Monday, May 13, 2019

Recent Harvard Law Review issue covers prison abolition

I managed to miss that the Development in the Law section of the April issue of the Harvard Law Review examined prison abolition from multiple angles.  Here are titles and links to the articles:

May 13, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 12, 2019

"Next Steps in Federal Corrections Reform: Implementing and Building on the First Step Act"

The title of this post is the title of this terrific new Urban Institute issue brief authored by Julie Samuels, Nancy La Vigne and Chelsea Thomson.  This webpage provides this abstract:

Advocates and legislators across the political spectrum celebrated the passage of the First Step Act in December of 2018, the first large federal prison reform bill in nearly a decade.  This research brief reviews key measures in First Step, describes the actions and oversight needed for faithful and vigorous implementation of the act, and highlights some of the law’s limitations.  Working from the original set of recommendations made by the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, we then describe additional measures that represent the next logical — and evidence-based — steps in federal corrections reform.  These steps include expanding eligibility for earned time credits, making all sentencing provisions retroactive, further reducing mandatory minimum penalties, and creating a second look provision for people serving extremely long sentences to petition the court for sentence reductions.

May 12, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

"Does our county really need a bigger jail?"

Pretrial_detention_growth450x337The question in the title of this post is the title of a new Prison Policy Initiative report that seeks to provide cities and counties with a guide for preventing unnecessary jail expansion.  This press release about the report reviews the essentials (and provides a link):

The report, Does our county really need a bigger jail?, lays out 33 questions that local decision-makers should ask in evaluating proposals for new or bigger jails.  “It’s very common today for jails to be overcrowded, because the number of people in jails nationwide has tripled in the last 30 years,” said report author Alexi Jones. “But in too many counties, jail growth is rooted in known policy failures like an overreliance on money bail. Local policymakers owe it to their constituents to find out if there is a better fix to overcrowding than just building a new or bigger jail.”

The report’s 33 questions for policymakers include:

  • On a typical day, how many people are confined in the existing jail who have not been convicted?
  • How many people in the county are incarcerated because they cannot afford to pay fines and fees?
  • What specialized “diversion” courts and treatment programs is the county using to divert people struggling with substance use and mental illness into more effective treatments than jail?
  • Do official cost estimates for building new jail space include not only the cost of construction, but the cost of debt service on the loan, annual operation costs, and collateral costs such as adverse impacts on public health?

“Building new jail space typically costs tens of millions of dollars or more, even as other options that are both more cost-effective and more compassionate are ignored,” said Jones. “If policymakers can’t answer these questions about why more jail space is necessary, they should not be undertaking jail expansion.”

For all 33 questions, the report also offers a set of alternatives and best practices, including:

  • Releasing more pretrial defendants on their own recognizance, and investing in pretrial services to help them make their court dates;
  • Requiring judges to set fines and fees based on a defendant’s ability to pay;
  • Investing in specialized “problem-solving” courts for people with mental health or substance use disorders that serve as true alternatives to jail time.

The report’s recommendations are accompanied by helpful graphics, as well as examples of local and state governments successfully implementing alternatives to jail expansion. “We know that the answer to mass incarceration begins at the local level,” said Jones. “That’s why it’s critical to help cities and counties think beyond jail expansion when it comes to improving public safety.”

May 8, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 02, 2019

"Law, Prison, and Double-Double Consciousness: A Phenomenological View of the Black Prisoner’s Experience"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Yale Law Review Forum piece authored by James Davis III. Here is its abstract:

This Essay introduces double-double consciousness as a new way of conceptualizing the psychological ramifications of being a black prisoner.  It begins by revisiting W.E.B. DuBois’s theory of double consciousness.  It then offers a phenomenological exposition of double-double consciousness — the double consciousness that the black prisoner came to prison with, coupled with the double consciousness that the black prisoner develops in prison.  Thought and feeling, time and space are all different in the prison.  This world relentlessly imposes the prisoner identity on all those who inhabit it, requiring them to reconcile their new status with their conceptions of self.  Based on my own experience as a black prisoner, I conclude that double-double consciousness is a mechanism through which the prisoner can maintain dignity despite living in captivity.

May 2, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Terrific vision and plans in "Beyond Guilt," a new project of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center

Cropped-bg_ojpc_gavelI am so very pleased to see the announcement of a great new project by a leading criminal justice reform group in the Buckeye State. Specifically, the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC) has just launched "Beyond Guilt," which its website says "aims to do for over-punished prisoners who admit guilt what innocence projects have for wrongfully convicted persons who claim actual innocence."  I am especially drawn to the "Strategies" discussion set out in the new project's "Our Mission" statement, which I will quote here:

Beyond Guilt will seek to do for over-punished prisoners who admit guilt what innocence projects have done for wrongfully convicted persons who claim actual innocence.  Beyond Guilt is OJPC’s answer to criminal legal system reform efforts that focus narrowly on a more palatable side of the reform movement — freeing innocent prisoners and people convicted of low-level, non-violent offenses.  Unfortunately, current reform efforts leave many behind, particularly individuals convicted of more serious offenses, including violent crimes. Beyond Guilt will advance reform initiatives to include people who have paid their debt to society for serious crimes and can safely be released.  The project will do so in four ways:

First, Beyond Guilt will identify unfairly sentenced Ohio prisoners who illustrate widespread problems in our criminal legal system (e.g. imposition of life sentences for felony-murder; life without parole sentences for youthful offenders; broken parole systems that refuse to provide a second chance) and then fight for their release.  The project will represent individuals who have served significant portions of their sentences and can demonstrate rehabilitation within the prison walls and who have the skills and support systems on the outside to continue the process of rehabilitation once they are released.  Whenever possible, Beyond Guilt will partner with prosecutors, law enforcement officers and crime survivors who can help convince courts to release prisoners through various avenues.

Second, Beyond Guilt will lift up the stories of the people it represents to humanize these individuals and other prisoners like them whom society writes off for committing violent crimes.  The project will tell their stories through a variety of means, including traditional media, social media, film and a blog hosted on a dedicated Beyond Guilt website.  The project will also facilitate in-person meetings between its incarcerated clients and legislators who can benefit from seeing, face to face, the impact of overly punitive sentencing laws.  The goal is to enable our clients to tell their own stories, to be living breathing testaments to the power of people to change, and to become disciples, who through their stories, can inspire others to care about those that they left behind in prison.

Third, Beyond Guilt will partner with its clients — both those who are freed and those who remain incarcerated — to push for reform of Ohio sentencing laws that overly punish people who have committed serious crimes and parole systems that keep offenders locked up for longer than they need to be.

Fourth, Beyond Guilt will seek to build a national network of similar projects that work to reform sentencing practices for people convicted of violent crimes and to promote evidence-based ways to reduce lengthy sentences without compromising public safety.  Beyond Guilt will partner with law schools and public defender offices to build this network and with community and faith-based groups who work with returning citizens who need assistance once released.

May 1, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

"The case for education in prison"

The title of this post is the title of this new Hill commentary authored by Arthur Rizer and Jesse Kelley.  Here is an excerpt:

As a nation, we are in desperate need of qualified workers and running out of places to look for them.  Yet we also have millions of individuals sitting idle in prisons, 95 percent of whom will eventually be released.  Sadly, our justice system has an abysmal record of preparing these individuals for life beyond concrete walls — especially when it comes to helping them enter the job market.  In fact, one year after their release, almost 60 percent of all formerly incarcerated individuals are still unemployed.

For the lucky few who do find employment, they are paid an average of 40 percent less than those with no criminal record.  These individuals represent a potential pool of untapped resources for employers looking to hire new workers. B ut in order to ensure that the formerly incarcerated are suited for the modern workforce, we need to increase opportunities for them to receive an education while behind bars.  Offering inmates postsecondary correctional education would provide a new world of opportunities for both these individuals and business owners....

Businesses thrive when they hire educated employees.  When employers have the option to hire from a larger pool of well-educated candidates, they can strengthen their productivity and competitiveness.  Investing in potential employees’ educational futures can add to the supply.  By investing in postsecondary correctional education in particular, employers can help meet their own demand for highly skilled employees....

For those formerly incarcerated who are re-entering the workforce, both the routine and the responsibility of employment offer financial support and the ability to build a life removed from past habits that might otherwise lead to reoffending. This is critical, especially considering that although recidivism rates have improved somewhat, they are still alarmingly high: An estimated three-fifths of those released from prison are convicted of a new offense within five years of their release....

By expanding the pool of hirable candidates to include more formerly incarcerated individuals with a postsecondary education, businesses can increase their market competitiveness and support returning citizens.  It is therefore in the business community’s best interest to support post-secondary education in prisons.

April 30, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spotlighting that, within top incarceration nation, it is not quite clear which state tops the per capital incarceration list

A helpful reader sent me this notable little local article headlined "Is Louisiana still the incarceration capital of the U.S.?". The piece serves as a useful reminder that data on incarceration (like data on just about everything in criminal justice systems) is subject to some interpretation. Here are excerpts:

For close to a year, Gov. John Bel Edwards has championed that Louisiana has lost its title as the incarceration capital of the United States after law changes he backed got through the Louisiana Legislature in 2017.  “I made a promise that, by the end of my first term, Louisiana would not have the highest incarceration rate in the nation,” Edwards said last June at a press conference.  “We have fulfilled that promise to Louisiana.”

Yet a report released by the Vera Institute of Justice last week [blogged here] called that victory into question.  The nonprofit, a leader in criminal justice research, concluded that Louisiana still had the top of incarceration rate in the country at the end of 2018, five months after the governor announced the state had lost that title to Oklahoma.

The discrepancy appears to be not so much about Louisiana’s prison population, but how prisoners in Oklahoma are counted.  Those who believe Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate count hundreds of people who have been sentenced to prison time -- but are still in county jails and haven’t become part of the prison system officially yet -- as part of that state’s prison population. Without those inmates included in the prison population count, Louisiana still has the highest incarceration rate.

As of the end of December 2018, the number of people waiting to enter the Oklahoma prison system at county jails totaled 753.  If they’re included in the state count, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is 702 people per 100,000 residents, higher than Louisiana’s rate of 695. If they aren’t included, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is 683.

Pew Charitable Trusts and the Edwards administration use the higher Oklahoma count, therefore concluding that Louisiana has fallen to second place. Vera Institute used the lower count. “It seems like right now, the two states are really close . If a statistician was handling this question, they would say something like they are tied,” Jacob Kang-Brown, one of the authors of the Vera Institute report, said in an interview Thursday (April 25)....

Another nonprofit organization, the Prison Policy Initiative, concluded that Oklahoma passed Louisiana as the state with the highest incarceration rate back in 2016, before Louisiana approved its package of criminal justice changes in 2017.  That analysis took a wider view of incarceration. It counted not just state prisoners but also juveniles in custody, people in local jails and people from Louisiana in federal custody.  That report came out last year, prompting the Tulsa World newspaper to declare Oklahoma the prison capital of the country.

April 30, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Seventh Circuit finds Indiana approach to revoking good-time credits in sex offender program violates Fifth Amendment right against compelled self‐incrimination

A panel of the Seventh Circuit a few days ago issued a notable opinion in Lacy v. Butts, No. 17-3256 (7th Cir. April 25, 2019) (available here), which affirmed a lower court ruling that part of Indiana's Sex Offender Management and Monitoring program violates the Constitution. Here is how the court's opinion gets started:

When the state wants to encourage suspects, defendants, or incarcerated offenders to admit guilt, it has many tools at its disposal.  Before or during trial, prosecutors may hold out the prospect of a plea bargain. Judges may reward defendants with a sentence reduction for accepting responsibility.  Prison rehabilitation programs may offer benefits and incentives by conditioning visitation rights, work opportunities, housing in a lower‐security unit, and other privileges on an offender’s willingness to admit responsibility for the crime of conviction. McKune v. Lile, 536 U.S. 24, 40 (2002).

But the Fifth Amendment draws one sharp line in the sand: no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”  U.S. CONST. amend. V. (emphasis added).  This case requires us to decide whether Indiana’s Sex Offender Management and Monitoring (INSOMM) program crosses that line with its system of revoking good time credits and denying the opportunity to earn such credits for convicted sex offenders who refuse to confess their crimes.  In an action brought by a class led by Donald Lacy, an inmate subject to INSOMM, the district court ruled that Indiana’s system as currently operated impermissibly compels self‐incrimination and must be revised.   We affirm.

April 27, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 25, 2019

BJS releases "Prisoners in 2016" and "Jail Inmates in 2017" reporting notable declines in incarcerated persons

As reported in this press release, "from 2007 to 2017, incarceration rates in both prisons and jails decreased by more than 10%, according to reports released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics." Here is more from the release:

Over a decade, the incarceration rate among state and federal prisoners sentenced to more than a year dropped by 13%, from 506 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2007 to 440 prisoners per 100,000 in 2017. The prison incarceration rate also dropped 2.1% from 2016 to 2017, bringing it to the lowest level since 1997. The jail incarceration rate decreased by 12% from 2007 to 2017, from 259 to 229 jail inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, but did not decline from 2016 to 2017.

The U.S. prison population was 1.5 million prisoners at year-end 2017, and the population of jail inmates in the U.S. was 745,000 at midyear 2017. There were 1.3 million prisoners under state jurisdiction and 183,000 under federal jurisdiction. From the end of 2016 to the end of 2017, the number of prisoners under federal jurisdiction declined by 6,100 (down 3%), while the number of prisoners under state jurisdiction fell by 12,600 (down 1%).

By citizenship status, non-citizens made up roughly the same portion of the U.S. prison population (7.6%) as of the total U.S. population (7.0%, per the U.S. Census Bureau). This is based on prisoners held in the custody of publicly or privately operated state or federal prisons. Among racial groups, the imprisonment rate for sentenced black adults declined by 31% from 2007 to 2017 and by 4% from 2016 to 2017, the largest declines of any racial group.

However, the imprisonment rate for sentenced black males was more than twice the rate for sentenced Hispanic males and almost six times that for sentenced white males (2,336 per 100,000 black males compared to 1,054 per 100,000 Hispanic males and 397 per 100,000 white males). The rate for sentenced black females was almost double that for sentenced white females (92 per 100,000 black females compared to 49 per 100,000 white females).

Among state prisoners sentenced to more than one year, more than half (55%) were serving a sentence for a violent offense at year-end 2016, the most recent year for which state data are available. An estimated 60% of blacks and Hispanics in state prisons were serving a sentence for a violent offense, compared to 48% of whites. At the end of fiscal year 2017, nearly half of all federal prisoners were serving a sentence for drug trafficking.

Privately operated prison facilities held 121,400 prisoners, or 8% of all state and federal prisoners, at year-end 2017. Inmates in these facilities were under the jurisdiction of 27 states and the Bureau of Prisons. The number of federal prisoners held in private facilities decreased by 6,600 from 2016 to 2017 (down 19%).

In 2017, almost two-thirds (482,000) of jail inmates were unconvicted, awaiting court action on a charge, while the rest (263,200) were convicted and either serving a sentence or awaiting sentencing.

The demographic characteristics of persons incarcerated in jails shifted from 2005 to 2017. During this period, the percentage of the jail population that was white increased from 44% to 50%, while the percentage that was black decreased from 39% to 34%. Hispanics accounted for 15% of all jail inmates in 2017, the same as in 2005. Asians accounted for less than 1% of jail inmates in both years. In 2017, the jail incarceration rate for blacks was more than 3 times the rate for whites and Hispanics, and more than 20 times the rate for Asians.

Jails reported 10.6 million admissions in 2017, which represented no change from 2016 but a 19% decline from 13.1 million in 2007. The overall weekly inmate turnover rate was 54% in 2017, while the estimated average time spent in jail before release was 26 days.

The full BJS reports are chock full of additional important data points, and are excitingly titled "Prisoners in 2017" (running 44 pages) and "Jail Inmates in 2017" (running 18 pages).  Especially because I am busy with end-of-semester tasks, I would be grateful to hear from others about any particular data points within these documents that seem especially notable and important.  Helpfully, the Sentencing Project has this release about the data with these interesting observations:

Analysis of the new data by The Sentencing Project reveals that:

  • The United States remains as the world leader in its rate of incarceration, locking up its citizens at 5-10 times the rate of other industrialized nations. At the current rate of decline it will take 75 years to cut the prison population by 50%.
  • The population serving life sentences is now at a record high. One of every seven individuals in prison — 206,000 — is serving life. 
  • Six states have reduced their prison populations by at least 30% over the past two decades — Alaska, Connecticut, California, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont. 
  • The rate of women’s incarceration has been rising at a faster rate than men’s since the 1980s, and declines in recent years have been slower than among men. 
  • Racial disparities in women’s incarceration have changed dramatically since the start of the century.  Black women were incarcerated at 6 times the rate of white women in 2000, while the 2017 figure is now 1.8 times that rate. These changes have been a function of both a declining number of black women in prison and a rising number of white women. For Hispanic women, the ratio has changed from 1.6 times that of white women in 2000 to 1.4 times in 2017.

April 25, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Vera Institute documents another drop in the US prison population in 2018

The Vera Institute of Justice today released this notable new "Evidence Brief" titled simply "People in Prison in 2018."  Here is part of this document's summary:

Effective advocacy and policy making require up-to-date information. V era Institute of Justice (Vera) researchers collected data on the number of people in state and federal prisons on December 31, 2018 to provide timely information on how prison incarceration is changing in the United States.  This report fills a gap until the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) releases its 2018 annual report — likely in early 2020 — which will include additional data, such as population breakdowns by race and sex.

At the end of 2018, there were an estimated 1,471,200 people in state and federal prisons, down 20,000 from year-end 2017 (1.3 percent decline).  There were 1,291,000 people under state prison jurisdiction, 16,600 fewer than in 2017 (1.3 percent decline); and 179,900 in the federal prison system, 3,200 fewer than in 2017 (1.7 percent decline).

The prison incarceration rate in the United States was 450 people in prison per 100,000 residents, down from 458 per 100,000 in the previous year, representing a 1.8 percent drop. This brings the rate of prison incarceration down 15.2 percent since its peak in 2007.

The overall decline in the national prison incarceration rate was driven by the large decrease in the number of people in federal prisons, as well as greater than 5 percent declines in incarceration rates in seven states.  Of those states, a few have large prison populations, such as Missouri, South Carolina, New York and North Carolina.  However, the declines were not universal.  Mass incarceration is still on the rise in some states, such as Indiana, Texas, and Wyoming.

Vera has some visualizations and other related materials at this webpage.  The Marshall Project has this article about Vera's findings providing a broader context for the data and including these important points:

Advocates for prison reform have come to rely on Vera’s data as the federal reports are increasingly outdated. The Bureau of Justice Statistics compiles a comprehensive data set on people in prison, which includes demographic information. But because of budget cuts the latest report, released in 2018, covers prisoners in 2016. The 2017 data is set to be released on Thursday.

Timely data on the people in prison helps analysts and legislators understand where criminal justice changes are having the biggest impact, said Jacob Kang-Brown, one of the study’s authors. “This report shows whether states are following through and reducing the number of people that are locked up in prison,” he said, and which are “bucking the trend.”

April 24, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

How could and how should a President push states to extend the franchise to all prisoners?

I have not been blogging all that much about some of the notable criminal justice positions and statements by the huge field of candidates seeking the Democratic Party's nomination to run for US President.  But this press piece about an exchange involving Senator Bernie Sanders at a town hall last night prompted the question that is the title of this post.  The headline of The Hill piece is catchy, "Sanders: Boston Marathon bomber should be able to vote from prison," and here is its account of the exchange:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) argued Monday that all prisoners, including domestic terrorists such as the Boston Marathon bomber, should have the right to vote while they are incarcerated.

Speaking at a CNN town hall, Sanders was asked if he believes the right to vote should extend to serious criminals, such as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is in prison and has been sentenced to death.  “If somebody commits a serious crime, sexual assault, murder, they’re going to be punished,” Sanders said.  “They may be in jail for 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, their whole lives.  That’s what happens when you commit a serious crime."

"But I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy," he continued.  "Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away ... you’re running down a slippery slope. ... I do believe that even if they are in jail, they’re paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”

Earlier this month, Sanders called for more states to join Vermont and Maine in allowing imprisoned felons to vote.... “This is what I believe. Do you believe in democracy? Do you believe that every single American 18 years of age or older who is an American citizen has the right to vote?"

"Once you start chipping away at that ... that’s what our Republican governors all over this country are doing.  They come up with all kinds of excuses why people of color, young people, poor people can’t vote.  And I will do everything I can to resist that," he added.

Regular readers likely know that I see no good reason to disenfranchise categorically any class of competent voters (and my basic thinking on this front was explained in this Big Think piece years ago headlined "Let Prisoners Vote").  But, in the context of discussions about the positions of potential candidates for President, anyone call for expanding suffrage ought to be asked about how the federal government can and should seek to push states into ensuring more people have the right to vote.  This can be done, of course, through a constitutional amendment or through various forms of federal legislation that might try to force or prod states into changing their voting eligibility rules. 

I would really like to know if Senator Sanders (or any other presidential contender) is prepared to move forward with a formal federal plan that would go beyond just "call[ing] for more states to join Vermont and Maine in allowing imprisoned felons to vote."   Because I am not a voting rights expert, I am not sure what might be the best ways, legally and politically, to make progress on this front.  But I hope the question in the title of this post might be further explored on the campaign trail over the next 18 months.

April 23, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Justice Denied: The Harmful and Lasting Effects of Pretrial Detention"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new "evidence brief" from the Vera Institute of Justice.  Here is its overview:

The pretrial population — the number of people who are detained while awaiting trial — increased 433 percent between 1970 and 2015.  This growth is in large part due to the increased use of monetary bail.  But pretrial detention has far-reaching negative consequences.  This evidence brief presents information on the way that pretrial detention is currently used and summarizes research on its impacts.  These studies call into question whether pretrial detention improves court appearance rates, suggests that people who are detained are more likely to be convicted and to receive harsher sentences, and indicate that even short periods of detention may make people more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system again in the future.  The brief concludes by highlighting strategies that some jurisdictions have employed to reduce the use of monetary bail and increase pretrial release.

April 23, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, April 22, 2019

"The case against solitary confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and effective Vox piece from last week.  I call the piece effective in part because, in addition to being well-structured and well-written, it includes lots and lots of links.  Here is how the piece starts (with links retained):

Albert Woodfox was held in solitary confinement for more than 40 years in a Louisiana prison before being released in 2016, when he was 69 years old.  In his book Solitary, published last month, Woodfox writes that every morning, “I woke up with the same thought: will this be the day? Will this be the day I lose my sanity and discipline? Will I start screaming and never stop?”

Thousands of people — at least 61,000 on any given day and likely many thousands more than that — are in solitary confinement across the country, spending 23 hours per day in cells not much bigger than elevators.  They are disproportionately young men, and disproportionately Hispanic and African American.  The majority spend a few months in it, but at least a couple of thousand people have been in solitary confinement for six years or more. Some, like Woodfox, have been held for decades.

Solitary confinement causes extreme suffering, particularly over prolonged periods of months or years.  Effects include anxiety, panic, rage, paranoia, hallucinations, and, in some cases, suicide.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, deemed that prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture, and the UN’s Mandela Rules dictate that it should never be used with youth and those with mental or physical disability or illness, or for anyone for more than 15 days.  Méndez, who inspected prisons in many countries, wrote, “[I]t is safe to say that the United States uses solitary confinement more extensively than any other country, for longer periods, and with fewer guarantees.”

Many practices in the US criminal justice system are harsh, ineffective, even absurd, from the widespread use of money bail to detain unconvicted people to extremely long sentences and parole terms, and a host of other outrages.  But placing people in solitary stands out as a violation of human rights.

Well over a century ago in the US, the practice fell out of favor, partly because of its capacity for psychological harm. Yet starting in the 1980s, its use in prisons and jails exploded again.

Over the past decade, there has been a movement to (again) stop the widespread use of solitary. There have been major steps forward in some states.  But there’s considerable need for more progress — and wider acknowledgment that this is something that we are all accountable for. As Laura Rovner, a law professor at the University of Denver, put it in a recent talk, “We torture people here in America, tens of thousands of them every day … it’s done in our names, with our tax dollars, behind closed doors.”

April 22, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Thoughtful look into prison abolitionism (and prison history) in theory and practice

The New York Times magazine has this week's must read under the headline "Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind."  The piece is a profile of a noted prison abolitionist along with a broader discussion of prison history and prison abolitionism.  I heartily recommend the terrific lengthy piece in full, and here is an extended excerpt:

Prison abolition, as a movement, sounds provocative and absolute, but what it is as a practice requires subtler understanding.  For Gilmore, who has been active in the movement for more than 30 years, it’s both a long-term goal and a practical policy program, calling for government investment in jobs, education, housing, health care — all the elements that are required for a productive and violence-free life. Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack.  Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they “mess up.”...

In the wake of the Enlightenment, European reformers gradually moved away from corporal punishment tout court; people would go to prison for a set period of time, rather than to wait for the punishment to come.  The penitentiary movement in both England and the United States in the early 19th century was motivated in part by the demand for more humanitarian punishment. Prison was the reform.

If prison, in its philosophical origin, was meant as a humane alternative to beatings or torture or death, it has transformed into a fixed feature of modern life, one that is not known, even by its supporters and administrators, for its humanity.  In the United States, we now have more than two million incarcerated people, a majority of them black or brown, virtually all of them from poor communities.  Prisons not only have violated human rights and failed at rehabilitation; it’s not even clear that prisons deter crime or increase public safety.

Following an incarceration boom that began all over the United States around 1980 and only recently started to level off, reform has become politically popular.  But abolitionists argue that many reforms have done little more than reinforce the system. In every state where the death penalty has been abolished, for example, it has been replaced by the sentence of life without parole — to many people a death sentence by other, more protracted means.  Another product of good intentions: campaigns to reform indeterminate sentencing, resulting in three-strike programs and mandatory-minimum sentencing, which traded one cruelty for another. Over all, reforms have not significantly reduced incarceration numbers, and no recent reform legislation has even aspired to do so.

For instance, the first federal prison reform in almost 10 years, the bipartisan First Step Act, which President Trump signed into law late last year, will result in the release of only some 7,000 of the 2.3 million people currently locked up when it goes into effect. Federal legislation pertains only to federal prisons, which hold less than 10 percent of the nation’s prison population, and of those, First Step applies to only a slim subset.  As Gilmore said to me, noting an outsize public enthusiasm after the act passed the Senate, “There are people who behave as though the origin and cure are federal.  So many are unaware of how the country is juridically organized, and that there are at least 52 criminal-legal jurisdictions in the U.S.”

Which isn’t to say that Gilmore and other abolitionists are opposed to all reforms. “It’s obvious that the system won’t disappear overnight,” Gilmore told me.  “No abolitionist thinks that will be the case.”  But she finds First Step, like many state reforms it mimics, not just minor but exclusionary, on account of wording in the bill that will make it even harder for some to get relief.  (Those convicted of most higher-level offenses, for example, are ineligible for earned-time credits, a new category created under First Step.)  “So many of these proposed remedies don’t end up diminishing the system.  They regard the system as something that can be fixed by removing and replacing a few elements.”  For Gilmore, debates over which individuals to let out of prison accept prison as a given.  To her, this is not just a moral error but a practical one, if the goal is to actually end mass incarceration. Instead of trying to fix the carceral system, she is focused on policy work to reduce its scope and footprint by stopping new prison construction and closing prisons and jails one facility at a time, with painstaking grass-roots organizing and demands that state funding benefit, rather than punish, vulnerable communities.

“What I love about abolition,” the legal scholar and author James Forman Jr. told me, “and now use in my own thinking — and when I identify myself as an abolitionist, this is what I have in mind — is the idea that you imagine a world without prisons, and then you work to try to build that world.”  Forman came late, he said, to abolitionist thinking. He was on tour for his 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Locking Up Our Own,” which documents the history of mass incarceration and the inadvertent roles that black political leaders played, when a woman asked him why he didn’t use the word “abolition” in his arguments, which, to her, sounded so abolitionist.  The question led Forman to engage seriously with the concept.  “I feel like a movement to end mass incarceration and replace it with a system that actually restores and protects communities will never succeed without abolitionists. Because people will make compromises and sacrifices, and they’ll lose the vision.  They’ll start to think things are huge victories, when they’re tiny. And so, to me, abolition is essential.”

The A.C.L.U.’s Smart Justice campaign, the largest in the organization’s history, has been started with a goal of reducing the prison population by 50 percent through local, state and federal initiatives to reform bail, prosecution, sentencing, parole and re-entry.  “Incarceration does not work,” said the A.C.L.U. campaign director Udi Ofer.  The A.C.L.U., he told me, wants to “defund the prison system and reinvest in communities.” In our conversation, I found myself wondering if Ofer, and the A.C.L.U., had been influenced by abolitionist thinking and Gilmore. Ofer even seemed to quote Gilmore’s mantra that “prisons are catchall solutions to social problems.”  When I asked him, Ofer said, “There’s no question.  She’s made tremendous contributions, even just in helping to bring about a conversation on what this work really is, and the constant struggle not to replace one oppressive system with another.”

April 20, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, April 18, 2019

"Quelling the Silver Tsunami: Compassionate Release of Elderly Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this 2018 article authored by Jalila Jefferson-Bullock recently posted to SSRN. Though authored before the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, the article is still particularly timely in light of that new law's various provisions enabling the moving certain defendants out of prison and into home confinement.  Here is the article's abstract:

Sentencing reform appears resurrected.  Following a brief hiatus and an expectedly unwelcoming recent federal response, sentencing reform is again reemerging as a major initiative.  Congress and the several states are poised to immediately accomplish major reform of the United States criminal sentencing structure.  Proposals that would, among other initiatives, drastically reduce criminal sentences, restore rehabilitative programs to inmates, generate sentencing parity, normalize probation for low-level offenses, and shrink the overall prison footprint are ambling through various legislative processes throughout the country.  Though groundbreaking and certainly welcome, these reforms largely ignore the special needs of the imprisoned elderly.  One of the most foreseeable, yet ironically ignored, consequences of 1980's and 1990's harsh sentencing laws, is the dramatic upsurge in prison population through the predictable process of human aging.  Coined the prison “silver tsunami” phenomenon, surging numbers of elderly inmates raises significant moral, health, and fiscal implications deserving keen scrutiny.  It is imperative, then, that any overhaul of criminal sentencing focuses on how to meaningfully address the graying of America's prisons.

April 18, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Extended letter from criminal justice groups calling for robust implementation of the FIRST STEP Act's prison reforms

Via email today, I learned of this notable lengthy letter signed by an array of criminal justice groups addressing key issues related to the implementation of the prison reform components of the FIRST STEP Act.  Because the full letter runs seven pages, I will provide the summary that appeared in the email that I received:

[T]his sign-on letter call[s] for the implementation of the First Step Act in a manner that is consistent with Congressional intent and the text of the statute.  The letter, led by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, ACLU, and Justice Rountable, was addressed to the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice Director David Muhlhausen, and makes the following three arguments:

(1) DOJ must appoint an appropriate “non-partisan non-profit” host organization with expertise in the study and development of risk and needs assessment tools to select and convene the members of the Independent Review Committee as required by the statute;

     a. NIJ appointed The Hudson Institute — a conservative think tank with no visible expertise or experience in the study and development of risk and needs assessment systems — to host the IRC.

     b. The Hudson Institute has selected at least three members for the IRC whom may not meet the stated criteria outlined in the statute.

(2) Neither the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) security classification system nor the current version of the Post Conviction Risk Assessment (PCRA) should be adopted as a substitute for the Risk and Needs Assessment System required by the statute;

     a. The BOP security classification and the PCRA were not designed to identify specific criminogenic needs and heavily relies on static factors that classify many people who do not go on to reoffend as high risk.

(3) The Bureau of Prisons must immediately begin providing rehabilitative programming.

Some of many prior related posts on FIRST STEP Act implementation:

April 15, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Noting a notable federal prisoner now benefiting from the FIRST STEP Act's elderly offender home confinement program

The New York Times has this notable new article focused on one notable federal offender now benefiting from the FIRST STEP Act.  The headline of the piece indirectly reveals some of its themes: "He Committed a $300 Million Fraud, but Left Prison Under Trump’s Justice Overhaul."  Here are some excerpts from the piece:

Three weeks ago, a 69-year-old man convicted of bank fraud quietly left a federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md., and moved into a friend’s one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. He was one of the early inmates to benefit from a criminal justice bill signed into law by President Trump.  The law, the First Step Act, offered prisoner rehabilitation programs and overhauled sentencing policies that supporters claimed had a disproportionate effect on poor defendants, especially minorities.

But one person who benefited from the law was Hassan Nemazee, the prisoner at Cumberland, who was once an investor of enormous wealth and who donated heavily to Democratic political causes.  He was a national finance chairman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and later raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Barack Obama’s first presidential contest.

Mr. Nemazee, who is serving the rest of his sentence in home confinement, acknowledged in interviews that he was not a fan of Mr. Trump, but he felt personally indebted to the president and his aides for pushing through “the most significant prison reform legislation in a generation.”...

Mr. Trump said recently at the White House that “unfair sentencing rules were contributing to the cycle of poverty and crime,” and since the First Step Act’s passage, more than 500 people with “unfair sentences have been released from prison and are free to begin a new life.”  But Mr. Nemazee left prison under a less publicized part of the bill that allows certain offenders who are over 60 and not considered a threat to others to be released into home confinement if they have completed two-thirds of their sentence.

In home confinement, Mr. Nemazee does not wear an ankle bracelet, but officials may call him on a landline late at night or early in the morning to verify he is at home. He may be summoned for a urine test at any time and must submit his weekly schedule for approval, he said.  Still, it feels a lot like freedom.  He may leave his apartment to go to work, the gym, religious services or appointments with his doctors and lawyers. He may also go out to lunch, “which is always a treat, given where I have been the last eight and a half years.”...

The Bureau of Prisons has said that since the bill’s passage, 10 prisoners — of 23 thus far deemed eligible — have been released into home confinement. The bureau would not identify the prisoners or comment on their cases.  Another is reported to be a white-collar criminal named Herman Jacobowitz, 60, who pleaded guilty in Brooklyn in 2005 in another large fraud case and was sentenced to 15 years, according to court papers and a lawyer familiar with the case. Mr. Jacobowitz could not be reached for comment.

Some of many prior related posts on FIRST STEP Act implementation:

April 13, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 12, 2019

Henry Montgomery (of Montgomery v. Louisiana) denied parole yet again at age 72

A few years ago Henry Montgomery won in the Supreme Court with his claim that the landmark Eighth Amendment decision in Miller v. Alabama must be applied retroactively.  But that win only garnered him a chance to be paroled after serving more than 50 years on a murder charge as a teenager in the early 1960s.  Last year, Montgomery was denied parole as detailed in this prior post, and yesterday he was denied parole again as reported in this local article headlined "After 55 years in prison, Baton Rouge man key to Supreme Court ruling again denied freedom." Here are some details: 

Henry Montgomery's victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 created a way for hundreds of prisoners like him — those convicted of horrific crimes while juveniles — to earn their freedom by demonstrating their rehabilitation since their youth.  Yet on Thursday, Montgomery was again denied his own opportunity at a life beyond bars.

The Louisiana Committee on Parole denied Montgomery his freedom for the second time in 14 months, a decision that will keep the 72-year-old confined at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where he has served 55 years.

At age 17, Montgomery killed East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Deputy Charles Hurt in 1963 and was sentenced to life in prison. But three years ago, the case played the central role in a landmark ruling on juvenile sentences, Montgomery v. Louisiana, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled youth offenders cannot be sentenced to mandatory life without parole, even in prior cases.

And though one of the parole board members Thursday morning cited the court's decision directly, noting "children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change" — it was not enough. The board must vote unanimously for parole to be granted, and one member, Brennan Kelsey, voted against Montgomery's parole.

Kelsey said he believes the septuagenarian still needs to take more classes and complete more programming. "It's your responsibility to continue to work," Kelsey told Montgomery through a video call between Baton Rouge and the Angola prison.  But Montgomery's attorney, Keith Nordyke, responded that he's "not sure what programs are left."

"He's been through all of the programs he could take," Nordyke said.  "He's been a force for change and a force for good."  Nordyke told the board that Montgomery was imprisoned before programming was available to those sentenced to life terms, but even then, Montgomery started a boxing club that gave young inmates a positive outlet.  The lawyer said Montgomery was involved in a Methodist church ministry and organized a literacy program for fellow inmates that included helping them write letters home when they could not read or write themselves.  Since programming became available to Montgomery in recent years, he has completed a variety of classes, like anger management and victim awareness.

"We're not quitting, we're not giving up," Nordyke said, calling the decision Thursday disappointing.  He said he's unsure what his legal team will do next, but he worries about waiting two more years to again go before the parole board, which is the typical waiting period after a decision. Montgomery will turn 73 in June.  "I'm not sure, when you're 73, that two years from now is an adequate remedy for something the Supreme Court ordered," Nordyke said....

The board reconsidered Montgomery's case on Thursday because they conceded an error had occurred during his previous hearing, at which he was first denied freedom. At that hearing in February 2018, two of the three parole committee members voted to deny Montgomery parole, primarily citing Montgomery's lack of classes as reasoning for their vote. But Nordyke requested the board reconsider the case through the board's appeal-like process, alleging the voting members misapplied the laws on youthful offenders in their decision. His request was granted.

The three parole board members on Thursday were different from the three who voted on Montgomery's case last year, yet Kelsey echoed a similar request about more classes, a claim Nordyke called unfair.  He said prison officials worked in the last year to find Montgomery additional classes to take after the last hearing, but it was still not enough. "I do feel like the goalposts are moving," Nordyke said. He said there are classes on parenting and substance abuse that Montgomery has not taken, but those courses would not make sense for a 73-year-old man without children who has never struggled with substance abuse....

The warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Darryl Vannoy, testified to the board that Montgomery has no issues at the prison.  During Montgomery's 55-year incarceration, prison officials said, he has been written up for breaking rules only 23 times, and only twice in the last 17 years.  The last two write-ups, in 2013 and 2014, were for smoking in an unauthorized area and leaving clothes on his locker. "He's worked at the same job for 25 years," Vannoy said. Montgomery works at the prison's silk-screen shop. "He's not a problem for us. Real low-key guy, you don't hear anything out of him."...

Hurt's grandson, Lafourche Parish Sheriff's Capt. J.P. deGravelles, said while Montgomery has apologized to his family, that was the first time he heard Montgomery take responsibility for the crime. However, he and his aunt, Linda Hurt Wood, asked the parole board on Thursday to keep Montgomery behind bars. "I did go to Angola and I do forgive Henry Montgomery," Wood said. "Mr. Montgomery received a life sentence and so did we. … I will never have my father back."

DeGravelles said their family was disappointed to learn Montgomery would get a second chance in front of the parole board, less than two years from the last hearing. Typically, prisoners have to wait two years before requesting another parole consideration, but the timeline was expedited when the board granted Montgomery's reconsideration appeal — a process about which deGravelles said his family was kept in the dark, yet he was glad to see how it ended up. "Nobody comes out ahead on this," deGravelles said. "Mr. Montgomery is where he needs to be, and that's where he needs to stay."

April 12, 2019 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"There Is No Good Reason Prisoners Can’t Vote"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times commentary authored by Jamelle Bouie.  Here are excerpts:

Americans may see it as common sense that you lose your right to vote when you’re imprisoned, but in many democracies prisoners retain the right to vote.  When that right is revoked, it’s only for particular crimes (in Germany, it’s for “targeting” the “democratic order”), and often there is a good deal of judicial discretion.  Mandatory disenfranchisement is unusual, and permanent disenfranchisement is even rarer....

As it stands, incarcerated people retain a variety of rights, some of which touch on the political rights and responsibilities of citizenship.  Prisoners have freedom of worship. They can protest mistreatment and poor conditions.  They can exercise some free speech rights, like writing for newspapers, magazines and other publications.  To that point, there is a rich literature of work by incarcerated people tackling complex social and political issues.  Voting would be a natural extension of these activities.

An obvious objection is that criminal transgressions render prisoners unfit for participation in democratic society.  But there’s nothing about committing a crime, even a serious one, that renders someone incapable of making a considered political choice.  Losing your liberty doesn’t mean you’ve lost your capacity to reason.  Prisoners are neither more nor less rational than anyone else who is allowed to vote.

If anything, the political system needs the perspectives of prisoners, with their intimate experience of this otherwise opaque part of the state.  Their votes might force lawmakers to take a closer look at what happens in these institutions before they spiral into unaccountable violence and abuse.

There are practical benefits as well.  Racial disparities in criminal enforcement and sentencing means disenfranchisement falls heaviest on black communities.  This is not just a direct blow to prisoners’ electoral power; it also ripples outward, depressing political participation among their friends, families and acquaintances.  On the other end, suffrage in prison may help incarcerated people maintain valuable links to their communities, which might smooth the transition process once they’re released.

“Citizenship is not a right that expires upon misbehavior,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the majority in Trop v. Dulles, a 1958 case dealing with the rights of a military deserter.  And, he continued, “citizenship is not lost every time a duty of citizenship is shirked.”  Yes, prisoners have committed crimes, and yes, some of those are egregious. But depriving any citizen of the right to vote should be the grave exception, not a routine part of national life.  Universal suffrage means universal suffrage.

April 12, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 08, 2019

"Department of Justice Announces First Step Act Implementation Progress"

The title of this post is the heading of this notable and lengthy press release from the US Department of Justice this afternoon.  The full release (and its links) are must reads for anyone and everyone following closely the early implementation of the FIRST STEP Act.  I may need a few posts to fully unpack all the particulars, but I will start here with the start of the release and a few choice specifics:

Today, the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ), in accordance with the First Step Act, has announced the selection of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Hudson Institute to host the Independent Review Committee. The Committee, whose members will be appointed by Hudson Institute in accordance with the Act’s requirements, will assist the Department as it develops and implements risk and needs assessment tools and evidence-based recidivism reduction programs.

“The Department of Justice is committed to implementing the First Step Act,” said Attorney General William Barr. “The Independent Review Committee plays an important role in that effort by assisting in the development of a new risk and needs assessment system and improvements to our recidivism reduction programming.  I am grateful to Hudson Institute for hosting this important Committee, which will lead to better policies at the Department and, ultimately, better outcomes for prisoners reentering society.”

NIJ also announced today that it is contracting with outside experts and leading researchers, including Dr. Grant Duwe Ph.D., Dr. Zachary Hamilton Ph.D., and Dr. Angela Hawken Ph.D., for assistance and consultation as the Department develops the Risk and Needs Assessment System under the Act.  Dr. Duwe is the Director of Research for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, and a nationally recognized expert on the development of recidivism risk assessment systems. Dr. Hamilton is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology and the Director of the Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice, and focuses on treatment matching through risk and needs assessment systems.  Dr. Hawken is a Professor of Public Policy at the New York University Marron Institute, and is the founder and director of New York University’s Litmus/BetaGov program, which assists in the development and validation of data-driven policies. Each of these experts will bring unique expertise as they augment NIJ and the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) efforts to implement the Act.

Today’s announcements by NIJ are the latest in a growing list of accomplishments as the Department works diligently to implement the Act, signed into law in December 2018. Some other highlights of the Department’s ongoing implementation efforts include...

The Act’s retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (reducing the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine threshold amounts triggering mandatory minimum sentences) has resulted in 826 sentence reductions and 643 early releases....

BOP has issued procedures for “compassionate release” sentence reductions under 18 U.S.C. §§ 3582 and 4205(g) (BOP Policy Number 5050.50), and 22 inmates have already received sentence reductions under this program.

BOP has issued procedures providing for participation in the Second Chance Act home confinement pilot program under 34 U.S.C. 65401(g) (BOP Operations Memorandum 001-2019), and 23 inmates are currently participating, with additional inmates currently being screened for program inclusion.

April 8, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Shouldn't every criminal justice institution include leaders with past criminal justice involvement?

XO63XMY22BDO5P3YXLAZM4LLDMIn his landmark book, "Criminal Sentences: Law Without Order," Judge Marvin Frankel famously urged the creation of a "Commission on Sentencing" which would include "lawyers, judges, penologists, and criminologists, ... sociologists, psychologists, business people, artists, and, lastly for emphasis, former or present prison inmates."  As Judge Frankel goes on to explain, having such persons on a sentencing commission "merely recognizes what took too long to become obvious — that the recipients of penal 'treatment' must have relevant things to say about it."

Judge Frankel's astute comments from nearly half a century ago came to mind (along with the question that is the title of this post) on a lovely Sunday morning when I saw this lovely local article headlined "Freed from prison nine years ago, Brandon Flood is new secretary of Pa.’s pardon board."  Here are excerpts:

This column will probably come as something of a shock to all the people in Harrisburg who only know Brandon Flood — a bow-tied, bespectacled policy wonk with sartorial flair — as the persona that he laughingly calls “Urkel Brandon,” in a homage to one of TV’s most famous nerds.  Flood, now 36, readily admits most folks who know him from nearly a decade as a legislative aide or lobbyist will be shocked to learn of his past that includes boot camp for juvenile offenders, a physical scuffle with Harrisburg’s then-police chief, and finally felony convictions and two lengthy prison stints for dealing crack cocaine and carrying an unlicensed gun.

But starting last week, Flood’s turnaround saga has become a talking point and a mission statement for his new job as secretary of the five-member Pennsylvania Board of Pardons  — anchoring one leg of a broader push in Harrisburg for criminal justice reform, aimed at giving more convicted felons a chance for clemency or to wipe their slate clean with a pardon.  What makes Flood’s appointment even more remarkable is that — to steal a phrase from TV infomercial lore — he’s not just Pennsylvania’s new top pardons administrator, he’s also a client.  Gov. Wolf signed off on Flood’s own board-approved pardon, erasing his past convictions, just a few weeks before Flood stepped in as secretary.

Taking a break last Monday during his first day on the job for a sit-down interview, the soft-spoken Flood said a number of new initiatives — to not only call attention to Pennsylvania’s pardon process but also to make it easier to apply for one — will hopefully show former inmates that the state is more focused on rewarding good post-prison behavior.  “If they see this [a pardon] as a viable option, they will continue to be productive citizens,” Flood said, who plans to use his own story as a powerful example of that. “They will see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Flood’s hiring was the brainchild of Pennsylvania’s new lieutenant governor, John Fetterman.  Policy-oriented, progressive and looking for areas where he can make a difference in the oft-neglected No. 2 slot, the burly, black-shirted Braddock ex-mayor has honed in on his designated role as chairman of the Board of Pardons.  Fetterman told me that Flood is “a singularly unique person to have in order help remake the process ... which is only the only remedy for anyone in Pennsylvania who wants to move forward with their lives in this way.”

Flood’s arrival helps mark the beginning of one era in Pennsylvania criminal justice and arguably the end of another.  It was exactly 25 years ago that a convicted murderer named Reginald McFadden was granted his freedom by a Board of Pardons led by then-Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, who was also running for governor that year.  McFadden almost immediately killed two people and raped a third, and the case, with its overtones of the infamous Willie Horton affair, was cited by experts as a reason for Singel’s defeat that fall.  The political fallout dramatically changed Pennsylvania’s pardon math. Critics (including the man Fetterman ousted in a 2018 primary, ex-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack) came to say that the state’s pardon system was “broken” in an era of skyrocketing mass incarceration.  Commutations of life sentences ground to a virtual halt, post-McFadden, while pardons for lesser crimes slowed as long backlogs and a confusing process discouraged applicants....

For Fetterman, who hails his close working relationship with Wolf on criminal justice reform, Flood’s hiring is symbolic of both down-to-earth pardon reforms — a $63 application fee was eliminated last month, and the board is looking to digitize the application process and possibly open satellite offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and eventually elsewhere — and a bold new attitude.  In December, Wolf granted board-recommended clemency to three life-sentenced inmates — after only signing two in his first 47 months in office.  Fetterman, who’s currently on an all-67-county tour to discuss the possibility of legalizing marijuana, also said he wants a task force to look at granting widespread pardons for past pot-related convictions. “These are simple charges that are damning people’s career possibilities,” he said.

I am so very pleased to see these developments in the Keystone State, especially because I think having a robust parole, commutation and pardon system can play a key role in encouraging persons to return to a law-abiding life after a run-in with the law. Moreover, beyond whatever reforms or actions are led by Brandon Flood, his very appointment to this position serves as an important symbol of redemption and potential.

In line with this state development and with the question in the title of this post, it dawns on me that the US Sentencing Commission has likely never had, over its now 35-year history, any commissioners with any personal history with the criminal justice system. (I am not entirely certain of this assertion, as I do not know everything about the past of the 30 persons here listed as former commissioners.)  Judge Frankel's astute staffing suggestions have not been followed in various ways in the federal system — e.g., I cannot recall any business people or artists on the USSC — but I think the absence of a former offender is especially glaring.

With five(!) open spots on the USSC, and with Prez Trump talking up the importance of "successful reentry and reduced unemployment for Americans with past criminal records... starting right away," now would seem to be an especially opportune time for a USSC appointment of someone with a "past criminal record" in the federal system.  Names like Matthew Charles and Shon Hopwood and Alice Johnson and Kevin Ring immediately come (alphabetically) to mind, but I am sure there are many others who could serve admirably in this role as "recipients of penal 'treatment' [with] relevant things to say about it."  

April 7, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, April 05, 2019

In wake of gruesome DOJ report, Alabama Gov plans to build three large new prisons with taxpayer price tag of about a billion dollars

As detailed in this new piece, headlined "Torture, rape, murder: Details from investigation into Alabama’s prison crisis," a Justice Department report on Alabama's prisons released this week was truly brutal:

Sexually assaulted Alabama prison inmates fear reporting abuse, knowing they will be punished for what prison officials say is deliberately creating a safety hazard. Family members of inmates are extorted by other inmates who threaten their imprisoned loved ones -- unless the family pays a prisoner’s drug debt.

Understaffed prisons are overflowing with inmates who are armed with makeshift weapons and will kill officers over food and will kill fellow inmates for any number of reasons. Inmates are drugged, raped and tortured for days at a time, sometimes in retaliation for reporting sexual abuse.

These are the findings of a federal investigation of Alabama prisons, released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The full report is available at this link, and it highlights just some of the many harms of trying to do prison systems "on the cheap."  But, as this follow-up article highlights under the headline "Gov. Kay Ivey says new Alabama prisons part of fix for ‘major crisis’," the taxpayers in Alabama are probably going to now have to foot a big bill for a big prison population:

In the wake of a blistering report from the U.S. Department of Justice, Gov. Kay Ivey is moving ahead with her plan to build three large men’s prisons as a major part of her response to Alabama’s chronically crowded and understaffed correctional system.

The DOJ report released Wednesday acknowledged the “incredibly poor physical shape” of the state’s prisons but focused instead on the violence, sexual abuse, drug trade and extortion that led investigators to conclude that the prisons are so dangerous that there is reasonable cause to believe the state is in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The report said new prisons might solve some problems but said “new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional conditions.”

Ivey said today she is committed to working with the DOJ to address the problems.  The governor said she is proceeding with plans to build prisons, expected to cost about a billion dollars.  Ivey said she expects a request for companies to make proposals to build the prisons will be released sometime this spring.

Attorneys with two advocacy groups with a history of shedding light on abuses in Alabama prisons said the DOJ report demands that the state move with urgency to make the existing prisons safer. “We have an emergency and we have to act immediately to protect the lives of the people who are incarcerated,” Charlotte Morrison, senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative, said. “So, the priority has to be a short-term plan to bring about immediate reform.”....

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said today the DOJ report called for immediate action.  McCutcheon said the House and Senate are putting together an emergency task force to address the issues raised in the report and help craft the state’s response.  He said that work cannot be delayed....

Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the DOJ report makes it clear that Alabama cannot build its way out of the prison crisis. The SPLC represents inmates in the federal lawsuit over health care.

“DOJ’s letter makes clear that the simple but incredibly expensive solution of construction isn’t going to address its problems,” Graybill said....

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who has led prison and criminal justice reform initiatives in the Legislature, said prison construction is one of multiple components in a comprehensive solution.  Ward said the Legislature could also consider sentencing reforms, including changing the penalties for some property crimes.  Lawmakers passed a reform package in 2015 that has helped reduce the prison population, although it is still at 180 percent of capacity in the major prisons, the DOJ said.

Ward called the DOJ report “deeply humiliating” and said the findings are at odds with Alabama’s posture as a state steeped in Christian ideals.  Ward said the nature of politics is at the root of the crisis.  “No one wants to fund prisons,” Ward said. “They’d rather fund schools or stuff that gets them votes back home. Nobody gets a vote back home supporting what’s going on in prisons. But as the complaint pointed out, you’re treating people like you wouldn’t treat dogs. And for a country of laws and obviously we have pushed up on the Eighth Amendment here.”

April 5, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

"Limiting Identity in Criminal Law"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article recently posted to SSRN and authored by Mihailis Diamantis.  Here is its abstract:

People change with time. Their personalities, values, and preferences shift incrementally as they accrue life experience, discover new sources of meaning, and form/lose memories. Accumulated psychological changes eventually reshape not just how someone relates to the world about her, but also who she is as a person.  This transience of human identity has profound implications for criminal law.  Previous legal scholarship on personal identity has assumed that only abrupt tragedy and disease can change who we are. However, psychologists now know that the ordinary processes of growth, maturation, and decline alter us all in fundamental respects.  Many young adults find it hard to identify with their adolescent past. Senior citizens often reflect similarly on their middle years.  However tightly we hold on to the people we are today, at some tomorrow we inevitably find ourselves changed.

Criminal justice has not come to grips with this aspect of the human condition.  The law — by imposing lengthy sentences, allowing enduring consequences of conviction, and punishing long bygone violations — assumes that people’s identities remain fixed from birth to death.  If people do change with time, these policies must violate the criminal law’s most basic commitment to prosecute and punish present-day people only for crimes they (and not some different past person) committed.

Drawing on contemporary psychology and philosophy of personal identity, this Article concludes that criminal law punishes too often and too severely. Lengthy prison terms risk incarcerating people past the point at which their identity changes.  Elderly inmates who have languished on death row for decades should have a new claim for release — that they are now different people, innocent of the misdeeds of yesteryear.  One-time felons should recover lost civil rights sooner.  And defendants should benefit from juvenile process well into their twenties, when personal identity first begins to stabilize.  By confronting the challenges posed by the limits of personal identity, the criminal law can become more just and humane.

April 3, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Ghastly Signs and Tokens: A Constitutional Challenge to Solitary Confinement"

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

Since its popular reemergence in the 1980s, courts have not placed significant restrictions on the use of solitary confinement.  One small exception has appeared.  Lower courts have held that placing prisoners with preexisting severe mental illness in solitary confinement violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.  Can this relatively limited rule be expanded to abolish solitary confinement altogether?

This Comment argues that it can.  A large body of diverse research demonstrates that prolonged solitary confinement causes severe mental illness in most prisoners, regardless of their medical history.  And because there is no principled basis — in law or in fact — for distinguishing between preexisting and confinement-induced mental illness, solitary confinement must end for all prisoners.

April 3, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 01, 2019

Seeing deeply discouraging and engagingly encouraging prison realities in incarceration nation

Two very different perspective on two prisons were covered by major media outlets over the weekend.  Here are links and snippets from the pieces:

From the New York Times, "Inside America’s Black Box: A Rare Look at the Violence of Incarceration":

Prisons are the black boxes of our society. With their vast complexes and razor wire barriers, everyone knows where they are, but few know what goes on inside.  Prisoner communication is sharply curtailed — it is monitored, censored and costly. Visitation rules are strict.  Office inspections are often announced in advance.

So when prisoners go on hunger strikes or work strikes, or engage in deadly riots, the public rarely understands exactly why.  How could they?  Many people harbor a vague belief that whatever treatment prisoners get, they surely must deserve.  It is a view perpetuated by a lack of detail.

But some weeks ago, The New York Times received more than 2,000 photographs that evidence suggests were taken inside the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama.  Some show inmates as they are being treated in a cramped, cluttered examination room.  Others are clinical: frontal portraits, close-ups of wounds.

It is hard to imagine a cache of images less suitable for publication — they are full of nudity, indignity and gore.  It is also hard to imagine photographs that cry out more insistently to be seen.  As I scrolled through them, shock rose from my gut to my sternum.  Was I looking at a prison, or a 19th-century battlefield?

From 60 Minutes, "German-style program at a Connecticut maximum security prison emphasizes rehab for inmates":

One of the more radical attempts at prison reform is taking place in a foreboding Connecticut prison nicknamed the Rock.  It's a two year old program based on therapy for 18-25 year old prisoners, whose brains, science shows, are still developing, and their behavior more likely to change.  The idea came from Germany where the main objective of prison is rehabilitation and where the recidivism rate is about half that of the U.S.  We were in Germany four years ago when then Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy toured the prison system.  He returned home inspired and launched the small, German style program at the Rock.  It's too early to tell whether it will reduce recidivism but we wanted to see how the German approach is being tested in America.  So, we went to Connecticut by way of a slight detour to the northeast corner of Maine.

The University of Maine at Presque Isle is small in the world of college basketball. But for number 10, Shyquinn Dix, being a student-athlete here is the biggest shot of his life....  When we first met him a year ago, Presque Isle number 10 was inmate number 391175 serving a four-year sentence for felony check fraud at Cheshire Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in central Connecticut that houses about 1,300 prisoners....

Warden Erfe [following instructions from Malloy] closed down a solitary confinement wing and opened up a sanctuary for self-improvement for about 50 young inmates, whose crimes range from drugs to violent assault.  They have to apply to get into the program called T.R.U.E., for truthful, respectful, understanding and elevating to success....

For more than 100 years the rock has been a hard place.  The T.R.U.E. unit hopes to prove a softer touch can yield better results.  Officer James Vassar convinced coach Dan Kane at Presque Isle to take a shot on a prison inmate.  Now Shyquinn Dix is a big man on campus and the pride of the T.R.U.E. unit.  His jersey hangs on the wall.  A month after leaving, he was back at Cheshire.  Not as a repeat offender, but an inspiration.

April 1, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Federal judge rules ADA requires Maine jail to provide woman with access to medication-assisted treatment during her 40-day term

As explained in this ACLU posting, a US District Court judge in Maine issued a notable ruling last week about prisoner rights and the ADA.  Here are the basics from the posting:

In a landmark decision, a federal judge has ordered the Aroostook County Jail to provide a Madawaska woman with access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for her opioid use disorder during her 40-day jail sentence, which is scheduled to begin on Monday.

The 28-page ruling comes in the case of Brenda Smith, who uses physician-prescribed buprenorphine to keep her opioid use disorder in remission. Lawyers for Smith argued that continuing this medication while in jail is essential to treating Smith’s medical condition, as well as preventing painful withdrawal symptoms and an increased chance of relapse, overdose and death upon release....

U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine heard testimony from Smith as well as medical and corrections experts over the course of a week-long trial in February. In her ruling, Judge Torresen found that denial of MAT would cause serious and irreparable harm to Smith, and would violate the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, including against people in recovery for opioid use disorder....

Despite the medical consensus that MAT is safe and effective in combating substance use disorder, most Maine jails have policies explicitly prohibiting this treatment for incarcerated people. The Maine Department of Corrections had a similar ban until it was lifted by an Executive Order from Gov. Mills on February 6, 2019.

Noting the high risk of overdose and death for people who suffer from opioid use disorder, Judge Torresen wrote that, "[g]iven the well-documented risk of death associated with opioid use disorder, appropriate treatment is crucial. People who are engaged in treatment are three times less likely to die than those who remain untreated."

Additionally, Judge Torresen found that the Aroostook County Jail’s prior refusal to provide access to MAT was “consistent with the broader stigma against MAT observed by [plaintiff’s expert] Mr. Hayes, who noted that correctional staff often resist providing MAT because they equate MAT to giving addicts drugs rather than giving people treatment.”

The full ruling, which is available at this link, gets started this way:

Plaintiff Brenda Smith’s doctor has prescribed her a twice-daily dose of buprenorphine as part of a medication-assisted treatment (“MAT”) program for her opioid use disorder.  Ms. Smith brings this lawsuit against Defendant Aroostook County and against Defendant Shawn Gillen, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Aroostook County, alleging that the Defendants’ refusal to allow her to continue taking her medication during her impending 40-day term of incarceration at the Aroostook County Jail (the “Jail”) violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Eighth Amendment.  Before me is the Plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction requiring the Defendants to provide her with access to her prescribed medication.  Pl.’s Mot. for Prelim. Inj. (ECF No. 9).  For the reasons that follow I GRANT the Plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

Notably, the judge's ruling was based entirely on the ADA, and the judge expressly decided not to address the Eighth Amendment claim.  But the judge did drop this footnote suggesting where she might have been headed on that front:

The evidence presented in this action suggests that a scientific consensus is growing that refusing to provide individuals with their prescribed MAT is a medically, ethically, and constitutionally unsupportable denial of care.  E.g., Pl.’s Ex. 32.  Cognizant of the principle of judicial restraint and given my ruling that the Plaintiff is likely to succeed on her ADA claim, I sidestep the constitutional issue at this time. See Ashwander v. Tenn. Valley Auth., 297 U.S. 288, 347 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring) (“The Court will not pass upon a constitutional question although properly presented by the record, if there is also present some other ground upon which the case may be disposed of.”).

March 31, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 29, 2019

New reform reports from Florida and Ohio with broader ideas and lessons

This week I came across two notable and reader-friendly reports that each focus on developments in one (swing) state and do so in ways that suggest broader ideas and lessons for reformers working in any jurisdiction. Here are links to these reports with some of their introductory text:

From the Urban Institute, "Smart Reforms to Prison Time Served Requirements in Florida":

Florida’s criminal justice policy decisions, including strict time served requirements, have resulted in an unsustainably large prison system.  The average length of time served in Florida prisons has risen dramatically in recent decades, far outpacing increases in other states and contributing to the state’s large prison population.  Adjusting the state’s inflexible time served requirement is one approach to reducing incarceration that could allow Florida policymakers to save money and invest instead in preventing crime and helping people succeed after coming home from prison.  This brief describes the results of an analysis that shows thousands of people in Florida’s prisons could be released at lower time served requirements, and, for the time they would have been in prison, would not be arrested.

From Alliance for Safety and Justice, Americans for Prosperity-Ohio, and The Buckeye Institute, "Building on Ohio’s sentencing changes to keep prison populations in check":

Bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms such as 2011’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (HB 86), Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison (T-CAP) and probation reforms in the last biannual budget (HB 49), and SB 66 from the last general assembly allowed the state to minimally reduce the prison population and take steps to increase the use of local sentencing options to reduce recidivism and connect people to treatment.  These efforts, and reducing the use of confinement for juveniles, have garnered well-earned national attention, helped the state avoid or end costly litigation, and saved hundreds of millions of dollars on new prison construction.   

As lawmakers turn their attention to the new legislative session, the General Assembly has an opportunity to build on the success of their recent reforms to ensure Ohioans suffering from addiction have the tools necessary to become contributing members of society while potentially saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Right now, Ohio spends $1.8 billion on corrections every year and, despite promises of decreased budgets because of reforms, corrections costs have risen.  There are numerous reasons for increased spending including inflation, healthcare costs for an aging prison population, and the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction granting tens of millions of dollars back to local governments. But one of the main reasons is that recent changes in the law have not led to the big reductions in prison populations that were projected because not as many people convicted of low-level felonies are being served locally as intended. 

March 29, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Captive Lab Rat: Human Medical Experimentation in the Carceral State"

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

Human medical experimentation using captive, vulnerable subjects is not a relic of our American past. It is part of our present.  The extensive history of medical experimentation on the disabled, the poor, the mentally ill, and the incarcerated has been little explored. Its continuance has been even less discussed, especially in the legal literature.  The standard narrative of human medical experimentation ends abruptly in the 1970’s, with the uncovering of the Tuskegee syphilis study.  My research shows, however, that this narrative is incorrect and incomplete. The practice of experimenting on the captive and vulnerable persists, not just then but now.

Our current approach to human medical experimentation disregards informed consent and privacy, allowing the pharmaceutical and medical industries to play an outsized role in shaping clinical research.  The confusing amalgam of laws, rules and codes loosely governing such research almost entirely fail to regulate or prevent patient mistreatment and abuse.  Acquiring a true understanding of our system of mass incarceration requires us to unearth the hidden contours of our current experiments on the poor, the disabled, and the confined, and calls for a wholesale revision of the flawed legal and medical regime overseeing human medical experimentation.

March 29, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

"Reduce prison populations by reducing life sentences"

The title of this post is the title of this new Washington Post piece authored by Daniel Nagin.  Here are excerpts:

The imprisonment rate in the United States is now five times larger than it was in the early 1970s, and most of that increase happened at the state level.  Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis of the Sentencing Project have made a bold recommendation for unraveling mass incarceration — abolition of life sentences.  Most lifers are in state prisons.

Research demonstrates that increases in already long prison sentences, say from 20 years to life, do not have material deterrent effects on crime.  There is no good reason for believing that life sentences are a better deterrent than the Mauer-Nellis recommendation of a maximum sentence of 20 years.

The political and social causes for mass incarceration are complex, but the mechanism is easily described — the system sends more people to prison for longer periods of time. One unintended consequence of this is that our prisons have become old-age homes.  Between 1993 and 2016, the percentage of U.S. prisoners ages 50 or older grew from 5 percent to 20 percent, and the number of those ages 40 years or older more than doubled, from 17.9 percent to 40.4 percent.

From a public safety perspective, this makes no sense.  Decades of research by criminologists demonstrate that nature’s best cure for crime is aging — crime is a young man’s game.  The principal driver of the graying prison population is the growing proportion of lifers, mostly in state prison systems.  One in 7 U.S. prisoners is now serving life or a virtual life sentence, a total of more than 200,000 people.  In 1984, there were only about 34,000 lifers....

The Mauer and Nellis proposal for complete abolition of life sentences is probably a bridge too far for our elected state legislators and governors.  But more moderate changes, such as reducing the use of life sentences and increasing the possibility of eventual parole for those serving life, could have a significant effect without jeopardizing public safety.

March 21, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019"

Pie2019The Prison Policy Initiative has today posted the latest, greatest version of its remarkable incarceration "pie" graphic and associated report on the particulars of who and how people are incarcerated in the United States.  The extraordinary pies produced by PPI impart more information in one image than just about any single resource I can think of.  Here is part of the report's introductory text and the concluding discussion on my favorite law-nerd version of pie day:

Can it really be true that most people in jail are being held before trial?  And how much of mass incarceration is a result of the war on drugs?  These questions are harder to answer than you might think, because our country’s systems of confinement are so fragmented.  The various government agencies involved in the justice system collect a lot of critical data, but it is not designed to help policymakers or the public understand what’s going on.  As public support for criminal justice reform continues to build, however, it’s more important than ever that we get the facts straight and understand the big picture.

This report offers some much needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement.  The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.  This report provides a detailed look at where and why people are locked up in the U.S., and dispels some modern myths to focus attention on the real drivers of mass incarceration.

This big-picture view allows us to focus on the most important drivers of mass incarceration and identify important, but often ignored, systems of confinement.  The detailed views bring these overlooked systems to light, from immigration detention to civil commitment and youth confinement.  In particular, local jails often receive short shrift in larger discussions about criminal justice, but they play a critical role as “incarceration’s front door” and have a far greater impact than the daily population suggests.

While this pie chart provides a comprehensive snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities, nor the far larger universe of people whose lives are affected by the criminal justice system.  Every year, over 600,000 people enter prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year.  Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted.  Some have just been arrested and will make bail within hours or days, while many others are too poor to make bail and remain behind bars until their trial.  Only a small number (less than 150,000 on any given day) have been convicted, and are generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year....

Now that we can see the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States in the various types of facilities, we can see that something needs to change.  Looking at the big picture requires us to ask if it really makes sense to lock up 2.3 million people on any given day, giving this nation the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Both policymakers and the public have the responsibility to carefully consider each individual slice in turn to ask whether legitimate social goals are served by putting each group behind bars, and whether any benefit really outweighs the social and fiscal costs.

Even narrow policy changes, like reforms to money bail, can meaningfully reduce our society’s use of incarceration.  At the same time, we should be wary of proposed reforms that seem promising but will have only minimal effect, because they simply transfer people from one slice of the correctional “pie” to another. Keeping the big picture in mind is critical if we hope to develop strategies that actually shrink the “whole pie.”

March 19, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 18, 2019

"Don't Overlook First Step Act Pilot Programs"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Law360 commentary authored by By Addy Schmitt and Ian Herbert.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts (with footnotes omitted):

Much attention has been paid to the provisions in the law designed to address systemic issues for defendants in drug cases.... The First Step Act also includes numerous changes to address quality-of-life issues for current inmates and to help individuals transition back to society following their incarceration....

However, two programs are particularly notable because of the potential they hold to reduce prison sentences for certain prisoners by up to one-third.  The first is a pilot program that will allow the Bureau of Prisons to release to home confinement inmates over 60 years old who have served at least two-thirds of their sentences.  The second is a recidivism reduction program that will allow prisoners to earn credit worth up to one-third of their sentences for participation in programming designed to reduce recidivism.

Both programs have their faults and come with caveats.  As others have written, Congress gave the attorney general great power to decide how to implement the programs, which could hamper their effectiveness.  But combined, the two programs have the potential to offer substantial reductions in sentences, particularly to elderly and nonviolent prisoners....

One of the most profound changes that the First Step Act makes for currently incarcerated individuals is to reauthorize and expand a pilot program that allows for early release to home confinement for elderly, nonviolent prisoners.

The pilot program was created by the Second Chance Act of 2007, but it contained some important restrictions that reduced the impact of the program.  First, it was not required at all BOP facilities.  Second, it only applied to prisoners over 65 years old who had served the greater of 75 percent of their sentence or 10 years in prison.  Third, prisoners who were serving life sentences or who had been convicted of crimes of violence, sex offenses or terrorism-related offenses were ineligible, as were prisoners who attempted to escape.

The First Step Act changed the first two of these restrictions (though it left the requirements in the third).  The First Step Act directed the attorney general to make the program available at all BOP facilities, reduced the eligibility age to 60 years old, reduced the amount of time that a prisoner had to serve before being eligible from 75 percent to two-thirds of his or her sentence, and, most importantly, removed the requirement that the prisoner must serve at least 10 years prior to becoming eligible.

The result of these changes is that nonviolent prisoners over 60 could serve as much as one-third of their prison sentence in home confinement rather than in a BOP facility.

Unfortunately, these substantial reductions in terms of imprisonment are not yet guaranteed.  Though the law says that the attorney general “shall conduct a pilot program” in all facilities, it does not require release of anyone, saying only that the attorney general “may release some or all eligible elderly offenders” to home confinement.

However, while the attorney general is not required to release any prisoners under the pilot program, a separate provision of the First Step Act mandates that the BOP shall “to the extent practicable, place prisoners with lower risk levels and lower needs on home confinement for the maximum amount of time permitted” under the law.  Thus, the elderly release pilot program, coupled with the directive to move low-risk prisoners to home confinement, sends a clear signal that Congress intended for the attorney general to utilize the benefits of home confinement.

The pilot program began with the start of fiscal year 2019, and the attorney general is given authority to release eligible offenders upon written request from the BOP or prisoners who meet the criteria described above.  For that reason, nonviolent prisoners over 60 years old who have served more than two-thirds of their sentence should request to take part in the program immediately.

March 18, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Encouraging new reports about encouraging new compassionate release realities thanks to FIRST STEP Act

In this post last month, which was titled "Compassionate release after FIRST STEP: Should many thousands of ill and elderly federal inmates now be seeking reduced imprisonment in court?," I speculated about the possible impact of a key change of the FIRST STEP Act allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentenced under compassionate release statutory provisions.  Excitingly, in recent days I have seen two article reporting on encouraging action in this arena:

From the Houston Chronicle, "‘Pill mill’ doctor among first released under law for dying prisoners"

From NPR, "Seriously Ill Federal Prisoners Freed As Compassionate Release Law Takes Effect"

Here is an excerpt from this latter piece:

FAMM's Facebook group has been sharing information about how to prepare petitions for release. And the group's lawyers are doing what they can to support families seeking help, too.

"Now, thanks to the First Step Act, when I hear from someone struggling with the compassionate release process, I don't have to say, 'I'm sorry,' " FAMM general counsel Mary Price told NPR.  "Instead, I can say, 'Let me see if I can find you a lawyer.' "

Price said the new possibilities opened up by the law have changed her work. "It is the most amazing feeling to work with the many lawyers who are filing and beginning to win compassionate release motions for prisoners who I know would never have made it to court, were it up to the BOP."

A few prior related posts:

March 17, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Criminal justice reform must do more than shrink prison populations"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Hill commentary authored by David Harding, Jeffrey Morenoff and Jessica Wyse. I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Next Step Act on March 7, an expansion of the criminal justice reform started with December’s First Step Act.  We applaud the Next Step Act for essential reforms, including reducing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses.

Yet, reversing the harms that have been created by decades of mass incarceration and an overly punitive and racially-biased criminal justice system requires more than reversing past policy mistakes.  Reform should go beyond shrinking prisons to providing those whose lives have been impacted by mass incarceration with real opportunities that lead to reintegration into society after release....

[R]eintegration requires more than just determination and work ethic, a key finding of our three-year study of the day-to-day lives of formerly incarcerated individuals. About a third struggle with hunger, homelessness and housing instability.

Chronic physical and mental health problems are also common.  Jobs are scarce for those with criminal records, who disproportionately move into communities like Detroit with high unemployment.  Half of those released from prison return within three years.  The period immediately after release is both a time of great risk and an opportunity to ensure that each person starts with a strong foundation of health and material security.

This “re-entry moment” is one of optimism, commitment to a new life and family support, but also a critical time of struggle with hunger, homelessness, employment and sobriety.  Investments in housing, health and employment services during the re-entry moment can create that foundation.

The Next Step Act contains worthy provisions for removing barriers to employment, including certain occupational licensing barriers for those with criminal records.  Yet our research shows that securing a job is only part of the reason for low rates of employment after release.

Education is essential to improving reintegration into the labor force.  Formerly incarcerated workers experience high rates of job turnover, in part because that is common in the low-skill jobs they find.  To improve employment for those like Randall, we should empower more community colleges to offer prison education with a seamless transition into community programs.

Time in prison can be better used to prepare for release.  Research shows that intensive treatment and prison education programs reduce recidivism, and incarcerated individuals are eager to take part in them.  Yet too many prisoners sit idle during their time in prison or engage in make-work jobs like cleaning and gardening....

Just as the federal government supports local efforts in education, health care and policing, it can support state and local reintegration efforts through funding, technical support and evaluation of promising programs.

Can we afford to support reintegration?  Each federal prisoner costs almost $32,000 a year, and in some states that figure is over $80,000.  The money saved by reducing imprisonment can create a virtuous cycle if it is reinvested in reintegration, which will result in fewer people returning to prison.

March 17, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 11, 2019

New indictment exposes underbelly of federal RDAP program ... and provides still more reason to be thankful for passage of FIRST STEP Act

This interesting new AP piece, headlined "Show up drunk: Indictments spotlight prison rehab scams," reports on indictments surrounding efforts to defraud the only long-standing federal prison program thathas  allowed prisoners to earn reductions in their rehabilitative efforts.  Here are the details:

It's a tip that has been passed onto convicts for years: On your way to federal prison, say you have a substance abuse problem, and you could qualify for a treatment program that knocks up to a year off your sentence.

Federal prosecutors have long suspected abuses in the program, which has enrolled a deep list of high-profile convicts.  Recently, a grand jury in Connecticut indicted three people accused of coaching ineligible convicts on how to get into the Residential Drug Abuse Program, or RDAP, by telling them to show up to prison intoxicated and fake withdrawal symptoms. The charges are among the first filed against prison consultants involving the program.

The case has put a spotlight on the unregulated world of prison consulting, in which some ex-convicts and former prison employees charge thousands of dollars for their inside knowledge to help people prepare for life behind bars. Some consultants say there has been wrongdoing in the industry for decades, including encouraging clients to scam their way into the rehab program.

The small industry now is "totally the Wild West," said Jack Donson, president of New York-based My Federal Prison Consultant and a retired federal Bureau of Prisons employee. "I hope it brings light to things," he said, referring to the Connecticut case.  "I hope it gives people ... pause to not cross that line to illegality and unethical conduct."

Completing the nine-month, 500-hour treatment program for nonviolent offenders is one of only a few ways inmates can get their sentences reduced. About 15,600 inmates — nearly 10 percent of the current federal prison population — participated in the program last year, and thousands more are on waiting lists. To get in, convicts must present evidence they had substance abuse or addiction problems during the year prior to their arrest. Upon completion, their sentences can be reduced and they can spend the last six months of their sentences in a halfway house.

Christopher Mattei, a former federal prosecutor in Connecticut, said the U.S. attorney's office increasingly saw white-collar convicts make use of the program. "It undermines the public's confidence that all people when they go before a court for sentencing will be treated fairly.  People who know how to game the system know how to get the benefits, whereas people who are struggling with addiction don't know all the angles to play," said Mattei, former chief of the financial fraud and public corruption unit in the Connecticut U.S. attorney's office....

The criminal indictments in Connecticut are believed to be among the first criminal charges filed against prison consultants in connection with the treatment program. Arrested were Michigan residents Tony Pham, 49, and Samuel Copenhaver, 47, both of Grand Rapids; and Constance Moerland, 33, of Hudsonville.  The three were managing partners in RDAP Law Consultants, authorities said.

Prosecutors said the three told clients over the past six years to falsely inform Bureau of Prisons officials that they had drug and alcohol problems, taught them how to fake withdrawal symptoms and how to fraudulently obtain medication to treat withdrawal symptoms, so they could show prescriptions to qualify for the program. The partners also told their clients to begin drinking alcohol daily before going to prison and to show up drunk, the indictments said....

Last year in New York City, a lawyer and three other people were charged with defrauding the government and making false statements. They allegedly submitted bogus information to prison officials, claiming that a convicted drug dealer had a history of addiction, in an effort to get the client into the drug treatment program so he could be released early. The case remains pending.

Other consultants coach people on how to lie to get into the program, according to Donson, who said some also claim they can get convicts sent to prisons that have the RDAP program when only federal prison officials have that authority. He said he sees potential for fraud also as consultants rush to offer help related to a new law that allows federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before late 2010 the opportunity to petition for a lighter penalty.

Donson and other consultants say more monitoring of the industry and prosecutions would help deter misconduct. "It's an unregulated industry, so something like this hopefully brings some attention to it," said Dan Wise, an ex-con who completed the RDAP program and now runs a prison consultant business based in Spokane, Washington.

I think it important for the feds to appropriately police the RDAP program to ensure defendants who are truly struggling with addiction are able to access a program with finite resources. But this article fails to highlight that defendants' efforts to sneak into the RDAP program was a symptom of a broader disease, namely that federal prisoners have historically had precious few means to seek to earn reductions in their sentences. Thankfully, the FIRST STEP Act is a significant step toward treating this disease, as it provides an elaborate set of mechanisms for allow some prisoners to earn reductions through other rehabilitative efforts. But, critically, the FIRST STEP Act has a number of problematic exclusions and restrictions on which prisoners can earn reductions AND there is reason to worry that poor implementation of the FIRST STEP could lead to privileged prisoners again being better able to access programming and reduction that should be made properly available to as many prisoners as possible.

Without know more about the indictments and underlying facts referenced in this AP article, I am disinclined to comment directly on whether federal prosecution of prison consultants may be the most efficient and effective way to police the administration of prison programming. But I am eager to encourage everyone involved in counseling defendant and prisoners to be honest and straight-forward in their dealing or else prisoners and their families are likely to be the ultimate victims.

March 11, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 08, 2019

"3 more steps to make 'First Step Act' work"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Hill commentary authored by Jessica Jackson. Here are excerpts:

The First Step Act aims to transform the federal prison system, prioritize rehabilitation over punishment, and reform some of our nation’s harshest prison sentences — remnants of the outdated War on Drugs.  While getting any meaningful legislation signed into law is worthy of celebration, in most cases it is just the beginning of a much longer battle. The hard work — the part that goes mostly unnoticed — is turning intentions into actual programs, procedures and outcomes for real people. To meet those goals, the Trump administration and Congress must follow through and implement the law quickly, fully and fairly.

Some of the most important provisions have taken effect immediately....  A total of four sentencing reforms began to take effect in courtrooms across the country the day after the bill was signed. In total, they will impact 25,000 defendants every year.

But challenges to fully implementing other provisions have been significant.  Just hours after President Trump signed the First Step Act into law, the federal government entered what would become the longest partial shutdown in history.  Key employees at the Department of Justice and White House were furloughed.  To add to the chaos, the Senate had not yet confirmed an attorney general.  The Bureau of Prisons has not had a permanent director since May 2018, when Mark Inch resigned.

Because of the lack of permanent leadership and the heated battle over border security funding, the first deadline laid out in the First Step Act came and went without effective action.  By Jan. 21, the Department of Justice was supposed to form an Independent Review Committee, which would be responsible for working with the Bureau of Prisons to create a new Risk and Needs Assessment across the federal prison system. One of the most critical components of the new law, the Risk and Needs Assessment System is relied upon by other key provisions.  The Review Committee has not yet been formed and further delays could significantly derail implementation efforts....

Now that leaders in Congress have reached a budget deal to fund the government through September and Attorney General William Barr has taken his oath of office, implementation of the First Step Act must pick up the pace and make up for lost time.

First, Attorney General Barr should nominate a permanent Director of the Bureau of Prisons and establish a credible and committed leader to steer the Bureau into a better future....

Second, Congressional Appropriations committee members must continue the bipartisan spirit that carried the First Step Act onto President Trump’s desk.  They can do so by fully funding the bill in Fiscal Year 2020.  This funding will allow for the valuable programming that will help people change their lives and earn time off the amount of time they have to serve behind the prison bars.

In fact, appropriators gave BOP $200 million more than the president’s budget requested, leaving ample flexibility to begin to implement the bill’s provisions.  As passed, First Step will require $75 million a year for five years to fund the expansion of prison programming and reentry preparedness.  This funding will become necessary after the Risk Assessment system is completed.  It will also allow people inside the prisons to take valuable, life-changing classes to prepare them to come home job-ready.

Finally, Congress must wield its oversight powers to ensure that implementation moves forward effectively and efficiently.  It is important to note that I am not calling for partisan hearings where House Democrats can score political points beating up on the administration’s failings.  Nor am I calling for opportunities for hard-line Senate Republicans to continue to trumpet the alleged dangers of being “soft on crime.”

Now that the First Step Act is the law of the land, both parties have good reason to keep a close watch. President Trump championed this bill as a rare bipartisan win for his administration.  Democrats vying for their party’s nomination have campaigned on the impact the bill will have on our justice system.  Nobody wins and everybody loses (most of all people in prison and their loved ones) if the First Step does not live up to its promise.

March 8, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Spotlighting how credit score concern should be part of criminal justice reform agenda

Students in my classes, as well as long-time readers of this blog, know of my tendency to see and say that every societal issue is in some way a sentencing and criminal justice issue. The latest exhibit is this interesting new Hill commentary by Carlos Fernando Avenancio-León spotlighting how credit scores should be a concern for the ever-growing ranks of serious criminal justice reformers. The astute piece is headlined "Without access to credit, ex-cons may return to lives of crime," and here are excerpts:

Every week, more than 10,000 prisoners are released from U.S. prisons and begin the long process of reintegrating into society. For many, a successful reintegration will occur only if they can access the types of credit commonly used by all American citizens, such as credit cards and auto loans. For those unable to borrow, prospects for successful re-entry fall and recidivism risks rise. That’s bad for all of us....

Some estimates suggest a majority of former inmates engage in criminal activity after their release. An oft-cited reason is the hard time former inmates have in finding employment. That is no doubt a serious problem and one that must be addressed. However, special attention needs to be paid to a challenge that receives little: the hurdles they face in obtaining credit.

The crux of the issue for former inmates is that getting locked up typically hurts their credit scores. It’s not that credit bureaus specifically knockdown scores due to incarceration. The problem is, for obvious reasons, it’s difficult to repay loans or satisfy other debts while behind bars, so credit defaults and delinquencies pile up.

The negative financial effects continue even after release, as former inmates face severe discrimination in the labor market. Consequently, former inmates face significant impediments to accessing credit. But here is the paradox: Without credit, such individuals face myriad financial difficulties, from not being able to afford transportation or a place to live to falling victim to predatory lending and even homelessness.

Under such conditions, it is harder to get a job or make positive societal contributions. And more worrisome, such former inmates risk backsliding into criminal conduct.

In a recent study, my coauthor and I found that former inmates are much less likely to have mortgages or auto loans than non-incarcerated individuals (14 and 24 percentage points lower, respectively), and their average credit scores are about 50 points lower. Moreover, within the former inmate population, those experiencing sharper drops in credit availability are more likely to engage in future criminal activity: For each thousand dollars of available credit card limit lost, recidivism increases by 1.4 percentage points.

Accordingly, a history of incarceration and lack of access to credit creates credit-driven crime cycles for this population. Yet, after accounting for credit history and income, former inmates are less likely to default on loans than individuals who have never been incarcerated.

Because former inmates present lower credit risks, lenders extend former inmates slightly more loans, albeit not nearly enough to overcome a lending contraction driven by low credit scores. This does not mean that instances of discrimination in lending against former inmates do not happen. These, however, appear to be the exception rather than the rule....

Unfortunately, reductions in credit scores caused by lower income and defaults while in jail or prison are not easily remedied. Lenders cannot readily distinguish the real reason behind a default. Proper solutions to this dilemma need to be developed together with the affected communities and the organizations that help foster re-entry.

These solutions could include a combination of providing re-entry support and education to formerly incarcerated borrowers, deferments similar to those provided in student loans or during natural disasters, shorter times for defaults to be erased from credit files or even freezing-up their credit while incarcerated.

Carefully considering credit within the discussion of criminal justice reform may provide an important avenue for improving former inmates’ chances of successfully re-entering our society — all of which can help reduce the overall rate of crime. That makes banking on former inmates a worthy investment for all of us.

March 6, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

FAMM sends letter to BOP and DOJ to urge full implementation of key provisions of the FIRST STEP Act

FAMM President Kevin Ring today sent this letter to Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein and Acting BOP Director Hugh Hurwitz urging them to work to fully implement key provisions of the FIRST STEP ACT. Here are a few passages from the start of the three-page letter:

Seventy-four days ago, President Donald J. Trump signed the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation to reform federal sentencing laws and prison policies.  The new law includes provisions to establish an elderly offender home detention program, require the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to keep incarcerated individuals closer to their families, and increase the amount of good time from 47 days to 54 days per year, among others.  We are writing to urge you to implement these changes as expansively and quickly as possible.

FAMM is a national sentencing and prison reform organization with deep ties to people who are incarcerated and their loved ones.  FAMM regularly writes to nearly 40,000 federal prisoners and their families and loved ones with news about legal, legislative, and policy developments that could affect them.  And, we hear from many prisoners about their experiences.

We have heard from dozens of individuals who believe their incarcerated loved ones qualify for home detention under the Elderly Offender/Terminally Ill Offender Pilot Program. Section 603 of the First Step Act reauthorized and expanded the pilot program initially provided for in Section 231(g) of the Second Chance Act.  Under this program, certain elderly and elderly terminally ill prisoners may be released from prison early if they are at least 60 years old, have served two-thirds of their sentences, and meet various other requirements.  We believe Congress intended that this program take effect immediately upon passage of the First Step Act and be available in all BOP institutions.

To date, however, we are not aware that anyone has been released or even that the program has been established.  This delay stands in sharp contrast to the Bureau's timely release of program guidance for the expanded compassionate release program, also a product of the First Step Act.  The failure to implement the law in this area has been extremely frustrating for families who are anxious to welcome their elderly and terminally ill loved ones home to serve their sentences.  We urge you to immediately begin implementing Section 603 in all BOP facilities.

March 5, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, February 23, 2019

"There's a gender imbalance in many African-American neighborhoods. Mass incarceration is largely to blame."

The title of this post is the sub-headline of this new Governing piece with the main headline "Where Have All the Black Men Gone?." Here is an excerpt:

Governing reviewed the latest population estimates for all black adults ages 18 to 64 in Census tracts where they totaled at least 2,000. In those neighborhoods, there were only a median of 81 black men for every 100 black women. The imbalance was greatest in 380 neighborhoods, where there were fewer than two adult black men for every three adult black women under age 65. In contrast to the numbers for adults, Census estimates show that nationally, there are marginally more African-American boys than girls under age 18....

The single biggest driver behind the absence of many black men is mass incarceration. A few academics have held up ratios of black men to women as a proxy for incarceration. Despite recent declines in prison populations, disparities remain massive. African-American males are imprisoned in state and federal facilities at six times the rate of white men, and about 25 times that of black women, according to figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Black men, underrepresented in the overwhelming majority of neighborhoods, are instead heavily concentrated in relatively few places, and those tend to be home to prisons. We identified 79 such Census tracts with more than twice as many black men as women....

The ramifications of all this are far-reaching. Partners and families of the “missing men” face a host of negative social and economic consequences, such as a shortage of income and assets.  Huge numbers of women have ties to incarcerated family members: One in every 2.5 black women has a family member in prison, more than three times the number for white women, according to a Scholars Strategy Network report.  For children, research suggests growing up with an incarcerated parent increases the likelihood of learning disabilities, behavioral problems and other challenges.

February 23, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Another call to fix good-time credit after FIRST STEP good-time credit fix

David Oscar Markus has this new Hill commentary headlined "A small next step for criminal justice reform: Fix good time credit." Here are excerpts:

The current federal system awards good time credit — 15 percent — for all prisoners who behave.  That means for every year done in prison, you receive 54 days off in good time credit.

For a long time, the Bureau of Prisons only gave 47 days of credit, but the First Step Act told BOP that 15 percent was really 15 percent and prisoners should get the full 54 days.  Even with this directive, BOP has refused to give this credit, saying that there is an error in the statute, and has asked for Congress to reiterate that it really wants the 54 days of credit applied.  This is completely absurd, and both parties agree that this should be fixed immediately.  In addition to fixing the 54-day issue, there is one additional modest (and hopefully non-controversial) proposal that should be included.

As it stands, federal prisoners only receive good time credit if they are sentenced to more than a year of prison.  That means that if you are sentenced to a year and a day, you will receive 15 percent off with good time and serve about 10 months; however, if you receive a sentence of exactly one year in prison, no such good time credit will be applied, and you will serve that year day for day.

That means that the prisoner who receives a longer sentence of a year and a day will serve less time than someone who is sentenced to a year or 11 months.  It makes no sense.  Those who are sentenced to the lowest sentences — the lowest-risk offenders — should get the most benefit for good time, not the other way around.

Prior related posts:

February 23, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 21, 2019

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Public to hold public briefing on "Women in Prison: Seeking Justice Behind Bars"

As detailed in this press release, "On Friday, February 22, in Washington, DC, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold a public briefing to evaluate civil rights of women in prison, including deprivations of women’s medical needs that may violate the constitutional requirement to provide adequate medical care for all prisoners; implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act; and the sufficiency of programs to meet women’s needs after release."  Here is more:

The Commission will examine consequences of discipline practices in women’s prisons and the impact on families when women are placed far from home or parental rights are terminated despite their caregiving role.

Chair Catherine E. Lhamon said, “The United States has close to one-third of the world’s total incarcerated women, even though our country only has 5% of the world’s women. I look forward to receiving testimony about the experiences and conditions of confinement for women in prison, so the Commission can offer recommendations regarding adequate safeguards for the civil rights of incarcerated women.”

Commissioners will hear from women who have experienced incarceration, state and federal corrections officials, academic and legal experts, and advocates. Members of the public will be able to address the Commission in an open comment session. The Commission will accept written materials for consideration as we prepare our report; submit to womeninprison@usccr.gov no later than March 25, 2019.

The press release indicates all the witnesses scheduled to speak during these four panels:

Panel One: Overview of Women in Prison: Statistics, Constitutional Protections, Classification, and Family Disruption

Panel Two: An Analysis of Women’s Health, Personal Dignity, and Sexual Abuse in the U.S. Prison System

Panel Three: Review of Treatment of Women While Incarcerated

Panel Four: Rehabilitative Opportunities for Women in Prison & Life After Prison

This briefing will be live-streamed at this link, and the panelists' submitted written testimony are available here.

February 21, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Making a robust case for "Sending Our Prisoners to College"

Over at The American Conservative, Nila Bala and Emily Mooney have this lengthy new commentary titled "Sending Our Prisoners to College: Just think of it as an up-front investment, one that will pay dividends down the road." I highly recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

At the heart of conservative thinking are the tenets of individual dignity, public safety, family values, and fiscal prudence.  Yet far too often, society fails to apply these principles to the criminal justice system.  As a result, our current correctional system is failing all of us. It is clear that something must change.

Generally speaking, our correctional facilities do too little to prepare prisoners for their lives beyond prison walls.  Not surprisingly, recidivism rates are disturbingly high.  An estimate from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that almost three fifths of those released from prison will be convicted of a new offense within five years of their release....

No one should be shocked by these results; prisons are dehumanizing places that do not produce favorable outcomes for incarcerated individuals, families, or communities. If we want prisoners to treat others with human dignity when they re-enter society, we must practice these principles in our treatment of them....

We have a choice to make: we can let incarcerated individuals sit behind bars — isolated and idle — or we can take steps to provide education to incarcerated individuals who, as a result, will be more employable, stable members of our society when they are released.

The idea of educating incarcerated individuals has been met with strong opposition from those who question why Americans should be taxed so that those behind bars — who have done something wrong — receive a benefit.  This sentiment led to the elimination of Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994.  Pell Grants exist to provide all students with financial need with aid for college.  Without financial support from these grants, the number of postsecondary prison programs plummeted from 772 programs to just 8 within three years.

By the late 2000s, individuals on both sides of the aisle began to recognize that prison systems were not stopping the continuing tide of crime.  A more effective solution was needed to address the growing prison population.  Finally, in summer 2015, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program as part of the Experimental Sites Initiative.  This program allowed some colleges to apply to pilot the use of Pell Grants to increase access to postsecondary education in correctional facilities, with the federal government evaluating the academic and life outcomes of those who received postsecondary education.

We are now over two years into the experiment.  It is still too early to assess the initiative’s impact on recidivism rates.  However, removing barriers has increased enrollment: from fall 2016 to fall 2017, enrollment at Second Chance Pell experimental sites increased by 236 percent.  As of fall 2017, over 954 postsecondary credentials have been awarded, giving incarcerated individuals a better chance of obtaining employment through career technical certificates as well as two- and four-year degree programs.  Both the Trump administration and many leaders in the Republican Party have expressed interest in the program.

Given these promising signs, policymakers should consider expanding postsecondary education programming to prisoners nationwide.  Such programming brings gains for both prisoners and public safety, rebuilds families, is fiscally prudent, and acknowledges the individual dignity of those in prison....

Education has a transformative effect on incarcerated individuals and how they view themselves.  It affords individuals a glimpse at a new world of opportunities that they may not have been exposed to prior to incarceration.  In the classroom, prisoners are seen as individuals worthy of investment; their teachers and coursework engender a sense that they have something to offer to society.  Postsecondary courses take otherwise dead time and use it to engage prisoners in productive activity....

Practically speaking, postsecondary courses give incarcerated individuals something to do and help corrections personnel create a structured routine for participants.  These factors reduce the chance that prisoners will fill their time with less productive (and potentially criminal) activities.  Ultimately, postsecondary education can make the difficult job of corrections both easier and safer — for staff as well as those behind bars.

The transformative effects of postsecondary education do not stop behind prison walls; they also bring meaningful benefits to public safety.  A recent study found that earning a postsecondary degree while incarcerated may reduce an individual’s chances of re-arrest by 14 percent and their chances of a return to prison due to a new offense by 24 percent.  Though selection bias may come into play (i.e., students who choose to enroll in education programs may have characteristics that also make them less likely to re-offend), research has continued to identify such programming as a cost-effective model for increasing public safety....

Many people, and especially conservatives, have an instinctual bias against paying for prisoners’ education.  Yet the reality is we already pay a high cost — fiscal, social, and personal — because we do not educate most prisoners.  Indeed, the cost of an education is insignificant when compared to the costs our society suffers from criminal activity. Postsecondary education may require an upfront investment, but it’s one that will reduce the fiscal burden of government in the long run.

Our correctional system is in crisis.  Ten thousand individuals are released from prison every week, many of whom are wholly unprepared for the world they will enter. Our public safety, families, and economy are undermined when released individuals resort to crime.  We have tried building more prisons, increasing sentences, and making confinement more punitive.  But time and again, this “tough on crime” approach has not worked.  Instead, it has proven not only a fiscally wasteful policy that threatens public safety and family cohesion, but an affront to basic human dignity.

Supporting prison education does not mean being “soft on crime.”  Rather, it is one of the clearest, cheapest, and most effective methods to get control over crime and make our correctional facilities safer.  It paves the way for new family legacies based on education, productive labor, and prosperity, creating positive generational effects for years to come.

Conservatives should lead the way on repairing our broken criminal justice system.  Study after study has identified the provision of postsecondary education in prisons as a promising approach to preventing crime and to facilitating future economic opportunity.  The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program has created an opportunity to provide much-needed educational programs to incarcerated individuals. And, by expanding access to prison education programs, we can move toward an approach that embraces redemption, compassion, and second chances — and benefits society as a whole.

February 21, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, February 15, 2019

Sad start to what should become happier compassionate release tales after passage of FIRST STEP Act

Though the (clumsy) increase in good-time credits has received considerable attention since the passage of the FIRST STEP Act (see prior posts here and here and here and here), I find the change to the administration of so-called compassionate release rules to be among the most fascinating elements of the new legislation.  If legislative enactments can have "sleeper provisions," I would call the compassionate release changes the sleeper provisions of FIRST STEP.  This four-page FAMM document, titled "Compassionate Release and the First Step Act: Then and Now,"  reviews some basics of the changes made by the FIRST STEP Act for those eager for a short accounting of before and after.

Today's New York Times covers this issue through one particular sad story under the headline "A New Law Made Him a ‘Free Man on Paper,’ but He Died Behind Bars." This article is worth reading in full, and here are excerpts:

At a federal courthouse in Tennessee, a judge signed an order allowing an ailing inmate to go home. But he died in a prison hospice before he heard the news.

At his wife’s home in Indiana, as she was getting a wheelchair, bedpans and other medical equipment ready for his arrival, the phone rang. “It was the chaplain,” said the wife, Marie Dianne Cheatham. “He said, ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you.’ And my heart fell through the floor. I knew what he was going to say.”

For years, terminally ill federal prisoners like Ms. Cheatham’s husband, Steve, have in theory had the option of what is called compassionate release. But in practice, the Bureau of Prisons would often decline to grant it, allowing hundreds of petitioners to die in custody. One of the provisions of the new criminal justice law, signed by President Trump on Dec. 21, sought to change that, giving inmates the ability to appeal directly to the courts.

Mr. Cheatham, 59, did just that, filing a petition last month so that he could leave prison in North Carolina and go home to die. He became one of the first to be granted release under the new law. But then came the harsh truth that made so many families pin their hopes on the law’s passage in the first place: Days and even hours can mean the difference between dying at home or behind bars.

Created in the 1980s, compassionate release allowed the Bureau of Prisons to recommend that certain inmates who no longer posed a threat be sent home, usually when nearing death. But even as more and more Americans grew old and frail in federal penitentiaries, a multilayered bureaucracy meant that relatively few got out.

A 2013 report by a watchdog agency found that the compassionate release system was cumbersome, poorly managed and impossible to fully track. An analysis of federal data by The New York Times and The Marshall Project found that 266 inmates who had applied between 2013 and 2017 had died, either after being denied or while still waiting for a decision. During the same period the bureau approved only 6 percent of applications.  Many state penal systems, which house the majority of American inmates, have their own medical release programs with similar problems.

“It is a system that is sorely needing compassion,” said Mary Price, the general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocates criminal justice reform....  The law’s passage has caused a scramble to use the new appeal process for compassionate release, said Ms. Price, whose organization has worked to arrange lawyers for some of those inmates. “There’s a road map now for this, and a way home for people that we’ve never seen before,” Ms. Price said.

Before the First Step Act passed, Ms. Cheatham followed its fortunes closely, hoping it could lead to a shortened sentence for her husband, whose health was deteriorating. Last fall, he was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer and told he had only a few months to live. In mid-December, he applied for compassionate release, Ms. Cheatham said.

The new law requires that prisoners be told within 72 hours of a terminal diagnosis that they may apply for compassionate release, and that the Bureau of Prisons aid those who wish to apply but cannot do so on their own.  After a few weeks, Ms. Cheatham had heard nothing back.  The Bureau of Prisons declined to answer most questions about Mr. Cheatham’s case, but did say that it had not received his application for compassionate release until Jan. 11.  According to the judge’s order, the request was filed on Dec. 13.

A senator’s office said the government shutdown would make it difficult for them to provide immediate help.  Finally, she called a federal public defender in Tennessee, where her husband had been sentenced, who told her about the new process allowing an appeal after 30 days.  Within a few days, on Jan. 25, they filed a preliminary motion for immediate release.

It was to be a homecoming to a home Steve Cheatham had never seen.  The Cheathams had met and married after he was already in prison, serving a nearly 16-year sentence for a series of bank robberies in 2006.  According to an F.B.I. agent’s account, Mr. Cheatham passed notes to tellers at three banks in Tennessee, making off with about $13,000. The agent made no mention of any weapon....

On Jan. 30, the formal request for compassionate release was filed, and the next day, a judge signed the order to send Mr. Cheatham home.  Ms. Cheatham got the news shortly after 1 p.m.  “My heart just was so full of joy,” she said.  “I called everybody I could think of to tell them,” including the prison chaplain, whom she asked to deliver the good news to her husband.

Later that afternoon, the chaplain called back. Mr. Cheatham had died before he could tell him about the judge’s order.  Ms. Cheatham was devastated, but expressed her hope that on some level, Mr. Cheatham may have sensed the news.  “At least,” she wrote to a supporter, “he died a free man on paper.”

Some of many prior related posts:

February 15, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Detailed memo maps out arguments and urges litigation for immediate good-time credit under FIRST STEP Act

A helpful reader alerted me to this notable new memorandum from the office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Oregon titled "Delayed Implementation Of The First Step Act’s Good Time Credit Fix Violates The Rules Of Statutory Construction And Due Process Of Law." The memo is authored by Stephen Sady and Elizabeth Daily, and here is how it gets started:

With a single exception to date, thousands of federal prisoners who expected immediate release based on the First Step Act’s congressional clarification of the good time credit statute have been required to remain in custody beyond completion of their sentences, with many more scheduled to similarly serve unnecessary incarceration over the next six months.  The good time fix requires that prisoners showing exemplary compliance with institutional rules receive the full statutory 54 days of good time credits, rather than the 47 days presently provided, for each year of their term of imprisonment.  The Bureau of Prisons has continued to provide only 47 days of credit, claiming that a delayed effective date prevents it from implementing the good time fix until it develops an unrelated risk and needs assessment system. The Bureau should be following the rules of statutory construction, as guided by the Constitution, to immediately put into effect the only congressionally-approved manner of calculating good time credits.  The Executive Branch has the power -- and in good conscience the obligation -- to correct the wasteful and inhumane over-incarceration of prisoners who have reached their lawful sentence expiration date.

Rather than wait for the Executive Branch to do the right thing, prisoners’ representatives should litigate for immediate relief on their clients’ behalf from the Judicial Branch.  This article provides the legal grounds for relief in several parts. In Section A, we describe the history of the Bureau’s denial of the full good time credits intended by Congress and the First Step Act’s fix, which clarifies the correct 54-day calculation.  In Section B, we review the rules of statutory construction that call for immediate implementation of provisions, like the good time fix, that clarify congressional intent.  The second half of Section B specifically addresses the serious due process and equal protection problems avoided by immediate implementation of the good time fix.  In Section C, we outline the paths to expedited relief for the current federal prisoners suffering irreparable harm with each passing day.  The last sections address the need for counsel and include a description of the release of Mark Walker 60 days prior to his projected release date, as the first federal prisoner to receive the full 54 days of good time credit he earned under the statute.

Prior related posts:

February 13, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 11, 2019

Making sure we do not lose sight of the "American epidemic of overly long prison sentences"

Late last week, Judge Morris Hoffman penned this notable Wall Street Journal essay headlined "A Judge on the Injustice of America’s Extreme Prison Sentences: The duty to punish criminals comes with an obligation not to punish them more than they deserve." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Many people have celebrated Congress’s recent passage of the First Step Act, which, among other things, retroactively reduced penalties for some federal drug offenses.  But it did very little to address the American epidemic of overly long prison sentences.  Today, we lead the Western world in average length of prison sentences, at 63 months. According to the Justice Policy Institute, Canada’s average is four months, Finland’s 10, Germany’s 12 and even rugged, individualistic Australia’s is just 36.

These numbers are even more striking considering that the modern prison is an American invention and the average sentence started out at a few months, not years.  The Quakers invented prisons in the late 1700s as a more humane alternative to death or banishment, then the punishments for virtually all serious crimes.  But the penitentiary wasn’t intended to be a criminal warehouse.  Criminals were expected to work, pray and think about their crimes — to be penitent about them — in a kind of moral rehabilitation.

Virtually every new American state that adopted this form of punishment soon passed laws requiring confinement to include hard labor, but for short durations.  A 1785 New York statute was typical: It limited all nonhomicide prison sentences to six months.  Alexis de Tocqueville, whose visits to America began with a tour of U.S. prisons in 1831, wrote, “In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States.”  But over the next 150 years, America went from mildest punisher to harshest.  The reasons for this shift are complicated, but they include a dash of progressive naiveté, a bit of blind faith in the power of deterrence and large dollops of political neglect.....

[T]the relationship between longer sentences and falling crime rates is complex and nonlinear.  At some point, crime rates become unresponsive to increased punishment. If we sentenced aggravated robbers to 70 years, then increased that to 80, not even the most committed believer in deterrence would expect those additional 10 years to further reduce robberies.  The enormous leverage of prosecutors in plea bargaining is undoubtedly a factor in the explosion of sentence lengths.  But the real problem is the sentence ranges created by legislatures, not the particular sentences within those ranges imposed by judges or driven by plea bargains.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those apologists who thinks that criminal law is fundamentally immoral or that a bad environment excuses bad actions. I am what we in the business call a “retributivist.” I don’t punish people primarily to cure them or to deter others. I punish them mainly because those who intentionally harm others deserve to be punished, in no small part to earn their way back into the social fold.

But if retribution offers a moral justification for punishment, it also imposes limits. W e have a duty to punish wrongdoers, but that duty comes with the obligation not to punish criminals more than they deserve. Much of our criminal-justice system has lost that moral grounding, and our use of prisons has become extreme.  We dishonor victims of crimes that merit severe punishment when we sentence less serious crimes just as harshly.  What do I tell the surviving relatives of a victim of second-degree murder when they see her killer sentenced to less time than someone who robbed a crowded restaurant?...

It won’t be easy. No one gets elected by calling for shorter prison sentences.  Critics will warn that releasing prisoners earlier is unsafe, and in some cases it would be.  But as a policy matter, there is simply no evidence that, say, a 70-year sentence for aggravated robbery does more than a 30-year one to deter other potential robbers.  Moreover, violent crime rates decrease rapidly as criminals age out of their 20s.  Releasing a middle-aged prisoner earlier does pose more risk, of course, than keeping him behind bars, but that marginal danger will be very small indeed when we are comparing 30- and 70-year sentences....

As state and federal legislators ponder their next moves after the First Step Act, they should consider lowering historically extreme sentences for some offenses, including violent ones.  It would not only be sensible public policy but would also help return our criminal law to its moral roots.

February 11, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

"State of Phone Justice: Local jails, state prisons and private phone providers"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Prison Policy Initiative report authored by Peter Wagner and Alexi Jones.  Here is how the report gets started:

At a time when the cost of a typical phone call is approaching zero, people behind bars in the U.S. are often forced to pay astronomical rates to call their loved ones or lawyers. Why?  Because phone companies bait prisons and jails into charging high phone rates in exchange for a share of the revenue.

The good news is that, in the last decade, we’ve made this industry considerably fairer:

  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped the cost of out-of-state phone calls from both prisons and jails at about 21 cents a minute;
  • The FCC capped many of the abusive fees that providers used to extract extra profits from consumers; and
  • Most state prison systems lowered their rates even further and also lowered rates for in-state calls.

However, the vast majority of our progress has been in state-run prisons.  In county- and city-run jails — where predatory contracts get little attention — instate phone calls can still cost $1 per minute, or more.  Moreover, phone providers continue to extract additional profits by charging consumers hidden fees and are taking aggressive steps to limit competition in the industry.

These high rates and fees can be disastrous for people incarcerated in local jails.  Local jails are very different from state prisons: On a given day, 3 out of 4 people held in jails under local authority have not even been convicted, much less sentenced. The vast majority are being held pretrial, and many will remain behind bars unless they can make bail. Charging pretrial defendants high prices for phone calls punishes people who are legally innocent, drives up costs for their appointed counsel, and makes it harder for them to contact family members and others who might help them post bail or build their defense. It also puts them at risk of losing their jobs, housing, and custody of their children while they are in jail awaiting trial.

February 11, 2019 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Another review of the bad mess surrounding the "good time" fix in the FIRST STEP Act

I have done a few prior FIRST STEP Act implementation posts here and here focused on the problems with immediate application of its "good time" fix.  This recent Mother Jones article, fully headlined "Trump’s One Real Bipartisan Win Is Already Turning Into a Mess: Confusion and division over a provision in the First Step Act has left thousands of well-behaved inmates in limbo," effectively explains the issue and reports on the latest state of affairs. Here are excerpts:  

The law stipulates that prisoners can use these credits to shave off as many as 54 days from their sentences each year, up from 47 days previously — a change that also applies retroactively. Before the measure passed, criminal justice reform advocates estimated it would allow about 4,000 people to get out of prison quickly, perhaps even in time for the winter holidays. Before the measure passed, criminal justice reform advocates estimated it would allow about 4,000 people to get out of prison quickly, perhaps even in time for the winter holidays.

Lawmakers speaking in private to advocacy groups were reportedly clear that the credits would be recalculated right away — in order to take immediate effect — according to activists I spoke with who were involved in discussions about the bill on Capitol Hill and at the White House leading up to its passage. “There’s no doubt what the intent was,” says Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of #cut50, an organization that seeks to reduce the prison population and that lobbied hard for the bill. “This stuff was debated ad nauseam publicly on the floor of the Senate,” adds Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network. “Legislative intent is very clear.”

On December 22, just one day after the First Step Act was signed, Vivek Shah, a federal prisoner in Chicago, tested that theory. He filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court seeking his immediate release from confinement because of the new rule on good-time credits. But in early January, US District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman denied his request, saying that the law did not actually allow for his release until a later date. Technically, she wrote in her decision, the First Step Act stipulates that these extra credits can’t be doled out to inmates until after the Justice Department develops a risk and needs assessment program, a process that could take more than seven months, according to a deadline that she notes was laid out in the law.

Advocacy groups quickly shot back. The risk assessment, they argue, is specifically intended to help prisons figure out which inmates can spend extra days in halfway houses—a completely different point unrelated to determining which inmates can shave off time for good behavior. “There’s literally nothing in the good-time credits that has anything to do with the risk and needs assessment,” says Erin Haney, a policy director at #cut50. “These are people who are in good standing and have been given 47 days, and it just has to be recalculated to 54 days.”

The discrepancy in the policy’s interpretation seems to be a result of lawmakers putting the provision about good-time credits in a section that deals with the risk assessment program, a fact Judge Coleman notes in her ruling. Activists from the group FAMM, which advocates for families of incarcerated people, have suggested this was a legislative drafting error given the previous assurances about speedy recalculation of credits. “Everyone, including us, missed this mistake in the bill,” says Molly Gill, vice president of policy at FAMM. “We have notified lawmakers of the problem and asked them to fix it.”

To address the issue, lawmakers could pass a rider clarifying that good-time credits should be recalculated immediately, Gill says, or the DOJ could issue an administrative directive ordering the Bureau of Prisons not to delay the process.

But when contacted by Mother Jones, several lawmakers who co-sponsored the legislation declined to comment on the record about whether it was a drafting mistake or their intent to make well-behaved inmates wait for the risk assessment program. Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who helped craft the law and chaired the Judiciary Committee when it was passed, said it was not an error. “The text of the bill has been around for quite a while. It shouldn’t be a surprise,” Foy said, adding that Grassley hopes the risk assessment can be developed as quickly as possible. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), one of the Democrats who championed the bill, declined to comment about his interpretation of the provision, as did Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who were crucial in drafting the legislation.

The Bureau of Prisons appears to be on the same page as Grassley. “We know that inmates and their families are particularly interested in the changes regarding good conduct time,” it said in a statement to Mother Jones. “While this change may result in additional credit for inmates in the future, it is not effective immediately nor is it applicable to all inmates.” The agency added that it would wait until “the risk and needs assessment system is issued by the Attorney General.” It did not say whether it had provided guidance on the matter to individual prisons, but at least two facilities sent the same statement to inmates in January, according to advocacy groups.

The Bureau of Prisons is likely in a holding pattern for the near future, since any directive about the First Step Act would “need the cooperation of the attorney general, which is what makes the Barr hearing so critical,” says Harris of the Justice Action Network, referring to William Barr, Trump’s nominee for the position. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Barr said he had “no problem” reforming the prison system and would “faithfully implement the law,” but his record of tough-on-crime rhetoric raises questions about the extent to which he would intervene to help inmates get out sooner....

Matters were made even more complicated over the past month because of the record-making government shutdown. Lawmakers have largely been consumed by the impacts of the shutdown and negotiations over border security, while the Justice Department furloughed workers and delayed its development of the risk assessment program during those weeks. “So the long and short of it is that prisoners will end up waiting at least seven months, and likely longer, before they can get their sentences reduced with the extra good time promised under the First Step Act,” says Gill....

In the meantime, those 4,000 prisoners who hoped to be out for the holidays remain stuck behind bars waiting for answers. “Many inmates…are disappointed that nothing is happening,” an incarcerated man at the Federal Prison Camp in Duluth, Minnesota, wrote to me during the shutdown, speaking generally about the First Step Act’s implementation. “There’s nothing more urgent than freedom,” adds Haney.

Prior related posts:

February 7, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, February 04, 2019

"18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)’s Undervalued Sentencing Command: Providing a Federal Criminal Defendant with Rehabilitation, Training, and Treatment in 'the Most Effective Manner'"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new (and very timely) article authored by Erica Zunkel now available in the Notre Dame Journal of International & Comparative Law.  Here is its abstract:

The vast majority of federal criminal defendants are sentenced to prison, and non-incarceration sentences have become vanishingly small.  During the sentencing process, federal district court judges are required to consider what sentence will provide the defendant with necessary rehabilitation and treatment in the most effective manner pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(d).  Courts regularly undervalue, ignore, or even violate this statutory command.  Some courts seem to believe that the Bureau of Prisons can provide adequate rehabilitation and treatment and do not explain how this squares with what the statute requires.  Other courts barely engage with the issue.  Only a minority of courts take the statutory command seriously. 

This is problematic because evidence shows that the Bureau of Prisons is ill-equipped to provide defendants with the most effective rehabilitation and treatment, particularly medical care and mental health care.  This Article concludes that the courts should take § 3553(a)(2)(D)’s mandate much more seriously in sentencing federal criminal defendants. Likewise, defense attorneys should engage in vigorous advocacy at sentencing to ensure that courts understand the Bureau of Prisons’ severe limitations in providing effective, let alone adequate, rehabilitation and treatment.

February 4, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

What remedies can those trapped without heat and light in Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center secure through their lawsuit?

I am so very relieved to hear that the awful situation that developed last week at Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center seems to be getting (somewhat) resolved, and so now I am wondering about what might result from the resulting litigation.  This NBC News piece provides the ugly background:

When the sun goes down, one inmate can't read the labels on his heart medication, he said. Another inmate said he was brought to tears in fear that no one will notice if he suffers an asthma attack.  "I'm scared I won't wake up," the inmate said, according to David Patton, the executive director of the Federal Defenders of New York.

These are just a handful of the stories Patton said he heard on Saturday when he visited Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center.  Located in the neighborhood of Sunset Park, the jail encountered problems after a fire broke out in a gear switch room on Jan. 27, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  As a result, inmates inside have become panic-stricken as they wait for the heat and electricity amid dangerously cold weather, according to reports from lawyers and lawmakers.  "It's disgraceful and it breaks your heart when you talk to people who are frantic and scared and entirely cut off from the outside world," Patton told NBC News on Sunday.

Patton said he and his colleagues will file a lawsuit on Monday spelling out the "unconstitutional conditions" the inmates have been kept in over the past week.  Patton said he was unable to go into detail about the suit until after it is filed.  "The big power issue that has caused significant problems this week resulted from the fire on [last] Sunday, but they may have been having other electrical problems before that," Patton said. "The heating problems seem to be independent."

In a statement released on Sunday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which oversees the Metropolitan Detention Center, said that power had been restored and staff was working to restore the facility to normal operations.  The bureau also said that new electrical panel was installed on Saturday and that the work on the electrical panel should be finished by Monday.  It added that heating to the building was unaffected and inmates have hot water in the showers and in the cells, in addition to access to hygiene items and medical services. "We continue to work expeditiously to restore power to the facility as quickly as possible," the statement read.

However, the attorneys who visited the jail described a different scene. In notes taken during a tour of the jail and shared with NBC News, Deirdre von Dornum, the attorney-in-charge of the Federal Defenders for the Eastern District of New York, described water leaking into inmates' beds from cracks in the ceiling, pitch black cells, and tepid water in the showers.  Hot meals were being served during von Dornum's tour, she wrote, but several inmates showed her cups with "brown or cloudy water from the tap and said it is not drinkable."

She described some inmates not receiving medical treatment for things like bipolar disorder and Crohn's disease.  "These units had a panicky feeling," von Dornum wrote.  "One man showed us his infected open leg wound and told us his colitis is so bad that he woke up bloody — and no fresh sheets are available."...

When Patton toured the prison on Saturday, he said he saw thermometers in several inmates cells showed the temperature ranged between 50 degrees and 69 degrees, with temperatures varying depending on location and proximity to the windows....

Protesters who stood outside the detention center when the lights came back on celebrated and cheered in support.  Earlier, both New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Governor Andrew Cuomo got involved.  Gillibrand penned a letter to acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker asking him to take immediate action and fix the problem and Cuomo asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate reports of civil rights violations at the prison.

Patton said his office began having problems contacting inmates during the 35-day government shutdown. He said he's still not sure if some of the issues in the jail stem from the staffing and funding shortages during the shutdown, which may have caused maintenance issues.... "They feel like they’re trapped in intolerable conditions and have no idea if anyone out there knows about it," Patton said on Sunday.

Although power is scheduled to be restored on Monday, Patton said the issues of jail conditions reach far past this week.  "We're going to get through this immediate crisis at some point," Patton said.  "But I hope people don’t forget about the issues of prison conditions because they're terrible even when power doesn’t go out."

Relatedly, this morning I received this news release from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers titled "Nation’s Criminal Defense Bar Demands Immediate and Comprehensive Investigation into the Emergence and Handling of the ‘Inhumane and Cruel’ Conditions at the Federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn."  I am not an expert in prison conditions lawsuits, but I hope those who are will be helping on this matter to reduce the odds of this kind of ugly event happening again.

February 4, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, February 02, 2019

"Education for Liberation: The Politics of Promise and Reform Inside and Beyond America’s Prisons"

Robinson-English-Cover-364x586The title of this post is the title of this timely new book of essays edited by Gerard Robinson and Elizabeth English Smith. Here is the publisher's description of the text:

Almost 650,000 men and women, approximately the size of the city of Memphis, TN, return home from prison every year. Oftentimes with some pocket change and a bus ticket, they reenter society and struggle to find work, housing, a supportive social network.  Economic barriers, the stigma of a felony conviction, and mental health and addiction challenges make reentry a bleak picture, leading some to return to a life of crime. A Department of Justice study of 404,638 inmates in 30 states released in 2005, for example, identified that 68 percent were rearrested within 3 years and 77 percent within 5 years of release.

Education and workforce readiness programs must be central components in better preparing individuals to successfully reenter society — and stay out of prison.  This book compiles chapters written by individuals on the right and the left of the political spectrum, and within and outside the fields of prison education and reentry that address this need for reform.  Chapters feature the voices of prominent national figures pushing for reform, current and former students who have benefitted from an education program while in prison, those teaching or managing educational programs within prison, and researchers, entrepreneurs, and policy influencers.

This page over at AEI provides this additional accounting of the book:

Prisoner rehabilitation through postsecondary education and workforce readiness programming is one of the most contested criminal justice policies today.  At the center of this national debate about crime and punishment are 230-year-old questions about the role prisons should play in a democratic society.  Are our prisons designed for corporal punishment, human improvement, or a combination thereof?  Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the United States government has provided conflicting answers to the American public.  After a number of postsecondary college programs closed following the passage of The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, coupled with the slow growth of adult basic, secondary, and CTE courses, efforts to rehabilitate prisoners have taken a front seat in criminal justice reform debates today. Local, state and federal support for these programs has grown, as has the national prominence of corporate and philanthropic efforts to provide programming to people inside of prison and those who have just re-entered society.

Education for Liberation addresses how to reform our criminal justice system by better preparing individuals to successfully re-enter society upon their release from prison.  This volume complies chapters written by experts working in academia, policy, correctional agencies, and the private sector to address ideological debates as well as challenges and opportunities associated with providing an education to incarcerated adults.

February 2, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, February 01, 2019

Matthew Charles, released thanks to the FIRST STEP Act, provides view of next steps for criminal justice reform

Matthew Charles has this new Washington Post commentary headlined "I was released under the First Step Act. Here’s what Congress should do next."  It merits a full read, and here are excerpts:

In December, Congress approved and Trump signed the First Step Act.  The new law included a provision that shortened sentences for crack cocaine-related offenses, such as mine.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates that change will help almost 2,700 people.

This time, there was no mistake.  The government and my defense attorney agreed that I should be released immediately.  On Jan. 3, I went home.  I was one of the first people to get released under the law.

My heart is filled with gratitude for everyone who supported me and supported the First Step Act.  Every week, I hear about more people leaving prison because of the new law. Overall, more than 150,000 people in the long term will benefit from the law’s sentencing and prison reforms.  The First Step Act was a great start, but we have to do more.  I got a second chance — and so should so many others.

Since leaving prison, I have looked for ways to serve the poor and to advocate on behalf of those I left behind.  This week, I went to Washington to thank lawmakers for supporting prison reform and to ask that they consider more reforms that will recognize that people can change.  In the year and a half that I was home, people saw that I was not the same person who was convicted of selling crack as a young man.  There are many people still serving decades-long sentences who have rehabilitated themselves, like I did.  Unfortunately, most Americans do not see or hear from them, and they are not given a real opportunity to demonstrate that they have changed.

Congress should pass a law that would allow all federal prisoners to earn a second chance after serving a certain amount of time — maybe 15 years.  People would not be guaranteed release, but they would be given an opportunity to be resentenced by a judge.  The judge could determine whether they had used their time in prison to atone for their crimes and make changes for the better.  If not, they would continue to serve their original sentence.

A law such as this would encourage prisoners to improve themselves. Some might think this idea is too lenient, but 15 years is a long time.  From what I saw during my years behind bars, anyone who wants and deserves a second chance would be able to demonstrate that within 15 years....

I got lucky. Our justice system shouldn’t depend on luck.  The First Step Act is in place — now it should be used to make real change and help families.  And let’s not lose any time in making a Next Step Act, because everyone deserves a second chance.

February 1, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)