Monday, January 17, 2022

How about passing the EQUAL Act so we can be "free at last" from the crack/powder sentencing disparity?

On MLK day, I have a tradition of making time to listen to the full "I Have A Dream" speech by Dr. King, which always delivers and always has its own unique power each and every listen.  In recent years, I have also used this day to explore Stanford University's awesome collection of MLK Papers; in posts linked below, I have quoted from various renown speeches and writings with an emphasis on the intersection of the civil rights movement and criminal justice reform.  But this recent news item from Wyoming has me today focused on a specific policy ask for advancing freedom and racial justice:

U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., became the seventh Republican co-sponsor of the EQUAL Act on Friday, which would fully and finally eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

The two substances are virtually identical and equally dangerous, and yet crack carries a penalty that is 18 times that of powder cocaine, according to a news release. The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a margin of 361-66, including 143 Republicans.

Lummis joined Republican Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, as co-sponsors. Advocates from across the political spectrum said the addition of Lummis is a clear indication that the EQUAL Act has the momentum needed to pass the Senate....

The EQUAL Act has support from groups across the political spectrum, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association, National District Attorneys Association, Americans for Tax Reform, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Prison Fellowship, Due Process Institute, Americans for Prosperity, FAMM, Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition, Faith and Freedom Coalition, ALEC Action, R Street Institute, FreedomWorks and Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

With seven notable and diverse GOP senators serving now serving as co-sponsors for the EQUAL Act, I have to believe this bill could easily overcome any filibuster efforts and secure passage on the floor of the Senate (likely by the 5 to 1 margin that it secured passage in the House).  So why is this not getting done ASAP?  To its credit, the Biden Administration has testified in support of the EQUAL Act in the US Senate, but I have not heard Prez Biden himself (or VP Harris) lean into this issue at all.  (Notably, if they want to focus on voting rights as a focal point for civil rights advocacy, they might also really advance the MLK legacy by taking on felony disenfranchisement.  Moreover, they should try to get bipartisan bills like the EQUAL Act passed into law so that people who care about criminal justice reform can better understand why they should bother to vote at all.)  

In part because US Sentencing Commission data reveal that "only" 1,217 persons were sentenced on crack trafficking offenses in FY 2020, which accounts for "only" 7.5% of all offenders sentenced for drug trafficking offenses, the import and impact of the EQUAL Act would not be as huge now as it might have been in years past.  (In FY 2009, just before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the crack/powder disparity from 100-1 to 18-1, there were over 5,000 persons sentenced on crack offenses; indeed, more than 5,000 persons were sentenced each year on federal crack offenses through most of the 2000s.)  Still, the USSC 2020 data show that over 93% of those sentenced for federal crack offenses are persons of color (with 77% black), so that there is still a profound inequitable impact from our federal sentencing scheme that still unfairly treats crack offenses as much more serious than functionally comparable powder offenses.

Links to some prior MLK Day posts:

A few related posts on the EQUAL Act:

January 17, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Latest issue of Dædalus explores "Reimagining Justice: The Challenges of Violence & Punitive Excess"

Wi22_Cover_ForWebThe Winter 2022 issue of the journal Dædalus has a series of essay on the topic of "Reimagining Justice: The Challenges of Violence & Punitive Excess."  Here is the issue's introduction from this issue page and a listing of the article titles and authors:

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Criminal justice policies of punitive excess and unequal protection under the law have sustained racial exclusion and added to the harsh conditions of poverty.  The Winter 2022 issue demands that we imagine a different kind of public safety that relies not on police and prisons, but on a rich community life that has eliminated racism and poverty.  Many of the solutions will lie beyond the boundaries of the criminal justice system and public policy, yet much of the work is already being done in communities around the country. And these efforts share, as the essays in this issue suggest, a common commitment to the values of healing, reconciliation, and human dignity.

Violence, Criminalization & Punitive Excess by Bruce Western and Sukyi McMahon

The Story of Violence in America by Kellie Carter Jackson

The Problem of State Violence by Paul Butler

Public Health Approaches to Reducing Community Gun Violence by Daniel W. Webster

Seeing Guns to See Urban Violence: Racial Inequality & Neighborhood Context by David M. Hureau

Developmental & Ecological Perspective on the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma & Violence by Micere Keels

The Effects of Violence on Communities: The Violence Matrix as a Tool for Advancing More Just Policies by Beth E. Richie

Faces of the Aftermath of Visible & Invisible Violence & Loss: Radical Resiliency of Justice & Healing by Barbara L. Jones

The Foundational Lawlessness of the Law Itself: Racial Criminalization & the Punitive Roots of Punishment in America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Criminal Law & Migration Control: Recent History & Future Possibilities by Jennifer M. Chacón

Due Process & the Theater of Racial Degradation: The Evolving Notion of Pretrial Punishment in the Criminal Courts by Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve

Recognition, Repair & the Reconstruction of “Square One” by Geoff K. Ward

Knowing What We Want: A Decent Society, A Civilized System of Justice & A Condition of Dignity by Jonathan Simon

All of these articles (along with abstracts) can be accessed at this webpage.

January 17, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 07, 2022

Two of three defendants convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery given LWOP, other gets life with parole

This lengthy USA Today piece reports on a high-profile state sentencing that took place down in Georgia.  Here are the basics:

A judge sentenced three men to life in prison Friday for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and denied the possibility of parole for two of the defendants, father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael.  However Judge Timothy Walmsley granted the possibility of parole to William "Roddie" Bryan, the McMichaels' neighbor who joined the chase and took video of the killing. Bryan must serve at least 30 years in prison before becoming eligible....

Before the sentencing was read, Walmsley held a minute of silence to represent a fraction of the time Arbery was running before he was shot.  He called the image of Travis McMichael aiming a shotgun at Arbery "absolutely chilling." The judge also quoted the defendant's statements, saying their words gave context to the video and guided his sentencing decision. The minimum penalty required by law for the murder charges is a life sentence; Walmsley had to determine whether each defendant would have the possibility of parole....

The three men chased the Arbery, 25, in trucks while he was running through the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2020.  The men weren't arrested for more than two months when Bryan's video was released, which fueled nationwide racial justice protests and later became a key piece of evidence in the murder trial. The nearly-all white jury deliberated for almost two days before finding the men guilty.  They were taken to Glynn County jail after the verdict was reached and are expected to appeal....

Walmsley said that while sentencing may not provide closure for the family, the community or the nation, it would hold the defendants accountable for their actions.  Arbery's parents, Marcus Arbery and Wanda Cooper-Jones, cried as the sentence was read.  Earlier Friday, the family asked for all three defendants to get the harshest penalty as they shared memories of him and the toll his death has taken....

The defendants all had the opportunity to speak before sentencing, a time when judges typically expect to hear remorse, but did not....

After being sentenced on the state charges, the three men will face a federal hate crimes trial for killing Arbery.  The three men are white; Arbery was Black. All three are charged with interfering with Arbery's rights and attempted kidnapping.  The McMichaels are also charged with using, carrying and brandishing — and in Travis McMichael’s case, firing — a gun during and in relation to a crime of violence.

The federal charges are punishable by death, life in prison or a shorter prison sentence and a fine, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.  There is no parole in the federal system. Attorneys will begin selecting a jury from a wide pool of 43 counties across the Southern District of Georgia for that trial Feb. 7. The proceedings are set to take place in Glynn County.

The McMichaels and Bryan are also facing a civil lawsuit filed by Arbery’s mother. The wrongful death suit seeks $1 million in damages and also names former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, former Glynn County Police Chief John Powell, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, and several Glynn County police officers.

January 7, 2022 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Making the case, because "upper-class offenders ... might be even more reprehensible," for a severe sentence for Elizabeth Holmes

Former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade has this notable MSNBC opinion piece that makes a full-throated argument for throwing the book ay former Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Some people steal money with guns.  Other people steal money with lies.  In a court of law, they’re all crooks. But not all crooks are treated the same by the justice system, a fact Elizabeth Holmes may be counting on when it comes to her sentencing....  White-collar criminals like Holmes may not get their hands dirty in the traditional sense, but their conduct is no less criminal than a stickup in an alley.  In fact, upper-class offenders like Holmes might be even more reprehensible; while street crime is often motivated by need, white-collar crime is usually motivated by greed....

The government quantified Holmes’ investor fraud, arguing it amounted to more than $140 million, a figure that will largely influence her eventual sentence. Federal sentencing guidelines consider a number of factors, including the amount of money involved in the scheme. Based on that number, as well as enhancements and the sophistication of her scheme, Holmes is likely looking at a sentence between 14 and 17 years.

Sentencing is a key inflection point for disparities in the criminal justice system.  But will a judge actually give Holmes a 15-year sentence? Holmes’ defense attorneys, like the attorneys of many criminals before her, will certainly try to argue that the sentencing guidelines in white-collar cases are simply “too high.”  This argument has worked with judges in the past, and high-priced attorneys know that judges can reduce the sentence considerably in a fraud case, as long as they articulate a good reason. (Unlike in criminal cases involving drugs or guns, for example, Holmes does not face a mandatory minimum sentence.)...

Perhaps because judges see offenders who look like them or who share similar backgrounds, they often bite on the argument that sentences for white-collar crimes should be something less than the guidelines range.  I have heard defense attorneys argue that their clients have already been punished enough through societal shame.  You can imagine one of these white-collar defendants lamenting to his lawyer that he can’t even walk through the country club dining room without getting a nasty look from a fellow member.

The other advantage white-collar defendants enjoy at sentencing is their ability to showcase a life of good deeds and letters of support.  An upper-income defendant can often point to service on boards or donations to charitable causes as mitigating factors.  Here again we find problematic disparities baked into the justice system: A low-income defendant lacks the resources to amass anything resembling that kind of track record.  Similarly, while a defendant like Holmes can likely find prominent people to write her letters of support, a defendant lacking her resources usually also lacks the connections needed to mount a similar campaign.

Another argument often made by defense attorneys in white-collar cases is that incarcerating their clients would be a waste of resources because they pose no threat to public safety.  This may be true, but the federal sentencing statute provides that the purpose of sentencing also includes deterrence and just punishment.  Deterrence is especially important in white-collar cases because these are crimes that are carefully planned. No one commits investor fraud in the heat of passion. If defendants who perpetrate massive fraud can get away with a slap on the wrist, then others will calculate that it is worth the gamble to do the same.  A strong sentence in white-collar cases can provide an important data point in that calculation. And fraud is not an inherently victimless crime.

As we think about ways to address racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system, we should consider not only the disproportionately long sentences that are imposed on street criminals.  We should also consider the paltry ones that are meted out to the wealthy.  We will find out soon enough how Elizabeth Holmes’ sentence does or does not contribute to this pattern.

Because I do not think all that many federal defendants (even "wealthy" ones) actually do get "paltry" sentences — unless and until they cut a special deal with a federal prosecutor, see, e.g., Jeffrey Epstein's first pass — I think we generally need to worry a whole lot more about disproportionately long federal sentences than about problematically short ones.  Still, this commentary  does usefully highlights how advantaged defendants are often better able to present mitigating sentencing factors than disadvantages ones.  For me, that provides a reason for the system to work harder to help the disadvantaged, not a reason to slam the advantaged.  As I expressed in an article nearly 15 years ago, it always worries me when an emphasis on sentencing consistency  fuels "a leveling up dynamic"  that pushes sentences to be more consistently harsh.

Prior related post:

January 5, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, January 03, 2022

"Racial Attitudes and Criminal Justice Policy"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new paper soon to be published in the journal Crime and Justice.  The article is authored by Francis Cullen, Leah Butler and Amanda Graham, and here is its abstract:

Empirical research on public policy preferences must attend to Whites’ animus toward Blacks.  For a quarter-century, studies have consistently found that Kinder and Sanders’s four-item measure of “racial resentment” is a robust predictor of almost every social and criminal justice policy opinion.  Racial animus increases Whites’ opposition to social welfare policies that benefit Blacks and their support for punitive policies that disadvantage this “out-group.”  Any public opinion study that fails to include racial resentment risks omitted variable bias.  Despite the continuing salience of out-group animus, recent scholarship, especially in political science, has highlighted other racial attitudes that can influence public policy preferences.  Two developments are of particular importance.  First, Chudy showed the progressive impact of racial sympathy, a positive out-group attitude in which Whites are distressed by incidents of Blacks’ suffering (such as the killing of George Floyd).  Second, Jardina and others documented that Whites’ in-group racial attitudes, such as White identity/consciousness or white nationalism, have political consequences, reinforcing the effects of racial resentment.  As the United States becomes a majority-minority nation, diverse in-group and out-group racial attitudes are likely to play a central role in policies — including within criminal justice — that the public endorses.

January 3, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A deep dive into extreme sentences in the Pelican State

61bbccc672eb3.imageThe Marshall Project with the Times-Picayune and The Advocate has a new series of pieces exploring extreme sentences in Louisiana.  Here are headlines, links and a few passages:

"Her Baby Died After Hurricane Katrina. Was It a Crime?: An expansive definition of murder in Louisiana leaves many behind bars forever."

Louisiana sentences people to life without parole at one of the highest rates in the nation, data shows. Nearly 4,200 men and women are serving lifetime sentences in the state, for crimes that range from homicide and rape to rarer cases of repeat purse snatchings and child neglect, an investigation by The Marshall Project and The Times-Picayune | The Advocate found.

Second-degree murder charges, like the ones Woods and Scott were found guilty of, are a big driver of life-without-parole sentences. The state has long had the highest homicide rate in the nation. But Louisiana law contains an unusually sweeping definition of second-degree murder that includes even some accidental deaths, legal experts say. And despite the wide variations in circumstances that can produce a second-degree murder conviction — from a premeditated ambush to a getaway car accident — the sentence is the same: mandatory life without parole. Judges have almost no discretion.

"‘The Only Way We Get Out of There Is in a Pine Box’: Elderly, ailing and expensive, lifetime prisoners cost Louisiana taxpayers millions a year."

Total medical spending for state corrections eclipsed $100 million last year. That’s an increase of about 25% from 2015, according to state budget figures....

Now, one in six people incarcerated in Louisiana has been sentenced to die in state custody. Nearly 1,200 lifers are over 60. Those geriatric lifers make up nearly 5% of the state prison population.

"A life sentence for $20 of weed? Louisiana stands out for its unequal use of repeat offender laws."

The crime that landed Kevin O’Brien Allen a spot among the more than 4,100 Louisianans now serving life-without-parole sentences wasn’t a bloody one: He sold $20 in marijuana to a childhood friend....

Agents booked Allen on two counts of marijuana distribution, and prosecutors in District Attorney Schuyler Marvin’s office made him an offer: a 5-year sentence if he pleaded guilty. Allen, a father of two with a steady job but a handful of drug convictions, balked....

Louisiana law affords prosecutors wide discretion to increase a repeat offender’s sentence, up to life, and Marvin’s office drew on Allen’s past convictions: possession with intent to distribute marijuana in 2004, marijuana possession in 2007 and 2011, and methamphetamine possession in 2013.

Once invoked by a prosecutor, the habitual-offender law gives little leeway to judges. They can sentence a defendant to less time if they find the minimum is so far out of line that it defies “acceptable goals of punishment” or serves as “nothing more than the purposeful imposition of pain and suffering.” But courts have described those scenarios as “exceedingly rare.”...

Allen [received a life sentence and] now works in the prison kitchen, making juice for pennies a day, serving a sentence that ends when he dies. He’s among nearly 300 people serving life without parole in Louisiana prisons based on their status as habitual offenders, an analysis of recent state corrections data show. In 40% of those cases, the incarcerated person is locked up for life on a non-violent crime....

Corrections data show wide variances in how district attorneys around the state have used the habitual offender law. Nearly two-thirds of habitual lifers in the state were sentenced in one of four large parishes: Caddo, Orleans, St. Tammany or Jefferson, according to the data. The practice is somewhat less common in East Baton Rouge Parish, the state’s most populous.

Overall, Louisiana prosecutors have mostly aimed the law at Black defendants, like Allen. Black people make up 31% of Louisiana’s population, but 66% of its state prisoners; 73% of those serving life sentences; and 83% of those serving life as habitual offenders, corrections and census data show.

December 21, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, December 13, 2021

Notable new report from For The People about early implementation of California’s Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing law

I just learned about this notable new report from For The People under the title "Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing: California’s Opportunity to Expand Justice and Repair Harm."  Here is part of the report's executive summary and key findings:

Until relatively recently, California was home to the largest prison system in the U.S. From 1975 to 2006, California’s prison population saw an 800% increase, from less than 20,000 people to 163,000, as the state built 22 of its 34 prison facilities.  Though California has enacted a series of reforms in the last decade, over 99,000 people remain incarcerated in the state’s prisons. Many of these people, disproportionately people of color, are serving excessively long sentences and could be released without posing a threat to public safety.

California’s Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing (PIR) law (AB 2942), championed by For The People’s founder and passed in 2018, gives District Attorneys (DAs) a groundbreaking tool to directly and immediately redress the harm caused by mass incarceration and excessive sentences.  The law allows DAs to take a “second look” at past sentences that may no longer be in the interest of justice and ask the court to recall sentences and resentence people, resulting in their earlier release and reunification with family and community. 

This report looks at how specific policies led to mass incarceration in California, reviews the evidence in support of releasing people who no longer need to be incarcerated, examines the opportunity for PIR, and shares the real impacts of resentencing on people who have already been released. Finally, the report offers recommendations on implementation and opportunities for further reform.

This press release provides a partial accounting of "key report finding":

And this Washington Post opinion piece by Hillary Blout, a former prosecutor who founded For The People, makes the case for Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing (PIR) under the headline "Thousands of incarcerated people deserve to come home. Here’s how prosecutors can help." Here are excerpts with links from the original:

Beyond California, For The People has supported the passage of three laws just like the original. Today, IllinoisOregon and Washington state have all passed laws giving prosecutors the ability to revisit old cases — and more states, including New YorkMinnesota and Massachusetts, are considering PIR bills.

As this movement spreads, many may wonder, “Is this safe?”  The myth goes that long sentences are crucial to increasing public safety.  But research has shown that the length of a sentence doesn’t actually have the effect of deterring more crime.  Research also shows that people age out of crime, and that recidivism rates decline with age and are the lowest among people who have served the longest sentences for serious crimes.

The PIR process includes a meticulous review of an incarcerated person’s history, rehabilitation and in-prison behavior, as well as robust reentry planning. It also considers mitigating factors from the person’s childhood and develops safeguards for the future.  This helps ensure that our communities will be protected and even benefit from the person’s return home.

Regular readers know I am a big fan of second-look sentencing mechanisms, and some may recall that many years ago I gave a talk arguing that prosecutors should be much more involved in reviewing past sentences, which got published as Encouraging (and Even Requiring) Prosecutors to Be Second-Look Sentencers, 19 Temple Political & Civil Rights L. Rev. 429 (2010).  So I am extremely pleased to see this idea in actual practice in a growing number of jurisdictions. 

December 13, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 11, 2021

"Protective State Policies and the Employment of Fathers with Criminal Records"

I just recently saw this recent article, which shares the title of this post, authored by Allison Dwyer Emory and published online via the journal Social Problems.  Here is its abstract:

A criminal record can be a serious impediment to securing stable employment, with negative implications for the economic stability of individuals and their families. State policies intended to address this issue have had mixed results, however.  Using panel data from the Fragile Families study merged with longitudinal data on state-level policies, this study investigates the association between criminal record based employment discrimination policies and the employment of men both with and without criminal records.  These state policies broadly regulate what kinds of records can be legally used for hiring and licensing decisions, but have received little attention in prior research.  Findings indicate that men with criminal records were less likely to be working if they lived in states with more policies in place to regulate the legal use of those records.  Consistent with research linking policies regulating access to records to racial discrimination, black men living in protective states reported this employment penalty even if they did not have criminal records themselves.  Thus, these policies, at best, may fail to disrupt entrenched employment disparities and, at worst, may exacerbate racial discrimination.

December 11, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

"'No idea whether he's Black, White, or purple': Colorblindness and cultural scripting in prosecution"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new research authored by R. R. Dunlea and just published in the journal Criminology.  Here is its abstract:

Prosecutors maintain immense power over criminal case processing.  Yet, they have not historically been a major target for reforms designed to foster equality and reduce racial disparity in criminal justice outcomes.  Using in-depth interviews with 47 line prosecutors, this study explores how prosecutors think about race in criminal justice, and what they believe their role should be in addressing racial disparities. 
Results show that prosecutors broadly embrace a colorblind approach to prosecution and argue that race should be disregarded in case processing.  Their support for colorblind prosecution is reinforced by race-neutral cultural scripts that can be linked to the social and operational realities of prosecutors’ work environment.  These findings suggest that efforts to improve fairness in case processing will be more effective if they are accompanied by widespread prosecutorial culture change.  Such efforts may also benefit from the consideration of structural features of the prosecutor's office that currently lead line agents to embrace colorblindness and reject a larger role in alleviating racial disparities.

December 7, 2021 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, December 06, 2021

Noting differing perceptions of whether prison time is too long or too short or just right in the US

FT_21.11.17_TimeInPrison_1Over at the Pew Research Center, John Gramlich has this interesting new piece under the headline "U.S. public divided over whether people convicted of crimes spend too much or too little time in prison."  The graphic reprinted here captures the heart of the story, and here is some of the text (with links from the original):

Americans are closely divided over whether people convicted of crimes spend too much, too little or about the right amount of time in prison, with especially notable differences in views by party affiliation, ideology, race and ethnicity.

Overall, 28% of U.S. adults say people convicted of crimes spend too much time in prison, while 32% say they spend too little time and 37% say they spend about the right amount of time, according to a Pew Research Center survey of 10,221 adults conducted in July 2021.  The question was asked as part of a broader survey examining differences in Americans’ political attitudes and values across a range of topics.  The survey asked about prison time in a general way and did not address penalties for specific crime types.

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are much more likely to say people convicted of crimes spend too much time in prison than to say they spend too little time behind bars (41% vs. 21%).  The reverse is true among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents: 44% of Republicans say people convicted of crimes spend too little time in prison, while 14% say they spend too much time behind bars.  Around a third of Democrats and Democratic leaners (35%) and a slightly higher share of Republicans and GOP leaners (39%) say people convicted of crimes spend about the right amount of time in prison.

Views differ by ideology within each partisan group.  Liberal Democrats are more likely than conservative and moderate Democrats (54% vs. 30%) to say convicted people spend too much time in prison.  Conservative Republicans are more likely than moderate and liberal Republicans (49% vs. 35%) to say people convicted of crimes spend too little time in prison.

Democrats who describe their political views as very liberal and Republicans who describe their views as very conservative stand out even more.  Very liberal Democrats are much more likely than Democrats who describe their views as simply liberal (70% vs. 47%) to say convicted people spend too much time in prison.  And very conservative Republicans are more likely than Republicans who describe their views as simply conservative (56% vs. 47%) to say people convicted of crimes spend too little time in prison.

Attitudes about many aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system differ by race and ethnicity, as previous Pew Research Center surveys have shown, and a similar pattern appears in views of time spent in prison.  Black adults (40%) are more likely than White (26%), Asian (26%) and Hispanic adults (25%) to say people convicted of crimes spend too much time in prison.  Conversely, White adults (36%) are more likely than Hispanic (28%) and Black adults (17%) to believe that convicted people spend too little time behind bars.  Around a third of Asian adults (34%) also say convicted people do not spend enough time in prison, but their views are not statistically different from those of White and Hispanic adults.

Among Democrats, similar shares of Black and White adults say prisoners spend too much time behind bars, even as Black and White Democrats express different views on some other survey questions related to criminal justice.  Black Democrats, for example, are modestly more likely than White Democrats to favor increased funding for police in their area, according to a September Pew Research Center survey.

December 6, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, November 29, 2021

"The population prevalence of solitary confinement"

Th title of this post is the title of this notable new research article in the new issue of the journal Science Advances and authored by Hannah Pullen-Blasnik, Jessica T. Simes and Bruce Western.  Here is its abstract:

Solitary confinement is a severe form of incarceration closely associated with long-lasting psychological harm and poor post-release outcomes.  Estimating the population prevalence, we find that 11% of all black men in Pennsylvania, born 1986 to 1989, were incarcerated in solitary confinement by age 32.  Reflecting large racial disparities, the population prevalence is only 3.4% for Latinos and 1.4% for white men.  About 9% of black men in the state cohort were held in solitary for more than 15 consecutive days, violating the United Nations standards for minimum treatment of incarcerated people.  Nearly 1 in 100 black men experienced solitary for a year or longer by age 32.  Racial disparities are similar for women, but rates are lower.  A decomposition shows that black men’s high risk of solitary confinement stems primarily from their high imprisonment rate.  Findings suggest that harsh conditions of U.S. incarceration have population-level effects on black men’s well-being.

November 29, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Sentencing basics for defendants convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery

This afternoon brought a jury verdict in the closely watched case involving three men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery.  This AP story provides the context and the sentencing possibilities and other particulars now to follow:

A nine-count indictment charged all three men with one count of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment and one count of criminal attempt to commit a felony, in this case false imprisonment.

Travis McMichael was convicted of all nine charges. Greg McMichael was convicted of all charges except malice murder.  [William] Bryan was convicted of two counts of felony murder, one count of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment and one count of criminal attempt to commit a felony.

Malice and felony murder convictions both carry a minimum penalty of life in prison. The judge decides whether that comes with or without the possibility of parole.  Even if the possibility of parole is granted, a person convicted of murder must serve 30 years before becoming eligible. Multiple murder convictions are merged for the purposes of sentencing.

Murder can also be punishable by death in Georgia if the killing meets certain criteria and the prosecutor chooses to seek the death penalty.  Prosecutors in this case did not.

Each count of aggravated assault carries a prison term of at least one year but not more than 20 years. False imprisonment is punishable by a sentence of one to 10 years in prison....

The McMichaels and Bryan still face federal charges. Months before the three stood trial on state murder charges, a federal grand jury in April indicted them on hate crimes charges.  It’s an entirely separate case that’s not affected by the state trial’s outcome.

U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood has scheduled jury selection in the federal trial to start Feb. 7.  All three men are charged with one count of interference with civil rights and attempted kidnapping.  The McMichaels were also charged with using, carrying and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.  The federal indictment says the men targeted Arbery because he was Black.

November 24, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (14)

Sunday, November 14, 2021

"Racial, Gender Disparities and Prosecutorial Discretion: Evidence from Blakely v. Washington"

The title of this post is the title of this paper I just recently saw on SSRN that is authored by Andy Yuan and Spencer Cooper. Here is its abstract:

We investigate the causal effects of restricting prosecutorial discretion on racial and gender disparities.  Blakely v.Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004) exogenously introduced a significant constraint on North Carolina state prosecutors' discretion in seeking sentence enhancements by raising their burdens of proof from "preponderance of evidence" to "beyond a reasonable doubt."   Through a regression discontinuity design, we find striking evidence that restricting prosecutorial discretion eliminated the entire preexisting gender gap of men being 28% more likely to receive sentence enhancements than women.  However, we find no evidence suggesting a racial gap of sentence enhancements both pre and post Blakely.

November 14, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 12, 2021

"Two Strikes and You’re in Prison Forever: Why Florida leads the nation in people serving life without chance of parole."

The title of this post is the headline of this important new reporting (and accounting) from the Marshall Project. I recommend the full piece, and here is a taste:

The number of people serving life-without-parole sentences has soared across the country in the last two decades, rising to 56,000, according to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group.  Some people received these penalties as an alternative to capital punishment, which has fallen out of favor with many prosecutors and the public.  The number of death sentences dwindled to 18 last year, and only 2,500 people are now on death row, down from almost 3,600 two decades ago.

But there’s another reason for the increase: A handful of states have embraced life-without-parole sentences to punish “repeat offenders” — even if their crimes didn’t cause physical injury, an investigation by The Marshall Project and The Tampa Bay Times found.

Washington passed the first “three strikes” law in 1993, allowing prosecutors to give life sentences to people convicted even of nonviolent felonies if they met the criteria for “persistent offenders.”  At least two dozen states followed suit, including Florida in 1995.  In many states, people sentenced to life used to become eligible for parole after 15 years. But Florida and others virtually ended parole a generation ago, so that life sentences became permanent.

Today, Florida has more than 13,600 people serving life without parole, far more than any other state and almost a quarter of the total nationwide.  Though this sentence is widely seen as an alternative to the death penalty, which is used in murder cases, 44% of the people serving it in Florida were not convicted of that crime, according to our analysis of state data.

Part of the reason Florida’s numbers are so high is that it went further than any other state in 1997 by passing an unusual “two strikes” law known as the Prison Releasee Reoffender Act. The law directs prosecutors to seek the maximum sentence for someone who commits a felony within three years of leaving prison, which often means a lifetime behind bars. The law also takes sentencing discretion away from judges.  About 2,100 of the state’s permanent lifers, or about 15%, are in prison because of the law, our investigation found.  The crimes that netted life without parole included robbing a church of a laptop, holding up motel clerks for small amounts of cash and stealing a television while waving a knife....

The two-strikes punishment has been disproportionately applied to Black men, who account for almost 75% of those serving time because of the 1997 law, our analysis found; about 55% of all prisoners in the state are Black. Their most common charge was armed robbery, not homicide. Housing its life-without-parole population, including those locked up under the two-strikes law, cost Florida at least $330 million last year, according to our analysis of state data.

“This is an incredibly punitive law that is totally arbitrary,” said Jeff Brandes, a Republican who represents St. Petersburg in the Florida Senate and is trying to repeal the two-strikes law, so far without much support from his colleagues. He said Florida wastes too much taxpayer money locking people up forever on burglary, robbery and theft. “A sentence that is too long is just as unjust as a sentence that is too short,” he said.

The Marshall Project has this companion piece headlined "He Got a Life Sentence When He Was 22 — For Robbery: Black men are most affected by Florida’s two-strikes law." Here is a snippet:

The two-strike punishment has been disproportionately applied to Black men, an analysis of state data by The Marshall Project and Tampa Bay Times found. Among all prisoners serving life in Florida, 54% are Black; but among those serving life with enhancements like two strikes, 74% are Black.

In some counties, the racial disparities regarding sentence enhancements were glaring, the analysis found: In Leon County, home to the state capital of Tallahassee, among people serving life sentences for crimes committed within three years of release from prison, 96 of 107 were Black.  In Pinellas County, where Mackeroy grew up, 75% of prisoners serving life with two-strikes sentences are Black.

November 12, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

"The Gladue Analysis: Shedding Light on Appropriate Procedures and Sanctions"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking new paper about an interesting aspect of Canadian sentencing practice. This piece was authored by Marie-Andrée Denis-Boileau, is available via SSRN, and here is its abstract:

This paper intends to give practical tools to legal actors to better implement the second part of the s 718.2(e) of the Criminal Code analysis for sentencing Indigenous people, as first laid out in the Gladue case of the Supreme Court of Canada.  Following this, when sentencing an Indigenous person, judges have to pay attention to “the types of sentencing procedures and sanctions which may be appropriate in the circumstances for the offender because of his or her particular Aboriginal heritage or connection”.  Drawing from case law, research and the work of Commissions and Public Inquiries in Canada, the author intends to provide practical tools to legal actors to support them in fully engaging with it.  The paper identifies and describes three elements that must be considered by courts in this analysis: (1) the community’s perspectives, needs and alternatives to incarceration, (2) The Aboriginal Perspective, which was interpreted as including the "laws, practices, customs and traditions of the group” and (3) Culturally sensitive, appropriate and responsive sentences addressing the “underlying cause of the criminal conduct”. Its main focus is on Indigenous law and providing practical and clear ways for judges and legal actors to consider it.

The content of this paper was first developed for Legal Aid BC’s Best Practices Guide for Writing Gladue Reports and Understanding Gladue Principles, with the intent to support Gladue writers in providing more information to courts with regard to this part of the Gladue analysis and support anyone who is interested in better understanding Gladue principles.  This paper should support legal actors in better engaging with it.

November 3, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Is it foolish to hope, after now 35 years, that Congress will soon fix the crack-powder federal sentencing disparity?

My twitter feed this morning was full with folks noting that today marks officially a full 35 years(!) since Congress enacted the notorious 100-1 crack/powder cocaine ratio disparity.  The full story of 35 years of federal crack sentencing injustice and dysfunction cannot be recounted in a blog post.  But a few highlights document that a complete fix is long in the making, long overdue, and cannot come to soon. 

The US Sentencing Commission sent a report to Congress in 1995  — 26 years ago! —  highlight the myriad flaws with the crack-powder sentence scheme and proposed guidelines changes to partially fix the 100:1 crack/powder disparity by adopting a 1:1 quantity ratio at the powder cocaine level.  But Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, legislation rejecting the USSC’s proposed guideline changes (see basics here and here), thereby ensuring decades of disproportionately severe crack sentences and extreme racial inequities in cocaine offense punishments.

Barack Obama gave a 2007 campaign speech assailing the crack/powder disparity, and in 2009 the Obama Justice Department advocated for "Congress to completely eliminate the crack/powder disparity."  Despite strong DOJ advocacy for a 1:1 ratio in April 2009, it still took Congress more than a year to enact only a partial reduction in crack sentences rather than the parity advocated by the USSC in 1995 and by DOJ in 2009.  Specifically, the Fair Sentencing Act enshrined a new 18:1 crack/powder quantity disparity ratio into federal drug sentencing statutes and guidelines, and even this modest reform did not become fully retroactive until eight years later with the 2018 FIRST STEP Act.

Excitingly, as noted here, the US House voted 361-66 last month to pass the EQUAL Act to end, finally and completely, the statutory disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences.  In this new Hill commentary, Aamra Ahmad And Jeremiah Mosteller make the case that Congress should finally get this long overdue reform to the finish line.  Here is the start and end of their piece:

Thirty-five years ago today, while the country was still reeling from the tragic death of Len Bias — a University of Maryland basketball star who, just days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics, died from a drug overdose — Congress passed and President Reagan signed into law the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.  Assuming that the drug that killed Len was crack, Congress drafted a law that would impose harsher penalties on crack offenses.  It would impose the same mandatory prison sentence for five grams of crack cocaine as 500 grams of powder cocaine.  Even after it became known that the drug that killed Len was powder cocaine, not crack, the narrative had taken off that crack is more dangerous than powder, and Congress established the 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine in federal law.

Over the years, this sentencing disparity has become emblematic of both the ineffectiveness of reactionary criminal justice policy and the racial disparities existing in our criminal justice system....

The EQUAL Act recently passed the House of Representatives with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 361 to 66.  It is rare to see Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a former Texas judge and nationally-recognized staunch conservative, agree with Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), one of the leading progressive voices in the leadership of the Democratic Party, on criminal justice reform, but that is just what happened on the House floor when they both spoke in support of the EQUAL Act.  It is now up to the Senate to pass this long-overdue legislation and send the EQUAL Act to President Biden’s desk for his signature.  Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are the sponsors of the Senate companion legislation (S. 79) and have taken the lead in building a coalition to pass this legislation during the 117th Congress.  The time is now for the Senate to take action and rectify this long-standing injustice in our criminal legal system.

A few prior recent related posts:

October 27, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 18, 2021

Notable new essays in Brennan Center's "Punitive Excess" series focused on responding to violent crime and mandatory minimums

highlighted here back in April the terrific essay series assembled by the Brennan Center for Justice under the title "Punitive Excess."  I have blogged about sets of new essays repeatedly (as linked below) because each new set of new essays are must reads (like all that come before).  The latest pair of piece ought to be of particular interest to sentencing fans:

Both of these pieces are must reads, and the piece on mandatory minimums has links to research and other materials that might be useful for those litigating against such sentences or seeking reductions therefrom.  Here is a segment (with links) from that piece:

[P]rosecutors’ power over mandatory minimums in turn creates racial disparities, obliterating any pretense of an unbiased system.  A recent study finds that prosecutors’ mandatory minimum charges resulted in Black individuals spending more time in prison than whites for the exact same crimes.  In fact, prosecutors bring mandatory minimums 65 percent more often against Black defendants, all else remaining equal. Another study similarly finds that some federal prosecutors charge Black and Latino individuals more often than white individuals with possession or sale of a quantity of drugs just sufficient to trigger a mandatory minimum; the disparity is highest “in states with higher levels of racial animus.”

Finally, mandatory minimums do not promote community safety.  Rather, any prison time at all increases the risk of future crime because “incarceration is inherently criminogenic”; mandatory minimums only exacerbate this situation.  Florida experienced a 50 percent spike in crime after enacting mandatory minimums.  Long sentences also make it more difficult for people to reintegrate into society.  And our overreliance on prisons makes us less safe by diverting resources from other critical public safety needs.  In contrast, studies show that shorter sentences in drug cases neither diminish public safety nor increase drug abuse.

The dominant paradigm is vulnerable, and instituting a new paradigm is both possible and crucial. President Biden and his attorney general have denounced mandatory minimums, as did former Attorney General Eric Holder.  Even though federal prosecutors — all of whom are subject to supervision by the Department of Justice — have long been the primary proponents of mandatory minimums, Attorney General Merrick Garland affirmed this position during his confirmation hearings: “We should . . . , as President Biden has suggested, seek the elimination of mandatory minimum[s].”

However, despite Garland’s testimony, his Department of Justice has given no sign that it will stop pursuing mandatory minimums. In fact, earlier this year, Garland reinstated a 2010 Holder policy that incorporated a long-standing directive to federal prosecutors: “Where two crimes have the same statutory maximum and the same guideline range, but only one contains a mandatory minimum penalty, the one with the mandatory minimum” should be charged.  To make matters worse, Garland chose not to reinstate a 2013 Holder policy that both directed prosecutors to decline to charge a mandatory minimum in “low-level, non-violent drug offenses” and explicitly acknowledged that such sentences “do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation.”  After twenty years defending people charged with federal crimes, I’ve learned that prosecutors are rarely agents of change.  This is unfortunate because Garland has real power to reduce racialized mass incarceration. He can and should instruct federal prosecutors to refrain from charging and seeking mandatory sentences, especially in drug cases, where popular opposition to mandatory minimums is strongest.

Prior related posts:

October 18, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 17, 2021

New special issue of Science explores "Criminal Injustice: Mass Incarceration in the United States"

Download (20)This new issue of Science includes a special section of articles exploring the deep roots and deep consequences of mass incarceration in the United States.  This introduction, titled "An outlier of injustice," sets up what follows this way:

For much of the 20th century, the incarceration rate in the US was relatively stable.  But beginning in the early 1970s, several decades of “tough on crime” policies contributed to a dramatic rise in incarceration.  Today, despite recent declines, the US incarceration rate remains a global outlier.  This system of mass incarceration is particularly hostile to Black Americans, who have been imprisoned in stunningly disproportionate numbers. 
Amid burgeoning interest in scholarship on criminal justice, this special issue examines social science research on the state of mass incarceration in the US: its origin and expansion, its far-reaching effects on families and communities, and why the public tolerates and encourages it.  Tracing the system’s roots back to slavery, researchers examine the interplay between incarceration, labor demand, and racial domination in the labor market.  As criminal justice infrastructure has grown more costly and vast, the system has extracted wealth from poor communities that it preys upon to fiscally survive. 
This ever-expanding web of incarceration entangles extraordinary numbers of people of all racial groups, with close to half of all Americans having a spouse or coparent, parent, sibling, or child that is or has been incarcerated.  To support such a system, many Americans psychologically deny that structural racism is at the heart of criminal justice.  Government responses to social justice protests often ignore root social causes and possible remedies and instead rely on policing.  Also, law enforcement increasingly draws upon commercial technologies that challenge public oversight and democratic policing.  Research on these topics is critical to reveal how we got here, as well as to inform and inspire change.

Here are links to the articles that follow, all of which are worth checking out:

"Policing social unrest and collective violence" by Elizabeth Hinton

"The corporate shadow in democratic policing" by Elizabeth E. Joh

"Assessing mass incarceration’s effects on families" by Hedwig Lee and Christopher Wildeman

"Exclusion and exploitation: The incarceration of Black Americans from slavery to the present" by Christopher Muller

"Toward an understanding of structural racism: Implications for criminal justice" by Julian M. Rucker and Jennifer A. Richeson

"The predatory dimension of criminal justice" by Joshua Page and Joe Soss

October 17, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Doing Justice in Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this short new article by Michael Tonry now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Anyone who would read a paper on this subject or with this title knows that sentences received by people convicted of crimes in American courts, especially serious ones, are much too often cruelly severe, racially disparate, and reflective more of a prosecutor’s or judge’s idiosyncrasies than of a reasoned assessment of what considerations of justice concerning this offense by this person require or permit.  The process is ultimately casual, as if invasive intrusion into someone’s life is a matter of no great importance.  To people sentenced, their families, and others who love them it is devastatingly important.  Relatively simple ideas about justice, fairness, equality, and parsimony provide a framework to replace contemporary casual justice with a jurisprudence that takes human dignity seriously.

October 17, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 14, 2021

"New York State’s New Death Penalty: The Death Toll of Mass Incarceration in a Post-Execution Era"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new report from the the Center for Justice at Columbia University which reinforces my sense that we ought to give a lot more attention to functional death sentences (which are relatively frequent) than to formal death sentences (which are relatively rare). Here is the report's introduction (with emphasis in the original and notes removed):

New York State was once an international outlier in its use of capital punishment.  Prior to 1972, when the US Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty, New York ranked second in most executions of any state in the country, executing 1130 people over a 364 year period.  Yet, abolishing the death penalty did not slow death behind bars.  Since 1976 — when the state began compiling data on deaths in custody — 7,504 people died while in the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS).  This is seven times the number of deaths of those who were executed by the state.  Those who have died in custody over the last 45 years have largely been Black people, and particularly in the last decade, older people and people serving sentences of 15 years or more.  Increasingly, advocates and lawmakers have come to call this devastating reality “death by incarceration,” or “death by incarceration sentences” that ensure that thousands will die in prison and/or face a Parole Board that denies release to the majority of people who appear before it, and disproportionately denies release to Black New Yorkers.

This report compiles and analyzes data on in-custody deaths in New York State between 1976 and 2020 and offers policy recommendations for curtailing the number of deaths behind bars.  Without policy intervention, thousands of currently incarcerated New Yorkers are at risk of dying behind bars in the years and decades to come. 

All lives lost in the New York State correctional system raise questions about the morality and humanity of the state and its governance.  The large proportion of deaths of incarcerated Black New Yorkers highlight the racism of criminal justice policy in the state, and how the need for racial justice is a matter of life and death.  The disproportionate deaths of older adults serving long sentences highlight important questions about the state’s investments in public and community safety.  Incarcerated adults aged 55 and older are the least likely to commit a new crime across all age groups, and yet are kept in prison due to a lack of meaningful opportunities for release and repeated parole denials. Importantly, death by incarceration sentences and repeated parole denials ignore both the reality and possibility of redemption and transformation for people in prison. Older adults in prison are often leaders, mentors and stewards of the community. Of those who are released from prison, many continue their service and leadership in their communities, mentoring young people, providing reentry services for others released from custody, and intervening to prevent and reduce violence.

This report concludes that New York State must end its new de facto death penalty and offers recommendations towards this goal, including policies with large community and legislative support.

Key Findings 

  • More people have died in NY State custody in the last decade than the total of number of people executed in the 364 years New York State had the death penalty. 1,278 people died in NY State custody in the last decade compared to 1,130 who were executed in NY State between 1608 and 1972.
  • Today, more than 1 in 2 people who die in NY State custody are older adults, compared to roughly 1 in 10 at the beginning of the era of mass incarceration. 
  • Every three days someone dies inside a NYS prison, compared to every 12 days in 1976. 
  • In 2018, Black people accounted for 45% of all deaths in DOCCS custody, despite only making up 14% of all deaths of New York State residents. 
  • People who have already served 15 years in custody account for 9 times more of the total deaths behind bars today than they did in the 1980s, the first full decade of available data. 
  • 40% of all deaths behind bars since 1976 of people 55 and older happened in the last ten years. 
  • In the most recent decade, roughly 1 in 3 people who died behind bars had served at least 15 years, compared to 1 in 29 in the 1980s.

October 14, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

"The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this new publication by The Sentencing Project authored by Ashley Nellis.  Here are parts of the report's overview:

This report details our observations of staggering disparities among Black and Latinx people imprisoned in the United States given their overall representation in the general population.  The latest available data regarding people sentenced to state prison reveal that Black Americans are imprisoned at a rate that is roughly five times the rate of white Americans.  During the present era of criminal justice reform, not enough emphasis has been focused on ending racial and ethnic disparities systemwide.

Going to prison is a major life-altering event that creates obstacles to building stable lives in the community, such as gaining employment and finding stable and safe housing after release. Imprisonment also reduces lifetime earnings and negatively affects life outcomes among children of incarcerated parents.

These are individual-level consequences of imprisonment but there are societal level consequences as well: high levels of imprisonment in communities cause high crime rates and neighborhood deterioration, thus fueling greater disparities.  This cycle both individually and societally is felt disproportionately by people who are Black. It is clear that the outcome of mass incarceration today has not occurred by happenstance but has been designed through policies created by a dominant white culture that insists on suppression of others....

Truly meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system cannot be accomplished without acknowledgement of its racist underpinnings. Immediate and focused attention on the causes and consequences of racial disparities is required in order to eliminate them.  True progress towards a racially just system requires an understanding of the variation in racial and ethnic inequities in imprisonment across states and the policies and day-to-day practices that drive these inequities.

KEY FINDINGS

  • Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans.
  • Nationally, one in 81 Black adults per 100,000 in the U.S. is serving time in state prison.  Wisconsin leads the nation in Black imprisonment rates; one of every 36 Black Wisconsinites is in prison.
  • In 12 states, more than half the prison population is Black: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
  • Seven states maintain a Black/white disparity larger than 9 to 1: California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.
  • Latinx individuals are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 1.3 times the incarceration rate of whites.  Ethnic disparities are highest in Massachusetts, which reports an ethnic differential of 4.1:1.

RECOMMENDATIONS

1. Eliminate mandatory sentences for all crimes.  Mandatory minimum sentences, habitual offender laws, and mandatory transfer of juveniles to the adult criminal system give prosecutors too much authority while limiting the discretion of impartial judges.  These policies contributed to a substantial increase in sentence length and time served in prison, disproportionately imposing unduly harsh sentences on Black and Latinx individuals.

2. Require prospective and retroactive racial impact statements for all criminal statutes.  The Sentencing Project urges states to adopt forecasting estimates that will calculate the impact of proposed crime legislation on different populations in order to minimize or eliminate the racially disparate impacts of certain laws and policies.  Several states have passed “racial impact statement” laws.  To undo the racial and ethnic disparity resulting from decades of tough-on-crime policies, however, states should also repeal existing racially biased laws and policies.  The impact of racial impact laws will be modest at best if they remain only forward looking.

3. Decriminalize low-level drug offenses.  Discontinue arrest and prosecutions for low-level drug offenses which often lead to the accumulation of prior convictions which accumulate disproportionately in communities of color.  These convictions generally drive further and deeper involvement in the criminal legal system.

October 13, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Prison Policy Initiative briefing highlights disproportionate role of Native peoples in US criminal justice systems

Incarceration_byrace_2019The Prison Policy Initiative has this notable new briefing authored by Leah Wang titled "The U.S. criminal justice system disproportionately hurts Native people: the data, visualized."  Here is part of its text:

This Monday is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a holiday dedicated to Native American people, their rich histories, and their cultures. Our way of observing the holiday: sending a reminder that Native people are harmed in unique ways by the U.S. criminal justice system.  We offer a roundup of what we know about Native people (those identified by the Census Bureau as American Indian/Alaska Native) who are impacted by prisons, jails, and police, and about the persistent gaps in data collection and disaggregation that hide this layer of racial and ethnic disparity.

The U.S. incarcerates a growing number of Native people, and what little data exist show overrepresentation In 2019, the latest year for which we have data, there were over 10,000 Native people locked up in local jails.  Although this population has fluctuated over the past 10 years, the Native jail population is up a shocking 85% since 2000.  And these figures don’t even include those held in “Indian country jails,” which are located on tribal lands: The number of people in Indian country jails increased by 61% between 2000 and 2018.  Meanwhile, the total population of Native people living on tribal lands has actually decreased slightly over the same time period, leaving us to conclude that we are criminalizing Native people at ever-increasing rates.

Government data publications breaking down incarcerated populations by race or ethnicity often omit Native people, or obscure them unhelpfully in a meaningless “Other” category, perhaps because they make up a relatively small share of the total population.  The latest incarceration data, however, shows that American Indian and Alaska Native people have high rates of incarceration in both jails and prisons as compared with other racial and ethnic groups.  In jails, Native people had more than double the incarceration rate of white people, and in prisons this disparity was even greater.

Native people made up 2.1% of all federally incarcerated people in 2019, larger than their share of the total U.S. population, which was less than one percent.  Similarly, Native people made up about 2.3% of people on federal community supervision in mid-2018.  The reach of the federal justice system into tribal territory is complex: State law often does not apply, and many serious crimes can only be prosecuted at the federal level, where sentences can be harsher than they would be at the state level.  This confusing network of jurisdiction sweeps Native people up into federal correctional control in ways that don’t apply to other racial and ethnic groups.

Native women are particularly overrepresented in the incarcerated population: They made up 2.5% of women in prisons and jails in 2010, the most recent year for which we have this data (until the 2020 Census data is published); that year, Native women were just 0.7% of the total U.S. female population.  Their overincarceration is another maddening aspect of our nation’s contributions to human rights crises facing Native women, in addition to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) and high rates of sexual and other violent victimization.

October 10, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

"Speeding While Black: Black Motorists Face More-Serious Charges for Excessive Speeding than White Motorists Do"

The title of this post is the title of this short new research brief from RAND, which presents these key findings: 

In 25 U.S. states, motorists accused of excessive speeding can face either a criminal misdemeanor or a traffic infraction, and the charge is at the discretion of law enforcement officers and the courts.  Using data on speeding violations in 18 Virginia counties over a nine-year period, researchers found large racial disparities in who was convicted of a misdemeanor.

Black motorists cited for speeding were almost twice as likely as White motorists to be convicted of a misdemeanor when their speed was in the range that qualified for the more serious charge.

Whom Officers Charged Explained 55% of the Disparity: Among cited motorists speeding at an excessive level, Black motorists were more likely than White motorists to be charged with a misdemeanor instead of an infraction....

Whom Courts Convicted Explained 45% of the Disparity: Among motorists charged with a misdemeanor by law enforcement, Black motorists were more likely than White motorists to be convicted of a misdemeanor by the court.

The full 73-page RAND research report on which this brief is based, titled "Racial Disparities in Misdemeanor Speeding Convictions," is available at this link. Here is part of its initial summary:

Overall Racial Disparity

Among motorists cited for speeding in a range that qualified for a misdemeanor, Black motorists were almost twice as likely as White motorists to be convicted of a misdemeanor. White motorists were convicted of a misdemeanor 19 percent of the time, and Black motorists were convicted 36 percent of the time. 

Significant racial disparities were present at both the law enforcement and the court stages.  We found that 55 percent of the overall racial disparity in conviction rates could be explained by what happened at the law enforcement stage (i.e., by whom law enforcement charged with a misdemeanor), and the remaining 45 percent of the disparity was explained by what happened at the court stage (i.e., by whom the court convicted of a misdemeanor).

Racial Disparities at the Law Enforcement Stage

The county in which a motorist was cited explained almost half of the racial disparity in whom law enforcement charged with a misdemeanor.  Further analyses indicated that location explained such a substantial proportion of the overall disparity at this stage because law enforcement officers offered fewer charge discounts overall in the counties in which Black motorists made up a larger percentage of cited motorists.  We were not able to determine whether there was a race-neutral reason for why enforcement was stricter in these counties.

Almost half of the racial disparity in whom law enforcement charged with a misdemeanor was unexplained by any of the case characteristics that we could control for.  This remaining racial disparity might reflect either disparate treatment by law enforcement officers or underlying racial differences in omitted variables.

Racial Disparities at the Court Stage

About four-fifths of the racial disparity in whom the court convicted of a misdemeanor could be explained by observable case characteristics. In our study, one of the primary reasons that racial disparities occurred at the court stage was because Black motorists were significantly less likely than White motorists to attend the required court appearance to adjudicate a misdemeanor charge.  Although there are several potential policy options to address this — including text message reminders or the adjudication of cases through online platforms — the optimal option will depend on first understanding why this racial difference in court appearance rates occurs.  Another key reason that Black motorists were more likely to be convicted of a misdemeanor at the court stage was that they were less likely to have a lawyer present at their court appearance.  Having an attorney present significantly lowered the likelihood that a motorist was convicted of a misdemeanor, but in Virginia, attorneys are not provided by the court for these violations and must be retained at the motorist’s expense.

October 6, 2021 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

"Toward an Optimal Decarceration Strategy"

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

With mounting support for dramatic criminal justice reform, the question is no longer whether we should decarcerate American prisons but how.  This question is far more complicated than it might seem.  We could cut the prison population in half, for example, by drastically shortening sentences.  Or we could reduce prison admissions.  Or we could do both.  And we could do either or both for countless combinations of criminal offenses.  Moreover, even when they reach the same numeric target, these strategies are not equivalent.  They would have vastly different consequences for both prisoners and the public and widely varying timeframes to take effect.  To pick among them, we need richer metrics and more precise empirical estimates to evaluate their consequences.

This Article begins by proposing metrics to evaluate the relative merits of competing decarceration strategies.  The public debate has focused almost exclusively on how we might decarcerate while minimizing any increases in crime and has, therefore, underappreciated the costs of prison itself.  We should consider at least three more metrics: the social harm of incarceration, racial disparity, and timing.  Next, the Article develops an empirical methodology to identify the range of strategies that would reduce the national prison population by 25, 50, and 75%.  Finally, it identifies the best performing strategies against each metric.

The results have several broader takeaways.  First, the optimal approach to decarceration depends heavily on which metrics we value most.  The results thus quantify a stark set of policy choices behind a seemingly simple objective. Second, the results confirm that, to dramatically shrink prisons, it is critical to decarcerate a substantial number of people convicted of violent offenses — a fact that may surprise the majority of Americans who believe people convicted of drug offenses occupy half of prison beds.  Finally, the results show that race-neutral decarceration strategies are likely to exacerbate rather than mitigate racial disparities.  Armed with the conceptual tools and methodologies developed in this Article, we can make more informed decisions about how to best scale down prisons, given our priorities and constraints.

September 29, 2021 in National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

US House votes 361-66 to pass today the EQUAL Act to end disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences

Based on data showing huge unfair disparities, the US Sentencing Commission in 1995 — more than a quarter century ago! — sent to Congress proposed guidelines changes to fix the 100:1 crack/powder cocaine disparity by adopting a 1:1 quantity ratio at the powder cocaine level.  But Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, legislation rejecting the USSC’s proposed guideline changes (see basics here and here), thereby ushering in decades more disproportionately severe crack sentences and extreme racial inequities in federal cocaine offense punishments.

Barack Obama at Howard University gave a 2007 campaign speech — exactly 14 years ago today — assailing the crack/powder disparity, and in 2009 the Obama Justice Department advocated for "Congress to completely eliminate the crack/powder disparity."   Sadly, despite strong DOJ advocacy for a 1:1 ratio in April 2009, it still took Congress more than a year to enact any reform to the 100:1 crack/powder cocaine disparity, and then it only could muster a partial reduction in crack sentences rather than the parity advocated by the USSC in 1995 and by DOJ in 2009.  Specifically, the Fair Sentencing Act enshrined a new 18:1 crack/powder quantity disparity ratio into federal drug sentencing statutes and guidelines, and even this modest reform did not become fully retroactive until eight years later with the FIRST STEP Act.

But in early fall 2021, and despite the deep divisions on so many political issues, the vast majority of US Representatives spoke together today to say that federal law should no longer sentence crack and powder cocaine offense differently.  This Hill article explains:

The House passed legislation on Tuesday that would eliminate the federal disparity in prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses, in an effort to enact criminal justice reform on a bipartisan basis. The bill, which lawmakers passed 361-66, is meant to address a gap that its proponents say has largely fallen on Black people and other people of color.

The House passed the measure handily, but the vote divided Republicans. A majority of House Republicans voted for the bill with all Democrats, but the 66 votes in opposition all came from the GOP....

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a law signed by then-President Reagan as part of the “War on Drugs,” established a five-year minimum sentence for possessing at least five grams of crack, while an individual would have to possess at least 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence. A 2010 law called the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the cocaine sentencing disparity for pending and future cases, but did not fully eliminate it. And a criminal justice reform bill enacted in 2018 under former President Trump allowed people convicted prior to passage of the 2010 law to seek resentencing.

Under the bill the House passed on Tuesday, defendants who were previously convicted for crack cocaine offenses would also be allowed to petition for sentence reductions.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a former judge, said the measure was a “a great start toward getting the right thing done” as he recalled dealing with cocaine cases. “Something I thought Texas did right was have a up to 12 months substance abuse felony punishment facility. Some thought it was strange that a strong conservative like myself used that as much as I did. But I saw this is so addictive, it needs a length of time to help people to change their lives for such a time that they've got a better chance of making it out, understanding just how addictive those substances are,” Gohmert said during House floor debate.

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where at least 10 Republicans would have to join with all Democrats to advance it in the evenly divided chamber. A companion bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) currently has five cosponsors, including three Republicans: Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.).

I lack knowledge about the ways and means for this kind of bill to get a vote in the Senate soon, but I feel pretty confident that it would get similarly strong support in that cambers if and whenever a vote goes forward. I hope such a vote goes forward soon, since we have all waited more than long enough for more sensible sentencing in this arena.

A few prior recent related posts:

September 28, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Notable new report spotlights onerous nature of electronic monitoring in US

This new NBC News piece, headlined "Other than prison, electronic monitoring is 'the most restrictive form' of control, research finds" report on this interesting new report from folks at George Washington University Law School, titled "Electronic Prisons: The Operation of Ankle Monitoring in the Criminal Legal System."  Here are excerpts from the press piece:

In the past 18 months, as the judicial system has increasingly used electronic monitoring instead of prisons to monitor inmates through the coronavirus pandemic, newly released data confirm what activists and advocates have long argued: Ankle monitors are onerous, and they often subject wearers to vague rules, like avoiding people of “disreputable character.”  The ankle monitoring business, the research found, is also dominated by four profit-seeking companies, and it ultimately could drive more people back to prison.

The new, comprehensive collection of hundreds of electronic monitoring-related rules, policies and contracts, obtained through public records requests across 44 states, demonstrates that four companies that make millions of dollars a year account for 64 percent of the contracts examined in the study.  The companies — Attenti, BI Inc., Satellite Tracking of People LLC and Sentinel Offender Services LLC, according to the report — also keep location data indefinitely, even after monitoring is completed, which is within the law.  Governments also often require family members or employers to act as agents of the government and report potential violations, putting them in an awkward position in which they must be both supportive and supervisory.

Crucially, wearers must pay both one-time and ongoing fees for the monitors, which can be $25 to over $8,000 a year.  The report argues that such costs “undermine financial security when it is needed most.”  By comparison, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons said in 2018 that it costs just under $100 per day to incarcerate a federal inmate, or over $36,000 a year....

“This is a form of incarceration that happens outside of prison walls,” said Kate Weisburd, an associate professor of law at George Washington University, who led a team of 10 law students that filed and analyzed the trove of documents . “It’s always intended to be a positive alternative to incarceration.  But based on what we found, it’s doing the opposite.  More rules and more surveillance generally leads to higher incarceration.”...

Put another way, people on monitors are subject to a vast number of government rules, which “makes compliance difficult,” according to the report.  Some of the rules are quite vague.  For example, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Parole mandates that wearers “shall abandon evil associates and ways,” while the New Mexico Corrections Department says parolees must “maintain acceptable behavior.”...

Weisburd’s research found that because the results are open to interpretation and wearers can be hit with “technical violations” of the rules, “people are more likely to be reincarcerated for minor infractions that previously would have been invisible and ignored.”  In most cases, electronic monitoring is coupled with a form of house arrest — wearers must stay at or near their homes for a certain amount of time. They cannot leave without permission in advance.  But according to the policies and contracts that Weisburd and her team obtained, most agencies do not clearly explain how far in advance such permission must be sought. “Basically, every record we looked at had a negative impact, and by every measure it undermines people’s ability to survive outside of prison,” she said. “Just having to comply with the sheer number of rules, vague and broad rules, it means people are getting dinged more easily.”...

The most recent data from the Pew Charitable Trust, released in 2016, found that about 131,000 people were on monitors during a single day.   Weisburd and her team say in the report that “it is likely that the numbers are higher considering the pressure to release people from incarceration because of the pandemic.”...  The frequency with which such monitoring is assigned varies wildly across the country.  For example, Weisburd’s research shows that over 11,000 people who are on probation are also on monitors in Marion County, Indiana, alone, while the entire state of Florida has less than half that number, at just over 5,400.

Here is the introduction of the 54-page report:

The use of surveillance technology to tag and track people on pretrial release, probation and parole is on the rise.  The COVID-19 crisis in prisons and jails, bail reform efforts and bipartisan support for curbing mass incarceration accelerated interest in purported alternatives to incarceration.  As a result, the use electronic monitoring devices, including GPS-equipped ankle monitors, went up dramatically.

Thanks to the leadership of community organizers and advocates, the harmful and racialized nature of this type of carceral surveillance has been exposed.  This report seeks to add to those efforts by examining the specific policies, procedures, contracts and rules that govern the use of electronic monitoring of people on probation, parole and pretrial release.  Drawing on over 247 records from 101 agencies across 44 states and the District of Columbia, this report focuses on the operation of electronic monitoring and reveals the degree to which monitoring impacts all aspects of everyday life and undermines the ability of people to survive and thrive.  In particular, this report focuses on the specific rules and policies governing people on monitors and how they restrict movement, limit privacy, undermine family and social relationships, jeopardize financial security and result in repeated loss of freedom.  Unlike traditional models of probation and parole, electronic surveillance is more intensive, restrictive and dependent on private surveillance companies that are driven by profit motive.  The findings in this report demonstrate what advocates have long said: Electronic surveillance is not an alternative to incarceration, it’s an alternative form of incarceration.  And like incarceration, the deprivations and restrictions of electronic monitoring further entrench race and class-based subordination.

September 23, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Still more great essays at Inquest, including an especially disheartening book review

It has been a couple of weeks since I blogged about Inquest, which is "a forum for advancing bold ideas to end mass incarceration in the United States."  Though regular readers may tire of my promotion of the must-read essays on the site, I am not tired of spotlighting  these recently added pieces:

From Jessica González-Rojas, "Decarcerate Rikers Now: Nothing short of setting people free from the jail complex, and keeping others from going there, will prevent the death and hopelessness now ravaging it." 

From Shima Baradaran Baughman, Christopher T. Robertson & Megan S. Wright, "Cracking the Black Box: One way to keep prosecutors accountable and check their carceral impulses is by shedding some light on their vast discretion to charge crimes. Here’s a start." 

From Angel Harris, "A Judge on a Mission: Here's how a former public defender elected to judicial office in New Orleans works to chip away at mass incarceration." 

The newest posting is a book review by Daniel Harawa of Carissa Byrne Hessick's new book assailing plea practices.  The review make the dispiriting point that trials may be so biased against people of color that harmful plea practices may be the best we can hope for.   I recommend this piece in full, which is titled "Trials Without Justice: Plea bargaining may be a bad deal overall. But for many Black and Brown defendants, is the alternative any better?".  Here is a short excerpt:

Hessick’s portrayal of a plea system that’s out of control is compelling.  The solution that Hessick identifies — more trials — is important, but also raises additional questions and concerns that should not be ignored.  As Hessick explains, the problems with plea bargaining cut across racial lines, yet Black and Brown defendants have another question they must consider before standing on their trial rights — a question that white defendants can usually breeze past: How will their race affect trial?  Hessick acknowledges early on that because the book is “about the criminal justice system, it is inevitably a book about race.”  And as she shows, you cannot consider why someone may accept a guilty plea without thinking about why they would not risk trial . But there is an uncomfortable truth underlying the book: Black and Brown defendants may plead guilty because they think (or know) that they will not get a fair trial because of their race.  Just as the other coercion points that Hessick describes may push a defendant to plead guilty, so too may a defendant’s race.  The decision to go to trial can look very different for Black and Brown people than it does for white people.

September 22, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"In The Extreme: Women Serving Life Without Parole and Death Sentences in the United States"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report authored by Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project.  Here is how the report gets started:

Extreme punishments, including the death penalty and life imprisonment, are a hallmark of the United States’ harsh criminal legal system.  Nationwide one of every 15 women in prison — over 6,600 women — are serving a sentence of life with parole, life without parole, or a virtual life sentence of 50 years or more.  The nearly 2,000 women serving life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences can expect to die in prison.  Death sentences are permitted by 27 states and the federal government, and currently 52 women sit on death row.

This report presents new data on the prevalence of both of these extreme sentences imposed on women.  Across the U.S. there are nearly 2,000 women serving life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences and another 52 women who have been sentenced to death.  The majority have been convicted of homicide.  Regarding capital punishment, women are sitting on death row in 15 states.  As shown in Figure 1, women are serving LWOP sentences in all but six states.  Three quarters of life sentences are concentrated in 12 states and the federal system.  It is notable that in all states with a high count of women serving LWOP, there is at least one woman on death row as well.  Two exceptions to the overlap are Colorado and Michigan which do not have anyone serving a death sentence because it is not statutorily allowed.

September 22, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

NACDL produces notable new report on data-driven policing and racial bias in criminal justice system

As detailed in this new press release, "today, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) released its latest report – Garbage In, Gospel Out: How Data-Driven Policing Technologies Entrench Historic Racism and ‘Tech-wash’ Bias in the Criminal Legal System."  Here is  more from the release:

As explained in the report, in recent years, police departments have been turning to and relying on rapidly developing data-driven policing technologies to surveil communities, track individuals and, purportedly, predict crime.  These technologies include algorithmic decision-making that departments claim can predict where crime is likely to occur, who will likely commit crime, and who will likely be a victim.  These algorithms are thus designed to interrogate massive troves of data gathered in a myriad of ways, using inputs that can range from police-generated crime reports to publicly available social media posts.  The outputs are then used to make critical decisions about patrols, or to make life-altering designations of individuals.

The purpose of this Report is to: (1) call attention to the rapid development and deployment of data-driven policing; (2) situate data-driven policing within the racialized historical context of policing and the criminal legal system; (3) make actionable recommendations that respond to the reality, enormity, and impact of data-driven policing; and (4) suggest strategies for defense lawyers in places where data-driven policing technology is employed.

“This Report will contribute profoundly to the national conversation regarding the inhumane, unfair, and destructive impact of racism and bias in policing,” said NACDL President Martín Antonio Sabelli.  “As the title of the Report suggests, data-driven policing technologies amplify the effects of systemic racism in policing by collecting data based on racist policing (including, for example, overpolicing of communities of color) and treating that garbage data as gospel for future policing decisions. ‘White-washing’ this biased data does nothing more than give a veneer of respectability and an appearance of neutrality while entrenching problematic practices rooted in racism.  The report calls for the abandonment of data-driven policing, wherever possible, and transparency and accountability where such practices have already become entrenched.”

“For more than two years, NACDL’s Task Force on Predictive Policing conducted research and interviews across the nation, leading to this report and the recommendations and suggested strategies set forth in it,” explained NACDL Task Force on Predictive Policing Chair Cynthia W. Roseberry.  “This report works to demystify the practice of data-driven policing to ensure that those engaged in the essential work of combatting systemic racism in the criminal legal system can operate with full information.  This report is not only an important addition to the body of scholarship in this area, it will also serve as a vital tool for advocates and defenders alike.”

The Report’s major topics include (1) the history of policing and the economics of punishment, (2) the history of surveillance and the rise of big data, (3) the landscape of data-driven policing, (4) critical analysis of data-driven policing, (5) task force recommendations on data-driven policing technologies, (6) an overview of state and local legislation, (7) an overview of police departments that have suspended or terminated contracts with data-driven policing programs, and more.

The full 100+-page report is available at this link.

September 14, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

"Life lessons: Examining sources of racial and ethnic disparity in federal life without parole sentences"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article published in Criminology and authored by Brian Johnson, Cassia Spohn and Anat Kimchi.  Here is its abstract:

Alongside capital punishment, sentences to life without the possibility of parole are one of the most distinctive aspects of the American system of criminal punishment.  Unlike the death penalty, though, almost no empirical work has examined the decision to impose life imprisonment.  The current study analyzes several years of recent federal sentencing data (FY2010–FY2017) to investigate underlying sources of racial disparity in life without parole sentences.  The analysis reveals disparities in who receives life imprisonment, but it finds these differences are attributable mostly to indirect mechanisms built into the federal sentencing system, such as the mode of conviction, mandatory minimums, and guidelines departures.  Both Black and Hispanic offenders are more likely to be eligible for life sentences under the federal guidelines, but conditional on being eligible, they are not more likely to receive life sentences.  Findings are discussed in relation to ongoing debates over racial inequality and the growing role that life imprisonment plays in American exceptionalism in punishment.

September 7, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 05, 2021

More than two dozen attorneys general urge Congress to extend crack retroactivity to offenders left behind by Terry

Back in June, as discussed here, the Supreme Court embraced a limiting interpretation in Terry v. US, No. 20–5904 (S. Ct. 2021), as to who can secure resentencing based on crack penalties being lowered by the Fair Sentencing Act and then made retroactive by the FIRST STEP Act.  As detailed in this press release from the Michigan Attorney General, this past week "a bipartisan coalition of 25 attorneys general [signed a letter] urging Congress to amend the First Step Act and extend critical resentencing reforms to individuals convicted of the lowest-level crack cocaine offenses."  The full letter is available at this link, and here are excerpts from the start and close of the letter:

As our jurisdictions’ Attorneys General, we are responsible for protecting the health, safety, and well-being of our residents. Although our jurisdictions vary in size, geography, and political composition, we are united in our commitment to an effective criminal justice system that safeguards the communities of our states. To that end, a bipartisan coalition of Attorneys General supported the passage of the First Step Act of 2018 — landmark legislation that brought common sense improvements to myriad aspects of the criminal justice system. Central to these reforms was retroactive relief for individuals sentenced under the discredited 100-to-1 crack-to-powder cocaine ratio that Congress abolished in 2010. Following the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Terry v. United States, however, the lowest level crack cocaine offenders remain categorically ineligible for resentencing. We write today to urge Congress to amend the First Step Act, and to clarify that its retroactive relief applies to all individuals sentenced under the prior regime....

There is no reason why [lowest-level offenders] — and these individuals alone — should continue to serve sentences informed by the now-discredited crack-to-powder ratio. Discretionary relief is unambiguously available to serious dealers and kingpins sentenced under the prior regime; extending Section 404’s scope would simply allow individual users and other low-level crack cocaine offenders to have the same opportunity for a second chance. We therefore urge Congress to clarify that Section 404 of the First Step Act extends to all individuals convicted of crack cocaine offenses and sentenced under the 100-to-1 ratio—including the lowest level offenders.

September 5, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 30, 2021

"A History of Early Drug Sentences in California: Racism, Rightism, Repeat"

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

For the past 100 years, harsh drug sentences have had extraordinary support from the public.  Historically enthusiasm for drug prohibition often coincides with affinities for summary justice and authoritarian social control.  Escalations of drug sentences in California from 1881 to 1961 followed a pattern of collective myth making and value signaling that insisted opiates, cocaine, and cannabis were extremely dangerous, led to other crime, and prevalently were used and sold by immigrants and other despised groups.  Demands for severe punishment seemed to peak twice, in the 1920s and 1950s, in response to exaggerated threats such as “dope peddlers” targeting children and profitable “dope rings” controlled by subversive foreigners.  Amplified by a self-seeking, robust news media and a multitude of fraternal, civic, and religious organizations, the frightful construction of illicit drugs seemed to demand an uncompromising response. Increasing terms of incarceration seemed direct, simple, and quantifiable.

But white voters always understood that drug laws targeted immigrants and communities of color, and law enforcers used extreme penalties as leverage to pursue corrupt and racist prerogatives unrelated to reducing drug use.  Drug penalties in California were developed over many decades with almost extreme levels of participation by anti-drug activists and law enforcers.  Appearing somehow scientific, the resulting arrays of penalties implied that the cruelest sentences were reserved for the truly blameworthy, when in fact they were reserved for the marginalized.  Moreover, several legal conventions born of these penalty structures — mandatory minimums, the distinction between user and seller, punishment of addiction itself, and presumptions arising from drug quantities — still exacerbate the oppressive nature of drug statutes.  As California’s drug sentences increased and complexified over the first half of the 20th century, a destructive drug law enforcement regime sanctioned by white voters was unleashed on marginalized communities in Los Angeles.

August 30, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 23, 2021

Nova Scotia Court says "historic factors and systemic racism" should be considered in sentencing an African Nova Scotian offender

A helpful reader made sure I saw this interesting story about a notable new ruling in Canada headlined "Nova Scotia Court of Appeal rules to consider history of racism, marginalization in cases."  Here are the details:

The sentencing of Black offenders in Canada is on the verge of a dramatic change after Nova Scotia’s top court ruled that, as with Indigenous offenders, trial judges need to consider the history of racism and marginalization that shaped them, and do their utmost not to put them behind bars where appropriate.

The Criminal Code has spelled out since 1996 that incarceration is a last resort for Indigenous offenders.  It does not refer to any other racialized group.  But it does say that sentences are meant to fit both the offence and the offender.  The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, in a ruling last week, became the country’s first appeal court to draw on that principle and require a judge-made, as opposed to legislated, approach to the sentencing of Black offenders.

“The moral culpability of an African Nova Scotian offender has to be assessed in the context of historic factors and systemic racism,” Justice Anne Derrick wrote in a 5-0 ruling. The ruling illustrates the sharp turn that will now be demanded of Nova Scotia’s judges -- a change in approach that could well spread to other provinces.  Ontario’s top court is expected to decide a case soon on whether to require a similar approach.

Like the reports written on some Indigenous offenders, known as Gladue reports, in-depth documents that tell a judge at sentencing about a Black offender’s history of exclusion and marginalization should be done from here on, or the appeal court may overturn the sentence, Justice Derrick warned.  The reports on Black offenders are known as an Impact of Race and Culture Assessment (IRCA).

The ruling was applauded by Roger Burrill, a lawyer for Rakeem Anderson, the offender in the Nova Scotia case, who was sentenced to two years of house arrest, to be followed by two years of probation for illegal gun possession.  “I think it’s impactful for the whole country, on the basis that systemic racism is completely, totally, unequivocally recognized as a factor in dealing with the principles of sentencing,” Mr. Burrill said in an interview.

It was also applauded by the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, based in Ontario, which intervened in the case. “Not to suggest colonialism is the same as what happened to Blacks in Canadian history,” Daniel Brown, a vice-president of the group, said in an interview, “but there has been a history of slavery, a history of segregation. All of that has contributed to many of these challenges they face today.”... 

The IRCA report on Mr. Anderson, co-authored by social worker Robert Wright and by Natalie Hodgson, said the offender’s best friend was killed by violence.  Ms. Hodgson testified gun possession was an accepted cultural norm in the North End of Halifax, where Mr. Anderson, in his 20s, had lived in substandard housing, surrounded by poverty and crime. “Many Black males arm themselves with guns, not because they have plans to harm someone, but rather they feel the need to protect themselves in case,” Ms. Hodgson testified.

Mr. Wright, the author of the first IRCA in Nova Scotia in 2014, testified that certain behaviours arise from “a community’s trauma and difficulty,” and that harsh treatment will neither reform the individual nor deter others from their community. His report said: “Rakeem was thrown into the world as a young adult lacking the skills and knowledge to thrive and survive; no resources, supports or interventions, without therapy for trauma and loss, and a very low elementary-level education.”

Chief Justice Williams said she had spent many hours “agonizing” over a just sentence. Mr. Anderson, a father of four young children and said to have a good heart, in some ways did not appear a good candidate for rehabilitation.  He had done little to address his education and training deficits while his case was before the court.  Ultimately though, the judge agreed with Mr. Wright and sentenced Mr. Anderson to two years of house arrest, with a 10 p.m. curfew and conditions that he attend Afrocentric therapy to address trauma, attend literacy and education programs with an Afrocentric focus and perform community service.  “Punishment does not change behaviour when the actions are rooted in marginalization, discrimination and poverty,” Chief Justice Williams said, while adding that those who endanger society must be separated from it....

The 1996 Criminal Code provision singling out Indigenous offenders for more lenient treatment has not stemmed an increase in the prison population.  Indigenous peoples now make up 31.5 per cent of federal prisoners, while they are just over 5 per cent of the country’s population.

The full ruling is available at this link.

August 23, 2021 in Race, Class, and Gender, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Federal district judge dismisses illegal reentry prosecution holding "Section 1326 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment"

Though not exactly a sentencing ruling, late yesterday US Chief District Judge Miranda Du of Nevada issued a big decision in US v. Carrillo-Lopez, No. 3:20-cr-00026-MMD-WGC (D. Nev. Aug 18, 2021) (available here), concerning a statute that is the basis for tens of thousands of federal sentences every year.  Here is the start of the 43-page opinion in Carrillo-Lopez and its substantive conclusions:

On June 25, 2020, Defendant Gustavo Carrillo-Lopez was indicted on one count of deported alien found in the United States in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326(a) & (b) (“Section 1326”).  Before the Court is Carrillo-Lopez’s motion to dismiss the indictment (the “Motion”) on the grounds that Section 1326 violates the equal protection guarantee of the Fifth Amendment under the standard articulated in Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp., 429 U.S. 252 (1977).  On January 22, 2021, the Court heard oral argument on the Motion, and on February 2, 2021, the Court held an evidentiary hearing.  Because Carrillo-Lopez has established that Section 1326 was enacted with a discriminatory purpose and that the law has a disparate impact on Latinx persons, and the government fails to show that Section 1326 would have been enacted absent racial animus — and as further discussed below — the Court will grant the Motion....

Carrillo-Lopez has established, and the government concedes, that the Act of 1929 was motivated by racial animus. The government does not assert the 1952 Congress addressed that history when it reenacted Section 1326.  Moreover, the government fails to demonstrate how any subsequent amending Congress addressed either the racism that initially motivated the Act of 1929 or the discriminatory intent that was contemporaneous with the 1952 reenactment.  The record before the Court reflects that at no point has Congress confronted the racist, nativist roots of Section 1326. Instead, the amendments to Section 1326 over the past ninety years have not changed its function but have simply made the provision more punitive and broadened its reach.  Accordingly, the Court cannot find that subsequent amendments somehow cleansed the statute of its history while retaining the language and functional operation of the original statute.

In conclusion, the government has failed to establish that a nondiscriminatory motivation existed in 1952 for reenacting Section 1326 that exists independently from the discriminatory motivations, in either 1929 or 1952.  Moreover, the government’s alternative arguments — that a nondiscriminatory motive was “plain” or that subsequent amendments somehow imply the racial taint was cleansed — are not supported by caselaw nor borne out by the evidentiary record. In sum, on the record before the Court, the Court can only conclude that the government has not met its burden.  Because Section 1326 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment, the Court will grant Carrillo-Lopez’s Motion.

Scott Greenfield has an effective summary of the ruling in this new post at Simple Justice.  He notes that it "seems almost inconceivable that the Ninth Circuit won’t reverse this decision," but also highlights that "Judge Du’s decision makes some very serious points about how laws were enacted a century ago, when racism was fairly open and routine."  And here is some effective local media coverage:

This recent Quick Facts report from the US Sentencing Commission indicated that there were over 22,000 illegal reentry sentences imposed in Fiscal Year 2019, and nearly 20,000 such sentences in FY 2020. That means that, on average, in federal courts about 400 of these sentences are being imposed each and every week. Because Judge Du's opinion is not binding on other courts, this new decision will not likely disrupt this case flow dramatically. But I suspect it will be (and maybe already is) getting raised in new filings in district courts around the country.

August 19, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Authors of provocative paper retract judge-specific claims about "most discriminatory" federal sentencing judges

I expressed concerns in this post last month about a new empirical paper making claims regarding the "most discriminatory" federal sentencing judges under the title "The Most Discriminatory Federal Judges Give Black and Hispanic Defendants At Least Double the Sentences of White Defendants."  In addition to articulating some first-cut concerns in my initial post, I also solicited and published here an extended post by Prof. Jonah Gelbach about the work based on this Twitter thread criticizing the paper.  

This new Twitter thread by one of the authors reports that the paper has now been revised to remove judge-specific claims as to the "most discriminatory" sentencing judges, and it is now re-titled "Racial Disparities in Criminal Sentencing Vary Considerably across Federal Judges."  This new New Jersey Law Journal article, headlined "Backpedaling: Authors of Study on Racist Rulings Retract Their Claims Against Pennsylvania, New Jersey Judges," provides some more details:

The authors of a study that accused some federal judges of extreme racial and ethnic bias in sentencing have withdrawn their conclusions about specific jurists following criticism of their methodology.

An earlier version of the study, published in July by the Institute for the Quantitative Study of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, said two Eastern District of Pennsylvania judges and one from New Jersey give Black and Hispanic defendants sentences that are twice as long as those they give to whites.

But a revised version of the study, posted Tuesday, asks readers to disregard the references to specific judges....  “A previous version of this work included estimates on individually identified judges. Thanks to helpful feedback, we no longer place enough credence in judge-specific estimates to make sufficiently confident statements on any individual judge.  We encourage others not to rely upon results from earlier versions of this work,” the revised version of the study said.

The study’s lead author, Christian Michael Smith, explained on Twitter that, “while our initial paper appreciated how random chance, systematic missing data patterns, and/or hidden structural factors for sentencing could affect judge rankings, we now regard the following possibility as less remote than we initially regarded it: that a judge who is actually unproblematic could end up on the extreme end of our discrimination estimates, due to random chance, systematic missing data patterns, and/or hidden structural factors for sentencing.”...

Gelbach, in an email, said of the retraction, ”I applaud the authors for removing the ranking of judges’ sentencing practices and for making clear that people should not rely on those rankings. Given the data limitations, that was the right decision for them to make.”

Prior related posts:

August 18, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 09, 2021

Guest post: another critical look at provocative paper claiming to identify the "most discriminatory" federal sentencing judges

Guest-Posting-ServiceI expressed concerns in this recent post about a new empirical paper making claims regarding the "most discriminatory" federal sentencing judges.  Upon seeing this Twitter thread by Prof. Jonah Gelbach about the work, I asked the good professor if he might turn his thread into a guest post. He obliged with this impressive essay:

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This post will comment on the preprint of The Most Discriminatory Federal Judges Give Black and Hispanic Defendants At Least Double the Sentences of White Defendants, by Christian Michael Smith, Nicholas Goldrosen, Maria-Veronica Ciocanel, Rebecca Santorella, Chad M. Topaz, and Shilad Sen.  Doug Berman blogged about it here, and I’m grateful to him for the opportunity to publish this post here.

As I explained in a Twitter thread over the weekend, I have serious concerns about the study.  The most important concerns I raised in that thread fall into the following categories:

  1. Incomplete data
  2. Endogeneity of included regressors
  3. Small numbers of observations per judge
  4. Use of most extreme judge-specific disparity estimates

I’ll take these in turn.

(1) Incomplete Data.  It’s complicated to explain the data, whose construction involve merging multiple large data sets.  In fact, a subset of the authors have a whole other paper about data construction.  In brief, the data are constructed by linking US Sentencing Commission data files to those in the Federal Judicial Center’s Integrated Data Base, which gives them enough to form docket numbers. They then use the Free Law Project’s Juriscraper tool (https://free.law/projects/juriscraper/) to query PACER, which yields dockets with attached judges’ initials for most cases that merged earlier in the authors’ pipeline.  The authors use those initials to identify the judge they believe handled sentencing, using public lists of judges by district.

As involved as the data construction is, my primary concern is simple: the share of cases included in the data set the authors use is very low.  For 2001-2018, there were 1.27 million sentences in USSC data and 1.46 million in FJC data (these figures come from the data-construction paper, which is why they apply to the 2001-2018 period rather than the 2006-2019 period used in the estimation of “Most Discriminatory” judges).  Of these records, the authors were able to match 860k sentences, of which they matched 809k to dockets via Juriscraper.  After using initials to match judges, they have 596k cases they think are matched.  That’s a match rate of less than 50% based on the USSC data and barely 40% based on the FJC data.  The authors can’t tell us much about the characteristics of missing cases, and it’s clear to me from reading the newer paper that the match rate varies substantially across districts.

I think this much alone is enough to make it irresponsible to report estimates that purport to measure individually named judges’ degrees of discrimination.  As a thought experiment, suppose that (i) the authors have half the data, and (ii) if they were able to include the other half of the data they would find that there was no meaningful judge-level variation in estimated racial disparities in sentencing.  By construction, that would render any discussion of the “Most Discriminatory” judges pointless.  Because the authors can’t explain why cases are missed, they have no way to rule out even such an extreme possibility.  Nor do they determine what share of cases they miss for any judge in the data, because they have no measure of the denominator (perhaps they could do this with Westlaw or similar searches for some individual judges).  Their approach to the issue of missing data is to simply assume that missing cases are missing at random:

“One unknown potential source of error is that we cannot determine what percentage of each judge’s cases were matched in the JUSTFAIR database. If this missingness is as-if random with respect to sentencing variables of interest, that should not bias our results, but we have little way of determining this.” (Pages 18-19, emphasis added.)

I believe it is irresponsible to name individual judges as “The Most Discriminatory” on the basis of data as incomplete as these.

(2) Endogeneity.  The authors include as controls in their model each defendant’s guideline-minimum sentence, variables accounting for the type of charge, & various defendant characteristics.  They argue that these variables are enough to deal not only with the enormous amount of missing data (with unknown selection mechanism; see above) but also any concerns that would arise even if all cases were available.  As Doug Berman previously noted here, if prosecutors offer plea deals of differing generosity to defendants of different races, then the guideline minimum doesn’t account for heterogeneity in cases.  And note that if that happens in general, it’s a problem for all the model’s estimates. In other words, even if the particular mechanism Doug hypothesized (sweet plea deals for Black defendants in the EDPA) doesn’t hold, the whole model is suspect if the guidelines variable is substantially endogenous.

There are other endogeneity concerns, e.g., the study includes as regressors variables that capture reasons why a sentence departed from the guidelines — an outcome that is itself partly a function of the sentence whose (transformed) value is on the left hand side of the model.  And as a friend suggested to me after I posted my Twitter thread, the listed charges are often the result of plea bargains, whose consummation can be expected to depend on the expected sentence.  So the guideline minimum variable, too, is potentially endogenous.

(3) Small numbers of observations per judge. The primary estimates on which the claim about particular judges’ putative discriminatory sentencing are based are what are known as random effect coefficients on race dummies.  It’s lengthy to explain all the machinery here, but I’ll take a crack at a simplified description.

The key model output on which the authors make their “Most Discriminatory” designations are judge-level estimated Black-White disparities (the same type of analysis applies for Hispanic-White disparity).  Very roughly speaking, you can think of the estimated disparity for Judge J as an average of two things: (i) the overall observed Black-White disparity across all judges — call this the “overall disparity”, and (ii) the average disparity in the subset of cases in which Judge J did the sentencing — call this the “judge-specific raw disparity”.

For example, suppose that over all defendants, the average (transformed) sentence is 9% longer among Black defendants than among White ones; then the overall disparity would be 9%.  Now suppose that among defendants assigned to Judge J, average sentences were 20% longer for Black than White defendants; then the judge-specific raw disparity would be 20%.

The judge-level estimated disparity that results from the kind of model the authors use is a weighted average of the overall disparity and the judge-specific raw disparity. So in our example, the estimated disparity for Judge J would be a weighted average of 9% (overall disparity) and 20% (judge-specific raw disparity).  What are the weights used to form this average?  They depend on the variance across judges in the true judge-specific disparity and the “residual” variance of individual sentences — the variance that is unassociated with factors that the model indicates help explain variation in sentences.

The greater the residual variance, the less weight will be put on the judge-specific raw disparity.  This is what’s known as the “shrinkage” property of mixed models — they shrink the weight placed on judge-specific raw disparities in order to reduce the noisiness of the model’s estimated disparity for each judge. (I noted this property in a follow-up tweet to part of my thread.)

However, all else equal, greater residual variance also means that variation in judge-specific raw disparities will be more driven by randomness in the composition of judges’ caseload. Because these raw disparities contribute to the model-estimated disparity, residual variance creates a luck-of-the-draw effect in the mode estimates: a judge who happens to have been assigned 40 Black defendants convicted of very serious offenses and 40 White defendants convicted of less serious ones will have a high raw disparity due to this luck factor, and that will be transmitted to the model’s estimate disparity.

How important this effect of residual variance is context-sensitive. The key relevant factors are likely to be the numbers of cases assigned to each judge for each racial group and the size of residual variance relative to the size of variance across judges in true judge-level disparities.

As I wrote in my Twitter thread, I used the authors’ posted code and data to determine that Hon. C. Darnell Jones II, the judge named by the authors as the “Most Discriminatory”, had a total of 103 cases with Black (non-Hispanic) defendants, 37 cases with Hispanic defendants, and 67 with White defendants. Hon. Timothy J. Savage, the judge named as the second “Most Discriminatory”, sentenced 155 Black (non-Hispanic) defendants included in the estimation, 58 Hispanic defendants, and 93 White defendants.  These don’t strike me as very large numbers of observations, which is another way of saying that I’m concerned residual variance may play a substantial role in driving the model-estimated disparities for these judges.

My replication of the authors’ model shows that true judge-specific disparities in the treatment of Blacks and Whites have an estimated variance of 0.055, whereas the estimated residual variance is nearly 30 times higher — 1.59 for a single defendant.  For a judge who sentenced 40 Black and 40 White defendants, this would mean that residual variance would be 2(1.59)/40~0.08 — which is larger than the 0.055 estimated variance in true judge-level disparity.  It’s more complicated to assess the pattern for judges with different numbers of defendants by race, but I would not be surprised if the residual variance component is roughly the same size as the variance in judge-level effects.

In other words, even given the effect of shrinkage, I suspect that “bad luck” in terms of the draw of defendants might well be quite important in driving the judge-specific estimates the authors provide. Even leaving aside the missing-data problem, I think that makes the authors’ choice to name individual judges as “Most Discriminatory” problematic.

Another issue is that the judge-specific estimated disparity (remember, this is the model’s output, formed by taking the weighted average of overall and judge-specific raw disparities) is itself only an estimate, and thus a random variable.  Thus if one picked a judge at random from the authors’ data, it would be inappropriate to assume that the estimated disparity for that judge was the true value. To compare the judge-specific estimated disparity to other judges’ estimated disparities, or to some absolute standard, would require one to take into account the randomness in estimated disparity.  The authors do not report any such estimates.  Nor does the replication code they posted along with their data indicate that they calculated standard errors of the judge-specific estimated disparities.  There is no indication that I can find in either the code or the paper that they investigated this issue before posting their preprint.

(4) The many-draws problem.  Consider a simple coin toss experiment.  We take a fair coin and flip it 150 times. Roughly 98% of the time, this experiment will yield a heads share of 41.6% or greater (in other words, 41.6% is the approximate 2nd percentile for a fair coin flipped 150 times).  So if we flipped a fair coin once, it would be quite surprising to observe a heads share of 41.6% or lower.  But now imagine we take 760 fair coins and flip each of them 150 times. Common sense suggests it would be a lot less surprising to observe some really low heads shares, because we’re repeating the experiment many times.

To illustrate this point, I used a computer to do a simulation of exactly the just-described experiment — 760 fair coins each flipped 150 times. In this single meta-experiment I found that there were 13 “coins” with heads shares of less than 41.6%, just under two percent of the 760 “coins”, roughly as expected.  Given that we know all 760 “coins” are fair, it would make no sense to say that “the most biased coin is coin number 561”, even though in my meta-experiment it had the lowest heads share (36.7%, more than 3 standard deviations below the mean).  We know the coin is fair; it’s just that we did 760 multi-toss experiments, and with that much randomness we’re going to see some things that would be very unlikely with only one experiment.

Leaving aside differences across judges in the number of cases heard, this is not that different from what the authors’ approach entails.  If all judges had the same number of sentences, then they’d all have the same weights on their raw disparities, and so differences across judges would be entirely due to variation in those raw disparities.  If the residual variance component of these raw disparities is substantial (see above), then computing judge-specific model-estimated disparities for each of 760 judges would involve an important component related to idiosyncratic variation.  Taking the most extreme out of 760 model-estimated disparities is a lot like focusing on “coin” number 561 in my illustrative experiment above.

Another way to say this is that even if there were zero judge-specific disparity — even if all judges were perfectly fair — we might not be surprised to see substantial variation in the authors’ model-estimated disparities.

Now, it’s not really the case that all judges gave the same number of sentences, so there’s definitely some heterogeneity due to shrinkage as discussed above, which complicates the simpler picture I just painted for illustrative purposes.  But I suspect there is still a nontrivial “many-tosses problem” here.  Note that this is really an instance of a problem sometimes referred to as “multiple testing” in various statistics literatures; as responders to my Twitter thread noted, one place it comes up is in attempts to measure teachers’ value added in education research, and another is in ranking hospitals and/or physicians.  In other words, this isn’t a problem I’ve made up or newly discovered.

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In sum, I think the paper has several serious problems.  I do not think anyone should use its reported findings as a basis for deciding which judges are discriminatory, or how much.  This is as true for people who lack confidence in the fairness of the system as for any people who doubt there is discrimination.  In other words, the criticisms I offer do not require one to believe federal criminal sentencing is pure and fair.  These criticisms are about the quality of the data and the analysis.

I want to make one final point, as I did in my Twitter thread.  Like the authors of the study, I believe that PACER should be made available to researchers.  Indeed, I recently have written a whole paper taking that position.  But I am very concerned about the impact of their work on that prospect.  The work involves problematic methods and choices and then calls out individual judges for shaming.  In my experience there’s nontrivial opposition to data openness within the federal judiciary, and I fear this paper will only harden it.

August 9, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (14)

Tale of two sentencings highlights disparity and need for for better data

This lengthy new article from Cleveland.com spotlights a local example of sentencing disparity and highlights how this tale contributes to calls for statewide data-focused reforms.  The headline of the article provides a preview: "White woman who stole $250K gets probation, while Black woman who stole $40K goes to jail.  Disparate sentences spark calls for reform."  Here is how the article gets started:

Two Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judges doled out disparate sentences this week to women who stole public money in separate cases, reigniting calls to create a statewide sentencing database to ensure judges mete out fair punishments.

A white woman stole nearly $250,000 from the village of Chagrin Falls.  Judge Hollie Gallagher sentenced her on Monday to two years of probation.  A Black woman who stole $40,000 from Maple Heights City Schools went before Judge Rick Bell, who sentenced her Tuesday to 18 months in prison.

Leaders of Black faith organizations, labor organizations, current and former judges and social activist groups all told cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that the stark difference between the sentences damaged the credibility of the criminal justice system and reinforced the sentiment that judges disproportionately punish people of color or those without means.

All of the leaders called on Cuyahoga County’s judges and judges around the state to join an Ohio Supreme Court pilot project that would create a public database to make transparent how judges sentence defendants and provide guardrails on judicial discretion that often results in unequal justice.  Only 10 of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court’s 34 judges have said they plan to sign on to the program. Six of those judges are in their first term on the bench.

“It’s kind of hard to figure how you can end up with results that are so different for similar kinds of actions,” former longtime Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Ronald Adrine said.  “Cases like these point out the need for the system to do a better job of reviewing the data because there’s lots of disparity between the way that people of color and white people are treated. But it doesn’t get captured because nobody’s really looking.”

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly, who spent 14 years on the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas bench before ascending to the state’s highest court in 2019, and 8th District Court of Appeals Judge Sean Gallagher said the adoption of the database would move the state closer to identifying and correcting issues that contribute to disparities in sentencing.  “Are we satisfied with a system that would allow for two extremely different results like this?” Donnelly asked.  “Is that good policy? Does it make the community more safe, when our sentencing laws allow for that disparity? We need to ask that question in Ohio.”

Both judges said that, while judicial discretion is important, the reaction to this week’s differing sentences shows the state needs to do more to ensure that judges punish people who commit similar crimes more equally.  “If there isn’t faith in the justice system that you’re going to get a fair shake, then that’s the biggest indictment against keeping the things the way they are,” Gallagher said.

A few prior related posts:

August 9, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Highlighting the importance of data to ensure equity in diversion efforts

Regular readers are probably used to hearing me stress the importance of data in various aspects of our criminal justice systems, and so I was pleased to see this new Law360 piece headlined "Data Collection Is Crucial For Equity In Diversion Programs." I recommend the lengthy piece in full, and here is how it starts:

Prosecutorial diversion programs are intended to create equity in the criminal justice system by stopping the incarceration of people who have mental health and substance abuse problems, but without proper data collection, prosecutors can't ensure equity in these programs, experts say.

The Prosecutorial Performance Indicators project, an initiative led by researchers at the Florida International University and Loyola University of Chicago to help prosecutors collect data to improve their methods, recently released a report that looked at racial disparities in the number of people who had their cases diverted from criminal courts to diversion programs, like mental health or drug courts.

According to the report that compared the race and ethnicity of people placed in diversion programs in four prosecutors' offices in Chicago, Jacksonville, Milwaukee and Tampa, even though overall more Black defendants than white were placed in diversion programs in three of the four cities, more white defendants than Black defendants had their felony cases placed in diversion programs in all of the cities.

With this data, prosecutors in these offices can use it to guide their policies and prosecutorial decisions, according to Melba Pearson, director of policy and programs at FIU's Center for Administration of Justice and a PPI co-manager. "While diversion is a great tool, we have to make sure that it's applied equitably, so that includes looking at factors like cost, accessibility [and] how offers are being delivered," Pearson told Law360.

In Jacksonville, the data shows that, from 2017 through 2019, the number of Black defendants that had their misdemeanor cases diverted from prosecution grew because its prosecutor's office implemented a program that gives people charged with misdemeanor traffic violations an opportunity to have their charges dropped.

The full report referenced in this article, which is titled "Race and Prosecutorial Diversion: What we know and what can be done," is available at this link.

August 8, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Spotlighting considerable racial disparities in modern criminal enforcement of gun prohibitions

I came across this notable recent commentary by Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe titled "The very racist history of gun control: The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is indispensable to Black equality."  The piece highlights some of the racialized history of gun control in the US, but it failed to discuss the important modern reality of racially disparities in criminal enforcement of gun prohibitions.  And with the US Supreme Court taking up a major Second Amendment case in the coming Term with New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Corlett, I think it important to spotlight how gun control laws are actually enforced in federal and state criminal justice systems.

We can start in New York because the SCOTUS case comes from that state and because the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid caucus and lots of NY public defender offices filed this interesting amicus brief to highlight how gun control enforcement actually operates:

[E]ach year, we represent hundreds of indigent people whom New York criminally charges for exercising their right to keep and bear arms. For our clients, New York’s licensing regime renders the Second Amendment a legal fiction.  Worse, virtually all our clients whom New York prosecutes for exercising their Second Amendment right are Black or Hispanic. And that is no accident. New York enacted its firearm licensing requirements to criminalize gun ownership by racial and ethnic minorities.  That remains the effect of its enforcement by police and prosecutors today.

The consequences for our clients are brutal.  New York police have stopped, questioned, and frisked our clients on the streets.  They have invaded our clients’ homes with guns drawn, terrifying them, their families, and their children.  They have forcibly removed our clients from their homes and communities and abandoned them in dirty and violent jails and prisons for days, weeks, months, and years.  They have deprived our clients of their jobs, children, livelihoods, and ability to live in this country.  And they have branded our clients as “criminals” and “violent felons” for life.  They have done all of this only because our clients exercised a constitutional right....

In 2020, while Black people made up 18% of New York’s population, they accounted for 78% of the state’s felony gun possession cases.  Non-Latino white people, who made up 70% of New York’s population, accounted for only 7% of such prosecutions.  Black people were also more likely to have monetary bail set, as opposed to release on their own recognizance or under supervision, even when comparing individuals with no criminal record.  When looking at only N.Y. Penal Law § 265.03(3) — which alleges only possession of a loaded firearm — 80% of people in New York who are arraigned are Black while 5% are non-Hispanic white. Furthermore, according to NYPD arrest data, in 2020, 96% of arrests made for gun possession under N.Y. Penal Law § 265.03(3) in New York City were of Black or Latino people.  This percentage has been above 90% for 13 consecutive years.

For another example, consider great recent work by Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice in recent reports on "Arrests in Illinois for Illegal Possession of a Firearm" and "Sentences Imposed on Those Convicted of Felony Illegal Possession of a Firearm in Illinois."  Here is key arrest data from this first report: "Black males between the ages of 18 and 24 had the highest arrest rate statewide; for every 100,000 Black male between the ages of 18 and 24, there were 2,404 arrests....  By comparison, the statewide arrest rate for White males between 18 and 24 was 307 per 100,000, and 1,108 per 100,000 for Hispanic males between 18 and 24."  And case-processing data from the second report details how Black offenders are more likely to be convicted on more serious charges: "[T]he majority (79%) of convictions for Class 2 felonies occurred in Cook County, whereas the majority (59%) of convictions for Class 3 felonies occurred outside Cook County.  Also, while the majority of those convicted of either felony class were Black individuals, a larger share of those convicted of the more serious Class 2 felony were Black (83%), compared to 64% of those convicted of Class 3 felony offenses."

And, lest one think these kinds of racial disparities are unique to state systems, the US Sentencing Commission published in March 2018 this potent report titled "Mandatory Minimum Penalties For Firearms Offenses In The Federal System."  Here is part of that report's "Key Findings" under the heading "Firearms mandatory minimum penalties continue to impact Black offenders more than any other racial group" (with my emphasis added):

Of course, the Supreme Court's eventual Second Amendment ruling in the Corlett case, no matter what it holds or says, is highly unlikely to dramatically alter the considerable racial disparities in modern criminal enforcement of gun prohibitions.  But, as debate over Second Amendment jurisprudence and gun control policy heats up in the coming months, I hope everyone keeps in mind the disconcerting demographic realities that consistently define modern criminal enforcement practice in the gun control space.

August 3, 2021 in Gun policy and sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (11)

Friday, July 30, 2021

Provocative new empirical paper claims to identify the "most discriminatory" federal sentencing judges

Via Twitter, I was altered to this notable new empirical paper by multiple authors titled "The Most Discriminatory Federal Judges Give Black and Hispanic Defendants At Least Double the Sentences of White Defendants."  The paper's title alone likely explains why I describe it as provocative, and this abstract provides more context about the paper's contents:

In the aggregate, racial inequality in criminal sentencing is an empirically well- established social problem. Yet, data limitations have made it impossible for researchers to systematically determine and name the most racially discriminatory federal judges.  The authors use a new, large-scale database to determine and name the observed federal judges who impose the harshest sentence length penalties on Black and Hispanic defendants.  Following the focal concerns framework, the authors (1) replicate previous findings that conditional racial disparities in sentence lengths are large in the aggregate, (2) show that judges vary considerably in their estimated degrees of racial discrimination, and (3) list the federal judges who exhibit the clearest evidence of racial discrimination.  This list shows that several judges give Black and Hispanic defendants double the sentences they give observationally equivalent white defendants.  Accordingly, the results suggest that holding the very most discriminatory judges accountable would yield meaningful improvements in racial equality.

The "new, large-scale database" used for this study is this JUSTFAIR data source published online last year.  I have not previously blogged about the JUSTFAIR data because I have never been sure of its representativeness since the source says it includes nearly 600,000 cases over a recent 18-year period (from 2001 to 2018), but more than twice that number of persons have been sentenced in federal courts during that span.  I fear I lack the empirical chops to know just whether to be reasonably confident or highly uncertain about the JUSTFAIR data, and that broader concern colors my thinking about this provocative new paper's claims that the authors have been able to identify the "most racially discriminatory federal judges."

I would love to hear from readers with strong empirical backgrounds about whether this new paper effectively demonstrates what it claims to identify.  I am initially skeptical because the the two judges labelled "most discriminatory" come from the same federal judicial district and only a few districts are among those that have all the identified "discriminatory" judges.  That reality leads me to wonder if case-selection realities, rather than "discrimination," may at least in part account for any observed racial differences in sentencing outcomes.  Relatedly, when I dig into the local data at the JUSTFAIR data site, the judges identified in this new paper as the "most discriminatory" do not seem to have anywhere close to the most racially disparate rates of above/below guideline sentencing outcomes even within their own districts.

In short, without a much better understanding of the empirics at work here, I am not confident about what this new empirical paper is claiming.  But I am confident that I would like to hear from readers as to what they think about this provocative new paper on an always important topic.

July 30, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, July 26, 2021

Shouldn't federal prosecutors already be doing what they can to minimize the unjust crack-powder sentencing disparity?

At last month's Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on "Examining Federal Sentencing for Crack and Powder Cocaine," the Biden Administration through the testimony of Regina LaBelle rightly stated that the crack-powder sentencing disparity produces "significant injustice":

The Biden-Harris Administration strongly supports eliminating the current disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  The current disparity is not based on evidence yet has caused significant harm for decades, particularly to individuals, families, and communities of color.  The continuation of this sentencing disparity is a significant injustice in our legal system, and it is past time for it to end.  Therefore, the Administration urges the swift passage of the “Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act,” or the “EQUAL Act.”

In addition, the US Department of Justice submitted testimony (linked below) that rightly stated that "it is long past time" to end the crack-powder sentencing disparity:

The Department strongly supports the legislation, for we believe it is long past time to end the disparity in sentencing policy between federal offenses involving crack cocaine and those involving powder cocaine.  The crack/powder sentencing disparity has unquestionably led to unjustified differences in sentences for trafficking in two forms of the same substance, as well as unwarranted racial disparities in its application.  The sentencing disparity was based on misinformation about the pharmacology of cocaine and its effects, and it is unnecessary to address the genuine and critical societal problems associated with trafficking cocaine, including violent crime.

Download DOJ EQUAL Act Testimony- FINAL

In light of these forceful statements, I have been optimistic that the EQUAL Act might move forward in Congress fairly soon even though the pace of congressional action is always uncertain.  At the same time, I hoped that federal prosecutors under the authority of Attorney General Garland might do what they could ASAP, in the exercise of their charging and sentencing authority, to minimize the impact of the crack-powder disparity as Congress works on a permanent legislative fix.  After all, if DOJ really believes that "it is long past time to end the disparity" and that the disparity is based on "misinformation" which produces "unwarranted racial disparities," then a department purportedly committed to justice surely ought not keep charging crack mandatory minimums and advocating for guideline sentences based on this disparity.

But I have heard from defense attorneys in the know that statements about existing crack sentencing provisions creating "significant injustice in our legal system" have seemingly not trickled down to federal prosecutors, who are still generally charging crack mandatory minimums and arguing for within-guideline crack sentences.  And I have be authorized to share this recent statement from the Federal Defenders to DOJ: "We were glad to see the Department’s recent support for legislation to end the crack-powder disparity but reports from the field indicate that line prosecutors continue to indict mandatory-minimum crack cases and seek guideline sentences that rely on the discredited ratio."

Talking the talk to Congress about reform is an important aspect of what the executive branch can do to improve our justice system. But the Justice Department can and should also be expected to walk the walk.  But so far, it seems, federal prosecutors are not really ready to give up the crack-powder disparity, even though DOJ asserts that "it is long past time" to do so. Sigh.

July 26, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

House Judiciary Committee votes 36 to 5 to advance the EQUAL Act to reduce federal crack sentences

At a time of problematic and often ugly partisanship inside the Beltway, I have continued to believe and hope that a number of federal sentencing reforms could and should still be able to secure significant bipartisan support.  This belief was reinforced yesterday when the House Judiciary Committee voted 36 to 5 to advance the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act.  Excitingly, not only does this bill reduce crack statutory sentences to the level of powder cocaine offenses, it also provides for all previously convicted crack offenders to obtain a resentencing.  (Recall that neither the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 nor the FIRST STEP Act of 2018 included full retroactivity for the sentencing reductions in those reform bills.)

I want to believe that the overwhelming vote in support of the EQUAL Act in the House Judiciary Committee means that a vote a passage by the full House will be coming soon.  I also want to believe that the bill, which also has bipartisan Senate support, could move efficiently through the upper chamber and become law this year.  But, because the politics and ways of Congress are always mysterious, I am not assuming passage is a sure thing and I have no idea what the timeline for the bill's potential progress will be going forward.  All I know is that it is now more than a quarter-century since the US Sentencing Commission first explained to Congress why a big crack/powder sentencing difference was unjustified and unjust, so the EQUAL Act cannot become law too soon and is way too late.  But better late than never, I still hope.

Notably, we are already approaching three years since passage of the FIRST STEP Act and there is yet to be a next step.  Though I would like to see many more statutory sentencing reform steps from Congress that go far beyond the EQUAL Act, I still think reforms can and should be happy right now with even baby steps in the right direction from a divided Congress.  And,  critically, the EQUAL Act would be a consequential baby step: USSC data indicate that more than 8000 people are in federal prison for crack offenses now and that more than 100 people are sentenced on crack offenses each month.  So literally thousands of people will be impacted if the EQUAL Act becomes law, and then, if/when this reform is finally achieved, we can work on correcting the next and the next and the next injustice baked into federal sentencing law and practice. 

A few prior related posts:

July 22, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Highlighting the drug war's continuing extraordinary toll on people of color

The AP has this lengthy new piece headlined "50-year war on drugs imprisoned millions of Black Americans."  I am a bit troubled by the use of the past tense in the headline because the casualties of the drug war continue to grow every minute of every day we rely on the criminal justice system to deal with drug issues. But, headline quibble aside, this extended AP piece is worth a full read, and here are excerpts:

Fifty years ago this summer, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs.  Today, with the U.S. mired in a deadly opioid epidemic that did not abate during the coronavirus pandemic’s worst days, it is questionable whether anyone won the war.

Yet the loser is clear: Black and Latino Americans, their families and their communities.  A key weapon was the imposition of mandatory minimums in prison sentencing.  Decades later those harsh federal and state penalties led to an increase in the prison industrial complex that saw millions of people, primarily of color, locked up and shut out of the American dream.

An Associated Press review of federal and state incarceration data shows that, between 1975 and 2019, the U.S. prison population jumped from 240,593 to 1.43 million Americans. Among them, about 1 in 5 people were incarcerated with a drug offense listed as their most serious crime.

The racial disparities reveal the war’s uneven toll. Following the passage of stiffer penalties for crack cocaine and other drugs, the Black incarceration rate in America exploded from about 600 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 1,808 in 2000.  In the same timespan, the rate for the Latino population grew from 208 per 100,000 people to 615, while the white incarceration rate grew from 103 per 100,000 people to 242....

Although Nixon declared the war on drugs on June 17, 1971, the U.S. already had lots of practice imposing drug prohibitions that had racially skewed impacts. The arrival of Chinese migrants in the 1800s saw the rise of criminalizing opium that migrants brought with them. Cannabis went from being called “reefer” to “marijuana,” as a way to associate the plant with Mexican migrants arriving in the U.S. in the 1930s.

By the time Nixon sought reelection amid the anti-Vietnam War and Black power movements, criminalizing heroin was a way to target activists and hippies. One of Nixon’s domestic policy aides, John Ehrlichman, admitted as much about the war on drugs in a 22-year-old interview published by Harper’s Magazine in 2016.

Experts say Nixon’s successors, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, leveraged drug war policies in the following decades to their own political advantage, cementing the drug war’s legacy. The explosion of the U.S. incarceration rate, the expansion of public and private prison systems and the militarization of local police forces are all outgrowths of the drug war.

Federal policies, such as mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, were mirrored in state legislatures.  Lawmakers also adopted felony disenfranchisement, while also imposing employment and other social barriers for people caught in drug sweeps.

The domestic anti-drug policies were widely accepted, mostly because the use of illicit drugs, including crack cocaine in the late 1980s, was accompanied by an alarming spike in homicides and other violent crimes nationwide.  Those policies had the backing of Black clergy and the Congressional Black Caucus, the group of African-American lawmakers whose constituents demanded solutions and resources to stem the violent heroin and crack scourges.

“I think people often flatten this conversation,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit organization pushing decriminalization and safe drug use policies. “If you’re a Black leader 30 years ago, you’re grabbing for the first (solution) in front of you,” said Frederique, who is Black.  “A lot of folks in our community said, ‘OK, get these drug dealers out of our communities, get this crack out of our neighborhood. But also, give us treatment so we can help folks.’” The heavy hand of law enforcement came without addiction prevention resources, she said.

July 21, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Prosecutorial Roles in Reducing Racial Disparities in the Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new R Street report authored by Nila Bala, Casey Witte and Lars Trautman.  Here is its executive summary:

The most pressing problems facing criminal justice policymakers and practitioners are racial disparities within the criminal justice system.  In many instances, the data on outcomes at each stage of the criminal justice process are stark, with Black individuals disproportionately bearing the brunt of system involvement and severe sentences.  While nearly every actor and policymaker associated with the criminal justice system can play a part in addressing this issue, prosecutors remain some of the most powerful.  With a hand in decisions ranging from charging to plea bargaining, the policies and practices of prosecutors inevitably influence the existence and extent of any racial disparities.  This paper examines the sources of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the ways in which prosecutors may contribute to them and finally, actions that prosecutors can take to help reduce these disparities.  These recommendations include better understanding of disparities, decreasing reliance on cash bail and pretrial detention, prioritizing diversion programs and implementing algorithmic color-blind charging.

July 21, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 17, 2021

"Reducing Racial Inequalities in Criminal Justice: Data, Courts, and Systems of Supervision"

The title of this post is the title of this short report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine capturing the proceedings of a notable workshop. Here is how the report is described:

The Committee on Reducing Racial Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a workshop in April 2021 as part of its exploration of ways to reduce racial inequalities in criminal justice outcomes in the United States.  This workshop, the third in a series of three, enabled the committee to gather information from a diverse set of stakeholders and experts to inform the consensus study process. Speakers at the workshop presented on deeply rooted inequalities within the criminal justice system, which exist not only in readily measured areas such as incarceration, but also in a much larger footprint that includes contact with police, monetary sanctions, and surveillance and supervision.  This publication highlights the presentations and discussion of the workshop.  

July 17, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 15, 2021

New fact sheets from Sentencing Project on disparities in youth incarceration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 25, 2021

Derek Chauvin gets 22.5 years for killing George Floyd

I am on the road, so will not have a chance to comment until probably tomorrow.  Readers should feel free to share their reactions and thoughts.

UPDATE:  Here are links to a few press pieces regarding the Chauvin sentencing:

From Law360, "Chauvin Sentenced To 22.5 Years In Prison For Floyd Murder"

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "Derek Chauvin's sentencing sparks relief but also resolve to keep fighting injustice"

From NBC News, "Chauvin sentence wasn't the max, but it provided some closure"

From NPR, "George Floyd's Family Says Chauvin's Sentencing Is One Step Closer To Healing"

ANOTHER UPDATE I just recently saw this reprinted version of the full sentencing order from Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill when he sentenced Derek Chauvin. Here is the short conclusion to the lengthy discussion:

Part of the mission of the Minneapolis Police Department is to give citizens “voice and respect.”  Here, Mr. Chauvin, rather than pursuing the MPD mission, treated Mr. Floyd without respect and denied him the dignity owed to all human beings and which he certainly would have extended to a friend or neighbor.  In the Court’s view, 270 months, which amounts to an additional ten years over the presumptive 150-month sentence, is the appropriate sentence.

June 25, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Depressing (and abridged) FSR reminder of just how long we have known crack sentences are especially whack

While awaiting the start of this morning's US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing ,"Examining Federal Sentencing for Crack and Powder Cocaine," at which it seems there will be considerable advocacy for lowering crack cocaine sentences to finally be in parity with powder cocaine sentence (basics here), I thought to look through some of the archives of the Federal Sentencing Reporter to see how many articles have have had folks discussing (and often sharply criticizing) crack sentences. 

Because crack sentencing rules have been subject to so much justified criticism and seen modest reform in recent years, the number of FSR articles on this topic feels more than a bit overwhelming.  Here is an abridged list of articles that caught my eye to show the varied list of authors and laments through the years:

From 1990 by Deborah Young, "Rethinking the Commission's Drug Guidelines: Courier Cases Where Quantity Overstates Culpability

From 1992 by Catharine M. Goodwin, "Sentencing Narcotics Cases Where Drug Amount Is a Poor Indicator of Relative Culpability"

From 1992 by Robert S. Mueller, "Mandatory Minimum Sentencing"

From 1993 by Ronald F. Wright, "Drug Sentences as a Reform Priority"

From 1993 by Richard Berk, "Preliminary Data on Race and Crack Charging Practices in Los Angeles"

From 1994 by Marc Miller and Daniel J. Freed, "The Disproportionate Imprisonment of Low-Level Drug Offenders"

From 1995 by David Yellen, "Reforming Cocaine Sentencing: The New Commission Speaks"

From 1998 by Carol A. Bergman, "The Politics of Federal Sentencing on Cocaine"

From 1999 by Kyle O'Dowd, "The Need to Re-Assess Quantity-Based Drug Sentences"

From 2001 by Paula Kautt, "Differential Usage of Guideline Standards by Defendant Race and Gender in Federal Drug Sentences: Fact or Fiction?"

From 2003 by Alfred Blumstein, "The Notorious 100:1 Crack: Powder Disparity--The Data Tell Us that It Is Time to Restore the Balance"

From 2005 by Ryan S. King and Marc Mauer, "Sentencing with Discretion: Crack Cocaine Sentencing After Booker"

From 2007 by Steven L. Chanenson and Douglas A. Berman, "Federal Cocaine Sentencing in Transition"

From 2007 by Mark Osler, "More than Numbers: A Proposal For Rational Drug Sentences"

I will stop with these links to these 15 FSR articles because I am already overwhelmed and there were dozens more articles I could have highlighted just from the period before recentfederal  crack sentencing reforms. Notably, in 2007, the US Sentencing Commission finally did a first round of (modest) crack guideline reductions, then in 2010 we got the Fair Sentencing Act and it echoed through another round of guideline reductions.  And yet, as witnesses are noting in today's Senate hearing, we still have a disparate and unjustified disparity in our cocaine sentencing laws.  Moreover, as many of the articles above highlight, our enduring commitment to a quantity-based federal drug sentencing structure is a deep problem at the root of our so many of our federal sentencing woes.

June 22, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 21, 2021

US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing set for "Examining Federal Sentencing for Crack and Powder Cocaine"

On the morning of Tuesday, June 22, 2021, the US Senate Judiciary Committee has a hearing set for 10am titled "Examining Federal Sentencing for Crack and Powder Cocaine." The hearing should be available to watch at this link, where this list of witnesses are set out:

Ms. Regina LaBelle, Acting Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy

The Honorable Asa Hutchinson, Governor, State of Arkansas

Mr. Matthew Charles, Justice Reform Fellow, FAMM

The Honorable Russell Coleman, Member, Frost Brown Todd

Mr. Antonio Garcia, Executive Director, South Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area

Mr. Steven Wasserman, Vice President for Policy, National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys

Notably, the Washington Post here reports on what Ms. Regina LaBelle will be saying in her testimony as well as some of the political context around this hearing.  Here is part of the story:

The Biden administration plans to endorse legislation that would end the disparity in sentences between crack and powder cocaine offenses that President Biden helped create decades ago, according to people with knowledge of the situation — a step that highlights how Biden’s attitudes on drug laws have shifted over his long tenure in elected office.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Regina LaBelle, the acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, plans to express the administration's support for the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act, or Equal Act. The legislation, which sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), would eliminate the sentencing disparity and give people who were convicted or sentenced for a federal cocaine offense a resentencing.

“The current disparity is not based on evidence yet has caused significant harm for decades, particularly to individuals, families, and communities of color,” LaBelle says in prepared written testimony obtained by The Washington Post in advance of the hearing. “The continuation of this sentencing disparity is a significant injustice in our legal system, and it is past time for it to end. Therefore, the administration urges the swift passage of the ‘Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act.’ ”...

Outside coalitions backing Durbin and Booker’s bill have focused particularly on shoring up conservative support as part of their larger criminal justice overhaul agenda. To that end, one of the witnesses testifying in favor of the bill Tuesday is Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican who led the Drug Enforcement Administration under President George W. Bush.

“Although Congress has taken steps to reduce the disparity and provide some retroactive relief, any sentencing disparity between two substances that are chemically the same weakens the foundation of our system of justice,” Hutchinson says in his prepared remarks, also obtained by The Post.  “Congress now has the opportunity to build on the bipartisan successes of the Fair Sentencing Act and the First Step Act by eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine once and for all.  The strength of our justice system is dependent on the perception of fundamental fairness.”

Russell Coleman, a former counsel to now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former U. S. attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, will also promote the legislation at the hearing Tuesday morning.

A few prior related posts:

June 21, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Juneteenth reflections on American justice systems

Befitting this forum, I thought to celebrate the first official federal holiday year for Juneteenth by rounding up some recent articles about the perspective it can provide on criminal justice issues in our nation. Here goes:

From the AP, "Lawmakers mark Juneteenth by reviving ‘abolition amendment’"

From the Brookings Institution, "To celebrate Juneteenth, elect officials focused on ending mass incarceration"

From PBS NewsHour, "Lawmakers call for an end to forced labor for felons to mark Juneteenth"

From Teen Vogue, "Juneeteenth Is a Celebration of Liberation, But Mass Incarceration Lives On"

From the Vera Institute of Justice, "The Chains of Slavery Still Exist in Mass Incarceration"

From the Wausau Pilot & Review, "Juneteenth: Freedom’s promise is still denied to thousands of blacks unable to make bail"

June 19, 2021 in Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)