Sunday, August 18, 2019

Enduring examinations of the data and dynamics of modern mass incarceration

Professor John Pfaff's important book on modern criminal justice systems in the United States, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration - and How to Achieve Real Reform, was published more than 2.5 years ago.  But the data and themes covered in this book remain quite timely, as well evidenced by two new pieces published this week.  The first is by Pfaff himself in Politico under the headline "What Democrats Get Wrong About Prison Reform." A paragraph from the start of this piece provides highlights: 

Drug crime is not what’s driving the high prison population in the United States.  It’s crimes of violence.  And this omission has consequences. It means that any “solution” is unlikely to achieve its intended goal and in the meantime society will continue to suffer long-term damage — physical, psychological and economic — from a persistent cycle of unaddressed violent crime.

The second is this much longer treatment of these important subjects in the Federalist Society Review under the title "Two Views on Criminal Justice Reform: The Author and a Critic on Locked In." This document has two terrific pieces: (1) an "An Interview with Professor John Pfaff" curated by Vikrant Reddy, and (2) "Refreshing Candor, Useful Data, and a Dog’s Breakfast of Proposals: A Review of Locked In by John Pfaff" authored by Kent Scheidegger. Here is how Scheidegger's review of Pfaff gets started:

John Pfaff gives us two books under one cover in Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.  In the first book, he tells us that nearly everything we have been told about so-called mass incarceration by his fellow “reform” advocates is false.   His candor is a breath of fresh air. He convincingly makes the case with a mound of useful data.

The second book, in contrast, is thinly supported and heavily influenced by Pfaff’s predispositions.  He tells us that high incarceration rates are caused primarily by overcharging prosecutors, though his data do not rule out alternative hypotheses.  He claims that the election of tough prosecutors is caused by the “low-information, high salience electorate,” not by informed people who genuinely and justifiably disagree with him on priorities.   The primary ingredients in his stew of solutions are tools to save the ignorant masses from themselves by making our society less democratic and our criminal justice decision-makers less responsible to the people.  Other intriguing possibilities raised by his data go unexplored.

Pfaff does not define what he means by “reform,” but he appears to use that term for policies that have the single-minded purpose of reducing the number of people incarcerated.  Obviously, that is not the sole or universally accepted meaning of the term in criminal justice. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 definitely did not have that purpose.  In this review, I will put the word “reform” in quotation marks when used in Pfaff’s sense.

August 18, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

"After the Crime: Rewarding Offenders’ Positive Post-Offense Conduct"

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

While an offender’s conduct before and during the crime is the traditional focus of criminal law and sentencing rules, an examination of post-offense conduct can also be important in promoting criminal justice goals.  After the crime, different offenders make different choices and have different experiences, and those differences can suggest appropriately different treatment by judges, correctional officials, probation and parole supervisors, and other decision-makers in the criminal justice system.

Positive post-offense conduct ought to be acknowledged and rewarded, not only to encourage it but also as a matter of fair and just treatment.  This essay describes four kinds of positive post-offense conduct that merit special recognition and preferential treatment: the responsible offender, who avoids further deceit and damage to others during the process leading to conviction, the debt-paid offender, who suffers the full punishment deserved (according to true principles of justice rather than the sentence actually imposed), the reformed offender, who takes affirmative steps to leave criminality behind, and the redeemed offender, who out of genuine remorse tries to atone for the offense.

The essay considers how one might operationalize a system for giving special accommodation to such offenders.  Positive post-offense conduct might be rewarded, for example, through the selection and shaping of sanctioning methods, through giving preference in access to education, training, treatment, and other programs, and through elimination or restriction of collateral consequences of conviction that continue after the sentence is completed.

August 13, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 05, 2019

“MAGA Bomber” Cesar Sayoc sentenced to 20 years in prison despite LWOP guideline range

As reported in this CNBC piece, "'MAGA Bomber' Cesar Sayoc was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Monday for sending 16 mail bombs to 13 people around the United States last year, including leading critics of President Donald Trump such as former President Barack Obama, ex-Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, actor Robert De Niro and financier George Soros." Here is more about this high-profile sentencing:

“I am beyond so very sorry for what I did,” Sayoc said before he was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Manhattan by Judge Jed Rakoff, according to the Courthouse News service.

“Now that I am a sober man, I know that I a very sick man,” Sayoc reportedly said. “I wish more than anything that I could turn back time and take back what I did ... I feel the pain and suffering of these victims.”

But Rakoff said, “The nature and cirumstances of the instant offenses are, by any measure, horrendous.”

“While none of the devices exploded ... at the very least they were intended to strike fear and terror into the minds of their victims and to intimidate those victims, mostly prominent political figures, from exercising their freedom.” Rakoff noted that Sayoc, even if he proves to be a model prison, “will be about 75 years old before he can be released.”

“No one can pretend this is not, in real terms, substantial punishment; but in the Court’s view, it is no more, and no less, than [what] he deserves,” Rakoff said.

Sayoc, a 57-year-old Florida resident whose own lawyers called him “a Donald Trump super-fan,” pleaded guilty on March 21 to 65 criminal counts, which included using weapons of mass destruction and illegal mailing of explosives with intent to kill or injure. Prosecutors said Sayoc’s crimes amounts to a “domestic terrorist attack.”

Prosecutors had asked Rakoff to sentence the former exotic dancer and steroid abuser to life in prison for the mail bombing spree....

None of the home-made bombs exploded, and “would not have functioned as designed,” according to prosecutors. But they noted that Sayoc packed PVC pipes with explosive powder and glass shards, along with pool chemicals to “increase the chances of burning the skin of” his targets....

Sayoc’s lawyers had asked that he be sentenced to just 10 years in prison, the mandatory minimum for his crimes. In their own sentencing submission, defense lawyers wrote that, “a series of traumatic events pushed Cesar Sayoc further and further into the margins of society.”

Valuably, Judge Rakoff authored this nine-page sentencing opinion explaining why he found the sentencing recommendations of the prosecution and defense not quite right and why he settled on a 20-year prison term for these crimes.

August 5, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

"Federal Criminal Risk Assessment"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Brandon Garrett recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Risk assessments are a common feature of federal decisionmaking, including across a range of administrative agencies.  However, in federal criminal law, risk assessments have been only haltingly adopted.  Decisions regarding bail, sentences, and prison programming have largely been made based on official discretion.  Risk assessment instruments are currently used in federal courts pre-trial, post-conviction, and in federal prisons regarding security levels and reentry, with highly uneven results to date.  The adoption of the FIRST STEP Act, which has the ambition to transform the federal prison system through use of risk instruments, has the potential to introduce a more legitimate, transparent, and validated approach, using instruments developed publicly and, ideally, implemented consistently.

Questions remain regarding whether the risk and needs instrument adopted will then be successfully and consistently implemented to assign inmates to programs, whether there will be adequate resources for those programs, and what the effectiveness of those programs will be.  Prior efforts in the federal system, including concerns raised by reports and audits of federal risk assessment, as well as evidence from efforts in states and locally, suggest reason for caution and care as this new system is implemented. Important lessons can be learned from the successes and the failures of prior efforts to improve outcomes in the criminal system.

July 31, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 28, 2019

"The Agony & the Ecstasy of #MeToo: The Hidden Costs of Reliance on Carceral Politics"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Guy Padraic Hamilton-Smith now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Many have considered the conversation sparked by #metoo as a necessary and overdue interrogation of not only the spectre of common sexual harms in American society, but also the inadequacy of traditional mechanisms of accountability.  Against this backdrop, smaller-scale flashpoints have erupted over perceived inadequacy of punishment, such as the successful campaign to recall California judge Aaron Persky from the bench over what many saw as leniency in the widely- publicized case of People v. Brock Turner.  This paper analyzes the complex relationship between #metoo and the carceral state.

In arguably the most punitive nation on the planet — particularly when considering the breadth and scope of public post-conviction registries — I argue that seeking to address broad and systemic failures of accountability by advocating for more severe punishment paradoxically undermines the larger goals of #metoo to the extent that those goals are concerned with effectively challenging systems that perpetuate sexual harms.  An approach that harmonizes efforts to prevent sexual harms and bring those who cause harm to account without endorsement of carceral politics is explored.

July 28, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 26, 2019

"Retributivist Reform of Collateral Consequences"

The title of this post is the title of this notable article authored by Brian Murray just posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

This Article applies retributivist principles to discussions about collateral consequences reform.  Retributivist ideas relating to agency and responsibility, proportionality, personal and communal restoration, and the obligations and duties of the state, as well as the broader community, suggest suspicion of an expansive collateral consequences regime.  A retributivist assessment, cognizant of realities within the criminal system, reveals that many are overly punitive and disruptive of social order.

Legislatures that prioritize retribution as a justification for and constraint on punishment should think clearly about whether existing collateral consequences result in disproportionate suffering and, if so, reconsider them.  This includes the outsourcing of punishment to private actors.  Committed retributivist decision-makers within the system, such as line prosecutors, should consider how to approach the imposition of collateral consequences when acting during various phases of a prosecution.  Finally, retributivist constraints can inform whether the maintenance of criminal records by the state is justified, and for how long, as well as the scope of second-chance remedies like expungement.  These limitations could allow for robust procedural protections for petitioners for relief, shifting the burden of persuasion to the state. In short, retributive principles can be a useful tool for reform, helping to restore to ex-offenders what they deserve.

July 26, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 21, 2019

"Predictable Punishments"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Brian Galle and Murat Mungan now on SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Economic analyses of both crime and regulation writ large suggest that the subjective cost or value of incentives is critical to their effectiveness.  But reliable information about subjective valuation is scarce, as those who are punished have little reason to report honestly.  Modern “big data” techniques promise to overcome this information shortfall, but perhaps at the cost of individual privacy and the autonomy that privacy’s shield provides.

This Article argues that regulators can and should instead rely on methods that remain accurate even in the face of limited information.  Building on a formal model we prove elsewhere, we show that variability in a defendant's subjective costs of punishment should be a key consideration in any incentive system, whether it be criminal law or otherwise. Our model suggests that this variability can be mitigated with some familiar and well-tested tools.  For instance, in some situations ex ante taxes on behavior that creates a risk of harm can be preferable to ex post punitive regimes, such as the criminal law, that target primarily harms that actually arise.

Because of what we show to be the centrality of variation in subjective costs, we also argue that long-standing approaches to criminal theory and practice should be reconsidered. For instance, economic theory strongly prefers fines over other forms of punishment. We argue that this claim is typically right — indeed, it is understated — when applied to firms. But fines can be the wrong choice for incentivizing most humans, while ex ante taxes are a promising alternative.  We also show that this same analysis counsels that, if prison is the most viable punishment available, it can be more efficient to make prisons safer and less alienating.

July 21, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 18, 2019

"Measuring Algorithmic Fairness"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Deborah Hellman.  With all the use of risk assessment tools throughout the criminal justice system, as with the risk-and-needs tool required by the FIRST STEP Act due out very soon, this discussion of "algorithmic fairness" cause my eye. Here is its abstract:

Algorithmic decision making is both increasingly common and increasingly controversial.  Critics worry that algorithmic tools are not transparent, accountable or fair.  Assessing the fairness of these tools has been especially fraught as it requires that we agree about what fairness is and what it entails. Unfortunately, we do not.  The technological literature is now littered with a multitude of measures, each purporting to assess fairness along some dimension.  Two types of measures stand out.  According to one, algorithmic fairness requires that the score an algorithm produces should be equally accurate for members of legally protected groups, blacks and whites for example.  According to the other, algorithmic fairness requires that the algorithm produces the same percentage of false positives or false negatives for each of the groups at issue.  Unfortunately, there is often no way to achieve parity in both these dimensions.  This fact has led to a pressing question.  Which type of measure should we prioritize and why?

This Article makes three contributions to the debate about how best to measure algorithmic fairness: one conceptual, one normative, and one legal.  Equal predictive accuracy ensures that a score means the same thing for each group at issue.  As such, it relates to what one ought to believe about a scored individual.  Because questions of fairness usually relate to action not belief, this measure is ill-suited as a measure of fairness.  This is the Article’s conceptual contribution.  Second, this Article argues that parity in the ratio of false positives to false negatives is a normatively significant measure.  While a lack of parity in this dimension is not constitutive of unfairness, this measure provides important reasons to suspect that unfairness exists.  This is the Article’s normative contribution.  Interestingly, improving the accuracy of algorithms overall will lessen this unfairness. Unfortunately, a common assumption that antidiscrimination law prohibits the use of racial and other protected classifications in all contexts is inhibiting those who design algorithms from making them as fair and accurate as possible. This Article’s third contribution is to show that the law poses less of a barrier than many assume. 

July 18, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal judge gives first-person account of FIRST STEP Act's impact through retroactive crack provision

The New York Times has this notable new first-person account of the FIRST STEP Act coming from a judge who was able to reduce a life sentence thanks to the Act's crack retroctivity provisions.  The piece is authored by Robin Rosenberg, and carries the headline "In ’99 He Was Sentenced to Life. Twenty Years Later, I Set Him Free." Here are excerpts:

In January 1999, Robert Clarence Potts III was sentenced to life in prison. He was 28, and had been convicted of drug and weapons charges. The federal judge sentencing him seemed to express some regret at the gravity of the penalty. But under the law at the time, Mr. Potts faced a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without release because of the type of offenses and his two previous convictions for drug and other offenses.

“You are facing a very tough sentence here, and it is very regrettable that you are,” the judge, James C. Paine of the United States District Court of the Southern District of Florida, told him. The judge added that “we are governed by the law and the guidelines and we are going to have to go by those.” And the law and sentencing guidelines meant “a term of life imprisonment,” he explained.

To that, Mr. Potts responded, “Sir, there is not much I can say.”  But it was what he did afterward that ultimately made the difference.

On Friday, Mr. Potts, now 49, is scheduled to be released from prison after more than 20 years — a turn of events made possible by the First Step Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump last year.  Among other things, the law expanded early-release programs, modified sentencing laws and allowed defendants like Mr. Potts to seek a reduction in their sentence, a step toward correcting the country’s history of disproportionate sentences.

The decision whether to reduce his sentence fell to me when I was randomly assigned his case.  The twist was that I had been Judge Paine’s law clerk in 1989, 10 years before Mr. Potts was sent away.  Now I was a federal judge in the same courthouse where Judge Paine had served and where he had sentenced Mr. Potts two decades before....

Mr. Potts had served over 20 years in a high-security federal penitentiary when the First Step Act became law last December.  The First Step Act made the Fair Sentencing Act — signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 to reduce the disparity in sentencing for powder cocaine and crack cocaine offenses — applicable to past cases.  The First Step Act also allowed a defendant like Mr. Potts to seek a sentence reduction even when the original sentence was for life.  The law provides wide discretion to the court to determine whether to reduce a sentence and by how much.

At his sentence reduction hearing, Mr. Potts had much more to say than he did back in 1999.  Before me, he was remorseful, dignified and hopeful.  He was proud of all that he had accomplished in over two decades in prison — proud of the courses he took in personal growth, responsible thinking, legal research and software, proud of his participation in nearly every health, nutrition and fitness class available.  Perhaps he derived his greatest pride from conquering a debilitating addiction and maintaining his sobriety.  As his lawyer explained to me, sobriety is not a foregone conclusion in prison, where drugs are widely available....

The true marker of a person’s character is what he does when he thinks no one is watching.  Because Mr. Potts was sentenced to life, no one had really been looking at what he had been doing.  But his unwavering dedication to improve himself over the last two decades, despite his circumstances, convinced me that his hope in his own future isn’t misplaced.

After a long hearing, I concluded that 20 years was more than sufficient as punishment for his past — and serious — crimes, and ordered his release. To help his transition, he will spend six months in a residential re-entry center.  I believe Mr. Potts’s story is one of redemption through self-improvement.  His case speaks to the importance of criminal justice reforms such as the First Step and Fair Sentencing Acts. His story illuminates the human impact of such reforms and a person’s capacity for hope and redemption.

July 18, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

New Pew report spotlights state changes in community supervision and revocations

The folks from Pew have this notable new report fully titled "To Safely Cut Incarceration, States Rethink Responses to Supervision Violations: Evidence-based policies lead to higher rates of parole and probation success." Here is the document's "Overview":

Recent research from The Pew Charitable Trusts found that about 4.5 million people in the United States are on community supervision as of 2016.  Probation and parole provide a measure of accountability while allowing those who would otherwise have been incarcerated or have already served a term behind bars to meet their obligations to their families, communities, and victims.

People under supervision are expected to follow a set of rules, such as keeping appointments with probation or parole officers, maintaining employment, not using alcohol or other drugs, and paying required fees. Failure to follow the rules — referred to as technical violations—may result in revocation of the supervision and in some cases a term of incarceration.  A 2019 report by the Council of State Governments showed that technical violations account for almost 1 in 4 admissions to state prison and $2.8 billion in annual incarceration costs.

Such technical revocations are costly, and failure to comply with supervision conditions does not necessarily indicate that a person presents a public safety threat or will engage in new criminal activity.  Further, although studies have not demonstrated that incarcerating people for breaking the rules of supervision reduces recidivism, they have found that long periods of incarceration can make re-entry more difficult, causing people to lose their jobs, homes, and even custody of their children.

This brief examines policies that states implemented through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) that have reduced technical revocations, highlights some of the results of those changes, and provides sample legislation for each policy.  JRI is a public-private partnership among Pew, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, state governments, and technical assistance providers; it seeks to improve public safety and control costs by prioritizing prison space for people sentenced for the most serious offenses and investing in evidence-based alternatives to incarceration and other programs shown to reduce recidivism.  These state efforts have not been without challenges, and more can be done to improve supervision outcomes.  Nevertheless, the examples provided show that states can take meaningful steps to reduce prison populations and protect public safety while strengthening systems of supervision and services in the community.

July 16, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 14, 2019

"Torture and Respect"

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

There are two well-worn arguments against a severe punishment like long-term incarceration: it is disproportionate to the offender’s wrongdoing and an inefficient use of state resources.  This Article considers a third response, one which penal reformers and theorists have radically neglected, even though it is recognized in the law: the punishment is degrading.  In considering penal degradation, this Article examines what judges and scholars have deemed the exemplar of degrading treatment — torture.  What is torture, and why is it wrong to torture people?  If we can answer this question, this Article maintains, then we can understand when and why certain punishments — like perhaps long-term incarceration — are impermissibly degrading, regardless of their proportionality or social utility otherwise.

This Article develops an original theory of torture.  It argues that torture is the intentional infliction of a suffusive panic and that its central wrongness is the extreme disrespect it demonstrates toward a victim’s capacity to realize value. Humans realize value diachronically, stitching moments together through time to construct a good life as a whole. Torture takes such a being, one with a past and a future, and via the infliction of a make it stop right now panic, converts her into a “shrilly squealing piglet at slaughter,” in Jean Améry’s words, restricting her awareness to a maximally terrible present.

The Article then considers what this theory of torture means for our understanding of degradation more generally.  It argues that punishment is impermissibly degrading, regardless of our other penal considerations, when it rejects an offender’s status as a human.  Punishment reaches this threshold by demonstrating that the offender’s life-building capacity — the very basis of his humanity — is completely absent or fundamentally worthless.  To so thoroughly deny someone’s value, even someone who has committed a heinous crime, violates the liberal commitment to human inviolability.  The Article closes by suggesting that long-term incarceration rejects an offender’s status as a human, and is therefore on a par with penal torture, given that removing someone from free society for decades makes it exceedingly difficult for him to construct a good life as a whole.

July 14, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Some Doubts About 'Democratizing' Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by John Rappaport and recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The American criminal justice system’s ills are by now so familiar as scarcely to bear repeating: unprecedented levels of incarceration, doled out disproportionately across racial groups, and police that seem to antagonize and hurt the now-distrustful communities they are tasked to serve and protect.  Systemic social ailments like these seldom permit straightforward diagnoses, let alone simple cures.  In this case, however, a large, diverse, and influential group of experts — the legal academy’s “democratizers” — all identify the same disease: the retreat of local democratic control in favor of a bureaucratic “machinery” disconnected from public values and the people themselves.  Neighborhood juries, for example, internalize the costs of punishing their own; neighborhood police, “of” and answerable to the community, think twice before drawing their weapons or stopping a local boy on a hunch. The experts and detached professionals who populate our dominant bureaucratic institutions, in contrast, are motivated by different, less salubrious, incentives.  Across the gamut of criminal justice decisionmaking, the democratizers maintain, the influence of the local laity is a moderating, equalizing, and ultimately legitimating one.  A generous dose of participatory democracy won’t solve all our problems, but it’s our best shot to get the criminal justice system back on its feet.

This Article’s warning is plain: don’t take the medicine.  “Democracy” and “community” wield undeniable rhetorical appeal but will not really fix what ails us — and may just make it worse.  The democratization movement, the Article argues, rests on conceptually problematic and empirically dubious premises about the makeup, preferences, and independence of local “communities.”  It relies on the proudly counterintuitive claim that laypeople are largely lenient and egalitarian, contrary to a wealth of social scientific evidence.  And ultimately, democratization’s dual commitments are on a collision course.  The democratizers simultaneously devote themselves to particular ends — amelioration of the biased and outsized carceral state — and to a particular means — participatory democracy.  What happens if, as this Article predicts, the means do not produce the ends? Which commitment prevails?  Worse yet, venerating lay opinion distracts from alternative visions of “democratic” criminal justice that more credibly tackle the critical question of how best to blend public accountability with evidence and expertise.

July 14, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 11, 2019

"Against the Received Wisdom: Why Should the Criminal Justice System Give Kids a Break?"

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

Professor Gideon Yaffe’s recent, intricately argued book, The Age of Culpability: Children and the Nature of Criminal Responsibility, argues against the nearly uniform position in both law and scholarship that the criminal justice system should give juveniles a break not because on average they have different capacities relevant to responsibility than adults, but because juveniles have little say about the criminal law, primarily because they do not have a vote.  For Professor Yaffe, age has political rather than behavioral significance. The book has many excellent general analyses about responsibility, but all are in aid of the central thesis about juveniles, which is the central focus of this essay review.

After addressing a few preliminary issues, the essay discusses Professor Yaffe’s negative argument against the validity of the behavioral difference rationale for giving juveniles a break.  If the negative case fails, which the essay argues it does, then the only issue is whether the book’s alternative is desirable.  Again, the essay argues that it is not, and concludes by offering three positive arguments for the traditional rationale: 1) coherence and simplicity; 2) a benignly definitional argument that survives the negative argument and supports giving juveniles a break in the exceedingly unlikely event that the empirical assumptions of the traditional rationale are proven incorrect; and 3) a proposal for individualization of the culpability assessments of juveniles so that the criminal justice system blames and punishes them proportionately to their culpability.

July 11, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 08, 2019

Two new open access articles from FSR issue on "The Tyranny of the Trial Penalty"

In this post last month, I highlighted the publication of the latest extraordinary (double) issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter titled "The Tyranny of the Trial Penalty: The Consensus that Coercive Plea Practices Must End."  As mentioned before, this FSR issue includes 16(!) original pieces on various aspects of "The Trial Penalty," and it is fully available on-line at this link

Though a full subscription to FSR is needed for full on-line access to all FSR content, the University of California Press has graciously agreed to make various articles from this special issue available to all on-line for a limited period.  Valuable, the issue's terrific introduction authored by Norman Reimer, executive director of NACDL, and his colleague Martín Sabelli, NACDL's second vice president, is to remain freely available for an extended period of time.  And this week, these two additional pieces are now accessible to all (with first paragraphs quoted here):

Two empirical facts underlie ongoing policy debates over plea-trial differences in federal punishment: defendants who are convicted at trial receive significantly harsher sentences, and the overwhelming majority of federal defendants forego their constitutional right to jury trial and enter into plea agreements.  A passel of studies finds large plea-trial differences in federal sentencing.  Across jurisdictions, offense types, and time periods, research convincingly demonstrates that defendants convicted at trial receive more severe punishments than similar defendants who plead guilty.  This “trial tax” or “plea discount” is among the most robust findings in the empirical sentencing literature (Johnson 2019).  At the same time, guilty plea rates in both state and federal courts have ballooned.  In federal court, more than 97 percent of convicted defendants plead guilty (Motivans 2019), lending credence to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s observation that “plea bargaining is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system” (Missouri v. Frye, 132 S. Ct. 1399, 1407 (2012)).

Weaponizing Justice: Mandatory Minimums, the Trial Penalty, and the Purposes of Punishment by Mary Price

The trial penalty is one of the most lethal tools in the prosecutor’s kit.  With it, the government coerces defendants to plead guilty and punishes those who don’t. It transforms what should be a defendant’s considered and informed decision about whether to exercise the constitutional right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers in open court into a backroom roll of the dice.  It is the criminal justice equivalent of a shakedown — more extortion than orderly proceeding.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has this new news release about the FSR issue, which includes these quotes from the Guest Editors who helped make it happen:

The articles included in this special issue underscore one hopeful reality: the breadth of concern with the trial penalty’s central role in perverting the U.S. system of justice reflects unprecedented consensus,” explain Editors Reimer and Sabelli in their “Editors’ Observations” introduction.  “Critics of the decline of the jury trial and the institutional coercion that is the trial penalty in action span the ideological perspective.  This is not the system of justice that the architects of this democracy envisioned, nor is it the system that people deserve, especially as the nation has evolved.  The country may still have a long way to go to purge racism and all forms of irrational disparity from its criminal justice system. But it has come far enough that it is long past time to tolerate a system that extracts years of a person’s freedom as the price to access fundamental rights. NACDL is determined to promote study and seek reform on the federal level and throughout the various states to minimize the tyranny of the trial penalty. This edition of the Federal Sentencing Reporter is an important step in that process.”

July 8, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

A critical perspective on the Lone Star State's experiences with criminal justice reform

A few months ago, as noted in this post, Marie Gottschalk had published a critical review of the achievements of the federal FIRST STEP Act.  Now, in this notable new commentary in The Baffler about the Texas experience with criminal justice reform, she provides a critical perspective on how little has changed in a big state that seems to get a lot of reform credit.  The extended piece is headlined "The Prisoner Dilemma: Texas fails to confront mass incarceration," and here are some excerpts:

The origin story of the latter-day turnaround in Texas’s criminal justice system dates back to 2007, when legislators decided against spending an estimated $2 billion on new prison construction to accommodate projections that the state would need an additional seventeen thousand prison beds by 2012.  Instead, they enacted some modest changes in probation and parole to redirect people to community supervision; they also restored some funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment.  The attempt to slow down prison construction was, in fact, a big change from the post-Ruiz era, when the state attempted to build its way out of the overcrowding problem.  And yet, even though Texas was required to face up to certain realities — first by the Ruiz case and later by budget constraints — the Texas penal system, after all these years, has not really changed its stripes.

For all the hype, Texas remains “more or less the epicenter of mass incarceration on the planet,” according to Scott Henson, author of Grits for Breakfast, the indispensable blog on criminal justice and law enforcement in Texas.  Other states have far surpassed Texas in reducing the size of their incarcerated populations and in providing safer and more humane lock-ups that are not such blatant affronts to the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Texas today incarcerates nearly one-quarter of a million people in its jails and prisons — more than the total number of prisoners in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom combined.  If Texas were a country, its incarceration rate would be seventh in the world, surpassed only by Oklahoma and five other Southern states.  Texas still operates some of the meanest and leanest prisons and jails in the country. Two meals a day on weekends during budget shortfalls.  Cellblocks without air-conditioning, fans, or even enough water to drink in triple-digit heat. Understaffed, overwhelmed, and unsafe lock-ups in isolated rural areas.

All the applause that Texas received for the prisons it did not build and the handful of prisons it closed has overshadowed the fact that the Lone Star State continues to be one of the most punitive in the country.  If you add the number of people in prison and jails to those on probation, parole, or some other form of community supervision in Texas, that quarter of a million number grows to about seven hundred thousand. This amounts to about one out of every twenty-five adults in the state.  That’s enough to fill a city the size of El Paso.

Between 2007 and 2018, the total number of people held in state prisons and county jails in Texas did fall somewhat — by about 6 percent. But while the number of incarcerated men in Texas prisons and jails has inched downward, the number of incarcerated women has continued to grow.  The state’s female incarceration rate ranks fifteenth nationwide.

Texas has yet to enact any landmark criminal justice reform legislation that would truly scale back the number of people in prisons and jails.  Meanwhile, it has created hundreds of new crimes and dozens of enhanced penalties. Unlike many other states, Texas has yet to reduce the penalties for even low-level drug crimes.  Last year, the number of new felony cases filed in Texas reached a near all-time high, “driven primarily by an increase in drug possession cases,” according to the annual report of the Texas Judiciary.

July 8, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer reading (with a Fall cover date) from the American Journal of Criminal Law

Over the holiday week, I noticed that American Criminal Law Review already has published its Fall 2019 issue, and that this issue includes a number of articles that sentencing fans may want to add to their summer reading list: 

The Biased Algorithm: Evidence of Disparate Impact on Hispanics by Melissa Hamilton

Is Mass-Incarceration Inevitable? by Andrew Leipold

Defining the Proper Role of “Offender Characteristics in Sentencing Decisions: A Critical Race Theory Perspective by Lisa Saccomano

Cruel, Unusual, and Unconstitutional: An Originalist Argument for Ending Long-Term Solitary Confinement by Merin Cherian

Pandora’s Algorithmic Black Box: The Challenges of Using Algorithmic Risk Assessment in Sentencing by Leah Wisser

July 8, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 05, 2019

Emphasizing why community supervision realities must be focal point for criminal justice reforms

As noted in this post, last month the the Council of State Governments Justice Center produced this dynamic report spotlighting that a large percentage of all state prison admissions "are due to violations of probation or parole for new offenses or technical violations" and that "technical violations, such as missing appointments with supervision officers or failing drug tests, account"for almost a quarter of all state prison admissions.  Fittingly, I have recently seen two commentaries highlighting this CSG report to stress the importance of criminal justice reform efforts giving attention to this piece of the system.  Here are links to these pieces and a snippet therefrom:

From The Hill, "Want to cut the prison population?  Start by tackling probation reform" by Nila Bala:

Sadly, imprisoning technical violators often drives them even deeper into the criminal justice system. With a prison sentence, individuals can lose their jobs, their homes, and their children, which are all of the important social supports they had formed in their community, making them more likely to return to crime.  Imprisoning individuals for technical violations is also costing taxpayers to the tune of $2.8 billion in incarceration costs.

We should save prison beds for those who have committed serious and violent offenses instead of for those who have broken curfew or failed to pay a probation fee. Instead of imprisoning technical violators, we should hold them accountable in the community in ways that do not harm public safety.  By eliminating prison terms for technical violations, or at least by capping the length of their prison stays, states can work to reduce their prison numbers in a significant way.  Along with the reform of supervision conditions, we can work to limit probation to those who really need it and to divert the many lower risk individuals away from the system altogether.

If there is one foundational value that we can adopt in the criminal justice system to change its ethos, it is human dignity. It should not fall by the wayside when people are released from prison.  It is even more important as we welcome individuals back into the social fabric of our communities. The Council of State Governments report guides states in asking how they can limit the supervision to prison pipeline.  With this data, states hold the potential to reform their supervision practices in ways that improve public safety, yield valuable cost savings, and respect the human dignity of all.

From USA Today, "As candidates search for criminal justice talking points, parole and probation reform should top list" by Megan Quattlebaum and Juliene James:

Instead of moving people away from prison, the use of parole and probation is a prime contributor to still stubbornly high incarceration rates. This undermines people’s ability to reintegrate into a free society after conviction.

The nation can and should focus efforts and resources on reducing new criminal behavior. By keeping people out of prison, we can better ensure that they keep their jobs, stay connected to their families and have a fair chance at contributing to society.

The nation's probation and parole disproportionately burdens poor and minority communities. Black Americans account for more than 30% of the people on probation and parole, despite being only 13% of the U.S. population. How can we expect people to live successful lives when they’re under the constant scrutiny of unforgiving criminal justice supervision?

Red and blue states alike have prison systems that are straining under the weight of incarcerating significant numbers of people who have violated their supervision.

State lawmakers need to start looking at their own statistics and asking whether probation and parole are serving their intended goals. What types of new offenses are responsible for supervision revocations? What practices and programs can discourage people under supervision from committing new crimes? What is a better way to handle technical violations?

A few prior recent related posts:

July 5, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

"The Opposite of Punishment: Imagining a Path to Public Redemption"

The title of this post is the title of this new short paper authored by Paul Robinson and Muhammad Sarahne. Here is its abstract:

The criminal justice system traditionally performs its public functions — condemning prohibited conduct, shaming and stigmatizing violators, promoting societal norms — through the use of negative examples: convicting and punishing violators.  One could imagine, however, that the same public functions could also be performed through the use of positive examples: publicly acknowledging and celebrating offenders who have chosen a path of atonement through confession, apology, making amends, acquiescing in just punishment, and promising future law abidingness.  An offender who takes this path arguably deserves official public recognition, an update of all records and databases to record the public redemption, and an exemption from all collateral consequences of conviction.

This essay explores how and why such a system of public redemption might be constructed, the benefits it might provide to offenders, victims, and society, and the political complications that creation of such a system might encounter.

June 25, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

"Testing Periods and Outcome Determination in Criminal Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this important new article authored by Fiona Doherty and now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This Article introduces the concept of “Testing Periods” to explain how U.S. courts sort criminal defendants for incarceratory and non-incarceratory results. A Testing Period is a time period during which a criminal defendant agrees to abide by a set of prospective rules (such as avoiding “dirty urines” and remaining “clean” from drugs and alcohol), typically, but not always, as a function of plea bargaining.  Prosecutors and judges set the rules, and defendants must demonstrate that they can follow the rules to pass the test and successfully avoid prison.  Juries play no role in the system, and due process requirements diverge sharply from traditional norms.

The outcomes of most criminal cases are now determined through Testing Periods, which go by varied names like probation, problem-solving courts, suspended sentences, conditional plea agreements, and deferred adjudication.  The pervasiveness of Testing Periods has changed the orientation of outcome determination in criminal cases away from a retrospective analysis to a prospective one: Outcomes no longer depend on a backward-looking examination of the facts of a criminal charge, but instead on whether a defendant can pass a forward-looking test.  The power to create and administer Testing Periods has become the power to determine who goes to prison and for what reason.  The Article concludes that the widespread use of Testing Periods has recreated dynamics from a much older method of resolving criminal cases: the testing models used in the medieval ordeal system to separate “clean” defendants from “dirty” ones, and the “worthy” from the “unworthy.” 

June 19, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"Abolishing the death penalty requires morality"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary authored by Stephen Cooper, which is a response to a recent commentary by Austin Sarat (blogged here).  Here are excerpts:

In “How to Convince Americans to Abolish the Death Penalty,” Amherst College Professor Austin Sarat asserts “important lessons about how abolitionists can be successful around the country” can be learned from New Hampshire – which just last month became the twenty-first state to abolish capital punishment — including: “The moral argument doesn’t work.”...

Sarat’s regretful and regressive capitulation to the fallacious dogma of retribution is, therefore, in my opinion, as disturbing as it is disappointing.

In his book “The Ethics of Punishment,” Sir Walter Moberly sagely observed about retribution that “[t]he executioner pays the murderer the compliment of imitation,” and, more keenly: “Much demand for retribution certainly has a shady origin.  It springs from the crude animal impulse of the individual or group to retaliate, when hurt, by hurting the hurter. In itself such resentment is neither wise nor good and, in its extreme forms, it is generally condemned as vindictive.”...

The constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment bears no asterisk for crimes committed by “society’s most despised.”  Abolitionists should continue to proudly and affirmatively demand the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee of dignity for everyone, while continuing to make reasoned morality-and-dignity-based arguments to end the death penalty — when it makes sense to — notwithstanding whether or not this strategy was employed during the recent abolitionist success in New Hampshire.

Demanding dignity for society’s most despised is the lifeblood of our weakened, chronically underperforming Eighth Amendment.  And it is still at the heart of what it means to be an abolitionist.

Prior related posts:

June 18, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (15)

Thursday, June 13, 2019

"Is ‘Abolish Prisons’ the Next Frontier in Criminal Justice?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this effective Bloomberg commentary authored by Bill Keller.  Here are excerpts:

Five years ago, when the activist and cable TV host Van Jones launched the #cut50 campaign to reduce U.S. prison populations by half, many mainstream justice reform watchers rolled their eyes at what seemed to be a reckless overreach.... Now the campaign has attracted an A-list of celebrities, philanthropists and candidates pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination. These days, when Jones gets pilloried, it’s as likely to be for being too compromising: Why stop short of #cut100?

People who follow criminal justice policy for a living say the fastest growing subset of the reform movement consists of abolitionists who say a system that is inherently racist and based on retribution should be pulled up by the roots. Not just prisons and jails, but most of the institutions of law enforcement and criminal justice.

“Abolition has become a rallying cry for the progressive wing of the justice reform movement,” Jeremy Travis told me. “NO NEW JAILS. NO MORE MONEY FOR POLICE. ABOLISH ICE. ABOLISH PRISONS.” Travis, who oversees criminal justice issues for the Arnold Ventures philanthropy, has spent a career in the system, most recently as president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. (Disclosure: Laura and John Arnold, the founders of Arnold Ventures, are donors to the Marshall Project, my former employer.) “There is lots of energy behind this reframing of the ‘reform’ agenda,” Travis said.

Prison abolition has decades of antecedents, led by once-fringe figures like Angela Davis, the 1960s communist firebrand, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the subject in April of a sympathetic profile in the New York Times Magazine. More recently abolition has been embraced by younger Americans who grew up after violent crime peaked in the early 1990s, and has helped kindle some fundamental rethinking in the mainstream.

Like other radical ideas — Medicare for All, the Green New Deal — abolition means different things to different people. Most of those who rally to the cause do not advocate a world where no one answers your 911 call and serial killers are set loose. Abolition is an ideal — like, say, “repeal and replace.” The real debate is what should replace the current institutions.

“There is always going to be some role for prisons, but maybe 10 percent of what we do now,” said Martin Horn, a former New York State parole director, now a professor at John Jay. “I think we need police. We may not need as many as we now have, and we want to use them differently.”

Abolitionists generally start the conversation with two immense objectives. The first is devolving responsibility for public safety to local communities. (“Civilianizing safety,” some experts call it.) One reason New York City has reduced its crime rate while simultaneously slashing arrests, incarceration and law-enforcement overreach is that the city has a nonprofit network on the ground, some of it subsidized by the city, to combat violence and to help the formerly incarcerated safely reenter society.

Abolitionists’ other aim is to redistribute government spending from police and prisons to narrowing the underlying, crime-breeding inequalities of wealth and opportunity. They would instead invest in housing, education, jobs and health — a goal that seems remote in the current political environment.

What is new, says Elizabeth Glazer, director of New York City’s criminal justice office, is that many of the ideas that animate the abolitionists “are now finding their way into established criminal justice structures” — not just scholars and activists but also prosecutors questioning what crimes should be prosecuted and judges seeking out-of-court remedies....

To reformists who work in or with the system, the abolitionists can be exasperating — a case of the ideal being the enemy of the good. DeAnna Hoskins, president of JustLeadershipUSA, which mobilizes former prisoners to press for reform, points to the campaign that persuaded New York to close the jail complex on Rikers Island. The plan depends on building smaller, more humane jails in four boroughs to house a much-reduced population of prisoners. Along with the inevitable resistance of prospective new neighbors, the city now faces vocal opposition from abolitionists who object to any new jails on principle. “That’s just not realistic,” Hoskins said. “We’re not going to close Rikers on Monday and not have any type of detainment.” She added, “When we talk about abolishing prisons and abolishing law enforcement, it’s actually reducing the power and the reach of those entities.”

One of the liveliest abolition debates concerns parole and probation, which get less attention than incarceration but regulate the lives of 4.5 million Americans, twice as many as are confined in prisons and jails. Because a parolee can be returned to prison for a technical infraction such as a missed appointment or a trace of drugs in a urine sample, the parole-to-prison pipeline is a major feeder of mass incarceration....

Although polling is scarce, it’s a fair bet that “abolition” is not a voter magnet. The electorate may want the system to be less cruel and more rehabilitative, but voters also want a professional answering that 911 call when their kid gets shot — and not a member of neighborhood watch. The bipartisan coalition that has found common ground on criminal justice would be severely strained by such a lurch to the left. The conservative attack ads write themselves.

But in recent years, with crime near historic lows, the iniquities and unintended consequences of American punishment have so captured public concern that even President Donald Trump coughs up an occasional platitude about “giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption.”

There is a place for higher aspirations, if only to keep moving the middle. Closing Rikers was a radical idea, until it wasn’t. The #cut50 campaign was mocked as unrealistic until people realized that it was essentially restoring incarceration to 1980s levels.  “I don’t think that in my lifetime we’ll ever abolish prisons, but it’s a really important question, why we put people in prisons,” said Travis, adding that the abolition debate is “a healthy tension that is really challenging the pace of reform and the status quo.”

A few prior related posts:

June 13, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Federal district judge rejects feds request for significant prison term in first sentencing of college bribery scandal

As reported in this NBC News piece about the first sentencing in a high-profile federal criminal matter, "Stanford University's former sailing coach avoided significant prison time and was sentenced to just one day behind bars on Wednesday for his role in a massive college admissions scandal."  Here is more:

John Vandemoer was the first person to be sentenced in the sweeping corruption scandal that exposed the sophisticated network of college admissions ringleader William Rick Singer, who helped children of well-heeled clients cheat their way into elite universities.

U.S. District Court Judge Rya W. Zobel sided with defense lawyers who said their client should not get more than the one day, which the judge dismissed as time served. The government had asked the judge to sentence Vandemoer to 13 months in prison.

Before Wednesday, Vandemoer had already pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy for accepting $770,000 in bribes in funds that all went into the school's sailing program. The money did not directly line Vandemoer's pockets, the judge and lawyers on both sides agreed. "From what I know about the other cases, there is an agreement that Vandemoer is probably the least culpable of all the defendants in all of these cases," Zobel said. "All the money he got went directly to the sailing program."

In court on Wednesday, Vandemoer's voice choked with emotion as apologized for his actions. "I want to be seen as someone who takes responsibility for mistakes," he said. "I want to tell you how I intend to live from this point forward. I will never again lose sight of my values."...

Vandemoer received three separate payments of $500,000, $110,000 and $160,000 between fall 2016 and October 2018 on behalf of the Stanford sailing program to falsely represent that three clients of Singer's were elite sailors — and thus deserving of special admission to the private school, according to court documents....

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen pleaded with Judge Zobel to send Vandemoer to prison and send a message about the case. "The sentence that you impose will set the tone moving forward," Rosen said. The prosecutor added: "This case goes far beyond John Vandemoer. The damage on Stanford goes much further. The actions undermine the confidence in the college admissions process."

The defense asked for leniency, arguing that the money Vandemoer received didn't go into his pocket, but instead went to a fund that supported Stanford's sailing program. "It cannot be overstated: all parties agree that Mr. Vandemoer did not personally profit from the scheme," defense lawyer Robert Fisher wrote in his sentencing memo to the court. "Mr. Singer sent Mr. Vandemoer money, and he consistently turned that money over to Stanford."...

Zobel also sentenced Vandemoer to two years of supervised release and six months of home confinement. The former coach was also fined $10,000. "I am aware that these are serious offenses," Zobel said. "I find it hard in this case that Vandemoer should go to jail for more than a year."

Of the three students whose parents tried to bribe their way into Stanford, none them actually benefited from Singer and Vandemoer's scheme.  The first one's fake sailing application came too late in the recruiting season and "the student was later admitted to Stanford through the regular application process," according to prosecutors.  The next two opted to go to Brown University and Vanderbilt University, despite Vandemoer's help.

Vandemoer was fired by Stanford on March 12, hours after federal prosecutors unsealed indictments.  "Although Mr. Vandemoer's conduct resulted in donations to the Stanford sailing team, Stanford views those funds as tainted," according to a victim impact statement written to Judge Zobel by Stanford's general counsel, Debra Zumwalt. "Stanford takes no position regarding any specific sentence that this Court may impose."

Because Vandemoer does not pose any real threat to public safety, and because he has already suffered (and will continue to suffer) an array of formal and informal collateral consequences, this sentence certainly strikes me as "sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth" in federal sentencing law.  I suppose I am not surprised that the feds wanted a significant prison term in this first of many related sentencings, but the recommendation here of 13 months in prison is a reminder that the feds seem to think that just about every convicted defendant ought to be sent to prison for some significant period.

June 12, 2019 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

"IQ, Culpability, and the Criminal Law’s Gray Area: Why the Rationale for Reducing the Culpability of Juveniles and Intellectually Disabled Adults Should Apply to Low-IQ Adults"

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

For too long, the criminal law has only provided legal protections for defendants who exist on the margins, namely, those who suffer from mental retardation, insanity, or are too young to appreciate the consequences of criminal conduct.  In so doing, the criminal law has failed to address the gray area in which most defendants reside, and for which all defendants lack sufficient legal protections.  For example, at the guilt/innocence phase of a criminal trial, the legal system offers little, if any protections, for defendants afflicted with mental illnesses, personality disorders, neurological impairments, and borderline intellectual functioning.  This is fundamentally unjust, contrary to relevant empirical evidence regarding the effects of cognitive, psychiatric, and psychological disorders on culpability, and results in profoundly unjust sentences that, in many cases, are entirely disproportionate to a defendant’s culpability.  As such, the time has arrived for the courts and legislators to recognize that defendants need not be intellectually disabled, insane, or under the age of eighteen to trigger legal and constitutional protections at the guilt/innocence phase that account for a defendant’s reduced or, even, zero culpability in certain cases.

June 5, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Spotlighting the "modern-day gulags" that hold sex offenders indefinitely in "civil commitment"

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this new extended Washington Spectator piece headlined "Modern-Day Gulags In the Golden State."  I recommend the full piece, which gets started this way:  

Back in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the practice known as civil commitment was legal.  This meant that 20 states — which had passed laws permitting the ongoing incarceration of sex offenders — could continue to keep the men confined even after they completed their prison terms.  (See “Sex Crimes and Criminal Justice,” from the May 2018 issue of The Washington Spectator, available here.)

All it took (and still takes) is for two psychologists to claim the men might commit a new crime and a judge to say their cases can move forward.  They are then labeled sexually violent predators (SVPs) and reincarcerated in prisonlike facilities until new trials are held — supposedly to determine if they will be civilly committed or released.  The result? Some men have been waiting for their day in court for 15 to 20 years. In the meantime, many have died.

No matter that the men already served their prison time.  Or that psychologists, psychiatrists and lawyers I interviewed insist that very few should be confined — that instead, the vast majority, many of whom are elderly or ill, should be let out.

Eric Janus, former president and dean of Mitchell Hamline Law School in St. Paul, Minn., says that continuing to incarcerate the men to comfort fearful constituents doesn’t make the public safer.  The bottom line?  “I’ve never seen numbers that show there are fewer sex offenses or re-offenses in the 20 states that have the SVP laws than in the other 30 states that don’t,” Janus says.

Then why are roughly 2,500 men still stashed away across the country?  Locking up sex offenders is always good politics, but it is also extraordinarily profitable.  And since California has the biggest budget and locks up the biggest number — three times the next three states’ combined — the Golden State offers the biggest boondoggle to explore.

To document a system awash in double-talk and dollars, I interviewed 45 lawyers, psychologists, psychiatric technicians, rehabilitation therapists, nurses, journalists, prison reform advocates and civilly committed men over eight months. Nearly all feared retaliation and asked not to be named.

As the first paragraph above indicates, this is the second piece in a series, and folks should be sure to also check out this first piece "Sex Crimes and Criminal Justice."

June 5, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Latest (double) issue of FSR covers "The Tyranny of the Trial Penalty": An introduction

4-5.cover-sourceI am extraordinarily excited to be able to report the exciting news that the latest extraordinary issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter is now fully available on-line at this link.  The cover page from the Issue, which lists the 16(!) original pieces on various aspects of "The Trial Penalty," can be accessed here.

This issue of FSR emerges from the publication of a great report last year by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) titled "The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save It" (blogged here).  Folks at FSR contacted the folks at NACDL to explore the idea of developing a set of new commentaries using "The Trial Penalty" report as a springboard.

Wonderfully, Norman Reimer, executive director of NACDL, working with his colleague Martín Sabelli, NACDL's second vice president, worked tirelessly to solicit an outstanding array of original articles for this issue.  They were so productive, the project became a special FSR double issue so that a lengthy reprint of the "The Trial Penalty" report could appear together with all the terrific solicited commentaries addressing the importance of criminal trials and their disappearance from historical, practical, empirical, and international perspectives.

As the title of this post hints, I think this new FSR double issue merits a series of posts to highlight all of its terrific contents.  So here I will start by recommending the issue's terrific introduction authored by Norman Reimer and Martín Sabelli, which is fully titled "The Tyranny of the Trial Penalty: The Consensus that Coercive Plea Practices Must End."  Here is its opening paragraphs:

Every day, in virtually every criminal court throughout the nation, people plead guilty solely as a consequence of a prosecutor’s threat that they will receive an exponentially greater post-trial sentence compared to the pre-trial offer.  The process is simple and the logic inexorable: the prosecutor conveys a settlement offer to the defense attorney–very often at the outset of the case before the defense has investigated or received discovery–threatening a post-trial sentence much greater than the pre-trial offer.  The defense attorney–often before having had an opportunity to establish a relationship with the client–conveys that offer to her client who must choose between the opportunity and right to defend and the risk of adding years to the sentence if not decades after trial.  That differential is known as the trial penalty, and this scene unfolds routinely in courtrooms across the country as if the Framers had intended this legalized coercion to be the fulcrum of the criminal justice system.

The Framers did not so intend. The Framers, surprisingly for a modern reader, considered jury trials to be every bit as important as the right to cast votes for our representatives. In fact, John Adams declared that ‘‘[r]epresentative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.’’  President Adams’ colorful language reflects the strength of his view — a view shared by his contemporaries and the Framers — that the right to trial by jury protects the liberties of all individuals, not just the accused.  The Framers imagined a process in which the accused, assisted by counsel, evaluated the charges, received the evidence, and elected to exercise or not exercise the right to compel the government to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

June 4, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Reconsidering The 'Violent Offender'"

In this post from last fall, I noted the new Square One Project working to "reimagine justice" and conducting executive sessions and roundtables on the future of justice policy.  In that post, I noted some early draft of interesting papers from the project (which linked here in final form), and I just recently saw a new paper with the title that serves as the title of this post.  This new paper is authored by James Austin, Vincent Schiraldi, Bruce Western and Anamika Dwivedi, and here is part of its starting text:

People convicted of violent crimes have always been treated harshly by the criminal justice system, but in the four decades of rising incarceration rates from the early 1970s, punishment of the violent offender intensified disproportionately. Under President Bill Clinton, bipartisan consensus cemented the 1994 federal crime bill, enacting stricter sentencing laws for violent offenses at the federal level and incentivizing the same in the states.

Two decades later, even as President Barack Obama called for a reexamination of U.S. sentencing laws in 2015, he noted, “there are people who need to be in prison, and I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals” (C-SPAN 2015).  That same year, a Washington Times opinion piece by Newt Gingrich described criminal justice reform as a “rare area of bipartisan agreement in an otherwise sharply divided Congress,” but added, “we all agree that violent, dangerous criminals should be in prison, and the cost of incarcerating them is money well spent” (Gingrich and Nolan 2015).  Following suit, in 2017, Senator Kamala Harris, a self-identified “progressive” prosecutor stated that “we must maintain a relentless focus on reducing violence and aggressively prosecuting violent criminals” (Marcetic 2017).

Demonizing people as violent has perpetuated policies rooted in fear rather than fact. In this paper, we break from the tradition of punitiveness toward people convicted of violent offenses and argue that the violent offender label breaches the principle of parsimony, distorts proportionality, and fails as a predictive tool for future violent behavior. The label disproportionately affects people of color — black and Hispanic people comprise larger shares of people incarcerated for violent offenses in state prisons than white people (Bronson and Carson 2019).  In short, the violent offender label offers little to criminal justice policy.  Instead, justice policy should focus on those who actually commit violence, mitigate responses based on the experience of violent victimization, and discount the violent offender label as predictive of future violence.

Convincing policymakers and the public to change the approach to people charged with or convicted of violent offenses will require active education around the truths of violent offending alongside a significant cultural change. Affirming well-established criminal justice principles of parsimony and proportionality should take priority over a politics of fear.

We begin by detailing the social context and life histories that surround violent offending, and argue the case for parsimonious use of punishment.  While more serious and violent offenses may merit a proportionally greater response, the principle of parsimony reminds us that the punishment for violent offending should be the least coercive response necessary to achieve justice (Travis, Western, and Redburn 2014).  When we account for the life histories of victimization among incarcerated people, and the situational character of the violence in their lives, the principle of parsimony must admit mercy and forbearance.

June 4, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, June 02, 2019

"How to Convince Americans to Abolish the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this New Republic commentary authored by Austin Sarat. Here are excerpts:

When New Hampshire abolished the death penalty on Thursday, the reaction to the news — at least nationally — was rather muted.  Here was a New England state, after all, whose machinery of death had rusted long ago.  “This debate has been largely symbolic, because New Hampshire has neither an active death penalty system nor any executions on the horizon,” The Washington Post reported.  “The state has only one person on death row … and last carried out an execution in 1939.”...

But there is greater significance here than it seems.  For starters, New Hampshire joins a growing trend.  Now, since 2007, seven states have abolished capital punishment by legislative action, and three by judicial decree.  (Nebraska abolished it legislatively, but voters subsequently reinstated it in a referendum.)  Four other states have a moratorium in place preventing anyone from being executed.  This period has been one of the most successful in the modern history of death penalty abolitionism.

And the politics of New Hampshire are not those of, say, Massachusetts.... While the state Senate and House are both controlled by Democrats, they needed votes from across the aisle to reach the two-thirds threshold to override Republican Governor Chris Sununu.  There are thus important lessons from New Hampshire about how abolitionists can be successful across the country — namely, by shifting the grounds of the debate so as not to be painted as soft on crime or out of touch with mainstream American values....

Traditionally, opponents of the death penalty have responded to [soft-on-crime] arguments by claiming that even the most heinous criminals are entitled to be treated with dignity or that there is nothing that anyone can do to forfeit their “right to have rights.”  Each of these arguments rejects the simple and appealing rationale for capital punishment: retribution.  But in doing so, it puts opponents of the death penalty on the side of society’s most despised and notorious criminals, of cop killers and of child murderers.  It is not surprising, then, that such arguments, while popular in philosophical and political commentary, have never carried the day in the debate about capital punishment in the United States.

New Hampshire abolitionists avoided this pitfall, changing the argument in ways that can and do appeal to a broader range of citizens.  They allied themselves with the plight of the families of murder victims.  “I am grateful to the many survivors of murder victims who bravely shared their stories with the Legislature this session, many of whom told us that the death penalty, with its requisite long legal process, only prolongs the pain and trauma of their loss,” said Democratic Senator Martha Hennessey in explaining her vote to override the veto.

They also avoided the soft-on-crime label by noting that the death penalty does not make citizens safer and that it is “archaic, costly, discriminatory and violent.”  And they enlisted conservative allies.  As one New Hampshire abolitionist said, “more conservatives than ever know the death penalty is a failed government program that does not value life, threatens innocent people, and wastes money.”

The campaign to abolish capital punishment succeeded in New Hampshire, just as it has succeeded elsewhere, because abolitionists resisted the temptation to engage with the red meat arguments of many death penalty supporters.  They appealed to American values of fairness, equal treatment, and pragmatism.  In so doing, they formed a coalition of legislators, political leaders, and citizens who shared the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun’s view that it is time to “stop tinkering with the machinery of death.”

Prior related post:

June 2, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 01, 2019

"Moral Restorative Justice: A Political Genealogy of Activism and Neoliberalism in the United States"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by my Ohio State colleague Amy Cohen. Here is its abstract:

For decades, left proponents of restorative justice have wondered if their preference for “less state” would attract complex bedfellows and political alliances.  But it was only as the crisis of mass incarceration hit American cultural and political consciousness that a wide range of libertarian and conservative political organizations and actors began to promote restorative ideals.  This Article traces changing political, theological, and ideological articulations of restorative justice from the 1970s to now, knit together by a common grammar of relationality.  It argues that today, restorative justice exemplifies a distinctively moral form of neoliberalism, complicating the arguments of scholars who describe rightwing criminal justice reform as exemplifying cost-cutting and efficiency.  This account of restorative justice, in turn, reveals different possibilities and dangers for bipartisan collaborations: moral-relational values may be genuinely shared as they compete to establish highly disparate political, economic, and social visions.

June 1, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 20, 2019

Exciting agenda for "Rewriting the Sentence Summit on Alternatives to Incarceration"

In this post a few weeks ago, I flagged this great event, titled ""Rewriting the Sentence Summit on Alternatives to Incarceration," taking place next month in New York City hosted by Columbia University and The Aleph Institute at Columbia Law School.  In my prior post, I spotlighted the many great speakers scheduled to be at the event (as detailed at this link), and noted that the event website provides this overview

I now see that this link provides the detailed schedule for all the panels, and I think sentencing fans will find interesting and important every one of the planned panels.  Here are just a few panel titles from the detailed agenda to whet appetites (click through to see all the big names under each panel title):

A New Wave of Prosecutorial Thinking: Views of Recently Elected District Attorneys

A Federal Legislative Look: The First Step Act, and the Next Steps

Risk Assessment: A Feature or a Bug? Perspectives on A Complex Debate

Sentencing Second Chances: Addressing Excessive Sentencing With Escape Valves

The Role of Mercy and Dignity in Criminal Justice: From Restoration to Clemency

May 20, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Two great new policy briefs from Right on Crime discussing best practices for parole and probation

Marc Levin, who serves as Vice President for Right on Crime, has two great new "Policy Perspective" briefs on parole and probation systems. Below are the titles, links and "Key Points" from the start of both great documents:

Ten Tips for Policymakers for Parole

Key Points

• The criteria for deciding who is paroled should be objective and focused on reducing risks to public safety going forward.

• Parole boards should possess a diverse range of relevant areas of expertise and provide opportunities for meaningful participation by parole candidates and others with an interest in the outcome.

• Parole supervision and reentry should emphasize removing barriers to employment, incentives for performance, quality interactions between parole officers and those they supervise, and avenues for community-based organizations to assist people coming out of prison.

Ten Tips for Policymakers for Improving Probation

Key Points

• Probation can be an alternative or gateway to incarceration.

• Probation should be right-sized to serve only those individuals who require supervision for only the limited time period that their assessment and conduct indicate a continued need for supervision.

• Incentives should drive probation policy, both for agencies and those they supervise.

May 19, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

"Promoting Equality Through Empirical Desert"

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

According to empirical desert theory, good utilitarian grounds exist for distributing criminal punishment pursuant to the (retributive) intuitions of the lay community on criminal liability.  This theory’s insights, based on original empirical research and informed by social science, have significantly influenced contemporary criminal law theory.   Yet, ostensibly, the theory is hampered by serious limitations, which may have obstructed its progress and its potential to guide criminal justice reform.  Chief among them: it draws from community intuitions, and community intuitions — as the theory acknowledges — are sometimes immoral.  In addition to these “immorality objections,” (commonly illustrated by alluding to the antebellum South and Nazi Germany), critics have alleged, inter alia, that the theory is self-defeating, uses incongruous justifications, and engages in deceptive and exploitative practices.

This Article argues that these critiques are misplaced and overstated, and that empirical desert theory can be safely relied on in criminal justice — and beyond.  Despite the captivating historical illustrations and the intuitive appeal of immorality objections, this Article demonstrates that empirical desert theory is nearly immune to them, by virtue of previously underappreciated features of its scientific methodology.   Moreover, it can do even better. T  his Article presents an innovative proposal to reconceptualize the theory by incorporating into its scientific methodology a minimalistic normative commitment to equality and non-discrimination.  It provides theoretical support and specific parameters for this reconceptualization, which imbues the theory with qualities capable of further safeguarding it from immorality objections.  Furthermore, the Article explores ten additional criticisms of the theory, seriatim, and demonstrates that the proposed reconceptualization substantially strengthens the theory’s ability to overcome them.  In its conclusion, the Article outlines two future paths for the theory’s application beyond criminal law, discussing the possibility to “export” its insights to international humanitarian law and its potential to reframe the interaction between criminal law theory and philosophy.

May 16, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

An illuminating study highlighting bright ways to deter and prevent crime other than through prison punishments

Some of the (shrinking?) fans of incarceration, if pressed about the utilitarian crime-control value of this costly form of punishment, can sometimes be heard to say that even if prison does not effectively deter or rehabilitate offenders, at least it serves to incapacitate and prevent repeat offenses.  One important response to such a claim is that prisoners can and do still commit crimes in prison.  But an even more important and satisfying response is that monies used to imprison might often be much better used on other government activities that will better deter and prevent crime, and that kind of response is supported by this interesting new National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper.  The paper, titled "Reducing Crime Through Environmental Design: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment of Street Lighting in New York City," is authored by Aaron Chalfin, Benjamin Hansen, Jason Lerner and Lucie Parker, and here is its abstract:

This paper offers experimental evidence that crime can be successfully reduced by changing the situational environment that potential victims and offenders face.  We focus on a ubiquitous but surprisingly understudied feature of the urban landscape — street lighting — and report the first experimental evidence on the effect of street lighting on crime. Through a unique public partnership in New York City, temporary streetlights were randomly allocated to public housing developments from March through August 2016.  We find evidence that communities that were assigned more lighting experienced sizable reductions in crime.  After accounting for potential spatial spillovers, we find that the provision of street lights led, at a minimum, to a 36 percent reduction in nighttime outdoor index crimes.

May 15, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, May 10, 2019

Split Eighth Circuit panel explores lifetime supervised release conditions for child porn offender

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss an Eighth Circuit panel's work today in US v. Carson, No. 17-3589 (8th Cir. May 10, 2019) (available here). Like many federal sentencing cases, there are lots of small stories wrapped within the numbing reality of an offender with an affinity for child porn and teenage girls receiving mass punishment: e.g., the defendant here got "only" 20 years in prison when his guideline range called for 30 years; even though facing the real possibility of imprisonment until nearly 2045, for some reason "Carson did not submit his own sentencing memorandum"; counsel at sentencing did not object to broad conditions of lifetime supervised release, so they get reviewed only for plain error.

The heart of the legal dispute on appeal is defendant's claim that sentencing court should have had to provide a distinct analysis and justifications for his special conditions of supervised release, one of which included social media restrictions seemingly comparable to what the Supreme Court stuck down as unconstitutional in Packingham v. North Carolina. Here is a portion of the majority's rejection of the claims on appeal:

We next turn to Carson’s argument that Special Condition 16 (the social media restriction) “suffers the same flaws as the North Carolina statute held to be unconstitutional in Packingham.”  The Supreme Court in Packingham considered the constitutionality of a statute prohibiting registered sex offenders from “access[ing] a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members” or from “creat[ing] or maintain[ing] personal Web pages” on such sites.  Packingham, 137 S. Ct. at 1733 (quoting N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-202.5(a), (e)).  The Supreme Court held the statute burdened substantially more speech than necessary to further the government’s interests in protecting minors from sexual abuse.  Id. at 1737–38.  The Court reasoned that “to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights,” given the importance of social media for accessing information and communicating with others. Id. at 1737.  Carson argues his court-imposed inability to maintain or create a user account on any social media site falls squarely under the holding of Packingham.

We disagree.  Several of our sister circuits have rejected a similar argument in challenges to supervised release conditions forbidding access to the internet — and effectively to social media sites — without prior approval or monitoring by a court or probation officer.  See United States v. Antczak, 753 F. App’x. 705, 715 (11th Cir. 2018) (unpublished); United States v. Halverson, 897 F.3d 645, 657–58 (5th Cir. 2018); United States v. Browder, 866 F.3d 504, 511 n.26 (2d Cir. 2017); United States v. Rock, 863 F.3d 827, 831 (D.C. Cir. 2017).  These courts have noted Packingham invalidated only a post-custodial restriction and expressed concern that the statute applied even to “persons who have already served their sentence.”  Halverson, 897 F.3d at 658 (quoting Packingham, 137 S. Ct. at 1737).  Because supervised release is part of a defendant’s sentence, Packingham does not render a district court’s restriction on access to the internet during a term of supervised release plain error.  See id.; Rock, 863 F.3d at 831.  We find this reasoning applies with equal force here.  Thus, even assuming the district court’s prohibition on creating or maintaining a social media profile implicates the same First Amendment interests as a restriction on accessing social media altogether, the district court did not commit plain error by imposing Special Condition 16.

And here is the closing paragraph of Judge Kelly's dissent:

I do not minimize the seriousness of Carson’s crimes.  For those he will serve a twenty-year prison term followed by a lengthy term of supervised release.  I also recognize the need to monitor Carson’s conduct upon release.  But Carson was thirty- three at the time of his arrest, and his lifetime term of supervised release could very well last decades. We can only imagine the universe of internet-reliant electronic devices that will pervade everyday life by then.  The length and conditions of Carson’s supervised release may well be justified, but such punishment deserves, at minimum, some reasoned explanation from the sentencing court.  Accordingly, I respectfully dissent.

May 10, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

"Rewriting the Sentence Summit on Alternatives to Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this great event taking place next month in New York City hosted By Columbia University and The Aleph Institute at Columbia Law School.  Though I have played a small role in helping to plan the event, some folks much more talented than me have arranged for an extraordinary array of great speakers to be at the event (as detailed at this link). The event website provides this overview:

What is the Rewriting the Sentence Summit on Alternatives to Incarceration?

This is a high-level summit that aims to highlight the range of alternative sentencing policies and programs that are currently operating in the U.S. and abroad, and look more deeply at their effectiveness and functional requirements.  It will include a wide range of perspectives on these issues.

Who will participate in the summit?

The summit will bring together an unprecedented number of current and former leaders and senior government officials who have served on the front lines of day-to-day operations in the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, government, judiciary, defense, forensic social workers and psychologists, and nonprofits, as well as formerly incarcerated people, victims and advocacy groups.

What are the summit’s objectives?

Beyond education, The Rewriting the Sentence Summit on Alternatives to Incarceration will use plenary, breakout and interactive sessions to generate substantive dialogue between all delegates and identify key priorities for:

  • Expanding the use of effective alternative sentencing programs while enhancing public safety, including the mechanisms of discretion (police, prosecutorial and judicial) and legislative reforms;
  • Addressing public safety concerns over its broadened use and practical barriers to expansion and launching effective new programs in new jurisdictions, including operational limitations, program evaluation and public education;
  • NGOs that can help to support broader application of effective alternative sentencing, e.g., ubiquity of access and other measures and peripheral programs to help ensure successful reentry.

What sets the summit apart from other events?

The number of high-level participants; the balance between reformers and healthy skeptics; the interactive session; and the focus on making connections and producing outcomes that include the development of a database of best practices and an informal network for future coordination and support.

May 8, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Does our county really need a bigger jail?"

Pretrial_detention_growth450x337The question in the title of this post is the title of a new Prison Policy Initiative report that seeks to provide cities and counties with a guide for preventing unnecessary jail expansion.  This press release about the report reviews the essentials (and provides a link):

The report, Does our county really need a bigger jail?, lays out 33 questions that local decision-makers should ask in evaluating proposals for new or bigger jails.  “It’s very common today for jails to be overcrowded, because the number of people in jails nationwide has tripled in the last 30 years,” said report author Alexi Jones. “But in too many counties, jail growth is rooted in known policy failures like an overreliance on money bail. Local policymakers owe it to their constituents to find out if there is a better fix to overcrowding than just building a new or bigger jail.”

The report’s 33 questions for policymakers include:

  • On a typical day, how many people are confined in the existing jail who have not been convicted?
  • How many people in the county are incarcerated because they cannot afford to pay fines and fees?
  • What specialized “diversion” courts and treatment programs is the county using to divert people struggling with substance use and mental illness into more effective treatments than jail?
  • Do official cost estimates for building new jail space include not only the cost of construction, but the cost of debt service on the loan, annual operation costs, and collateral costs such as adverse impacts on public health?

“Building new jail space typically costs tens of millions of dollars or more, even as other options that are both more cost-effective and more compassionate are ignored,” said Jones. “If policymakers can’t answer these questions about why more jail space is necessary, they should not be undertaking jail expansion.”

For all 33 questions, the report also offers a set of alternatives and best practices, including:

  • Releasing more pretrial defendants on their own recognizance, and investing in pretrial services to help them make their court dates;
  • Requiring judges to set fines and fees based on a defendant’s ability to pay;
  • Investing in specialized “problem-solving” courts for people with mental health or substance use disorders that serve as true alternatives to jail time.

The report’s recommendations are accompanied by helpful graphics, as well as examples of local and state governments successfully implementing alternatives to jail expansion. “We know that the answer to mass incarceration begins at the local level,” said Jones. “That’s why it’s critical to help cities and counties think beyond jail expansion when it comes to improving public safety.”

May 8, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

"Report on Algorithmic Risk Assessment Tools in the U.S. Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report "written by the staff of the Partnership on AI (PAI) and many of [its] Partner organizations."  Here is part of the report's executive summary:

This report documents the serious shortcomings of risk assessment tools in the U.S. criminal justice system, most particularly in the context of pretrial detentions, though many of our observations also apply to their uses for other purposes such as probation and sentencing.  Several jurisdictions have already passed legislation mandating the use of these tools, despite numerous deeply concerning problems and limitations. Gathering the views of the artificial intelligence and machine learning research community, PAI has outlined ten largely unfulfilled requirements that jurisdictions should weigh heavily and address before further use of risk assessment tools in the criminal justice system.

Using risk assessment tools to make fair decisions about human liberty would require solving deep ethical, technical, and statistical challenges, including ensuring that the tools are designed and built to mitigate bias at both the model and data layers, and that proper protocols are in place to promote transparency and accountability.  The tools currently available and under consideration for widespread use suffer from several of these failures, as outlined within this document.

We identified these shortcomings through consultations with our expert members, as well as reviewing the literature on risk assessment tools and publicly available resources regarding tools currently in use. Our research was limited in some cases by the fact that most tools do not provide sufficiently detailed information about their current usage to evaluate them on all of the requirements in this report.  Jurisdictions and companies developing these tools should implement Requirement 8, which calls for greater transparency around the data and algorithms used, to address this issue for future research projects.  That said, many of the concerns outlined in this report apply to any attempt to use existing criminal justice data to train statistical models or to create heuristics to make decisions about the liberty of individuals.

Challenges in using these tools effectively fall broadly into three categories, each of which corresponds to a section of our report:

-- Concerns about the validity, accuracy, and bias in the tools themselves;

-- Issues with the interface between the tools and the humans who interact with them; and

-- Questions of governance, transparency, and accountability.

Although the use of these tools is in part motivated by the desire to mitigate existing human fallibility in the criminal justice system, it is a serious misunderstanding to view tools as objective or neutral simply because they are based on data.  While formulas and statistical models provide some degree of consistency and replicability, they still share or amplify many weaknesses of human decision-making.  Decisions regarding what data to use, how to handle missing data, what objectives to optimize, and what thresholds to set all have significant implications on the accuracy, validity, and bias of these tools, and ultimately on the lives and liberty of the individuals they assess....

In light of these issues, as a general principle, these tools should not be used alone to make decisions to detain or to continue detention.  Given the pressing issue of mass incarceration, it might be reasonable to use these tools to facilitate the automatic pretrial release of more individuals, but they should not be used to detain individuals automatically without additional (and timely) individualized hearings.  Moreover, any use of these tools should address the bias, human-computer interface, transparency, and accountability concerns outlined in this report.

This report highlights some of the key problems encountered using risk assessment tools for criminal justice applications.  Many important questions remain open, however, and unknown issues may yet emerge in this space.  Surfacing and answering those concerns will require ongoing research and collaboration between policymakers, the AI research community, and civil society groups.  It is PAI’s mission to spur and facilitate these conversations and to produce research to bridge these gaps.

May 7, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, May 03, 2019

"When Plea Bargaining Became Normal"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article authored by William Ortman and now available on SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Plea bargaining is the criminal justice system, the Supreme Court tells us, but how did it get to be that way?  Existing scholarship tells only part of the story.  It demonstrates that plea bargaining emerged in the nineteenth century as a response to (depending on one’s theory) increasing caseloads, expanding trial procedures, or professionalizing law enforcement.  But in order for plea bargaining to truly become the criminal justice system, the legal profession would have to accept and internalize it.  That was not its first reaction. When legal scholars and reformers in the 1920s discovered that bargaining dominated America’s criminal courts, they quickly denounced it as abusive.  By the 1960s, only four decades later, the legal profession had learned to love it.

This article investigates the process that made plea bargaining the normal way of doing American criminal justice.  The story unfolds in three parts—plea bargaining’s discovery by and frosty reception from the “crime commissions” of the 1920s; its rehabilitation by the Legal Realists in the 1930s; and finally its decisive embrace by scholars and judges in the 1950s and ‘60s.  The Realists’ starring role is surprising, as they are not usually recognized for contributing to criminal law or procedure.  This article shows that they deserve credit (or plausibly blame) for taking the first major steps towards normalization.  The article also pays close attention to an objection to plea bargaining that arrived late — that it depends on coercing defendants to plead guilty.  By the time this objection emerged in the 1950s, plea bargaining’s momentum was too strong; legal elites, and, ultimately, the Supreme Court, saw no option but to rationalize it away. Above all, this article reveals that normalized plea bargaining is newer and more historically contingent than it seems.

May 3, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Summer sentencing (with notable particulars) for first college admission scandal parents to enter pleas in court

This Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Bay Area couple first to plead guilty in college admissions scandal," reports on a huge high-profile federal fraud case now getting ever closer to sentencing for one pair of defendants. Here are the details:

A Northern California couple who secured their daughters’ spots at UCLA and USC with bribes and rigged tests pleaded guilty Wednesday to fraud and money laundering offenses, the first parents to admit their guilt before a judge in an investigation that has sent shivers through circles of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood and some of the country’s most elite universities.

Davina Isackson of Hillsborough, Calif., pleaded guilty to one count of fraud conspiracy. Her husband, real estate developer Bruce Isackson, pleaded guilty to one count of fraud conspiracy, one count of money laundering conspiracy and one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. They will be sentenced July 31. In Davina Isackson’s plea agreement, prosecutors recommended a sentence at the low end of federal guidelines that call for 27 to 33 months in prison. For Bruce Isackson, they suggested a sentence at the low end of 37 to 46 months in prison.

Of the 33 parents charged in the investigation, the Isacksons are the only ones to have signed cooperation deals with prosecutors. If prosecutors decide the couple provided useful and credible information, they can recommend that a judge sentence them below the federal guidelines.

Investigators want to learn from the couple who at UCLA and USC knew of an alleged recruiting scheme they used to slip their two daughters into the universities as sham athletes, The Times has reported. The Isacksons’ older daughter, Lauren, was admitted to UCLA as a recruited soccer player, given a jersey number and listed on the team roster as a midfielder for an entire season, despite never having played the sport competitively, prosecutors alleged.

To ensure she got in, they said, her parents transferred $250,000 in Facebook stock to the foundation of Newport Beach college consultant William “Rick” Singer, which Bruce Isackson later wrote off on the couple’s taxes as a charitable gift....

The Isacksons tapped Singer’s “side door” the following year to have their younger daughter admitted to USC as a recruited rower, prosecutors alleged. The couple also availed themselves of Singer’s test-rigging scheme, prosecutors said, in which he bribed SAT and ACT administrators to turn a blind eye to his 36-year-old, Harvard-educated accomplice.

With the help of the accomplice, Mark Riddell, the Isacksons’ younger daughter scored a 31 out of 36 on the ACT, prosecutors said. Her father paid Singer’s foundation $100,000 and wrote it off on taxes as a charitable gift.

I find notable that federal prosecutors think that two+ years of imprisonment is necessary for one of these the Isacksons and that three+ years is necessary for the other in accord with guideline calculations. But, because it appears that these defendants may be providing "substantial assistance," the feds may ultimately be recommending lower sentences as a kind of compensation for this kind of cooperation.

Prior related posts:

May 2, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

"How to Argue with an Algorithm: Lessons from the COMPAS ProPublica Debate"

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

The United States optimizes the efficiency of its growing criminal justice system with algorithms however, legal scholars have overlooked how to frame courtroom debates about algorithmic predictions.  In State v Loomis, the defense argued that the court’s consideration of risk assessments during sentencing was a violation of due process because the accuracy of the algorithmic prediction could not be verified.  The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the consideration of predictive risk at sentencing because the assessment was disclosed and the defendant could challenge the prediction by verifying the accuracy of data fed into the algorithm.

Was the court correct about how to argue with an algorithm?

The Loomis court ignored the computational procedures that processed the data within the algorithm.  How algorithms calculate data is equally as important as the quality of the data calculated.  The arguments in Loomis revealed a need for new forms of reasoning to justify the logic of evidence-based tools.  A “data science reasoning” could provide ways to dispute the integrity of predictive algorithms with arguments grounded in how the technology works.

This article’s contribution is a series of arguments that could support due process claims concerning predictive algorithms, specifically the Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (“COMPAS”) risk assessment.  As a comprehensive treatment, this article outlines the due process arguments in Loomis, analyzes arguments in an ongoing academic debate about COMPAS, and proposes alternative arguments based on the algorithm’s organizational context.

Risk assessment has dominated one of the first wide-ranging academic debates within the emerging field of data science.  ProPublica investigative journalists claimed that the COMPAS algorithm is biased and released their findings as open data sets.  The ProPublica data started a prolific and mathematically-specific conversation about risk assessment as well as a broader conversation on the social impact of algorithms.  The ProPublica-COMPAS debate repeatedly considered three main themes: mathematical definitions of fairness, explainable interpretation of models, and the importance of population comparison groups.

While the Loomis decision addressed permissible use for a risk assessment at sentencing, a deeper understanding of daily practice within the organization could extend debates about algorithms to questions about procurement, implementation, or training.  The criminal justice organization that purchased the risk assessment is in the best position to justify how one individual’s assessment matches the algorithm designed for its administrative needs.  People subject to a risk assessment cannot conjecture how the algorithm ranked them without knowing why they were classified within a certain group and what criteria control the rankings.  The controversy over risk assessment algorithms hints at whether procedural due process is the cost of automating a criminal justice system that is operating at administrative capacity.

April 24, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

"Justice Denied: The Harmful and Lasting Effects of Pretrial Detention"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new "evidence brief" from the Vera Institute of Justice.  Here is its overview:

The pretrial population — the number of people who are detained while awaiting trial — increased 433 percent between 1970 and 2015.  This growth is in large part due to the increased use of monetary bail.  But pretrial detention has far-reaching negative consequences.  This evidence brief presents information on the way that pretrial detention is currently used and summarizes research on its impacts.  These studies call into question whether pretrial detention improves court appearance rates, suggests that people who are detained are more likely to be convicted and to receive harsher sentences, and indicate that even short periods of detention may make people more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system again in the future.  The brief concludes by highlighting strategies that some jurisdictions have employed to reduce the use of monetary bail and increase pretrial release.

April 23, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, April 22, 2019

"The case against solitary confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and effective Vox piece from last week.  I call the piece effective in part because, in addition to being well-structured and well-written, it includes lots and lots of links.  Here is how the piece starts (with links retained):

Albert Woodfox was held in solitary confinement for more than 40 years in a Louisiana prison before being released in 2016, when he was 69 years old.  In his book Solitary, published last month, Woodfox writes that every morning, “I woke up with the same thought: will this be the day? Will this be the day I lose my sanity and discipline? Will I start screaming and never stop?”

Thousands of people — at least 61,000 on any given day and likely many thousands more than that — are in solitary confinement across the country, spending 23 hours per day in cells not much bigger than elevators.  They are disproportionately young men, and disproportionately Hispanic and African American.  The majority spend a few months in it, but at least a couple of thousand people have been in solitary confinement for six years or more. Some, like Woodfox, have been held for decades.

Solitary confinement causes extreme suffering, particularly over prolonged periods of months or years.  Effects include anxiety, panic, rage, paranoia, hallucinations, and, in some cases, suicide.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, deemed that prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture, and the UN’s Mandela Rules dictate that it should never be used with youth and those with mental or physical disability or illness, or for anyone for more than 15 days.  Méndez, who inspected prisons in many countries, wrote, “[I]t is safe to say that the United States uses solitary confinement more extensively than any other country, for longer periods, and with fewer guarantees.”

Many practices in the US criminal justice system are harsh, ineffective, even absurd, from the widespread use of money bail to detain unconvicted people to extremely long sentences and parole terms, and a host of other outrages.  But placing people in solitary stands out as a violation of human rights.

Well over a century ago in the US, the practice fell out of favor, partly because of its capacity for psychological harm. Yet starting in the 1980s, its use in prisons and jails exploded again.

Over the past decade, there has been a movement to (again) stop the widespread use of solitary. There have been major steps forward in some states.  But there’s considerable need for more progress — and wider acknowledgment that this is something that we are all accountable for. As Laura Rovner, a law professor at the University of Denver, put it in a recent talk, “We torture people here in America, tens of thousands of them every day … it’s done in our names, with our tax dollars, behind closed doors.”

April 22, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, April 21, 2019

"Misdemeanors by the Numbers"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN authored by Sandra Mayson and Megan Stevenson.  Here is its abstract:

Recent scholarship has underlined the importance of criminal misdemeanor law enforcement, including the impact of public-order policing on communities of color, the collateral consequences of misdemeanor arrest or conviction, and the use of misdemeanor prosecution to raise municipal revenue.  But despite the fact that misdemeanors represent more than three-quarters of all criminal cases filed annually in the United States, our knowledge of misdemeanor case processing is based mostly on anecdote and extremely localized research.  This Article represents the most substantial empirical analysis of misdemeanor case processing to date.  Using multiple court-record datasets, covering several million cases across eight diverse jurisdictions, we present a detailed documentation of misdemeanor case processing from the date of filing through adjudication and sentencing.

The resulting portrait reveals a system that disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color.  Between 2011 and 2016, each jurisdiction studied relied on monetary bail, which resulted in high rates of pretrial detention even at relatively low amounts, and imposed court costs upon conviction.  There were substantial racial disparities in case-filing rates across locales and offense categories.  The data also, however, highlight profound jurisdictional heterogeneity in how misdemeanors are defined and prosecuted.  The variation suggests that misdemeanor adjudication systems may have fundamentally different characters, and serve different functions, from place to place. It thus presents a major challenge to efforts to describe and theorize the contemporary landscape of misdemeanor justice.  At the most fundamental level, the variation calls into question the coherence of the very concept of a misdemeanor, or of misdemeanor criminal justice.  As appreciation for the significance of low-level law enforcement builds, we urge scholars and policymakers to attend carefully to the complexity of this sub-felony world.

April 21, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Thoughtful look into prison abolitionism (and prison history) in theory and practice

The New York Times magazine has this week's must read under the headline "Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind."  The piece is a profile of a noted prison abolitionist along with a broader discussion of prison history and prison abolitionism.  I heartily recommend the terrific lengthy piece in full, and here is an extended excerpt:

Prison abolition, as a movement, sounds provocative and absolute, but what it is as a practice requires subtler understanding.  For Gilmore, who has been active in the movement for more than 30 years, it’s both a long-term goal and a practical policy program, calling for government investment in jobs, education, housing, health care — all the elements that are required for a productive and violence-free life. Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack.  Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they “mess up.”...

In the wake of the Enlightenment, European reformers gradually moved away from corporal punishment tout court; people would go to prison for a set period of time, rather than to wait for the punishment to come.  The penitentiary movement in both England and the United States in the early 19th century was motivated in part by the demand for more humanitarian punishment. Prison was the reform.

If prison, in its philosophical origin, was meant as a humane alternative to beatings or torture or death, it has transformed into a fixed feature of modern life, one that is not known, even by its supporters and administrators, for its humanity.  In the United States, we now have more than two million incarcerated people, a majority of them black or brown, virtually all of them from poor communities.  Prisons not only have violated human rights and failed at rehabilitation; it’s not even clear that prisons deter crime or increase public safety.

Following an incarceration boom that began all over the United States around 1980 and only recently started to level off, reform has become politically popular.  But abolitionists argue that many reforms have done little more than reinforce the system. In every state where the death penalty has been abolished, for example, it has been replaced by the sentence of life without parole — to many people a death sentence by other, more protracted means.  Another product of good intentions: campaigns to reform indeterminate sentencing, resulting in three-strike programs and mandatory-minimum sentencing, which traded one cruelty for another. Over all, reforms have not significantly reduced incarceration numbers, and no recent reform legislation has even aspired to do so.

For instance, the first federal prison reform in almost 10 years, the bipartisan First Step Act, which President Trump signed into law late last year, will result in the release of only some 7,000 of the 2.3 million people currently locked up when it goes into effect. Federal legislation pertains only to federal prisons, which hold less than 10 percent of the nation’s prison population, and of those, First Step applies to only a slim subset.  As Gilmore said to me, noting an outsize public enthusiasm after the act passed the Senate, “There are people who behave as though the origin and cure are federal.  So many are unaware of how the country is juridically organized, and that there are at least 52 criminal-legal jurisdictions in the U.S.”

Which isn’t to say that Gilmore and other abolitionists are opposed to all reforms. “It’s obvious that the system won’t disappear overnight,” Gilmore told me.  “No abolitionist thinks that will be the case.”  But she finds First Step, like many state reforms it mimics, not just minor but exclusionary, on account of wording in the bill that will make it even harder for some to get relief.  (Those convicted of most higher-level offenses, for example, are ineligible for earned-time credits, a new category created under First Step.)  “So many of these proposed remedies don’t end up diminishing the system.  They regard the system as something that can be fixed by removing and replacing a few elements.”  For Gilmore, debates over which individuals to let out of prison accept prison as a given.  To her, this is not just a moral error but a practical one, if the goal is to actually end mass incarceration. Instead of trying to fix the carceral system, she is focused on policy work to reduce its scope and footprint by stopping new prison construction and closing prisons and jails one facility at a time, with painstaking grass-roots organizing and demands that state funding benefit, rather than punish, vulnerable communities.

“What I love about abolition,” the legal scholar and author James Forman Jr. told me, “and now use in my own thinking — and when I identify myself as an abolitionist, this is what I have in mind — is the idea that you imagine a world without prisons, and then you work to try to build that world.”  Forman came late, he said, to abolitionist thinking. He was on tour for his 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Locking Up Our Own,” which documents the history of mass incarceration and the inadvertent roles that black political leaders played, when a woman asked him why he didn’t use the word “abolition” in his arguments, which, to her, sounded so abolitionist.  The question led Forman to engage seriously with the concept.  “I feel like a movement to end mass incarceration and replace it with a system that actually restores and protects communities will never succeed without abolitionists. Because people will make compromises and sacrifices, and they’ll lose the vision.  They’ll start to think things are huge victories, when they’re tiny. And so, to me, abolition is essential.”

The A.C.L.U.’s Smart Justice campaign, the largest in the organization’s history, has been started with a goal of reducing the prison population by 50 percent through local, state and federal initiatives to reform bail, prosecution, sentencing, parole and re-entry.  “Incarceration does not work,” said the A.C.L.U. campaign director Udi Ofer.  The A.C.L.U., he told me, wants to “defund the prison system and reinvest in communities.” In our conversation, I found myself wondering if Ofer, and the A.C.L.U., had been influenced by abolitionist thinking and Gilmore. Ofer even seemed to quote Gilmore’s mantra that “prisons are catchall solutions to social problems.”  When I asked him, Ofer said, “There’s no question.  She’s made tremendous contributions, even just in helping to bring about a conversation on what this work really is, and the constant struggle not to replace one oppressive system with another.”

April 20, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Notable new advocacy against a "soft-on-crime prosecutorial agenda"

Kimberly Guilfoyle has this notable new Hill commentary under the headline "Avoid the slippery slope of 'soft-on-crime' policies that progressives want." Much of the piece is focused on immigration policy, but other domestic crime and punishment issues are covered, as revealed by these excerpts:

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is adamant on upending decades of sound law enforcement policies in favor of a radical progressive approach.  Open borders, weak-on-crime prosecutors, and drug injection sites are on the table. It’s time to fight back against these misguided policies and take a stand for the rule of law.

By all measures, Americans are enjoying a golden era of safety.  Violent and property crime offenses have plummeted in the past 25 years.  In a recent Gallup poll, only 30 percent of Americans stated they would be afraid to walk alone at night within a mile of where they live, a historic low for this survey question.

As a former prosecutor, I know a thing or two about policies that keep people safe. To be clear: “Broken Windows” policing works. Locking up criminals works.  Strong sentencing guidelines work.  And yet, Democrats want to completely throw this time-tested playbook out the window to appease their growing progressive base....

Buoyed by liberal, wealthy donors and other special interest groups, progressive prosecutors are gaining traction across the country.  Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Philadelphia where District Attorney Larry Krasner has worked diligently to craft a soft-on-crime prosecutorial agenda.  Under Krasner’s guidelines, a grab bag of criminal offenses no longer are prosecuted.  Heinous crimes such as homicide even have gotten the “kid gloves” treatment because Krasner believes that we should not “overcharge” felons, even those who kill.  As a result, a shocking number of defendants have had their sentences reduced from murder to manslaughter.  Krasner has become the poster child for other progressive district attorneys across the country seeking to undermine the rule of law.

Progressives also have gained steam in their fight to open up so-called “safe” injection sites across the country, where addicts can use illegal street drugs in a medically sanctioned environment. Undeniably, safe injection sites further normalize the use of extreme drugs.  These sites offer no restrictions on who can shoot up and when. Should a minor be allowed to try black tar heroin for the first time uninterrupted? Are law enforcement officers going to be forced to watch while exploitative drug dealers sell dope to vulnerable addicts? How many times can an addict overdose in a single day?

Thankfully, the Trump administration has been pushing back against these radical policies and standing strong for the rule of law.  This means tougher punishments for criminal aliens and more funds for border security measures, stronger measures against those flooding our communities with opioids, and promises of a stringent crackdown on any city that supports a safe injection site.

These policies make our country safer and stronger. Law enforcement should always focus on putting the interests of families and children first.  With this in mind, we can’t let the radical left undue decades of steady progress.  We must stand with President Trump to keep our nation safe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this commentary does not mention that, according to Philadelphia Police Department data, violent crime in Philly reportedly went down by five percent in 2018 (though homicides were up 10%), and violent crime has remained at that lower rate so far in 2019 (though with homicide still moving up).  This commentary also, notably, makes no mention of the Trump Administration's support for the FIRST STEP Act.   In this context, I know I am happy to "stand with President Trump" when he stressed at the White House this important point earlier this month: "Americans from across the political spectrum can unite around prison reform legislation that will reduce crime while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption."

Specifics aside, I highlight this commentary because it provide a useful reminder of how readily we might slide back into the tired-old "soft-on-crime" rhetoric that defined domestic discourse on crime and punishment for decades in the United States. Though there are no shortage of wedge issues in our current political discussions, crime and punishment has a dangerously classic character.

April 15, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, April 13, 2019

"Introducing Disruptive Technology to Criminal Sanctions: Punishment by Computer Monitoring to Enhance Sentencing Fairness and Efficiency"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN authored by Mirko Bagaric, Dan Hunter and Colin Loberg.  Here is its abstract:

The United States criminal justice system is the most punitive on earth.  The total correctional population is nearly seven million, equating to a staggering one in thirty-eight adults.  Most of the correctional population comprises offenders who are on parole or probation.  The financial burden this imposes on the community is prohibitive.  Further, a high portion of offenders who are on parole or probation offend during the period of the sanction.  This Article proposes an overdue solution to the crisis which exists in relation to the imposition of criminal sanctions.  The solution is especially timely given that there is now a considerable consensus emerging among lawmakers and the wider community that reforms need to be implemented to reduce the cost of criminal sanctions and improve their effectiveness.  Moreover, the United States Sentencing Commission has recently proposed an amendment to increase the availability of sentences which are alternatives to incarceration. 

With little hint of exaggeration, the sentencing system remains in a primitive state when it comes to adopting technological advances.  This Article seeks to address this failing as a means of overcoming the main shortcomings of current common criminal sanctions.  Forty years ago, it was suggested that the most effective way to deal with crime was to assign a police officer to watch over the every move of each offender.  The proposal was dubbed “cop-a-con”.  This would nearly guarantee that offenders did not re-offend, while eliminating the adverse consequences of prison.  This proposal was manifestly unviable due to its excessive costs.  Technological advances now make the concept achievable in a cost-effective manner.

It is now possible to monitor the locations and actions of individuals in live time and to detect crime as it is in the process of being committed.  Adapted properly to the criminal justice system, technology has the potential to totally reshape the nature and efficacy of criminal sanctions.  The sanctions which are currently utilized to deal with the most serious offenders, namely imprisonment, probation and parole can be replaced with technological monitoring which can more efficiently, effectively and humanely achieve the appropriate objectives of sentencing.  Technological disruption in the criminal justice sector is not only desirable, it is imperative.  Financial pressures and normative principles mandate that the United States can no longer remain the world’s most punitive nation.  The sanction suggested in the Article (“the monitoring sanction”) has the potential to more efficiently and economically impose proportionate punishment than current probation and parole systems, while enhancing public safety.

April 13, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

"Vague Comparisons and Proportional Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this new theoretical paper authored by Jacob Bronsther now on SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The “small improvement problem” (“the Problem”) applies when no option in a comparison is best nor, it seems, are the options equal, because a small improvement to one would fail to make it the better choice.  I argue that vagueness causes the Problem, such that the options are vaguely equal or vaguely “related.” I then unpack an important instance of the Problem, the comparison between a crime and a punishment upon which the ideal of a retributively deserved sentence is based.  I argue that this comparison is not only vague, but remarkably vague, leading to an expansive array of “not undeserved” sentences.  I conclude, however, that retributivism can only justify the least harmful “not undeserved” sentence.

April 10, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 06, 2019

"Making Jail a Last Resort" or "If Prisons Don’t Work, What Will?"

The title of this post are the two somewhat different (bad) headlines I have seen for this great New York Times commentary authored by Emily Bazelon (whose great timely new book is titled "Charged: The New Movement to Transform Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration.")  I am much more partial to the first headline than the second, but neither comes close to capturing effectively the spirit and themes of the wide-ranging piece.  So, go read the full piece, and here are some extended excerpts:

The United States spends far too much money locking up far too many people for far too long. A few years ago, a politician had to be brave to say anything like that out loud. Now it’s a mainstream and bipartisan view....  It’s all pretty head-spinning after decades of elected officials competing to lock more people up and spotlight the scariest crimes. Now, with public opinion shifting far and fast and politicians hurrying to catch up, you could even argue that criminal justice reform has become the new marriage equality in terms of the turnaround in public attitudes.

That presents a major opportunity for Democratic presidential candidates.  But for all the energy behind reform, no presidential candidate has articulated a big, comprehensive vision for transformational change.  There’s a consensus that the system is broken, but no agreement on how to fix it.  The presidential candidate looking to distinguish herself might start by looking at a new wave of reform-minded district attorneys who are challenging conventional law-and-order approaches in red states and blue ones.

For the candidates, thematically, a starting point should be that wealth should not determine a person’s fate in court, and profit should not drive the system.  Bail bonds, privatized probation and corporate-run prisons are parasitic features of the justice system.  Ending cash bail should be at the top of every candidate’s criminal justice agenda.  So should getting rid of fines and fees that help fund local governments but trap people in cycles of debt....

To end mass incarceration, however, exempting nonviolent offenses from jail time isn’t enough.  People convicted of violent crimes make up more than half of the country’s state prison population. But the image of prisons overflowing with murderers and rapists is wrong.  In many states, “violent felonies” include offenses like breaking into an empty house or snatching a purse or iPhone on the street.  Reducing sentences for these offenses — and changing what counts as a violent felony to begin with — is a good way to start lowering this share of the prison population.

And that fits in with a second theme for candidates: People deserve a second chance, because many grow and change. They robbed to feed an addiction and then got sober. They assaulted someone because they were mentally ill and then got treatment and stabilized. They mature as they age beyond their teens and early 20s.  That’s why it makes sense to reconsider how long a person should stay in prison after doing some time....

Parole offers another opening for second chances. In Texas, says Scott Henson, an activist who blogs at the site Grits for Breakfast, “our parole rates have gone from 15 percent to the high 30s in the last decade,” He said the increase is “having more impact than any bill we’ve passed even through the legislature.” He thinks the reason for the rise is a humdrum logistical one: The state unofficially uses parole as a way to reduce prison overcrowding.

We should also focus on redefining the terms of the public safety debate.  Ending mass incarceration, and ensuring fairness throughout the criminal justice system, aren’t in tension with public safety.  They’re integral to it.  People tend to uphold the law when they believe it’s reasonable and applied evenly.  When people have that faith, they are more likely to help the police solve crimes....

Finally, incarceration should be the last resort, not the default.  In Brooklyn, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has said this idea is central to his tenure.  His counterpart in Boston, Rachael Rollins, last month instructed prosecutors to ask for jail only “when any other recommendation would compromise” safety.  When no other option than jail or prison will do, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of people who go in also get out. Making sure they have the tools to lead productive lives when they emerge — like job training and access to decent housing — is a public good.

Presidents don’t actually control the key levers of the American punishment machine.  About 80 percent of the people who are locked up today are in state and local jails and prisons.  But presidents, and presidential campaigns, can raise the profile of an issue and set a tone.  The way they talk about repairing our broken criminal justice system speaks loudly to broader issues about racial and wealth inequality. Presidents can also shape the behavior of states and cities with funding and other incentives, like redirecting money to treatment and prevention programs.

Were I in charge of devising a headline for this piece, I might go with something like "How Prosecutors and Presidential Candidates Advance Criminal Justice Reform." But this is not the first, nor will it be the last, great newspaper piece without a headline to serve it well.  Of course, the piece itself leaves out some important stories like the achievement of the FIRST STEP Act and the need for clemency reform (points recently stressed by Senator and Prez canadide Amy Klobuchar).  But there is so much getting done and needing to be done in this space now, it is hard to fault any piece of writing for not covering everything.

April 6, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

"Limiting Identity in Criminal Law"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article recently posted to SSRN and authored by Mihailis Diamantis.  Here is its abstract:

People change with time. Their personalities, values, and preferences shift incrementally as they accrue life experience, discover new sources of meaning, and form/lose memories. Accumulated psychological changes eventually reshape not just how someone relates to the world about her, but also who she is as a person.  This transience of human identity has profound implications for criminal law.  Previous legal scholarship on personal identity has assumed that only abrupt tragedy and disease can change who we are. However, psychologists now know that the ordinary processes of growth, maturation, and decline alter us all in fundamental respects.  Many young adults find it hard to identify with their adolescent past. Senior citizens often reflect similarly on their middle years.  However tightly we hold on to the people we are today, at some tomorrow we inevitably find ourselves changed.

Criminal justice has not come to grips with this aspect of the human condition.  The law — by imposing lengthy sentences, allowing enduring consequences of conviction, and punishing long bygone violations — assumes that people’s identities remain fixed from birth to death.  If people do change with time, these policies must violate the criminal law’s most basic commitment to prosecute and punish present-day people only for crimes they (and not some different past person) committed.

Drawing on contemporary psychology and philosophy of personal identity, this Article concludes that criminal law punishes too often and too severely. Lengthy prison terms risk incarcerating people past the point at which their identity changes.  Elderly inmates who have languished on death row for decades should have a new claim for release — that they are now different people, innocent of the misdeeds of yesteryear.  One-time felons should recover lost civil rights sooner.  And defendants should benefit from juvenile process well into their twenties, when personal identity first begins to stabilize.  By confronting the challenges posed by the limits of personal identity, the criminal law can become more just and humane.

April 3, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

"The Next Step: Ending Excessive Punishment for Violent Crimes"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report written by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project.  Here is its executive summary:

While the First Step Act and other criminal justice reforms have limited the number of people imprisoned for drug crimes, they have yet to meaningfully reduce excessive penalties for violent crimes.  Nearly half of the U.S. prison population is now serving time for a violent offense, including assault and robbery.

Although the violent crime rate has plummeted to half of its early-1990s level, the number of people imprisoned for a violent offense grew until 2009, and has since declined by just 3%.  This trend stems from increased prison admissions and sentence lengths, despite evidence that excessive penalties are counterproductive.  Long sentences incapacitate older people who pose little public safety threat, produce limited deterrent effect since most people do not expect to be caught, and detract from more effective investments in public safety.

For those who seek to end mass incarceration, there are signs of hope.  In the past two decades, local, state, and federal lawmakers, governors, judges, and practitioners have rejected the death penalty, shortened excessive prison terms for violent convictions, scaled back collateral consequences, narrowed broad definitions of violence, and ended long term solitary confinement.  The 15 reforms featured in this report, implemented in over 19 states, represent more effective, fiscally sound, and morally just responses to violence.  While exceptions in a punitive era, these reforms serve as models for the future.  For example:

Rejecting torture in prison

In 2017, Colorado Department of Corrections’ executive director Rick Raemisch restricted solitary confinement to only serious violations in prisons and set a maximum duration of 15 days.

Using discretion to reduce extreme sentences

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner seeks to end the city’s heavy reliance on life without parole (LWOP) sentences.  He has made case-by-case evaluations when making resentencing offers to individuals convicted as juveniles, shown restraint in charging decisions and plea offers in homicide cases, and endorsed legislation to allow people serving LWOP to be evaluated for parole after 15 years of incarceration.

Legislators reducing excessive sentences

Mississippi legislators reformed the state’s truth-insentencing requirement for violent crimes in 2014, reducing the proportion of a sentence that individuals with certain violent convictions have to serve before becoming eligible for parole from 85% to 50%.

Recognizing the rehabilitative potential of youth and young adults

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that LWOP sentences were unconstitutional for non-homicide crimes committed by juveniles. The Court also later ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for homicide failed to recognize young people’s “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”  In 2018, California built on this precedent by directing individuals convicted under age 26 to “Youth Offender Parole Hearings.”

Scaling back collateral consequences

Floridians voted in 2018 to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions, including those convicted of most violent crimes.

The reforms identified in this report demonstrate that it is possible to undo excessive penalties for violent crimes while also promoting public safety. They are the next step of criminal justice reform and offer blueprints for policies that will better enable an end to mass incarceration within our lifetime.

April 2, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Encouraging developments in remarkable federal case that threatened old prison term after obvious rehabilitation

Download (13)I had been meaning to blog about this remarkable story first reported in the New Haven Independent under the headline "Glitch May Return Rehab’d Man To Prison." Here is the backstory from that piece: 

Jermaine Demetrius Anderson may have to leave his two jobs, his condo in Westville, his local “church family,” and the stable, crime-free life he has built for himself in the Elm City — and go to prison. All because of an apparent miscommunication over a decade ago between the Connecticut state judicial system and the federal court in Philadelphia.

His hope now is the federal government — maybe even President Donald Trump — will cut him a break.

On Feb. 28, Paul Diamond, a judge with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, signed a warrant for Anderson’s arrest for his failure to serve an outstanding 16-month federal sentence. The sentence dates to a crime that occurred 16 years ago.

The federal court issued that sentence to Anderson, now a 43-year-old employee for the city’s parks department, in 2005 after he pleaded guilty to two felony counts of possessing and passing counterfeit currency and one count of identity theft while living in Pennsylvania. He committed the crimes in 2003.

Anderson never served that federal sentence. Even though he thought he had. That’s because he spent three years in state prison in Connecticut after pleading guilty to similar but separate counterfeit currency charges in New Haven in 2003. He said he believed he was serving his state and federal sentences concurrently while locked up in Webster Correctional Institution in Cheshire.

After finishing that state sentence in November 2006, the state judicial system didn’t remand him to federal custody in Philadelphia. He said no one reached out to him and said he had to report to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to serve more time for the federal offense. He thought he had done his time. He set about rebuilding his life in New Haven.

Thirteen years later, U.S. marshals came pounding on his door in New Haven last week, claiming that he had evaded arrest and demanding that he report back to Pennsylvania to serve 16 months in federal prison.

Local attorney Michael Dolan said he has been in touch with Philadelphia federal attorneys, and has urged them to reconsider requiring Anderson to serve federal time so long after he was sentenced and so long after he served time in state prison on similar charges. “It would appear that the goals of the criminal justice system have been met,” he said about his thoroughly rehabilitated client....

Robert Clark, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, told the Independent that the marshals unearthed Anderson’s outstanding federal sentence and the slip-up between the Connecticut state judicial system and the Pennsylvania federal district court during a routine audit.

“During an internal audit of custody detainers by the U.S. Marshals in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania,” he said, “a case dating back to 2005 was found in which a sentenced man, Jermaine Demetrius Anderson, had been sent to Connecticut to face state charges. After a conviction and sentence served in Connecticut, Anderson should have been held for transfer back to federal custody; instead, he was mistakenly released. Upon the Marshals providing this information to a federal judge, the court issued a bench warrant for Anderson for failure to serve an outstanding federal sentence. Anderson was arrested in Connecticut March 20, released on bond and ordered to appear in U.S. district court in Philadelphia April 4. As the enforcement arm of the federal courts, the Marshals ensure that individuals with federal warrants are brought to face justice. Ultimately, the federal court system will make a determination on Anderson’s outstanding federal sentence.”

Dolan called Anderson’s case a prime example of someone who committed a crime, took responsibility by pleading guilty, served time in prison, and has subsequently successfully rehabilitated himself. “He’s been crime free, drug free, has employment,” Dolan said. “And now they want to take him back into custody.”

“It’s called corrections,” Anderson said. “I corrected myself. I don’t want pity. I just want people to be ethical.”

“I wasn’t evading,” he continued. “I wasn’t on the run.”

Encouragingly, this new CNN piece suggests an ethical outcome to this case may be in the works. The piece is headlined "Man who feared feds would finally impose sentence may have deal to avoid more prison," and here are the new developments:

A judge issued a bench warrant and Anderson was due back in court April 4, when it's possible he could be detained and sent to federal prison.

That apparently won't happen now after his lawyer said he reached a verbal agreement with prosecutors and the Bureau of Prisons to give Anderson credit for time "at liberty."

"I'm overjoyed but waiting for official paperwork," Anderson said, adding, "it's a blessing, but I want the blessing to be official. My heart is back in my chest where it should be." Attorney Michael Dolan said Friday he does not have an official agreement in writing.

CNN's efforts to reach the US attorney's office and the office of the federal judge overseeing the case were not immediately successful....

Dolan helped get Anderson released the day the marshals detained him, and he has been working with federal public defenders to keep his client from going to prison again.

"I certainly think it is cruel and unusual punishment," Dolan said Thursday.

I am pleased to see from this CNN piece that Anderson's attorney was apparently ready to argue that it would be unconstitutional to send him back to prison now under the Eighth Amendment. I do not think anyone would question a claim that this case is "unusual" and the facts described above certainly lead me to think it also "cruel" to require Anderson's imprisonment now under these circumstances. If a court were not prepared to rule that Anderson's reimprisonment was a violation of the Eighth Amendment, this case might alternatively be another setting for developing jurisprudence on what should be deemed "extraordinary and compelling reasons" warranting a sentence reduction under 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  This case certainly seems extraordinary and compelling to me, and modifying Anderson's federal sentence now certain seems in keeping with the "factors set forth in section 3553(a)." 

March 30, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)