Sunday, May 19, 2024

"Does quadriplegic inmate deserve compassionate release after 49 years?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this editorial from a Pennsylvania paper.  The editorial seems to answer the question in the affirmative, and here are excerpts:

Ezra Bozeman was convicted of second-degree murder in 1975. The jury came to that decision 10 months after the crime occurred, when Morris Weitz was shot and killed during a robbery at a dry cleaner’s shop in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood.

Bozeman was sentenced to life in prison. He has maintained for 49 years that he is innocent. He has appealed to the state Supreme Court. He has filed eight Post Conviction Relief Act petitions. None of that matters. Not really. Not anymore.

Those in his corner say he has been a model prisoner, counseling and mentoring others. That doesn’t matter either.

Bozeman’s doctor says the inmate is dying. Since February, he has been a quadriplegic. After 49 years locked in a cell, he is now locked in his own body.

But that doesn’t matter to the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office either. In a hearing Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Ronald M. Wabby Jr. argued against compassionate release for Bozeman. The reason? Wabby said there’s “no evidence to support their petition.”

Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Susan Evashavik DiLucente will be scheduling another hearing to take testimony from Bozeman’s physician.  Perhaps that will suffice. Gov. Josh Shapiro, the former Pennsylvania attorney general, supports the release.  The judge says she is inclined to agree.

Bozeman, 68, would not be released to go on a crime spree.  Quadriplegics cannot move any of their four limbs. He can move nothing below his neck. He requires a colostomy bag.  His attorney spoke of a pressure sore that reaches bone because the medical staff at SCI-Laurel Highlands cannot provide the kind of care someone in this condition requires.  A National Institutes of Health study claims the cost of acute care for a quadriplegic can top $500,000. It can require constant care a prison is not prepared to provide. There are bottom-line financial reasons to release a man who has been in prison since the Ford administration.

I find it interesting, though not uncommon, to see discussion of a compassionate release request framed in terms of what the inmate might "deserve."  But if rretributive desert is really what's most important in these casess, then the specifics of the crime, claims of innocence and post-crime behavior would all matter.  Yet this editorial, with its focus this inmate's apparent inability to commit future crime and the high costs of his care, is really building a case for release based on utilitarian concerns rather than retributivist ones.  Still, I understand why asking whether it would be sensible for society/Pennsylvania to grant compassionate release does not have quite the same ring as asking if an inmate "deserves" release.

Meanwhile, this lengthy news article about the case highlights that some medical testimony is in dispute, and it provides some useful data and context concerning Pennsylvania's recent compassionate release history:

Since 2016, the most recent for which data was available, through the end of 2023, 74 petitions for compassionate release were filed by Department of Corrections inmates.  Of those, 44 were granted, 10 were denied, and seven were otherwise withdrawn. In the same time, 13 people died waiting for decisions.

That’s not uncommon, according to Nishi Kumar, an attorney and head of medical-legal projects at the Medical Justice Alliance, an organization of physicians that work with incarcerated people. Many states have strict definitions of who can be released under compassionate release statutes, and some people are deemed “not sick enough.”...

So far in 2024, nine petitions have been filed in Pennsylvania, and five have been granted. One person died during the court process. Two are pending, including Bozeman’s. The number of compassionate release petitions filed each year has increased: from three or four each year to 13 in 2022 and 18 in 2023. Some of that could be because of continued pushes for criminal justice reform and increased attention on cases similar to Bozeman’s.

Spotlight PA, a nonprofit Pennsylvania news outlet, profiled Raymond Caliman in early 2022. At 68, an infection had left him bedridden and deteriorating but not at imminent risk of dying. After Spotlight’s piece published, the Abolitionist Law Center took up Caliman’s case, and he was ultimately released to hospice care in Philadelphia. He died less than two months later.

Pennsylvania has just under 40,000 persons in its prisons; even with the recent uptick in compassionate release petitions, it seems far less than 0.05% are seeking this release each year in the Keystone State.

May 19, 2024 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 12, 2024

New US Sentencing Commission data on retroactive application of criminal history amendments

Last year, US Sentencing Commission voted for (delayed) retroactive application of its Guideline amendments relating to criminal history.  There were two major parts to these amendment that reduced the sentencing range for certain defendants with "status" points (Part A) and for other defendants who would now be deemed "zero-point" offenders (Part B).   And last week, the Commission release some new data on how retroactivity is playing out in district courts.  Here are links to the USSC's data reports:

NEW Retroactivity Data on Part A

NEW Retroactivity Data on Part B

There are lots of interesting little stories in these data runs, but I figured I might  here highlight the top-line numbers. Specifically, for the Part A "status point" amendment, a total of 2,988 defendants have received sentence reductions averaging 10 months.  For the Part B "zero point" amendment, a total of 2,143 defendants have receive sentence reductions averaging 13 months.

Adding this up, we get at total of 57,738 months of reduced federal prison time (which is a little over 4800 years of imprisonment for those not great at dividing by 12).  Given that the average annual cost of federal incarceration is over $42,000, we might reasonably calculate a savings of over $200 million to US taxpayers resulting from the Commission's decision to make its new criminal history guidelines retoractive.

I presume future retroactivity data runs will report in some more defendants getting reductions under the new guidelines, and I also expect other data will also show a significant number of newly sentenced defendants also benefiting from these new criminal history guidelines.  And especially since there were built on the USSC's copious revidivism data, I am hopeful that there reduction do not come at any real public safety costs. 

May 12, 2024 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 07, 2024

Rounding up a number of new prison stories and commentaries

We are only a few days into the work week, but I have already come across a number of notable new pieces about a number of notable prison issues.  I figured a round-up here would allow me to cover a lot of interesting ground:

From The Guardian, "Appetising, delicious food served up to prisoners? It works for the Nordic countries"

From The Hill, "Prison education programs ready to expand, but new Pell Grants slow to arrive"

From KTVU Fox 2, "FCI Dublin transfers complain of poor treatment, retaliation at other prisons"

From the Montgomery Advertiser, "Six incarcerated people sue Alabama leaders, alleging unconstitutional prison labor"

From NBC News, "Elizabeth Holmes sees more months trimmed from prison release date"

From the New York Times, "When Prison and Mental Illness Amount to a Death Sentence"

From Vox, "America’s prison system is turning into a de facto nursing home"

May 7, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, May 06, 2024

New Prison Policy Initiative report details “Inmate Welfare Funds" used to cover "prison operations, staff salaries, benefits, and more"

The Prison Policy Initiative this morning released this new report titled "Shadow Budgets: How mass incarceration steals from the poor to give to the prison." This lengthy report subtitle details its findings and themes: "Revenues from communication fees, commissary purchases, disciplinary fines, and more flow into “Inmate Welfare Funds” meant to benefit incarcerated populations. However, our analysis of prison systems across the U.S. reveals that they are used more like slush funds that, in many cases, make society’s most vulnerable people pay for prison operations, staff salaries, benefits, and more." Here is how the report gets started:

Prisons and jails generate billions of dollars each year by charging incarcerated people and their communities steep prices for phone calls, video calls, e-messaging, money transfers, and commissary purchases.  A lot of that money goes back to corrections agencies in the form of kickbacks.  But what happens to it from there?  As it turns out, much of this money flows into special accounts called “Inmate Welfare Funds.”  These welfare funds are supposed to be used for non-essential purchases that collectively benefit the incarcerated population.  In reality, poorly written policies and lax oversight make welfare funds an irresistible target for corruption in jails and prisons: in many cases, corrections officials have wide discretion to use welfare funds as shadow budgets for subsidizing essential facility operations, staff salaries, vehicles, weapons, and more, instead of paying for such things out of their department’s more transparent and accountable general budget.

How do welfare funds get funded?  How is the money used, and who gets to decide?  We analyzed laws and policies governing welfare funds in all 50 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons to find out.  We identified at least 49 prison systems that have some form of welfare fund, though it’s likely that every system has one.  In most cases, they are funded through communications fees and store purchases, as we mentioned, as well as interest accrued on individual trust accounts.  Some prison systems also fund them with sums of money confiscated from people who escape custody, contraband, or disciplinary fines.

Although welfare funds are generally meant to be used for recreation equipment, entertainment, social and educational opportunities, and other non-essential benefits for the incarcerated population as a whole, prison policies frequently allow them to pay for facility construction and maintenance, hygiene products for indigent people, release-related costs and other goods and services that are supposed to come out of a department’s general budget.  Our analysis reveals that most policies are so vague that prison officials enjoy wide discretion to spend incarcerated peoples’ money as they please — sometimes spending it on luxury perks for staff.

May 6, 2024 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Notable new compassionate release ruling finding home confinement difficulties justified sentence reduction

I received from a colleague an interesting new federal court order granting a § 3582 sentence reduction motion based in part on the difficulties associated with extended home confinement. The full ruling in US v. Reynods, No. CR-12-84-GF-BMM-6 (D. Mont. April 30, 2024), is available for download below.  Here is one key passage from the ruling:

The Court finds that extraordinary and compelling reasons exist to warrant a reduction of Reynolds’s sentence.  18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i). Reynolds’s age, medical conditions, home confinement status, and long sentence would not rise to the level of extraordinary and compelling when viewed individually.  These factors appear, however, to rise to that level when viewed together.  Reynolds’s advanced age increases her need for consistent, adequate medical care.  Reynolds’s status on home confinement makes it more difficult to schedule medical appointments and impossible to obtain Medicare or supplemental insurance.  Reynolds’s advanced age also makes commuting more difficult.  Reynolds’s status on home confinement prevents, however, Reynolds from obtaining housing closer to her work, UAs, and counselor.  The Court finds that these factors interact with each other to create extraordinary and compelling reasons to reduce Reynolds’s sentence.

Download Reynolds Order Redacted Filed (002)

April 30, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 29, 2024

"Electronic Prison: A Just Path to Decarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Paul Robinson and Jeffrey Seaman now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The decarceration movement enjoys enthusiastic support from many academics and activists who point out imprisonment’s failure to rehabilitate and its potential criminogenic effects.  At the same time, many fiscal conservatives and taxpayer groups are critical of imprisonment’s high costs and supportive of finding cheaper alternatives.  Yet, despite this widespread support, the decarceration movement has made little real progress at getting offenders out of prison, in large part because community views, and thus political officials, are strongly committed to the importance of doing justice — giving offenders the punishment they deserve — and decarceration is commonly seen as inconsistent with that nonnegotiable principle.  Indeed, almost no one in the decarceration movement has attempted to formulate a large-scale decarceration plan that still provides for what the community would see as just punishment.

In this Article, we offer just such a plan by demonstrating that it is entirely possible to avoid the incarceration of most offenders through utilizing non-incarcerative sanctions that can carry a total punitive effect comparable to physical prison.  New technologies allow for imposing “electronic prison” sentences where authorities can monitor, control, and punish offenders in a cheaper and less damaging way than physical prison while still doing justice.  Further, the monitoring conditions provided in electronic prison allow for the imposition of a wide array of other non-incarcerative sanctions that were previously difficult or impossible to enforce.  Even while it justly punishes, electronic prison can dramatically increase an offender’s opportunities for training, treatment, education, and rehabilitation while avoiding the problems of unsupported families, socialization to criminality, and problematic reentry after physical incarceration.  And, from a public safety standpoint, electronic prison can reduce recidivism by eliminating the criminogenic effect of incarceration and also provides longer-term monitoring of offenders than an equivalently punitive shorter term of physical imprisonment.  Of course, one can imagine a variety of objections to an electronic prison system, ranging from claims it violates an offender’s rights to fears it may widen the net of carceral control. The Article provides a response to each.

Electronic prison is one of those rare policy proposals that should garner support from across the political spectrum due to effectively addressing the complaints against America’s incarceration system lodged by voices on the left, right, and center.  Whether one’s primary concern is decarcerating prisoners and providing offenders with needed treatment, training, counseling, and education, or one’s concern is reducing crime, imposing deserved punishment, or simply reducing government expenditures, implementing an electronic prison system would provide a dramatic improvement over America’s current incarceration policies.

April 29, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (32)

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

"Degrees of difference: Do college credentials earned behind bars improve labor market outcomes?"

The title of this post is the title of this new Criminology article authored by Abby Ballou.  Here is its abstract:

It is widely held that providing postsecondary education programs to incarcerated individuals will improve postrelease labor market outcomes. Little research evidence exists, however, to support this view.  To test the effect of postsecondary carceral education credentials on employer perceptions of hireability, the current study uses a factorial design to survey a sample of employers nationwide (N = 2,538).  Employers were presented with résumés of fictional applicants applying to a job as a customer service representative at a large call center.  The résumés randomized education credentials earned while incarcerated. 

Results indicate that employers were significantly more willing to interview applicants with postsecondary education credentials relative to applicants with only a General Educational Development (GED) diploma.  Although Black applicants who had earned a sub-baccalaureate certificate saw improvements in hireability relative to GED holders, Black applicants who had earned a bachelor's degree did not.  In contrast, White applicants benefited both from sub-baccalaureate certificates and bachelor's degrees.  Results from a mediation analysis suggest that these credentials signal important information to employers about applicant attributes and that improved perceptions of applicant ability and likelihood to reoffend drive the overall effect.  Implications for future research and policy are explored.

April 24, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

"What Is a Prison?"

The title of this post is the title of this new book review authored by one of my Ohio State colleagues, Grace Li, now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Tommie Shelby’s 2022 book The Idea of Prison Abolition sets out to compile and rearticulate the arguments for and against prison abolition -- using Angela Davis's works as the sole source texts.  In considering the arguments, he concludes that it is not necessary to abolish prisons and instead endorses reform.

In this book review, I argue that Shelby’s most helpful contribution in the book is not his analysis of whether prisons should be abolished but rather his elemental definition of incarceration.  To know what to abolish and when we have abolished it, we need to define what we mean by "prison."  I evaluate and extend his definition by culling some elements, such that the remaining elements are: "involuntary confinement," "in an enclosed space," "away from the general public;" and adding an element, "for a continuous amount of time."  I also add to these elements a list of harms that imprisonment inevitably causes.

April 23, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (12)

Thursday, April 18, 2024

"The Secret History of the Carceral State"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Laura Appleman recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Profits have long played a critical role in the administration of punishment in America.  This Article provides one of the first full-length historical accounts of how the pursuit of private profits has shaped the American carceral system over time. It argues that deriving profits from punishment has been a crucial and formative aspect of American carcerality since our earliest days.  Although most scholars have focused on convict leasing in the postbellum era as the first major example of private prison profiteering, this Article shows how a predatory for-profit system of punishment well predates this, originating in the colonial era. The story of American corrections, fully told, reveals four distinct transformative periods over the nearly five-century evolution of American incarceration, ultimately explaining the condition of today’s carceral state.

In addition to providing a broader and more complete historical perspective, this Article also explains how the most recent inroads of privatized, for-profit correctional entities have overtaken the contemporary workings of the carceral system, causing chaos, abuse, and death.  The Article details the mechanisms through which seeking profits from incarceration has led to objectively worse conditions and outcomes for the punished.  Given the now widespread privatization and corporate takeover of so many aspects of the carceral state, from healthcare to food services and beyond, it is well past time to question the role of “Big Capital.”  This Article shines a light on the forgotten history of the American carceral crisis, tracing the role of profits from colonial days to the 21st century.

April 18, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Ugly stories of federal prison management continue as "rape club" FCI-Dublin gets shut down

I have blogged before about only some of the ugly details surrounding the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Dublin in California, where sexual abuse of incarcerated women was so rampant that the facitlity garnered the nickname "rape club." This week brought a number of new developments to the ugly stories of FCI-Dublin, which seem to be on-going and are partially summarized in this recent AP piece:

The planned closure of a federal women’s prison in California notorious for staff-on-inmate sexual abuse won’t occur before each inmate’s status has been reviewed, with an eye toward determining who will be transferred elsewhere or released, authorities say.  Following the Bureau of Prison’s sudden announcement Monday that FCI Dublin would be shut down, a judge ordered an accounting of the casework for all 605 women held at the main lockup and its adjacent minimum-security camp.

A special master recently assigned to oversee the troubled prison will review the casework and “ensure inmates are transferred to the correct location,” U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers wrote in her order.  “This includes whether an inmate should be released to a BOP facility, home confinement, or halfway house, or granted a compassionate release.”

Advocates have called for inmates to be freed from FCI Dublin, which they say is not only plagued by sexual abuse but also has hazardous mold, asbestos and inadequate health care.  They also worry that some of the safety concerns could persist at other women’s prisons. “There are survivors of sexual assault that are still at Dublin. And the idea that BOP could just transfer them to some other far-off place without care ... it’s just abhorrent to me,” said Susan Beaty, an attorney for inmate whistleblowers who exposed the abuse and corruption....

A 2021 Associated Press investigation exposed a “rape club” culture at the prison where a pattern of abuse and mismanagement went back years, even decades.  The Bureau of Prisons repeatedly promised to improve the culture and environment — but the decision to shutter the facility represented an extraordinary acknowledgment that reform efforts have failed.  “Despite these steps and resources, we have determined that FCI Dublin is not meeting expected standards and that the best course of action is to close the facility,” Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters said in a statement to AP.  “This decision is being made after ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of those unprecedented steps and additional resources.”

Groups representing inmates and prison workers alike said the imminent closure shows that the bureau is more interested in avoiding accountability than stemming the problems....

Last August, eight FCI Dublin inmates sued the Bureau of Prisons, alleging the agency had failed to root out sexual abuse at the facility about 21 miles (35 kilometers) east of Oakland.  It is one of six women-only federal prisons and the only one west of the Rocky Mountains.  Lawyers for the plaintiffs said inmates continued to face retaliation for reporting abuse, including being put in solitary confinement and having belongings confiscated.  They said the civil litigation will continue.

Last month, the FBI again searched the prison and the Bureau of Prisons again shook up its leadership after a warden sent to help rehabilitate the facility was accused of retaliating against a whistleblower inmate.  Days later, a federal judge overseeing lawsuits against the prison, said she would appoint a special master to oversee the facility’s operations.

The AP investigation found a culture of abuse and cover-ups that had persisted for years. That reporting led to increased scrutiny from Congress and pledges from the Bureau of Prisons that it would fix problems and change the culture at the prison.  Since 2021, at least eight FCI Dublin employees have been charged with sexually abusing inmates. Five have pleaded guilty. Two were convicted at trial, including the former warden, Ray Garcia. Another case is pending.

April 18, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 15, 2024

US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing set for "Legacy of Harm: Eliminating the Abuse of Solitary Confinement

Tomorrow morning, Tuesday, April 16, 2024, the US Senate Judiciary Committee has a hearing set for 10am titled "Legacy of Harm: Eliminating the Abuse of Solitary Confinement."  The hearing should be available to stream at this link, where this list of witnesses are set out:

Roy Boyd, Sheriff, Goliad County Sheriff’s Office, Goliad, TX

Katherine R. Peeler, MD, MA, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics; Medical Expert, Physicians for Human Rights, Harvard Medical School

Nicole Davis, Executive Director, Talk2Me Foundation

Gretta L. Goodwin, Director, Homeland Security and Justice, Government Accountability Office

Though I am not familiar with the work of these witnesses, the names of some of the organizations and the very title of the hearing certainly suggests that there will be considerable advocacy against solitary confinement.

April 15, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Prison Policy Initiative releases new briefing with new data and visuals on modern jail growth

Emily Widra of the Prison Policy Initiative has authored tbis new briefing titled "New data and visualizations spotlight states’ reliance on excessive jailing."  The subtitle provides context: "We've updated the data tables and graphics from our 2017 report to show just how little has changed in our nation's overuse of jails: too many people are locked up in jails, most detained pretrial and many of them are not even under local jurisdiction."   Here is how the report starts (with links from the original, but footnotes omitted):

One out of every three people behind bars is being held in a local jail, yet jails get almost none of the attention that prisons do. In 2017, we published an in-depth analysis of local jail populations in each state: Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth. We paid particular attention to the various drivers of jail incarceration — including pretrial practices and holding people in local jails for state and federal authorities — and we explained how jails impact our entire criminal legal system and millions of lives every year. In the years since that publication, many states have passed reforms aimed at reducing jail populations, but we still see the same trends playing out: too many people are confined in local jails, and the reasons for their confinement do not justify the overwhelming costs of our nation’s reliance on excessive jailing.

People cycle through local jails more than 7 million times each year and they are generally held there for brief, but life-altering, periods of time. Most are released in a few hours or days after their arrest, but others are held for months or years, often because they are too poor to make bail. Fewer than one-third of the 663,100 people in jails on a given day have been convicted and are likely serving short sentences of less than a year, most often for misdemeanors.  Jail policy is therefore in large part about how people who are legally innocent are treated, and how policymakers think our criminal legal system should respond to low-level offenses.

April 15, 2024 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 05, 2024

"How to Reform Correctional Mental Health Care"

The title of this post is the title of this new report authored by Stephen Eide of the Manhattan Institute.  Here the report's executive summary:

“Trans-institutionalization” refers to the shift of seriously mentally ill adults from the care of psychiatric institutions to correctional institutions.  Beginning in the 1950s, public mental health agencies have pursued the deinstitutionalization of the seriously mentally ill.  These government agencies intended to meet that goal through creating a system of community-based care to replace the asylum-based systems.  Deinstitutionalization did not succeed as planned.  Consequently, jails and prisons became the custodians of hundreds of thousands of seriously mentally ill adults who in previous eras would have been committed to an asylum.

Some dispute the magnitude of trans-institutionalization.  But no one denies the high rate of serious mental illness among the incarcerated, or that jails and prisons are poor settings in which to treat serious mental illness. Correctional mental health care now stands as one of the most important mental health care systems in the nation. Jails and prisons are legally obligated to serve the seriously mentally ill, whereas community-based systems are not. More effective community-based mental health remains an important goal to pursue.  But equally important is the reform of corrections-based systems.  Better correctional mental health care systems will benefit both community systems and the seriously mentally ill themselves.

This report will explain how corrections-based systems function.  It will place those systems in the context of debates around “jail abolition,” explain their workforce and financial challenges, and recommend the following reforms:

  1. State governments should assume more responsibility for funding jail-based mental health care.
  2. Correctional mental health systems have special responsibility to the seriously mentally ill and are justified in targeting resources accordingly.
  3. Collect, keep, and report better data.
  4. Repeal Medicaid’s Institution for Mental Diseases (IMD) exclusion.
  5. Correctional institutions should make more use of long-acting injectables during discharge.
  6. Eliminate overuse of administrative segregation (solitary confinement); do not abolish it.
  7. Do not use telehealth when reliance on onsite clinical staff is feasible.

April 5, 2024 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

"Excessive Punishment: How the Justice System Creates Mass Incarceration"

9780231212175The title of this post is the title of this new book edited by Lauren-Brooke Eisen and published this month by Columbia University Press. Eisen is Justice Program Senior Director at the Brennan Center for Justice, and this Brennan Center webpage provides this overview of the book:

Excessive Punishment contains 38 essays, by 45 contributors — practitioners, activists, academics, and thought leaders — who contributed their critical voices to highlighting the harms of the status quo and providing valuable insight into how we can move toward a criminal legal system that is smaller, more effective, and more humane.

The United States has by far the world’s largest population of incarcerated people. More than a million Americans are imprisoned; hundreds of thousands more are held in jails. This vast system has doled out punishment — particularly to people from marginalized groups — on an unfathomable scale. At the same time, it has manifestly failed to secure public safety, instead perpetuating inequalities and recidivism. Why does the United States see punishment as the main response to social harm, and what are the alternatives?

This book brings together essays by scholars, practitioners, activists, and writers, including incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, to explore the harms of this punitive approach.  The chapters address a range of issues, from policing to prosecution, and from how people are treated in prison to the consequences of a criminal conviction.  Together, they consider a common theme: we cannot reduce our dependence on mass incarceration until we confront our impulse to punish in ways that are excessive, often wildly disproportionate to the harm caused.

Essays trace how a maze of local, state, and federal agencies have contributed to mass incarceration and deterred attempts at reform.  They shed light on how the excesses of America’s criminal legal system are entwined with poverty, racism, and the legacy of slavery.  A wide-ranging and powerful look at the failures of the status quo, Excessive Punishment also considers how to reimagine the justice system to support restoration instead of retribution.

April 2, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (14)

Various takes on how much time Sam Bankman-Fried will likely serve on his 25-year federal prison sentence

The federal sentencing of FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried to 25 years in prison for his frauds last Thursday has already generated a lot of discussion in blog comments, in various podcasts and in numerous press pieces.  I have a number of commentaries worth checking out (and worth skipping), but I have found especially interesting some pieces exploring the question in the headline of this Fast Company article, "How much jail time will Sam Bankman-Fried actually serve?"  Here are a few other pieces in the genre:

From Bitrades, "SBF Will Likely Serve Less Than His Full 25-Year Sentence"

From Business Insider, "Sam Bankman-Fried could go to a low-security prison and get out early if he plays his cards right, prison consultants say"

From Decrypt, "SBF Sentenced to 25 Years in Prison — How Many Will He Actually Serve?"

From the New York Post, "Sam Bankman-Fried was sentenced to 25 years in prison — but how much will he actually serve?"

These pieces generally do a reasonable job explaining that SBF will get credit for the nearly eight months he has already been in jail, and also will likely get 15% off for "good time" credit, and also can get "earned time" credits thanks to the FIRST STEP Act.  But the cummulative impact of all these potential credits has clearly been added up differently by different folks as reported in the Bitrades article: "Some experts believe Sam Bankman-Fried could spend between 12.5 and 18.5 years in prison for his crimes at FTX."

Determining precisely how much time SBF "will serve" is challenging in part because the bulk of "earned time" credits from the FIRST STEP Act that he might accrue will not formally reduce his sentence, but will allow his earlier transfer from prison into home confinement.  (The USSC recently created this helpful page about "earned time" credits.)  If SBF were to leave prison, say, after 14 years, but then must be in home confinement for the next four, one perhaps could claim he "will serve" either 14 years or 18 years.  In the end, I suspect most people focus primarily on SBF's actual time spent in federal prison (and there surely will be more press about SBF leaving prison (likley in the late 2030s) than about the official end of his term (likely some time in the early 2040s).

I sense that the entire federal sentencing and correction system is still adjusting to the new realities in time "served" created by the FIRST STEP Act.  And for another SBF-inspired take on how the FSA now alters certain notions of equality in sentencing, Eric Fish has this new Hill commentary headlined "Why is Sam Bankman-Fried treated more leniently than someone facing illegal immigration charges?"

Prior related posts:

April 2, 2024 in Celebrity sentencings, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 01, 2024

New and notable BOP data on relative success of the CARES home confinement cohort

This new Forbes piece by Walter Pavlo, headlined "Bureau Of Prisons Releases Encouraging Study On CARES Act," reports on new data from BOP showing the extremely low recidivism rae for those moved from federal prison into home confinement during the pandemic. Pavlo provides some of the context and key findings for this BOP report:

Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) on March 25, 2020 just as the pandemic reached the United States. CARES Act allowed individuals in federal correctional facilities who were a Low or Minimum security risk with underlying health conditions to serve their sentence in home confinement earlier than they would have been eligible for without the CARES Act.

Prior to the CARES Act, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) allowed inmates to serve 10% of their sentence imposed, up to a maximum of 6 months, on home confinement as part of completing their sentence.  This program too is a success and allows inmates of all security levels to transition back into society.  Many of those in federal custody, about 90%, will eventually be released from custody. Transition back to society is an important part of the corrections process.

The BOP has now completed a study on the inmates who were transferred to home confinement under CARES Act and the results are encouraging. In a press release from the BOP, it stated, “These findings suggest that the CARES Act’s provision for early and extended home confinement did not negatively impact recidivism rates. In fact, it may have contributed to a reduction in post-release recidivism, offering a promising direction for justice-involved stakeholders seeking effective strategies to reduce incarceration and its associated costs, while also promoting public safety and successful reintegration into society.”...

The BOP has the policies to move more Minimum and Low security inmates back into society sooner. Under the Second Chance Act, signed by George W. Bush, inmates can be placed on prerelease custody for up to a year of their sentence. Prerelease custody includes halfway house and home confinement.  However, the BOP has struggled recently with halfway house capacity, leaving many of inmates in institutional prisons far longer than necessary.  This problem of shortages of halfway house space is problematic because the First Step Act allows inmates to earn credits toward additional home confinement based on the time served.  The maximum amount of time an inmate can earn each month is 15 days per month but there is no limit to the amount of credits that can be earned over the term of incarceration.  This means that inmates in the future could be on home confinement for years....

The study found that overall, the use of the CARES Act to send individuals to home confinement sooner and for longer periods did not have an apparent negative impact on their recidivism rates compared to others in home confinement. Results indicate that while in home confinement individuals with a CARES assignment fail no more or less than comparable persons in home confinement.  And those with a CARES assignment fail less often than comparable persons after release.

This study matters because there are currently 78,000 out of roughly 156,000 inmates who are minimum and low security inmates in federal prison. Supervision of inmates in home confinement is significantly less costly for the BOP than housing inmates in secure custody.  According to a Federal Register report on the CARES Act, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019, the cost of incarceration fee (COIF) for a Federal inmate in a Federal facility was $107.85 per day; in FY 2020, it was $120.59 per day.  In contrast, according to the Bureau, an inmate in home confinement costs an average of $55 per day — less than half of the cost of an inmate in secure custody in FY 2020.  Although the BOP’s decision to place an inmate in home confinement is based on many factors, where the BOP deems home confinement appropriate, that decision has the added benefit of reducing the expenditures.  Such cost savings were among the intended benefits of the First Step Act.

The BOP intends to build on the information from this study and others on home confinement.  Prisons remain crowded and many inmates are serving longer sentences in expensive institutions than are necessary.  Home confinement, which is a major benefit to both inmates and tax payers, is a big part of the First Step Act.  Whether the BOP can fully implement the program to get inmates out of prisons and into the community faster remains a challenge.

April 1, 2024 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 18, 2024

Federal judge, finding "intentional disregard" of constitutional rights at FCI-Dublin, orders appointment of special master

As detailed in this AP article, a "special master will be appointed to oversee a troubled federal women’s prison in California known for rampant sexual abuse against inmates, a judge ordered Friday, marking the first time the federal Bureau of Prisons has been subject to such oversight."  Here is more:

A 2021 Associated Press investigation that found a culture of abuse and cover-ups at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin brought increased scrutiny from Congress and the Bureau of Prisons. The low-security prison and its adjacent minimum-security satellite camp, located about 21 miles (34 kilometers) east of Oakland, have more than 600 inmates.

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers called the prison “a dysfunctional mess” in her order. She did not name someone to be the special master but wrote that the court would appoint one quickly.... The order is part of a federal lawsuit filed in August by eight inmates and the advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners. They allege that sexual abuse and exploitation has not stopped despite the prosecution of the former warden and several former officers....

Since 2021, at least eight FCI Dublin employees have been charged with sexually abusing inmates. Five have pleaded guilty. Two were convicted at trial. Another case is pending. Roughly 50 civil rights lawsuits against FCI Dublin employees are also ongoing.... Rogers wrote that “in making this extraordinary decision, the Court grounds itself in BOP’s repeated failure to ensure that the extraordinary history of this facility is never repeated.”

All sexual activity between a prison worker and an inmate is illegal. Correctional employees enjoy substantial power over inmates, controlling every aspect of their lives from mealtime to lights out, and there is no scenario in which an inmate can give consent.

Rogers made an unannounced visit to the prison Feb. 14, touring the facility and its satellite camp for nine hours. She spoke with at least 100 inmates, as well as staff. Many of the inmates told her that they did not fear sexual misconduct and said “no” when asked if it was still prevalent at the prison, Rogers wrote. Still, the plaintiffs in the August lawsuit have “presented incidents of sexual misconduct that occurred as recently as November of 2023.”

Judge Rogers 45-page order explaining her rulings on various orders in the case is available at this link. Here is how it starts:

The Federal Correctional Institute (“FCI”) Dublin is a dysfunctional mess.  The situation can no longer be tolerated. The facility is in dire need of immediate change. Given the record presented and the Court’s personal observations, further magnified by recent events, the Court finds the Bureau of Prison (“BOP”) has proceeded sluggishly with intentional disregard of the inmates’ constitutional rights despite being fully apprised of the situation for years.  The repeated installation of BOP leadership who fail to grasp and address the situation strains credulity. The Court is compelled to intercede.

For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS plaintiffs’ motion for class certification and GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART the motion for preliminary injunction.  The Court issues these, and other anticipated Orders so that the constitutional rights of those imprisoned at the prison are no longer at significant risk.  The Court shall appoint a special master forthwith.  The Court will issue further Orders narrowly tailored to address the ongoing retaliation which has resulted from the convictions and sentencings of five prison officials, including the previous warden, for criminal sexual abuse and sexual contact.  The special master shall assist the Court to ensure compliance with these orders. 

March 18, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Prison Policy Initiative releases tenth edition of its flagship report, now "Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2024"

Pie2024-2XIt is pi day, which for the last decade has meant a special treat for sentencing fans and criminal justice data fans: the Prison Policy Initiative's latest, greatest version of its amazing incarceration "pie" graphic and associated report. The latest report "Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2024" provides a spectacular accounting of the particulars of who and how of incarceration in the United States. As I have said in the past, the extraordinary "pies" produced by PPI impart more information in a few images than just about any other single resource I know about (and this PPI press release has the main visual and other highlights). Here is part of this latest pie report's introductory text and  overview (links and format from the original):

The various government agencies involved in the criminal legal system collect a lot of data, but very little is designed to help policymakers or the public understand what’s going on. The uncertainty that results muddies the waters around our society’s use of incarceration, giving lawmakers and lobbyists the opportunity to advance harmful policies that do not make us safe. As criminal legal system reforms become increasingly central to political debate — and are even scapegoated to resurrect old, ineffective “tough on crime” policies — it’s more important than ever that we get the facts straight and understand the big picture.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have one criminal legal system; instead, we have thousands of federal, state, local, and tribal systems. Together, these systems hold over 1.9 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 98 federal prisons, 3,116 local jails, 1,323 juvenile correctional facilities, 142 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories — at a system-wide cost of at least $182 billion each year.

This report offers some much-needed clarity by piecing together the data about this country’s disparate systems of confinement. It provides a detailed look at where and why people are locked up in the U.S., and dispels some common myths about mass incarceration to focus attention on overlooked issues that urgently require reform....

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 legal system. In 2022, about 469,000 people entered prison gates, but people went to jail more than 7 million times. Some have just been arrested and will make bail within hours or days, while many others are too poor to make bail and remain in jail until their trial. Only a small number (about 102,700 on any given day) have been convicted, and are generally serving misdemeanors sentences of under a year. At least 1 in 4 people who go to jail will be arrested again within the same year — often those dealing with poverty, mental illness, and substance use disorders, whose problems only worsen with incarceration.

March 14, 2024 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

"An Overview of Intermittent Confinement and Weekend Incarceration in the U.S."

The title of this post is the title of this research document now available via SSRN that I helped with through the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center along with Peter Leasure and Jana Hrdinova. Here is its abstract:

In the current study, we provide an overview of federal law on intermittent confinement, present data on the use of intermittent confinement in the federal system and weekend incarceration in the state system, discuss existing research on intermittent confinement and weekend incarceration, and present results of a survey of federal probation officers on their opinions of intermittent confinement.  Overall, the results of the study indicated that intermittent confinement and weekend sentences are rarely used in federal and state systems (relative to traditional incarceration sentences). Additionally, we found that a single federal district (Texas West) accounted for the majority of federal intermittent confinement cases across several years of data.  Results of the survey of federal probation officers showed that logistical issues with intermittent confinement and incarceration facility availability may be a cause for low numbers of intermittent confinement sentences.  The finding about logistical issues with intermittent confinement was consistent with previous research.  Informed by these findings, directions for future research are discussed in detail.

March 12, 2024 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, March 11, 2024

Another look at the challenges prisons face with an aging prison population

NPR has this lengthy new story about an "old" problem for prisons as they figure out how best to deal with an aging prison popultion.  I recommend the full piece, which is headlined "The U.S. prison population is rapidly graying. Prisons aren't built for what's coming."  Here are excerpts:

Prison is a difficult environment, and people behind bars tend to age faster than people on the outside.  For that reason, "geriatric" in prison can mean someone as young as 50, though it varies by state.  Any way you define it, the U.S. prison population is getting grayer — and fast.

The proportion of state and federal prisoners who are 55 or older is about five times what it was three decades ago.  In 2022, that was more than 186,000 people.  In Oklahoma, the geriatric population has quadrupled in the past two decades.  In Virginia, a quarter of the state's prisoners will be geriatric by 2030.  And in Texas, geriatric inmates are the fastest-growing demographic in the entire system.

Prison systems across the U.S. have a constitutional obligation to provide adequate health care, and they're racing to figure out how to care for the elderly in their custody — and how to pay for it....  As that population grows, he says, prisons have to adapt in all kinds of ways: making cells wheelchair accessible, accommodating prisoners who can no longer climb to an upper bunk, providing health care and food inside units when prisoners aren't mobile, installing more outlets for CPAP machines....

Today, there are more people serving a life sentence in prison than there were people in prison at all in 1970, according to a 2021 report from the Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization.

Caring for aging prisoners is expensive, but the data on just how expensive is murky.  A 2013 study estimated it could be anywhere from three to nine times more expensive than for younger prisoners.  And a 2015 report from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General found that federal prisons with the highest percentage of elderly prisoners spent five times more per person on medical care than those with the lowest percentage of aging prisoners.

A few (of many) older related posts:

March 11, 2024 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, March 08, 2024

Two very different perspectives on mass incarceration and views thereon

I came across two notable and very different pieces setting forth very different perspectives on modern incarceration policies and practices.  Both merit review, and here is a brief accounting:

First, from The Heritage Foundation, Zach Smith has authored "The Myth of Mass Incarceration Remains Strong — Despite All Evidence to the Contrary."   Here is how it starts and concludes:

Jeffrey Bellin’s new book is based on a myth. He believes — wrongly — that the United States is addicted to putting people in prison who don’t need to be there — hence the title of his book, Mass Incarceration Nation.  Despite his best efforts to portray his book as a nuanced account of the current state of the U.S. criminal justice system and its supposed ills, it’s actually an ideologically driven tome with a pre-determined conclusion: the states and the federal government lock up too many people....

Ask anyone on the street the following simple question: Should someone who commits premeditated first-degree murder be sent to prison?  Almost to a man or woman, each person asked will say, “Yes, of course!”  You will get the same answer if you ask them what should happen to rapists, robbers, and recidivists.  People convicted of these crimes are the individuals who today overwhelmingly fill state and federal prisons in the United States.  Yet these are the very individuals Bellin would release from prison to achieve his decarceration goals.  Maybe that’s the point.  He seems to say that the public shouldn’t have a say in how we punish certain crimes.  But that can’t be the way a democratic society operates.  It certainly seems obvious that where there is crime, there must also be punishment.  If not, more crime and more victims will be the inevitable result.

Second, has a "poll memo" titled "New Polling Demonstrates Ongoing Support for Criminal Justice Reform and Policies to Reduce Incarceration."  Here is how the memo starts are a few additional reported poll findings:

Recent polling, conducted by BSG on behalf of, underscores a significant and unwavering level of support for criminal justice reform among the American public. The data reveals not only high levels of support but also strong backing for candidates who advocate for policies aimed at reducing incarceration rates.

According to the poll, 78% of likely voters (LVs) support criminal justice reform, including 2 in 3 Republicans, 87% of Democrats and 82% of Independents. Across demographics there is strong support for reducing prison and jail populations, with particularly strong support among Democrats and Black voters. The poll also shows this support is largely unchanged from 2022, demonstrating that voters continue to want their elected officials to build on the progress that has been made to reform the criminal justice system.

The survey aimed to measure public perception of the functionality of the criminal justice system, attitudes toward candidates supporting policies to decrease incarceration rates, and public sentiment regarding crime. There is overwhelming support for many specific policy changes such as sentencing reforms, parole reforms, and the First Step Act....

Nearly two-thirds believe it is important to reduce the jail and prison population in the U.S., including half of Republicans and large majorities of Americans of color, particularly Black Democrats....  Voters are much more likely to say that mass incarceration makes communities less safe than they are to say that we are safer with more people locked up.... Nearly 2 in 3 voters believe that mass incarceration contributes to social problems, as opposed to only 1 in 17 who believe that locking more people up alleviates issues of homelessness, drug use, and overdoses.

March 8, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Prison Policy Initiative releases "Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2024"

The folks at Prison Policy Initiative have released its latest version of in its "Whole Pie" incarceration series with this new report titled "Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2024" authored by Aleks Kajstura and Wendy Sawyer.  As I always recommend, everyone should click through to see all the great graphics and broader narratives that go with these reports. Here are parts of text from the start and the very end of this report:

With growing public attention to the problem of mass incarceration, people want to know about women’s experiences with incarceration.  How many women are held in prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities in the United States? Why are they there?  How are their experiences different from men’s?  These are important questions, but finding the answers requires not only disentangling the country’s decentralized and overlapping criminal legal systems, but also unearthing the frustratingly limited data that’s broken down by gender.

This report provides a detailed view of the 190,600 women and girls incarcerated in the United States and how they fit into the even broader picture of correctional control.  We pull together data from a number of government agencies and break down the number of women and girls held by each correctional system, by specific offense, in 446 state prisons, 27 federal prisons, 3,116 local jails, 1,323 juvenile correctional facilities, 80 Indian country jails, and 80 immigration detention facilities, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.  We also go beyond the numbers, including rare self-reported data from a national survey of people in prison to offer new insights about incarcerated women’s backgrounds, families, health, and experiences in prison. This report answers the questions of why and where women are locked up — and much more....

The picture of women’s incarceration is far from complete, and many questions remain about mass incarceration’s unique impact on women. This report offers the critical estimate that a quarter of all incarcerated women are unconvicted. But — since the federal government hasn’t collected the key underlying data in 20 years — is that number growing? And how do the harms of that unnecessary incarceration intersect with women’s disproportionate caregiving to impact families? Beyond these big picture questions, there are a plethora of detailed data points that are not reported for women by any government agencies. In addition to the many data holes and limitations mentioned throughout this report, we’re missing other basic data, such as the simple number of women incarcerated in U.S. territories or involuntarily committed to state psychiatric hospitals because of justice system involvement....

While more data are needed, the data in this report lend focus and perspective to the policy reforms needed to end mass incarceration without leaving women behind.

March 5, 2024 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 02, 2024

"Prison Banking"

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

People in prison have no choice but to use the banking systems that prisons operate.  Rather than use any outside bank account or have family or friends meet their daily needs directly, people in prison must rely on what are often called “inmate trust accounts” to pay for goods and services within the prisons.  These accounts have long been vulnerable to asset seizure by the prisons that run them. The money in these accounts comes from prison wages and deposits by friends and family members of incarcerated people, and prisons take this money in a variety of ways: Prisons impose fees for a wide variety of services (like making a phone call, receiving mail, participating in educational programming or treatment, or even using the banking system itself), sell commissary items at highly marked up prices, impose fines as punishment for disciplinary infractions, divert the money at the behest of courts and criminal system agencies to pay other fines and fees, and collect the interest from the pooled accounts. Sometimes prisons seize large portions of a person’s inmate trust account balance under the rationale that the individual owes the prison system for their daily room and board. Sometimes, the money simply disappears as a result of embezzlement or error.

In 2021, the problems inherent in prison management of individuals’ money became apparent when COVID stimulus checks intended for incarcerated people began disappearing from their accounts.  Prisons and jails offered a variety of rationales, and some individuals raised legal challenges, but few questioned the basic authority of prisons to disburse money to themselves and other government entities, or the legitimacy of the prison banking system overall.

Prison systems have a significant conflict of interest in managing these banking systems, and the accounts are subjected to little transparency and oversight.  Statutory and administrative regulation of these accounts is minimal, compared to the tightly controlled regulation of money management in the free world.  Given the direct access that prisons have to these accounts, and the ease with which they can seize funds, prison bank accounts are a site of substantial wealth extraction, often with the blessing and penological deference of the courts.

This article examines the history and legal status of inmate trust accounts and the vulnerability of these funds.  The article places prison banking within the broader landscape of racialized wealth extraction through the criminal system and challenges the assumption that prisons and jails should be permitted to operate a low-transparency banking system over which they have exclusive control, are subjected to little regulation, and act with a high degree of conflict of interest.

March 2, 2024 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 29, 2024

"How many women and men are released from each state’s prisons and jails every year?"

The question in the title of this post is the title snd topic of this new Prison Policy Initiative briefing authored by Leah Wang.  The subtitle highlights the contents: "We’ve drilled down into 2019 data to show prison and jail releases by sex in each state and made our best estimates of how many women and men were released from prisons and jails nationwide in 2022."  These data are fascinating, both the state-by-state numbers and other breakdowns as well as the cumulative data, and they serve to highlight the massive number of people who are subject to some form of incarceration over the course of a year in the US.  

I recommend clicking through to see all the numbers, but I was especially struck that Texas had over a million total releases from prisons and jails in 2019 and California had just shy of a million total releases from prisons and jails that same year.  As a point of comparison, this means that each of these two big states likely had more persons emerging from incarceration than the entire population of states like Vermont and North Dakota.  (I say "likely" because I suspect there are some persons sent to and released from jail multiple times that get double counted in the data on releases.)

For another set of notable numbers, this PPI briefing calculates a total of nearly 11 million releases in 2019 (10,817,398 to be exact), with the total released estimated to have declined in 2022 to "only" 7,659,492.  Even that lower number for estimated 2022 releases is larger than the population of about 35 states; the higher number from 2019 represents a population large enough to be one of the 10 biggest states in the US.  Put another (silly?) way, if all persons released from incarceration in a year were aggregated into a single new state, that new state would get apportioned a whole lot of representatives and electorial votes.

February 29, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 26, 2024

Senate Judiciary Committeee hearing scheduled for "Examining and Preventing Deaths of Incarcerated Individuals in Federal Prisons"

In this post a few weeks ago, I noted the DOJ Inspector General's new report on issues surrounding inmate deaths in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).  This report, which "identified several operational and managerial deficiencies that created unsafe conditions prior to and at the time of a number of these deaths," has now lead to a congressional hearing. 

As detailed here, the full US Senate Judiciary Committee will be conducting a hearing on the morning of February 28, 2024, focused on "Examining and Preventing Deaths of Incarcerated Individuals in Federal Prisons."  As of this writing, the only scheduled witnesses for this hearing are Michael Horowitz, DOJ's Inspector General, and Colette Peters, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  

My sense is that Congress has conducted any number of hearings relating to any number of problems with BOP "operational and managerial deficiencies" that contribute to harmful and deadly prison conditions.  I hope this latest hearing might help advance legislative action to address BOP problems, though it is always seemingly easier for Congress to talk about problems than to act on them.

February 26, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, February 23, 2024

Notable new analysis of notable (old) data on prison admissions

The data on prison admissions (from 2021) reported in this new Crime and Justice News item caught my eye this afternoon.  Here are the details:

A new analysis from the Council of State Government Justice Center found that despite recent declines, parole-probation violators still make up a large proportion of new prison admissions. In 2021, 44% of state prison admission were people who violated the terms of their parole or probation sentences. And on any given day, 1 in 4 people in state prison were incarcerated because they violated the terms of their supervision. Those proportions have remained constant, even as overall numbers have decreased....

Incarceration for violations of supervision declined in 2020 and, in many states, continued to drop in 2021.  Ten states — Colorado, Minnesota, Hawaii, New Jersey, Kansas, New York, Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Vermont — reduced admissions by 50% or more.  The declines are part of a larger trend: from 2018 to 2021, across the country, the numbers of prison admissions from community supervision decreased by one-third. Part of that was due to decreased criminal activity during the height of the pandemic, with the exception of homicides and intimate-partner violence. It was also affected by changes in supervision practices and court backlogs.

Researchers examining those states where supervision incarcerations fell — and where they didn’t — have found no significant relationship between changes in the number of people incarcerated for supervision violations and changes in violent-crime rates at state levels.  But in 2021, states collectively spent more than $10 billion incarcerating probation-parole violators. More than $3 billion of that was for technical violations, not for new criminal activity....

Racial disparities begin prior to criminal-justice-system contact and persist at all stages of the system.  When looking at parole and disparities, 18 states — including much of the Deep South —  did not exhibit disparities in revocation rates, while 20 states increased the disparities.  Twelve states — including Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania — reincarcerated Black parolees at a 20% or higher rate.

February 23, 2024 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

New Prison Policy Initiative briefing makes arguments against jail construction arguments

This new briefing from Prison Policy Initiative authored by Emmett Sanders seeks to undercut arguments made in favor of jail construction. The full title of the posting highlights its themes: "Cautionary jails: Deconstructing the three “C”s of jail construction arguments. Communities across the country have been told that investing in new jail construction is the only way to solve old policy problems, but arguments for new jails can leave them with a billion-dollar case of buyer’s remorse."  Here is how the briefing begins (with links from the original):

Arapahoe County, Colorado, is expanding its jail just four years after taxpayers rejected a proposition to raise taxes for a new one.  The justification for the $46 million expansion? Proponents cite the jail’s age, overcrowding, and a sudden sensitivity to the need to treat rather than warehouse people with addiction issues; the sheriff claims, “people’s needs have changed.”  $30 million will come from COVID-19 pandemic relief funds; as the ACLU notes, using relief funds in this way is expressly forbidden by the Department of Treasury.

Similar arguments are being used to justify jail construction all around the country.  Often, this means ignoring voters’ wishes, misusing and redirecting millions of dollars from community-based resources, and saddling citizens with decades of tax liability.  New jail construction projects regularly fail to meet promises, leaving communities to deal with the aftermath.  Drawing from examples across the country, we break down three common arguments for jail construction, discuss how they have been used to build or expand jails, and highlight how reinvesting in cages is not a solution to social problems like crime and substance use.

Jail proponents usually rely on one or more of three central arguments to make their case:

  • The “Capacity” argument: a bigger jail is required to house everyone being incarcerated in the jurisdiction;
  • The “Contemporary” argument: new construction is needed to update an outdated jail;
  • The “Compassionate” argument: new construction is necessary to treat incarcerated people more humanely.

On a surface level, these three “C” arguments are compelling because they speak to very real issues. What these arguments often overlook, however, is that these issues are largely driven by bad policies that have drastically expanded reliance on packing people in cages.  Essentially, the prevailing claim is that the only way to solve the problem of incarceration is to expand our ability to incarcerate — when in fact, communities would be better served by shrinking jail populations.  This sunk cost fallacy often leaves communities without real solutions and holding the bag for decades.

February 20, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 15, 2024

New IG report documents multple problems contributing to multiple deaths in federal prisons

As reported in this new Washington Post piece, a "combination of negligence, operational failures and a blundering workforce has contributed to hundreds of inmate deaths in federal custody, according to a report released Thursday morning by the Justice Department’s inspector general."  Here is more from the start of the post piece:

The report portrayed a short-staffed Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) system in which inmates are easily able to smuggle in dangerous contraband and go unsupervised as they kill themselves and others.

A total of 344 inmates died by suicide, homicide, overdose or other unknown accidents between 2014 and 2021, according to the report.  A majority of those deaths were suicides — with a majority of those suicides among inmates in solitary confinement. That death count has crept up between 2014 and 2021 — even as the federal prison population has declined to about 155,000 people in 2024. In 2014, there were 38 inmate deaths by unnatural causes. In 2021, that number was 57 inmates.

Ultimately, the report concluded, the culture of negligence that led to the deaths of high-profile inmates Jeffrey Epstein and Whitey Bulger in recent years is endemic in the prison system.  Epstein, a convicted sex offender, died by suicide in federal custody, with a separate inspector general report concluding that staff failed to do the proper check-ins with him before hanging himself.  Bulger, a Boston mobster, was bludgeoned to death in his bed hours after he was transferred to a new prison facility.

“Available BOP documentation that details the circumstances surrounding these inmate deaths demonstrates significant recurring issues and contributing factors, including inadequate staff response to inmate emergencies, failure to properly assess, manage, and monitor inmates at risk for suicide; and deficiencies in the BOP’s ability to collect, maintain and learn from evidence and post-incident documentation,” the report concluded.

The press release from DOJ's IG office is available at this link, and the full 100+ page report can be found at this link.  Here is part of the press release:

Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz announced today the release of a report on issues surrounding inmate deaths in Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) institutions.  The DOJ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) evaluated 344 inmate deaths at BOP institutions from FY 2014 through FY 2021 in four categories: suicide, homicide, accident, and those resulting from unknown factors.  Many of the deaths that occurred under accidental or otherwise unknown circumstances involved drug overdoses. Suicides comprised the majority of these deaths, with homicides the next most prevalent.  The OIG identified several operational and managerial deficiencies that created unsafe conditions prior to and at the time of a number of these deaths.

February 15, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (18)

Another reminder of the long life (and possible ending) of life without parole sentences

This local news piece, headlined "Man, 77, released from prison after serving decades for 1965 murder conviction," caught my eye because of the numbers involved.  Here is part of story behind the numbers:

A 77-year-old man has been released from prison after receiving a new sentence for a 1965 felony murder conviction, in the wake of a decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals declaring mandatory life without parole sentences for 18-year-old defendants unconstitutional.

Ivory Thomas was convicted in October 1965 at age 18 of first-degree felony murder for fatally stabbing 18-year-old Michael Railsback in Dueweke Park during a robbery. However, in 2022, the Michigan Supreme Court decided that mandatory life without parole sentences for 18-year-old defendants violate the Michigan state constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Judge Chandra Baker-Robinson resentenced Thomas this week to 40 to 60 years. Thomas was released Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections confirmed. He was serving his sentence at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer....

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office did not object to Thomas’ resentencing, according to a news release. Prosecutor Kym Worthy’s office said Thomas has community support and Railsback’s family does not object to his release.

February 15, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, February 08, 2024

GAO releases big report examining BOP's use of "restrictive housing"

The United States Government Accountability Office recently released this big new report titled "Bureau of Prisons: Additional Actions Needed to Improve Restrictive Housing Practices." An introduction one-page to the document discusses "Why GAO Did This Study" and "What GAO Recommends" and "What GAO Found," and here are excerpts from this discussion:

DOJ’s BOP is responsible for confining individuals in safe, humane, and appropriately secure conditions. In certain circumstances, such as alleged or substantiated violence, BOP can move individuals to restrictive housing, and generally isolate them in cells for up to 23 hours per day. As of October 2023, BOP continued to house about 8 percent of its population (about 12,000 individuals) in these settings. Strengthening management of federal prisons was added to GAO’s high-risk list earlier this year.

Among its objectives, GAO was asked to examine the extent to which BOP (1) addressed recommendations from two prior restrictive housing studies; and (2) leveraged facility information to ensure restrictive housing policy compliance and enhance operations.

GAO analyzed BOP policies and data; interviewed BOP officials; and conducted non-generalizable interviews with staff and incarcerated individuals at five BOP facilities— selected to cover a range of restrictive housing unit types.

GAO is making eight recommendations to BOP, including that it assign responsibility and establish time frames for recommendation implementation and identify the cause of racial disparity in SMU placements. BOP concurred with the eight recommendations but raised related concerns; GAO discusses these in the report.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has not fully implemented 54 of the 87 recommendations from two prior studies on improving restrictive housing practices. The first study, completed by a BOP contractor in 2014, had 34 recommendations (16 of which are fully implemented.) The other evaluation, completed in 2016 by the Department of Justice (DOJ), had 53 recommendations (17 of those are fully implemented). A May 2022 Executive Order on criminal justice practices directed the Attorney General to ensure full implementation of the January 2016 recommendations. BOP has made slow progress due in part to not assigning responsibility for recommendation implementation to appropriate officials and not establishing associated time frames for completion....

During the 2014 contracted assessment, reviewers found inconsistencies in the application of subjective criteria used to place individuals in the special management unit (SMU)—one that is designed for individuals with heightened security concerns. GAO’s analysis of 2022 data appears to confirm that inconsistencies continued, resulting in equity concerns. Black individuals were 38 percent of the total BOP population but 59 percent of the SMU placements. In comparison, White individuals were 58 percent of the total BOP population and 35 percent of the SMU placements. In response to management challenges, earlier this year BOP closed its remaining SMU and has not yet decided on the future of such units. Analyzing the cause of the substantial racial disparity could inform BOP and DOJ decisions on the future of restricted housing and help ensure consistent and equitable treatment of incarcerated individuals.

February 8, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

New Prison Policy Initiative highlights prison disciplinary fines and fees

The Prison Policy Initiative has this new briefing titled "Prison disciplinary fines only further impoverish incarcerated people and families." Authored by Leah Wang, here is how it starts (with links from the original, but footnotes removed):

In yet another example of how the criminal legal system extracts wealth from the poorest families, at least one-third of prison systems nationwide charge fines as a punishment for a rule violation.  Prison administrators claim that imposing disciplinary fines, along with other punishments, helps to maintain order and reduce violence in correctional facilities.  They also argue that the fines simulate outside-of-prison processes for dealing with misconduct, such as parking tickets.

Though rule violations and their corresponding sanctions are a common feature of incarceration, disciplinary fines and fees aren’t the way to create safe environments where people can prepare for their release.  On the contrary, when prisons impose these charges and subsequently help themselves to the funds in people’s prison accounts, incarcerated people are often left with little to no money for purchasing essential items and services that the prison doesn’t provide.  As a result, their mental and physical health suffers, creating a more volatile environment inside. Loved ones also pay the price of these fines — often literally, as a primary source of financial support.

Like medical “co-pays” and exceedingly low wages in prison, disciplinary fines and fees are little more than a means to exploit incarcerated people.  Whether they’re tiered fines or flat “administrative” fees, they are an undue burden; prison is already one big financial sanction for those who are already on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.  By focusing on punitive measures that deprive people further, prisons miss the mark on what actually makes prisons safer — providing opportunity rather than taking it away.  We hope advocates and policymakers will understand how disciplinary fees, which exist alongside other excessive punishments, undermine the rehabilitative goals of corrections, the safety of people inside, and the odds of success during reentry.

February 7, 2024 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 01, 2024

"The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions: Deinstitutionalization and Mass Incarceration Nation"

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

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and our failed implementation of deinstitutionalization in the 1970s is a prime example of the point. In this symposium contribution — a response to Jeffrey Bellin’s book Mass Incarceration Nation — I offer a historical account of deinstitutionalization of state mental hospitals, tracing how severely mentally ill patients were discharged from state hospitals and eventually made their way back to secure beds, but in our nation’s jails and prisons instead.  Mental health and mass incarceration are not separate crises, I argue, but rather interconnected problems with an interconnected past that require an interconnected solution.  The lessons of deinstitutionalization’s failures can inform how our decarceration story plays out, offering an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of our past and move toward a more just, humane, and equitable future — a future that takes the “mass” out of mass incarceration.

February 1, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

"The UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project: Doing Social Justice Work from Inside a Law School"

The title of this post is the title of this article recently posted to SSRN and authored by Sharon Dolovich.  Here is its abstract:

The UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project began in the first weeks of the COVID pandemic as a two-tab, crowd-sourced spreadsheet allowing advocates for the incarcerated nationwide to share information about the impact of COVID in prisons and jails.  Almost overnight, that spreadsheet became the go-to national clearinghouse for all available data on COVID in detention.  By mid-2020, the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was populating its prison COVID tracker with the national facility-level data the Project collected each day — and things only escalated from there.  This Essay tells the story of how a law professor, a clinical teaching fellow, and a large group of students, researchers, and volunteers created a social justice organization driven by legal scholarship, data, and crisis.  The Data Project experience, conveyed here in narrative form, offers several generalizable lessons about institution building in the public interest and the unique value of doing such work in the law school environment. 

January 31, 2024 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

"Addicted to punishment: Jails and prisons punish drug use far more than they treat it"

The title of this post the title of this new Prison Policy Initiative briefing by Emily Widra. The subtitle highlights its themes: "Despite the common refrain that jails and prisons are 'de facto treatment facilities,' most prioritize punitive mail scanning policies and strict visitation rules that fail to prevent drugs from entering facilities while providing little to no access to treatment and healthcare." Here is how the briefing starts (with links from the original):

Jails and prisons are often described as de facto mental health and substance abuse treatment providers, and corrections officials increasingly frame their missions around offering healthcare.  But the reality is quite the opposite: people with serious health needs are warehoused with severely inadequate healthcare and limited treatment options. Instead, jails and prisons rely heavily on punishment, while the most effective and evidence-based forms of healthcare are often the least available.

This tension points to a crucial flaw in our nation’s reliance on criminalization: these institutions were never intended to be -- and can never function as -- healthcare providers. Efforts to reverse engineer them as such have proven ineffective, harmful, and financially wasteful, substituting medical best practices with moralizing and surveillance, from providing exclusively abstinence-based education to scanning and photocopying mail in a vain attempt to keep contraband out. This briefing builds on our past work about the unmet health needs of incarcerated people and the endless cycle of arrest for people who use drugs by compiling data on treatment availability versus drug-related punishment in jails and prisons across the country. We find that despite the lofty rhetoric, corrections officials punish people who use drugs far more than they provide them with healthcare.

January 30, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Some weekend pieces with a focus on prison stories and commentary

My various feeds have been highlighting that tonight's episode of 60 Minutes will have a feature story about the federal prison system titled "Agency in Crisis: The Bureau of Prisons is plagued by understaffing, abuse, and disrepair. This Sunday, Cecilia Vega gets rare access inside a women’s federal prison in Alabama."  I have my DVR set (football gets my live attention), and I also noticed in recent days another group of press pieces and commentary about other prison stories.  Here is a round up:

From Filter, "As Prisons Shutter Classes and Mental Health Care, Drugs Fill the Gap"

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Under Gov. Youngkin, prison reform is working"

From the Seattle Times, "Kimonti Carter was freed from life in prison. Prosecutors want to send him back."

From the Washington Post, "My dad was ill. Could he survive the prison health-care system?"

From wbur, "Mass. will close its oldest men's prison, MCI-Concord, by summer"

January 28, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 26, 2024

US Sentencing Commission creates helpful information webpage on "First Step Act Earned Time Credits"

In addition to being active in advancing large and small guidelines amendments, the great new US Sentencing Commission has been doing a great new job providing helpful information to the federal criminal justice community (beyond its always terrific and important data publications and analyses).  Specifically, a few months ago, as noted here, the USSC created this terrific webpage collecting information about "problem-solving courts" that have developed through federal court systems.  

This week, the Commission unveiled another helpful new webpage, this one focused on "First Step Act Earned Time Credits."  The Commission's site includes an original infographic and links to other helpful information, and it is introduced this way:

The First Step Act of 2018 (Public Law 115–391) created a system in which some incarcerated individuals can earn time credits for participating in recidivism reduction programming or productive activities. Time credits can later be applied towards early release from secure custody. Eligibility criteria and rules for earning and applying time credits are governed by statute and implemented through BOP program statements and policies.

The Commission has published this page to assist in understanding the First Step Act and its current implementation, relying on primary source documents created by other government agencies. It is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal analysis. The information does not necessarily represent the official position of the Commission and it should not be considered definitive or comprehensive.

January 26, 2024 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Notable data on the huge number of LWOP sentences in Louisiana

Death penalty practices in general, and individual death sentences in particular, garner a lot of attention in the US.  I understand how a wide array of salient capital issues and cases keeps these matters "evergreen" in legal and political discourse, even though I have long worried about capital cases and concerns problematically crowding out other matters of broader consequence.  (Many years ago, I wrote up some of these worries with a Supreme Court focus in an article titled "A Capital Waste of Time? Examining the Supreme Court's 'Culture of Death'."  Notably, for a host of reasons, the SCOTUS capital docket has shrunk considerably since I penned that piece in 2008.)

These concerns came to mind for me upon seeing this new Sentencing Project fact sheet titled "Life in Prison Without Parole in Louisiana."  The LWOP data in this document struck me in part because of how much attention was given in 2023 to possible clemency hearings for the 57 persons on Louisiana's death row after outgoing Gov John Bel Edwards said he opposed capital punishment (see some prior posts here and here.)  Gov Edwards got some attention, as detailed here, for commuting over 100 LWOP sentences, though seemingly the bulk of national advocacy and attention was given to a few dozen capital murders rather than the few thousand serving LWOP often for lesser crimes.  The start of the data brief documents the Pelican State's massive LWOP population:  

Louisiana’s share of people serving life without parole (LWOP) ranks highest per capita nationally and in the world. More than 4,000 Louisianans are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole, amounting to 15% of this state’s prison population.  Between 1995 and 2020, the state added an average of 110 people each year to its total count of life-sentenced individuals.

A major driver behind the large share of people serving LWOP is the state’s automatic imposition of this sentence after conviction for second degree murder, making it one of only two states to impose LWOP in such instances.  Louisiana’s second degree murder statute includes felony murder and drug induced homicide offenses; these cases often include instances where the charged individual was not the direct perpetrator of the killing, nor intended to commit it, though they participated in an underlying felony related to the victim’s death.  It is important to note that felony murder laws such as that in Louisiana are not associated with a significant reduction in felonies nor have they lowered the number of felonies that become deadly.  These crime types are infrequently subject to LWOP sentences elsewhere, much less mandatorily imposed.  But in Louisiana, LWOP in response to second degree murder is both authorized and mandatory.

To provide a bit more perspective on these numbers, there are roughly twice as many persons serving LWOP sentences just in Louisiana than there are persons on death row throughout the United States.  (The Sentencing Project has calculated in prior reports that there are, roughly speaking, about 100 persons serving some form of a life sentence in the US for every person on death row.)

January 24, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 18, 2024

"'Mass Incarceration' Myths and Facts: Aiming Reform at the Real Problems"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Paul Robinson and Jeffrey Seaman now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Few claims have won such widespread acceptance in legal academia as the “mass incarceration” narrative: the idea that the rise in America’s prison population over the last half century was fueled largely by the needless and unjust imprisonment of millions of criminal offenders due to punitive changes in sentencing.  To many academics and activists, the question is not how accurate the mass incarceration narrative is, but how mass incarceration can be ended.  This Article argues the “mass incarceration” narrative is based on a series of myths and, as a result, many proposed reforms are based on a misunderstanding of America’s past and present carceral practices.  A more accurate understanding is needed to produce effective reform.

The central myth of the mass incarceration narrative is that exceptional and unjustified punitiveness largely explains America’s significant increase in prison population since the 1960s.  This explanation overlooks the numerous non-sentencing factors that increased incarceration: a near doubling in U.S. population, higher crime rates, increased justice system effectiveness, deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, new and tightened criminalizations, worsening criminal offender histories, and more.  While this Article makes no attempt at statistical precision, these non-sentencing factors can easily explain most of America’s elevated incarceration compared to the 1960s — a fact in direct conflict with the mass incarceration narrative.  Additionally, while some punishments have increased in severity since the 1960s, most of these increases are likely to be seen as moving sentences closer to what the community – and many incarceration reformers – would believe is appropriate and just, as in cases of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, human trafficking, firearm offenses, and child pornography, among others.

Comparing America’s prison population to foreign countries, as the mass incarceration narrative often does, similarly overlooks the contributions of many of these non-sentencing factors and incorrectly assumes that a higher American per capita incarceration rate always reflects a problem with American, instead of foreign, practice.  While America can certainly learn from foreign countries, the reality is that many foreign sentencing practices have sparked chronic and widespread dissatisfaction abroad.  It may be that the dispute over incarceration practices is more a dispute between the elites and the community than a dispute between the U.S. and other democracies’ populations.

While all decarceration reformers should welcome a clearer picture of America’s incarceration practices, it is hard not to conclude that many mass incarceration myths were created deliberately by those who oppose not only incarceration but punishment generally.  For these activists, the mass incarceration narrative is primarily a means toward eliminating punishment, a goal that is difficult to pursue directly because it is so contrary to the views of the general population and even a majority of academia.

This Article is not pro-incarceration.  It subjects the mass incarceration narrative to much needed scrutiny precisely because reforming incarceration practices is necessary.  The criminal justice system should strive to deliver just punishment in the most societally beneficial way, which we believe means increasing the use of non-incarcerative sanctions.  The myths of the mass incarceration narrative frequently lead activists to overlook non-incarcerative reforms that deliver just punishment — a tragic failure because such reforms would have much stronger popular support than the anti-punishment or unsophisticated anti-prison reforms now pushed by the mass incarceration narrative.

Part I of the Article describes the mass incarceration myths that have become so broadly accepted.  Part II reviews the facts of American incarceration practice, which contradict many, if not most, aspects of the narrative.  Part III offers our reform proposals, which we believe more accurately address the problems in current incarceration practice. Central to those proposals are the use of creative non-incarcerative sanctions that still deliver punishment proportional to a nuanced assessment of each offender’s moral blameworthiness.

January 18, 2024 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Notable review of how deaths in federal prisons are categorized and investigated

NPR has this extended investgation report headlined "There is little scrutiny of 'natural' deaths behind bars."  I recommend this piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Kesha Jackson was preparing for her husband, John, to be home in a few weeks.  He was incarcerated in Forrest City federal prison in Arkansas, awaiting a court hearing for early release after 18 years.  But then Jackson got a concerning call from other inmates.

Her husband, in the special housing unit, was going in and out of consciousness, the inmates told her.  He tried banging on the door for help.  Three days later, an officer handcuffed him and tried to give him CPR. He died soon after.  And as she waited for some explanation, Jackson was surprised to learn what prison officials pronounced as the manner of death: "natural."

By deeming the death natural, prison authorities were not required to conduct an autopsy for Jackson's death. It's how they characterize at least three-quarters of all federal prison deaths since 2009, yet NPR has found "natural" deaths with details that raise questions for family members....

MRSA is a staph infection — caused by a type of dangerous, drug-resistant bacteria. But it is not generally fatal if treated immediately. John contracted it after he was moved to the Forrest City federal prison in 2017.  According to his medical records, he still had the infection over two years later.  "Saying that it's a natural death can sometimes be misleading because I believe that having the proper medical treatment could have possibly saved his life," Jackson said.

The CDC says natural deaths happen either solely or almost entirely because of disease or old age.  Yet 70% of the inmates who died in federal prison the last 13 years were under the age of 65.  After speaking to some of the families of these inmates, NPR found that potential issues such as medical neglect, poor prison conditions and a lack of health care resources were left unexplained once a "natural" death designation ended hopes of an investigation. Meanwhile, family members were left with little information about their loved one's death....

The Office of Inspector General for the Bureau of Prisons recently launched an investigation into all non-natural federal inmate deaths in custody from 2014 to 2021.  Natural deaths are not included in this investigation.

But NPR spoke with multiple families of inmates who died natural deaths who believed their loved one's death warrants scrutiny.  For instance: an inmate in a prison medical center in Springfield, Mo., waited weeks to be treated for bleeding in his digestive tract.  He died soon after hospitalization.  An inmate in Arkansas complained of stomach pain for a year and a half before his death. His family was not provided with any more details.

January 3, 2024 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

New Prison Policy Initiative briefing explores reported 2022 increase in incarcerated persons in US

Over at the Prison Policy Initiative, Wendy Sawyer has this new briefing titled "Why did prison and jail populations grow in 2022 — and what comes next?".  Like so many PPI reports, this one st filled with interesting data and helpful graphics.  It begins this way (link from the original):

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) recently released its annual reports on prison and jail populations in 2022, noting that the combined state and federal prison populations had increased for the first time in almost a decade and that jail populations had reached 90% of their pre-pandemic level. But what’s behind these trends? Do they just reflect another year of post-pandemic “rebound” or longer-term changes in crime or punishment? And what do these trends suggest about the road ahead for those working to end mass incarceration?

To answer these questions, we looked closely at the annual BJS data as well as 2022 crime and victimization data and criminal court case processing to get a better idea of the reasons behind the new numbers. We also looked at some more recent 2023 jail and prison data to see whether the 2022 uptick appears to have continued in 2023 (spoiler: it does). Finally, we looked at reports from over 20 states to see how states themselves understand these trends, and where they foresee their correctional populations heading in the future.

Ultimately, we conclude that these populations are increasing and can be expected to continue to climb in the next few years, not because of changes in crime but because (a) courts have largely recovered from the slowdowns caused by the pandemic and (b) many states have rolled back sensible criminal legal system reforms — or worse, have enacted legislation that will keep more people behind bars longer, despite decades of evidence that such policies don’t enhance public safety.

December 20, 2023 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 15, 2023

Fascinating new Slate series on "how technology is changing prison as we know it"

This week I came across this notable new series of articles at Slate titled "Time, Online: How technology is changing prison as we know it."  The series as of this writing has nine extended pieces by an array of authors covering topics at the intersection of modern technology and modern prison.  I have only started reading a few of the piece, and they are all really interesting.   This piece by Mia Armstrong-Lopez serves as an introduction under this full title: "For Years, Prison Life Was Isolated From Tech. Now Tech Is Beginning to Define It: Introducing Time, Online, a new Future Tense package that explores how technology is changing prison as we know it." Here is an excerpt from that piece (with links from the original):

Around 1.9 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, and an estimated 45 percent of Americans have at some point experienced the incarceration of an immediate family member.  (For Black Americans, that number increases to 63 percent.)  For many years, prisons have largely been tech bunkers, keeping incarcerated people isolated from the world outside.  But things have started to change.  In some cases, they changed because prison leaders recognized the need to connect incarcerated people to their communities. In other cases, they changed because, in relationship with private companies, prisons found a way to profit.

The pandemic accelerated this trend. Activities like visitation and education programs were paused and in many cases replaced by video callse-messaging, and other virtual activities, facilitated in part by glitchy, specially made tablets distributed by private companies.  As a result, things like tablets and e-messaging — which may seem trivial to those of us on the outside but can be transformational on the inside — are now popular in prisons and jails across the country. Instead of being isolated from technology, big parts of incarcerated people’s lives are now being mediated through it.

Time, Online, a new package from Future Tense, attempts to document this moment.  Through a series of essays that were (with one exception) written by currently and formerly incarcerated people, we’ll examine how tech is changing what it means to be in prison.  We’ll explore what happens when streaming comes to prison and how e-messaging is affecting romantic relationships.  We’ll look at how incarcerated people are finding ways to jailbreak tablets and how you Google from the inside.  We’ll look at what it’s like to wear an ankle monitor and to get access to a laptop after 17 years in prison.  We’ll share diaries that document how incarcerated people interact with tech hour by hour, in three different state prison systems, and how much it costs.  And we’ll dig into the who’s who of prison tech companies and the powerful financial forces behind them.

December 15, 2023 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 14, 2023

The Bureau of Justice Statistics releases "Jail Inmates in 2022 -- Statistical Tables"

The Bureau of Justice Statistics this morning published a lot of new data about jail populations as of 2022.  This press release, titled "Local jails held 4% more people in 2022 than in 2021," provides these highlights regarding the data detailed in this 30-page report:

At midyear 2022, local jails held 663,100 persons in custody, 4% more than the year before and 21% more than at midyear 2020.  The number of persons in jail custody saw a 25% decline from 2019 to 2020 as local authorities reduced admissions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Though the jail population declined during the pandemic, by midyear 2022 it was back to 90% of its midyear 2019 size,” said BJS Acting Director Kevin M. Scott, PhD.

At midyear 2022, there were:

• 505,700 inmates held for a felony offense, accounting for 76% of the jail population

• 199 jail inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, down from 237 per 100,000 at midyear 2012

• 915,900 jail beds in the United States, 72% of which were occupied

• 4.0 jail inmates for every correctional officer, up from 3.6 at midyear 2021 and 3.0 at midyear 2020.

From July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022, persons admitted to jails spent an average of 32 days in custody before release, longer than the 23-day average a decade prior.  About 1,300 persons served weekend-only sentences on the weekend before the last weekday in June 2022, down from 10,400 in 2012. 

There were 92,900 females in local jails at midyear 2022, who accounted for 14% of the jail inmate population. From 2021 to 2022, the number of females in jail increased 9%, while the number of males increased 3%. From 2012 to 2022, the number of persons age 17 or younger in jail decreased from 5,400 to 1,900, averaging a 10% decline each year.

The racial and ethnic composition of the jail population remained stable from 2021 to 2022. At midyear 2022, about 48% of all persons held in jail were white, 35% were black and 14% were Hispanic.  American Indian or Alaska Native persons, Asian persons, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander persons and persons of two or more races together accounted for 3% of the total jail population.  From midyear 2012 to midyear 2022, the jail incarceration rate for Hispanic persons decreased at an average annual rate of 3.7%.  The rate decreased, on average, at 2.4% a year for black persons and 0.7% a year for white persons.

December 14, 2023 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

"The Role of Policy in Prison Growth and Decline"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new working paper available via SSRN and authored by Derek Neal and Armin Rick. Here is its abstract:

Between 1975 and 2008, the US incarceration rate increased by roughly 400 percent.  Trends in crime rates, arrest rates per crime committed, conviction rates per arrest, and expected time-served in prison given conviction all influence trends in incarceration rates.  Available data do not allow researchers to precisely measure the contribution of each of these factors to the US prison boom.  However, increases in expected prison time-served among those arrested for many different offenses were the most important drivers of rising incarceration rates.  We argue that changes in policies that govern sentencing and parole are the likely drivers of these increases.  We also discuss potential reforms that may reduce expected time-served among convicted offenders while minimizing harm to public safety.

December 12, 2023 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Sentencing Project produces new fact sheets on "Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Youth Incarceration"

I received via email an alter that The Sentencing Project has produced "new fact sheets show state-by-state incarceration rates by race and ethnicity" with respect to "youth incarceration."  These facts sheets are accessible at this link, and here is how the work is described at that webpage:

Despite significant drops in youth incarceration over a decade, youth of color remain vastly more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.  New data released today by The Sentencing Project reveal Black youth and Tribal youths’ disproportionate incarceration is largely unchanged compared to 10 years prior, while Latinx youths’ incarceration disparities with their white peers have been reduced.

The Sentencing Project’s new fact sheets show state-by-state incarceration rates by race and ethnicity and highlight where the problem is getting worse and better.

December 12, 2023 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 07, 2023

The Sentencing Project releases latest report on racial disparities, "One in Five: Racial Disparity in Imprisonment - Causes and Remedies"

As noted in this October post, The Sentencing Project is "producing a series of four reports examining both the narrowing and persistence of racial injustice in the criminal legal system, as well as highlighting promising reforms."  Today, The Sentencing Project released this latest report in this series, the third I believe, titled "One in Five: Racial Disparity in Imprisonment — Causes and Remedies."  Here is part of this new report's executive summary:

The United States experienced a 25% decline in its prison population between 2009, its peak year, and 2021.  While all major racial and ethnic groups experienced decarceration, the Black prison population has downsized the most.  But with the prison population in 2021 nearly six times as large as 50 years ago and Black Americans still imprisoned at five times the rate of whites, the crisis of mass incarceration and its racial injustice remain undeniable. What’s more, the progress made so far is at risk of stalling or being reversed.

This third installment of the One in Five6 series examines three key causes of racial inequality from within the criminal legal system. While the consequences of these policies and issues continue to perpetuate racial and ethnic disparities, at least 50 jurisdictions around the country — including states, the federal government, and localities — have initiated promising reforms to lessen their impact.

1. Laws and policies that appear race-neutral have a disparate racial impact....

2. Racial bias influences criminal legal practitioners’ use of discretion....

3. A financially burdensome and under-resourced criminal legal system puts people with low incomes, who are disproportionately people of color, at a disadvantage....

Prior related posts:

December 7, 2023 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 04, 2023

"Excess mortality in U.S. prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by multiple authors just published in the journal Science Advances.  Here is its abstract:

U.S. prisons were especially susceptible to COVID-19 infection and death; however, data limitations have precluded a national accounting of prison mortality (including but not limited to COVID-19 mortality) during the pandemic.  Our analysis of mortality data collected from public records requests (supplemented with publicly available data) from 48 Departments of Corrections provides the most comprehensive understanding to date of in-custody mortality during 2020. We find that total mortality increased by 77% in 2020 relative to 2019, corresponding to 3.4 times the mortality increase in the general population, and that mortality in prisons increased across all age groups (49 and under, 50 to 64, and 65 and older).  COVID-19 was the primary driver for increases in mortality due to natural causes; some states also experienced substantial increases due to unnatural causes.  These findings provide critical information about the pandemic’s toll on some of the country’s most vulnerable individuals while underscoring the need for data transparency and standardized reporting in carceral settings.

December 4, 2023 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases "Federal Prisoner Statistics Collected Under the First Step Act, 2023"

Providing another report for prison data junkies, the Bureau of Justice Statistics today released this 26-page report titled ""Federal Prisoner Statistics Collected Under the First Step Act, 2023." Here the report's introduction and some of the "Key findings" that seemed most interesting:

The First Step Act of 2018 (FSA) requires the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), through its National Prisoner Statistics program, to collect data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) on specific topics and to report these data annually. BJS is required to report on selected characteristics of persons in prison, including marital, veteran, citizenship, and English-speaking status; education levels; medical conditions; and participation in treatment programs. In addition, BJS is required to report facility-level statistics, such as the number of assaults on staff by prisoners, prisoners’ violations of rules that resulted in time credit reductions, and selected facility characteristics including accreditation, on-site healthcare, remote learning, video conferencing, and costs of prisoners’ phone calls.

Collected in 2023, the statistics in this report are for calendar year 2022, which represented the fourth full year of reporting under the FSA. Data for calendar year 2023 will be available from the BOP in 2024. Unless otherwise noted, all counts in this report include persons held in federal correctional facilities operated by the BOP (122 institutional facilities).

  • The federal prison population increased about 1%, from 156,542 at yearend 2021 to 158,637 at yearend 2022.

  • At yearend 2022, there were 8,627 persons with prior military service in BOP facilities, accounting for about 5% of the total federal prison population.

  • The number of non-U.S. citizens in federal prison at yearend 2022 was 24,078, virtually unchanged from 2020 and 2021....

  • Seventy percent of persons in BOP facilities at yearend 2022 had earned a high school diploma, general equivalency degree (GED), or other equivalent certificate prior to their admission to federal prison (110,531), and an additional 3,543 earned their GED credential or equivalent certificate during 2022.

  • In 2022, there were 10,177 instances of persons in special housing units, a 10% increase from 2021 (9,261)....

  • In 2022, 20,880 federal prisoners participated in a nonresidential substance use disorder treatment program, while 12,035 participated in a residential program....

  • In 2022, there were 80,490 prohibited acts committed by persons incarcerated in federal prisons....

  • In 2022, BOP staff were physically assaulted by federal prisoners 965 times, which resulted in serious injuries 19 times and 12 prosecutions of prisoners....

  • The BOP partnered with 1,580 external groups to provide recidivism reduction programming in 122 federal prison facilities in 2022.

  • Sixty percent (947) of the BOP’s partnerships that were in place in 2022 to provide recidivism reduction programming were with faith-based groups.

  • Of the 145,062 persons in federal prison as of December 31, 2022 assessed with the BOP’s recidivism risk tool, the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs (PATTERN), 54% were classified as minimum or low risk for recidivism, 27% were classified as high risk for recidivism, and 19% as medium risk at yearend 2022.

  • In 2022, PATTERN classified a higher percentage of females than males as minimum or low risk for recidivism (81% compared to 52%).

  • As of December 31, 2022, PATTERN classified 61% of black and 59% of American Indian or Alaska Native federal prisoners as a medium or high risk of recidivism, compared to 36% of white and 27% of Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Other Pacific Islander prisoners.

  • In 2022, PATTERN classified 83% of federal prisoners ages 55 to 64 and 93% of those age 65 or older as having a minimum or low risk of recidivism.

  • In 2022, the BOP identified 41 Evidence-Based Recidivism Reduction (EBRR) Programs and 52 Productive Activities (PAs) that persons in federal prison could access for various needs, including antisocial behavior, anger management, substance abuse, parenting skills, and dyslexia.

November 30, 2023 in Data on sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (34)

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases "Prisoners in 2022 – Statistical Tables"

Via email, I learned that the Bureau of Justice Statistics today released its latest yearly accounting of US prison populations titled "Prisoners in 2022 – Statistical Tables." The first page of the 48-page document provides this overview and "highlights":

At yearend 2022, correctional authorities in the United States had jurisdiction over 1,230,100 persons in state or federal prisons, an increase of 2% or 25,100 persons from yearend 2021 (1,205,100 persons) (figure 1). This rise erased the 1% decline reported in 2021 and marked the first increase in the combined state and federal prison population in almost a decade (since 2013). The number of persons held under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) grew 1% (up 2,000 persons) from 2021 to 2022, while the number held under the jurisdiction of state correctional authorities increased 2% (up 23,100).

Ninety-six percent of persons in U.S. prisons in 2022 were sentenced to more than 1 year under the jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities (1,185,600). Thirty-five states and the BOP showed growth in their sentenced prison populations from 2021 to 2022, with increases of at least 1,000 persons in eight states and the BOP.

  • The U.S. prison population was 1,230,100 at yearend 2022, a 2% increase from yearend 2021 (1,205,100).

  • The number of females in state or federal prison increased almost 5% from yearend 2021 (83,700) to yearend 2022 (87,800).

  • Nine states and the BOP increased their total prison populations by over 1,000 persons from yearend 2021 to yearend 2022.

  • State correctional authorities had jurisdiction over 1,039,500 persons sentenced to at least 1 year in prison in 2022, while the BOP had legal authority over 146,100 persons with similar sentences.

  • At yearend 2022, an estimated 32% of sentenced state and federal prisoners were black; 31% were white; 23% were Hispanic; 2% were American Indian or Alaska Native; and 1% were Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Other Pacific Islander.

  • The imprisonment rate at yearend 2022 (355 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents of all ages) was down 26% from yearend 2012 (480 per 100,000) but up 1% from yearend 2021 (350 per 100,000).

  • In 2022, states and the BOP admitted 469,200 persons to prison, which was 20,800 more than they released that year (448,400) and 48,200 more than they admitted the year before (421,000).

November 30, 2023 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 27, 2023

"Who Bears the Burden When Prison Guards Rape?"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Meredith Esser and available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Several recent scandals have highlighted the continued problem of institutional sexual abuse within the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).  Most notoriously, the rampant sexual abuse of women incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Dublin, also known as the “rape club,” resulted in the prosecution and conviction of several high-ranking officials within FCI Dublin, including both the former Warden and former Chaplain who worked there for several years.  In response to these patterns of misconduct, the Federal Sentencing Commission’s new guidelines, which went into effect on November 1, 2023, now allow for victims of custodial sexual assault to apply for early release or sentence reductions based on that assault.  However, the Sentencing Commission’s reform in this regard comes with a caveat: to be eligible to move a sentencing court for early release, the assailant’s misconduct must have been established in a separate civil, criminal, or administrative proceeding.

Although the new guideline is commendable, a requirement that misconduct be substantiated in this way effectively places an impossible burden of proof onto incarcerated victims — in a manner inconsistent with other federal early release provisions — and in a context in which the incarcerated movant is in a particularly disadvantaged position to meet and litigate that burden.  For example, lack of access to counsel or discovery tools for survivors, and the need to litigate for one’s early release within a prison setting, make the effective litigation of the substantiation requirement impracticable in many circumstances.  Further, this Essay argues that this substantiation requirement counterproductively minimizes the experiences of survivors, discounts their accounts of sexual abuse, and elevates the adjudication of the assailant above the immediate needs of victims.

November 27, 2023 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 24, 2023

A mid-holiday weekend round-up of various sentencing opinions

I am taking much of the holiday weekend off from blogging (which may make many thankful).  And that provides an excuse to keep up a bit by rounding-up here some opinion pieces that have caught my eye recently:

From Forbes, "Bureau Of Prisons Backtracking On First Step Act Law"

From Governing, "No, Criminal Justice Reform Isn’t Driving Rising Crime"

From the New Republic, "The Turkey Pardon Is a Perfect Emblem of Our Very Dumb Politics"

From the New York Post, "Thank NY’s criminal justice ‘reforms’ for this double murder"

From Rolling Stone, "I’m Serving Life in Prison. It’s a Slow-Motion Death Sentence"

From the Times Union, "Parole reform saved New York money. Invest it in helping people stay out of the criminal justice system."

From the Wall Street Journal, "Tech Can Keep Ex-Offenders Out of Jail"


And a notable pair of commentaries from a notable pair of commentators at Reason:

From Josh Blackman, "A Reversal in Rahimi Will Be Tougher to Write Than Critics Admit"

From Will Baude, "It's Not So Hard to Write an Opinion Following Bruen and Reversing in Rahimi

November 24, 2023 in Prisons and prisoners, State Sentencing Guidelines, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)