Thursday, March 21, 2019

"Reduce prison populations by reducing life sentences"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 18, 2019

"Don't Overlook First Step Act Pilot Programs"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

Here is an excerpt from this latter piece:

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 08, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Thursday, February 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel Three: Review of Treatment of Women While Incarcerated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of many prior related posts:

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Monday, February 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 07, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Monday, February 04, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 02, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 01, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Hiring initiative highlights how private employers can take a next step after FIRST STEP Act

This new CBNC article, headlined "Koch network leads coalition urging businesses to hire former inmates," reports on a notable new initiative that serves as a fitting private-sector follow-up on the FIRST STEP Act and similar state level reforms. Here are the details:

A broad coalition of business groups is pledging to hire workers with criminal backgrounds in the wake of a new federal law aimed at reducing incarcerations.

The movement is spearheaded by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, who enlisted the support of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation, the National Restaurant Association and the American Staffing Association have signed on as well. Together, the groups represent businesses that employ roughly 60 percent of the American workforce.

"As business people, we have so many opportunities we aren't even aware of to make our country better and help people improve their lives. This is one of them," Koch said in a statement. "I challenge all of us, as business leaders, to take this important next step together."...

The Koch network has long pushed to overhaul the nation's criminal justice system. The group met with President Donald Trump at the White House last spring on the issue, leveraged relationships with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and urged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to make a deal. The result was a rare bipartisan bill that Congress passed last year, just days before the government shutdown began.

The First Step Act reduces prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses and gives judges more discretion in setting those sentences. It also eliminates the "three-strikes" rule that imposed a mandatory life sentence for three or more drug convictions. The sentence is now 25 years.

The legislation could also have an impact on the nation's workforce, with roughly 650,000 people released from prison each year. SHRM Chief Executive Johnny Taylor said businesses have a responsibility to ensure former inmates have the opportunity to find a job and stay out of jail.

"Legislation is interesting, but it ultimately only matters if it results in behavioral change," Taylor said. "We can have a narrative around the importance of hiring the formerly incarcerated, and it really can all fall apart if employers -- primarily HR professionals -- don't make it happen."

The new business coalition is committing to using SHRM's guidelines for recruiting and hiring workers with criminal backgrounds. Taylor said it includes best practices for identifying candidates even before they are released from prison and having open discussions about the past....

The move also comes as businesses struggle to fill open jobs amid a shortage of workers. According to government data, there are nearly 6.9 million open positions, but only 6.3 million people who are unemployed. That means even if everyone were hired, business would still come up short....

"If all of us got fully engaged, think of the difference we could make to create second chances, reduce crime and poverty, and improve the quality of life for so many people," Koch said in a statement.

January 27, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison"

The title of this post is the title of this new report produced by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.  Here is how the report's introduction begins:

In 2016, more than 626,000 people were released from federal and state prisons and returned to communities across the United States.  Their odds of securing employment, housing, and other necessities after release depended, in part, on opportunities available to them while in prison.  Few such opportunities benefit incarcerated people as much as a postsecondary education — a certificate or degree beyond a high school diploma.  Most incarcerated people lack the financial resources to pay for postsecondary schooling.

Thus, the opportunity for them to earn a postsecondary credential while in prison depends in large part on public funding, which has been scarce since the mid-1990s. They face a significant failure of public policy: education is a road toward improving their lives when they leave prison that the current system makes it all but impossible to reach.

It was not always this way.

The Federal Pell Grant Program, authorized in 1972, provided financial support for education for low-income undergraduate students, including people in prison. By the early 1990s, there were more than 770 postsecondary programs in nearly 1,300 prisons.  But in 1994, as policymakers adopted more punitive approaches to the rising crime rate, Congress revoked incarcerated students’ access to Pell Grants with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. 

For a quarter-century, people in prison have lacked a reliable or consistent funding source for postsecondary education.  This absence of funding has translated into fewer educational opportunities for incarcerated people, contributing to the challenges they face on reentry.  Because they often have limited educational attainment before entering prison, formerly incarcerated people face profound challenges in the job market without additional education and skills.  Many remain locked in a cycle of poverty and potential recidivism.  Furthermore, the negative ripple effect through the economy is significant, including fewer skilled workers available to employers and increased incarceration costs for states as a result of high recidivism rates.

This vicious cycle has affected larger numbers of people as U.S. incarceration rates have ballooned: consider that from 1972 to 2010, the prison population increased by 700 percent.  As of this writing, there are more than 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons.

In recent years, state legislatures and the federal government have taken steps to end mass incarceration and adopt a “smart-on-crime” approach to criminal justice policy that includes decriminalization, sentencing reform, and greater investments in reentry.  Despite this progress, policymakers have not yet moved to restore Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated people.  Doing so must be part of the next phase of criminal justice reform.

January 27, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Latest discussion of fixing timing problems with expansion of good-time credit in the FIRST STEP Act

As noted in this post a couple of weeks ago, the expanded good time credits provision in the FIRST STEP Act, which many expected to be applied immediately, problematically got tucked within a section of the Act that is to become effective only when the Attorney General has created "a risk and needs assessment system" later this year.  Now the Washington Examiner has this new article, headlined Drafting error stalls inmate release under Trump plan," about the problem and efforts afoot to address it.  Here are excerpts:

Thousands of prisoners expecting to go home under the First Step Act are stuck behind bars indefinitely due to an apparent drafting error, frustrating families and leaving policy advocates pushing for a White House fix.

The bill, President Trump’s biggest bipartisan policy achievement, passed in December, but a key provision retroactively expanding "good time" credit landed in a section that could delay implementation by seven months.

Three sources who work closely with lawmakers and administration officials say it’s their understanding that the White House is looking for an administrative fix.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone met with advocates in mid-January to discuss the issue, which is affecting roughly 4,000 people who expected to go home immediately. “I think [Cipollone] really understood the intent,” said a person with direct knowledge of the meeting. “I think they understood this was a key provision. … This was a key part of [legislative] negotiations.”

Present at the meeting were David Safavian of the American Conservative Union and Jessica Sloan of #Cut50, a bipartisan activist group that aims to lower incarceration levels in all 50 states....

The bill expands days off for good behavior from 47 to 54 for each year served. For people serving decades, seven additional days means release months early. Most provisions were not written to apply retroactively. The "good time" expansion was an exception, as was a provision allowing crack cocaine convicts to be resentenced. The crack change was implemented quickly.

It became clear, however, that an immediate “good time” expansion would not happen. The provision was placed in a part of the law that created “earned time” sentence reductions, allowing early transfer to a halfway house or home detention after anti-recidivism classes. The “earned time” provision allows the Justice Department up to 210 days to set up a risk assessment system, which will judge the requirements to participate.

“I think it was just an oversight,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “People were focused on making sure the good time got increased and that it was retroactive. It ended up getting put in the section with ‘earned time.’”

A few fixes are being discussed. The easiest would be for the White House to order the Justice Department to apply the 54 days of "good time" credit immediately. Other fixes would require legislation — either a unanimous consent motion or a spending bill provision — but legislative gridlock amid a partial government shutdown makes neither likely.

“I don’t think it’s something that gets cleared up quickly,” said Sloan, who declined to comment on the White House meeting but said it’s her position that existing law allows 54 days of good time if the administration decides it does. “I’m hopeful the White House will issue some sort of directive to the DOJ, which will issue a directive to BOP, but there are a lot of administrative [steps] there,” Sloan said....

For people in prison, the delay is a major blow. “He’s ready to come home,” said Veda Ajamu, whose brother Robert Shipp, 46, has served 25 years and expected near-immediate transfer to a halfway house or home confinement, as is typical toward the end of sentences. “We’re talking now 25 years, 4 months, and 10 days for him. It makes me really sad, because I can’t do anything. For a person who's been in prison so long, that’s a hard pill to swallow,” Ajamu said.

Charles "Duke" Tanner, who has served 14 years of a 30-year sentence, does not expect to get out immediately but said other people are anxious to leave. “My cellie was all excited because he was looking at an immediate release. Some men even gave away their property because they thought they were out the door,” Turner said. “I have faith President Trump will fix this,” he added.

I have very little "faith" in anyone inside the Beltway fixing things these days, but it is encouraging that two very effective advocates had the opportunity to address the White House Counsel about potential fixes.

Prior related posts:

January 26, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, January 25, 2019

Timely questions on enduringly important topics via The Crime Report

I have praised and promoted work done over at The Crime Report for many years, and the site remains a daily must-read for criminal justice fans.  And in the last few days, TCR has had two new pieces headlined with two questions that are timely and enduring.  Here are the headlines, links and brief excerpts:

"Can the U.S. Abolish Life Sentences?" (Q&A with Ashley Nellis)

TCR: You write, “Perhaps the most glaring omission of relevant data was the failure of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the well-regarded research arm of the Department of Justice, to document the scale of life imprisonment.” Do you think this omission was on purpose or by accident?  And why?

Nellis: I think it’s not on purpose, there just a lack of resources in the research arms.  There’s also a lack of general interest from the public, so there was no incentive to document the expansion of life sentences. We shouldn’t be surprised that there hasn’t been data on the expansion because it goes along with laws and policies of the 1990s.

[The BJS] is not a political entity, but it seems to be. If you pass legislation at federal level that is bound to increase your incarcerated population… you should probably document the impact of those policies.  If you pass mandatory minimums with the elimination of parole, it seems wise to document how many people go to prison because you did that. Once a lot of the public sees the dramatic growth of life sentences— nearly five-fold increase over time — then they ask “why did nobody notice this before?” The answer is because nobody was recording it.

"Do We Really Need Probation and Parole?" (commentary by Vincent Schiraldi): 

Although “mass supervision” on probation or parole has not yet garnered the attention of “mass incarceration,” its impact is no small matter.  There are 4.5 million people under community supervision in America, twice as many as are incarcerated, a figure that amounts to more than the population in half of all U.S. states.  About four in ten people entering America’s prisons and jails each year are under supervision.  Many of those are incarcerated, not for committing new crimes, but for breaking a wide array of supervision rules.

January 25, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

"Shifting how journalists talk about people in prison"

Given that I sometimes feel a bit like a journalist when doing certain types of blogging, I found interesting and effective this new Columbia Journalism Review piece (which carries a headline that I used as the title of this post).  Here are excerpts from the piece:

Prisons are often “dangerous and inhumane spaces of abuse and degradation,” Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a law professor at NYU, says.  Yet a great deal of mainstream media prison reporting, in his view, is “misleading and dehumanizing” and “presented with no context or insight.” At a time when the flaws in our criminal justice system are well-known and well-documented, experts and advocates say a shift in how the media covers prison and people impacted by incarceration is long overdue.

It’s bad enough when the story in question is about food (which in prison is hardly known for its quality, Stevenson notes).  It’s worse, though, when it comes to more grave matters, such as murder, suicide, and abuse, which are unfortunately common in prisons.  Then, Stevenson says the impact of language is all the more damaging. “Instead of reporting in a way that exposes the tragedy of prison violence, we get headlines like, ‘Convicted rapist stabbed to death,’” he explains.  “The media presents the victim as if he could only be the crime he was convicted of. It happens all the time, over and over again.”

Last spring, for example, a Newsweek article asked, “Who were the South Carolina inmates killed in deadliest U.S. prison riot in 25 years?”  By way of answer, the story offered only the men’s names, sentences, and crimes.  “Cornelius McClary, 33, was serving 25 years for first-degree burglary and battery, firearms provision and criminal conspiracy in Williamsburg County in 2011,” read one mini-obituary. When a person is reduced to their crime at the outset, advocates say, it’s no surprise when challenges to their worth and dignity follow....

Alex Gudich, deputy director of the criminal justice reform group #cut50, gives the media some credit for tracking and exposing the failures of today’s criminal justice system, as well for helping champion reform, in the case of some outlets.  Even well-meaning stories can fall short, however, he says, by leaning on stereotypes and failing to count the perspectives of those who are incarcerated or who have been impacted by incarceration.

Among fixes for journalists, Gudich and his colleagues at #cut50 — which was founded in 2014 with the goal of reducing America’s prison population by half within ten years —recommend starting with person-centered language.  That is, “people in prison” or “incarcerated persons,” as opposed to “convicts” or “inmates.”  This is an ongoing culture shift that began in the criminal justice reform community several years ago but that hasn’t yet caught on in media, Gudich says....

But it’s not just a matter of semantics. “One of the reasons prison and criminal justice reform have been so difficult to achieve is how we talk about people who are incarcerated in this society,” says Jelani Cobb, a New Yorker staff writer and director of the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia Journalism School. “As long as we’re talking about people only in terms of what they’ve done wrong, it’s easy to camouflage the fact that we’re talking about human beings.”...  

Advocates also recommend doing more to incorporate information other than what is provided by prison workers and the police. This presents challenges, they acknowledge, given the famous opacity of prisons and jails, the reticence of defense attorneys to allow clients to speak with the press, and the general business of public defenders.  But direct access to people who have been accused or convicted isn’t the only way to introduce balance into prison stories: experts on prison conditions abound, as do family members of prisoners.  In the wake of the holiday meal stories, Chandra Bozelko, a formerly incarcerated writer and reporter who comments frequently on prison-related issues, received calls from only a handful of small podcasting outfits. “If a tiny little podcast with, like, no staff at all can find me, so can a major newspaper,” Bozelko says...

Bozelko, by her description, is less of a “word hawk” than some advocates.  She’s not as offended by the word “felon,” for instance, as she is by factual inaccuracies in stories by reporters who seem to never have stepped foot inside a prison.  As for the inaccessibility of American prisons, she proposes an easy solution: hire more reporters with criminal records. Bozelko points to Keri Blakinger of the Houston Chronicle, who spent time in prison between 2010 and 2012 — and whose reporting has recently netted changes to dental care for prisoners in Texas, in addition to the firing or resignation of five prison workers involved in a scheme to plant evidence in prisoners’ cells.

None of this is to say it’s a reporter’s job to swing to prisoners’ defense, Bozelko says.  Ultimately, she just wants to see more nuance from mainstream outlets and an acknowledgement of the circumstances, bad luck, and structural factors that often feature heavily into the real stories prisoners have to tell: “Regardless of what a person did, prison wasn’t in their plan, and it’s not who they are.”

January 22, 2019 in On blogging, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 21, 2019

Challenges facing federal prisons and prisoners ... from FIRST STEP Act implementation to shutdown dynamics

It is pure coincidence that the day Prez Trump signed the FIRST STEP Act into law was also the last day the federal government was fully funded before the current government shutdown. That day was December 21, 2018, which means today marks officially one month into both the shutdown and the implementation of the FIRST STEP Act.  Though I have done a few prior FIRST STEP Act implementation posts here and here and here and here, I figured it would be timely to do this round-up of some recent articles and commentary about both FIRST STEP implementation and shutdown echoes:

January 21, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

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)