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 (1)

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)

Harsh penal treatment of some Capitol rioters being criticized by notable progressive

Politico continues its terrific coverage of prosecution of the Capitol rioters with this lengthy new piece fully headlined "Jan. 6 defendants win unlikely Dem champions as they face harsh detainment; 'Solitary confinement is a form of punishment that is cruel and psychologically damaging,' Sen. Elizabeth Warren said."  I am always pleased to see politicians who express concerns about the operation of our justice systems do so no matter who the defendants happen to be.  Here is how this story starts: 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren fled the Capitol on Jan. 6 from a mob she later called domestic terrorists. Now she and another Senate Democratic leader are standing up for their attackers' rights as criminal defendants.

Most of the 300-plus people charged with participating in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot have been released while they await trial, but dozens of those deemed to be dangerous, flight risks or at high risk of obstructing justice were ordered held without bond. D.C. jail officials later determined that all Capitol detainees would be placed in so-called restrictive housing — a move billed as necessary to keep the defendants safe, as well as guards and other inmates.  But that means 23-hour-a-day isolation for the accused, even before their trials begin.

And such treatment doesn't sit well with Warren or Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), two of the chamber's fiercest critics of solitary confinement.  “Solitary confinement is a form of punishment that is cruel and psychologically damaging,” Warren said in an interview.  “And we’re talking about people who haven’t been convicted of anything yet.”

The Massachusetts Democrat, a member of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's leadership team, said that while some limited uses of solitary confinement are justified, she’s worried that law enforcement officials are deploying it to “punish” the Jan. 6 defendants or to “break them so that they will cooperate.”

Her sentiments are shared by Durbin, who also chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and expressed surprise that all of the detained Jan. 6 defendants were being kept in so-called “restrictive housing.”  While their defense of accused rioters' rights as criminal defendants is unlikely to change the Justice Department's handling of those cases, it's a notable case of prominent progressives using their political clout to amplify their criminal justice reform calls even on behalf of Donald Trump supporters who besieged the entire legislative branch in January.

Durbin, who has long sought to eradicate solitary confinement, told POLITICO that such conditions should be a “rare exception," for accused insurrectionists or any other prisoners. “There has to be a clear justification for that, in very limited circumstances,” he said.

D.C. government officials say the pandemic already has sharply limited freedom of movement in the jail where most Jan. 6 defendants are held.  In fact, the entire jail has been subject to strict lockdown procedures since the onset of the pandemic, a determination that has caused broader controversy about prisoners' rights.  But restrictive housing is a maximum-security designation, and the blanket designation for the Capitol defendants — which isn't expected to ease even if pandemic era restrictions do — is a notable decision for a large group of inmates who have yet to be tried for their alleged crimes.

Asked about the Democratic senators’ concerns, a spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Corrections touted the growing number of educational programs and limited amenity access that inmates are now offered.  “We appreciate the concern, patience and support of our neighbors as we work to keep all within DOC safe, as well as support the public safety of all in the District,” said spokesperson Keena Blackmon.

Warren and Durbin's interest in the conditions facing detained Jan. 6 defendants come amid a massive Justice Department push to arrest and prosecute the hundreds of people who breached the Capitol and threatened the peaceful transfer of power to the Biden administration.

Prior related posts:

April 20, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 15, 2021

"Long Road to Nowhere: How Southern States Struggle with Long-Term Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this recent report from Southern Poverty Law Center.  I just noticed the report because it was recently made available here via SSRN, where one finds this abstract:

The Deep South is the epicenter of mass incarceration.  The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country, with prison populations growing by 86% between 1990 and 2019.  For Southern states, prison populations exploded by 127% during that same period.  During this time in history, America implemented “tough on crime” policies that responded to public health issues like the drug epidemic with incarceration instead of rehabilitation.  Laws for even nonviolent crimes became more punitive with longer sentences, and people of color were disproportionately pushed into prisons with little hope for parole.  Today, incarceration rates for Latinx and Black people are more than two and five times the incarceration rate of whites, respectively.  The commitment to the “tough on crime” narrative led to significantly overcrowded prisons, which not only put a strain on state budgets, but also created human rights challenges regarding how to maintain a safe and healthy prison environment.

Three Southern states in particular — Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana — exemplify how prison populations have grown to be problematic in three unique ways.  Alabama is home to the most overcrowded prisons in the country, currently at 151% of capacity.  Even after sentencing reforms were passed in 2017, recent legislation concerning the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles has severely diminished the parole chances of currently incarcerated people.  Florida, with over 95,000 imprisoned people, has the third-largest prison population of any state in the country, and still adheres to a “Truth in Sentencing” rule requiring incarcerated people to serve at least 85% of their sentences, regardless of any demonstration of rehabilitation.  As a result, Florida has grown to have the oldest prison population in the South, a group whose care is increasingly expensive.  Louisiana has been known as the “incarceration capital of the world” for consistently having incredibly high incarceration rates.  A large factor is the number of people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, including juveniles.

The lack of early prison release is just one of many contributors to mass incarceration in the South. The solutions also vary — from expanding parole eligibility and making it retroactive, to increasing incentives for rehabilitation credits, to re-calibrating triggers for life without parole sentences.  This report will investigate the impact that over-incarceration has had in three Southern states, and provide recommendations on how each state can address the issue through policy change.

April 15, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Heard at BOP oversight hearing: "Simply put, our prison system at the federal level is failing."

The quote in this title of this post is sentence from the opening statement by Senator Dick Durbin during this morning's hearing titled "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons" before the US Senate Judiciary Committee. The only witness for this hearing is Michael Carvajal, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and I had hoped by now that there might be publicly available some written testimony from him (as well as official statements from Senator Durbin or others).  Lacking such available written statements as of 10:30am today, I guess I need to do a little "live blogging."  Specifically, how about this from Senator Chuck Grassley's opening statement:

"I consider the passage of the First Step Act as one of the good things I have done since being a Senator.  It's because of the hard work and overwhelmingly bipartisan nature of the First Step Act that I am disheartened with the lackluster implementation.

"It seems as though the Justice Department -- and within that Department, the Bureau of Prisons -- are implementing the First Step Act as if they want it to fail.  I hope this isn't true, but action speak louder than words, and the inaction of the Justice Department and BOP on this paints a very difficult picture."

UPDATE: I new see, as of 11:30pm EDT, that the written testimony of Director Carvajal is now available here.  It runs eight pages, and here are a few notable data points from the statement:

Since March of last year, we have transferred approximately 24,000 inmates to home confinement, with almost 7,000 transferred directly under the CARES Act, a 250% increase in home confinement placements since the beginning of the pandemic....

The Bureau manages the health and treatment of approximately 140,000 inmates in Bureau facilities and RRCs. As of April 6, 2021, the Bureau had 406 positive COVID-19 inmate cases and 47,227 inmates recovered in our federal prisons, while there were 51 positive cases in our RRCs and 55 positive cases in home confinement. With respect to staff, there were 1,243 positive cases and 5,532 recovered cases. Sadly, there have been 4 staff deaths and 230 inmate deaths from COVID-19....

Despite the pandemic, the Bureau is on track to meet the requirements of the First Step Act (FSA).  While the global pandemic certainly impacted the delivery of FSA programs in institutions, critical services such as mental health care, crisis intervention, and religious services have continued unabated throughout the pandemic.  As we have learned more about virus mitigation strategies and begun the process of vaccinating staff and inmates, we have been able to resume much of our programming.  As of April 1, 2021, over 49,000 inmates were enrolled in Evidence-Based Recidivism Reduction (EBRR) Programs and Productive Activities (PA).  With respect to inmate eligibility for FSA Time Credit, of approximately 124,000 inmates reviewed for eligibility, approximately 50% are eligible.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I just saw a copy of the detailed written submitted testimony of Kevin Ring, FAMM President.  Here are excerpts from page one of the lengthy submission:

FAMM was established 30 years ago. During the past few decades, we have learned a great deal about the hardship people in federal prison endure.  Prison is never easy, even under the best of circumstances.  However, the past year has been by far the most difficult year for people in prison and their loved ones that we have ever witnessed.  We appreciate that everyone in the country was affected by the spread of COVID-19 and resulting lockdowns and disruptions, and we acknowledge the unprecedented challenges the leadership of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had to face.  Our firm conclusion is that the BOP failed in several ways and that these failures were compounded by an inexplicable and infurating lack of transparency.

I fear we cannot adequately convey to you the desperation, fear, separation, and hardship that we have felt from the families we work with every day.  We asked some of them to share their firsthand experiences with us, so that we could paint a clearer picture of what transpired and how they felt.  Their observations are included in our comments below and in the addendum to this testimony.  The BOP ignored their voices throughout the past year and denied them basic information about the health and safety of their loved ones.

This statement includes a small portion of the concerns articulated by families.  In particular, we have highlighted their concerns regarding healthcare and the management of COVID-19 spread; the appalling conditions resulting from altered operations of the past year; the BOP’s lack of transparency with families and the public; underutilization of release mechanisms intended to protect prisoners; and lacking implementation of the First Step Act.  We share these families’ voices with you in the hope that will finally be heard and that they will inform your oversight.

April 15, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Infamous Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff dies in prison after spending his final dozen years behind bars

As reported in this Fox Business piece, headlined "Bernie Madoff, mastermind of vast Ponzi scheme, dies in federal prison at age 82," an infamous white-collar offender passed away behind bars today.  Here are the basics:

Bernie Madoff, the notorious architect of the biggest investment fraud in U.S. history, has died at age 82.

Madoff was serving a 150-year sentence at the federal medical care center in Butner, North Carolina, where his attorney said he was being treated for terminal kidney failure. Last year, Madoff's attorney filed court papers seeking the 82-year-old's release during the coronavirus pandemic, saying he suffered from end-stage renal disease. The request was denied....

A decades-long force on Wall Street, Madoff shocked the world when he pleaded guilty in 2009 to running a vast Ponzi scheme that prosecutors said swindled thousands out of their life savings. The scheme began in the early 1970s, and by the time Madoff was arrested in December 2008, had defrauded as many as 37,000 people in 136 countries out of up to $65 billion.

His victims included the famous – film director Steven Spielberg, actor Kevin Bacon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Weisel – as well as ordinary investors.

Madoff said he started the fraud, in which he appeared to deliver steady returns to clients, but was actually using money from new investors to pay off existing shareholders, in the 1990s because he felt "compelled" to give investors solid returns despite the recession and weak stock market. (Prosecutors contend he started defrauding investors much earlier)....

Prior to his downfall, Madoff was viewed as a self-made and respected figure among financial professionals as the head of the seemingly successful Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities firm. He also served as the chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market in 1990, 1991 and 1993.

In addition to being sentenced to the maximum 150 years in prison, Madoff and his family took a major financial hit: A judge issued a $171 billion forfeiture order in June 2009 requiring the disgraced financier to give up his interests in all property, including real estate, investments, car and boats. Under the arrangement, the government also obtained his wife's interest in all property, including $80 million that she claimed belonged to her, leaving Ruth Maddoff with $2.5 million in assets.

The decline and fall of Madoff also took a toll on his family. The oldest of his two sons, Mark Madoff, died by suicide on the second anniversary of his father's arrest in 2010. His other son, Andrew, died from cancer at age 48 in 2014. Mark Madoff's suicide prompted his mother, Ruth Madoff, to cut off all communications with her husband....

Meanwhile, Madoff's younger brother, who helped run the business, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to one count of falsifying false records and one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud. He was released from federal custody last year. "You know there hasn’t been a day in prison that I haven’t felt the guilt for the pain I caused on the victims and for my family," he told The Washington Post in 2020 when his attorney asked for his compassionate release. He said his dying wish was to reconcile with his grandchildren and explain his actions.

I will be interested to see if anyone has anything especially new or interesting to say, circa 2021, about Madoff's crimes and federal punishment.  In addition to linking to some prior posts below, I will be content here to just note that Madoff's lawyer back in June 2009 requested a "prison term of 12 years — just short of an effective life sentence."  Madoff died almost exactly 12 years since the time of that request, though he had served less than 10% of the 150-year prison sentence that Judge Chin gave him back in June 2009.

Some of many prior posts about his initial sentencing:

Some prior posts about his request for compassionate release:

April 14, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Prisons and prisoners, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, April 12, 2021

"The Practice and Pedagogy of Carceral Abolition in a Criminal Defense Clinic"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Nicole Smith Futrell now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

For many, carceral abolition might once have been considered irreconcilable with the goals of legal education.  However, the energy produced by recent social movements focused on issues of race and the criminal legal system has helped to advance widespread interest in the long-standing work of abolitionists.  While abolitionist thought has flourished in organizing and non-legal academic spaces, law students and legal scholars are increasingly considering how a carceral abolitionist perspective can inform legal education and practice.  Abolitionists understand that the criminal legal process ineffectively uses state-sanctioned violence, surveillance, punishment, and exclusion to address, and counterproductively create, the underlying problems that produce violence and harmful behavior in our communities.  Abolition focuses on dismantling our current carceral systems and finding completely new, restorative and collaborative ways of addressing harmful social behaviors.

This Article examines whether abolitionist ethics fit into the practice and pedagogy of law school criminal defense clinics. It argues that although carceral abolition and the institutional role of public defense are an imperfect fit, criminal defense clinics should teach students how to effectively advocate for their clients through a lens of carceral abolition.  Clinicians have an opportunity to expose students to practice that does more than just reinforce or merely critique the criminal legal system as it exists.  Rather clinic students can explore ways to lawyer as “fellow travelers,” operating to actively shield individual clients from the weight of the state, while also supporting the efforts of organizers who are seeking to transform how we deal with social problems.  The Article provides a brief introduction to abolitionist thought, explores the challenges and benefits of incorporating an abolitionist framework into defense clinics, and provides an approach for clinicians seeking to inform their teaching and practice with an understanding of carceral abolition.

April 12, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Marshall Project unveils "The Language Project" to explore words used to describe people in the justice system

As a lawyer who thinks precise language and legal terminology is always important, and as a blogger who often hopes to avoid clumsy locutions and sometimes parrots and reprints journalistic word conventions, I am always interested in debates over the array of words we use in describing the criminal justice system and the people connected to it.  These debates are heating up as interest in criminal justice reform heats up.  Indeed, as some readers surely know, even the term "criminal justice system" is a matter of debate; many now speak of the "criminal legal system" in an effort to undercut any suggestion that the current system helps to achieve "justice."

Against this backdrop, I am quite intrigued to see that The Marshall Project has unveiled today "The Language Project," which it sets up this way:

Reporters and editors have long believed that terms such as “inmate,” “felon” and “offender” are clear, succinct and neutral.  But a vocal segment of people affected by the criminal justice system argue that these words — and any other words that define human beings by their crimes and punishments — are dehumanizing.

The Marshall Project occupies a unique space in criminal justice reporting.  We are not an advocacy organization, but we are committed to sustaining a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.  As a result, fellow journalists often ask us about our style and standards around the language of criminal justice, and activists we meet frequently confront us about our usage of words such as “inmate.”

The Marshall Project began addressing this issue in 2015, our second year of existence, but we did not make a decision to change our style guide.  Since then, through our deepening engagement with formerly and currently incarcerated people, we have realized the urgency of examining and articulating the language we use.

The Language Project serves three purposes.  First, through a series of powerful pieces by and about people with intimate experience with incarceration, we show the human impact of the words we choose.  Second, our guide, “What Words We Use — and Avoid — When Covering People and Incarceration,” makes public our decision to avoid labels such as “inmate,” in favor of language that follows the logic of “person-first” language.  Third, we provide alternatives to the labels.

At its heart, journalism is a discipline of clarity. The Language Project is our attempt to set the record straight.

Here are links to the first set of pieces in this notable new "Project":

April 12, 2021 in On blogging, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Headlines providing more reminders of how COVID meets mass incarceration

A number of notable reads about the state of COVID in incarceration nation in recent days.  Here are some headlines and links:

From the AP, "As states expand vaccines, prisoners still lack access"

From Business Insider, "Thousands of inmates given the chance to serve their sentence at home because of COVID-19 might go back to prison cells"

From Reuters, "Thousands of low-level U.S. inmates released in pandemic could be headed back to prison"

Fom the New York Times :

From Undark magazine, "Prisons Are Covid Hotspots. But Vaccine Access Remains Patchy."

April 11, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

New statement from prosecutors and law enforcement urging review of extreme prison sentences

The Fair and Just Prosecution folks this past week released this joint statement from "64 elected prosecutors and law enforcement leaders ... urging policymakers to create mechanisms to reduce the number of people serving lengthy sentences who pose little or no risk to public safety, including by creating second chances for many in our nation currently behind bars."  (This quoted language comes from this extended press release about the joint statement.)  Here is the start and key section of the statement:

As current and former elected prosecutors and law enforcement leaders from across the country, we know that we will not end mass incarceration until we address the substantial number of individuals serving lengthy sentences who pose little or no risk to public safety.  We call on all other leaders, lawmakers, and policymakers to take action and address our nation’s bloated prison populations.  And we urge our state legislatures and the federal government to adopt measures permitting prosecutors and judges to review and reduce extreme prison sentences imposed decades ago and in cases where returning the individual to the community is consistent with public safety and the interests of justice. Finally, we call on our colleagues to join us in adopting more humane and evidence-based sentencing and release policies and practices.  Sentencing review and compassionate release mechanisms allow us to put into practice forty years of empirical research underscoring the wisdom of a second look, acknowledge that all individuals are capable of growth and change, and are sound fiscal policies....

Therefore, we are committing to supporting, promoting and implementing the changes noted below, and calling on others to join us in this critical moment in time in advancing the following reforms:

1. Vehicles for Sentencing Review: We call on lawmakers to create vehicles for sentencing review (in those states where no mechanisms exist) that recognize people can grow and change.  These processes should enable the many middle aged and elderly individuals who have served a significant period of time behind bars (perhaps 15 years or more) to be considered for sentence modification.... We do not ask that all such persons be automatically released from custody. We ask only that there be an opportunity, where justice requires it, to modify sentences that no longer promote justice or public safety.

2. Creating Sentencing Review Units and Processes: We also urge our prosecutor colleagues to add their voices to this call for change and to create sentencing review units or other processes within their offices whereby cases can be identified for reconsideration and modification of past decades-long sentences.

3. Expanded Use of Compassionate Release: We urge elected officials, criminal justice leaders (including judges, prosecutors and corrections leaders), and others to pursue and promote pathways to compassionate release for incarcerated individuals who are eligible for such relief, including people who are elderly or terminally ill, have a disability, or who have qualifying family circumstances....

4. High Level Approval Before Prosecutors Recommend Decades-Long Sentences: Finally, we urge our prosecutor colleagues to create policies in their offices whereby no prosecutor is permitted to seek a lengthy sentence above a certain number of years (for example 15 or 20 years) absent permission from a supervisor or the elected prosecutor. 

April 11, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 08, 2021

"What is Life?" podcast gives voice to people serving LWOP in Pennsylvania

2000WhatisLifeDarkI had seen last month this enticing podcast preview:

What is Life?

Through phone calls with men and women serving life without parole in Pennsylvania, What is Life takes you inside the prison walls to answer the question -- what is life to someone sentenced to die behind bars.

Now I see the first three episodes of this podcast are available at this link.  Here is how they are previewed:

What is Life?  Charles Diggs

In this episode you'll hear from Charles Diggs, a man who has spent nearly 50 years in prison serving life without the possibility of parole.  Charles discusses the effect the COVID-19 pandemic, which he described as the worst experience of imprisonment, has had on incarcerated people.

What is Life?  Heather Lavelle

In this episode of What is Life? you'll hear from Heather Lavelle, a woman who after more than 20 years of substance use and mental health issues killed her ex-boyfriend.  In Heather's poem, "Under the Glass," she discusses living a life feeling separated from others, reckoning with harms she's caused and trying to find redemption in prison.

What is Life?  David Mandeville

In this episode of What is Life? you'll hear from David Mandeville as he discusses the realities of living in prison knowing he, and many others, will die behind bars.

All of the episodes include this program note: "This podcast is sponsored by FAMM, a national nonpartisan advocacy organization that promotes fair and effective criminal justice policies that safeguard taxpayer dollars and keep our communities safe.  Founded in 1991, FAMM is helping transform America’s criminal justice system by uniting the voices of impacted families and individuals and elevating criminal justice issues all across the country."

April 8, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Noticing federal prison flow from "Federal Justice Statistics, 2017-2018"

I often blog about the "stock" of federal prisoners (examples here and here and here), aided by the weekly reporting on the number of federal inmates by the Federal Bureau of Prisons at this webpage.  But, without information about the "flow" of persons in and out of prison, any snapshot of the prison population at a particular moment only tells part of the data story of modern mass incarceration.  Helpfully, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has released this new lengthy report, titled ""Federal Justice Statistics, 2017-2018," which includes data on the flow of federal prisoners over one year.

I recommend this new BJS report for all federal criminal justice fans, as it includes all sorts of data about about all stages of criminal case processing.  And I found this passage especially interesting when thinking about federal prison populations:

In FY 2018, a total of 59,248 sentenced offenders were admitted to the BOP, of whom 47,620 had been committed by a U.S. district court (table 8).  The remaining 11,628 offenders were returning to federal prison for violating conditions of their probation, parole, or supervised release or were admitted for a reason other than a U.S. district court commitment. Most prisoners admitted to the BOP had been convicted of a drug offense (36%), and the majority of them received a prison sentence of more than one year (74%).

A total of 64,397 prisoners were released from federal prison in FY 2018, of whom 52,404 were released for the first time since their commitment by a U.S. district court.  From the start to the end of FY 2018, the number of federal prisoners declined by 5,419.  This included decreases in immigration offenders (down 3,180) and drug offenders (down 2,323) and increases in public-order offenders (up 953) and weapons offenders (up 477).

Table 8 in this document reported a total federal prisoner population of 167,034 at the state of Fiscal Year 2018, which means that significantly more than a third of the entire federal prison population "turned over" in just one year. (My sense is that the "flow" numbers are comparable in state prison systems, and that they are especially dramatic for jails where most persons a serving terms less than a year long.)

April 7, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 01, 2021

CCJ's National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice releases "Impact Report: COVID-19 Testing in State Prisons"

noted here some months ago that the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) had launched an important, timely and impressive new commission titled the "National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice" and headed by two former US Attorneys General.  That commission has already helped produce a number of important works (examples here and here and here), and I see that it released today this notable new report on COVID testing in prisons.  Here are the highlights as set forth in the relatively short report (with emphasis in original):

Highlights

+ As of February 16, 2021, one of every three prisoners in 32 states with available testing data tested positive for COVID-19 — more than four times the rate outside of prisons.  Additionally, the COVID-19 death rate inside prisons is more than three times the community rate.

+ There was substantial variation across state prison systems in testing rates. Of the 32 states, three had testing rates of 1,000 per 1,000 individuals incarcerated, or lower (less than one test per person), while six had rates of 10,000 or higher (10 or more tests per individual).

+ Higher testing rates and, in particular, mass testing, especially in states that implemented this strategy early in the pandemic, likely resulted in lower rates of COVID-19 mortality behind bars. It is possible that early detection of coronavirus infections led to more and better prevention and treatment measures that improved outcomes.

  • States with lower disparities between prison and community death rates tested prison residents at rates that were nearly double those of states with higher prison/community disparities.  Positivity rates for lower-disparity states were almost half as high.
  • States that did not use a mass-testing strategy for their incarcerated populations had COVID-19 death rates among incarcerated people that were nearly eight times the death rate for non-incarcerated populations similar in age, gender, and race/ethnicity.  This disparity was cut in half in states that implemented a mass testing strategy.

+ Four states that carried out mass testing — Colorado, Connecticut, Michigan, and Vermont — varied in their specific protocols but had relatively good COVID-19 outcomes compared to other state prison systems.

+ Taken together, the evidence suggests that more testing, early testing, and early mass testing may have been strategies that helped states achieve lower rates of COVID-19 mortality behind bars, although causality cannot be conclusively established.

April 1, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Four notable new short reports on prison populations from the Bureau of Justice Statistics

I received this press release this morning pointing me to a number of new notable publications. Here is the text of the release, with links to the materials:

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics today released Time Served in State Prison, 2018.  This report presents findings on the time served by prisoners released from state prison in 2018, including the length of time served by most serious offense and the percentage of sentence served.  Findings are based on data from BJS’s National Corrections Reporting Program, which is an annual voluntary data collection of records on prisoners submitted by state departments of corrections.

BJS also released three briefs: Veterans in Prison, Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children, and Disabilities Reported by Prisoners. The brief on veterans describes their demographics, offenses, sentence length, military branch and combat experience.  The brief on parents provides demographic information about prisoners who have at least one minor child and the number of minor children reported by parents in prison.  The brief on disabilities details statistics about demographics and types of disabilities reported by prisoners.  The findings are based on data collected in the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, a survey conducted through face-to-face interviews with a sample of state and federal prisoners.

Time Served in State Prison, 2018 (NCJ 255662) by BJS Statistician Danielle Kaeble

Veterans in Prison: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016 (NCJ 252646) by BJS Statisticians Laura M. Maruschak, Jennifer Bronson, Ph.D. (former) and Mariel Alper, Ph.D. (former)

Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016 (NCJ 252645) by BJS Statisticians Laura M. Maruschak, Jennifer Bronson, Ph.D. (former) and Mariel Alper, Ph.D. (former)

Disabilities Reported by Prisoners: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016 (NCJ 252642) by BJS Statisticians Laura M. Maruschak, Jennifer Bronson, Ph.D. (former) and Mariel Alper, Ph.D. (former)

The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice is the principal federal agency responsible for collecting, analyzing and disseminating reliable statistics on crime and criminal justice in the United States. Doris J. James is the acting director.

March 30, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 29, 2021

NY Supreme Court finds that excluding incarcerated people in New York from vaccine access is "arbitrary and capricious and violates Equal Protection"

A state judge in New York Supreme Court ruled today that New York violated the constitutional rights of incarcerated people by refusing to offer them COVID-19 vaccines at the same time it was offered to other groups in congregate settings. In Holden v. Zucker, No. 801592/2021E (N.Y. S. Ct. Mar. 29, 2021) (available here), the judge ordered that every incarcerated person in the state be made eligible for the vaccine immediately, and here is part of her discussion:

In all material respects, incarcerated adults face the same heightened risk of infection, serious illness, and death, as people living in other congregate settings, and even more so than juveniles in detention centers, where individuals have been prioritized for the vaccine.  Moreover, CDC has recommended those confined in jails and prisons should be vaccinated at the same time as those working in the very same facilities.  However, Respondents have excluded those confined in prisons and jails from the COVID-19 vaccine, while granting access to correctional workers, as well as those working and living in other government-run congregate facilities. This Court finds that this exclusion is by definition arbitrary and capricious and violates Equal Protection....

Respondents have irrationally distinguished between incarcerated people and people living in every other type of adult congregate facility, at great risk to incarcerated people’s lives during this pandemic, in violation of State and Federal Equal Protection guarantees, and their decision must be vacated and modified to allow incarcerated individuals as a group to access vaccine eligibility in phase 1b.  People working and living together are at exponentially heightened risk for contracting COVID-19, a virus that can cause long-term health complications and death.  In light of this, New York’s Health Commissioner and Governor Cuomo have specifically prioritized vaccinations for thousands of New Yorkers who work and live in congregate facilities that are the breeding grounds for this deadly virus.  This prioritization is consistent with the unanimous recommendations of the CDC and public health and medical experts.  Despite these scientific recommendations, Respondents have excluded individuals who are incarcerated.  There is no acceptable excuse for this deliberate exclusion as COVID-19 does not discriminate between congregate settings.

March 29, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, March 26, 2021

The new death penalty: latest reporting chronicles that COVID has now killed more than 2500 prisoners in the United States

I have been pleased that the encouraging slow down in the number of national COVID deaths has also been reflected in prisoner COVID death in recent times: though prisoner COVID death increased by over 100 some weeks in December and January, lately there have been only about a dozen weekly deaths reported.  However, I am still sad to be reporting that we have now passed yet another remarkable milestone in COVID prisoner deaths according to the data assembled by The Marshall Project. 

I am grateful that The Marshall Project is continuing the critical job of counting via this webpage prisoner deaths from coronavirus, reports as of Thursday, March 25, 2021 that there are now "at least 2502 deaths from coronavirus reported among prisoners."  It should come as no surprise to regular readers that we have generally seen increases and decreases in COVID cases and deaths that largely track the general population; in this particular context, prisons are very much reflective of broader community realities.   We are also seeing a relatively reduction in reports of correctional staff dying from COVID, but The Marshall Project still reports we are up to "at least 195 deaths from coronavirus reported among prison staff." 

I am hopeful that we are not far from having all incarcerated persons and staff fully vaccinated, though there are disconcerting reports of vaccines not being made available to prisoners and of prison staff refusing to get vaccinated.

A few of many prior related posts:

March 26, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Notable new briefings from the Prison Policy Initiative

Regular readers are familiar with my posts highlighting the cutting-edge research and analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, and in recent weeks PPI has a bunch of notable new "briefings" on pressing and persistent prison and jail issues:

Visualizing the unequal treatment of LGBTQ people in the criminal justice system; LGBTQ people are overrepresented at every stage of our criminal justice system, from juvenile justice to parole.

New data on jail populations: The good, the bad, and the ugly; A new BJS report shows that U.S. jails reduced their populations by 25% in the first few months of the pandemic. But even then, the U.S. was still putting more people in local jails than most countries incarcerate in total.

Research roundup: Violent crimes against Black and Latinx people receive less coverage and less justice; We explain the research showing that violent crimes against Black Americans — especially those in poverty — are less likely to be cleared by police and less likely to receive news coverage than similar crimes against white people.

It’s all about the incentives: Why a call home from a jail in New York State can cost 7 times more than the same call from the state’s prisons

March 25, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, March 19, 2021

Small, and not quite steady, reform progress in a not quite new era for criminal justice reform

An interesting set of new press pieces highlight ways in which the criminal justice times seem to be a-changing during the Biden era, but not yet quite as much or as fast as lots of advocates might be hoping or expecting.  Here they are with a brief excerpt:

From BuzzFeed News, "COVID-19 Has Torn Through Prisons. Advocates Want Biden To Act Now"

Nearly all of the groups who spoke with BuzzFeed News said that they’ve participated in briefings and have had conversations with White House staff to raise concerns about BOP policy, including compassionate release and underused policies to thin prison populations during the pandemic.  Advocates have specifically pushed the administration to direct the BOP to use its expanded authority to grant home confinement under last year’s coronavirus relief plan.

Advocates have had a mixed response to those conversations, with optimism about prospective change mingled with frustration about slow-moving progress.

From Slate, "The Biden Administration Takes a Step Toward Undoing the Damage of the War on Drugs"

In September, [Tarahrick] Terry petitioned the Supreme Court saying he qualified for a sentence reduction [of his 188-month sentence for possessing 3.9 grams of crack cocaine in 2008], because the First Step Act made 2010’s Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. His case got a boost earlier this week, when President Biden’s Justice Department informed the Supreme Court they believe that Terry, and others who were incarcerated for low-level crack cocaine offenses, should have their sentences reduced under the First Step Act. The court plans to hear the case later this year.

From Vox, "The EQUAL Act would finally close the cocaine sentencing disparity"

Reps. Don Bacon (R-NE) and Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) have already cosponsored [the EQUAL Act]. But in a statement to Vox, Bacon was less optimistic about the timeline, even as he said that eliminating the cocaine sentencing disparity is only one part of a broader justice reform push he wants to tackle.

“While I am optimistic it will be voted on in the House this Congress, I don’t have a projected timeline for the bill at this stage and hope to gain more bipartisan support as it makes its way through the legislative process,” he said. The Senate is where it will be more critical to find Republican support, considering the chamber’s 50-50 split. Thus far, only Sens. Cory Booker and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) have signed on.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, who worked with Durbin to introduce and shepherd the First Step Act through the Senate, would be a critical part of any bipartisan negotiation. In a statement to Vox, a spokesperson for Grassley said he was receptive to working with Democrats on the EQUAL Act, but that that process had not begun yet.

March 19, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Bottleneck: The Place of County Jails in California’s COVID-19 Correctional Crisis"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now on SSRN authored by Hadar Aviram. Here is its abstract:

This Article examines a lesser-known site of the COVID-19 epidemic: county jails.  Revisiting assumptions that preceded and followed criminal justice reform in California, particularly Brown v. Plata and the Realignment, the Article situates jails within two competing/complementary perspectives: a mechanistic, jurisdictional perspective, which focuses on county administration and budgeting, and a geographic perspective, which views jails in the context of their neighboring communities.  The prevalence of the former perspective over the latter among both correctional administrators and criminal justice reformers has generated unique challenges in fighting the spread of COVID-19 in jails: paucity of, and reliability problems with, data, weak and decentralized healthcare policy featuring a wide variation of approaches, and serious litigation and legislation challenges.  The Article concludes with the temptation and pitfalls of relying on the uniqueness of jails to advocate for vaccination and other forms of relief, and instead suggests propagating a geography-based advocacy, which can benefit the correctional landscape as a whole.

March 19, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable new review and accounting of COVID and federal compassionate release results

Vice News has this effective and thorough new piece bringing together a lot of notable data on federal compassionate release in the COVID era under the full headline "Prisoners Keep Dying of COVID While ‘Compassionate Releases’ Stall in Court: At least 54 federal prisoners have died from COVID-19 after having a compassionate release request denied or left pending."  Though the headline is focused on prisoner deaths, the lengthy article covers a lot of ground is worth reading in full.  Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

Steven Brayfield was almost home. The 63-year-old from Springfield, Missouri, fought over six months for “compassionate release,” arguing in his emergency bid for freedom that he’d be unlikely to survive a coronavirus outbreak in federal prison. In the end, he was proven right.

Brayfield suffered from Type 2 diabetes, kidney problems, and obesity, among other health issues. He first asked his warden for compassionate release in July, when the dangers of COVID-19 in prison were already well documented but before the virus began to wreak havoc inside the minimum-security camp at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. He had just under two years left to serve on a non-violent, meth-related drug conviction....

But by Jan. 3, he was running a fever and tested positive for COVID. As he was struggling to breathe, prison staff escorted him to the hospital, where he was handcuffed to the bed. The next day, Brayfield’s judge granted his compassionate release request, reducing his sentence to time served. But his condition worsened and doctors put him on a ventilator. His public defender asked the judge to reverse the ruling, telling the court that if Brayfield died a free man, his family would be unable to afford the medical bills. He hung on until Jan. 19, remaining a federal prisoner until his last gasps for air. “You keep on thinking, my god, he’s so close to coming home,” said Shirley Marler, Brayfield’s 84-year-old mom. “Well, he came home alright, but in a box.”

Brayfield is one of at least 54 federal prisoners to die from COVID-19 after having a compassionate release request denied or delayed without a final resolution, according to data provided to VICE News.  The data, compiled by the University of Iowa’s College of Law’s Federal Criminal Defense Clinic, shows how a deluge of compassionate release requests during the pandemic overwhelmed the recently reformed system, leading to vulnerable people dying behind bars when they were eligible for freedom. 

Additional analysis of over 4,000 cases, based on data compiled by a researcher at Georgetown Law School and shared with VICE News, highlights a lasting legacy of former President Donald Trump: Judges appointed by Republicans grant compassionate releases at lower rates than Democratic appointees. Trump’s prolific stacking of the federal courts, where judges serve for life, will likely shape the way such cases are handled for many years to come. 

From 2020 to mid-January 2021, federal judges granted compassionate release to 2,271 prisoners, according to data provided to VICE News by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington, D.C. The rulings freed people who might have otherwise contributed to the tragic toll of COVID-19 (225 deaths and counting) inside the federal Bureau of Prisons.

In years past, compassionate release was virtually impossible for federal prisoners to obtain—an option made available only in life-or-death emergencies, at the discretion of prison officials. Between 2013 and 2017, the BOP approved just 6 percent of requests, letting out over 300 people, while 266 others died in prison custody after their requests were denied.

The passage of the First Step Act in 2018 reformed the system, allowing federal prisoners under “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances to petition their sentencing judges directly for compassionate release. Prisoners still have to “exhaust” their options within the BOP, but after 30 days the request goes to the courts. Prosecutors typically argue against the person getting out, and defendants can submit evidence such as medical records or letters of support. But even with the changes, compassionate releases remained rare at first. In 2019, judges granted fewer than 100 total, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The pandemic changed everything. Coronavirus turned federal prisons into death traps, especially low-security institutions with dorm-style housing units. Suddenly the federal courts were flooded with compassionate release requests, with judges receiving more than 10,000 applications in just three months, from last March to May. Those who follow the courts closely have been frustrated by inconsistent applications of the law or lack of leniency by judges, especially ones appointed by Trump and George W. Bush.

A few of many prior related posts:

March 19, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 14, 2021

With a new Attorney General now in place, should we expect to see any changes in the federal prison population?

Regular readers know that I have been following federal prison population data quite closely during the COVID era, giving particular attention to the numbers that the federal Bureau of Prisons updates weekly at this webpage.  But I have not blogged on this topic in nearly two months because, after a tumultuous 2020, there has been a notable stability in BOP reports of "Total Federal Inmates" during the Biden era.  As noted here, the day after Prez Biden's inauguration, BOP reported a total population of 151,646; as of March 11, 2021, this population stands at 151,703. 

Back in 2017, when Prez Trump was elected and Jeff Sessions took over as Attorney General and implemented new charging and sentencing policies for federal prosecutors, there was understandable concern (see articles here and here) that reductions in the federal prison population that took place during Prez Obama's second term would get reversed.  Indeed, Trump's Justice Department back in 2017, as noted here, was forecasting and budgeting for federal prison population increases.  But, due to a varety of factors, most notably the passage of the FIRST STEP Act and especially the COVID pandemic, the federal prison population actually dropped dramatically during in Trump era.  Specifically the federal prison population decreased by nearly 38,000 persons during Prez Trump's term (nearly 20%), which highlights that the plans, policies and practices of any Attorney General can be eclipsed by other factors impacting the federal prison population.

Against this backdrop, I am wondering (a) if new Attorney General Merrick Garland is going to implement policies and practices that consciously seeks to continue shrinking the federal prison population, and (b) whether we will see any real changes in the federal prison population anytime soon.  In this January post, I predicted the federal prison population would be relatively steady to start the Biden era because it could take months before we see any major DOJ policy changes and many more months before any big policy changes start impacting the federal prison population. 

A few recent prior related posts:

March 14, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Second Circuit panel finds all sorts of constitutional problems with Connecticut's conditions of confinement for former death row inmate

A helpful reader altered me to a notable quirky Second Circuit panel ruling today on prison conditions in Reynolds v. Quiros, No. 19-2858-pr (2d Cir. Mar. 11, 2021) (available here). The case is quirky because it arises from Connecticut's decision to create special statutory conditions of imprisonment when it repealed its death penalty.  The ruling is notable because the defendant, a former member of death row, has succeeded on a number of challenges to these conditions in his federal litigation, and now the Second Circuit panel comes to "hold as follows:

(1) The District Court erred by deciding disputed issues of material fact in granting summary judgment in favor of Reynolds on his claims under the Eighth Amendment, and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment;

(2) The District Court correctly concluded that, with respect to Reynolds, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 18-10b is an unconstitutional bill of attainder; and

(3) Reynolds’ unreviewable classification score of Risk Level 5 violates his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the difference in his treatment compared to that of other similarly-situated inmates lacks a rational basis."

March 11, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases new report on "Impact of COVID-19 on the Local Jail Population, January-June 2020"

The Bureau of Justice Statistics yesterday released this notable new report titled "Impact of COVID-19 on the Local Jail Population, January-June 2020."  Here is part of the start of the document and its listed "Highlights."

Local jails in the United States experienced a large decline (down 185,400 inmates) in their inmate populations from June 30, 2019 to June 30, 2020, which can be attributed mainly to the COVID-19 pandemic (figure 1 and table 1). The inmate population confined in local jails was 549,100 at the end of June 2020, down from 734,500 at the end of June 2019. The midyear 2020 inmate population was the lowest since 1996, when 518,500 inmates were confined in local jails (not shown in tables).

The impact of COVID-19 on local jails began in March 2020, with a drop of 18% in the inmate population between the end of February and the end of March, followed by an 11% drop by the end of April. By the last weekday in April 2020, the number of jail inmates dropped to a low of 519,500. By the end of May 2020, the population increased about 3% and was up another 2% by the end of June 2020.

The decline in the inmate population since midyear 2019 resulted from both a reduction in admissions to jails and expedited releases in response to the COVID-19 pandemic from March to June 2020.

Local jails reported 8.7 million admissions during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2020, which was about 16% lower than the 10.3 million admissions during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2019 (appendix table 10)....

This special report is the first of two that describe the impact of COVID-19 on the local jail population. BJS will release a final report that will include results from July to December 2020.

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • From March to June 2020, about 208,500 inmates received expedited release in response to COVID-19.

  • During the pandemic, jail facilities became less crowded, as indicated by the decrease in occupied bed space from 81% at midyear 2019 to 60% at midyear 2020.

  • The number of inmates held for a misdemeanor declined about 45% since midyear 2019, outpacing the decline in the number of inmates held for a felony (down 18%).

  • The percentage of inmates held for a felony increased from 70% at midyear 2019 to 77% at midyear 2020.

  • From March to June 2020, jails conducted 215,360 inmate COVID-19 tests. More than 11% of these tests were positive.

  • Jails in counties with confirmed residential COVID-19 infection rates of 1% or more tested nearly 21% of persons admitted to their jails from March to June 2020. 

  • From March to June 2020, nearly 5% (10,850) of all local jail staff (233,220) tested positive for COVID-19.

March 11, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 08, 2021

"Expanding Voting Rights to All Citizens in the Era of Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this short new document from The Sentencing Project, which gets started this way:

In order to strengthen democracy and address significant racial disparities, states must pass reforms establishing universal voting for people impacted by the criminal legal system.

5.2 million people in the United States are currently denied access to the vote because of a felony conviction.  The number of people disenfranchised has grown, from 1.2 million in 1976, as a product of mass incarceration and supervision.  Of people denied the vote, one in four (1,240,000) are currently incarcerated.  While many states have expanded access to the vote for people who have completed their sentences, only DC has joined Maine, Vermont, and Puerto Rico by granting full voting rights to people in prison. In order to strengthen democracy and address significant racial disparities, states must pass reforms establishing universal voting for people impacted by the criminal legal system.

The United States maintains far greater restrictions on voting while in prison than any other democratic country in the world.  The Supreme Court of Canada has twice ruled in favor of protecting voting rights for people in prison, stating that the “denial of the right to vote on the basis of attributed moral unworthiness is inconsistent with the respect for the dignity of every person that lies at the heart of Canadian democracy.”  Five years after the fall of Apartheid, the Constitutional Court of South Africa ensured voting rights for people in prison.

March 8, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Prisons as first frontier of the welfare state in The Last Frontier state

The nickname of the state of Alaska is The Last Frontier, which inspired the title of this post about this local article headlined "Alaska now spends more on prisons than its university system, and the gap is widening."  Here are excerpts explaining what I mean by the post title (with my emphasis added):

Alaska is now spending more on prisons than its state university, a reversal of the state’s longtime practice, and the gap would widen under a draft budget being considered by the state legislature.

Since 2015, when adjusted for inflation, Alaska has cut by 22.4% the amount it spends on the operations of all state agencies combined.  The Alaska Department of Corrections is the only agency whose inflation-adjusted budget has grown during that period.

Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, called the current situation “sad.”  Bishop is co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which on Thursday held a hearing that questioned whether the Legislature and governor have reached the limit of budget cuts they can make without significant changes to state law.

Though state spending (not including the Permanent Fund Dividend) has declined by almost half from its peak in 2015, most reductions came early in that period.  The cuts of the past two years have been almost entirely erased by inflation and other annual cost increases....

The budgets for the University of Alaska and the state prison system illustrate the problems now faced by the Legislature and governor.  In 2019, the governor signed an agreement with the University of Alaska Board of Regents that called for three years of budget cuts.  Though the Alaska Legislature was not party to the agreement, it has followed it so far.

At the time, the university system received $327 million from the portion of the budget paid for with revenue from the Permanent Fund and taxes. In the budget under consideration now by the Legislature, the university is slated to receive just $257 million.

One month before signing the university agreement, Dunleavy signed a bill that rolled back prior prison reform legislation.  That prior legislation, known as Senate Bill 91, had encouraged alternatives to prison, such as electronic monitoring, halfway houses and supervised release.

SB 91 reduced prison costs, but many Alaskans believed it was contributing to an increase in property crime and pushed for its repeal.  Since then, the budget of the Alaska Department of Corrections has grown from $291 million in 2019 to $345 million in the plan now being considered by the Legislature.

Much of that increase is due to increases in spending on inmate healthcare and rehabilitation, budget documents show. Department officials told a legislative panel last month that 65% of Alaska’s prison inmates are mentally ill, 80% have some kind of substance abuse disorder, and 65% have reported some kind of traumatic brain injury. Almost one in four inmates is positive for Hepatitis C.

Several hundred inmates were released from custody to relieve prison crowding during COVID-19, but the department now projects a continued rise in the state’s prison population, estimating that by June 2025, more than 4,900 Alaskans will be in prison.  As of February, more than half of the state’s prison population consisted of people who were awaiting trial, not those who had been sentenced.

I share the view that this situation is "sad" with more money now to be spent by Alaskans to cage its citizens than to provide higher education. And it is especially interesting to read that the increased prison spending is mostly for "healthcare and rehabilitation," which likely includes some educational programming, and that the majority of Alaskan prison inmates are mentally ill and/or have substance abuse disorder and/or a serious brain injury.  As is likely true in many states, Alaska is spending more and more monies on prisons in order to tend to its most vulnerable populations, though only after they get involved with the criminal justice system (while other welfare programs like higher education get cut in order to provide welfare services to the incarcerated).

March 8, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 04, 2021

New Sentencing Project fact sheet provides updated data on private prison populations in US

The Sentencing Project has this new fact sheet titled simply "Private Prisons in the United States."  The document has lots of data and helpful graphics in a short space, and here is how it gets started:

Private prisons in the United States incarcerated 115,954 people in 2019, representing 8% of the total state and federal prison population.  Since 2000, the number of people housed in private prisons has increased 33% compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 3%.

However, the private prison population has declined 16% since reaching its peak in 2012 with 137,220.  Declines in private prisons’ use make these latest overall population numbers the lowest since 2006 when the population was 113,791.

States show significant variation in their use of private correctional facilities.  Indeed, Montana held 47% of its prison population in private facilities, while 19 states did not employ any for-profit prisons. Data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and interviews with corrections officials find that in 2019, 32 states and the federal government incarcerated people in private facilities run by corporations including GEO Group, Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), LaSalle Corrections, and Management and Training Corporation.

Twenty-one states with private prison contracts incarcerate more than 500 people in for-profit prisons. Texas, the first state to adopt private prisons in 1985, incarcerated the largest number of people under state jurisdiction, 12,516.

Since 2000, the number of people in private prisons has increased 33%, compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 3.5%. In eight states the private prison population has more than doubled during this time period: Arizona (480%), Indiana (313%), Ohio (253%), North Dakota (221%), Florida (205%), Montana (125%), Tennessee (118%), and Georgia (110%).

March 4, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

"Association between county jail incarceration and cause-specific county mortality in the USA, 1987–2017: a retrospective, longitudinal study"

Concerns about public safety and justice have long been central to discussions and debate over modern mass incarceration in the United States.  But, especially as a result of the COVID pandemic, we are seeing more and more consideration of incarceration as a public health issue.  Consequently, I was really struck by this new research published online at The Lancet Public Health which analyzes mortality associated with jails over three decades (and has the title that serves as the title of this post).  Here is the "Summary" from this paper:

Background

Mass incarceration has collateral consequences for community health, which are reflected in county-level health indicators, including county mortality rates.  County jail incarceration rates are associated with all-cause mortality rates in the USA. We assessed the causes of death that drive the relationship between county-level jail incarceration and mortality.

Methods

In this retrospective, longitudinal study, we assessed the association between county-level jail incarceration rates and county-level cause-specific mortality using county jail incarceration data (1987–2017) for 1094 counties in the USA obtained from the Vera Institute of Justice and cause-specific mortality data for individuals younger than 75 years in the total county population (1988–2018) obtained from the US National Vital Statistics System.  We fitted quasi-Poisson models for nine common causes of death (cerebrovascular disease, chronic lower respiratory disease, diabetes, heart disease, infectious disease, malignant neoplasm, substance use, suicide, and unintentional injury) with county fixed effects, controlling for all unmeasured stable county characteristics and measured time-varying confounders (county median age, county poverty rate, county percentage of Black residents, county crime rate, county unemployment rate, and state incarceration rate).  We lagged county jail incarceration rates by 1 year to assess the short-term, by 5 years to assess the medium-term, and by 10 years to assess the long-term associations of jail incarceration with premature mortality.

Findings

A 1 per 1000 within-county increase in jail incarceration rate was associated with a 6·5% increase in mortality from infectious diseases (risk ratio 1·065, 95% CI 1·061–1·070), a 4·9% increase in mortality from chronic lower respiratory disease (1·049, 1·045–1·052), a 2·6% increase in mortality induced from substance use (1·026, 1·020–1·032), a 2·5% increase in suicide mortality (1·025, 1·020–1·029), and smaller increases in mortality from heart disease (1·021, 1·019–1·023), unintentional injury (1·015, 1·011–1·018), malignant neoplasm (1·014, 1·013–1·016), diabetes (1·013, 1·009–1·018), and cerebrovascular disease (1·010, 1·007–1·013) after 1 year.  Associations between jail incarceration and cause-specific mortality rates weakened as time lags increased, but to a greater extent for causes of death with generally shorter latency periods (infectious disease and suicide) than for those with generally longer latency periods (heart disease, malignant neoplasm, and cerebrovascular disease).

Interpretation

Jail incarceration rates are potential drivers of many causes of death in US counties.  Jail incarceration can be harmful not only to the health of individuals who are incarcerated, but also to public health more broadly. Our findings suggest important points of intervention, including disinvestment from carceral systems and investment in social and public health services, such as community-based treatment of substance-use disorders.

March 2, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 26, 2021

New coalition letter urges Prez Biden "to aggressively reduce jail and prison populations" in first 100 day

Via email this afternoon, I learned of this new extended letter addressed to Prez Biden on behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and organizations urging various criminal justice with particular focus on "the health and safety of incarcerated individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic." The full letter covers lots of ground, and here is its first substative paragraph:

While the pandemic jeopardizes everyone’s safety, incarcerated individuals are much more likely to be people with disabilities or to have pre-existing health conditions, making them exceptionally vulnerable due to overcrowding, unsanitary prison conditions, and a lack of access to quality healthcare services.  Though the COVID-19 vaccine is a critical advancement, distribution to incarcerated populations will take precious time, and correctional medical experts expect participation rates will be low because the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has failed to pair vaccine rollout with needed outreach and education.  Indeed, BOP has already reported a low adherence rate by staff to the vaccine: a January 15, 2021 BOP press release reported that roughly half of staff had agreed to accept the vaccine.  Moreover, the emergence of new strains of the virus that are potentially more contagious and deadly means that the need to protect high-risk individuals remains as urgent as ever.  To uphold your campaign commitments to advance racial justice and criminal justice reform and effectively confront COVID-19 during your first 100 days, it is imperative that you use existing authorities to aggressively reduce jail and prison populations.

February 26, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

"Viral Injustice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN authored by Brandon Garrett and Lee Kovarsky.  Here is its abstract:

The COVID-19 pandemic blighted all aspects of American life, but people in jails, prisons, and other detention sites experienced singular harm and neglect.  Housing vulnerable detainee populations with elevated medical needs, these facilities were ticking time bombs.  They were overcrowded, underfunded, unsanitary, insufficiently ventilated, and failed to meet even minimum health-and-safety standards.  Every unit of national and sub-national government failed to prevent detainee communities from becoming pandemic epicenters, and judges were no exception.

This Article takes the comprehensive look at the decisional law growing out of the COVID-19 detainee litigation, and situates the judicial response as part of a comprehensive institutional failure.  We read hundreds of COVID-19 custody cases, and our analysis defines the decision-making by reference to three attributes: the substantive right asserted, the form of detention at issue, and the remedy sought.  Several patterns emerged.  Judges avoided constitutional holdings whenever they could, rejected requests for ongoing supervision, and resisted collective discharge — limiting such relief to vulnerable subpopulations.  The most successful litigants were detainees in custody pending immigration proceedings, and the least successful were those convicted of crimes.

We draw three conclusions that bear on subsequent pandemic responses — including vaccination efforts — and incarceration more generally.  First, courts avoided robust relief by re-calibrating rights and remedies, particularly those relating to the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.  Second, court intervention was especially limited by the behavior of bureaucracies responsible for the detention function.  Third, the judicial activity reflected entrenched assumptions about the danger and moral worth of prisoners that are widespread but difficult to defend.  Before judges can effectively respond to pandemic risk, nonjudicial institutions will have to treat it differently than other health-and-safety threats, and judges will have to overcome their empirically dubious resistance to decarceration.

February 24, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)