Sunday, August 01, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior recent related posts:

August 1, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 30, 2021

Highlighting how the Biden Administration could and should start reforming federal BOP

I have lamented in post after post that the Biden Administration has so far failed to seize the opportunity to advance federal sentencing reforms by making needed appointments to US Sentencing Commission, and I will continue to be troubled by (and complain about) its failings in this space for as long as it lasts.  In the meantime, I am pleased to see this new AP article highlighting another so-far-missed Biden Administration missed opportunity under the headline: "Is Biden overlooking Bureau of Prisons as reform target?".  Here are excerpts from a long piece worth a full read:

Biden is overlooking a prime -- and, in some ways, easier -- target for improving the conditions of incarcerated people: the federal Bureau of Prisons. While most criminal justice overhauls require action from local officials or legislation, reforming the federal prison system is something Biden and his Justice Department control. And there are crying needs there for improvement.

Even before the coronavirus, federal prisons were plagued by violence, suicide, escapes, understaffing and health concerns. The pandemic made things worse. And now these facilities are set to absorb even more prisoners from private institutions that are no longer in business with the government....

Meanwhile, the number of federal prisoners is rising. Defendants end up in federal prison usually because their crime crossed state lines, or they violated a specific federal law. There are about 156,000 federal inmates. In total, 38% are Black and 57% are white, 1.5% Asian and 2.4% Native American. Most are serving sentences between 5 and 20 years, and 46% of those sentences are for drug offenses. Another 20% are for weapons, explosives or arson charges.

The administration can’t control the laws that get someone sent to prison. But it can control staffing, transparency, health care, the use of solitary confinement and, most of all, agency leadership. The head of the Bureau of Prisons is a Trump holdover, Michael Carvajal, who has been in charge as the coronavirus raged behind bars, infecting more than 43,000 federal inmates. He also oversaw an unprecedented run of federal executions in the last six months of Donald Trump’s presidency that was a likely virus super spreader.

Administration officials have been mulling whether to replace him, but no decision has been made, according to officials who spoke to The Associated Press.

One question they should be asking, according to Andrea Armstrong, a Loyola Law School professor who studies prisons, is whether the director’s role is to do more than keep operations running smoothly. “Real leadership,” she says, “would be convening people incarcerated, wardens and programming staff together to say, OK, we have an enormous problem ... how do we address this?”....

The “First Step Act,” approved in 2018, gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders, eases mandatory minimum sentences and encourages inmates to participate in programs designed to reduce the risk of recidivism, with credits that can be used to gain an earlier release.

But those programs can’t be completed right now, because there are not enough workers to facilitate them. Nearly one-third of federal correctional officer jobs in the United States are vacant, forcing prisons to use cooks, teachers, nurses and other workers to guard inmates. “There need to be enough people working in a prison to keep people housed in a prison safe. And they must be able to get access to the programs that should allow their release,” said Maria Morris of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

A few of many prior related posts:

July 30, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 26, 2021

Excited for the launch of Inquest, "a forum for advancing bold decarceral ideas"

E676CJ9WQAEKg4PI was pleased to receive via email this morning the first official announcement of Inquest, which as explained here "is published by the Institute to End Mass Incarceration [but] not the voice of the Institute."   Here are excerpts from the Inquest mission page:

Inquest is a forum for advancing bold ideas to end mass incarceration in the United States. Here, you will find original, insightful work by thinkers and doers across a broad range of experience and expertise, united in the belief that mass incarceration is an epic injustice that can and must urgently end.

Our authors include leading and new voices across fields, from activism and community organizing, to law and policy, to academia, journalism, and public health. Drawing on their lived experience and their accumulated wisdom, they come here to share ideas, narratives, and analyses that boldly explore the causes and consequences of mass incarceration and that provoke rigorous discussion — all aimed at driving thoughtful action....

Rather, our mission is to create a space where the voices of those doing the thinking and the work — the people closest to the problem, including those directly impacted by mass incarceration — can come together to share ideas and be heard as they pursue bold solutions.

And here is some of the text from the introductory email that I received along with links to the first set of materials and essays on the site:

We are so excited to share this new publication and its core mission with you.  Our opening slate of original, thought-provoking essays is below.  We hope you will take a look today and come back often. Inquest is a forum for advancing bold ideas to end mass incarceration.  The publication features original, insightful work by thinkers and doers across a broad range of experience and expertise, united in the belief that our system of mass incarceration can and must urgently end....

Read a welcome note from our founding editors and visit Inquest to check out our opening slate of essays, all linked below:

Joel Castón, the first incarcerated person ever elected to public office in Washington, D.C., shares his story and vision with Inquest.

Tomas Keen, incarcerated in Washington State, highlights the problems with a prison closure plan.

"To get to real justice, we have to stop depending on the department bearing that name." — Rachel Barkow & Mark Osler

Maneka Sinha on forensics: "[M]any of the reforms proposed to date . . . serve to shore up the legitimacy of the field in the same ways that conventional reform proposals do in the policing context."

All these essays look great, and I am very excited to keep up with both Inquest and the new Institute to End Mass Incarceration.

July 26, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

BJS releases new reports on "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2019" and "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2019"

Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics always produces terrific reports on national criminal justice realities, though there is necessarily a time lag in the data reported.  But given they ways the COVID pandemic has changed (and not changed) our criminal justice systems, I think it is especially timely that BJS has just released to big new reports on the state of US correctional populations at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic hit.  Via email, I got news and short descriptions of these new BJS reports:

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics today released two reports that present statistics on adults in the U.S. correctional system. Correctional Populations in the United States, 2019 – Statistical Tables provides data on both incarcerated persons and those on probation or parole, while Probation and Parole in the United States, 2019 focuses on persons under community supervision on probation or parole.

Correctional Populations in the United States, 2019 – Statistical Tables presents statistics on persons supervised by U.S. adult correctional systems at year-end 2019, including those supervised in the community on probation or parole and persons incarcerated in state or federal prison or local jail.  It describes the size and change in the total correctional population from 2009 to 2019.  Findings are based on various BJS data collections, including the Annual Probation Survey, Annual Parole Survey, Annual Survey of Jails, Census of Jails, National Prisoner Statistics program and Survey of Jails in Indian Country.

Probation and Parole in the United States, 2019 presents national data on adult offenders under community supervision on probation or parole in 2019.  It includes characteristics of the population such as sex, race or Hispanic origin, and most serious offense.  The report details how offenders move onto and off community supervision, such as completing their term of supervision, being incarcerated, absconding or other unsatisfactory outcomes while in the community.  Findings are based on data from BJS’s 2019 Annual Probation Survey and Annual Parole Survey.

July 22, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 19, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior recent related posts:

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

NIJ releases new publication with "Guidelines for Post-Sentencing Risk Assessment"

Via this webpage, headed "Redesigning Risk and Need Assessment in Corrections," the National Institute of Justice discusses its notable new publication titled "Guidelines for Post-Sentencing Risk Assessment."  Here is how the webpage sets up the full publication:

Over the past several decades, the use of RNA in correctional systems has proliferated. Indeed, the vast majority of local, state, and federal correctional systems in the United States now use some type of RNA. Despite the numerous ways in which RNA instruments can improve correctional policy and practice, the kind of RNA currently used across much of the country has yet to live up to this promise because it is outdated, inefficient, and less effective than it should be.

In an effort to help the corrections field realize the full potential of RNA instruments, NIJ recently released Guidelines for Post-Sentencing Risk Assessment.  These guidelines, assembled by a trio of corrections researchers and practitioners, are built around four fundamental principles for the responsible and ethical use of RNAs: fairness, efficiency, effectiveness, and communication.  Each of these principles contributes to an innovative, practical checklist of steps practitioners can use to maximize the reliability and validity of RNA instruments.

Here is part of the executive summary from the full report:

Risk and needs assessment (RNA) tools are used within corrections to prospectively identify those who have a greater risk of offending, violating laws or rules of prison or jail, and/ or violating the conditions of community supervision.  Correctional authorities use RNA instruments to guide a host of decisions that are, to a large extent, intended to enhance public safety and make better use of scarce resources.  Despite the numerous ways in which RNA instruments can improve correctional policy and practice, the style and type of RNA currently used by much of the field has yet to live up to this promise because it is outdated, inefficient, and less effective than it should be.

In an effort to help the corrections field realize the potential that RNA instruments have for improving decision-making and reducing recidivism, we have drawn upon our collective wisdom and experience to identify four principles that are critical to the responsible and ethical use of RNAs.  Within each principle is a set of guidelines that, when applied in practice, would help maximize the reliability and validity of RNA instruments.  Because these guidelines comprise novel, evidence-based practices and procedures, the recommendations we propose in this paper are relatively innovative, at least for the field of corrections.

■ The first principle, fairness, holds that RNA tools should be used to yield more equitable outcomes. When assessments are designed, efforts should be taken to eliminate or minimize potential sources of bias, which will mitigate racial and ethnic disparities. Preprocessing, in-processing, and post-processing adjustments are design strategies that can help minimize bias. Disparities can also be reduced through the way in which practitioners use RNAs, such as delivering more programming resources to those who need it the most (the risk principle). Collectively, this provides correctional agencies with a strategy for achieving better and more equitable outcomes.

■  The second principle, efficiency, indicates that RNA instruments should rely on processes that promote reliability, expand assessment capacity, and do not burden staff resources. The vast majority of RNAs rely on time-consuming, cumbersome processes that mimic paper and pencil instruments; that is, they are forms to be completed and then manually scored by staff. The efficiency of RNA tools can be improved by adopting automated and computer-assisted scoring processes to increase reliability, validity, and assessment capacity. If RNA tools must be scored manually, then inter-rater reliability assessments must be carried out to ensure adequate consistency in scoring among staff.

■  RNA instruments should not only be fair and efficient, but they should also be effective, which is the third key principle. The degree to which RNA instruments are effective depends largely on their predictive validity and how the tool is used within an agency. Machine learning algorithms often help increase predictive accuracy, although developers should test multiple algorithms to determine which one performs the best. RNA tools that are customized to the correctional population on which they are used will deliver better predictive performance.

■  Finally, it is important to focus on the implementation and use of RNAs so that individuals can become increasingly aware of their risk factors. To this end, the fourth key principle is to employ strategies that improve risk communication. Training the correctional staff who will be using the RNA tool is essential for effective communication, particularly in how to explain the needs and translate it into a case plan. A risk communication system, which includes case plan improvement, treatment-matching algorithms, and graduated sanctions and incentives, provides an integrated model for decision-making that helps increase an individual’s awareness of their own circumstances and need for programming.

July 19, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

New UNODC report details interesting global realities and trends in incarceration

A section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has released this interesting new data report highlighting on its cover page "Nearly twelve million people imprisoned globally; nearly one-third unsentenced; with prisons overcrowded in half of all countries."  This release about the report provides some context and highlights: 

One in every three prisoners worldwide are held without a trial, which means that they have not been found guilty by any court of justice, according to the first global research data on prisons published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The research brief, released ahead of Nelson Mandela International Day on 18 July, examines the long-term trends of imprisonment, stating that over the past two decades, between 2000 and 2019, the number of prisoners worldwide has increased by more than 25 per cent, with a global population growth of 21 per cent in the same period, with 11.7 million people incarcerated at the end of 2019.  This is a population comparable in size to entire nations such as Bolivia, Burundi, Belgium, or Tunisia.

At the end of 2019 — the latest year data is available — there were around 152 prisoners for every 100,000 population. While Northern America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe have experienced a long-term decrease in imprisonment rates of up to 27 per cent, other regions and countries, such as Latin America and Australia and New Zealand, have seen growth over the last two decades of up to 68 per cent.

At 93 per cent, most of the persons detained in prison globally are men.  Over the past two decades, however, the number of women in prisons has increased at a faster pace, with an increase of 33 per cent versus 25 per cent for men.

For those concerned about mass incarceration in the US and elsewhere, this report provides a terrific global snapshot of recent trends and some of the latest data. For example:

As of 2019, there were an estimated 152 prisoners for every 100,000 population globally.  This global rate has not changed much over the last two decades — it stood at 151 prisoners in 2000.  There is, however, considerable sub-regional variation: as of 2019, a much larger share of the population was imprisoned in Northern America (577 per 100,000 population), Latin America and the Caribbean (267) and Eastern Europe (262), than in Sub-Saharan Africa (84), Melanesia (78), or Southern Asia (48).  Furthermore, gender-specific rates also vary substantially across sub-regions. The high male imprisonment rate in the Northern American sub-region (1,048 male prisoners per 100,000 male population) is particularly noteworthy.

July 19, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New fact sheets from Sentencing Project on disparities in youth incarceration

Via email this morning, I received details and links about notable new data assembled by The Sentencing Project. Here is the heart of the email:

Profound racial and ethnic disparities in youth incarceration define the American juvenile justice system. New publications released today by The Sentencing Project detail the scope of the problem and should raise alarms among policymakers and advocates committed to racial justice.

Our new fact sheets show state-by-state incarceration rates by race and ethnicity and highlight where the problem is getting worse and better. 

  • Black Disparities in Youth Incarceration
    • Black youth are more than four times as likely as their white peers to be held in juvenile facilities, a modest improvement since 2015’s all-time high.
    • In New Jersey, Black youth are more than 17 times as likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. 
  • Latinx Disparities in Youth Incarceration
    • Latinx youth are 28 percent more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, a sharp improvement over the course of the decade.
    • In Massachusetts, Latinx youth are five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.
  • Tribal Disparities in Youth Incarceration
    • Tribal youth’s disparities have grown worse over the course of the decade, and they are now more than three times as likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.
    • In Minnesota, Tribal youth are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.

The Sentencing Project has long recommended the use of racial impact statements to divulge the source of disparities such as these. To overcome them, states and localities must invest heavily in community programs that address inequality at all stages of life, with particular focus on accommodating the needs of children of color.

July 15, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

BJS reports on "Alcohol and Drug Use and Treatment Reported by Prisoners"

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released this new report, titled "Alcohol and Drug Use and Treatment Reported by Prisoners: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016," which explores drug and alcohol use among prisoners before they were imprisoned their participation in drug and alcohol treatment programs since admission to prison.  Here are "Highlights" appearing on the report's first page:

And here are just a few of the "Other key findings" that also caught my eye:

July 13, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 09, 2021

New Urban Instititute report reviews "Implementation of the First Step Act: The Risk and Needs Assessment System"

Julie Samuels and Emily Tiry of the Urban Institute have this notable new 23-page report about one aspect of FIRST STEP Act implementation.  Here is its abstract:

The December 2018 First Step Act sought to address many long-standing problems in the federal prison system.  This brief focuses on implementation of the act’s risk and needs assessment system, intended to incentivize people in federal prison to pursue recidivism reduction programming that can sometimes reduce their time behind bars.  We summarize that system’s key requirements and major takeaways so far; detail the progress and challenges encountered in developing and implementing the risk assessment tool, needs assessment process, and earned time credits; and offer recommendations for improvement including suggestions to expand eligibility for early release or transfer and to consider the equity of the risk assessment tool.  We conclude that the US Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) could take a more vigorous approach to implement the law and fully realize the potential of the risk and needs assessment system to reduce recidivism and time spent in federal prisons.

Are you listening, DOJ and Congress? We are getting closer to a full three years since the FIRST STEP Act became law, and its implementation remains shaky and lots more could be done to make this first step even more consequential and impactful.

July 9, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Sentencing Project releases "A New Lease on Life" looking at release mechanisms and recidivism realities

Images (3)The Sentencing Project today released this timely new report titled "A New Lease on Life" which starts with these "Findings and Recommendations":

A dramatic consequence of America’s investment in mass incarceration is life imprisonment.  Today there are more people serving life sentences alone than the entire prison population in 1970, the dawn of the mass incarceration era.  Though life sentences have always been allowable in the U.S., it is only in recent decades that these sentences have become normalized to such an extent that entire prisons are now filled or nearly filled with people serving life terms.

Despite a cultural tendency for Americans to view the U.S. crime and criminal legal system as “exceptional,” other countries have experienced ebbs and flows in crime rates but have not resorted to the levels of imprisonment, nor the lengths of prison sentences, that are commonplace in the U.S.  To the contrary, restoration of human dignity and the development of resilience are at the core of an evolved criminal legal system; systems elsewhere that emphasize the responsibility of government support to returning citizens serves as a model for the U.S.

In this report we set out to accomplish two tasks.  First, we examine reoffending rates among people released from prison after a violent crime conviction and review research on the topic, covering both domestic and international findings.  Second, we provide personal testimony from people who have left prison after a violent crime conviction.  Inviting impacted persons to share their transition experiences serves policymakers and practitioners in strengthening necessary support for successful and satisfying reentry from prison. This report focuses on the outcomes of a narrow segment of the prison population: people convicted of violent crimes, including those sentenced to life and virtual life sentences, who have been released to the community through parole or executive clemency.  People with violent crime convictions comprise half the overall state prison population in the U.S. They are depicted as the most dangerous if released, but ample evidence refutes this.

Findings

• We can safely release people from prison who have been convicted of violent crime much sooner than we typically do. Most people who commit homicide are unlikely to do so again and overall rates of violent offending of any type among people released from a life sentence are rare.

• Definitional limitations of the term “recidivism” obstruct a thorough understanding of the true incidence of violent offending among those released from prison, contributing to inaccurate estimates of reoffending.

• People exiting prison from long term confinement need stronger support around them. Many people exhibit a low crime risk but have high psychological, financial, and vocational demands that have been greatly exacerbated by their lengthy incarceration.

• People exiting prison after serving extreme sentences are eager to earn their release and demonstrate their capacity to contribute in positive ways to society. Prison staff and peers view lifers as a stabilizing force in the prison environment, often mentoring younger prisoners and serving as positive role models.

We make five recommendations that, if adopted, will advance our criminal legal system toward one that is fair, efficient, and humane.

1. Standardize definitions of recidivism. Authors of government reports and academic studies should take great care to standardize the definition of criminal recidivism so that practitioners, policymakers, the media, and other consumers of recidivism research do not carelessly interpret findings on reoffending statistics without digging into either the meaning or the accuracy of the statements.

2. Insist on responsible and accurate media coverage. Media consumers and producers alike must insist on accurate portrayals of crime despite the temptation to skew media coverage so that rare violent crime events appear as commonplace. Heavily skewed media coverage of rare violent crime events creates a misleading view of the frequency of violent crime. Add to this the overly simplistic assumption, allowed by inarticulate reporting, that people released from prison have caused upticks in violence.

3. Allow some level of risk. Reset the acceptable recidivism rate to allow for reasonable public safety risk. The public’s risk expectation is currently set at zero, meaning that no amount of recidivism is politically acceptable in a system that “works” even though such expectations are not attainable in any sphere of human endeavor or experience. But this expectation is largely based on highly tragic and sensationalized events that are falsely equated as the result of releasing people from prison. We have to balance our aspirations for a crime-free society with reasonable approaches to public safety and human rights considerations for both those who have caused harm and those who have been victimized by it.

4. Reform and accelerate prison release mechanisms. Decisionmakers considering whether to grant prison release rely too heavily on the crime of conviction as the predominant factor under consideration. This approach is neither fair nor accurate. It is unfair because it repunishes the individual for a crime for which they have already been sanctioned. Risk of criminal conduct, even violent criminal conduct, closely tracks aging such that as people age into adulthood there is a sharp decline in proclivity to engage in additional acts of violence.

5. Substantially improve housing support. Inability to secure housing after release from prison was mentioned frequently by people we interviewed for this report. Failure of the correctional system to ensure stable housing upon exit from decades-long prison sentences imposes unnecessary challenges. Though some released persons will be able to rely on nonprofit charity organizations, shelters, or family, the most vulnerable people will fall through the cracks. We have both a public safety and a humanitarian obligation to avoid this result.

June 30, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Federal plea deal on civil rights charges reportedly in the works for Derek Chauvin

This new local press piece, headlined "Derek Chauvin Closing In On Federal Plea Deal, Sources Tell WCCO," reports on an unsurprising but still interesting development in the legal sagas around George Floyd's killing.  Here are the details:

Multiple sources tell WCCO that federal prosecutors are in talks with former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin about a possible plea deal.  They say Chauvin is close to reaching a deal, and that is what he was likely referring to when he made a cryptic comment to the family of George Floyd during his sentencing last week.

“Due to legal matters, I’m not able to give a full formal statement … I give my condolences to the Floyd family, there’s gonna be some other information in the future that will be of interest and I hope these will give you some peace of mind,” Chauvin said prior to his sentencing.

Sources suggest Chauvin was likely referring to a plea deal in the federal case against him.  As part of a possible plea deal Chauvin would have to publicly explain what he did to Floyd and why.  That was, of course, the question that Floyd’s brother poignantly asked of Chauvin at the sentencing....

Sources tell WCCO that, as part of the plea, Chauvin could get a 20- to 25-year sentence, which he would serve at the same time as the state sentence, and that he would serve his time in federal not state prison....

Former Hennepin County Chief Public Mary Moriarity says Chauvin has to be thinking about the swift guilty verdict in the state case, and that may be giving him more incentive to try to negotiate a plea deal.  “That is because, in federal court, there would be a substantial difference between what he would receive if he went to trial and was convicted versus what he would get if he pled guilty, and as they say take responsibility for his actions,” Moriarity said.

It’s important to remember an earlier plea deal involving the feds in late May 2020 collapsed at the 11th hour.  The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment, and WCCO also did not hear back from Ben Crump, the Floyd family attorney, or Eric Nelson, the attorney for Chauvin.

It is, of course, entirely right that Chauvin is far more likely to get a lower sentence (and to be able to cap his sentencing exposure) if he enters into a federal plea deal rather than going to trial on pending federal civil rights charges.  But, unlike in the Minnesota system where there is a strong presumption of release after a defendant serves 2/3 of an imposed prison term, in the federal system the norm is service of at least 85% of imposed prison time.  So if Chauvin's federal deal led to the imposition, say, of "only" a 20-year term, he should still expect to serve a full 17 years, whereas his 22.5-year prison term in the state system could lead to his release in "only" 15 years.

That said, this "release math" is only one part of the equation for Chauvin and his lawyers as they consider a federal plea deal.  I suspect Chauvin, for a variety of reasons, would much rather spend his considerable time in the federal prison system than in state prison.  Also, it is interesting to speculate whether and how a federal plea could impact any appeals Chauvin has planned for his state convictions and sentence.  And, not to be overlooked, there are distinct "second look" or "early release" mechanisms in state and federal systems that could prove significant in the future (which, in turn, makes them relevant now for plea negotiations).

Prior related posts:

June 29, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 28, 2021

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Sunday, June 27, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior recent related posts:

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

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

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

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

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

Analysis of the eleven jurisdictions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 17, 2021

"Life Without Parole Isn’t Making Us Any Safer"

The title of this post is the title of this video guest essay now on the New York Times opinion page.  Here is the text which accompanies the video:

Robert Richardson robbed a bank of about $5,000 in 1997 and was sentenced to 60 years in prison without the possibility of probation or parole.  He was 30 years old when he was locked away in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, making his penalty a virtual life sentence.

Mr. Richardson doesn’t deny that he did wrong.  He concurs with the adage “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

But in the video guest essay above, he contends that life sentences without parole are counterproductive — for the prisoner and society alike — and should be prohibited.  He is joined in the video by his wife, Sibil Fox Richardson, whose decades-long effort to secure his release was documented in the film “Time,” and by one of their sons, Freedom.

Mr. Richardson focuses his lobby on Louisiana, one of the states with the most prisoners serving life sentences without parole.  Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana has sought to shed the state’s reputation as the nation’s incarceration capital, signing into law a package of criminal justice reform bills intended, in part, to reduce the size of the prison population.

But Mr. Richardson says there’s an urgent need for further reform, and he implores the governor and the state legislature to ban life sentences without parole.

June 17, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

National Registry of Exonerations reports on "25,000 Years Lost to Wrongful Convictions"

I saw this notable new report from the folks at the National Registry of Exonerations titled "25,000 Years Lost to Wrongful Convictions."  here is part of the start of the report:

In 2018, the National Registry of Exonerations reported a grim milestone: Exonerated defendants had collectively served 20,000 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Just three years later, in June 2021, we reached another: Time lost to false convictions exceeded 25,000 years.  The total now stands at 25,004 years, on average more than 8 years and 11 months in prison for each of the 2,795 exonerees in the Registry.  Innocent Black defendants served a majority of that time — a total of 14,525 years lost to unjust imprisonment.

The National Registry of Exonerations reports every known exoneration in the United States since 1989, a total of 2,795 as of June 1, 2021.  Dozens of defendants exonerated since our 2018 report served more than 25 years in prison for crimes they did not commit....  Not all of the exonerees who served many years for crimes they did not commit were convicted of violent crimes like murder or rape. Lawrence Martin spent nearly 19 years in California prisons for possession of a knife with a locking blade....

It is hard to fathom spending decades in prison, knowing all the while that you are innocent.  But even those who served relatively short sentences suffered tremendously.  People often refer to the time we have spent in 2020 and 2021 under COVID-19 restrictions as a “lost year.”  We’ve missed the ability to travel freely, socialize with friends, and see loved ones. For people wrongfully incarcerated, every year is a lost year.  To exonerees who served sentences of a year or two for crimes they did not commit, it must have felt like an eternity.  For those who served decades, the suffering is incomprehensible.

Unfortunately, the 2,795 exonerations we know about only begin to tell the story of wrongful convictions and the toll they take.  Many exonerations remain unknown to us, though we keep looking. The vast majority of false convictions go uncorrected and therefore are never counted.  Our calculation also does not include time lost to the thousands of people cleared in large-scale group exonerations, which arise when groups of defendants are cleared upon the discovery of a common pattern of systemic misconduct by a government official in the investigation and prosecution of their cases.  Finally, our calculations include only time spent in prison after the wrongful conviction and consequently do not capture the significant time lost in custody awaiting trial.  Put simply, while 25,000 years is a staggering number, it is a significant undercount of the true losses these falsely convicted men and women suffered.

June 15, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 11, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few of many prior related posts:

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

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

A different assessment of "America’s Dangerous Obsession" with innocence on death row

Thirteen years ago, in an article titled Reorienting Progressive Perspectives for Twenty-First Century Punishment Realities, 3 Harv. L.& Pol'y Rev. Online (2008), I explained the basis for my concern that "progressive criminal justice reform efforts concerning innocence issues, abolition of the death penalty, and sentencing disparities may contribute to, and even exacerbate, the forces that have helped propel modern mass incarceration."  That old article feels fresh again upon seeing this new lengthy Atlantic piece by Elizabeth Bruenig titled "America’s Dangerous Obsession With Innocence."  Here are a few excerpts from the piece:

It goes without saying that the state should not kill innocent people, and that it is a good thing to save the innocent from a fate no one thinks they deserve.  I believe it is a good thing, too, to save the guilty from a fate some would argue they have earned.  That the one stance may occlude the other reflects the death penalty’s bizarre moral universe....

According to the national Registry of Exonerations, more than 1,000 people have been exonerated for murder in the United States since 1989.  Many of these cases were initially decided when forensic techniques and technologies were less advanced and less accurate than they are now.  People with plausible innocence claims have, in some instances, been able to bring new technology to bear on preserved evidence to great effect.  That phenomenon spurred the innocence movement in capital-punishment advocacy as we know it.

“Around the year 2000, there’s this ferment all over the place to create innocence programs,” David R. Dow, the founder and director of one such program, the Texas Innocence Network, told me. “They’re kind of sexy. Funders want to fund them. People are beginning to pay attention to the fact that there are innocent people in prison.”

Marissa Bluestine, the assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, told me that more than 50 innocence organizations now operate in the United States.  They differ in size, scope, region, and budget, but they “all have the same goals: They work to identify people who did not commit the underlying crime they were convicted of and they try to exonerate them.”

That’s well and good, except that the number of innocence claims that can be confidently settled in labs is not infinite, and may in fact be dwindling. Dow, who teaches law at the University of Houston, has represented more than 100 clients on death row in his 30 years of practice; out of that number, he counts only eight as credibly innocent. He doesn’t suspect that his future will hold many more....

More generally, a 2014 published by the National Academy of Sciences found that if all of American death-row inmates were to remain condemned indefinitely, approximately 4.1 percent would eventually be exonerated — a proxy for the share of innocent inmates. That’s an admittedly conservative estimate. But even if the number of innocent inmates were doubled, the number of guilty ones would still make up more than 90 percent of death row....

To put it succinctly: Innocence cases indicate that some capital sentences are unfair, but decades of studies on death-qualified juries; race, gender, and immigration-status bias among jurors; law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct; weak forensic science and poor representation at trial all suggest that a fair capital sentence is virtually impossible.  Ultimately the fight should be waged not against particular injustices, but against the unjust system itself.

Especially for those inclined toward capital abolition, I fully understand the logic of speculating that there many not be that many innocent persons left on death row and so even more fight needs to be directed toward the guilty on death row.  However, the fight against against all of death row has been pretty robust and pretty effective over the last 20 years (surely aided by the innocence movement).  Nationwide, since 2000, death row has shrunk about 30%, the number of executions has shrunk about 75%, and the number of death sentences imposed has shrunk 85%.

But, shifting our focus from formal death sentences to what are sometimes called "death in prison" sentences, the modern story changes dramatically.  As detailed in a recent Sentencing Project report (discussed here), the "number of people serving life without parole — the most extreme type of life sentence — is higher than ever before, a 66% increase since ... 2003."   Moreover, while there are currently around 2500 people on death row who have all been convicted of capital murder, there are now roughly 4000 people "serving life sentences [who] have been convicted for a drug-related offense."  And well over 200,000 persons are now "serving a life sentence, either life without parole (LWOP), life with parole (LWP) or virtual life (50 years or more)."  

If we keep the focus on innocence, and use the 4% number discussed in this Atlantic article and extrapolate, these data mean we could have 100 innocent persons on death row, but also 160 innocent persons serving life for a drug-related offense and over 8000 innocent persons serving LWOP or LWP or virtual life.  If there are lots of innocent groups and not a lot of "good" capital client, there would seem to be no shortage of innocent lifers needing help.  (And, on the data, I am always inclined to speculate that there are now an even larger number of innocent persons serving life than death because capital cases historically get more scrutiny.)

That all said, I obviously share this article's sentiment that guilty persons ought not endure unfair sentences and its advocacy for assailing "the unjust system itself."  However, the capital punishment system, for all its persistent flaws, still strikes me as somewhat less unjust than so many other parts of our sentencing system.  There are no mandatory death sentences, jurors play a central role in every death sentence, and state and federal appellate judges often actively review every death sentence.  There are nearly 100 people serving some type of life sentence for every person serving a death sentence in large part because life sentences are imposed so much more easily as subject to so much less scrutiny. 

Put simply, and I have said before, I worry it is a continued obsession with the death penalty, and not with innocence, that may be problematic in various ways.  But since that very obsession is largely what accounts for capital punishment's modern decline, I am disinclined to be too critical of capital obsessives.

June 9, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Prison Policy Initiative highlights data showing "State prisons are increasingly deadly places"

Prison Policy Initiative published today this new report (with helpful charts and data visuals) under the title "New data: State prisons are increasingly deadly places." The subtitle of this report captures the essence of the data discussed in the report: "New data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that state prisons are seeing alarming rises in suicide, homicide, and drug and alcohol-related deaths." Here are some excerpts from the start of the report (with links from original):

The latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) on mortality in state and federal prisons is a reminder that prisons are in fact “death-making institutions,” in the words of activist Mariame Kaba.  The new data is from 2018, not 2020, thanks to ongoing delays in publication, and while it would be nice to see how COVID-19 may have impacted deaths (beyond the obvious), the report indicates that prisons are becoming increasingly dangerous — a finding that should not be ignored.  The new numbers show some of the same trends we’ve seen before — that thousands die in custody, largely from a major or unnamed illness — but also reveal that an increasing share of deaths are from discrete unnatural causes, like suicide, homicide, and drug and alcohol intoxication....

Deaths in jail receive considerable attention in popular news, and here on our website — which they should, given the deplorable conditions that lead to tragedy among primarily unconvicted people.  State prisons, on the other hand, are regarded as more stable places, where life is slightly more predictable for already-sentenced people.  Why, then, are suicides up 22 percent from the previous mortality report, just two years prior?  Why are deaths by drug and alcohol intoxication up a staggering 139 percent from the previous mortality report, just two years prior?

The answer isn’t just because there are more incarcerated people.  The very slight net change in the state prison population since 2001 pales in comparison to the increase in overall deaths occurring in these facilities. (Prison populations have actually decreased since peaking in 2009, but they’re still larger in 2018 compared to 2001.)  Prisons have been, and continue to be, dangerous places, exposing incarcerated people to unbearable physical and mental conditions.  State prison systems must greatly improve medical and mental healthcare, address the relationship between correctional officers and the health of their populations, and work with parole boards to accelerate release processes.  Then, maybe, a state prison sentence would not become a death sentence for so many....

In 2018, state prisons reported 4,135 deaths (not including the 25 people executed in state prisons); this is the highest number on record since BJS began collecting mortality data in 2001.  Between 2016 and 2018, the prison mortality rate jumped from 303 to a record 344 per 100,000 people, a shameful superlative.  It may seem like a foregone conclusion that more people, serving decades or lifetimes, will die in prison.  But for at least 935 people, a sentence for a nonviolent property, drug, or public order offense became a death sentence in 2018.

June 8, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 07, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior recent related posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 04, 2021

Encouraging examples of democracy expanding for those previously disenfranchised

I just saw this recent Stateline piece headlined "More States Expand the Ballot to Previously Incarcerated," which provides some positivity to close out this week.  Here are excerpts:

Building off two decades of advocacy work and the recent national push to overhaul the criminal justice system, 20 states now restore voting rights for people with felony convictions when they leave prison.  Energy around the restoration of voting rights continues to swell. But there remains sustained opposition, as critics insist people with felony convictions pay all fines and serve the entirety of their parole before regaining the right to vote.

New York and Washington enacted laws in the past two months that automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies after they are released from prison. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed an executive order in March that restored voting rights for more than 69,000 eligible Virginians.  A proposed amendment to the Virginia state constitution could make that change permanent.  The legislature passed the amendment this session.  Lawmakers will have to pass it again in 2022 before it heads to voters for final approval.

A holdover from the 19th century, 5.2 million Americans are disenfranchised because of their felony convictions — some 2.3% of the nation’s voting age population, according to a 2020 count by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that lobbies for the restoration of voting rights.  In 11 states, people with felony convictions lose their voting rights indefinitely, sometimes having to wait for a gubernatorial pardon, or navigate a gauntlet of waiting periods, fees and petitions.

Some critics of these new laws say people with felony convictions should serve the entirety of their sentences, including parole, probation and fines, before being able to cast a ballot again.  However, proponents of voting rights restoration after prison think accessing the ballot connects people with society, giving them ownership over their lives and the community, and possibly dissuading them from committing crimes in the future....

Certain states are going beyond reinstating voting rights for those with felony convictions once they leave prison. Some are scrapping laws that disenfranchise those voters in the first place.  In Oregon, lawmakers are debating measures that would amend a law that strips voting rights from people with felony convictions.  The District of Columbia, Maine and Vermont do not disenfranchise those with felony convictions even while in prison. Illinois also is debating legislation that would repeal the state’s ban on voting by incarcerated people.

The restoration of voting rights has drawn some bipartisan support. Last year, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed an executive order giving the right to vote to thousands of residents with felony convictions after completing parole or probation.  The legislature is working to amend the state’s constitution to make this change permanent.

In Kentucky, Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes is one of the co-sponsors of bipartisan legislation that would amend the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights for people with certain felony convictions after they complete their imprisonment, probation or parole.  Denying them the right to vote, he said, can make people attempting to rejoin society feel ostracized.  “When someone has committed an offense against the community and they served their time, we want that person back in the community,” he told Stateline.  “Now it’s time for you to take a sense of ownership and responsibility for your neighbors.” If the measure gets legislative approval, the proposed amendment will go before voters on the November 2022 ballot.

This proposal comes more than a year after Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order in 2019 that restored voting rights to an estimated 140,000 Kentuckians with nonviolent felony convictions who have completed their sentences.  A Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy poll released in February shows more than two-thirds of Kentuckians support the automatic restoration of voting rights for people who finished their sentences.

But there is still opposition by many lawmakers around the country, most of them Republican, who say that some crimes are so heinous they merit lasting punishment such as disenfranchisement.  Others say that people with felony convictions should complete probation and parole periods, along with paying all fines, before they get their rights restored.  “Beyond voting rights, first comes responsibility,” said Washington state Rep. Jenny Graham, a Republican, during floor debate in February.  “When somebody makes a decision to harm or kill another individual, there is accountability that is due.”

After Florida voters passed a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies after they leave prison, Republican lawmakers, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, rolled the measure partially back, insisting that people pay all fines before getting their rights returned.  This caused widespread confusion for many people who were formerly incarcerated, leaving them unsure whether they could vote in November’s presidential election. 

The Florida confusion illustrated the ongoing hurdles for voting rights activists: Once these laws are enacted, hurdles remain.  For example, informing recently released residents about their voting rights often falls on resource-limited community organizations, said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project....

Lawmakers in Maryland this year introduced legislation that would require prison staff to provide voter registration information upon residents’ release from prison. It passed both houses of the Maryland legislature, though the chambers must now reconcile differences between their bills.  Such requirements are part of New York’s recent law. Local jails in Cook County, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and Philadelphia have implemented programs in recent years to inform incarcerated people of their voting rights and encourage voter registration, Porter said.

June 4, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Jails, Sheriffs, and Carceral Policymaking"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by Aaron Littman just published in the Vanderbilt Law Review. Here is its abstract:

The machinery of mass incarceration in America is huge, intricate, and destructive.  To understand it and to tame it, scholars and activists look for its levers of power — where are they, who holds them, and what motivates them?  This much we know: legislators criminalize, police arrest, prosecutors charge, judges sentence, prison officials confine, and probation and parole officials manage release.

As this Article reveals, jailers, too, have their hands on the controls.  The sheriffs who run jails — along with the county commissioners who fund them — have tremendous but unrecognized power over the size and shape of our criminal legal system, particularly in rural areas and for people accused or convicted of low-level crimes.

Because they have the authority to build jails (or not) as well as the authority to release people (or not), they exercise significant control not merely over conditions but also over both the supply of and demand for jail bedspace: how large they should be, how many people they should confine, and who those people should be.  By advocating, financing, and contracting for jail bedspace, sheriffs and commissioners determine who has a say and who has a stake in carceral expansion and contraction.  Through their exercise of arrest and release powers, sheriffs affect how many and which people fill their cells. Constraints they create or relieve on carceral infrastructure exert or alleviate pressure on officials at the local, state, and federal levels.

Drawing on surveys of state statutes and of municipal securities filings, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, case law, and media coverage, this Article tells overlooked stories — of sheriffs who send their deputies out door knocking to convince voters to support a new tax to fund a new jail, and of commissioners who raise criminal court fees and sign contracts to detain “rental inmates” to ensure that incarceration “pays for itself.”  It also tells of sheriffs who override the arrest decisions of city police officers, release defendants who have not made bail, and cut sentences short — and of those who would rather build more beds than push back on carceral inertia.

A spotlight on jails and the officials who run them illuminates important attributes of our carceral crisis.  The power and incentives to build jail bedspace are as consequential as the power and incentives to fill it.  Expanding a county’s jailing capacity has profound ramifications across local, state, and federal criminal legal systems.  Sheriffs have a unique combination of controls over how big and how full their jails are, but this role consolidation does not produce the restraint that some have predicted.  Their disclaimers of responsibility are a smokescreen, obscuring sheriffs’ bureaucratic commitment to perpetuating mass incarceration.  State courts and federal agencies have increasingly recognized and regulated public profiteering through jail contracting, and advocates have begun to hold jailers accountable, challenging expansion in polling booths and budget meetings.

June 4, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

BJS unveils new website and new correctional reports of note

I received via email a press release from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that starts this way:

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics today launched a redesigned website at a new location: https://bjs.ojp.gov. The modern, user-friendly design will be continually improved to allow the public easier access to new and archived data, interactive graphs and tables and other features.

BJS also released three reports that present information on the counts and rates of allegations of sexual victimization and outcomes of investigations in adult correctional and juvenile justice facilities.

Here are links to the report that now are easy see on the top of this BJS publications page:

June 2, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 28, 2021

Most of California DAs file court action challenging new rules expanding good behavior credits to state prisoners

As reported in this recent AP piece, "three-quarters of California’s district attorneys sued the state Wednesday in an attempt to block emergency rules that expand good conduct credits and could eventually bring earlier releases for tens of thousands of inmates."  Here is more about the suit:

The lawsuit objects on procedural grounds, arguing that Corrections Secretary Kathleen Allison used the emergency declaration to bypass the usual regulatory and public comment process.  The rules affecting 76,000 inmates, most serving time for violent offenses, took effect May 1, although it will be months or years until inmates accumulate enough credits to significantly shorten their sentences.

Forty-four of the state’s 58 district attorneys brought the lawsuit, which says the only stated emergency was the corrections department’s desire to follow the “direction outlined in the Governor’s Budget Summary” nearly a year earlier.  Notably absent were district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco who have backed criminal sentencing changes.

The lawsuit asks a Sacramento County Superior Court judge to throw out the regulations and bar the department from granting any of the good conduct credits until it goes through the regular process.  “There is no actual emergency, and they cannot meet those emergency requirements,” the lawsuit contends.  “Nowhere in the supporting documents is there an explanation of how last year’s budget has become an operational need for the adoption of the regulations on an emergency basis.”

The department said it acted under the authority given it by voters when they passed Proposition 57 in 2016, allowing earlier parole for most inmates.  It “filed regulations to promote changes in good behavior credits, and followed all policies and procedures by the Office of Administrative Law,” the department said in a statement promising to “continue to work with our partners to promote rehabilitation and accountability in a manner consistent with public safety.”

The emergency rules boost good behavior credits for a projected 63,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes, allowing them to prospectively serve two-thirds of their sentences rather than the previous 80%.  Another 10,000 prisoners convicted of a second serious but nonviolent offense and nearly 2,900 nonviolent third strikers would be eligible for release after serving half their sentences, down from two-thirds.  Inmate firefighters and minimum-security inmates in work camps, regardless of the severity of their crimes, are eligible under the new rules for a month of earlier release for every month they spend in the camp.

A press release about the suit from the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office is available here, and the actual filing is available here.

A few recent related posts:

May 28, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Timely reminder of US Sentencing Commission's decarceral potential ... when it is functional

I flagged in this post last week that the US Sentencing Commission had just released a host of notable new materials with lots of interesting data via the USSC's website.  Upon reflection and review, I was especially struck by this new data run detailing retroactive application of "Amendment 782 -- The 2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment, often referred to as 'Drugs Minus Two'."  These data reminded me of how impactful a functional and forward-thinking US Sentencing Commission can be on its own ... and why I hope Prez Biden will soon put forward nominations that would lead the USSC to become functional and forward-looking once again.

A bit of background, drawn from this report: "On April 30, 2014, the Commission submitted to Congress an amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines that ... reduced by two levels the offense levels assigned to [drug] quantities....  On July 18, 2014, the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to Amendment 782."  In other words, the USSC in 2014 reduced the basic guideline offense level by two for all drug offenses and made this change retroactively applicable to all federal drug defendants still imprisoned for offenses before 2014.  Because drug offense are a huge part of the federal criminal docket and an even larger part of the federal prison population, this relatively small guideline change has had a huge prison time impact.

Specifically, as this retroactive new data report details, a total of 31,908 persons in federal prison were granted sentence reductions that averaged 26 months.  In other words, the retroactive application of the "drugs -2" guideline amendment resulted in just about 70,000(!) years of retroactive reduced imprisonment.  Further, with well over 100,000 federal drug cases sentenced over the last six years, the "prospective" impact of the  drugs -2 guideline amendment has surely been at least another 200,000 years of reduced imprisonment for federal drug offenders (and still counting). 

Critically, the drugs -2 amendment was not a direct reaction to any congressional legislation, it was a (bipartisan) decision made by a (bipartisan) expert commission shaped by evidence and sound policy analysis in all respects.  In other words, this was a consequential (decarceal) reform moved forward in precisely the good-government process that Judge Marvin Frankel envisioned when he astutely suggested the creation of a Commission on Sentencing for the federal criminal justice system. 

Sadly, the US Sentencing Commission is now essentially non-functional, at least for guideline amendments and any big initiatives, for going on three years because of the lack of commissioners.  As discussed in a number of prior posts linked below, I hope Prez Biden will get the USSC up and running again.  In the meantime, I will keep doing posts to note the wisdom and reform potential we risk losing until the USSC is functional and forward-looking once again.

 A few prior recent related posts:

May 26, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 20, 2021

"But Who Oversees the Overseers?: The Status of Prison and Jail Oversight in the United States"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Michele Deitch in the American Journal of Criminal Law.  Here is part of the issue's introduction:

In 2010, I published research demonstrating that external oversight over prisons and jails was a rarity in the United States.  Ten years later, this article reveals a similar conclusion — despite the extraordinary concerns surrounding conditions of confinement and the treatment of people in custody, relatively few jurisdictions have established independent agencies tasked with scrutinizing these institutions and addressing the problems they find.  However, there have also been significant signs of change over the last decade: the national landscape for independent correctional oversight is improving, with greater awareness of this issue, more calls for the creation of oversight mechanisms, more concrete efforts to establish these entities, and the successful implementation of several new oversight bodies.

This article builds on my 2010 report to highlight those recent developments and to assess the current state of correctional oversight in the United States.  Part I describes the concept of correctional oversight and explains its goals to improve transparency and increase accountability within prisons and jails.  It goes on to outline the benefits of oversight that can accrue to diverse stakeholders, including incarcerated persons, correctional administrators, policymakers, judges, the media, and the public at large.  This section also discusses the prevalence of independent oversight bodies in other countries, and how the lack of such oversight makes the United States an anomaly on the world stage.

In Part II, I discuss America’s historical reliance on court oversight as a way to address problematic institutional conditions and how this has inhibited the development of preventive oversight mechanisms.  But as litigation has become a less reliable tool for prison reformers, and as the drawbacks of court oversight have become more obvious, advocates have begun to emphasize the need for preventing harm through routine inspections of facilities rather than waiting until conditions hit rock bottom to get involved in reform efforts.

Part III examines the growing interest in correctional oversight and discusses recent calls for the development of independent oversight mechanisms in this country.  Since 2006, there has been a series of notable highlights in the nascent oversight movement, and this section sets forth a chronology of those key events.

Part IV describes a multi-year research project conducted at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas to find, interview, and catalog all external prison and jail oversight bodies that currently exist for adult correctional facilities around the nation.  This part of the article presents and analyzes the key findings about these various oversight bodies.  In this section, I also highlight those jurisdictions that have established oversight bodies since 2010, to show the shifting landscape of correctional oversight in the United States. This section of the article also includes charts with lists of various prison and jail oversight bodies at the state and local levels.

Finally, Part V concludes with an overall assessment of the status of correctional oversight in the United States.  That assessment mixes optimism and excitement about the future of oversight with a dose of realism about the challenges ahead and a recognition that we continue to trail our peer nations when it comes to belief in the critical importance of independent oversight.  But still we must push on in our efforts to promote transparency and accountability in all places of confinement.

May 20, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Senate Judiciary Committee to mark up three criminal justice and sentencing reform bills

I was pleased to see today this press release from Americans for Prosperity noting that the US Senate Judiciary Committee has a meeting scheduled on Thursday which includes plans "to mark up three key bills: the First Step Implementation Act, the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act, and the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act."  Here is how the press release describes these bills:

I have blogged about all these bills in these prior posts:

Senators Durbin and Grassley introduce new "First Step Implementation Act"

Senators Durbin and Grassley re-introduce "COVID-19 Safer Detention Act" 

Senators Durbin and Grassley re-introduce "Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act" 

It is exciting to all three of these bill poised to move forward in the legislation process.  None alone would be a massive reform, but all together would be a significant advance in federal criminal justice reform.

May 19, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, May 16, 2021

"Bars Behind Bars: Digital Technology in the Prison System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available vis SSRN authored by Paolo Arguelles and Isabelle Ortiz-Luis. Here is its abstract:

With little opportunity to engage with technology while behind bars, returning citizens are finding themselves on the far side of the digital divide and increasingly vulnerable to recidivism.  Investing in a well-run digital literacy program for our prison system is an innovative solution to a persistent problem and a rare win-win situation for inmates, prison officials, and American taxpayers.

We begin by discussing how inmate tablet distribution programs mutually benefit both inmates and prison officials.  We then explore prison profiteering by technology companies as a potential obstacle to the successful administration of technology programs, discussing the emergence of virtual monopolies in the prison technology space, their history of controversial pricing practices, and how these practices are perpetuated through prison tablet programs.  We then present novel insights into how competitive bidding can be used as a public policy instrument to regulate competition, specifically in the context of prison technology.  We argue that a traditional bidding framework is insufficient to act as a policy instrument and propose an alternative incentive-based framework toward this end.  We conclude by outlining several practical recommendations that prison officials should consider when administering digital literacy programs in their facilities.

May 16, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 13, 2021

New UCLA Law Review special issue examines "Jailhouse Lawyering"

I was pleased to see this notable new UCLA Law Review special issue devoted to "Jailhouse Lawyering."  The issue's introduction is available at this link and here is the end of its overview:

In this series, authors with experience as jailhouse lawyers and journalists behind bars write about the legal issues and systems affecting incarcerated persons today.  They share stories shaped by litigation and legal research.  They make arguments rooted in both their lived experiences and an extensive knowledge of the law.  Each of these authors — and countless others — is a testament to the power and tradition of jailhouse lawyering.  We are proud to feature their work here and look forward to the day when they are acknowledged and respected for their immeasurable contributions to the field.

Here are the articles in this great-looking special issue:

Barriers to Jailhouse Lawyering by Rahsaan "New York" Thomas 

Broken Systems: Function by Design by Phal Sok 

Applying for Compassionate Release as a Pro Se Litigant by Lynn Reece

Insurgent Knowledge: Battling CDCR From Inside the System. The Story of the Essential Collaboration Between Jailhouse Lawyers and Appointed Counsel & Lessons for Resentencing Today by Stephen Liebb & Gina Cassar

Bound by Law, Freed by Solidarity: Navigating California Prisons and Universities as a Jailhouse Lawyer by Michael Saavedra

What You Didn’t Know About Adelanto Immigration Detention Center by Anna Solodovnikova

Challenging Gladiator Fights in the CDCR by Kevin McCarthy

To Act Like a Democracy by Juan Moreno Haines

Jailhouse Lawyering From the Beginning by Kevin D. Sawyer

Making Bricks Without Straw: Legal Training for Female Jailhouse Lawyers in the Louisiana Penal System by Robin Bunley

An Old Lawyer Learns New Tricks: A Memoir by James C. Bottomley

May 13, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior recent related posts:

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

Saturday, May 08, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 07, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior recent related posts:

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

Thursday, May 06, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

May 6, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal prison population holding steady at just over 152,000 through first 100 days of the Biden Administration

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

Of course, lots of factors play can and do play lots of different expected and unexpected roles in shaping federal prosecutions and sentencings, and these case processing realities in turn can have unpredictable impacts on the federal prison population.  Consequently, I was disinclined in this January 2021 post to make any bold predictions about what we might see in the Biden era, though I suggested we should expect the federal prison population to be relatively steady at the start because it could take months before any major DOJ policy changes and many more months before any big policy changes start impacting the federal prison population.  

Sure enough, we are now well past the "100 days" milestone for the Biden Administration, and the prison population numbers that the federal Bureau of Prisons updates weekly at this webpage show little change.  Specifically, as of May 6, 2021, the federal prison population clocks in at 152,085. 

Given that the federal prison population has not been anywhere near 150,000 in over two decades, folks troubled by modern mass incarceration should perhaps be inclined to celebrate that the considerable yearly population declines that got started in 2014, and that kicked into a higher gear during to the pandemic, may now have set something of a "new normal" for these population totals.  But, few should forget that, in historical and comparative terms, the modern federal prison population is still quite massive, that almost half of this population is incarcerated for a drug offense, that almost a third of this population has "little or no prior criminal history," and that only around a quarter of this group is "serving a sentence for an offense involving weapons" (details drawn from this USSC quick facts as of June 2020).

A few prior related posts:

May 6, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

New Urban Institute resources on FIRST STEP Act prison particulars

I learned today via email about two notable new resources from the folks at the Urban Institute engaging with some of the intricacies of the prison reform elements of the FIRST STEP Act. 

First, this posting by Emily Tiry and Julie Samuels, titled "Three Ways to Increase the Impact of the First Step Act’s Earned Time Credits," suggests how this piece of the Act could be improved. Here is a snippet:

The 2018 First Step Act—the first major federal criminal justice reform legislation in nearly a decade—established earned time credits (ETCs) to provide early release opportunities for people incarcerated in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

But to date, implementation of the ETC program has fallen short of expectations. No one has been released early via ETCs, it remains unclear how many — or if any — have actually received any ETCs, and BOP’s proposed rules for accruing and applying credits are restrictive and incomplete.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has interfered with ETC implementation plans by severely disrupting available programming, without changes now, the outlook for ETCs having a meaningful impact on opportunities for early release is bleak....  Although the progress so far has been disappointing, we suggest three ways to maximize the ETC system’s impact. The first would require congressional action; BOP could make the other two changes on its own. 

Second, this new resource, titled "The First Step Act’s Risk Assessment Tool: Who is eligible for early release from federal prison?," walks through the risk assessment instrument now applied to all federal prisoners. Here is how the resource is set up (links from original):

The First Step Act offers people incarcerated in federal prison the opportunity to earn credits toward early release.  To help determine who is eligible (after excluding people with certain prior offenses), the US Department of Justice created the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs (PATTERN), a risk assessment tool that predicts the likelihood that a person who is incarcerated will reoffend.  This interactive version of PATTERN shows how each risk factor raises or lowers a person’s risk score and can estimate whether they qualify for early release.

May 5, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Prisons and jails will separate millions of mothers from their children in 2021"

The title of this post is the title of this notable, timely new briefing from the Prison Policy Initiative authored by Wanda Bertram and Wendy Sawyer.  Here is how it gets started (with links in original): 

This Mother’s Day — as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put people behind bars at serious risk — nearly 150,000 incarcerated mothers will spend the day apart from their children.  Over half (58%) of all women in U.S. prisons are mothers, as are 80% of women in jails, including many who are incarcerated awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford bail.

Most of these women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.  Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that punishing them with incarceration tears their children away from a vital source of support.  And these numbers don’t cover the many women who will become mothers while locked up this year: An estimated 58,000 people every year are pregnant when they enter local jails or prisons.

May 5, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 02, 2021

With new good behavior rules, is California on track to achieve historic "cut 50" in its prison population?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article, headlined "76,000 California inmates now eligible for earlier releases," though it also picks up on a broader, decades-long prison reform story in the Golden State. First, from the AP:

California is giving 76,000 inmates, including violent and repeat felons, the opportunity to leave prison earlier as the state aims to further trim the population of what once was the nation’s largest state correctional system.

More than 63,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes will be eligible for good behavior credits that shorten their sentences by one-third instead of the one-fifth that had been in place since 2017.  That includes nearly 20,000 inmates who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole.

The new rules take effect Saturday but it will be months or years before any inmates go free earlier. Corrections officials say the goal is to reward inmates who better themselves while critics said the move will endanger the public.

Under the change, more than 10,000 prisoners convicted of a second serious but nonviolent offense under the state’s “three strikes” law will be eligible for release after serving half their sentences.  That’s an increase from the current time-served credit of one-third of their sentence.  The same increased release time will apply to nearly 2,900 nonviolent third strikers, the corrections department projected....

The changes were approved this week by the state Office of Administrative Law. “The goal is to increase incentives for the incarcerated population to practice good behavior and follow the rules while serving their time, and participate in rehabilitative and educational programs, which will lead to safer prisons,” department spokeswoman Dana Simas said in a statement.  “Additionally, these changes would help to reduce the prison population by allowing incarcerated persons to earn their way home sooner,” she said....

Simas said the department was granted authority to make the changes through the rulemaking process and under the current budget.  By making them “emergency regulations” the agency could impose the new rules without public comment.  The department now must submit permanent regulations next year. They will be considered a public hearing and opportunity for public comment.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation that represents crime victims, said the notion that the credits are for good behavior is a misnomer. “You don’t have to be good to get good time credits. People who lose good time credits for misconduct get them back, they don’t stay gone,” he said. “They could be a useful device for managing the population if they had more teeth in them. But they don’t. They’re in reality just a giveaway.”...

California has been under court orders to reduce a prison population that peaked at 160,000 in 2006 and saw inmates being housed in gymnasiums and activity rooms.  In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court backed federal judges’ requirement that the state reduce overcrowding.

The population has been declining since the high court’s decision, starting when the state began keeping lower-level felons in county jails instead of state prisons.  In 2014, voters reduced penalties for property and drug crimes.  Two years later, voters approved allowing earlier parole for most inmates.  Before the pandemic hit, the population had dropped to 117,00 inmates. In the last year, 21,000 more have left state prisons — with about half being held temporarily in county jails.

This blog has long followed the many remarkable chapters in California's prison reform story (see a sampling below).  I particularly recall amusing myself with this post and title, "Hasta la vista, prison overcrowding!", when Gov Schwarzenegger 15 years ago issued a proclamation calling the California Legislature into special session to address prison crowding issues.  The state prison population was actually well over 170,000 around that time.  Some population reductions started around the Plata litigation — the SCOTUS ruling noted that, at "the time of trial, California’s correctional facilities held some 156,000 persons" — and further prison population reduction efforts kicked into high gear in the years following the Supreme Court's important Plata decision.

As this AP article notes, before the pandemic, the California prison population was under 120,000.  But as of last week, as detailed in this state weekly population report, the population now stands at 95,817.  If these new good behavior rules could possibly result in another prison population reduction of around 10,000 — and that is probably a very big "if"  — then California will have achieved a remarkable decarceration milestone.  If it can get down to around 86,000 prisoners, the state of California — which not so long ago had the largest state prison population within a country with the largest prison populaion in the world — will have cut its prison population by 50%.  I would surely call that a golden achievement for the Golden State. 

A few of many prior related posts about California prison populations and reforms:

May 2, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, April 30, 2021

"A better path forward for criminal justice: A report by the Brookings-AEI Working Group on Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new report which, as the title explains, is a product of a working group of The Brookings Institution and The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  In addition to the full pdf, one can also access each part of this report online here, and here is are the closing sentiments authored by Rashawn Ray and Brent Orrell in the report's conclusion:

As we prepare to exit pandemic conditions, we recommend a strategic pause to gather data that will help us understand why criminal activity has gone up and inform both immediate responses as well as longer-term reform initiatives. There will be a temptation – on both sides – to argue that the recent spike confirms their prior understandings and policy preferences; either that the recent burst of crime can be effectively controlled by a ratcheting up “tough-on-crime” policies and practices or that it is exactly these practices that create the predicate for crime surges by disrupting lives, families, and neighborhoods through excessive reliance on force and incarceration. We should resist both of these views while we strive for a better understanding of the forces driving and shaping patterns of criminal offenses. It is entirely possible, given the unprecedented conditions of the past 12 months, we will find ourselves surprised by what we learn.

As is often the case, we may need an “and” approach rather than an “or” approach. Policies need to address recent rises in crime and overpolicing. This is why our report focuses on the criminal justice as a whole. Policing is the entree to the criminal justice system that sorts people based on race, social class, and place. Most people do not want less policing. They want equitable policing, and equitable treatment once interacting with the criminal justice system, either as a victim or perpetrator.

The sources of criminal activity and public safety challenges are multifaceted while our responses to them are often singular: more and tougher policing, prosecution, and incarceration. Not every public order challenge is a nail in need of a hammer. If we are to honor the dignity of every person and respect the sanctity of human life, we need a more balanced and diversified approach that recognizes confrontation and coercion are not the only, and often not the best, strategies for protecting our communities. Research-informed innovation that builds a more flexible and effective toolbox of responses is needed to move us towards the more peaceful, flourishing, and just society that is the shared objective of conservatives and progressives alike.

The essays in this volume and the recommended supplemental readings provide much food for thought about the major areas of criminal justice reform that should be at the top of the nation’s agenda.  The recommendations are varied and informed by differing perspectives on how to better balance the requirements of community safety, civil liberty, policing and procedural protections, and supporting and achieving lasting changes in attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes among justice-involved individuals as befits a nation committed to the idea of rehabilitation and not just retribution.  The authors in this volume will continue convening to discuss, debate, and research these complex issues, with a shared goal of identifying ways to improve our country’s criminal justice system.  These are deeply interconnected issues requiring a thorough, thoughtful, and comprehensive response rather than an immediate reversion to long-held and -argued views that may fit recent history or current conditions. A nation that incarcerates so many at such a high cost in public resources and wasted human lives can ill-afford to do otherwise.

All the individual chapter should be of interest to folks concerned about all aspects of criminal justice reform, and these chapters ought to be of particular interest to those who follow sentencing and corrections issues closely:

April 30, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

"Harm Reduction at the Center of Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from Square One Project authored by Nneka Jones Tapia who, according this press release, is "one of the first clinical psychologists to ever run a jail" and who has piloted "innovative healing-centered programs at Cook County Jail.  Here is an overview of the report from this webpage discussing its contents:

Everyone within a correctional facility — both the staff and the people housed there — is exposed to trauma at a significantly higher rate than the general population.  In this sense, the institution itself is traumatic.  And because of the connective tissue that exists among all of us, the effect of this traumatic system spreads beyond the walls of an institution and into families and communities.

Physical and procedural transformation of correctional facilities is imperative to promoting harm reduction at large.  The STAAC framework for harm reduction can guide necessary shifts in correctional system policy, procedure, and training to support the health of correctional staff and their families, the people housed in the facility and their families, and the broader community.

April 28, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 26, 2021

"Slamming the Courthouse Door: 25 years of evidence for repealing the Prison Litigation Reform Act"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Prison Policy Initiative authored by Andrea Fenster and Margo Schlanger. Here is how it gets started:

Twenty-five years ago today, in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Prison Litigation Reform Act.  The “PLRA,” as it is often called, makes it much harder for incarcerated people to file and win federal civil rights lawsuits.  For two-and-a-half decades, the legislation has created a double standard that limits incarcerated people’s access to the courts at all stages: it requires courts to dismiss civil rights cases from incarcerated people for minor technical reasons before even reaching the case merits, requires incarcerated people to pay filing fees that low-income people on the outside are exempt from, makes it hard to find representation by sharply capping attorney fees, creates high barriers to settlement, and weakens the ability of courts to order changes to prison and jail policies.

When the PLRA was being debated, lawmakers who supported it claimed that too many people behind bars were filing frivolous cases against the government.  In fact, incarcerated people are not particularly litigious. Instead, they often face harsh, discriminatory, and unlawful conditions of confinement — and when mistreated, they have little recourse outside the courts. And when incarcerated people do bring lawsuits, those claims are extremely likely to be against the government since nearly all aspects of life in prison are under state control.  While prison and jail officials may occasionally feel overwhelmed by these lawsuits, cutting off access to justice ensures only that civil rights violations never reach the public eye, not that such violations never occur.

The PLRA should be repealed.  It was bad policy in the 1990s — an era full of unfair, punitive, and racist criminal justice laws — and allowing it to continue today is even worse policy.

April 26, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, April 24, 2021

"Housing the Decarcerated"

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 23, 2021

FAMM urges federal BOP to publish memos with home confinement criteria

In this post a few days ago, I asked "Why is DOJ apparently keeping hidden a new memo expanding the criteria for home confinement?". I still do not have an answer to this question, but I see that Kevin Ring at FAMM is hoping to get even more from the BOP via this new letter that starts and ends this way:

I am writing to ask that you publish on the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) website any and all memos sent to wardens about the eligibility critera for CARES Act home confinement.  The BOP’s failure to do so has created uneccessary confusion and frustration for incarcerated people and their families....

Surviving the past 13 months during the spread of COVID-19 has been extraordinarily difficult for people in prison and their loved ones at home.  Please do not add to their hardship by keeping them in the dark about recent and important BOP policy changes that might affect them.

Prior related post:

April 23, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

"Assessing the Mortality Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Florida State Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by multiple authors with this abstract:

Background

The increased risk of COVID-19 infection among incarcerated individuals due to environmental hazards is well known and recent studies have highlighted the higher rates of infection and mortality prisoners in the United States face due to COVID-19.  However, the impact of COVID-19 on all-cause mortality rates in incarcerated populations has not been studied.

Methods

Using data reported by the Florida Department of Corrections on prison populations and mortality events we conducted a retrospective cohort study of all individuals incarcerated in Florida state prisons between 2015 and 2020.  We calculated excess deaths by estimating age-specific expected deaths from mortality trends in 2015 through 2019 and taking the difference between observed and expected deaths during the pandemic period.  We calculated life table measures using standard demographic techniques and assessed significant yearly changes using bootstrapping.

Findings

The Florida Department of Corrections reported 510 total deaths from March 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020 among the state prison population.  This was 42% higher (rate ratio 1.42, 95% CI 1.15 to 1.89) than the expected number of deaths in light of mortality rates for previous years.  Reported COVID-19 deaths in a month were positively correlated with estimated excess deaths (80.4%, p <.01).  Using age-specific mortality estimates, we found that life expectancy at age 20 declined by 4 years (95% CI 2.06-6.57) between 2019 and 2020 for the Florida prison population. 

Interpretation

The Florida prison population saw a significant increase in all-cause mortality during the COVID-19 pandemic period, leading to a decrease in life expectancy of more than four years.  Life years lost by the Florida prison population were likely far greater than those lost by the general United States population, as reported by other studies.  This difference in years lost highlights the need for increased interventions to protect vulnerable incarcerated populations during pandemics.

April 21, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Why is DOJ apparently keeping hidden a new memo expanding the criteria for home confinement?

The question in the title of this post is what I keep wondering as days pass since I saw this FAMM press release from last Friday and yet still fail to see any updated official information from the Department of Justice or the the Bureau of Prisons.  The FAMM press release, dated April 16, 2021, starts this way (my emphasis added):

FAMM President Kevin Ring released the following statement in response to the Department of Justice (DOJ) releasing a memo expanding the criteria for home confinement.

“We’re grateful that that the new administration heeded the widespread calls to make more people eligible for home confinement,” Ring said. “The original criteria were too narrow. These changes will protect vulnerable people in federal prisons.

“We are extremely disappointed, however, that the administration has not rescinded or overruled the legal memo that could force people on home confinement back to prison when the pandemic subsides.  Thousands of families are rightfully anxious that they will be separated again soon.  We worry that today’s announcement will result in more families being in the same boat.”

I understand why the FAMM release expresses concern that the Biden Administration has not yet addressed the worrisome OLC memo discussed in this post that would require returning some folks to prison post-pandemic.  But, in the short term, I am quite concerned that an important memorandum expanding the criteria for home confinement seemingly has not yet been made widely publicly available.

Notably, on this DOJ coronavirus page, there is no link to or any reference to a new DOJ memo on home confinement criteria.  And this BOP COVID page still states expressly that "eligibility requirements for an inmate to be considered for Home Confinement are set forth in the Attorney General's March 26 and April 3, 2020 Memoranda."  Given these webpages, one might say that DOJ and BOP are now not just guilty of a lack of transparency on an important matter of public concern, but they are actually providing misleading information about what the current home confinement criteria are right now.

Misleading information about home confinement criteria is not just problematic for persons in federal prisons and their families who might think they ought to be eligible for home confinement.  It is also problematic for federal judges around the country who are considering compassionate release motions and who might be influenced by the new home confinement criteria in their decision-making.  And, most fundamentally, it is problematic for the American people who have every right to expect and demand that consequential criminal justice decisions by government actors will be transparent and clear, not hidden and opaque.

UPDATE:  The folks at FAMM have posted here what looks like the full text of the new "Updated Home Confinement Guidance under the CARES Act  [as of] April 2021"  Here is how this document gets started:

On Wednesday, April 14, 2021, FAMM received the text of a memo outlining new criteria for home confinement under the CARES Act.  As of this time, the memo has not been shared online by the BOP or Justice Department, but a BOP spokesperson confirmed to The Marshall Project that this memo was sent to all BOP facilities.

Frustratingly, it is hard to tell from the text of this still-officially-secret DOJ memo just how the criterial for home confinement has been changed and how many current federal prisoners might be impacted by the change.  Moreover, the memo also says that it "provides updated guidance and direction and supercedes the memorandum dated November 16, 2020," but I am not sure that November 16 memo was ever made public.  Sigh. 

April 20, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)