior related posts:

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

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Senate Judiciary Committee advances three criminal justice and sentencing reform bills

I noted in this post last month that the US Senate Judiciary Committee had  plans to take three criminal justice bill: the First Step Implementation Act, the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act, and the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act.  This Law360 piece from a few weeks ago reported that, "on a 14-8 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act of 2021."  And the other bill moved forward this past week, as reported in this press release from Senator Grassley:

[T]he Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance two bipartisan criminal justice reform bills authored by U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee — the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021 and the First Step Implementation Act of 2021. These bills will build on the landmark First Step Act and continue Congress’s bipartisan efforts to make our criminal justice system fairer....

The bipartisan, bicameral Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021 would end the unjust practice of judges increasing sentences based on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury.  Our criminal justice system rests on the Fifth and Sixth Amendment guarantees of due process and the right to a jury trial for the criminally accused.  These principles require the government to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury.  Under the Constitution, defendants may be convicted only for conduct proven beyond a reasonable doubt.   However, at sentencing, courts may enhance sentences if they find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a defendant committed other crimes.  The difference in those standards of proof means that a sentencing court can effectively nullify a jury’s verdict by considering acquitted conduct.  The legislation was passed out of Committee by a bipartisan vote of 16-6.  More information on the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021 can be found here.
 
The bipartisan, bicameral First Step Implementation Act would advance the goals of the landmark First Step Act (FSA), by, among other provisions, making eligible for retroactive review some of the FSA’s sentencing reforms. The FSA — authored by Durbin and Grassley and signed into law in 2018 — is bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation designed to make our justice system fairer and our communities safer by reforming sentencing laws and providing opportunities for those who are incarcerated to prepare to reenter society successfully.  The First Step Implementation Act was passed out of Committee by a bipartisan vote of 13-9.  More information on how the First Step Implementation Act of 2021 would further the goals of the FSA can be found here.

I have little sense of whether or when these bills might move through Congress and get to the desk of the President, but I am hope that congressional leadership sees that these bill are worth prioritizing because they have more bipartisan support that almost any other proposals these days.

Some prior related posts:

June 12, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 11, 2021

Another dive into the ugly BOP realities of federal compassionate release during the pandemic

The Marshall Project has this new piece on federal compassionate release with a full title that captures its essential themes: "31,000 Prisoners Sought Compassionate Release During COVID-19. The Bureau of Prisons Approved 36.  As the pandemic worsened inside federal prisons, officials granted fewer releases." Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

Tens of thousands of federal prisoners applied for compassionate release after the virus began sweeping through lockups. But new Bureau of Prisons data shows officials approved fewer of those applications during the pandemic than they did the year before.  While the BOP director greenlit 55 such requests in 2019, a new director who took over in early 2020 approved only 36 requests in the 13 months since the pandemic took hold in March 2020.  The downturn in approvals came even as the number of people seeking compassionate release skyrocketed from 1,735 in 2019 to nearly 31,000 after the virus hit, according to the new figures.

Because the numbers were compiled for members of Congress, BOP spokesman Scott Taylor said the agency would not answer any questions about the data, “out of respect and deference” to lawmakers.  But Shon Hopwood, a Georgetown law professor, called the bureau’s decrease in compassionate releases during the pandemic “mind-boggling.”...

Federal judges have stepped in to release thousands of people in the face of BOP inaction. And the bureau continues to face intense scrutiny and several lawsuits over its handling of COVID-19.  Since the first reported case last spring, more than 49,000 federal prisoners have fallen ill and 256 have died, according to corrections data tracked by The Marshall Project.  Thirty-five of those who died were waiting for a decision on their release requests....

People in federal prisons seeking release during the pandemic have two main ways to get out early.  One is home confinement, which allows low-risk prisoners to finish their sentences at home or in a halfway house.  They’re still considered in custody, and the decision to let them out is entirely up to the Bureau of Prisons.  As COVID shutdowns began last March, Congress expanded the eligibility criteria and then-Attorney General Bill Barr ordered prison officials to let more people go.  Since then, more than 23,700 people have been sent to home confinement — though several thousand of them may have to return to prison once the pandemic ends.

The other way to get out early is through compassionate release.  If a warden endorses a prisoner’s request, the case goes to BOP’s central office, which usually rejects it.  But if a warden denies a request or 30 days pass with no response, then the incarcerated person can ask a judge to reduce the sentence to time served.  The new data showed 3,221 people have been let out on compassionate release since the start of the pandemic — but 99% of those releases were granted by judges over the bureau’s objections.

Last fall, The Marshall Project published data showing that the Bureau of Prisons rejected or ignored more than 98% of compassionate release requests during the first three months of the pandemic.  Citing that reporting, federal lawmakers in December wrote to the agency to demand more data on both compassionate release and home confinement.

The updated figures outlined in the agency’s response to Congress in April showed that BOP wardens actually endorsed slightly fewer compassionate release requests as the pandemic progressed.  In the first three months, wardens approved 1.4% of release applications.  The central office rejected most of those, with Director Michael Carvajal ultimately approving just 0.1%.  By the end of April — more than a year into the pandemic, and after more than 200 prisoner deaths — wardens had approved 1.2% of applications, and Carvajal again accepted just 0.1%.

By comparison, federal judges approved 21% of compassionate release requests they considered in 2020, according to a recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission....

For the most part, the bureau has offered little insight into its reasons for denying compassionate release. According to the information BOP sent to Congress, wardens denied nearly 23,000 requests because the person “does not meet criteria.”  Roughly 3,200 people were denied because their cases were “not extraordinary and compelling,” while a little over 1,200 were rejected for not providing enough information or documentation.  Four people met the criteria but were denied due to “correctional concerns,” the agency said.

Of the 374 prisoners that wardens recommended for compassionate release during the pandemic, the agency’s central office rejected or did not respond to just over 90%, apparently without making any note as to why.  “The BOP does not track the specific reasons for approval or denial of a compassionate release request at the Central Office level, as there can be several reasons for a particular decision,” wrote General Counsel Ken Hyle.  Some of those reasons, he added, could be opposition from federal prosecutors, a lack of release plan or fear that letting someone out would “minimize the severity of the inmate’s offense.”

A few of many prior related posts:

June 11, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 07, 2021

FAMM urges AG Garland to prevent those on home confinement during pandemic from being returning to federal prison

In various prior posts (some linked below), I have covered the Office of Legal Counsel memo released at the very end of the Trump Administration which interprets federal law to require that certain persons transferred from federal prison to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act be returned to federal prison when the pandemic ends.  The folks at FAMM have done a great job spotlighting the problems this OLC memo creates, and Kevin Ring at FAMM today sent this new extended letter to Attorney General Garland urging him to address these matters "as quickly as possible."  Here are excerpts from the letter:

Dozens of members of Congress who voted for the CARES Act have written to you, clarifying that they did not intend people on home confinement to return to prison.  The BOP did not tell people who were transferred to home confinement that they might have to return. Corrections officers were unaware of the possibility....

There is no public safety reason to require anyone abiding by the terms of their transfer to be reincarcerated.  The BOP screened each one of the approximately 4,000 people currently on home confinement using strict criteria established by Attorney General William Barr.  Those deemed to pose no danger to the community now wear ankle monitors and are subject to rigorous surveillance.  Some have been home for a full year. Only a vanishingly small percentage have violated the terms of their confinement, according to the BOP....

Attorney General Garland, we urge you to end now the needless suffering and extreme stress these families are experiencing.  You can do so in a number of ways.

First, you have the authority to rescind or overrule the OLC memo.  We, along with a bipartisan group of members of Congress and advocacy organizations, have urged and continue to urge you to do so.

If you feel constrained to follow the OLC’s opinion, you can and should recommend to the president that he act now to grant clemency to anyone who is serving CARES Act home confinement and has complied with the rules of their supervision.  The Department then should do everything it can to support clemency petitions, including ensuring the speedy review and transfer of cases to the president.  The president has expressed a desire to use his clemency authority more robustly.  Commuting the sentences of these extraordinarily low-risk people would be a smart and easy start.

The Department could use its existing authority to keep people home by transferring those eligible for the Elderly Offender Home Detention Program.  It also could use its authority to seek compassionate release for those on CARES Act home confinement, especially those who have years left on their sentences.  At a minimum, the Department should direct that U.S. Attorneys not oppose compassionate release motions brought by people in those circumstances.

In all cases, the Department should direct the BOP to use its furlough authority to prevent anyone whose status is not resolved before the end of the emergency period from having to return to prison.  This approach also would be useful for those people nearing the end of their sentences and for whom the measures discussed above are not necessary because they will shortly be eligible for transfer under 18 U.S.C. § 3624(c).

Some prior recent related posts:

June 7, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

CCJ's commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice releases latest "Impact Report: COVID-19 and Crime"

6a00d83451574769e20263e9590f4e200bnoted here last summer 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 produce a number of important works (examples here and here and here), and it has produced a series of reports on recent crime trends under the heading "Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities."  The latest version of the full report, called a March 2021 update, is available at this link.  This webpage, titled "Impact Report: COVID-19 and Crime," provides this overview:

This report examines changes in crime rates in 34 American cities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, with a special emphasis on homicide and other violent crimes. The current study updates previous studies by the authors with additional data through March 2021. The study was conducted by criminologist and Professor Emeritus Richard Rosenfeld and Ernesto Lopez of the University of Missouri – St. Louis and Thomas Abt, Commission Director and Council on Criminal Justice Senior Fellow.

Methodology

This study examines monthly crime rates for ten violent, property, and drug offenses in 34 U.S. cities.  Not all cities reported monthly data for each crime.  The largest city in the sample is New York, with 8.42 million residents.  The smallest is Norfolk, Virginia, with 245,000 residents. The crime data were obtained from the online portals of city police departments. The data are subject to revision, and offense classifications varied somewhat across the cities.

Findings

  • During the first quarter of 2021, homicide rates declined from their peak in the summer of 2020, but remained above levels in the first quarter of prior years. The number of homicides rose by 24% compared to the first quarter of 2020 (an increase of 193 homicides) and by 49% compared to the first quarter of 2019 (an increase of 324 homicides).
  • Despite recent increases, the 2020 year-end homicide rate in the study sample was just over half what it was for those cities 25 years ago (11.4 deaths per 100,000 residents in those cities versus 19.4 per 100,000 in 1995).
  • Aggravated and gun assault rates were also higher in the first quarter of 2021 than in the same period of 2020.  Aggravated assault rates increased 7%, while gun assault rates went up by 22%.
  • Burglary, larceny, and drug offense rates were lower in the first quarter of 2021 than during the first quarter of 2020.  Residential burglary, non-residential burglary, larceny, and drug offense rates dropped by 16%, 7%, 16%, and 24% from the same period in 2020.  Motor vehicle theft rates were 28% higher in the first quarter of 2021 than the year before.
  • Domestic violence did not increase in the first quarter of 2021 over the first quarter of 2020. This result is based on just 11 of the 32 cities and should be viewed with caution.
  • In response to elevated rates of homicide, the authors conclude that urgent action is required.  As the pandemic subsides, pursuing crime-control strategies of proven effectiveness and enacting needed policing reforms will be essential to achieving prompt yet durable reductions in violent crime in our cities.

May 25, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 10, 2021

Effective review of (just some) issues surrounding home confinement for the Biden Justice Department

This new extended Hill article, headlined "DOJ faces big decision on home confinement," provide an effective accounting of the building discussion around the status of home confinement in the federal system as it appears the pandemic is winding down.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

The Biden administration will soon have to decide whether to send back to prison thousands of inmates who were transferred to home confinement after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.  President Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland have been facing mounting calls to rescind a policy implemented in the final days of the Trump administration that would revoke home confinement for those inmates as soon as the government lifts its emergency declaration over the coronavirus.

Advocates and lawmakers argue that the program has been a resounding success, and that it would be unjust to reincarcerate thousands of individuals who abided by the terms of their home confinement.  “If you're one of these people, you're trying to figure out, 'Do I go back to college? Do I start a new job? Do I start a family? Do I sign a lease? I mean, what can I do, not knowing where I'm going to be in six months?’ That's cruel to keep somebody in that doubt and uncertainty for this long and to say, ‘You know, don't worry about it, it's not going to happen tomorrow,’” said Kevin Ring, president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Last year, in response to the CARES Act, then-Attorney General William Barr directed the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to prioritize home confinement for certain inmates in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus within the prison system.  According to the BOP, about 24,000 inmates have been released to home confinement since the beginning of the pandemic. Advocates say there are now about 4,500 people facing uncertainty about whether they might have to go back to prison after months of reintegrating into society.

BOP Director Michael Carvajal told a House Appropriations subcommittee in March that just 21 inmates released to home confinement were sent back to prison for alleged rule violations. And in the program overall, only one person has committed a new crime....

The uncertainty about the program’s fate began in January, a few days before President Biden's inauguration, when the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel issued a memo stating that under federal law, those inmates released under the CARES Act must report back to prison when the coronavirus emergency is over, unless they are nearing the end of their sentence.

Randilee Giamusso, a BOP spokesperson, said the Biden administration had recently expanded the eligibility for home confinement.  “This is an important legal issue about the language Congress used in the CARES Act,” Giamusso said in a statement.  “It is important to recognize even under the Office of Legal Counsel's (OLC) reading of the statute, the BOP will have discretion to keep inmates on home confinement after the pandemic if they’re close to the end of their sentences.  For the more difficult cases, where inmates still have years left to serve, this will be an issue only after the pandemic is over.”

Giamusso added that Biden recently extended the national emergency regarding COVID-19, and that the Department of Health and Human Services expects the public health crisis to last at least through December.  “The BOP is focused right now on expanding the criteria for home confinement and taking steps to ensure individualized review of more inmates who might be transferred,” Giamusso said.

Still, some lawmakers and advocates argue that the Trump-era policy would unnecessarily upend the lives of those deemed low-risk enough to be sent home and who have since abided by the terms of their home confinement.  Biden and Garland are facing pressure to rescind the policy memo, receiving letters from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; a bipartisan group of 28 House lawmakers; and a coalition of advocacy groups....

This past week, the White House told advocates that Biden is preparing to use his clemency powers, in what would be a rare early exercise of the power to commute or pardon incarcerated people.  Ring said rescinding the home confinement policy, or using another tool to keep those affected by it out of prison, is an easy way for Biden to show that he’s serious about taking on mass incarceration.

“They've said they want to use the clemency authority more robustly to let people out of prison who don't need to be there,” said Ring, who has served time in federal prison. “Well, here's 4,500 people that Bill Barr and Donald Trump cleared as the lowest of low risk. So if you can't find a way to keep these people home, I mean, how discouraging will it be for those who are hoping for clemency?”...

Experts and advocates alike see the home confinement policy as a radical experiment that yielded positive results, potentially adding more momentum to criminal justice reform efforts that have seen a growing bipartisan consensus against the tough-on-crime policies of the late 20th century.  Ring, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said lawmakers should consider the success of the home confinement program as a potential alternative to incarceration.  “I think this is still a good model or a good use of natural experiment to show that we can keep more people in the community, and not keep them in prison,” he said. “Congress should use what happened here as evidence for expanding home confinement going forward.”

But in the meantime, Ring said, the priority is for the Biden administration to make clear that it does not intend to re-incarcerate those who are serving their sentences out at home. “Not only do they need to fix it, they need to fix it immediately,” he said. “They need to announce to these people, ‘You're not going back. We're not making you go back. We'll rescind the memo or we'll use some other authority we have to fix this.' But these people need to get on with their lives.”

I am grateful for this effective review of not just the COVID-driven home confinement changes, but also the broader issue of whether this unfortunate "natural experiment" justifies a robust rethinking of home confinement as an alternative punishment.  And I think that issue need to be explored even further because I surmise that home confinement can end up meaning lots of different things for lots of different persons.  And, in addition to the wonderfully low number of problems with the COVID home confinement transfers, it will be interesting and important to track long-term recidivism rates for these groups. 

Some prior recent related posts:

May 10, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, May 08, 2021

"Enjoined and Incarcerated: Complications with Incarcerated People Seeking Economic Relief under the CARES Act"

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

Congress passed the first round of checks as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”) in late March 2020 to infuse more than $2 trillion into the national economy and address the overlapping medical and economic emergencies stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.  But incarcerated individuals were initially excluded from receiving stimulus checks, despite being eligible to receive them.  This delay in delivering immediate cash assistance through the CARES Act to incarcerated individuals exposes the inadequacy of the tax administrative doctrine in resolving emergency relief disputes and how exclusionary measures embedded in the tax system and other economic policies inhibit the rehabilitation prospects of incarcerated people.

Millions of Americans made personal and financial sacrifices in 2020 to aid the public health efforts, including incarcerated individuals.  In return, those who were denied economic relief on an arbitrary basis by the government should not have to wait until the following tax year to seek a legal remedy.  In other words, the legal framework for challenging tax decisions is too unsympathetic toward many taxpayers that rely on policies embedded in the tax code for immediate economic relief.  Further, by providing nearly universal economic stimulus, Congress recognized the plight of incarcerated individuals during a pandemic and moved away from the exclusionary stimulus measures enacted in prior economic crises.  Providing economic stimulus to those in incarceration is sound economic stimulus policy so long as punitive measures for individuals in and exiting incarceration are embedded in tax and economic policy.

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

Friday, May 07, 2021

Notably advocacy for Prez Biden to use his clemency power to ensure those released into home confinement need not return to prison

Alice Marie Johnson and Ja’Ron Smith have this notable new USA Today opinion piece headlined "COVID-19 concerns sent thousands of inmates home. Give clemency to those who deserve it." The subtitle of the piece captures its themes: "Nearly 5,000 inmates may be sent back to prison. After rebuilding their lives, and being contributing members of society, how is being returned justice?". Here are excerpts (links from original):

This spring, as more Americans are able to get vaccinated, there’s hope the pandemic is nearing its end and life is slowly returning to normal.  But for 4,500 Americans, the end of the pandemic could instead mean returning to prison. 

The March 2020 CARES Act allowed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to expand the period of home confinement, which usually comes at the end of a sentence.  As a result, thousands of incarcerated individuals convicted of nonviolent crimes were released from prison – where COVID-19 swept through cramped facilities – to home confinement. Many were able to reunite with their families and find jobs.   

But earlier this year, the Justice Department ordered that individuals under home confinement due to COVID-19 must return to prison when the emergency is lifted, putting 4,500 lives in limbo, awaiting an uncertain date when their return to normalcy is taken away.  Inmates near the end of their sentence may be able to stay home if the Bureau of Prisons grants permission, according to a recent USA TODAY report.  And while the Biden administration extended the length of the COVID emergency declaration, that still might not help people with years left to serve.   

The administration could get into a legal back-and-forth over the interpretation of the CARES Act.  But a simpler path would be for President Joe Biden to grant clemency to those on home confinement who pose no threat to public safety.  Reviewing the cases will be another step toward reducing unnecessary incarceration in America, which imprisons more people than any other democratic country with no added benefit to public safety.  

The two of us experienced the justice system, and clemency in particular, up close.  One of us worked as a senior adviser to former President Donald Trump on criminal justice and other policy issues.  The other served nearly 22 years in prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense before returning home after Trump granted clemency, and later a pardon.  Through these experiences, we have come to know people from diverse backgrounds who have made mistakes, but still have much to offer their families and our society. That is what we are seeing with many of the individuals under home confinement due to COVID-19....

To prevent individuals like these from being sent back to prison, a congressional coalition wrote a letter to Biden, urging him to review their cases for clemency.  The letter notes that the CARES Act did not require individuals on home confinement be sent back to prison, and that the Justice Department can modify the guidance issued by the last administration.  But clemency would allow rehabilitated individuals to move on with their lives rather than serving home detention for the rest of their sentences.   

Clemency should be carefully and fairly considered.  But all the people under home confinement were released because they were determined to be safe, making them strong candidates.  The moral issue goes beyond these 4,500 Americans.  In recent years, a diverse coalition from across the political spectrum has united for criminal justice reforms. Trump signed the bipartisan First Step Act in 2018, reducing some excessive sentences and creating more opportunities for rehabilitation.  

Biden ran on a platform to build on these criminal justice reforms. As he said in a proclamation commemorating Second Chance Month, “We lift up all those who, having made mistakes, are committed to rejoining society and making meaningful contributions.”  Biden should now extend that commitment to people under home confinement.  Reviewing these cases for clemency will not only help transform the lives of thousands of Americans, but also continue the momentum toward a more sensible and fair criminal justice system. 

Some prior recent related posts:

May 7, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Spotlighting effectiveness of home confinement under CARES Act and concerns about OLC memo disruption

USA Today has this lengthy new piece highlighting the administration of home confinement in the federal system during the pandemic and the worries about a Justice Department memo which could return offenders to prison. I recommend the piece in full, which is headlined "Inmates sent home during COVID-19 got jobs, started school. Now, they face possible return to prison." Here are some excerpts:

In the weeks and months since he was sent home, RJ Edwards found a job, bought a car, got an apartment for him and his mother and started working toward a bachelor’s degree in computer science....

Edwards, 37, is among the more than 24,000 nonviolent federal prisoners who have been allowed to serve their sentences at home to slow the spread of COVID-19 inside prisons. But a Justice Department memo issued in the final days of the Trump administration says inmates whose sentences will extend beyond the pandemic must be brought back to prison.

Advocates urged the Justice Department to rescind the memo, which was issued by the agency's Office of Legal Counsel. They say it defeats the whole idea of rehabilitation and contradicts President Joe Biden's campaign promise to allow people with criminal pasts to redeem themselves. "They let us go, and we reintegrate, and then it feels like nothing matters. All the hard work you put in, it doesn’t matter. We’re just a number to them," said Edwards, who has five years left to serve.

During a congressional hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, raised concerns about sending people back to prison, especially those who have been following the rules. Of the 24,000 prisoners who were allowed to go home, 151 – less than 1% – have violated the terms of their home confinement and three have been arrested for new crimes. "This highlights how effective home confinement can be," Grassley said....

Reincarcerating people who, for the past year, have been law-abiding would disrupt their rehabilitation and would do little to improve public safety, according to a letter more than two dozen groups sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland last month.  "Establishing community ties and deepening family connections are known to be significant positive factors for reducing recidivism," according to the letter. "Disrupting that process would mean disrupting safe re-integration into society and damaging networks that are vital to improving public safety."

Keeping people behind bars is also costly.  In 2018, the annual cost of housing just one federal prisoner was about $37,000 or $102 per day....

In the past year since they were sent home, the majority of these inmates have finished their sentences or have met the criteria to stay on home confinement.  As of mid-April, 4,500 inmates on home confinement would not have qualified if not for the pandemic, although many of them are likely to meet the criteria in the next months.  About 2,400 have more than a year left in their sentence, [BOP Director Michael] Carvajal told lawmakers.

A little more than 300 have five years left to serve.  That includes Edwards, who was sentenced to 17 years for wire fraud.  He was sent home in July.  By August, he found a job.

Prior related post:

May 6, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

New federal defender laments BOP's response to COVID and the FIRST STEP Act

The Federal Public and Community Defenders sent this new letter today to Senate Judiciary Committee leaders to follow up on the April 15 oversight hearing concerning the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  The 16-page letter covers a lot of ground, and here are excerpts:

For too long, DOJ and BOP have ignored congressional directives to prioritize the safety and rehabilitation of individuals in its custody, and left tools provided by Congress unused. These failures have been exacerbated by a culture that bends towards opacity and against accountability.  We urge Congress to intervene.  At minimum, it must strengthen and increase its oversight of DOJ and BOP to help ensure that federally incarcerated persons remain safe and that Congress’ vision for sentencing and prison reform is realized.  At best, it will enact legislation to smartly and swiftly lower prison populations and to move vulnerable individuals to a place of relative safety.

For the past 13 months, COVID-19 has torn through BOP facilities.  Meanwhile, BOP has failed to take the necessary steps — or to use available resources — to remediate the pandemic’s risk. Even now, despite the increased availability of vaccines across the country, COVID-19 remains a lifethreatening risk to those in BOP custody.  The death count of incarcerated individuals continues to mount, and conditions in federal detention facilities remain dire....

BOP and DOJ have failed to use the tools Congress gave them to safely lower prison populations.  The failure by DOJ and BOP to use tools to move vulnerable individuals to a place of relative safety — either by transferring them to home confinement or by seeking their release through compassionate release — has exacerbated the consequences of substandard medical treatment and care in BOP....

The First Step Act of 2018 (FSA) was intended to shorten certain federal prison sentences and to reorient the federal prison system away from pure punishment and towards rehabilitation.  The FSA’s ameliorative sentencing provisions have made significant strides: as of September 28, 2020, BOP has released 2,509 individuals who qualified for retroactive Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 relief. 

But since the FSA’s enactment, little has been done to advance the Act’s core prison reform: a system designed to reduce recidivism risk by offering individuals incentives in exchange for their participation in evidence-based programming and productive activities.  To create that system, the FSA directed the DOJ to dramatically expand programming in BOP facilities, and to develop a risk and needs assessment system (“RNAS”) that could determine “the recidivism risk of each prisoner” and “the type and amount of evidence-based recidivism reduction programming for each.”  Unfortunately, DOJ and BOP have failed to meet the programming or RNAS mandates and have undercut the promise of the FSA by promulgating restrictive policies behind closed doors....

Even prior to the pandemic, BOP had a long history of not providing sufficient programs.  Because the recidivism-reduction efforts of the FSA are meaningless without adequate programming, and in light of the IRC’s warning, we are deeply concerned that BOP does not have a plan of action to comply with the FSA requirement that BOP “provide all prisoners with the opportunity to actively participate in evidence-based recidivism reduction programs or productive activities according to their specific criminogenic needs, throughout their entire term of incarceration.”  BOP’s past performance, with inconsistent access and quality across institutions, makes it difficult to have confidence that BOP will meet its statutory obligations in this regard.  We hope that Congress will continue to closely oversee BOP’s efforts on this front, and to appropriate sufficient funding to support adequate programming.

May 4, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable NY politician gets furlough from BOP as he is "considered for home confinement"

When I saw the headline of this new New York Post piece, "Sheldon Silver released early on furlough after less than a year in prison," I thought the paper was misusing a term because furloughs from federal prison seem extraordinarily rare. But the story explains it has the right term:

Disgraced former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been sprung from federal prison early on furlough — while he awaits a decision from the agency on whether he can serve out the remainder of his term in home confinement, a report said Tuesday.

Silver — who has served less than a year of his 6 1/2-year sentence — was cut loose from Otisville Prison, in Orange County, New York, and released to his home while awaiting the decision, a source familiar with the matter told the Associated Press.

The 77-year-old crooked former pol was released under DOJ’s expanded powers to grant inmates release amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to the report. In a statement, the Bureau of Prisons said Silver is still “designated” to Otisville Prison, but added that it has the power to transfer inmates to their home on furlough.

“We can share that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has authority to transfer inmates to their home on furlough for periods of time while they may continue to be considered for home confinement designation,” a spokesperson said.

The BOP recently notified prosecutors in the Southern District of New York that it was considering cutting Silver loose on home confinement, a spokesperson for the district told The Post. n an email response sent yesterday, the prosecutor’s office — which secured a guilty verdict against Silver for corruption-related crimes during his run as an Albany power broker — stressed that it ardently opposes the move, the spokesperson said.

In a memo last year, former Attorney General Bill Barr gave the director of BOP expanded discretion to release vulnerable inmates from federal lockups amid the pandemic. BOP officials need to take into account a host of factors when determining if an inmate qualifies for home confinement, including “age and vulnerability of the inmate to COVID-19,” according to the memo. In addition, a BOP medical official is supposed to sign off on home confinement releases based on risk factors for a specific inmate, according to the memo....

Silver was sentenced last summer after avoiding lockup for more than five years after he was first convicted. At his sentencing, Judge Valerie Caproni admonished the crooked politician, who was convicted of illegally using his office to benefit two real estate developers in exchange for cash.

“This was corruption pure and simple,” Judge Caproni told the disgraced ex-speaker, whom she had already sentenced twice. “The time, however, has now come for Mr. Silver to pay the piper,” Caproni added.

Because there is always much mystery around the working of the BOP, I have no notion of whether any lower-profile prisoners might get similar treatment.

May 4, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, April 24, 2021

"Housing the Decarcerated"

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

The coronavirus pandemic exposed an issue at the intersection of the public health, carceral and housing crises — the lack of housing for the recently decarcerated.  Early in the pandemic calls came to release incarcerated persons and cease arrests in light of the risks posed by failing to be able to socially distance while incarcerated.  At the same time, the pandemic forced a national conversation about the sheer number of unhoused persons in our country.  The pandemic created an emergent argument for both broad scale decarceration and publicly funded housing.  The practical process of securing housing for the recently decarcerated, however, is fraught because of what is described in this article as the “culture of exclusion” that has long pervaded subsidized housing policy, enabled by a patchwork of federal laws, including the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (ADA) of 1988 and the Supreme Court case, HUD v. Rucker.

The culture of exclusion is arbitrated by local housing authorities and works on three levels — eligibility, enforcement and set asides.  As a result, formerly incarcerated persons are often rejected outright during the application process.  In addition, persons who live in subsidized housing and are alleged to be engaged in or associated with anyone who is alleged to have participated in criminal conduct can be evicted making subsidized housing itself a pipeline into the prison industrial complex. 

This Article seeks to motivate a pathway towards housing the decarcerated by ending the culture of exclusion.  In Part I, the article briefly updates the status of the prison abolition and right to housing movements. Part II builds on the idea that stable housing for formerly incarcerated persons is essential to the prison abolition movement’s success by reviewing summary results from pilot programs in New York, Washington and Michigan.  Part III suggests that “one strike” policies, have created a broader “culture of exclusion,” which the Supreme Court validated in Rucker, further burdening the process of reentry for the recently decarcerated.  Finally, Part IV, prescribes policy changes that are essential to housing the decarcerated even beyond repealing the ADA and overturning Rucker, including transcending the narrative of innocence, directing PHA discretion to admit not deny and utilizing civil rights laws to equalize voucher holders.

April 24, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)