Sunday, January 13, 2019

"Prisoner-to-Public Communication"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article just posted to SSRN authored by Demetria Frank.  Here is its abstract:

The pervasive problem of over-incarceration in the United States is in part due to lack of correctional facility accountability to the public, and public lack of access to the prisoner experience. In light of the incessant persistence of over-incarceration and “hands off approach” taken by courts in prison administration, this article proposes an unqualified and unfettered prisoner-to-public communication right that would provide prison accountability to the public.

January 13, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Spotlighting problems with immediate application of expanded good time credit in the FIRST STEP Act

This new Reuters article, headlined "Error in U.S. prisons law means well-behaved inmates wait longer for release," reports on what appears to be a significant drafting hiccup in the expansion of good time credits through the FIRST STEP Act. Here are the details:

U.S. prisoners who were expecting earlier release for good behavior, thanks to a new criminal justice law enacted last month, must keep waiting due to an error in the bill, said activists working with the White House to fix the mistake.

Potentially thousands of inmates could be affected by the error in the First Step Act, signed into law on Dec. 21 by Republican President Donald Trump in a rare example of bipartisanship in Washington, with both Democrats and Republicans backing it.

The law required the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP), among other measures, to retroactively recalculate good behavior credits, a step that had been expected to reduce some inmates’ sentences by as many as 54 days per year. Previously, inmates could only earn up to 47 days per year toward early release for good behavior.

Advocates of the law expected the bill’s enactment into law meant that several thousand inmates would get their freedom right away, in time for the 2018 holiday season. But a drafting error in the language of the law has prevented the Justice Department from immediately applying the new method of calculating good-behavior credits, they said.

“You have thousands of families who thought the day this bill passed, their loved ones’ sentence was going to be recalculated and they were going to walk out of their halfway house, their home confinement ... or leave prison,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). “It’s a frustrating mistake,” Ring said.

Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, said the department is analyzing changes for the law and plans to “carry out all necessary steps.”

Reuters has seen a letter sent to inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution Coleman, a federal prison in Florida, in which officials acknowledged the new good-behavior credits would not take effect yet. “The law will allow BOP in the future to apply 54 days of credit for every year a sentence was imposed, which is a change to the prior law,” the letter says. “While this change may result in additional credit for inmates in the future, it is not effective immediately nor is it applicable to all inmates,” it says....

Activists said the law, as drafted, confused good-behavior credits, which reduce a sentence, with earned-time credits, which do not. Earned-time credits allow certain inmates to qualify for early transfer to halfway houses. The law also mistakenly said that new rules on good-behavior credits could not kick in until BOP finishes a risk-assessment process for deciding which inmates can get earned-time credits.

Whether the error can be promptly fixed was unclear. A federal judge in Chicago on Jan. 3 denied a prisoner’s request to be released earlier for good behavior, citing the letter of the law. “This court is not unsympathetic to the apparent inequity of petitioner’s situation,” wrote U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman. “This court, however, is obligated to apply the law as it is written.”

Several activists for prisoners told Reuters their groups are working with the White House on whether the Justice Department can find a work-around or if a legislative fix needs to be tucked into a broader spending bill for action by Congress. Ring said his group is also in talks with lawmakers.

The error comes at a difficult time, with the federal government in a partial shutdown. The Justice Department is one of several agencies partially closed because its funding ran out on Dec. 22 and has not been renewed by Congress.

As I understand this problem, it flows from the fact that the enacted version of the FIRST STEP Act has the expanded good time credits provision tucked within sections of the Act which is said to be effective only when the Attorney General has created "a risk and needs assessment system" that the AG has 210 days to develop.  This placement leads to the view that the expanded good time credits cannot be applied until the risk and needs assessment system gets developed later in 2019.  I am not sure that is the only plausible reading of these provisions of the FIRST STEP Act, but it sounds as though this is the reading now being adopted by the Bureau of Prisons (and maybe some courts).  Such a reading would seem to mean prisoners will not get the benefit of expanded good time credits until at least July 2019.

The expanded good time credits provided by the FIRST STEP Act only amount to an additional week off a sentence for every year served.  So even for those prisoners clearly impacted by this problem, this temporary snafu may only mean a few more week or months in custody before release.  But for prisoners and their families hoping to see freedom a few weeks or months earlier in 2019, this really stinks.

January 9, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, January 03, 2019

"The Metal Eye: Ethical Regulation of the State’s Use of Surveillance Technology and Artificial Intelligence to Observe Humans in Confinement"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Jennifer Brobst available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

This article addresses the dual interests of privacy and the need for social interaction as a right of personal autonomy in choosing the balance between them.  This is a right in need of protection in the face of new technology, including artificial intelligence, which has enabled constant state surveillance of individuals.  Those most at risk of a deprivation of this right -- persons in state institutional confinement, including those in prisons, nursing homes, or involuntarily committed in mental institutions -- provide an important context for examining this potential infringement, because there is a particularly strong concurrent state interest to surveil to maintain order and security.

The historical development of common law and federal constitutional protections of the rights of persons in confinement is examined next to the emergence of state constitutional amendments guaranteeing a right of privacy.  In addition, mental health research has added to the policy development in this area, as seen in research regarding the impact of solitary confinement.

January 3, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Highlighting continued work (and optimism) on alternatives to incarceration

I have had the great honor and pleasure for many years now of working with folks at the Aleph Institute, a national nonprofit that works on various criminal justice reform and recidivism reduction efforts. Hanna Liebman Dershowitz, who is director of special projects for the alternative sentencing division of the Aleph Institute, has this new New York Law Journal piece headlined "Our Country Grapples With Deepest Challenges Around Sentencing," discussing work on alternatives to incarceration and an event on the topic in the works for summer 2019.  Here is an excerpt:

The nonprofit I work with, the Aleph Institute, harbors a vision we call “Rewriting the Sentence,” wherein the cultural and political shift that has already taken hold in this country produces a complete reordering of our punishment priorities.  Once this shift is complete, we would view incarceration and other separation from community only as an option among many to be used sparingly, only when needed.

At present, we are such an outlying world incarcerator that we rank with the most heartless regimes on the planet.  It always bears repeating that we are not 5% of the world population and yet are responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s imprisoned population.  Across history, incarceration has not always dominated the punishment landscape — indeed, in Biblical law there is no such punishment as incarceration because of the inhumane collateral damage it wreaks.

We at Aleph think there are often legal and humanitarian reasons for the avoidance of custodial methods of correction at every stage of our system — from bail reform and law enforcement assisted diversion upfront to diversion programs, specialty courts and sentencing advocacy at the disposition stage to clemency, reentry support and compassionate release toward the back.

A system that uses evidence-based tools at each stage can deliver the optimal levels of supervision and services to allow each person to thrive and stay out of trouble.  Ideally — and I truly get that all of this sounds idealistic — we can use freed-up incarceration resources to support healthy communities, understanding that equity and thriving neighborhoods are the best prevention tools for crime.

What Aleph has learned from delivering care and support to thousands of individuals and families in prisons and jails all over the country for decades is that helping people function better is superior to an outmoded and misguided approach that inexorably leads to negative results, especially for the children left behind.

Here’s why I am not idealistic, but actually a pragmatist. If we don’t envision how we want the system to work, we will continue to incarcerate people none of us ever intended to incarcerate and to not know who we are incarcerating in a meaningful way.....

Why do I think I will see a true culture change in my lifetime on alternatives to incarceration too? Because we are already seeing the seeds of the change, to wit: in a recent meeting with the chief of alternatives for a major metropolitan district attorney, I was told that in recent years incoming prosecutors ask whether there are alternatives they can offer to defendants. In a decade, perhaps they will expect them.

So policy wonks and idealists alike, please stay tuned as we seek to rewrite a legacy of sentencing myopia. Aleph is convening criminal justice stakeholders next June at Columbia Law School for the Rewriting the Sentence 2019 Summit, and we will announce significant new initiatives thereafter. For more information, please visit askssummit.com.

December 30, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 28, 2018

Spotlighting how FIRST STEP Act implementation challenges and uncertainty has already begun

A week ago the FIRST STEP Act was signed into law, and my first post celebrating this achievement stressed the challenging and critical work of implementing the law well.  Today, this new Washington Examiner piece, headlined "Prisoners due for release under First Step Act stuck in limbo," spotlights that implementation difficulties have already begun.  Here are excerpts:

President Trump shortened the sentences of thousands of prisoners by signing the First Step Act days before Christmas.  But one week later, inmates and their frustrated families say they are afraid the gift won’t be delivered in time to hasten release dates.

Silence from the Federal Bureau of Prisons is creating fear that foot-dragging will eat into reductions mandated by Trump's most significant bipartisan policy achievement.  The new law gives many prisoners an extra seven days off their sentences for each year of good behavior, but it's unclear when authorities will make the calculations.

“Literally, my brother has packed his stuff and is waiting for the call,” said Veda Ajamu, whose brother Robert Shipp, 46, has served 25 years of a drug sentence. Shipp had a November 2019 release date, but Ajamu believes he may be going home immediately under the new law, which would shave off about 175 days, potentially making him eligible for a halfway house or home confinement, which is typical at the very end of sentences. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m feeling anxious. I don’t want to be at the wrong place when he calls,’” said Ajamu, who plans to pick up her brother.

“Some families have loved ones who they know would be home tomorrow,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and a former executive director for the conservative Republican Study Committee. “People are very concerned about when this is going to get done. Congress has passed this. It's in effect."

Advocates estimate that 4,000 federal prisoners will be released almost immediately under the good-time expansion. A smaller number can petition courts for old crack cocaine sentences to be reduced.

For Craig Steven Houston, 48, the good-behavior change alone could mean 210 days off a 30-year crack cocaine sentence. He had an August release date, but the law means he could get out in just 22 days, on Jan. 19., according to his family. “We want to be prepared and know what's going on,” said Steve Henderson, who was raised with Houston and considers him a brother.

Concerned families are calling the Bureau of Prisons’ Designations and Sentence Computation Center, which calculates sentences. But some say calls haven’t been answered. “When you have an infraction in prison, when they take the time away from you, they calculate it immediately... the next day it is gone,” Henderson said. “You have people across the country who are supposed to be home. All of a sudden DSCC isn't answering their phones.”

It’s unclear what effect the ongoing partial government shutdown is having. Bureau of Prisons spokespeople did not respond to multiple requests for clarification this week. Part of the delay may be explained by lack of implementation guidance. "We are currently reviewing the new legislation to determine implementation guidance for BOP and other DOJ components," said Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle. Hornbuckle noted that more than 80 percent of the department workforce is working through the government shutdown, which began hours after Trump signed the First Step Act.

December 28, 2018 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 24, 2018

Lamenting lack of retroactive application of new sentencing changes in FIRST STEP Act (... and so rooting again for robust clemency)

This recent piece from The Guardian, fully headlined "Current inmates feel left behind by Trump's criminal justice reform bill; First Step Act reduces the mandatory sentence for three-strikes offenders but the provisions will not be made retroactive," spotlights how certain inmates have gotten left behind even as the inappropriateness of their sentences inspired key sentencing reforms in the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are excerpts:

On paper, Chris Young seems exactly the kind of person a prison reform bill ought to release from federal custody. In the eight years since he was last free, Young has become an avid reader, taught himself to write computer code and worked as a tutor for fellow prisoners. Right now he’s reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus “for fun”.  He also says that since he can’t get real-world practice, he re-reads the same passage of a programming book every day after lunch, to make sure it’s committed to memory.

When he was 22, Young was arrested on a third low-level drug charge. Under so-called “three strikes” laws, he was given a mandatory life sentence.  For decades, in cases involving repeat drug offenders, such laws have stripped federal judges of discretion. The judge who sentenced Young, Kevin Sharp, was so shaken by the experience he retired shortly after.  “What I was required to do that day was cruel,” Sharp tweeted earlier this year.

The bipartisan First Step Act, signed into law by Donald Trump on Friday, softens that “cruel” requirement for federal judges, reducing the mandatory sentence in such cases to 25 years. But it will not do anything for Young.  In one of many compromises made by progressive reform advocates to secure conservative support, this and several other provisions were not made retroactive.  “I’m human and I would have loved to have benefited from the bill, but unfortunately I don’t,” Young told the Guardian from federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. “I don’t necessarily feel left behind, I just feel [lawmakers] don’t understand what goes on with the … actual humans that their choices and politics affect.”...

Advocates believe [the Act] can be a launching point for state and local reform which could have a much greater impact on the US inmate population. After all, just 10% of people incarcerated in the US are in the federal system.  “I absolutely think that this one is going to be catalytic towards other de-carceration campaigns on the local and state level,” said Glenn Martin, a formerly incarcerated reform advocate who helped bring dozens of former inmate-led groups on board for the First Step Act.

“I think that the Senate — a conservative Republican Senate — has just given permission to conservatives all over the country [to become] engaged in criminal justice reform.” Nonetheless, the lack of retroactivity on a majority of the sentencing reforms was “a tough pill to swallow”.

“It’s one of the concessions that hurts the most,” said Martin. “It’s about fairness, and yet there’s this group of people who continue to be harmed because of the lack of retroactivity.”

That includes people like John Bailey, a 71-year-old inmate of the federal prison in Hazleton, West Virginia which is nicknamed “misery mountain”. Bailey’s brother Oliver said he was struggling to understand the logic of the changes not applying to inmates like John, who was imprisoned in 1992 on a non-violent drug charge. “If you recognize the injustice now,” asked Bailey, “how come it doesn’t apply to those that suffered the same injustice before?”

Advocates who worked on the bill said conservatives and politically vulnerable Democrats opposed retroactivity because of how releasing prisoners early might resonate with voters.

There is one bright spot for the Baileys. One provision of First Step that does apply to current inmates is a requirement that prisoners be housed no more than 500 driving miles from their home. Bailey, who is from St Petersburg, Florida, has spent his prison life in Leavenworth, Kansas and now West Virginia, thousands of miles away. Oliver has not seen John since he was jailed. “At this point something’s better than nothing,” he said. “We need to progress from here.”

It’s a common sentiment. Chad Marks is serving a 40-year sentence on drug conspiracy charges, thanks to another provision First Step will restrict. Marks’ sentence was enhanced by “stacking” language in federal law which dramatically increases a sentence if an offender possesses a firearm in the commission of a drug crime, whether or not it is used. “I don’t understand how lawmakers can say that doing this is wrong,” he said, “and that they are going to fix it, but not apply it retroactively. That was a big blow. What has my focus and attention right now is the fact that lawmakers did something, but my focus is also on a second step coming.”...

Young, Bailey and Marks continue to wait for a second step. While they do, all three must place their primary hope for release in an act of clemency: a pardon or commutation issued by the president. Young’s case has been endorsed by Kim Kardashian, who successfully lobbied for the release of another federal prisoner, Alice Johnson, in June. Marks said he was “more than hopeful that I will find relief through clemency”.

“I am praying that president Trump will find me worthy of mercy and grace,” he said. “I won’t let him down or disappoint him.”

As regular readers know, Prez Trump has been letting me down and disappointing me by having so far failed to make good on all the talk from earlier this year that he was looking at "3,000 names" for possible clemencies. I sincerely hope that Prez Trump and those assisting him on clemency matters are going to give extra attention to persons serving extreme sentences that would no longer be applicable under the new sentencing provisions of the FIRST STEP Act.  (I also think persons serving particularly extreme sentences should file (or seek to re-file) constitutional or other challenges to their sentences that might be emboldened by FIRST STEP Act reforms, but I will discuss this idea in a subsequent post.)

A few of many recent related posts: 

December 24, 2018 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, December 21, 2018

Prez Trump signs historic (though modest) FIRST STEP Act into law ... and now comes the critical work of implementing it well!!

President Donald J. Trump officially signed the FIRST STEP Act into law today, and I am so very excited that a significant piece of sentencing and prison reform finally became law after years and years and years of talk and effort by so many.  I wish the reform was even more significant, especially on the sentencing side, but something is better than nothing and but for a modest reform to crack sentencing terms, we really have had nothing positive coming from Congress on the sentencing side in more than 20+ years.

The White House has this extended "fact sheet" about the FIRST STEP Act under the heading "President Donald J. Trump Secures Landmark Legislation to Make Our Federal Justice System Fairer and Our Communities Safer."  Here is an excerpt:

CREATING SAFER COMMUNITIES AND A FAIRER FEDERAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: The First Step Act will make our Federal justice system fairer and our communities safer.

  • The First Step Act will help prepare inmates to successfully rejoin society and enact commonsense sentencing reforms to make our justice system fairer for all Americans.
  • Among many reforms, the First Step Act will:
    • Promote prisoner participation in vocational training, educational coursework, or faith-based programs by allowing prisoners to earn time credits for pre-release custody.
    • Expand prison employment program opportunities.
    • Enact fair, commonsense reforms to mandatory minimums.
    • Eliminate the three-strike mandatory life sentencing provisions.
    • Give certain offenders the ability to petition the courts for a review of their sentences.

As the title of this post highlights, I am viewing the enactment of the FIRST STEP Act only as completing stage 1 of achieving significant federal criminal justice reform. Stage 2 involves the critical work of implementation, and so many of the large and small elements of the the FIRST STEP Act involve important and challenging implementation issues. Most obviously, the risk assessment system for prisoner programming and time credits needs to be developed and deployed in a fair and effective way and that is easier said than done. And the instruction that federal prisoners be house, whenever possible, within 500 miles of their homes is easier to describe than to ensure. And the new authority created by the FIRST STEP Act for courts to consider directly so-called "compassionate release" motions for sentence reductions presents a profound opportunity and a profound challenge for taking a second look at extreme (and extremely problematic) sentences.

I could go on and on, but I will save FIRST STEP Act "issue spotting" for the days and weeks ahead (I have created a new category archive for this very purpose).  For now I will just savor needed legal change and congratulate all those on the front lines who worked so very hard to help make this day possible.  Wow!

December 21, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, December 20, 2018

FIRST STEP Act approved by US House by vote of 358 to 36, will become law as soon as Prez Trump signs!!

As reported in this UPI piece, the US House of Representatives "overwhelmingly approved a bill overhauling the country's criminal justice system Thursday, sending the legislation to President Donald Trump's desk for a signature." Here is more:

The chamber approved the First Step Act with a 358-36 vote two days after the Senate passed it by a similar margin of 87-12. Lawmakers expect Trump to sign the legislation into law Friday.

The House approved a different version of the legislation earlier this year and had to amend it to make the Senate version.

Trump has described the reform as "reasonable sentencing reforms while keeping dangerous and violent criminals off our streets." "Congress just passed the Criminal Justice Reform Bill known as the #FirstStepAct. Congratulations!  This is a great bi-partisan achievement for everybody.  When both parties work together we can keep our Country safer. A wonderful thing for the U.S.A.!!" he tweeted.

House Speaker Paul Ryan welcomed passage of the legislation, saying it's something he's "believed in for a long time."

"These reforms to our criminal justice system will not only reduce recidivism and make communities safer, but they will help people into lives of purpose," he said.

HUZZAH!!!

Interestingly, when the prison-reform only versions of this bill received a House vote back in May, only two DOP members voted against it while 30+ Dems voted not because of a concern the bill did not go far enough. With the new version including a few modest sentencing reforms, this time around all Dems voted yea and all 36 nays came from GOP members (as detailed in this final vote tally).

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts as FIRST STEP Act gets ever closer to becoming law:

December 20, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

US Sentencing Commission provides latest "Sentence and Prison Impact Estimate" for FIRST STEP Act

Back in March of this year, as reported in this post, US Sentencing Commission posted on its website this letter from the USSC's Director of its Office of Research and Data to an analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.  This document included a detailed "Sentence and Prison Impact Estimate Summary" of the impact of S.1917, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017.  That analysis not only detailed the expected impact of an array of provisions in the SRCA, but also confirmed my sense that the prison-reform provisions of that bill could be in many ways more important and impactful than many of its sentencing-reform provisions. 

The FIRST STEP Act, notably, has preserved and even expanded upon some of the prison-reform provisions that were in the SRCA, but it only now has a few of its sentencing-reform provisions.  Still, its impact is likely to be considerable (with just how considerable depending upon its implementation).  And, helpfully, the US Sentencing Commission has now produced this new, updated document titled "Sentence and Prison Impact Estimate Summary, S. 756, The First Step Act of 2018 (as passed by the Senate on December 18, 2018)."  Here is that document's basic accounting of the three biggest impact items of the bill: 

Section 101: Risk and Needs Assessment System

Retroactive Impact: 106,114 eligible offenders were in BOP custody as of May 26, 2018.

Section 402: Broadening of Existing Safety Valve (to offenders with up to 4 criminal history points)

Prospective Impact: 2,045 Offenders Annually; -21.8% Sentence Reduction; Decrease of 1,072 beds in BOP 5 years after effective date.

Retroactive Impact: Not authorized in bill.

Section 404: Retroactive Application of Fair Sentencing Act (to defendants previously sentenced)

Impact: 2,660 eligible offenders were in BOP custody as of May 26, 2018.

December 19, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Data on sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

After rejection of contentious proposed amendments, FIRST STEP Act passed by Senate by vote of 87 to 12!!!!

In this post back in August I wondered "Could enhanced FIRST STEP Act get more than 90 votes in the Senate if even brought up for a vote?".  Well, it seems I was off by three votes, as tonight the the US Senate voted 87 to 12 to enact the FIRST STEP Act.  With a vote in the House scheduled for later this week, this bill should be on Prez Trump's  desk before the end of this week and law before Prez Trump heads down to Mar-a-Lago for the holidays.  This USA Today article, headlined "Senate passes First Step Act with push from criminal justice groups; bill goes to House," provides this account of today's historic developments:

Alex Gudich and the team from #cut50 weren’t taking any votes for granted. They spent Tuesday knocking on the doors of senators and urging them to support a criminal justice reform bill up for a vote, something they didn't know would happen that night.

"We knew that it would be a tough vote for many members on both sides," said Gudich, deputy director for the national advocacy group pushing to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system. "We’re here at a very, very pivotal moment."

In a major step in that effort, the Senate voted 87 to 12 late Tuesday to approve the bipartisan "First Step Act" pushed by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Mike Lee, R-Utah and Cory Booker, D-N.J. The bill must now go over to the House for a vote. President Donald Trump has supported the measure....

The Senate defeated amendments proposed by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana that would have required the Bureau of Prisons to notify victims before a prisoner is released and tracked former offenders after they're released.

Several advocacy groups, including #cut50, and national civil rights groups, including the National Urban League, have been a part of a massive push to get the legislation passed. “It’s been a long time in raising the awareness of how the system of mass incarceration is so destructive and needs to be fixed and reformed,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “There’s been a lot of groundwork that has been laid over the years.”

The groups have been working on criminal justice reforms for years, including under then-President Barack Obama, but supporters said the effort got a boost earlier this year with the help of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser. “We were excited to see a breakthrough this year and a shift," Gudich said.

Gudich called the First Step Act “a compromise bill, but importantly it does not add any new mandatory minimum. There are no sentencing enhancements.” Some advocates, however, have complained the measure doesn’t go far enough. Morial said he would have wanted more provisions to deal with bail reforms and more support for reentry programs, but welcomes the effort. “If we could get a perfect comprehensive bill, we’d do it," he said. “This bill is also the product of some difficult political trade-offs. But it’s better to move this bill with all the things it does than to sit back and wait. We could end waiting another three to four years."

Lawmakers particularly praised the work and input of advocates and civil rights groups. “Formerly incarcerated individuals were incredibly important voices in urging the House to get something done meaningful on prison reform,’’ said New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, incoming House Democratic Caucus Chair, a key negotiator. “Nobody is more authoritative on the issue of the victimization that has taken place as a result of over criminalization as a result of the mass incarceration epidemic then those Americans who were directly impacted.”

Indeed, formerly incarcerated people from a host of groups, including #cut50, Prison Fellowship, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, have lobbied Congress to support reforms. Civil and voting rights groups, including the NAACP and the ACLU, have also been key players along with a host of conservative groups. “We as conservatives share common goals,’’ Kevin Roberts, executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said during a press conference last week. “We want strong communities and institutions. We want those who have done wrong to be punished and then to seize their own redemption without state interference. Most of all we want safe neighborhoods.”

Morial applauded the passage of the First Step Act, but said more needs to be done. “This is something that we have to work on over time. This bill is a good bill, but this not going to be the last effort at criminal justice reform,’’ he said. “There’s already a lot of movement at the state level… This is a growing movement in America – the idea that we have to fix the system of mass incarceration.”

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just say that Prez Trump has already tweeted here about this significant legislative development, saying "This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it. In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!"

December 18, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, December 14, 2018

Details on further carve-outs and amendments to FIRST STEP Act sought by Senators Tom Cotton and John Kennedy

I have been able to get copies of proposed FIRST STEP Act amendments that Senator Tom Cotton and Senator John Kennedy will seek votes on next week.  Specifically, I have posted for downloading below a one-page explanation, the text of the proposed amendments, and a letter of support from the National Association of Police Organizations.  Here is key text from the one-pager (with bolding in the original):

AMENDMENT 1: Excluding serious felons from early release to prerelease custody and supervised release

The First Step Act already excludes some classes of felons from using the bill’s early release time credits to transfer into prerelease custody or supervised release for up to one-third of their sentences.  This list has grown as we have identified dangerous crimes — but it is still inadequate. For example, according to career sex-crimes prosecutors, 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b) is a commonly used statute to prosecute attempted child molesters.  Prisoners convicted of this statute are still eligible for early release under the revised bill. This amendment adds nine serious, violent, or sex-related criminal statutes to the “ineligible prisoners” list, excluding them from early release.  These offenders will still receive anti-recidivism programming and are eligible to earn other incentives, but will not be granted early release compared with current law....

AMENDMENT 2: Notifying victims before a offender is allowed to transfer out of prison early

This amendment would require the warden to notify each victim, when applicable, before an offender is transferred early into prerelease custody or supervised release.  It would give the victim an option to make a statement to the warden before the offender is released.

AMENDMENT 3: Tracking the effectiveness of the anti-recidivism programs

This amendment would create transparency by requiring the Bureau of Prisons to track the rearrest data for each prisoner who is transferred out of prison early into supervised release or prerelease custody.  This will provide valuable data to measure the effectiveness of the evidence-based anti-recidivism programs in the bill.

All Three Amendments Are Supported by the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the National Association of Police Organizations, and victims rights groups Force 100 and Arizona Voices for Crime Victims.

Download Final Cotton Kennedy one-pager on First Step Act Amendment

Download Text Cotton Kennedy First Step Amendment

Download NAPO Supports Cotton-Kennedy Amdt1_S.3649%5b3%5d

I am not a fan of many of the existing 60+ carve-outs in the current draft of the FIRST STEP Act limiting who gets certain incentives for being involved in anti-recidivism programming. Among my worries with these carve-outs is that sophisticated federal prosecutors and defense attorneys may develop (hard-to-see) ways to plead around these carve-outs so that certain federal defendants will be able to avoid their impact while others will not.  This makes the entire sentencing system and the mechanisms being set up by the FIRST STEP Act less transparent and potentially less effective.  So, I hope the Senate will resist even more carve-outs.

The victim-notification provision seems to overlap with The Crime Victims' Rights Act, 18 USC § 3771, which provides that a crime victim has the "right to reasonable, accurate, and timely notice ... of any release ... of the accused."  I am not sure if the federal system consistently complies with this provision of the CVRA, and arguably this proposed amendment serves to expand and enhance the existing statutory right.  And, of course, a large number of federal prisoners, such as those convicted of various drug and immigration and gun possession offenses, did not commit crimes with tangible victims needing to be notified.

And, as regular readers should know, I always support provisions that seek to soundly enhance the requirement of governments to soundly collect and analyze and make public data about sentencing systems and prison programming.  

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts:

December 14, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Latest developments and discussions surrounding FIRST (baby) STEP Act

Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary released this press statement titled "Senate & House Lawmakers Release Updated First Step Act."   Here are key passages and links from the release:

A bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers today released revised text of the First Step Act to continue building support for criminal justice reform. This update was brokered by the White House and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both chambers of Congress. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan have pledged to take up the revised package before the end of the year....

The revised legislation further clarifies eligibility for earned time credits following successful completion of evidence-based recidivism reduction programs, and expands on the existing list of disqualifying offenses. The changes address points raised by some law enforcement groups and provides for additional transparency in the Bureau of Prisons’ risk assessment framework.  A summary of the update can be found HERE.  Text is available HERE.

The First Step Act is endorsed by President Trump and cosponsored by more than a third of the Senate, evenly balanced among Democrats and Republicans. The recent updates to the bill have garnered the support of additional senators in recent days, including Senators Thom Tillis, Ted Cruz, David Perdue and John Cornyn....

The First Step Act is backed by a number of law enforcement groups, including the nation’s largest police group. It’s also supported by 172 former federal prosecutors including two former Republican U.S. attorneys general, two former deputy attorneys general and a former director of the FBI along with sheriffs from 34 states across the country. The National Governor’s Association, which represents the governors of all 50 states, praised the bill. A broad coalition of conservative and progressive groups along with a host of business leaders and faith-based organizations also support the First Step Act.

As the title of this post indicates, I am tempted to rename the FIRST STEP Act the First Baby Step Act because all of the latest carve outs in the latest version of the bill have made an already watered-down reform effort even more watery. But, because even a baby step is still so much better than no step at all, I remain very excited about the FIRST STEP Act and hope to be able to officially celebrate its enactment in the coming weeks.

And, of course, Senator Tom Cotton is not eager to go down without a fight here, and the press is rightly talking about his prominent role in the debate over this bill.  Here is a sampling of recent coverage:

December 13, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Prison Policy Initiative produces "Correctional Control 2018: Incarceration and supervision by state"

National_correctional_control2018The fine folks at the Prison Policy Initiative a few years ago produced this first version of a report that sought to aggregate "data on all of the kinds of correctional control: federal prisons, state prisons, local jails, juvenile incarceration, civil commitment, Indian Country jails, parole and, lastly but importantly, probation."  PPI's latest version of this report, now called "Correctional Control 2018: Incarceration and supervision by state," gets started this way:

The U.S. has a staggering 2.3 million people behind bars, but even this number doesn’t capture the true scale of our correctional system.  For a complete picture of our criminal justice system, it’s more accurate to look at the 6.7 million people under correctional control, which includes not only incarceration but also probation and parole.

The vast majority of people under correctional control are on probation and parole, collectively known as community supervision (or community corrections).  An estimated 4.5 million adults are under community supervision, nearly twice the number of people who are incarcerated in jails and prisons combined. Yet despite the massive number of people under their control, parole and probation have not received nearly as much attention as incarceration.  Only with recent high-profile cases (such as rapper Meek Mill’s probation revocation) has the public begun to recognize the injustices plaguing probation and parole systems, which set people up to fail with long supervision terms, onerous restrictions, and constant scrutiny.  Touted as alternatives to incarceration, these systems often impose conditions that make it difficult for people to succeed, and therefore end up channeling people into prisons and jails.

Understanding correctional control beyond incarceration gives us a more accurate and complete picture of punishment in the United States, showing the expansive reach of our criminal justice system.  This is especially true at the state level, as some of the states that are the least likely to send someone to prison are the most likely to put them under community supervision.  Given that most criminal justice reform will need to happen at the state and local levels, it is crucial for states to assess not only their incarceration rates, but whether their “alternatives” to incarceration are working as intended.

For this report, we compiled data on each state’s various systems of correctional control to help advocates and policymakers prioritize targets for reform.  This report includes data on federal prisons, state prisons, local jails, juvenile confinement, involuntary commitment, Indian Country jails, parole, and probation. We make the data accessible in one nationwide chart and 100 state-specific pie charts.  In this update to our original 2016 report, we pay particular attention to the harms of probation and parole, and discuss how these systems might be reworked into more meaningful alternatives to incarceration.

December 12, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Senate leader Mitch McConnell says in floor speech that he will bring up FIRST STEP Act for a vote!!

Most everything that happens inside the Beltway tends to make me sad and frustrated, but I was feeling especially sad and frustrated by report that the FIRST STEP Act would not even get a vote in the Senate this year.  But, providing a belated Hannukah gift and an early Christmas gift is this exciting news via the Washington Post: "McConnell to bring up criminal-justice bill for a Senate vote."  Here are the details:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that the Senate will vote on a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system that has proven deeply controversial within the Senate Republican ranks. 

McConnell said in a floor speech Tuesday morning that the Senate will take up the legislation, written by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and several other Democratic and Republican senators, in December, perhaps as early as the end of this week. 

He also warned that because of the decision to add the criminal justice bill to the Senate agenda, “members should now be prepared to work between Christmas and New Year’s.” He urged senators to “work together or prepare for a very, very long month.”

Since I am regularly working — usually grading, researching and blogging — between Christmas and New Year's, I am not at all troubled that Senators will also have to squeeze in a little extra work to earn their final 2018 paychecks.   

This report is certainly something to celebrate among everyone eager to see some — any — positive reforms to our federal criminal justice system.  But, of course, having a bill enacted and signed by the Prez is critical before a full celebration is appropriate. In addition, various reports of various carve outs in order to garner GOP support for various part of the bill suggest that the final legislation could prove especially modest in various particulars.  Still, as I see it, something is always better than nothing, and any version of the FIRST STEP Act is likely to be something.

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts:

December 11, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, December 09, 2018

New study highlights that "1 in 2 people in the United States has had an immediate family member incarcerated"

Download (27)This recent USA Today piece, headlined "'This isn't just numbers – but lives': Half of Americans have family members who've been incarcerated," reports on a notable new report about the real scope of incarceration in the so-called land of the free. Here is how the press account gets started:

One of Felicity Rose's first memories of her father is of the sheet of glass that separated them when she visited him in prison.  Growing up, she tried to hide his past, the prison sentences that kept him behind bars for drug crimes and the ripple effect it had on her family, both financially and psychologically. 

Over time, Rose realized her family wasn't alone.  Her story was one of millions, as noted in a first-of-its-kind study released Thursday by FWD.us, where Rose works directing research on criminal justice.   Among the findings, obtained first by USA TODAY, were that half of adults in the USA have an immediate family member who has been incarcerated. That's about 113 million people who have a close family member who has spent time behind bars. 

The study by FWD.us, an organization critical of U.S. immigration and criminal justice policy, was done in partnership with Cornell University. The conclusions were drawn from a survey of more than 4,000 people, a sample size representative of the U.S. population. 

I recommend the full FWD.us report, titled "Every Second: The Impact of the Incarceration Crisis on America’s Families," in both its electronic form and in its 55-page hard copy form.  Here is the executive summary from the report:

On any given day, there are more than 1.5 million people behind bars in state or federal prisons in the United States. Admissions to local jails have exceeded 10 million each year for at least the past 20 years. These figures are staggering, but the long reach of incarceration extends well beyond the jail and prison walls to the families on the other side.

New research from FWD.us and Cornell University shows that approximately one in two adults (approximately 113 million people) has had an immediate family member incarcerated for at least one night in jail or prison. One in seven adults has had an immediate family member incarcerated for at least one year, and one in 34 adults has had an immediate family member spend 10 years or longer in prison. Today, an estimated 6.5 million people have an immediate family member currently incarcerated in jail or prison (1 in 38).

The negative effects that individuals experience after being incarcerated are well documented, but much less is known about the incredible direct and indirect harms and challenges that families face when a loved one has been taken away. This report examines this important but understudied aspect of mass incarceration and provides new estimates on the prevalence of family incarceration for parents, siblings, spouses, and children.

The findings reinforce the need to significantly reduce incarceration and support the families that are left behind. Despite limited recent declines in the jail and prison population, an unprecedented number of people continue to be impacted by incarceration and the collateral consequences of that experience which can last a lifetime.  Research has shown that even short periods of incarceration can be devastating to people’s lives and additional punishments such as fines and fees, restrictions on employment and housing, and the loss of basic human rights limit opportunities for success long after individuals have completed their sentences.

Our study shows that incarceration impacts people from all walks of life — for example, rates of family incarceration are similar for Republicans and Democrats — but the impact is unevenly borne by communities of color and families who are low-income.  Black people are 50 percent more likely than white people to have had a family member incarcerated, and three times more likely to have had a family member incarcerated for one year or longer.  People earning less than $25,000 per year are 61 percent more likely than people earning more than $100,000 to have had a family member incarcerated, and three times more likely to have had a family member incarcerated for one year or longer.

The remainder of this report examines the prevalence of family incarceration for different demographic groups and communities, the impact of incarceration on family outcomes, and the policies that exacerbate the harmful effects of having a loved one incarcerated.  The findings show just how pervasive and entrenched incarceration has become in America, and the results should convince decision-makers and the public to take a hard look at the policies that drive incarceration and the opportunities to strengthen families rather than tear them apart.

December 9, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 07, 2018

Senator Ted Cruz supports FIRST STEP Act with revisions, Prez Trump tweets for a "VOTE," and the bill's prospects brighten

The US stock market probably can lay claim to being the most volatile and unpredictable metric since last months election, but the ups and downs surrounding the possible enactment of the FIRST STEP Act during the lame duck Congress have certainly been knocking me for a loop.  As of yesterday evening, as reflected in this post, I was ready to put a folk in reform efforts and conclude they were done for now.  But a new day brings all sorts of new developments: (1) Senator Ted Cruz issued this press release reporting "the White House and the sponsors of this bill ... have decided to accept [his] amendment" to exclude violent offenders from being released early so that now he believes "the Senate should take up and pass this important legislation, and (2) Prez Donald Trump posted this tweet:

This new Politico article, headlined "Trump leans on McConnell to vote on criminal justice reform," provides the latest full update, including these mostly encouraging details:

President Donald Trump pressured Senate Majority Leader Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Friday to pass criminal justice reform, hoping to push a reluctant McConnell to put it on the floor during a crowded lame duck session. After going mostly silent on the bill for several weeks, Trump touted the bill at an event in Kansas City and then singled McConnell out on Friday on his Twitter feed....

A person familiar with the conversations between the two men said the president was using a light touch on the bill, but would call McConnell out if he felt the bill was drifting away. “McConnell said if we’ve got 65 votes then he would allow the bill to get on the floor. And we’ve far exceeded that. And now the president is pushing the president to get the floor time," the person said. "We need to figure out exactly how this fits in in the floor time. Until we can answer that question all the pressure in the world won’t make a difference. What [Trump has] done is he’s expressed very clearly to McConnell that he wants him to figure it out."

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also talked to Trump on Friday and tweeted that "Trump told me he wants it done THIS CONGRESS."

The Trump tweet came on top of a day of rising public support for the bill, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) endorsing a revised version of criminal justice reform. The legislation, which would relax some federal sentencing guidelines and reform the federal prison system, is being amended to “exclude violent offenders from being released early,” the Texas Republican said in a statement....

Four other senators endorsed the bill on Friday as it faces a time crunch on the Senate calendar. Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) backed the bill.  Those senators plus Cruz give the bill more than 30 official supporters in both parties, though almost the whole 49-member Democratic caucus is expected to back the bill if it comes up for a vote.

The real issue is on the Republican side, where advocates argue that about 30 of the 51 senators support it, but GOP leaders say the bill’s support is much lower.  Though conservatives like Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have led the public charge against it, there are quieter opponents of the bill like Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who says his state is in the midst of a “crime wave” from similar legislation.  “It’s a very challenging time in Alaska to be focused on criminal justice reform,” Sullivan said in an interview. He said the bill should not come up this year.

The internal disagreements and opposition from the National Sheriffs’ Association have made McConnell reluctant to bring the bill to the floor, especially with just two weeks left to pass legislation to fund the government. McConnell has repeatedly indicated to the White House and his conference that finding a window to pass the criminal justice reform bill would be challenging. “Until we can kind of figure out how to get the sheriffs on board, we still have a lot of opposition in our ranks,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader. “Then, from a timing standpoint, how would we process that in the next two weeks?”...

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he spoke to President Donald Trump on Friday and that the president wants the bill to pass, potentially as part of the spending bill along with more money for the border wall. But that plan would surely draw broad Democratic opposition over funding for the wall. And McConnell has mentioned taking up the bill next year after Democrats take the House. But the bill's supporters say that's akin to starting all over after building a fragile compromise this year.

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts:

December 7, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Sentencing Project launches campaign to "End Life Imprisonment" with new book and other resources

Meaning_of_life_finalThe folks at The Sentencing Project this week officially kicked off what they are calling here a "Campaign to End Life Imprisonment." The website for the campaign has a facts, figures and stories about life imprisonment, and this four-page fact sheet has lots of data and graphs and includes these particulars:

While people of color are over-represented in prisons and jails; this disparity is even more evident among those sentenced to life imprisonment, where one of every five African American prisoners is serving a life sentence.

Over 6,000 women are serving life or virtual life sentences. The number of women serving life sentences has risen at a faster rate than for men in recent years. Between 2008 and 2016, women lifers increased by 20%, compared to a 15% increase for men.

Juveniles serve life sentences at alarming rates as well. In fact, the U.S. is unique in the world in its use of life imprisonment without parole for crimes committed by teenagers.

In addition to the more than 2,000 people serving life without the possibility of parole, there are more than 7,000 juveniles serving life with parole and another 2,000 serving “virtual life” prison terms of 50 years or more.

In conjunction with this launch, the New Press has published this new book authored by Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis, with contributions by Kerry Myers, titled "The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences." Here is how the publisher's website describes the book:

Most Western democracies have few or no people serving life sentences, yet here in the United States more than 200,000 people are sentenced to such prison terms.

Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project argue that there is no practical or moral justification for a sentence longer than twenty years.  Harsher sentences have been shown to have little effect on crime rates, since people “age out” of crime — meaning that we’re spending a fortune on geriatric care for older prisoners who pose little threat to public safety.  Extreme punishment for serious crime also has an inflationary effect on sentences across the spectrum, helping to account for severe mandatory minimums and other harsh punishments.

A thoughtful and stirring call to action, The Meaning of Life also features moving profiles of a half dozen people affected by life sentences, written by former “lifer” and award-winning writer Kerry Myers.  The book will tie in to a campaign spearheaded by The Sentencing Project and offers a much-needed road map to a more humane criminal justice system.

December 5, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

"Tipping Point: A Majority Of States Abandon Life-Without-Parole Sentences For Children"

The title of this post is the title of this new document from the The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. Here is its executive summary:

A majority of states now ban life without parole for children or have no one serving the sentence.  A combination of judicial decisions and state legislative reforms have reduced the number of individuals serving by 60 percent in just three years, and that number continues to decline.  Today, approximately 1,100 people are serving life without parole for crimes committed as children.

For the approximately 1,700 individuals whose life-without-parole sentences have been altered through legislative reform or judicial resentencing to date, the median sentence nationwide is 25 years before parole or release eligibility.  Nearly 400 people previously sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as children have been released from prison to date.  Despite national momentum rejecting life-without-parole sentences for children, racial disparities continue to worsen; of new cases tried since 2012, approximately 72 percent of children sentenced to life without parole have been Black — as compared to approximately 61 percent before 2012.

December 4, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 03, 2018

The faulty and foul thinking continuing to thwart a vote on the FIRST STEP Act

A new week bring a new round of stories about the status of the debate over the FIRST STEP Act.  For example, this morning's Politico piece, headlined "Trump lays off McConnell as criminal justice reform stalls: Advocates fear the president isn’t fully invested in the fight for the bill," is focused on whether Prez Trump should be trying to do more to get the legislation through Congress.  Given that Prez Trump does not work in Congress, I would rather these days to see stories about whether he will ever make good on all his prior clemency talk, but that it a topic for a coming post.

Of course, I understand why Politico and others are inclined to focus on Prez Trump 's role in this process, but I have long been wondering why nobody is talking about whether Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley would be willing to stall/block any and all votes on judicial nominees — not only now in lame duck, but also in the next Congress — until a Senate floor vote is scheduled on criminal justice reform bills.  As this AP story notes, outgoing GOP Senator Jeff Flake is using his judiciary power to block votes on judges to seek a floor vote on a bill to provide protections for the special counsel.  As a Beltway outsider, I do not see why Senator Grassley — or other big GOP reform supporters on the Judiciary Committee like Mike Lee — are not at least talking up a similar move to try to get Senator McConnell to schedule a vote on the FIRST STEP Act.

Meanwhile, this CNN article discussing the discussion of the FIRST STEP Act among GOP Senators provides this glimpse into the faulty and foul thinking that creates challenges for any and all criminal justice reform efforts:

Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the number-two ranking Republican and Democrat respectively, discussed in the Senate gym Thursday morning potential compromises that could get wary Republicans on board. "This is a once in a political lifetime opportunity," Durbin said.

In a separate interview, Cornyn said that addressing some of the concerns of one law enforcement group — the National Sheriffs' Association — would "guarantee" the support of some Republicans. Cornyn, the GOP Whip, said his job was to give McConnell "an accurate count of where the votes are," rather than arm-twisting members into voting for it.  He also noted that "our time is limited" in getting it done.

Many Democrats are in favor of the bill — Durbin, the Democratic whip, said his party's "support for this measure is solid." If the Senate can pass it, the House is expected to easily do so too.

This has left the fight to Republican members of the Senate.  Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, told CNN that there's a generational divide within the party on the issue....  "We had one of the senators in the lunch saying, 'You know how you get no recidivism?  Don't ever let him out of jail.  Zero recidivism!'" added Paul, referring to a closed-door meeting GOP senators held this week.

This contention of "Zero recidivism!" is most obviously faulty because it fails to acknowledge that prisoners can and do commit crimes while in prison, with the most common victims being prison guards and other prisons.  This contention is most obviously foul because it entirely disregards the humanity and social meaning of those persons who become federal prisoners (not to mention all their friends and families).  Fundamental ignorance about prisons and prisoners, along with a easy willingness to dehumanize and disregard the interests of those in our criminal justice system and those who care about those in our criminal justice system, help account for why it can be so very easy for all to many leaders to talk this way when seeking to thwart thoughtful and balanced criminal justice reform efforts.

Of course, though nobody is really serious about making all federal crimes subject to mandatory LWOP terms in the name of recidivism reduction, there is also a telling revelation in this faulty and foul comment imagining permanent imprisonment for everyone.  Opponents of the FIRST STEP Act are fundamentally making the claim that we should fear a bill intended and well-designed to seek to reduce recidivism rates among federal prisoners because the recidivism rates among federal prisoners are currently too high.  

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts:

December 3, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Latest chapter of FIRST STEP Act massaging and messaging

Just about day now seems to bring a new development in the saga surrounding a possible Senate vote on some possible version of the FIRST STEP Act.  This new Politico article, headlined "Criminal justice reform bill still alive as McConnell deliberates," reports on the very latest of these developments, and here are excerpts:

Chuck Grassley and other advocates of criminal justice reform are desperately trying to sway Mitch McConnell to stay longer in December to finish their bill. And McConnell isn't ruling it out.

The Senate Judiciary chairman said he's still waiting on an official word from the majority leader on whether he will provide floor time to take up a measure that has drawn heated opposition from some Senate Republicans despite earning President Donald Trump's endorsement....

McConnell said the Senate GOP is still deliberating on whether to move forward, though he left the door open in a brief Thursday interview. “We’re trying to figure out how to proceed on it. We’re still trying to figure that out," the Kentucky Republican said....

Meanwhile, even as a bipartisan group of senators is still working on coming up with a new agreement to win more co-sponsors and the support of the National Sheriffs' Association, a Justice Department draft began circulating on Thursday that rewrites a number of key provisions.

The draft, obtained by POLITICO, would still allow many federal inmates to earn time credits and obtain supervised release but would bar people convicted of violent crimes and major drug trafficking crimes. It would also increase penalties for attacking police officers and fentanyl dealers, a key concern of law enforcement groups and senators from states wracked by the opioid crisis.

But the White House pushed back quickly against the draft, reiterating Trump's call for the criminal justice bill to get a vote this year. "The president has endorsed the Senate compromise on the First Step Act, and the White House is not circulating any other version,” White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said. “All reporting to the contrary is false. The White House is committed to passing this legislation in the lame duck."

One person working in favor of criminal justice reform also slammed the draft as reflecting the efforts of a "rogue DOJ official who always hated the bill." Democrats and Republicans have been working to overcome objections from Republican senators, but "this is not what is being considered," the person said....

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said supporters are considering excluding people from sentencing reforms that committed arson, certain drug crimes, and "taking care of the sheriffs' concerns" about sex crimes.

November 29, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Lots of interesting data from BJS on "Time Served in State Prison, 2016"

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released this interesting new document titled simply "Time Served in State Prison, 2016," which has lots of interesting data on how much time offenders serve in state prisons. Here is what BJS lists as "Highlights":

November 29, 2018 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Despite push by Prez and VP and support of at least 70 senators, odds of a Senate vote on FIRST STEP Act still reportedly "less than 50/50"

Politico has this lengthy report, headlined "White House makes last-ditch push on criminal justice reform bill," on the state of debate among Senate Republicans concerning the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are details:

The Trump administration and a bloc of Republican senators are making a last-ditch attempt to pass a criminal justice reform bill in the lame duck session.

In a closed-door party lunch on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence made a strong endorsement of the bill to Senate Republicans, senators said, emphasizing that the GOP could take a clear win in the lame duck with passage.  And supporters said they picked up votes during the discussion; one supportive GOP senator said they’ve accrued more than 20 hard “yes” votes and that another dozen or so GOP senators are gettable, which would likely be enough to easily pass the bill — if leadership will bring it up.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) maintained his poker face at the meeting, other than to reiterate the Senate’s short calendar.  Asked to assess the prospect that McConnell will put the sentencing and prison reform bill on the floor, one attendee said: “Less than 50/50.”...

“A lot of people like me are still trying to understand what it does,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who characterized Tuesday’s critical meeting as a “higher level discussion of whether we should attempt to do it.”

As they assess the bill‘s prospects, GOP leaders are also asking senators whether they'd prefer to deal with the bill next year after Democrats take over the House, according to two sources familiar with the matter.  That would dismantle a fragile bipartisan agreement and require Republicans and Democrats alike to essentially start over.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is still trying to garner more support for the bill, which would lower mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related felonies, expand a program for early release, promote training programs in prison and require inmates be placed in prisons closer to their homes. He and other advocates say they are open to changing the bill’s treatment of some criminals in order to win new supporters.

“We’re still working on getting additional yeses or additional cosponsors,” Grassley said, noting that the only way to overcome opposition from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and others was to increase co-sponsorship. He added that “we’re talking about no announcement before a couple days.”

McConnell is loath to take up the bill on the floor to prevent a circular firing squad among Republicans. But that’s already happening both in public and private: After trading blows on Twitter in recent days, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Cotton each gave opposing speeches about the bill in the lunch.

But supporters said they have the momentum and estimated only a half-dozen Republicans will be difficult to convince: Cotton, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).  “Over half of the Republicans are for it, and maybe 80 percent, 90 percent, maybe all of the Democrats support it,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) said. “Things are all moving in the right direction.”

Still, Sen. Marco Rubio said that he is skeptical of the bill, particularly when it comes to classification of crimes and said he is “not sure there is anything” that could win him over. And a small bloc of Republicans, led by Cotton and Kennedy, are vocally going after the bill.  Kennedy called it “ass backwards” in an interview and said he had “serious philosophical problems with the criminal justice bill.” It “takes all our authority and gives it to a bunch of bureaucrats,” he said.

The Senate also needs to pass a spending bill by Dec. 7 to avoid a partial government shutdown, and lawmakers are trying to wrap up negotiations around the Farm Bill. The criminal justice bill is regarded as a “maybe” that could potentially wait until next year. A version of the bill has already passed the House.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that the bill “is still being evaluated and people are still trying to figure out where they stand.” He said McConnell has made no final decision....

But no matter what, there will be detractors.  Cotton told reporters Tuesday that while the House’s version of the bill was “fixable,” the Senate’s draft of the legislation has “gone consistently to the left.” 

If only a handful of Republicans supported this bill, I could understand why (but would still be frustrated) the Senate Majority Leader would not want to bring forward a bill favored more by his opposing party than by his own party.  But this Politico report reinforces my sense that a majority of GOP Senators would vote for the FIRST STEP Act and that a super-majority of all Senators (representing a super-super majority of the nation's population) want this legislation enacted.  That a few Senators from a few states can, in essence, exercise a heckler's veto highlights why thoughtful federal criminal justice reform has been so very hard.  Sigh.

Some of many prior related posts:

November 28, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

FIRST STEP Act, already compromised to cater to tough-on-crime crowd, may be watered down further for Senate vote

The Washington Post is reporting in this new article, headlined "Senate Republicans mull changes to controversial criminal justice bill," that there is talk of further gutting the few sentencing reform provisions in the latest version of the FIRST STEP Act and creating still further prison reform carve outs.  Here are the details:

Senate Republicans are actively discussing changes to a controversial overhaul of the criminal justice system in a bid to win more GOP support that could nonetheless shatter a delicate bipartisan compromise on one of President Trump’s top legislative priorities left for this year.

The changes being mulled, confirmed by senators and others familiar with the talks, reflect in part proposals put forward by the National Sheriffs’ Association, which is opposed to the legislation as written.  Though a slew of law enforcement groups already support the bill, getting more of them on board is almost certain to improve its prospects among Republicans.

One change that has been discussed privately is tightening the “safety valve” provision, which provides more discretion to judges when they issue sentences.  Though the most recent public draft of the bill would allow judges to take advantage of those “safety valves” in more types of cases, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said senators are talking about reducing the types of convictions that would qualify for the “safety valve” provision.  Perdue also said senators are considering narrowing the kinds of fentanyl-related crimes that would be eligible under the legislation, which broadly is meant to loosen some mandatory minimum sentences and help rehabilitate prisoners.

“I’m probably going to be supportive of it,” said Perdue, who was a vocal opponent of a more expansive version of the legislation two years ago. “It does some things that we’ve been talking about that Georgia and North Carolina and Texas have done, with good results.”

A provision that gets rid of the “stacking” regulation — which is used to add more penalties against those who commit a drug-related crime while possessing a gun, even if the firearm wasn’t used — is also ripe for potential changes to win over Senate Republicans.

The changes under negotiation reflect the messy, closed-door horse-trading that will only grow as Senate leaders begin gauging support for the bill this week, even if attempts to change the legislation are ultimately unsuccessful.  Senate Democrats, who believe they have already made significant concessions, aren’t eager for more changes that would push the bill further to the right, considering it already has Trump’s endorsement and appears it could easily pass the House.

“I’m aware of the discussions, but we have a strong commitment on both sides of the aisle, including the White House, that the bill is what it is,” Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), one of the main Democratic authors of the bill, said Monday evening of the changes being discussed. “I believe we should all be standing pat and firm.”

The bill’s supporters — both Republicans and Democrats — are also rushing against the clock, scrambling to get the measure signed into law this year before Democrats gain control of the House.  The new majority, particularly the generation of lawmakers partly elected on a message of racial justice, could be more emboldened to push for more sweeping changes than the limited overhaul, upsetting the compromise.

Another change that has been floated privately is including additional categories of sex offenders in the group of inmates who would be ineligible for early release, according to one Senate official....

While the discussions continue, the ranks of publicly opposed senators are growing. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been privately speaking with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — two of his closest allies — but stressed Monday that while he is on board with the overhaul to the prison systems and recidivism programs, he is concerned about the proposed changes to sentencing laws. “Now that we’re getting to the guts of it, I need to have a better understanding,” Rubio said. But “as of now, I can’t support it, given my understanding of it.”

Trump, meanwhile, has not wavered from his public commitment to the First Step Act and overhauling the criminal justice system — the subject of a Monday roundtable in Mississippi that was sandwiched between two campaign rallies. After endorsing the bill with much fanfare at a White House ceremony this month, Trump again pushed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for a floor vote in a private phone call last Tuesday, according to people briefed on the conversation.

“Well, we’re talking to him, and we’re doing a count,” Trump said Monday in Mississippi of his discussions with McConnell. “We want to make sure that we have the votes because we don’t want to bring it if we don’t have the votes, but another thing we’re looking at right now is that we have more than enough. So at a certain point, we’ll have a talk. But we have the votes, and I’m sure that we’ll be voting soon.”

Especially in light of this new reporting, it is worth watching how Prez Trump talked up the FIRST STEP Act again at this Mississippi roundtable event Monday night, and also worth noting how VP Mike Pence and Senator Lindsay Graham also talked up the bill.  Because of how much Prez Trump seems to be leaning into this legislation, I now think it would be a big loss for him if there isn't a vote on the bill (and Prez Trump himself said at the roundtable event the bill could get 80 votes in the Senate).  So, based on all of this buzz, I am now thinking a Senate vote is going to happen, but that Senator Cotton and perhaps a few other hardliners will find various ways to continue watering down the bill up until a vote finally goes forward.

As I have said repeatedly in this space, any positive reform is better than no reform.  So I am continuing to hope we see a bill become law in the weeks ahead.  But I also hope everyone supporting of real reforms takes to heart that this bill will be, as it name connotes, just a small first step in a very long path toward needed federal criminal justice reforms.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: The White House has provided here the full transcript of "Remarks by President Trump at FIRST STEP Act Roundtable with Governor Bryant and Law Enforcement Leaders." They start substantively this way:

We’re here today to discuss a landmark prison reform bill called the FIRST STEP Act — so important.  This legislation will help former inmates reenter society as productive law-abiding citizens and it has tremendous support no matter where we go. Tremendous support.  Beyond anything I would’ve expected.

November 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 26, 2018

An notable debunking of "Three Myths From Critics of Criminal Justice Reform"

Ken Cuccinelli, the former Attorney General of Virginia, has this lengthy new commentary at The American Spectator headlined "Three Myths From Critics of Criminal Justice Reform: They need to be knocked down." I recommend the piece in full, and here are some excerpts:

Criminal justice reform — thanks, in part, to an overwhelming 360-59 vote in the House on the FIRST STEP Act — has quickly gained momentum, championed by conservatives as a down payment towards ensuring that prisoners re-entering society do so with the tools they need to succeed. President Trump, who campaigned on restoring law and order, has been a vocal supporter of prison reform since earlier this year, and has recently signaled support for various sentencing proposals, as well.

But not everyone agrees. Senator Tom Cotton, a long-time skeptic of criminal justice reform, penned an article in the Wall Street Journal this summer in which he generally praised rehabilitation efforts in federal prisons but took sentencing reform to task, calling it a “foolish approach” that would “endanger communities.”  Meanwhile, now-former Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been critical of reform efforts as well, claiming that changes in drug sentencing risks allowing violent crime to run amok.  Research and, most importantly, experience — particularly in southern red states — inform us that both arguments lie on shaky, outdated foundations.  As the Senate appended modest sentencing proposals to the FIRST STEP Act, it is worthwhile to separate facts from fiction.

Myth #1: Drug crimes are inherently violent.

Among the subtler tactics that critics of federal sentencing reform employ is a simple progression: begin with discussion of America’s real, ongoing problem with drugs; immediately shift the focus to violent crime, as if the two issues are self-evidently identical; and then argue that the reason for America’s historical reduction in violent crime can be traced to the adoption of lengthy mandatory sentences for drug dealing.

This may make for a neatly packaged argument, but reality spins a far more complicated tale. First, plain observation of drug overdoses and violent-crime trends simply doesn’t lend itself to correlation. Between 1999 and 2016, drug overdose death rates increased by over 200 percent, while violent crime rates fell by over 26 percent. These skyrocketing overdose deaths occurred despite an entire bevy of mandatory sentencing tools available to federal authorities that were ostensibly enacted to curb the worst consequences of drug crimes. Instead, such sentences have had no discernible effect on deaths caused by drugs....

Myth #2: Longer prison sentences equals less crime....

While a simple fact is that research has yet to pinpoint the factor(s) most responsible for our historic reduction in crime, the weight of evidence is clearly against those theories which emphasize imprisonment — particularly imprisonment meant to discourage drug use.

According to a comprehensive analysis of the dramatic rise of incarceration rates and its affects by the National Research Council, there is an outward “plausibility to the belief that putting many more convicted felons behind bars would reduce crime.” However, the authors explain that even a cursory examination of the data reveals the “complexity” of drawing meaningful correlations between crime and incarceration rates:

Violent crime rates have been declining steadily over the past two decades, which suggests a crime prevention effect of rising incarceration rates. For the first two decades of rising incarceration rates, however, there was no clear trend in the violent crime rate — it rose, then fell, and then rose again. While incapacitation effects may be effective when targeted towards “very-high rate or extremely dangerous offenders,” the authors conclude that the “incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best.”...

Criminal justice reform is engineered to incentivize participation in substance-abuse treatment and other recidivism-reduction programs, or otherwise to curb overly-punitive sentences which may extract their pound of flesh but also rapidly lose their effectiveness as one moves down the offense severity ladder.

To summarize, weightier factors besides simply “locking up” criminals must be at play to account for crime reduction. Ascribing that reduction solely to lengthy sentences is a theory that doesn’t play well with the data — especially given the fact that thirty states have recently experienced crime rate reductions while simultaneously reducing their prison populations.

Myth #3: No one goes to federal prison for “low-level, non-violent” drug offenses.

It is easy to produce a statistic that there are relatively few people incarcerated for federal drug possession offenses and then brush one’s hands together with satisfaction, believing that the “we overincarcerate” canard has just been dispelled. But while this immediate fact is indeed true, putting it into context makes this line of argument less salient.

First, consider the composition of all federal drug offenders. In 2017, about 48 percent of drug offenders sentenced at the federal level — a majority of whom are trafficking offenders — were in the lowest criminal-history category, having been previously sentenced for, at most, one low-level offense.  Roughly 60 percent were in the lowest two categories.  To be sure, drug trafficking, which includes street-level dealing, involve more serious offenses.  Even so, there are still tens of thousands of federal inmates being incarcerated — for historically longer periods of time — for lower-level drug offenses.  Recidivism is a real problem, but federal prison is a big stick, and shouldn’t be the front-line corrective for every offense. Too often it is, even for simple possessors (over 80 percent of whom receive a term of imprisonment)....

We must begin shifting the paradigm away from using mandatory sentences as the obvious tool against lawbreaking — as states such as Florida, South Carolina, and Texas have done. Crimes should be punished, but the law loses its legitimacy when it punishes disproportionately.  The FIRST STEP Act — along with modest sentencing reforms — will help regain the law’s moral force and make us safer at the same time.

November 26, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Paroling elderly inmates is humane solution to costly mass incarceration"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Hill commentary authored by Marc Schindler. Here are excerpts:

[G]rowth in long prison sentences has done little to improve public safety, with states that have reduced incarceration levels experiencing larger drops in crime than states that continue to incarcerate people at very high rates.  But it has contributed to a rapidly expanding population of incarcerated elderly people, so that our prisons now essentially function as expensive yet inhumane nursing homes.  In 1993, there were 45,000 incarcerated individuals over 50 years old; with the continuous growth, it is estimated that number will reach 400,000 by 2030.

For policymakers to significantly reduce the growing and costly prison population, strategies must include reform to long sentences for violent crimes.  Focusing reforms on reducing incarceration of geriatric people is an effective way to safely reduce the prison population.  Research indicates they are the least likely to pose a risk to public safety; criminal behavior typically peaks at 17 years old and then drops as an individual develops into adulthood.  While many states, such as California, Texas and New York, have expanded geriatric parole eligibility, it is infrequently used.

A naturally-occurring experiment, just a few miles from the nation’s capital, provides a roadmap for this strategy to safely reduce incarceration, create a more humane justice system and save significant taxpayer dollars.  A landmark court ruling — Unger v. Maryland — and the opportunities it created, offer powerful lessons for policymakers and stakeholders in tackling mass incarceration.  The 2012 case, centered on remedying improper jury instructions, applied to a cohort of 235 people sentenced prior to 1981.  In the six years since the decision, 188 people have been released; at release, the average age of the Ungers was 64, and the average term served was 40 years....

In the six years since the decision, we have learned a number of important lessons, the most significant of which is that the Unger experience proves we can safely release people who have committed a serious, violent offense.  And since they’ve been home, the Ungers have been contributing to their communities; as volunteers and mentors they help keep us all safer by encouraging youths to avoid the mistakes they made when they were younger.

One of the things that make the Ungers unique is that, thanks to an investment by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, they received specialized reentry programming before and after release.  With that individualized support, the Ungers have had a less than 3 percent recidivism rate, a fraction of the Maryland rate of 40 percent.  This support is a significant advance over what most people receive and should be a model for governments across the country to replicate.

The Ungers were primarily convicted of homicide and rape, yet they have safely returned to the community. Too often we fail to take into consideration a research-based assessment of the risk of reoffending when making release decisions.  It is time to reconsider parole policies and assessment tools that disregard rehabilitation and continue to keep people locked up based solely on the severity of their underlying offense.

Imposing extremely long sentences, alongside low rates of parole, serves political motivations, not increased public safety.  By pivoting away from a parole approach focused solely on the crime committed, to one that assesses the current risk of re-offending and provides tailored re-entry services, states can safely reduce their prison population, save taxpayer money and create a fairer and more effective justice system in the process.  There are hundreds of thousands of geriatric-aged individuals in prisons across the country, many with the same profile as the Ungers.  Maryland alone could save over $100 million in the first year by reducing its low-risk geriatric population.

This commentary builds off this recent report by the Justice Policy Institute titled "The Ungers, 5 Years and Counting: A Case Study in Safely Reducing Long Prison Terms and Saving Taxpayer Dollars."

November 25, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Investigation of BOP treatment of mental health issues highlights challenge of reforming federal prisons

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this new Marshall Project report headlined "Treatment Denied: The Mental Health Crisis in Federal Prisons." Among other important messages, this story highlights that formal prison reforms in legislation like the FIRST STEP Act have to be followed by functional work by prison officials in order to be fully efficacious.  Here are excerpts from this story:

In 2014, amid mounting criticism and legal pressure, the Federal Bureau of Prisons imposed a new policy promising better care and oversight for inmates with mental-health issues. But data obtained by The Marshall Project through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that instead of expanding treatment, the bureau has lowered the number of inmates designated for higher care levels by more than 35 percent.  Increasingly, prison staff are determining that prisoners — some with long histories of psychiatric problems — don’t require any routine care at all.

As of February, the Bureau of Prisons classified just 3 percent of inmates as having a mental illness serious enough to require regular treatment.  By comparison, more than 30 percent of those incarcerated in California state prisons receive care for a “serious mental disorder.”  In New York, 21 percent of inmates are on the mental-health caseload. Texas prisons provide treatment for roughly 20 percent.

A review of court documents and inmates’ medical records, along with interviews of former prison psychologists, revealed that although the Bureau of Prisons changed its rules, officials did not add the resources needed to implement them, creating an incentive for employees to downgrade inmates to lower care levels.

In an email, the bureau confirmed that mental-health staffing has not increased since the policy took effect.  The bureau responded to questions from a public information office email account and declined to identify any spokesperson for this article.  “You doubled the workload and kept the resources the same. You don’t have to be Einstein to see how that’s going to work,” said a former Bureau of Prisons psychologist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a pending lawsuit regarding his time at the agency.

The bureau said it is “developing a strategy” to analyze this drop in mental-health care, consistent with a Justice Department inspector general’s recommendation last year. Although only a small fraction of federal inmates are deemed ill enough to merit regular therapy, officials acknowledged that 23 percent have been diagnosed with some mental illness....

Data analyzed by The Marshall Project shows that the average monthly rate of assault across all federal prisons increased 16 percent from 2015 to 2016, the last full year available. Most of those incidents were not classified as serious assaults — defined by the bureau as likely to cause death or serious injury — which have declined in recent years, even before the mental-health policy change in 2014. In several recent in-prison homicides, records suggest that either the alleged attacker or victim wasn’t getting needed treatment....

At the high-security Hazelton penitentiary, which saw one of the largest drops in mental-health care, the average monthly rate of assault rose from 29 per 5,000 inmates in 2015 to 40 in 2016.  The increase in the rate of serious assault was particularly dramatic, more than quadrupling in that time period. The head of the correctional officers union there has attributed the increase in the rate of assault to guard understaffing.  Violence at Hazelton made headlines this fall when infamous mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger was killed soon after being transferred to the facility.

A reader made this astute observation when flagging this article for me via email: "This article could be useful in an appropriate federal sentencing to argue for mental health treatment outside of BOP, or as mitigation in a BOP homicide case."

November 21, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 16, 2018

News and notes from the front lines of the debate over the FIRST STEP Act

The decision by President Donald Trump to support the FIRST STEP Act, discussed here and here, was a critical necessary development for the law to have a chance to passage.  But it was not alone sufficient to ensure the bill even gets a vote, especially as there is talk of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell still being less than eager to advance the bill to the Senate floor.  Various political players and possible ups-and-downs surrounding the bill are well covered in these new articles from the New York TimesPolitico and the Washington Post:

I want so very, very badly to be optimistic about the prospects for the FIRST STEP Act, in any form, to become law very, very soon.  But the pessimistic bet has been a winning one on the federal statutory criminal justice reform front for the last eight years, as politics and gridlock have trumped effective policy advancement.  One would hope that, in a properly functioning democracy, a bill with the support of the President and probably close to 90% of all members of Congress could and would become law.  But I am fearful that these reality may still not be enough to get the FIRST STEP Act into law.  Time will tell (and likely in the next few weeks).

UPDATE Here are some more discouraging headlines and stories for those who may have become unduly optimistic after Prez Trump's endorsement:

November 16, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

"Eight Keys to Mercy: How to shorten excessive prison sentences"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Prison Policy Initiative report.  I recommend the whole report, and here are excerpts from its start and its summary concepts:

After decades of explosive growth, prison populations have mostly flattened. Much of that is due to lawmakers lessening penalties for drug possession or low-level property offenses. While a welcome start, a bolder approach is necessary to truly begin to make a dent in the numbers of individuals who have served and will serve decades behind bars. This approach will take political courage from legislators, judges, and the executive branch of state governments.

Approximately 200,000 individuals are in state prisons serving natural life or “virtual” life sentences.  And as of year’s end 2015, one in every six individuals in a state prison had been there at least for 10 years. 

These are not merely statistics. These are people, sentenced to unimaginably long sentences in ways that do little to advance justice, provide deterrence, or offer solace to survivors of violence. The damage done to these individuals because of the time they must do in prison cells — as well as to their families and their communities — is incalculable.

People should not spend decades in prison without a meaningful chance of release.  There exist vastly underused strategies that policy makers can employ to halt, and meaningfully reverse, our overreliance on incarceration. We present eight of those strategies below....

Our 8 strategies

The eight suggested reforms in this report can shorten time served in different ways:

  • Several ways to make people eligible for release on parole sooner. 
  • One way to make it more likely that the parole board will approve conditional release on parole.
  • Several ways to shorten the time that must be served, regardless of sentencing and parole decisions.
  • One simple way to ensure that people are not returned to prison.

Of course, states vary in many ways, most critically in how they structure parole eligibility, and policymakers reading this report should anticipate tailoring our suggested reforms to their state systems. Each of the reforms laid out in this report could be effective independent of the others.  However, we encourage states to use as many of the following tools as possible to shorten excessive sentences:

  1. Presumptive parole
  2. Second-look sentencing
  3. Granting of good time
  4. Universal parole eligibility after 15 years
  5. Retroactive application of sentence reduction reforms
  6. Elimination of parole revocations for technical violations
  7. Compassionate release
  8. Commutation

November 15, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Prez Trump reportedly to announce support for FIRST STEP Act with sentencing provisions, greatly increasing its prospects for swift passage

This new CNN article, headlined "President Trump to announce support for criminal justice overhaul proposal," reports on encouraging news regarding efforts to get major federal criminal justice reform enacted in coming weeks. Here are the details:

President Donald Trump is expected to throw his support behind bipartisan criminal justice legislation during an event at the White House on Wednesday, two sources close to the process said.

Trump is scheduled to announce on Wednesday that he is supporting the latest iteration of the First Step Act, a bill that his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has been working to craft and build support for alongside a bipartisan group of senators, the sources said.  The President will be joined by supporters of the legislation during the White House event, the sources said.

Supporters of the measure expect that Trump's explicit backing will help propel the prison and sentencing overhaul bill through Congress.  The President has wavered on whether to throw his support behind the bill in recent months, but the sources said he was swayed to back the bill on Tuesday after meeting with Kushner.

Trump's support came after several law enforcement associations announced their backing for the legislation.  The National District Attorneys Association, which represents 2,500 district attorneys and 40,000 assistant district attorneys, became the latest law enforcement organization to support the bill, according to a letter the group's president addressed to Trump....

The prosecutors' association's support for the legislation came on the heels of backing from several other law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which also penned a letter of support to Trump.

The Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs of America also withdrew their opposition to the legislation, writing in a letter to Kushner dated Tuesday that they "endorse the objectives of the First Step Act" and the legislation "strengthens how Federal prisoners may be integrated into the community and set on a path to live positive and productive lives."  Less than two weeks ago, the groups wrote to Kushner to say they could not back the bill.

Opposition from since-ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, in particular, served as key stumbling blocks to advancing the legislation, with both touting opposition within law enforcement circles -- an argument that is quickly fading as groups back the proposal.  Sources close to the process said the support from law enforcement associations is key to advancing the measure and securing the President's full-throated support.

Proponents of the bill made several changes to it to win backing from law enforcement groups, including stiffer sentencing guidelines for fentanyl-related offenses and a compromise provision to modestly expand the definition of a serious violent crime.

Now the question is whether enough Democrats will rally to support the compromise package or hold out for a more ambitious overhaul of the nation's sentencing laws. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who had announced his opposition to a previous version of the bill because he felt it did not go far enough, said Tuesday that he is still looking to get more changes to the bill.

Though I am not going to count any sentencing reform chickens until they are hatched and have been signed into law, I am inclined to start predicting that we are on the verge of a remarkable federal criminal justice reform achievement that will be the most consequential statutory reform in nearly 35 years.  (I am also inclined to recall pieces from late 2016, like the one blogged here, that astutely suggested federal criminal justice reform might still be a real possibility in the Trump era.)  I am not quite yet ready to start patting a whole lot of folks on the back, but I am getting close to wanting to start celebrating the culmination of five years of very hard work by lots of folks inside and outside the Beltway.  Fingers crossed.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: A few other recent press reports reinforce my sense and concern that nothing here is a done deal yet:

From the Washington Post, "Trump receptive to compromise criminal justice overhaul backed by Kushner"

From The Hill, "Criminal justice reform faces a make-or-break moment"

November 13, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018"

Pie_2018_womenThe Prison Policy Initiative has today posted an updated version of its remarkable incarceration "pie" graphic and associated report on the particulars of who and how women are incarcerated in the United States.  Here is part of the report's introductory text and subsequent discussion:

With growing public attention to the problem of mass incarceration, people want to know about women’s experience with incarceration.  How many women are held in prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities in the United States?  And why are they there?  How is their experience different from men’s?  While these are important questions, finding those answers requires not only disentangling the country’s decentralized and overlapping criminal justice systems, but also unearthing the frustratingly hard to find and often altogether missing data on gender.

This report provides a detailed view of the 219,000 women incarcerated in the United States, and how they fit into the even broader picture of correctional control.  This 2018 update to our inaugural Women’s Whole Pie report pulls together data from a number of government agencies and calculates the breakdown of women held by each correctional system by specific offense.  The report, produced in collaboration with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, answers the questions of why and where women are locked up:

In stark contrast to the total incarcerated population, where the state prison systems hold twice as many people as are held in jails, incarcerated women are much more evenly split between state prisons and local jails.  This has serious consequences for incarcerated women and their families.

Women’s incarceration has grown at twice the pace of men’s incarceration in recent decades, and has disproportionately been located in local jails.  The explanation for exactly what happened, when, and why does not yet exist because the data on women has long been obscured by the larger scale of men’s incarceration....

Looking at the big picture shows that a staggering number of women who are incarcerated are not even convicted: a quarter of women who are behind bars have not yet had a trial.  Moreover, 60% of women under local control have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial....

Avoiding pre-trial incarceration is uniquely challenging for women.  The number of unconvicted women stuck in jail is surely not because courts are considering women, who are generally the primary caregivers of children, to be a flight risk.  The far more likely answer is that incarcerated women, who have lower incomes than incarcerated men, have an even harder time affording cash bail.  When the typical bail amounts to a full year’s income for women, it’s no wonder that women are stuck in jail awaiting trial....

So what does it mean that large numbers of women are held in jail — for them, and for their families?  While stays in jail are generally shorter than in stays in prison, jails make it harder to stay in touch with family than prisons do.  Phone calls are more expensive, up to $1.50 per minute, and other forms of communication are more restricted — some jails don’t even allow real letters, limiting mail to postcards.  This is especially troubling given that 80% of women in jails are mothers, and most of them are primary caretakers of their children.  Thus children are particularly susceptible to the domino effect of burdens placed on incarcerated women....

Too often, the conversation about criminal justice reform starts and stops with the question of non-violent drug and property offenses.  While drug and property offenses make up more than half of the offenses for which women are incarcerated, the chart reveals that all offenses — including the violent offenses that account for roughly a quarter of all incarcerated women — must be considered in the effort to reduce the number of incarcerated women in this country. This new data on women underlines the need for reform discussions to focus not just on the easier choices but on the policy changes that will have the most impact....

Even the “Whole Pie” of incarceration above represents just one small portion (17%) of the women under correctional supervision, which includes over a million women on probation and parole.  Again, this is in stark contrast to the general incarcerated population (mostly men), where a third of all people under correctional control are in prisons and jails.

November 13, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

"Prisoners of Fate: The Challenges of Creating Change for Children of Incarcerated Parents"

The title of this post is the title of this new article available via SSRN authored by Amy Cyphert.  Here is its abstract:

Children of incarcerated parents, the invisible victims of mass incarceration, suffer tremendous physical, psychological, educational, and financial burdens — detrimental consequences that can continue even long after a parent has been released.  Although these children are blameless, policy makers, judges, and prison officials in charge of visitation policies have largely overlooked them.  The United States Sentencing Commission Guidelines Manual explicitly instructs judges to ignore children when fashioning their parents’ sentences, and judges have largely hewed to this policy, even in the wake of the 2005 United States v. Booker decision that made those Guidelines merely advisory, not mandatory.

Although some scholars have suggested amending the Guidelines or making other legislative changes that would bring children’s interests forward at the sentencing phase, these suggestions are less likely than ever to bear fruit.  In light of the Trump Administration’s “tough on crime” rhetoric, new Attorney General Jefferson Sessions’ “law and order” reputation, and Republican control of the House and Senate, policy change that is viewed as “progres- sive” is highly unlikely.  Therefore, this Article proposes two other avenues for change. 

First, in a new and unique proposal, this Article suggests federal judges can and should independently order the inclusion of Family Impact Statements into a defendant’s presentence investigation report via a heretofore largely unused “catchall provision” of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.  Second, this Article makes three modest policy recommendations that are aimed at improving the ability of children to visit their incarcerated parents.  Visitation has been shown in studies to be a powerful tool of mitigation for many of the harms children experience when their parents are incarcerated, but visitation rates are woefully low.  The options for improving circumstances for children of incarcerated parents may well be limited, but there are viable options, and there is no time to waste.

October 30, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

FAMM laments problems in federal prisons while urging Prez Trump to new head for Bureau of Prisons

As detailed in this press release, FAMM President Kevin Ring has now sent this letter to President Trump urging him to appoint a director of for the US Bureau of Prisons ASAP.  Here is how this latter gets started:

I write today to urge you to appoint a reform-minded individual to serve as Director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as soon as possible. The BOP has been without a permanent director since General Mark Inch’s resignation from the post in May of this year. The void in consistent leadership has caused and exacerbated numerous problems throughout the federal prison system, for both staff and those in custody.

FAMM is in contact with over 35,000 federal prisoners and their family members on a regular basis.  Through our correspondence, we have learned of continual problems plaguing the BOP’s programs and operations.  We hear frequently from prisoners and their families about the lack of adequate medical care or medical attention when requested. We continue to hear about lastminute reductions in halfway house time and continued underutilization of home confinement for low-risk individuals.  We have seen the BOP routinely neglect its role in identifying eligible candidates for the federal compassionate release program, which would allow the courts to consider resentencing terminally ill or elderly prisoners.  We have also learned of several BOP facilities instituting questionable and problematic policies regarding family visits and limiting prisoner access to mail from their loved ones as well as access to books.  Because education and strong family ties are proven to help in the rehabilitation of prisoners, these policies pose a significant threat to successful rehabilitation and should be reversed under new leadership.

October 30, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 25, 2018

"How Jeff Sessions Is Undermining Trump’s Prison Reform Agenda"

The title of this post is the headline of this new lengthy Marshall Project piece.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts from just the first part of the article: 

In federal penitentiaries across the nation, prisoners eagerly awaiting a transfer to halfway houses say they are being told that they will have to wait weeks or months longer than they had anticipated because there is a shortage of beds at the transitional group homes.  But that’s not true.

According to inmates, halfway house staff and industry officials, scores of beds lie empty, with some estimates of at least 1,000 vacant spaces.  They remain unused due to a series of decisions that have sharply reduced the number of prisoners sent to halfway houses.  And home confinement, a federal arrangement similar to house arrest that allows prisoners to complete their sentences with minimal supervision, is being even more drastically curtailed.

The Bureau of Prisons says it is curbing overspending of past years and streamlining operations, but that doesn’t make sense.  Putting inmates in halfway houses or on home confinement is much cheaper than imprisonment.  The federal government spent almost $36,300 a year to imprison an inmate, $4,000 more compared with the cost to place a person in a halfway house in 2017, according to the Federal Register.  It costs $4,392 a year to monitor someone on home confinement, according to a 2016 report by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Abandoning transitional supervision aligns with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ disputed opinion that reduced prison populations during the Obama administration are to blame for a small uptick in violent crime.  As a senator from Alabama, Sessions led the charge two years ago against a bill to ease sentences, and as attorney general he has instructed prosecutors to be more aggressive in charging defendants.  But his draconian ideas are undermining his own boss’ stated preference for early release and rehabilitation programs....

And now there is evidence the Bureau of Prisons, under Sessions’ direction, is actively discouraging the use of transitional supervision even under existing rules.  The Bureau of Prisons declined interviews and would not answer specific questions, but said in a statement that the “fiscal environment” prompted a thorough review of programs, which led to ways to “most effectively use our resources.”  The agency said placements are based on each prisoner’s needs, the prison system’s ability to meet them, public safety “and the need for the BOP to manage the inmate population in a responsible manner.”...

Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who leads bipartisan efforts to reshape sentencing laws and prisoner rehabilitation, said the Justice Department had not explained to Congress the cutback in inmate transfers to transitional housing.  “Attorney General Sessions has reversed key prison reforms like reducing the use of restricted housing and private prisons and improving education opportunities and reentry services,” Durbin said in a statement.  “It makes no sense to eliminate reforms that are proven to reduce recidivism and make our communities safer.”

Since the 1960s, halfway houses have provided federal prisoners a running start before release to find work, which has been shown to help people stay crime-free longer.  A Pennsylvania state study found connections between higher rearrest rates and stints in halfway houses, while federal violations, violence and overdoses have contributed to poor public perception of the facilities.  But prisoners and their advocates say moving into a transitional residence gives inmates an incentive to avoid trouble in prison and join rehabilitative programs.

Under the Obama administration, the number of federal prisoners in halfway houses and other transitional programs boomed.  The federal government required the privately-run residences to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment, and the Department of Justice also increased access to ankle monitors so more prisoners could finish sentences in their own homes.  At the peak in 2015, more than 10,600 prisoners resided in federal halfway houses. The number of inmates in home confinement — 4,600 — was up more than a third from the year before. In all, one in 14 of the people under Bureau of Prisons supervision was living at home or in a halfway house. Since then, the population in halfway houses has dropped by 28 percent to 7,670. Home confinement is in freefall, down 61 percent to a population of 1,822.  The majority of that cut has come in just the past year. Now only one in 20 people under federal supervision is in transitional housing....

Judge Ricardo S. Martinez, who chairs the Committee on Criminal Law of the Judicial Conference of the United States, which helps write policies and guidelines for federal courts, said “we are also in the dark about those numbers.”  He said the committee is working to establish better communication with the Bureau of Prisons.  Federal judges, who can sentence defendants to halfway houses, need to know how much space is available.  Rough estimates based on the current population in halfway houses, internal memos, statements from prison officials and prison records put the number of vacant beds in the federal system anywhere from 1,000 to several times that number.  Swaths of beds lie empty even after the prison system ended contracts with 16 of its nearly 230 halfway houses, facilities described as “underutilized or serving a small population.”  Martinez, whose committee has pushed for placing more prisoners on home confinement, said that advances in tracking technology and risk assessments should alleviate public safety concerns.  “It’s a stupid waste of taxpayer money to put people in a confinement level they don’t need to be in,” the judge said.

October 25, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

"Connecting the Disconnected: Communication Technologies for the Incarcerated"

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

Incarceration is a family problem — more than 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent in jail or prison.  It adversely impacts family relationships, financial stability, and the mental health and well-being of family members.  Empirical research shows that communications between inmates and their families improve family stability and successful reintegration while also reducing the inmate’s incidence of behavioral issues and recidivism rates.  However, systemic barriers significantly impact the ability of inmates and their families to communicate.

Both traditional and newly developed technological communication tools have inherent advantages and disadvantages.  In addition, private contracting of communication services too often leads to abusive practices and conflicts of interest for facilities.  Although technology plays a critical and expanding role in communications, a comprehensive evaluation of the methods and policies surrounding inmate communications is needed.  Efforts to address incarceration rates, education, and research gaps, along with an understanding of the potential and limitations of communication technologies, are critical to the development of policy initiatives.  These tools should be employed with a regulated approach to choosing and contracting for communication services to effectively reduce barriers and improve outcomes.

October 23, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 22, 2018

Two notable commentaries in support of FIRST STEP Act from inside the Beltway

The Washington Examiner and The Washington Times are both right-leaning papers, which only adds to the import of these two recent commentaries in these publications:

"Our cruel and inhumane prison system is so close to reform" by Mark Vargas.  An excerpt:

Thanks to former President Bill Clinton, the 1994 crime bill created an America that was less compassionate, less forgiving, at times inhumane, and sent many nonviolent, first-time offenders away to prison for a very long time.

At the time, supporters of the Clinton crime bill argued that such measures would reduce crimes and keep our streets and neighborhoods safer. But in the end, the legislation only accelerated mass incarceration, stripped inmates of their dignity, and created the false narrative that everyone in prison was evil and a danger to society. It is why the NAACP in 1993 referred to the legislation as a “crime against the American people.”

But thanks to the leadership of President Trump, the discussion about prison and sentencing reform is back on the table. In a recent poll conducted by the University of Maryland, a majority of the country support the idea of criminal justice reform as well.

For Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others to make the argument that prison reform will make our country less safe exposes their ignorance and how out of touch they are. As creatures of the swamp, they care more about maintaining power than making a difference. Sessions' comments show just how political the Justice Department has become under his leadership.

"Justice demands passage of First Step bill to rehabilitate lives" by Rebecca Hagelin.  An excerpt:

I’ll never forget the heart-wrenching scene from my visit to the women’s prison. I sat in silence. For the first time, I pondered the unintended consequences of lengthy mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a conservative, and I’m “tough on crime.” I just realize that locking up moms and dads for years for nonviolent drug offenses has an unending ripple effect, doing more damage to society than good.

Under current federal laws, many nonviolent drug offenses have mandatory sentences of two decades. The full scope of the consequences of such lengthy sentences unfolds every day in families across the country. The tiny girl who threw her arms around her mommy is an adult by now, and I often wonder if her mom has returned home yet.

Sadly — incredibly — our federal prison system treats such inmates as the forgotten men and women. In so doing, their children have become forgotten too. With little or no vocational training, drug rehabilitation programs or opportunities to receive education, these inmates eventually return to society estranged from their families and devoid of hope.

The result? Within just three years 40 percent will commit another crime, many falling victim to their untreated addiction, and end up back behind bars. It’s a vicious cycle that wreaks personal and societal havoc in neighborhoods and families across the country. We must face the fact that our federal prison system is failing our citizens, and come to grips with the reality that the opioid epidemic will not be solved by maintaining the status quo.

Thank God, President Trump is committed to effective prison reform and combatting the drug crisis. Through his leadership and the hard work of Jared Kushner, the prison reform First Step Act passed the House of Representatives in May with overwhelming bipartisan support. This much-needed legislation now contains modest, commonsense sentencing reform initiatives added by crime reduction advocates on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

October 22, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"Reforming Restrictive Housing: The 2018 ASCA-Liman Nationwide Survey of Time-in-Cell"

The title of this post is the title of this big new report now available here via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Reforming Restrictive Housing: The 2018 ASCA-Liman Nationwide Survey of Time-in-Cell is the fourth in a series of research projects co-authored by the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and the Arthur Liman Center at Yale Law School.  These monographs provide a unique, longitudinal, nationwide database.  The topic is “restrictive housing,” often termed “solitary confinement,” and defined as separating prisoners from the general population and holding them in cells for an average of 22 hours or more per day for 15 continuous days or more.

The 2018 monograph is based on survey responses from 43 prison systems that held 80.6% of the U.S. prison population.  They reported that 49,197 individuals — 4.5% of the people in their custody — were in restrictive housing.  Extrapolating, we estimate that some 61,000 individuals were in isolation in U.S. prisons.  This number does not include people in most jails or juvenile, military, or immigration facilities.

Two areas of special concern are the impact of mental illness and the length of time individuals spend in restrictive housing.  Correctional systems use a variety of definitions for serious mental illness.  Using their own descriptions, jurisdictions counted more than 4,000 prisoners identified as seriously mentally ill and in restrictive housing.  Within the 36 jurisdictions that reported on the length of time people had been in segregation, most people were held for a year or less.  Twenty-five jurisdictions counted more than 3,500 individuals held more than three years.

Reforming Restrictive Housing details policy changes tracking the impact of the 2016 American Correctional Association’s (ACA) Restrictive Housing Performance Based Standards. The ACA Standards call for limiting the use of isolation for pregnant women, juveniles, and seriously mentally ill individuals.

This monograph also compares the responses of the 40 prison systems that answered the ASCA-Liman surveys in both 2015 and 2017.  See ASCA-Liman, Aiming to Reduce Time-in-Cell (Nov. 2016), SSRN No. 2874492. The number in restrictive housing was reported to have decreased from 56,000 in 2015 to 47,000 in 2017.  Looking at specific states, in more than two dozen systems, the numbers in segregation decreased. In 11 systems, the numbers went up.

A related monograph, Working to Limit Restrictive Housing: Efforts in Four Jurisdictions to Make Changes, details the work of four correctional administrations to limit — and in one state abolish — holding people in cells 22 hours a day for 15 days or more.

October 21, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

"'Second Looks, Second Chances': Collaborating with Lifers on a Video about Commutation of LWOP Sentences"

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

In Pennsylvania, life means life without the possibility of parole (“LWOP”) or “death by incarceration.”  Although executive commutation offers long serving rehabilitated lifers hope of release, in the past 20 years, only 8 commutations have been granted by the state’s governors.  This article describes the collaboration between an organization of incarcerated persons serving LWOP and the law-school-based Penn Program on Documentaries and the Law that produced a video supporting increased commutations for Pennsylvania lifers.  The article details the methodology of collaborative videomaking employed, the strategic decisions over content that were impacted by the politics of commutation, and the contributions of visual criminology to the video’s portrayal of the lifers who participated in the project.

October 16, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Vera Institute of Justice urges "Reimagining Prison"

Download (2)The Vera Institute of Justice has recently produced this big new report as part a big new project under the label "Reimagining Prison." Here is how the report's executive summary gets started:

The United States holds approximately 1.5 million people in its state and federal prisons.  Although this number has declined since its peak in 2009, mass incarceration is hardly a thing of the past.  Even if the nation returned to the incarceration rates it experienced before 1970, more than 300,000 people — approximately one per 1,000 residents— would still be held in U.S. prisons.  And the conditions of that confinement are dismal. Prison in America is a place of severe hardship — a degree of hardship that is largely inconceivable to people who have not seen or experienced it themselves or through a loved one.  It is an institution that causes individual, community, and generational pain and deprivation. For those behind the walls, prison is characterized by social and physical isolation, including severe restriction of personal movement, enforced idleness, insufficient basic care, a loss of meaningful personal contact and the deterioration of family relationships, and the denial of constitutional rights and avenues to justice. Those who work in prisons suffer too, with alarming rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide compared to the general population.

Beyond the walls of prison, incarceration’s impact is broad: mass imprisonment disrupts social networks, distorts social norms, and hollows out citizenship.  Over this country’s long history of using prisons, American values of fairness and justice have been sacrificed to these institutions in the name of securing the common good of public safety.  But the harsh conditions within prisons have been demonstrated neither to ensure safety behind the walls nor to prevent crime and victimization in the community.

The story of American prisons is also a story of racism.  We as a nation have not yet fully grappled with the ways in which prisons — how they have been used, the purposes they serve, who gets sent to them, and people’s experiences inside them — are intimately entwined with the legacy of slavery and generations of racial and social injustice. Built on a system of racist policies and practices that has disproportionately impacted people of color, mass incarceration has decimated the communities and families from which they come. It is time to acknowledge that this country has long used state punishment generally — and incarceration specifically — to subordinate racial and ethnic minorities.

The recent prison incident in South Carolina that left seven dead, as well as prison strikes across the country in 2016 and 2018 protesting inhumane treatment, serve as tragic wake-up calls that something is fundamentally wrong inside America’s prisons.  With a few limited exceptions, correctional practice today remains underpinned by retribution, deterrence, and incapacitation.  These realities beg the question: isn’t there another way? We have failed to ask this question with sufficient seriousness and thoroughness.  The time for us to do so is now.  And so, to take a truly decisive step away from the past, America needs a new set of normative values on which to ground prison policy and practice — values that simultaneously recognize, interrogate, and unravel the persistent connections between racism and this country’s system of punishment.

In this report, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) reimagines the how, what, and why of incarceration. And in so doing, we assert a new governing principle: human dignity. This principle dictates that “[e]very human being possesses an intrinsic worth, merely by being human.” It applies to people living in prison as well as the corrections staff who work there.

October 16, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 15, 2018

New investigation finds "women in prison are disciplined at higher rates than men"

This lengthy new NPR piece, headlined "In Prison, Discipline Comes Down Hardest On Women," reports on new media research showing women are treated particularly harshly in prisons.  Here are excerpts from the piece which should be read in full:

Across the country, women in prison are disciplined at higher rates than men — often two to three times more often, and sometimes more — for smaller infractions of prison rules.

That is the finding of an investigation by NPR and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.  We collected data from women's and men's prisons, visited five women's prisons around the country, and interviewed current and former prisoners along with past and present wardens and prison officials. We also spoke with academics and other experts.

In 13 of the 15 states we analyzed, women get in trouble at higher rates than men.  The discrepancies are highest for more minor infractions of prison rules....

In California, according to our data analysis, women get more than twice the disciplinary tickets for what's called "disrespect."  In Vermont, women are more than three times as likely as men to get in trouble for "derogatory comments" about a corrections officer or another inmate. In Rhode Island, women get more than three times the tickets for "disobedience."  And in Iowa, female prisoners were nearly three times as likely as men to get in trouble for the violation of being "disruptive."

While the infractions might seem minor, punishment for them can have significant consequences, we found. In Idaho and Rhode Island, for instance, women are more likely than men to end up in solitary confinement for violations like disobedience.

Women can lose "good conduct credits" that would shorten an inmate's sentence, causing them to spend more time behind bars.  In California, between January 2016 and February 2018, women had the equivalent of 1,483 years added to their sentences through good-credit revocations, and at a higher rate than for male prisoners, according to the data we collected.

Discipline for small infractions can also result in the loss of privileges like being able to buy food or supplies — including women's hygiene products — at the prison commissary.  Or inmates lose their visitation and phone privileges.  That can have a particular effect on women, because more than half of women in prison are the mothers of children 18 or younger.

We found a disproportionate pattern in punishment as well, with women often receiving more serious sanctions than men.  In Massachusetts, according to our analysis, 60 percent of punishments for women restricted where they could go in prison, including confinement to their cells. Men received those punishments half as often....

We asked experts why women get disciplined more for minor infractions.  They noted that prison rules were set up to control men, especially violent ones.  But that strict system of control doesn't always work for female prisoners.

One reason, researchers have increasingly come to understand, is that women typically come to prison for different reasons than do men and respond differently to prison life.  Most prison staffers, meanwhile, are not trained to understand these differences.

Women are more likely than men to come for drug and property crimes and less likely to be convicted of violent crimes. They're also less likely to be violent once they're in prison.  They're also more likely than men to have significant problems with substance abuse, to have mental health problems and to be the caregiving parent of a minor child.

October 15, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, October 12, 2018

Noting the latest data on use of solitary confinement in the US

This recent post at Reason, titled "U.S. Prisons Held At Lest 61,000 Inmates in Solitary Confinement Last Year," by C.J. Ciaramella reports on the latest accounting of extreme version of incarceration in the US. I recommend the full post, which starts this way:

The number of U.S. prison inmates held in solitary confinement has dropped over the past five years, according to a new report, but an estimated 61,000 people last year still faced imprisonment in tiny cells for up to 22 hours a day in conditions that many former inmates, mental health professionals, and at least one sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice say amount to torture.

A longitudinal survey co-authored by the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School found that, in the federal prison system and 43 state prison systems that provided data, 49,000 inmates in the fall of 2017 were confined to what is commonly known as "solitary." Extrapolating for the remaining states, the study estimates the total number to be 61,000.

The census asked jurisdictions to report, as of the fall of 2017, both their total prison populations and the number of prisoners held in restrictive housing. It includes federal and state inmates placed in any form of "restricted housing" for at least 22 hours a day for more than 15 consecutive days. In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture concluded that solitary confinement beyond 15 days constituted cruel and inhumane punishment.

The study's authors attribute the reduction to stricter state requirements for when inmates can be sent to solitary and how long they may be kept there. Colorado, for instance, has almost completely eliminated its use of solitary confinement. The Obama administration also banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system and limited the amount of time adults can spend in solitary.  "But the picture is not uniform," the ASCA warned in a press release. "In more than two dozen states, the numbers of prisoners in restrictive housing decreased from 2016 to 2018, but in eleven states, the numbers went up."

October 12, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promises floor vote on FIRST STEP Act after midterm election if more than 60 Senators want to move forward

This short piece from The Hill, headlined "McConnell looking at criminal justice reform after midterms," provides an encouraging update on the prospects for federal criminal justice reform after next month's  election:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says he will move a criminal justice reform compromise after the Nov. 6 election if it has 60 votes.

The Senate GOP conference is divided on the package, which merged a House-passed prison-reform bill with bipartisan sentencing reform provisions crafted by the Senate....

“Criminal justice has been much discussed,” McConnell told reporters Wednesday. “What we’ll do after the election is take a whip count and if there are more than 60 senators who want to move forward on that bill, we’ll find time to address it.”

It’s a significant commitment from McConnell who has resisted bringing criminal justice reform legislation up for a vote because it divides his conference.

I blogged here a prior Hill article from a couple of months ago during Senate negotiations over the FIRST STEP Act which indicated that the White House back then had secured "30 to 32 ... 'yes' votes among Republican senators [and hoped] that the number of GOP supporters could eventually grow as many as 40 to 46."  That article led me to speculate in August that a version of the FIRST STEP Act could perhaps garner up to 90 votes in the Senate, and I do not think this head-counting is likely to change all that dramatically after the election (though one never knows).  Even if "only" 30 GOP Senators favor moving forward on the FIRST STEP Act, that will be more than enough for Senator McConnell to move ahead unless a whole lot of Democratic Senators decide they want to hold out for a more ambitious bill (which I think is unlikely). 

In other words, I am starting to think that the prospect of the FIRST STEP Act becoming law before the end of the year might be pretty darn good.  I am never inclined to count on Congress on get anything done, but on this front it does seem we are getting closer and closer.

Some of many prior recent related posts:

October 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Reconceptualizing Criminal Justice Reform For Offenders With Serious Mental Illness"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by E. Lea Johnston and available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Roughly 14% of male inmates and 31% of female inmates suffer from one or more serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder. Policymakers and the public widely ascribe the overrepresentation of offenders with serious mental illness in the justice system to the “criminalization” of the symptoms of this afflicted population.  The criminalization theory posits that the criminal justice system has served as the primary agent of social control over symptomatic individuals since the closure of state psychiatric hospitals in the 1950s and the tightening of civil commitment laws.  The theory identifies untreated mental illness as the origin of individuals’ criminal justice involvement and mental health treatment as the clear solution to breaking their cycle of recidivism.  This article evaluates the three main bodies of evidence offered in support of the criminalization theory: individuals’ movement from psychiatric hospitals to jails and prisons (“transinstitutionalization”), the heightened policing of individuals with serious mental illness, and the science linking mental illness and crime. This evaluation reveals that the criminalization theory — the understanding that animates most current policies aimed at offenders with serious mental illness—largely rests on intuitive assumptions that are often unverified and sometimes false.

A growing body of behavioral sciences literature constructs an alternative account of the relationship between mental illness and crime.  Coined the “normalization theory,” it relies upon decades of research that demonstrate that clinical factors, such as diagnosis and treatment history, are not predictive of criminal activity.  Instead, the same risks and needs that motivate individuals without mental illness also drive those with mental disorders to commit crimes.  These “criminogenic risks” include, among others, substance abuse, employment instability, family problems, and poorly structured leisure time. Behavioral science researchers reject the premise that individuals with serious mental illness are overrepresented in the justice system because these individuals’ illnesses directly lead to criminal behavior. Instead, they theorize that serious mental illnesses fuel the greater accumulation and concentration of typical criminogenic risk factors.  This recognition holds dramatic potential for the redesign of criminal justice programs.  Programs that target the criminal behavior of offenders with mental illness should principally focus on addressing criminogenic risk factors that can be mitigated.  Officials should also address mental health needs, but only to the extent necessary to facilitate a better criminogenic risk profile and fulfill constitutional obligations.  Moreover, correctional experience suggests that institutions should allocate scarce programmatic resources according to offenders’ risk of reoffending and potential to achieve programmatic goals. These insights, which federal agencies are beginning to recognize, hold radical implications for the redesign — and possibly the existence — of jail diversion, mental health courts, specialized probation and parole, and reentry programs for offenders with serious mental illness. 

October 10, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Despite fear-mongering opposition ads, drug sentencing and prison reform initiative polling strong in Ohio

I have blogged here and elsewhere about the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative on the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio.  Originally called the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment," the initiative now is just known within Ohio as Issue 1. The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has been hosting public panels about Issue 1 under the title Ballot Insights, and has created a Resources Page for Issue 1 and a Commentary Page on Issue 1

I have not previously noted here the notable fear-mongering about Issue 1 that has emerged in recent months focused particularly on its effort to reduce drug possession offenses to misdemeanors and to allow prisoners to earn more time off their prison sentences.  In late August, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor wrote a public letter warning of “catastrophic consequences" for Ohio if Issue 1 passes, and last week Gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine began running a campaign ad involving local sheriffs stating "If you’re not scared [by Issue 1], you should be."  Lots of other judges and prosecutors and law enforcement official have used similar language their advocacy against Issue 1.

But, perhaps signalling just how strong the public supports significant drug sentencing and prison reform, the first big public poll on Issue 1 was released today and it shows the initiative with a nearly 18 point lead.  Here is a basic report on this poll:  

A criminal justice reform question on the Ohio statewide ballot has support from nearly 48 percent of likely voters while 30.5 percent oppose it and 21.7 percent aren’t sure how they’ll vote on the matter, according to a new poll released Tuesday by Baldwin Wallace University Community Research Institute....

The Baldwin Wallace poll, which was conducted Sept. 28 to Oct. 8, shows DeWine has 39.7 percent, Cordray 37.1 percent, Libertarian Travis Irvine has 4.3 percent, Ohio Green Party candidate Constance Gadell-Newton has 3.4 percent and 15.4 percent of voters are undecided. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Notably, the full poll results indicate women voters favor Issue 1 by a 22 point margin (49 to 27) and Democrats favor Issue 1 by a 35 point margin (57 to 22). Assuming this poll numbers are solid, this results suggest to be that Issue 1 is quickly likely to pass if it turns out that women and/or Democrats end up being those especially motivated to show up to vote this November.

 Prior related posts:

UPDATE: Another (smaller) poll was released on October 10 concerning Issue 1, and it showed a much closer contest. This press article provides these details:

Ohio voters support a constitutional amendment to reduce penalties for some drug crimes and make other criminal justice reforms, according to a new poll released on the first day of early voting.

Issue 1 has the support of 43 percent of likely midterm voters surveyed in a Suffolk University/Enquirer poll; 38 percent oppose the measure. Nearly one in five said they had not yet decided how to vote....

The poll surveyed 500 likely Ohio voters by landline and cell phone from Oct. 4 to 8. The poll has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points....

Issue 1 backers didn’t intend for the measure to become partisan but it has become a dividing line in the race for governor. Democrat Rich Cordray supports it as a way to reduce overcrowded prisons and funnel more money toward drug addiction treatment. His Republican opponent, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, has said Issue 1 will allow drug dealers to avoid prison time and lead to more drug overdose deaths.

Among likely Cordray voters, 53 percent said they also support Issue 1 compared to only 33 percent of DeWine voters. 

October 9, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Justice Sotomayor issues cert statement discussing "deeply troubling concern" with solitary confinement

The Supreme Court's order list this morning includes no cert grants, but does have an interesting eight-page statement by Justice Sotomayor starting this way:

A punishment need not leave physical scars to be cruel and unusual. See Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958).  As far back as 1890, this Court expressed concerns about the mental anguish caused by solitary confinement.  These petitions address one aspect of what a prisoner subjected to solitary confinement may experience: the denial of even a moment in daylight for months or years.  Although I agree with the Court’s decision not to grant certiorari in these cases because of arguments unmade and facts underdeveloped below, I write because the issue raises deeply troubling concern.

UPDATE:  Amy Howe provides this helpful context and summary of this case via this post at SCOTUSblog:

The justices announced today that they will not hear the cases of three Colorado inmates who argue that holding them in solitary confinement, without any access to the outdoors or concerns about security, violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Two of the inmates, Jonathan Apodaca and Joshua Vigil, didn’t go outdoors for more than 11 months, while the third inmate, Donnie Lowe, didn’t have outdoor recreation for several years.  Prison officials argued that they could not be sued because it was not clearly established -- the standard to overcome the general presumption that government officials are immune from lawsuits -- that their solitary-confinement policy was unconstitutional.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit agreed, and the inmates asked the Supreme Court to weigh in.  Justice Stephen Breyer has expressed concern about holding inmates in solitary confinement before: Last year he dissented from the Supreme Court’s announcement that it would not block the execution of a Texas death-row inmate who had been held in solitary confinement for 20 years.  And now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested in 2015 that extended periods of solitary confinement might violate the Eighth Amendment’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment.  But there were apparently not four votes to take up the issue now.

In an eight-page opinion regarding the court’s decision to deny review, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that the justices might have rejected these cases because the lower courts had not focused on whether Colorado had valid security reasons for its solitary-confinement policy.  But Sotomayor then went on to express “grave misgivings” about solitary confinement, noting that as many as 100,000 inmates (including many who are not on death row) are held in cells alone.  And she pointed out that Donnie Lowe -- who was held in solitary confinement for 11 years while serving time for second-degree burglary and smuggling contraband into prison -- died earlier this year: “While we do not know what caused his death,” she concluded, “we do know that solitary confinement imprints on those that it clutches a wide range of psychological scars.”  She ended her opinion with a plea to courts and prison officials to “remain alert to the clear constitutional problems raised by keeping prisoners like Apodaca, Vigil, and Lowe in ‘near-total isolation’ from the living world, in what comes perilously close to a penal tomb.”

October 9, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 08, 2018

Highlighting the importance of policies that support families values for the incarcerated

The group R Street has this notable new policy paper titled "The importance of supporting family connections to ensure successful re-entry" authored by Emily Mooney and Nila Bala.  Here is the paper's introduction and conclusion:

As of the latest estimates, approximately two million individuals are currently incarcerated in the United States. Each of these has a family, which broadens the impact of incarceration to millions of family members across the nation. This brings negative repercussions: incarcerated parents are separated from children, interpersonal relationships become strained and financial support disappears.  Furthermore, federal, state and local policies often present barriers to meaningful and continued family connections while incarcerated. Yet, paradoxically, it is during this time that positive family connections are so key.  Indeed, they are critical to successful re-entry after a person’s time is served, as they help encourage individual transformation, mitigate the negative impact of incarceration on children and other loved ones, and support stronger families in general.  This, in turn, makes communities safer.  For these reasons, society can benefit by understanding the importance of these connections and creating policies that help to bolster them for the good of incarcerated individuals, their families and their communities at large....

Behind most incarcerated individuals is a family that is critical to encouraging positive change on the inside and supporting them as they prepare for life on the outside.  Despite this, government policies and family circumstances often impede the ability of families to stay connected during incarceration.  However, changes to government policies, community-based partnerships and the expansion of family-oriented programming can help families overcome these obstacles, with great benefit both to individuals and to society as a whole.

October 8, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Third Circuit going en banc to reconsider reach and application of Eighth Amendment to lengthy juvenile term-of-years sentence

In this post back in April, I noted the remarkable Third Circuit panel opinion in US v. Grant, No. 16-3820 (3d CIr. April 9, 2018) (available here), addressing the application of Eighth Amendment limits on juvenile sentences.  The panel opinion in Grant is technically no longer law as of today thanks to this order by the Third Circuit:

A majority of the active judges having voted for rehearing en banc in the above captioned cases, it is ordered that the government’s petition for rehearing is GRANTED.  The Clerk of this Court shall list the case for rehearing en banc on February 20, 2019.  The opinion and judgment entered April 9, 2018 are hereby vacated.

In short form, defendant Corey Grant in the early 1990 was initially sentenced to LWOP for crimes committed when he was 16-years old.  After Graham and Miller, he was resentenced to a 65-year federal prison term.  The panel opinion found this term unconstitutional and suggested that "lower courts must consider the age of retirement as a sentencing factor, in addition to life expectancy and the § 3553(a) factors, when sentencing juvenile offenders that are found to be capable of reform."  The full Third Circuit is apparently no so keen on this approach, and it will thus address this matter anew in the coming year.

October 4, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Excited to hear Shon Hopwood speak about earned prison credit as Ohio considers ballot initiative known now as Issue 1

For months I have been flagged here and elsewhere the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative on the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio.  Originally called the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment," the initiative now is just known within Ohio as Issue 1.   With early voting in Ohio now just days away, the new Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has its latest Issue 1 program  taking place today. 

Specifically, at the College of Law at 12noon, is the second of our five public panels under the title Ballot Insights.  (Registration for these panels is available at this link, where you can also find more details on the focus for each of the panels.)  Today's panel is focused on the Issue 1 provisions expanding "earned time credit" for Ohio prisoners to reduce their sentences through rehabilitative programming, and we have the pleasure of hosting Shon Hopwood as one of the panelists. 

In addition to the panels, DEPC has also created a Resources Page for Issue 1, which includes links to the ballot language, position statements from various groups and select media coverage.  DEPC is also building out a Commentary Page on Issue 1 for publishing original commentary that the Center has solicited. 

 Prior related posts:

October 4, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

A publisher's request for submissions from formerly and currently incarcerated individuals

This webpage provides this basic information about an interesting new project: "The New Press, a public interest book publisher, and the Center for American Progress (CAP), a public policy think tank, request submission of essays for consideration to be included for publication in a book featuring criminal justice reform ideas from formerly and currently incarcerated individuals." This document provides these additional details:

The book has the working title of What We Know and is expected to be edited by Daryl Atkinson and Vivian Nixon, both formerly incarcerated individuals now leading criminal legal reform organizations.  They are also members of the steering committee of the Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People’s Family Movement (FICPFM), a national effort to bring the voices of formerly incarcerated people and their families to the justice reform table.

Essays may be from 2500-5000 words and should be focused on a specific, serious, welldefined suggestion for how to improve a particular aspect of any part of our current system, from police encounters and arrests, to sentencing, incarceration, and re-entry.  Essays should contain elements of the author’s personal story in service of illuminating the suggested reform.  Thoughtful, original ideas that are not already widely in circulation and under discussion are especially welcome.

The top 12-20 essays will be published in the finished book, and the authors will receive $500 each.  Authors of the top 50 essays that were not selected for publication will also receive $50 each.  Co-authored pieces will be considered; additional payment for additional authors will be at the discretion of The New Press and CAP.  The New Press, CAP, and the editors retain full and final authority over the selection of the pieces that are published and/or receive a financial award.

The New Press, CAP, and the editors reserve the right to reject or select essays for any reason allowed under law.  However, essays will be selected based on the following:

I. Policy Recommendation: Applicants should clearly identify a specific issue or problem within the criminal justice system and propose a well-developed, targeted policy solution to address it.

II. Concept: Applicants are encouraged to propose new and progressive ideas for improving the criminal justice system. Policy proposals should be informed by lived experiences with the justice system.

III. Feasibility & Impact: Proposed reforms should be realistic and actionable, with the potential to create meaningful change within the criminal justice system.

IV. Readability: Successful essays will be engaging and combine narrative storytelling from the author’s own experience or knowledge, which illustrates a specific problem, with an original, constructive idea for how the problem might reasonably be remedied.

October 3, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Former Illinois Gov Rod Blagojevich makes "plea for prison reform"

The federal prison inmate formerly known as Blago has authored in the Washington Examiner this commentary published under the headline "Rod Blagojevich: My plea for prison reform." Here are excerpts:

I am living the reverse American dream — a bad dream that I share with other inmates at a prison in Colorado where I am currently serving a 14-year sentence.  So what happened?

Carved in stone on the front portico of the U.S. Supreme Court building are the words “Equal Justice Under Law.” But as I sit here in prison, I can’t help but reflect on those four words and feel an overwhelming sense of sadness — not just for me, but for many of my fellow inmates as well.  Here’s why.

It is not equal justice under law when over-sentencing is the rule rather than the exception; when our incarceration rate has increased by more than 500 percent over the last forty years; when an American citizen in good faith trusts the integrity of the courthouse, but to their horror discovers that the game is rigged, and that they are being denied a fair trial before proceedings even begin.

The national debate in Congress on prison and sentencing reform is a conversation that is long overdue.  And as that debate heats up, I’d like to offer a few points of my own and share some things I’ve learned on this painful journey.

As a dishwasher, I start work at 3:30 each morning and earn a total of $8.40 a month.  Did you know that the average wage for an inmate is 23 cents to $1.15 an hour?  In some states, inmates have to work for free.  I never expected to get rich in prison, but am I wrong in viewing this rock-bottom wage as society's way of showing its contempt, telling us that we are all worthless? Is that a good message to send to people we plan to release someday, and whom we'd rather not see offend again?  To people we hope will survive on their own without resorting again to crime?...

Did you know that the average cost to the taxpayer to house each inmate is around $33,000 a year?  In California, taxpayers pay $75,000 a year per inmate. In total, taxpayers are left with a $39 billion invoice each year.  And what’s the government’s solution? Increase our prison population and force hard working Americans to pay even higher taxes.

Did you know that federal prosecutors like to boast about their 97 percent conviction rate?  Yet when you think about it, shouldn't that fact raise an alarm bell to all freedom loving people? Michael Jordan, as great as he was, only made half the shots he attempted.  And knowing what I now know through my experience, this almost perfect success rate is convincing proof that the federal criminal justice system works against the accused.  It is neither a place to expect a fair trial nor is it a place where the promise of justice for all is a promise kept.

Did you know that from 2013 to 2017, the Federal Bureau of Prisons denied 94 percent of the applications from inmates requesting a “compassionate release” due to a terminal illness? And in all of these cases, instead of dying with dignity surrounded by loved ones, terminally ill inmates were left to die alone in prison.  Did you know that if a spouse or child passes away while you are in prison, that you’re not even allowed a furlough to attend the funeral services?  Did you know that when incarcerated women give birth, that they are chained and handcuffed to the hospital bed?

My time in prison has taught me that we need serious reforms.  It’s also taught me that there are a lot of people in here with good hearts.  Instead of creating a system that punishes and dehumanizes inmates, let’s create a system that rehabilitates prisoners and prepares them for life outside of prison.  So here is my message: We can never reach our potential until we as a people rise up and demand that our elected representatives bring about reform; until freedom is safeguarded by a renewed and unwavering commitment to the rule of law; until mercy seasons justice, and fair play governs those who govern us.

September 30, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 27, 2018

"'You Miss So Much When You’re Gone': The Lasting Harm of Jailing Mothers Before Trial in Oklahoma"

Download (20)The title of this post is the title of this big new report produced by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU. Here is part of the report's starting summary:

Every day in Oklahoma, women are arrested and incarcerated in local jails waiting — sometimes for weeks, months, a year, or more — for the disposition of their cases.  Most of these women are mothers with minor children.

Drawing from more than 160 interviews with jailed and formerly jailed mothers, substitute caregivers, children, attorneys, service providers, advocates, jail officials, and child welfare employees, this report shows how pretrial detention can snowball into never-ending family separation as mothers navigate court systems and insurmountable financial burdens assessed by courts, jails, and child welfare services....

While most women admitted to jails are accused of minor crimes, the consequences of pretrial incarceration can be devastating.  This report finds that jailed mothers often feel an added, and unique, pressure to plead guilty so that they can return home to parent their children and resume their lives.  These mothers face difficulties keeping in touch with their children due to restrictive jail visitation policies and costly telephone and video calls.  Some risk losing custody of their children because they are not informed of, or transported to, key custody proceedings.  Once released from jail, they are met with extensive fines, fees, and costs that can impede getting back on their feet and regaining custody of their children.

Women are the fastest growing correctional population nationwide and since the 1990s, Oklahoma has incarcerated more women per capita than any other US state.  Local jails (which typically house people prior to conviction, sentenced to short periods of incarceration, or awaiting transfer to prisons for longer sentences) are a major driver of that growth.  On a single day, the number of women in jails across the US has increased from approximately 8,000 in 1970 to nearly 110,000 in 2014, a 1,275 percent increase, with rural counties accounting for the largest growth rate. Many times more are admitted to jail over the course of a year.

The growth in women’s incarceration also means growth in the number of jailed mothers, which has doubled since 1991.  Nationwide, more than 60 percent of women in prisons and nearly 80 percent of women in jails are mothers with minor children.  A study conducted by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that a majority of incarcerated mothers lived with and were the sole or primary caretaker of minor children prior to their incarceration.

This means that when mothers go to jail or prison, their children are more likely not to have a parent left at home, and can either end up with other relatives or in foster care. One in 14 children in the US, or nearly six million children, have had a parent behind bars, which researchers identify as an adverse childhood experience associated with negative health and development outcomes.  Children of color are disproportionately impacted by parental incarceration, with one in 9 Black children having had an incarcerated parent compared to one in 17 white children.

Jailed mothers are often dealing with a myriad of issues prior to their incarceration, which is why comprehensive support is essential to keep families together, disrupt cycles of incarceration, and to preserve human rights to liberty, due process, equal protection, and family unity.  Losing contact with and custody of their minor children should not be a consequence of arrest and criminal prosecution.

While nationally and in Oklahoma the rate of women’s incarceration is garnering increasing attention, many barriers to achieving necessary reforms remain.

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU urge Oklahoma and other states to require the consideration of a defendant’s caretaker status in bail and sentencing proceedings, expand alternatives to incarceration, facilitate the involvement of incarcerated parents in their children’s lives and proceedings related to child custody, and substantially curb the imposition of fees and costs, which can impede reentry and parent-child reunification.

September 27, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)