Tuesday, August 02, 2022

"McCleskey Accused: Justice Powell and the Moral Price of Institutional Pride"

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

Writing for the Supreme Court in McCleskey v. Kemp, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. authored a maximalist decision that transcended capital practice and effectively barred constitutional claims of systemic inequality.  Powell would ultimately come to regret the ruling, announcing in retirement that the death penalty should be abolished entirely.  Powell struggled, then, with an apparent tension between moral conviction and purported legal command — a tension that Robert Cover called a “moral-formal dilemma.”  Cover used this concept to evaluate the decision-making processes of antebellum abolitionist judges asked to apply the fugitive slave acts.  These judges knew better but repeatedly refused to do better, resorting instead to a set of methodological crutches to make immoral outcomes appear legally inevitable.  And, in McCleskey, Powell relied upon some of the same crutches.

In other ways, however, Powell’s opinion does not fit neatly within the Cover mold.  Cover rooted the cowardice of his antislavery judges in the “thoroughgoing positivism” of the era.  But Powell was not a positivist.  Indeed, he was not even a death-penalty abolitionist — at least not in the way we would normally understand that term.  What, then, accounted for Powell pursuing such a remarkably similar — and similarly shoddy — moral, prudential, and jurisprudential course?  In this essay, I dissect McCleskey v. Kemp.  I argue that amoral positivism cannot explain the opinion.  To understand Powell’s motivation, we must dig deeply into his biography.  There we discover his abiding principled commitment to a particular brand of anti-positive hubris.  Powell was a proud institutionalist — a moral orientation that constituted an implicit bias, which prevented him from considering adequately the moral interests of systemic outsiders.  I conclude the essay with a sketch of the kind of judge who could better confront the quandary of whether to apply immoral law.  Perhaps surprisingly, this judge is a type of positivist — a skeptical positivist.

August 2, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 01, 2022

"Sex Exceptionalism in Criminal Law"

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

Sex crimes are the worst crimes.  People widely believe that sexual assault is graver than nonsexual assault, uninvited sexual compliments are worse than nonsexual insults, and sex work is different from work.  Criminal codes create a dedicated category for sex offenses, uniting under its umbrella conduct as different as violent attacks and consensual commercial transactions.  This exceptionalist treatment of sex as categorically different rarely evokes discussion, much less debate.  However, sex exceptionalism is not natural or neutral, and its political history should give us pause. This Article is the first to trace, catalogue, and analyze sex exceptionalism in criminal law.  Through a genealogical examination of sex-crime law from the late eighteenth century to today, it makes several novel contributions to the debate over how criminal law should regulate sex.

First, the Article casts doubt on the conventional account that rape law’s history is solely one of sexist tolerance — an account that undergirds contemporary calls for broader criminal regulations and higher sentences.  In fact, early law established rape as the most heinous crime and a fate worse than death, but it did so to preserve female chastity, marital morality, and racial supremacy.  Sex-crime laws were not underenforced but selectively enforced to entrench hierarchies and further oppressive regimes, from slavery to social purity.  Second, this history suggests that it is past time to critically examine whether sex crimes should be exceptional.  Indeed, in the 1960s and 70s, the enlightened liberal position was that rape law should be less exceptional and harmonized with the law governing “ordinary” assault.

Third, the Article spotlights the invisible but powerful influence sex exceptionalism exerts on scholarship and advocacy.  Despite the liberal critique, sex exceptionalism flourished, and today it is adopted without hesitation.  Sex dazzles theorists of all types.  For sex crimes, retributivists accept exorbitant sentences, and utilitarians tolerate ineffective ones.  Critics of mass incarceration selectively abandon their principled stance against expanding the penal state.  Denaturalizing sex exceptionalism and excavating its troubling origins forces analysts to confront a detrimental frame underlying society’s perpetual enthusiasm for punitive sex regulation.

August 1, 2022 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Recapping some notable Senate hearings on prisons and pot

Yesterday saw two notable hearing on Capitol Hill on criminal justice concerns, and here is some press coverage providing a partial summary of some of what transpired:

From the AP, "Prisons chief deflects blame for failures, angering senators":

With just days left in his tenure, the embattled director of the federal prison system faced a bipartisan onslaught Tuesday as he refused to accept responsibility for a culture of corruption and misconduct that has plagued his agency for years.

Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, testifying before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, insisted he had been shielded from problems by his underlings — even though he’d been copied on emails, and some of the troubles were detailed in reports generated by the agency’s headquarters.

Carvajal, who resigned in January and is set to be replaced next week by Oregon’s state prison director Colette Peters, blamed the size and structure of the Bureau of Prisons for his ignorance on issues such as inmate suicides, sexual abuse, and the free flow of drugs, weapons and other contraband that has roiled some of the agency’s 122 facilities.

From Courthouse News Service, "Marijuana decriminalization takes center stage at Senate hearing":

[Senator Cory] Booker, chairman of the subcommittee and the only Black senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that the federal criminalization of cannabis has “miserably failed” and has led to a “festering injustice” of selectively enforced drug laws disproportionately targeting Black and brown communities.  Nationally, according to a 2020 report by the ACLU, a Black person is nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person, despite the fact that marijuana use is equally common among racial groups. “Cannabis laws are unevenly enforced and devastate the lives of those most vulnerable,” Booker said during the Tuesday hearing....

Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Missouri hit out against the legislation, alleging it “would wipe clean the criminal records of illegal alien traffickers.”  “When these criminals trafficked marijuana, they broke the law. Whether some find that law unfashionable or even unfair, what they did was illegal,” Cotton said.

Weldon Angelos, who was sentenced to 55 years in prison for possessing several pounds of marijuana as well as a firearm and was later pardoned by former President Donald Trump, told the committee that expungement is a critical part of the legislation in order to address what he sees as a racially motivated ban on marijuana.  “Each arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentence makes the world a little bit smaller for those bearing the modern scarlet letter,” Angelos said, referring to what it’s like to live with a drug conviction....

Edward Jackson, chief of the Annapolis Police Department, testified in support of the bill, saying “there is nothing inherently violent” about cannabis.  Jackson asserted that decriminalization would both improve community trust in police and allow officers to focus on higher priority and violent crimes.  “I have spent far too much time arresting people for selling and possessing cannabis,” Jackson said.

July 27, 2022 in Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 25, 2022

Spotlighting the "unheard-of decline in Black incarceration"

Keith Humphreys and Ekow Yankah have this notable new Chicago Tribune commentary headlined "The unheard-of decline in Black incarceration." This piece should be read in full, and here are excerpts:

Two years after George Floyd’s murder, protest-filled streets and countless invocations of a “racial reckoning,” public backlash and boredom have led many people to despair that the criminal justice system will never change.  But that dispiriting illusion is false, maybe even dangerous.  After generations of soul-crushing mass incarceration, African Americans have cause for hope: The Black imprisonment rate is at a 33-year low, having fallen to about half its level of a generation ago. But an inadvertent collaboration of ideological adversaries makes the decline of Black incarceration unspeakable.

On the one hand, the good news is hidden by racism. The narrative of inherent Black violence and immorality has been used to terrify white people and justify the oppression of Black people for centuries. As a Media Matters study demonstrated, if a criminal suspect is Black, the case is more likely to be covered on television news. Social media platforms greatly magnify the distortion. Within the narrative of inherent Black criminality, the decline in Black incarceration seems an impossibility: Black people must be in prison because that is where they belong. And even the racists who are aware of the decline in Black imprisonment may decide to keep silent — the truth is less important than the social or political gain offered by continual whispers of the Black boogeyman.

Anti-racist advocates oppose this narrative, emphasizing instead the structural forces that use fear of Black Americans to feed the fire of mass incarceration. But anti-racists may share racists’ unawareness or discomfort with declining Black incarceration. Black hopes have been dashed too many times to trust a change in their oppressor’s character. Other anti-racists are aware of the change but have fears of acknowledging it. White concern for racial justice has a history of evaporating. Two years after police murdered George Floyd, it is disheartening to see how quickly earnest proclamations of a “racial reckoning” withered into a commitment to abolish a pancake mix logo.

To be sure, the disproportionate incarceration of Black Americans remains a national tragedy that cannot be consigned to history if white people become complacent. Reformers understandably fear that focusing on the decline in Black incarceration (or positive comparison with white people) will further slow the dismantling of a system that still destroys countless lives. Still, assuming American racism is intractable creates a narrative that also cannot account for the decline in Black imprisonment.

Despite their competing premises, the racist and anti-racist narratives accidentally reinforce each other. They share a code of silence about Black de-incarceration that misleads Americans about the current racial realities of mass incarceration. In the absence of corrective information from journalists and activists, most people assume incorrectly that prisons continue to gobble up the lives of an increasing number of African Americans.

No matter our politics, we should care about what is true — the Black imprisonment rate has been dropping for a generation.  Hundreds of thousands of African Americans who would have been behind bars are now free.  Callous actors will claim this is too many, and anti-racists will argue it’s too few.  But would anyone argue with a straight face that such a dramatic change in the fate of hundreds of thousands of people warrants no discussion at all?...

In a country where so many — particularly people of color — long to see images of Black excellence celebrated, stories of Black progress should be highlighted rather than buried. Without ever forgetting the work still to be done, Americans of all races should be told of the progress that has and can be won.

I am always glad to see important data about modern incarceration emphasized, though I think op-eds could be written about all sorts of data realities going largely ignored or being misunderstood in many era.  There was precious little public discourse about mass increases in US incarceration for decades, and still very few talk about the remarkable increases and decreases in federal incarceration (and caseloads) over the last 25 years.  Though there is often discourse around private prisons, relatively few highlight what a small part they play in the national incarceration map.  Demographics such as gender and age and class (often combining with racial dynamics) can vary dramatically in incarcerated populations depending on crimes and jurisdictions, and dynamic recent modern changes in urban and rural incarceration rates have also often been overlooked or underexamined.  And, of course, data lags and other factors make it hard to even know how profoundly the COVID pandemic has reshaped our incarceration levels or whether any changes brought by COVID may prove enduring.

Put slightly differently, in this context, I do not see all that many thought-out "narratives" seeking to hide or obscure key data.  Instead, I see many advocates and media with relatively little interest in data combining with a general paucity of clear and effective data resources.  That said, given the considerable attention given to racial issues in broader criminal justice narratives and elsewhere in policy debates, I am still eager to praise Professors Humphreys and Yankah for this important commentary.  But, for me, it is just one small part of a much bigger story of political rhetoric often having little interest in complicated policy data.

A few of many older and newer related prior posts:

July 25, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (17)

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Notable debate over access to sentencing data as Ohio builds out new sentencing data platform

In a few posts over the last few years (linked below), I have flagged the work of some Ohio jurists and others in the development of a statewide sentencing database.  I have had the honor of playing a small role in this work, and I have found fascinating many of the challenges and debates surrounding efforts to build out the Ohio Sentencing Data Platform.  One big lurking issue all along is now spotlighted by this new local article headlined "Statewide judges’ group wants sentencing data collected under proposed database kept secret."  Here are the excerpts from a lengthy article worth reading in full: 

A group that represents Ohio’s common pleas court judges does not want the public to see data that would be collected under a proposed statewide sentencing database for fears it could be cherry-picked and lead to criticism of the courts.  The head of the Ohio Common Pleas Judges’ Association wrote in a letter to the Ohio Supreme Court’s sentencing commission last month that judges recognize the value in the creation of a database for their own use.

Judges, however, are concerned that attorneys, journalists and other organizations could selectively pull data from the database to use “as a basis to critique imposed sentences and advocate for an overhaul to Ohio’s sentencing statutes.”  “In short, the OCPJA has significant concerns that broad public accessibility to the data would negatively impact the independence of the judiciary and interfere with its discretion in sentencing decisions,” the group’s president, Morrow County Common Pleas Court Robert Hickson, wrote.

The letter urged the seven justices to scrap proposed changes to the rules of superintendence that govern the state’s courts.  That would allow the court to run the project through the sentencing commission and come up with new proposals. In the alternative, state lawmakers should pass legislation mandating the data be exempt from Ohio’s public record laws, the letter said.... Hickson wrote that the letter represents the “unanimous position” of the group’s board.  Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan is the group’s first vice president....

Sheehan’s colleague on the bench and predecessor as administrative judge wrote a letter of his own to the Ohio Supreme Court justices in which he said the views of the state judges’ group “cannot be farther from my own.” “In my opinion, the fears and skepticism expressed in the OCPJA letter are unfounded,” Judge John J. Russo wrote.  Russo, who was elected in 2006 and served as administrative judge from 2014 to 2020, told cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that keeping the data secret and available only to the judges was akin to creating a “secret club” and would only harm the public’s confidence in the justice system more than making it public....

Russo also said that the letter by the judges’ group does not reflect the stance of the majority of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.  The Ohio Public Defender’s Office, Ohio Bar Association, Black Lives Matter and Common Cause Ohio all urged the commission to make the data available to the public.

The leader of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorney Association expressed a similar concern that the data would not paint a complete picture of all of the factors that go into each sentencing decision, and it would be open to manipulation.  While the group stopped short of calling for the data to remain hidden from the public, it did challenge that the legislature would have to create the commission, rather than the court.

The letters are in response to the Ohio Supreme Court’s sentencing commission’s call for public comment on proposed rule changes that would create a uniform sentencing entry, a lengthy document that judges would fill out after each sentencing hearing that articulates why judges imposed each sentence.  Each county’s common pleas court uses its own system to document the sentences judges there hand down, and they vary widely.  Some courts in small, rural counties still use handwritten sentencing documents, the Supreme Court said in a 2021 article published in the court’s news letter.

The commission would take data from the document and enter it into a database kept by the court that would give those who can access it the ability to see what the average sentence each person convicted of a particular crime received in each county’s common pleas court.  The sentencing commission hopes that creating a central database for the entire state that is populated by a single, uniform document that each judge fills out will make it easier for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.  It would allow the prison system to keep track of the sentences each inmate is serving and prevent trial court judges from committing errors during sentencing that appellate courts would later overturn....

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly, a former judge in Cuyahoga County who served on the bench alongside Sheehan and Russo, told cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that the database will help judges make sure they’re doling out similar sentences.  “That’s not just a good idea. That’s what the law mandates now,” Donnelly said. “It’s just that, how do you do that with the lack of information and the lack of data that we have?”

Donnelly also said that the public has a right to know how their courts are operating and that he believes the data should be made public. “We all serve at the pleasure of the public,” Donnelly said of judges in state court. “Everything else about our decisions is reviewable. Why should the most important decision we make as judges, whether to incarcerate someone, be any different than any other decision we make in this system of checks and balances?”

Prior related posts:

 

UPDATE:  Cleveland.com has published this notable new opinion piece authored by Judge Ronald B. Adrine under the headline "Ohio’s Black judges support public release of criminal-sentencing database information." Here are excerpts:

The Ohio Black Judges Association Inc. (OBJA) voices its strong support for the Supreme Court of Ohio’s plan to allow public access to a proposed criminal sentencing database compiled by, among other things, race, as referenced in a recent article which appeared in The Plain Dealer.  Regrettably, our support puts us at odds with the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association, which opposes public access to the database....

Our members across the state are acutely aware of the fact that the lack of data impedes legitimate inquiry into the degree to which racial justice is, or is not, a reality in Ohio.  At minimum, the existence of an open-access criminal sentencing database will sensitize all judges who make sentencing decisions to the potential for implicit bias, where it exists, and to reassure them of their positive practices, where it does not!

The position taken by the Common Pleas Judges Association calls for worst-case speculation concerning the occasional misuse of the database, while overlooking the overwhelming benefits to be realized in the majority of situations where the database is accessed.  Aggressively promoting viable efforts to increase the public’s confidence in our courts and to seek justice system accountability for all are OBJA’s primary motivators for supporting public access to the database.

We would like to assume that the vast majority of the members of the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association have nothing to fear from public access to their sentencing practices.  If that assumption is incorrect, then the case for creating and maintaining the database is made even stronger.

There may be legitimate reasons for racial or other disparities that have nothing to do with bias.  If that is the case, having the database will assist in identifying them. By the same token, if the sentencing practices of individual judges suggest the need for practice adjustments, then that fact should be brought to the attention of those judges and the public should be able to monitor their progress in eliminating any explicit or implicit bias uncovered.

July 23, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

"Carceral Intent"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Danielle C. Jefferis and now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

For decades, scholars across disciplines have examined the stark injustice of American carceralism.  Among that body of work are analyses of the various intent requirements embedded in the constitutional doctrine that governs the state’s power to incarcerate.  These intent requirements include the “deliberate indifference” standard of the Eighth Amendment, which regulates prison conditions, and the “punitive intent” standard of due process jurisprudence, which regulates the scope of confinement.  This Article coins the term “carceral intent” to refer collectively to those legal intent requirements and examines critically the role of carceral intent in shaping and maintaining the deep-rooted structural racism and sweeping harms of America’s system of confinement.

This Article begins by tracing the origins of American carceralism, focusing on the modern prison’s relationship to white supremacy and the post-Emancipation period in U.S. history.  The Article then turns to the constitutional doctrine of incarceration, synthesizing and categorizing the law of carceral intent.  Then, drawing upon critical race scholarship that examines anti-discrimination doctrine and the concept of “white innocence,” the Article compares the law’s reliance on carceral intent with the law’s reliance on discriminatory intent in equal protection jurisprudence.  Critical race theorists have long critiqued the intent-focused anti-discrimination doctrine as incapable of remedying structural racism and inequities.  The same can be said of the doctrine of incarceration.  The law’s preoccupation with an alleged wrongdoer’s “bad intent” in challenges to the scope and conditions of incarceration makes it ill-suited to remedying the U.S. prison system’s profoundly unjust and harmful features.  A curative approach, this Article asserts, is one in which the law focuses on carceral effect rather than carceral intent, as others have argued in the context of equal protection.

July 19, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 11, 2022

Furman at 50: some recent notable coverage

As noted in this recent post, the US Supreme Court's remarkable death penalty opinion in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), is now a half century and I have not decided to create a series of "Furman at 50" posts.  Unsurprisingly, I am not the only one to note the Furman milestone, and here is a round-up of some recent coverage and commentary I have seen from various sources:

From the Dalton Daily Citizen, "50 years after SCOTUS ruled death penalty cruel and unusual, race factors heavily in executions"

From the Death Penalty Information Center, "DPIC Analysis Finds Prosecutorial Misconduct Implicated in More than 550 Death Penalty Reversals or Exonerations"

From The Marshall Project, "The Supreme Court Let The Death Penalty Flourish.  Now Americans are Ending It Themselves."

From Slate, "Fifty Years Ago, the Supreme Court Tried to Reduce Racial Bias in the Death Penalty. Did It Work?"

From UPI, "50 years after Furman ruling, death penalty may come down to states, experts say"

From The Washington Post, "Death penalty’s 50-year rise and fall since Supreme Court struck it down"

Related prior posts:

July 11, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Does commitment to equal justice mean AG Garland must or must not seek the death penalty for racist Buffalo mass murderer?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Post article, headlined "Garland weighs racial equity as he considers death penalty in Buffalo."  Here are excerpts from a long article:

The Biden administration’s pledge to pursue racial equity in the criminal justice system is facing a crucial test: whether federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the self-avowed white supremacist charged with slaughtering 10 Black people in a Buffalo grocery store in May.

Some survivors and family members of those killed told Attorney General Merrick Garland during a private meeting in June that they are supportive of bringing a capital case against the 18-year-old suspect, Payton Gendron, according to people involved in the discussion.  Their stance conflicts with the long-standing position of civil rights advocates, who have generally opposed the death penalty out of concerns it is unjust and disproportionately used against racial minorities....

Garland, under pressure from civil rights groups, issued a moratorium last summer on federal executions, after the administration of President Donald Trump carried out 13 in the final six months of his presidency.  As heinous as the Buffalo killings were, Black civil rights leaders say, seeking to execute the gunman would represent a setback in their efforts to abolish capital punishment.  “The reality for us is that the system is too often infused with racial bias. That doesn’t change because someone who is White, and who perpetrated violence against Black people, is put to death,” said Maya Wiley, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

President Biden opposed the death penalty during his 2020 campaign, but he has not pushed forcefully for a blanket federal ban on executions since taking office.  His administration is under pressure to do more to confront rising white supremacy, a spike in hate crimes and a wave of gun violence.  While Garland’s moratorium does not ban prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, the Justice Department has not filed a notice to seek capital punishment under his leadership, officials said....

Federal prosecutors have charged Gendron with 26 hate crime counts.  But it is an additional gun-related charge that carries the potential penalty of death. He also faces state-level first-degree murder and hate crimes charges in New York, which does not allow state-sponsored executions....

Making matters more complex, some of the attorneys representing the families are advocates who vocally oppose the death penalty, including Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights attorney, and Terrence M. Connors, a Buffalo trial lawyer. So do some of Garland’s top deputies, including Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who joined him in Buffalo....

Garland gained national acclaim in the 1990s for helping lead the Justice Department’s successful capital conviction of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was put to death in 2001.  During his confirmation hearing last year, Garland said he stands by the outcome of that case but has since developed reservations over the death penalty.

At the hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) cited the case of Dylann Roof — a White man sentenced to death for fatally shooting nine Black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 — and asked whether Garland would pursue capital punishment in a similar case. Garland responded that it would depend on the Biden administration’s policy.

The Justice Department has continued to back Roof’s death sentence, which was upheld by a federal appellate court last summer.  The department also is seeking the death penalty for Robert Bowers, a White man accused of killing 11 people and wounding six in an antisemitic attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018....

In opposing the death penalty, some opponents cite cases in which convicts on death row are exonerated in light of new evidence. But legal experts said the Buffalo case appears to lacks ambiguity: The suspected gunman allegedly wrote a 180-page screed denouncing Black people, shared plans for the attack on social media and live-streamed some of the shooting.

“Congress passed the law allowing the federal death penalty for the most heinous of crimes. If the Buffalo massacre doesn’t qualify, then it’s hard to see what would,” Cotton said in a statement. “Merrick Garland and President Biden ought to put aside their personal feelings, enforce the law, and focus on securing justice for the victims of this horrific crime.”

Garland has not been completely clear about his intent in pausing executions, said Nathan S. Williams, a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute Roof.  Though Garland cited technical issues concerning lethal injection in his memo announcing the moratorium, he also referenced fundamental unease about the death penalty’s “disparate impact on people of color.”  Garland’s moratorium “does not resolve what was posited in that memo: ‘Is the death penalty fundamentally unfair in its application?’ If you believe that, you would not pursue it” in Gendron’s case, Williams said.

Especially because the facts in Gendron's case are relatively similar to those that led to Roof being sent to federal death row, I can see a basis to say a commitment to equal justice demands pursuing the death penalty for Gendron. But, if one sincerely believes the entire system is fundamentally inequitable, I can also see a basis for saying a commitment to equal justice demands never seeking the death penalty. It will be interesting to see what AG Garland decides.

Prior related post:

July 5, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Is the Bruen Second Amendment ruling really "an important step to ending mass incarceration"?

As highlighted by prior posts here and here, I am intrigued by what Supreme Court's big Bruen ruling (basics here) will mean from Second Amendment jurisprudence and a variety of gun prohibitions.  But the question in the title of this post is prompted by this  Washington Post opinion piece by Aimee Carlisle, Christopher Smith and Michael Alexander Thomas which seems to have particular grand expectations about what Bruen could bring.  Here are excerpts:

As public defenders in New York City who represent people charged with illegal gun possession — people who, according to the New York City Police Department’s own data, are almost invariably Black and Brown — we see the majority’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen as an important step to ending mass incarceration.  That’s why we joined other public defenders in filing an amicus brief in the case asking the court to abandon its ivory tower and consider the law’s impact on those people who bear the brunt of New York’s gun laws — our clients....

Because possession of an unlicensed, loaded firearm is a “violent felony” under New York law, people with no criminal record who are convicted face a mandatory minimum sentence of 3½ years in prison; the maximum is 15 years.  They can lose their jobs, their housing, their children and, if they are not citizens, their right to live in the United States. All for carrying a gun without ever threatening anyone or pulling the trigger — conduct that in many states is not a crime at all....

Now, following the landmark ruling in Bruen, New York can no longer impose hurdles that render the Second Amendment a fiction.... The solution to gun violence is not imprisoning people simply for carrying a gun — and burdening them with the lifelong consequences that follow.  The only acceptable solution must reject racist intent and impact at every stage.  We must break our addiction to mass incarceration.

The next steps are clear.  Now that the Supreme Court has spoken, prosecutors must dismiss all gun cases that punish people for engaging in constitutionally protected activity and free them from jail.  As state lawmakers weigh their legislative response to the decision, we hope they will finally safeguard New Yorkers’ right to keep and bear arms and create a system free of racism.

I always eager to see our laws move away, in any and every possible way, from unnecessary and excessive incarceration.  And I am hopeful that any and all persons now incarcerated based on criminal laws that Bruen makes constitutional will swiftly get justice pursuant to their constitutional rights.  But there is a long history of legislators, prosecutors and others often working quite hard to restrict which defendants get retroactive relief from major Supreme Court ruling and to find new ways to criminalize a broad swatch of disfavored conduct.  Though Bruen may end up having lots of echoes, I am not certainly expecting it to make a real dent in our nation's incarceration levels.  

Prior recent related posts:

June 29, 2022 in Gun policy and sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Could the EQUAL Act get passed as part of some kind of "omnibus" federal marijuana reform bill?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting Marijuana Moment article headlined "New Details On Congressional Marijuana Omnibus Bill Emerge As Lawmakers Work For 60 Senate Votes."  Here are some of the intriguing particulars from an extended piece worth reading in full:

Two key congressmen made waves in the marijuana community on Thursday by disclosing that there are high-level talks underway about putting together a wide-ranging package of incremental marijuana proposals that House and Senate lawmakers believe could be enacted into law this year.  But multiple sources tell Marijuana Moment that issues under consideration go further than the banking and expungements reforms that were at the center of the public discussion that has emerged.

The dueling pushes for comprehensive legalization and incremental reform — a source of tension among advocates, lawmakers and industry insiders over many months — may actually result in something actionable and bipartisan by the end of the current Congress, those familiar with the bicameral negotiations say.  That said, no deal is set in stone and talks are ongoing.

In addition to the banking and expungements proposals that made waves when discussed publicly at a conference on Thursday by two key House lawmakers, there are also talks about attaching language from other standalone bills dealing with issues such as veterans’ medical cannabis access, research expansion, marijuana industry access to Small Business Administration (SBA) programs and broader drug sentencing reform....

Interestingly enough, a non-marijuana item might also be part of the deal in the works: the EQUAL Act to end the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which experts say has exacerbated racial disparities in the criminal justice system. That legislation has passed the House in standalone form and has substantial bipartisan support in the Senate. “These talks are very serious,” a source involved in criminal justice reform said. “I would say this is one of the most serious bipartisan, bicameral conversations that we’ve seen occur in our time in this space.”

Given that I am not especially bullish on the likelihood that significant marijuana reform making it through the current Congress, I am not especially keen on the idea of tethering crack sentencing reform to marijuana reform.  But, given that the EQUAL Act seems to be stalled in the Senate (despite more than 10 GOP co-sponsors), maybe this new marijuana talk is good news for the prospects of sentencing reform.  Notably, this recent Hill commentary by Marc Levin, headlined "Bipartisan drug sentencing reform isn’t a pipe dream," argues that the EQUAL Act could still "receive a rare bipartisan embrace."  Whether with a side of weed or on its own, I sure hope the EQUAL Act gets to the desk of the President as soon as possible.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

June 14, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (13)

Monday, June 06, 2022

"'How Much Time Am I Looking At?': Plea Bargains, Harsh Punishments, and Low Trial Rates in Southwest Border Districts"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article authored by Walter Gonçalves and available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Scholarship on the American trial penalty, vast and diverse, analyzes it in connection with plea bargaining’s dominance, its growth starting in the last third of the nineteenth century, and present-day racial disparities at sentencing.  The overcriminalization and quick processing of people of color in southwest border districts cannot be understood without an analysis of how trial sanctions impact illegal entry and drug trafficking in these busy jurisdictions.  Professor Ronald Wright wrote about the role of prosecutorial power and plea bargaining in the federal system, but he passed over how and why immigration crimes became widespread.  Any discussion of prosecutors and plea bargaining requires an understanding of how they manage illegal entrants and drug couriers — the most prevalent defendants in federal court.

This Article analyzes the reasons for increasing plea rates and trial penalties in the southwest and how they helped enable the proliferation of fast-track programs.  The plea-bargaining machine used racial stereotypes and stigmatizations of Latinx and African American populations to justify few trials and process as many migrants and drug couriers as possible.  This paper provides practical advice for criminal defense lawyers when representing clients at the plea and sentencing stage of a case.  It also unites a discussion of implicit bias to explain why judges disfavor racial minorities.

June 6, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 04, 2022

Notable (Pyrrhic?) victory under California Racial Justice Act for double murderer getting LWOP

A couple of years ago in this post, I noted the enactment of the California Racial Justice Act and suggested it could have a significant impact depending upon how it was applied by judges in the state.  I have not followed closely subsequent litigation over the CRJA's application, but this week I did see this local report on a notable ruling under the headline "O.C. district attorney violated Racial Justice Act in double murder case, judge finds."  Here are the basics:

An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer violated the Racial Justice Act when he made comments about the dating habits of Black men while discussing a double murder case.

However, Judge Gregg Prickett stopped short of imposing any sanctions that would have reduced Jamon Buggs’ sentence.  The appropriate remedy in the case — seeking life without the possibility of parole rather than the death penalty — had already been applied by the district attorney’s office, Prickett said.

The Racial Justice Act, passed in 2020, prohibits prosecutors from seeking or obtaining a criminal conviction or imposing a sentence based on race, ethnicity or national origin.  “The defendant has received what the statute would say was the appropriate remedy for the violation,” Prickett said.  “The court does not find that it would be in the interest of justice to dismiss enhancements, special circumstances or reduce charges.”

Buggs, who was convicted of murder in May for fatally shooting a man and woman inside a Newport Beach condominium, allegedly in a jealous rage, was sentenced by Prickett to life in prison without the possibility of parole....  During a roughly two-week trial, Buggs’ attorneys argued that he killed Darren Partch, 38, and Wendi Miller, 48, in the heat of passion, fueled by what they described as a toxic relationship between Buggs and his ex-girlfriend, Samantha Brewers....

The case had been mired in controversy since Spitzer made racist comments about the dating habits of Black men during an October staff meeting on whether to pursue the death penalty against Buggs.  At the meeting, Spitzer told prosecutors that he knows “many Black people who get themselves out of their bad circumstances and bad situations by only dating white women,” according to a memo written by then-prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh, who attended the meeting.

Spitzer has said allegations of “any racial animus or bias against the defendant are baseless and quite frankly offensive.”  Buggs is Black, while Buggs’ ex-girlfriend and Miller are both white. Spitzer has alleged that Baytieh wrote the memo in retaliation because Spitzer had initiated an investigation of him related to another murder case....

Prosecutors argued in court Friday that the defense failed to provide a preponderance of evidence that Spitzer’s comments negatively affected Buggs’ case. Denise Gragg, one of Buggs’ defense attorneys, said Spitzer’s comments were an example of “the oldest bias that exists” regarding Black men and white women. She added that Spitzer has not acknowledged his comments as biased.

“If you can’t even recognize that is a bias, how can you assure yourself or us that there were not decisions made in this case or not made in this case that were influenced by that bias?” she asked. “Justice is not just done from the jury box,” she added. “It’s done from the back halls; it’s done in chambers…. That is the place where this case was damaged.”

A quick Google search did not turn up any reports or data on how the California Racial Justice Act has been applied or adjudicated so far.  I continue to suspect the CJRA could have a variety of notable impacts (especially if it were to ever be made retroactive). But the accurate statement that many criminal justice decisions get made in "back halls," and the broader challenge of identifying and crafting remedies for problematic discretionary decision-making, necessarily means the impact of the CJRA may prove hard to fully gauge or assess.

June 4, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Hoping it is not yet time to give up on passage of the EQUAL Act

When the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in Sept 2021, by a tally of 361-66, to pass the EQUAL Act to equalize powder and crack cocaine sentences, I thought the long ugly stain of the crack/powder disparity might be finally about to come to an end.  In this post, I wondered "After an overwhelming majority of GOP House delegation voted for EQUAL Act, can the Senate move quickly to finally right a 35-year wrong?."  Nearly nine months later, it is now obvious that the Senate was not able to move quickly on this issue.  But, I was still optimistic in March 2022 upon news that a full 10 GOP Senators were now signed on as co-sponsors of the EQUAL Act, and so I asked here "Is Congress finally on the verge of equalizing crack and powder cocaine sentences?."

But April brought showers dousing some of my hopefulness in the form of a group of GOP Senators introducing a competing crack/powder sentencing reform bill tougher than EQUAL Act and a press report that Democrats were fearful of potential floor votes around possible EQUAL Act amendments.  And yesterday, I saw that FAMM President Kevin Ring has this new commentary, headlined "The Senate’s Unwillingness to Pass the EQUAL Act Highlights Its Dysfunction," while almost reads like a boxer's corner man throwing in the towel.  Here are excerpts:

When Lavonda Bonds, Yvonne Mosley, and Sagan Soto-Stanton saw the U.S. House overwhelmingly pass a bill last September to eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, they were excited and hopeful.  Their loved ones, who’ve each spent decades languishing in federal prison, could finally come home if the Senate would simply follow suit and pass this noncontroversial reform, known as the EQUAL Act.

Eight months later, these three women — and thousands of other families — are still waiting for the Senate to act.  They want to know what the holdup is.  They think I might know because I have been working in and around Congress for the past 30 years, first as a Capitol Hill staffer, then as a lobbyist, and for the past 13 years, as a D.C.-based advocate for families with loved ones in prison.

Unfortunately, I have to tell them all the same thing: The Senate is broken.  And the EQUAL Act is perhaps the best and most infuriating example of just how broken the Senate has become — it can’t even pass a bill with broad, bipartisan support and fix a 36-year-old mistake....

Congress, which voted unanimously in 2010 to reduce the disparity to 18:1, looked poised to finally eliminate it this year.  A diverse coalition of groups from across the ideological spectrum, including organizations representing police and prosecutors, civil rights, and civil liberties, joined together to support the EQUAL Act to end the unwarranted disparity.

The U.S. House approved the EQUAL Act last September by a vote of 361–66. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), conservative Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), and nearly 70 percent of the Republican caucus joined every House Democrat in a powerful display of bipartisanship on a matter of equal justice.

As attention turned to the Senate, the bill’s supporters secured eleven Republican cosponsors (and more private commitments) to demonstrate that the EQUAL Act was bipartisan, popular, and would not fall victim to the filibuster, the Senate rule requiring 60 votes to cut off debate.  There’s no threat of filibuster preventing a vote for the EQUAL act, which could change the lives of thousands of suffering families.

So what’s the problem?  Senators may have to vote on amendments that get offered to the bill and they are scared.  They fear that members in the small minority who oppose the bill will offer amendments that sound good, yet are bad policy, known as “poison pills.”

This fear has always existed, especially in election years, but in recent years it has grown to the point of creating paralysis.  In the past, supporters of important reforms would stand together in opposition to obviously ill-intentioned amendments.  But senators today obsess over voting against poison pills they think will hurt their re-election chances, and leaders of the Senate’s majority party fear these votes could lose their side’s control of the chamber.  The Democrats control the Senate now, but this has been the practice of both parties in recent years.

The result is an unwillingness to move even popular reforms like the EQUAL Act. Filibuster or not, the Senate is broken.  And if it doesn’t get fixed soon, the families of Lavonda, Yvonne, Sagan, and thousands of others will remain separated by prison bars for no reason.

I do not think this commentary signals that the EQUAL Act cannot still get passed, but it reinforces my fear that the climb is far more uphill than it seemingly should be. One might especially recall that the FIRST STEP Act got to Prez Trump's desk during the lame-duck days after the 2018 election, so maybe that history foreshadows a 2022 path for the EQUAL Act.  But, whatever might come of this particular bill, I continue to be troubled to hear that the Senate cannot advance good policy because it seems a few of its members may fail to understand how to manage politics.  Sigh.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

June 2, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Gentlewomen of the Jury"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper recently posted to SSRN authored by Vivian Rotenstein and Valerie P. Hans. (The recent verdict in a high-profile state civil trial with a small, mostly male jury perhaps makes this research especially timely.) Here is the paper's abstract:

This Article undertakes a contemporary assessment of the role of women on the jury.  In 1946, at a time when few women served on U.S. juries, the all-male Supreme Court opined in Ballard v. United States that “The truth is that the two sexes are not fungible; a community made up exclusively of one is different from a community composed of both; the subtle interplay of one on the other is among the imponderables.”  Three-quarters of a century later, the legal and social status of women has changed dramatically, with increased participation in the labor force, expanded leadership roles, and the removal of legal and other barriers to civic engagement, including jury service.  Theoretical developments and research have produced new insights about how gender-conforming individuals enact their gender roles.  We combine these insights with a substantial body of jury research that has examined the effects of a juror’s gender on decision-making processes and verdict preferences in criminal and civil cases.  We also consider how nonbinary and other gender-nonconforming people might bring distinctive perspectives and experiences to the jury.

After a review of the historical record, describing shifts over time in women’s jury participation in the face of legal and societal barriers, we summarize the evidence from decision-making research, gender scholarship, and jury studies to examine whether women bring a different voice to jury service.  Our review, which shows substantial overlap as a function of a juror’s gender along with significant areas of divergence, underscores the importance of full and equitable participation on the jury.

June 2, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

So many depressing stories in a country awash with so many guns

Another week brings news of another horrific mass shooting in the USA, this one ever so depressing because its victims were so many young children murdered at an elementary school.  And, sadly, mass shootings are only one component of modern depressing gun realities in the United States: recent years have brought increases in gun homicides as gun sales have continued to spike.  While recent homicide numbers would seem to undercut narratives that more guns mean more safety, I have come to doubt that any horrible mass shooting or any detailed data are likely to alter our nation's current gun policies or politics.

That said, particularly with a major Supreme Court Second Amendment ruling likely in the works, I still find data about how existing gun laws are criminally enforced to be noteworthy.  And this data can also be quite depressing, as evidenced by this new lengthy local article headlined "There’s a large racial disparity in federal gun prosecutions in Missouri, data shows."  Here are excerpts:

[Darrell] Hargraves [in 2018] became one of more than 3,600 people convicted between 2015 and 2021 for federal firearm possession in Missouri, which outranks the rest of the nation for its rate of prosecution of such crimes.

In an analysis of federal sentencing and crime data, The Kansas City Star found Black people were disproportionately convicted for illegally carrying firearms compared to white people.  They were also sentenced more harshly.

In the Eastern District, a federal court jurisdiction that includes St. Louis, 81% of those convicted of illegal firearm possession in the past seven years were Black. In the Western District, which includes Kansas City, 54% were Black. Together the two districts cover the entire state of Missouri.  The state’s population is 12% Black.

In the Western District in 2020, Black people were also more than twice as likely to receive sentences above the recommended guidelines for firearm possession compared to white people, according to data from the United States Sentencing Commission.

Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District, said the office did not have demographic information on gun possession convictions.  “Race is not a factor in prosecutorial decision making or sentencing recommendations,” Ledford said.  “Therefore, we don’t track defendants or cases on that criteria.”

But researchers, advocates and community members say when it comes to carrying guns, Black people are treated differently as a result of the structure of the state’s gun policies and uneven enforcement.  “There was certainly a racial politics on who got to carry a gun ... There were African American men who tried to open carry and would get attacked or shot,” said Dr. Jonathan Metzl, author of “Dying of Whiteness” and director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University.  “They’re seen as criminals.”...

Hargraves said he wants to see the community be safer. “I do understand there are individuals that regardless of race are harming people,” he said. “My problem lies … in unfairness, the unfairness in sentencing, the unfairness in prison, the unfairness in not assessing the overall situation.”

The Eastern and Western districts of Missouri ranked first and sixth, respectively, for the number of people incarcerated for illegal firearm possession in any federal district in 2021.  The year before, they ranked first and third.

The rate of firearm possession began to noticeably increase in Missouri’s federal districts in the early days of Project Safe Neighborhood, a U.S. Department of Justice program that began in 2001, said Ken Novak, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  It brought together federal, state and local law enforcement officials, prosecutors, community leaders, and other stakeholders to identify the most serious violent crime problems in each region. In Missouri’s federal districts, that was gun violence and homicides, said Novak.  That led to more federal prosecutions for gun violations....

However there is little evidence to suggest incarcerating people for firearm possession helps curb violent crime or targets those who perpetrate gun violence in their communities, according to research by legal experts and federal defenders.  In Missouri, the majority of violent crimes are committed by people under the age of 30, according to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.  Meanwhile, 63% of those convicted for federal firearm possession in the state are 30 or older.

May 25, 2022 in Gun policy and sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

With Senate leader now pushing for EQUAL Act, can crack sentencing reform finally get to finish line?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this New York Daily News article headlined "Schumer calls for end to crack cocaine sentencing disparity: ‘Cocaine is cocaine’."  Here are excerpts:

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday called on lawmakers to end a sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine that has had a disproportionate effect on Black Americans. “We have a moment to balance the scales of justice,” the New York Democrat said at a news conference outside the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in lower Manhattan. “It’s common sense: Cocaine is cocaine, and the sentencing should be equal.”

In September, the House overwhelmingly passed legislation to end a sentencing formula that uses an 18-to-1 ratio in treating equal amounts of crack and powder cocaine. The bipartisan vote was 361 to 66. Democrats and Republicans embraced the chance to correct what activists, researchers and law enforcement view as a historical wrong. Pricey powder cocaine has long been seen as the province of the wealthy, while crack is cheaper and generally associated with poorer Americans....

But the bill, called the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act, has not yet landed on the floor of the Senate this spring, with both parties moving cautiously ahead of the pivotal midterm elections in November.

Schumer, who declined to describe a timeline for passage, appeared to be embarking upon a pressure campaign meant to clear space for the legislation’s approval without a fierce fight on the floor. In the Senate, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are sponsoring the legislation to end the sentencing disparities. “We’re working together — Sens. Booker, Portman and myself — figuring out the right timeframe and the right way to go,” Schumer told reporters Monday. “We want to get this done as soon as we can.”

Booker’s office said Monday that the legislation has picked up 21 cosponsors, including 11 Republicans, since it was introduced in the Senate in January. Booker said in a statement he was “pleased that Leader Schumer has called for a vote on the bill.” “For decades, our nation’s drug laws have been overly punitive and fraught with racial disparities, but perhaps no law has been as fundamentally flawed as the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity,” Booker said in the statement. “I look forward to passing the EQUAL Act as soon as possible.”

Beginning in 1986, mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine crimes were formulated using a staggering 100-to-1 ratio. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, signed into law by President Barack Obama, changed the ratio to 18 to 1. “Some of our colleagues would say, ‘Well, I’ll lower it, but I won’t make it equal,’” said Schumer, who at one point held up sweetener packets as props during the news conference. “100 to 1 was horrible, but 18 to 1 was just as horrible, which it is now. 1 to 1 is fair.”

Senator Schumer is wrong to assert current crack sentencing after the Fair Sentencing Act is "just as horrible" as it was under the 100-1 ratio.  It is a bit better, but still not actually fair.  The EQUAL Act finally presents the prospect of getting to the 1-1 sentencing ratio that the US Sentencing Commission urged way back in 1995.  More than a quarter of a century later, I hope Senator Schumer is right about the fact that now is finally, finally "a moment to balance the scales of justice."

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

May 24, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 19, 2022

"Paying for a Clean Record"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Amy Kimpel and just published in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology. Her is its abstract

Prosecutors and courts often charge a premium for the ability to avoid or erase a criminal conviction.  Defendants with means, who tend to be predominantly White, can often pay for a clean record.  But the indigent who are unable to pay, and are disproportionately Black and Brown, are saddled with the stigma of a criminal record.  Diversion and expungement are two popular reforms that were promulgated as ways to reduce the scale of the criminal legal system and mitigate the impact of mass criminalization.  Diversion allows a defendant to earn dismissal of a charge by satisfying conditions set by the prosecutor or court, thereby avoiding conviction.  Expungement seals or erases the defendant’s record of arrest or conviction.  Some diversion and expungement programs are cost-free, but most are not.  Yet a criminal record carries its own costs.  A criminal record can limit where an individual can live, go to school, and whether they receive public benefits.  As 93% of employers conduct background checks on job applicants, the inability to avoid a criminal record can create barriers to employment and the accumulation of wealth.  Costly diversion and expungement programs further calcify race and class divides, contributing to the construction of a permanent underclass.

This Article examines the promises and pitfalls of diversion and expungement as means to combat mass criminalization.  These two mechanisms work in tandem to provide access to a “clean record,” but not enough attention has been paid to the dangers they present due to differential access to clean records based on financial means.  This Article considers legal challenges to the current schemes and explains how requiring defendants to pay for a clean record enables courts and prosecutors to profit from the perpetuation of racial caste.  Ultimately, this Article argues that the impacts of diversion and expungement programs are more modest than reformers claim, and that these programs need to be offered at no cost if they are to succeed in achieving the goal of reducing racial disparities in our criminal courts and in society at large.

May 19, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

"Criminal Law Exceptionalism"

The title of this post is the title of this new article on SSRN authored by Benjamin Levin.  Here is its abstract:

For over half a century, U.S. prison populations have ballooned and criminal codes have expanded.  In recent years, a growing awareness of mass incarceration and the harms of criminal law across lines of race and class has led to a backlash of anti-carceral commentary and social movement energy.  Academics and activists have adopted a critical posture, offering not only small-bore reforms, but full-fledged arguments for the abolition of prisons, police, and criminal legal institutions.  Where criminal law was once embraced by commentators as a catchall solution to social problems, increasingly it is being rejected, or at least questioned.  Instead of a space of moral clarity, the “criminal justice system” is frequently identified by critical scholars and activists as a space of racial subordination, widespread inequality, and rampant institutional violence.

In this Article, I applaud that critical turn.  But, I argue that, when taken seriously, contemporary critiques of the criminal system raise foundational questions about power and governance — issues that should transcend the civil/criminal divide and, in some cases, even the distinction between state and private action.  What if the problem with the criminal system isn’t exclusively its criminal-ness, but rather is the way in which it is embedded in and reflective of a set of problematic beliefs about how society should be structured and how people should be governed? What if the problems with criminal law are illustrative, rather than exceptional? Ultimately, I argue that the current moment should invite a de-exceptionalization of criminal law and a broader reckoning with the distributive consequences and punitive impulses that define the criminal system’s functioning — and, in turn, define so many other features of U.S. political economy beyond criminal law and its administration.

May 18, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 12, 2022

New Sentencing Project fact sheet highlights rise (and recent declines) in the incarceration of women and girls

The folks at The Sentencing Project have assembled some fascinating data on the number of incarcerated women at this site and in this fact sheet. Here is part of their description of the fact sheet:

Between 1980 and 2020, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 475%, rising from a total of 26,326 in 1980 to 152,854 in 2020.  The total count in 2020 represents a 30% reduction from the prior year — a substantial but insufficient downsizing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which some states began to reverse in 2021.

Research on female incarceration is critical to understanding the full consequences of mass incarceration and to unraveling the policies and practices that lead to their criminalization. The number of incarcerated women was nearly five times higher in 2020 than in 1980.

Incarcerated Women and Girls examines female incarceration trends and finds areas of both concern and hope.  While the imprisonment rate for African American women was nearly twice that of white women in 2020, this disparity represents a sharp decline from 2000 when Black women were six times as likely to be imprisoned.  Since then Black women’s imprisonment rate has decreased by 68% while white women’s rate has increased by 12%.

Similar to adults, girls of color are more likely to be incarcerated than white girls.  Tribal girls are more than four times as likely, and African American girls are more than three times as likely as white girls to be incarcerated.

All the data in the fact sheet are fascinating, and these particular data points really caught my attention:

May 12, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

"Race-Norming and Statistical Discrimination: Beyond the NFL"

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

This Article uses the recent NFL “race-norming” scandal — in which Black players with concussion claims were scored differently on cognitive impairment tests, based on the assumption that they were less intelligent at baseline—  as an entry point to a broad-ranging analysis of inconsistencies in the law’s treatment of statistical discrimination.  The Supreme Court has emphatically and repeatedly rejected efforts to justify otherwise-illegal discrimination against individuals by resort to statistical generalizations about groups. This doctrine makes practices like the NFL’s not just repugnant, but illegal — yet such practices are pervasive and persistent, in high-stakes settings far beyond the NFL.  Similar race-norming in diagnostic algorithms is ubiquitous in medicine, for example, but has avoided legal scrutiny.  Moreover, the justice system itself has embraced numerous similar practices, including demographic norming of intellectual-capacity assessments for defendants facing the death penalty, explicit class-based discrimination in criminal justice risk assessments, and the use of race- and sex-specific actuarial data to calculate tort damages.  This Article examines these practices, the law governing them, and the reasons for these disconnects between law and practice.

May 11, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

FAMM urges feds to seek sentence reductions for all incarcerated persons subject to sexual abuse at Dublin FCI

As detailed in this local article from a few months ago, numerous staffers at the federal prison in California have been criminally charged with sexually abusing numerous incarcerated women.  (As press pieces have noted, Dublin FCI "had become known by the nickname 'Rape Club' due to rampant sexual abuse" with dozens of employees investigated for wrong-doing.)  Brining a sentencing angle to this sad story, yesterday FAMM sent this letter to Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco urging "the BOP to seek, and U.S. Attorneys to file, reduction of sentence motions for every woman whose allegations have been found credible."

I recommend the two-page FAMM letter in full, and here is an excerpt:

The Bureau of Prisons can refer compassionate release motions to the U.S. Attorney for filing when it finds extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant a reduction in sentence. While the policy statement describing extraordinary and compelling reasons does not include sexual abuse by corrections officials, it does provide the BOP the power to identify “other reasons,” that alone or in combination with recognized criteria merit compassionate release.

Sexual assault by BOP personnel of incarcerated women is an exceptional abuse of trust.  The trauma resulting from such victimization is without doubt an extraordinary and compelling reason justifying consideration for compassionate release. None of the victims was sentenced to endure such violence. It has made their incarceration degrading and terrifying.  The victims could not protect themselves or flee their abusers.  Many struggle to speak about their experience for fear of retaliation.  Sexual abuse survivors bear the emotional scars of their violation for years. Mental health care in the federal system is inadequate to help them begin to heal....

A motion filed by the U.S. Attorney on behalf of the Bureau of Prisons is the best opportunity to secure emotional and physical safety for women who endured sexual abuse by BOP personnel.  A Department-sanctioned motion carries the weight of the Department’s imprimatur, something a defendant-filed motion does not.  But, more than that, a motion filed by the United States would convey the gravity of the harm these women endured and signal your commitment to make it right.

May 10, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (11)

Monday, May 09, 2022

"Low Income, Poor Outcome: Unequal Treatment of Indigent Defendants"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN authored by Nino Monea. Here is its abstract:

It is no secret that the law treats poor people worse than rich ones.  This is true in criminal law and everywhere else.  But some laws do not simply result in disparate impact upon the poor — the way they are written explicitly targets or disadvantages the poor.  This Article examines the spectrum of expressly biased laws in four major categories.

First, laws that criminalize poverty: bans on poor housing or no housing, traffic laws that require nothing more than paying for things, and cash bail that imprisons people without access to credit.  Second, courts impose an enormous number of unwaivable fees at every step of the criminal justice system, and failure to pay results in incarceration — a modern day debtor prison.  Third, many criminal procedure rules place the needy on unequal footing.  Only indigent defendants are required to suffer reduced expectations of privacy, disclose certain information, face judicial scrutiny, endure low caps on what their attorneys can be paid, or go into hearing without an attorney.  And fourth, after conviction, these defendants face unique hurdles to recover for wrongful imprisonment or expensive expungement processes.

May 9, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 01, 2022

"Abolishing the Evidence-Based Paradigm"

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

The belief that policies and procedures should be data-driven and “evidence-based” has become criminal law’s leading paradigm for reform.  This evidence-based paradigm, which promotes quantitative data collection and empirical analysis to shape and assess reforms, has been widely embraced for its potential to cure the emotional and political pathologies that led to mass incarceration.  It has influenced reforms across the criminal procedure spectrum, from predictive policing through actuarial sentencing.  The paradigm’s appeal is clear: it promises an objective approach that lets data – not politics — lead the way and purports to have no agenda beyond identifying effective, efficient reforms.

This Article challenges the paradigm’s core claims.  It shows that the evidence-based paradigm’s objectives, its methodology, and its epistemology advance conventional assumptions about what the criminal legal system should strive to achieve, whom it should target, and whose voices and interests matter.  In other words, the evidence-based paradigm is political, and it does have an agenda.  And that agenda, informed by neoliberalism and the enduring legacy of white supremacy in the criminal legal system, strengthens — rather than challenges — the existing system.

The Article argues that, if left unchallenged, the evidence-based paradigm will continue to reproduce the system’s disparities and dysfunctions, under the veneer of scientific objectivity.  Thus, it must be abolished and replaced with a new approach that advances a true paradigm shift about the aims of criminal legal reform and the role and definition of data and empiricism in advancing that vision.

May 1, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, April 29, 2022

GOP Senators introduce competing crack/powder sentencing reform bill tougher than EQUAL Act

Regular readers should be aware from my prior postings that Congress seems poised to pass the EQUAL Act to entirely eliminate the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity.  This disparity and its racialized impacts have been an ugly part of the federal sentencing landscape for over 35 years (when Congress first created the 100:1 disparity), and the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 only partially reduced the disparity (down to 18:1).  But after the US House voted overwhelmingly, 361-66, to pass the EQUAL Act to end disparity last year, and after the Senate version had secured 11 GOP sponsors, I was hopeful the powder and crack cocaine disparity could and would finally be ended this year.

But, this press release from Senator Chuck Grassley's office, titled "Senators Introduce Bill To Reduce Crack-Powder Sentencing Disparity, Protect Communities From Criminals Most Likely To Reoffend," now has me concerned that a competing bill might now muck up the works.  Here are the details from the release:

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) today introduced the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act, which will reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders tried in federal courts. The legislation aims to make sentencing fairer while also preserving the ability of courts to keep those most likely to reoffend off the street.

“I’ve worked on this issue for many years. I cosponsored the 2010 legislation led by Senators Durbin and Sessions to reduce the disparity in sentencing from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.  It’s high time to do more to address this important issue and make our criminal code more just and fair.  Our legislation will significantly reduce this disparity while ensuring those more likely to reoffend face appropriate penalties.  Powder cocaine is being trafficked across the border in historic volumes, so we also need to take precautions that ensure these traffickers also face justice for spreading poison through our communities,” Grassley said....

This sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders has had a disparate impact on communities of color across the country.  Reducing this disparate impact is critical, but must be thoughtfully enacted to prevent likely reoffenders from returning to communities just to violate the law again.

Separate legislation has been introduced in the Senate to completely flatten the differences between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.  This approach does not account for the differences in recidivism rates associated with the two types of cocaine offenses.  According to a January 2022 analysis from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), crack cocaine offenders recidivate at the highest rate of any drug type at 60.8 percent, while powder cocaine offenders recidivate at the lowest rate of any drug type at 43.8 percent.  Raising additional public safety concerns, USSC data reveals that crack cocaine offenders were the most likely among all drug offenders to carry deadly weapons during offenses. These statistics show the need for a close look at all available government data before we consider an approach to flatten sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses. 

The SMART [Start Making Adjustments and Require Transparency in] Cocaine Sentencing Act will reduce the current crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing disparity from 18:1 to 2.5:1. It reduces the volume required to trigger 5-year mandatory minimum sentences for powder cocaine from 500 grams to 400 grams, and from 5 kilograms to 4 kilograms for 10-year mandatory minimum sentences.  For crack cocaine, the volume triggering a 5-year mandatory sentence is increased from 28 grams to 160 grams; the volume for the 10-year mandatory sentence is lifted from 280 grams to 1,600 grams.

Critically, the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act also requires an attorney general review and certification process for any retroactive sentencing adjustments. It provides for new federal research from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services regarding the lethality and addictiveness of these substances as well as what violence is associated with cocaine-related crimes. The legislation also requires a new report from the USSC on crack and powder cocaine offenses, including data on recidivism rates....

Full legislative text of the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act can be found HERE.  

Kevin Ring has an effective Twitter thread here criticizing various aspects of this proposal, which he calls the "The Grassley Unequal Act."  I hope that this bill does not impede progress on the EQUAL Act, but the fact that the EQUAL Act has not become law already make me concerned about the fate and future or long-overdue efforts to end the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

UPDATE This new New York Times article, headlined "Drug Sentencing Bill Is in Limbo as Midterm Politics Paralyze Congress," details why the EQUAL Act may not get to the finish line in this Congress.  Here are excerpts:

[W]ith control of Congress at stake and Republicans weaponizing a law-and-order message against Democrats in their midterm election campaigns, the fate of the measure is in doubt. Democrats worry that bringing it up would allow Republicans to demand a series of votes that could make them look soft on crime and lax on immigration — risks they are reluctant to take months before they face voters.

Even the measure’s Republican backers concede that bringing it to the floor could lead to an array of difficult votes.  “I assume the topic opens itself pretty wide,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, who became the 11th member of his party to sign on to the Equal Act this month, giving its supporters more than the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural obstacles....

Though Mr. Schumer endorsed the legislation in April, he has not laid out a timeline for bringing it to the floor.  Democrats say he is giving backers of the bill a chance to build additional support and find a way to advance the measure without causing a floor fight that could take weeks — time that Democrats do not have if they want to continue to win approval of new judges and take care of other business before the end of the year....

Its supporters say that they recognize the difficulties but believe that it is the single piece of criminal justice legislation with a chance of reaching the president’s desk in the current political environment.  “Of all the criminal justice bills, this is the one that is set up for success right now,” said Inimai Chettiar, the federal director for the Justice Action Network. “It is not going to be easy on the floor, but I think it is doable.”

The problem is that the push comes as top Republicans have made clear that they intend to try to capitalize on public concern about increasing crime in the battle for Senate and House control in November....  Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, this week reprised his criticism of Judge Jackson and attacked Mr. Biden for having issued his first round of pardons and commutations, including for those convicted of drug crimes.  “They never miss an opportunity to send the wrong signal,” he said of Democrats.

Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who led the opposition to the First Step Act, said he was in no mood to let the Equal Act sail through. He has said that if the disparity is to be erased, penalties for powder cocaine should be increased.  “My opposition to the Equal Act will be as strong as my opposition to the First Step Act,” Mr. Cotton said.

The legislation encountered another complication on Thursday, when Senators Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah, two top Republican supporters of the previous criminal justice overhaul, introduced a competing bill that would reduce — but not eliminate — the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. They said that research showed that crack traffickers were more likely to return to crime and carry deadly weapons.  “Our legislation will significantly reduce this disparity while ensuring those more likely to reoffend face appropriate penalties,” said Mr. Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Sponsors of the Equal Act say they intend to push forward and remain optimistic that they can overcome the difficulties.  “We’ve got an amazing bill, and we’ve got 11 Republicans and people want to get this done,” said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey and the lead sponsor of the legislation. “My hope is that we are going to have a shot to get this done right now.”

With strong advocates of the EQUAL Act now saying that getting this to the floor of the Senate is "doable" or can "have a shot," I cannot help but think it is quite a long shot this Congress.  Sigh.

April 29, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

New Grid feature take close look at "past and uncertain future of executions in America"

The publication Grid has this terrific new dive into the US death penalty under this full title: "The death penalty: The past and uncertain future of executions in America; Fewer people are being sentenced to death, and concerns about cruelty and racial bias remain, but some states are trying to move ahead with executions anyway."  Though that title reveals some key themes to Grid's overall review, the full coverage is thoroughly engaging because it includes three different reporters unpacking three different "lenses" of the story.  Here are the headlines of each of the pieces:

Legal: "Shifting views of 'cruel and unusual'"

Science: "Medical groups and drug companies push back"

Policy: "Support for executions wanes, but racial bias persists"

In addition to the discussion of the issue through different lenses, the Grid piece has some really cool data graphics.  One sets out the yearly particulars behind this execution factoid: "A majority of all 14,480 recorded executions since 1800 have been by hanging.  About a third have been by electric chair, 1 in 10 by lethal injection and less than 1 percent by firing squad."

April 29, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

"Bad Faith Prosecution"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN authored by Ann Woolhandler, Jonathan Remy Nash and Michael G. Collins. Here is its abstract:

In our increasingly polarized society, claims that prosecutions are politically motivated, racially motivated, or just plain arbitrary are more common than ever.  The advent of “progressive” prosecutors will no doubt increase claims of bad faith prosecution.  The Supreme Court has required relatively high standards for claims of race- or speech-motivated prosecution.  Many have condemned the standards used by the Court as unduly limiting bad faith prosecution claims, and as inconsistent with ordinary standards for proving cases of unconstitutional motivation.  In this article we address these criticisms and suggest that current standards may provide an appropriate middle ground between the perils of standards that are too lax or too stringent for bad faith prosecution claims.  We also address other arguable inconsistencies between the standards for bad faith prosecutions claims and those for related areas, and offer resolutions. Finally, we show how the rise of progressive prosecutors may make proof of bad faith prosecutions easier.

April 26, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Justice Department tweaking prison PATTERN risk tool "to ensure that racial disparities are reduced to the greatest extent possible"

This new NPR piece, headlined "Justice Department works to curb racial bias in deciding who's released from prison," reports on the latest steps being taken to tweak the operation of the FIRST STEP Act.  Here  are the details:

The Justice Department is moving to reduce racial disparities in a tool it uses to assess a prisoner's risk of a return to crime, after scholars and justice advocates pressed for change. Among other steps, it plans to make tweaks that would significantly increase the number of Black and Hispanic men in prison who are eligible to take educational classes or work-life programs that could lead to an earlier release.

But the tool, known as Pattern, continues to overestimate the number of Black women who will engage in recidivism, compared to white women in prison.  And in its latest effort to overhaul the troubled risk assessment algorithm, the Justice Department said it is still unable to resolve other racial disparities. The department outlined the new developments in a report sent to Congress on Tuesday and obtained by NPR, pledging that it would continue to work "to ensure that racial disparities are reduced to the greatest extent possible."

"When using factors with criminal history, prison discipline, and education, the tool is almost inevitably going to have disparities — unless they correct for systemic biases in policing, prosecution, corrections, and education," said Melissa Hamilton, a law professor at the University of Surrey who has closely followed the process.

NPR dissected problems with Pattern in a report earlier this year. It uncovered sloppy math mistakes and other flaws that put thousands of prisoners in the wrong risk category and treated them differently in part because of their ethnic backgrounds. The Justice Department will roll out the new version of Pattern early next month, which it said "will neither exacerbate nor solve these racial bias issues." But the department said it was making other adjustments that could translate into a real difference for people of color in prison.

A law called the First Step Act that passed with bipartisan majorities during the Trump administration offers people in prison a path to early release, by earning time credits for performing work and taking educational classes behind bars. Only low and minimum risk prisoners are eligible for those programs, so how the Bureau of Prisons assesses risk has major consequences for their lives and their release plans.

In its new report, DOJ said it would make no changes to how it evaluates violent recidivism risks, saying that measure provided an essential check for "public safety." Instead, the department shifted the boundaries between other risk levels for its general recidivism algorithm. DOJ estimated that 36 percent more Black men and 26 percent more Hispanic men might now qualify as minimum or low risk, with smaller increases for Black and Hispanic women in prison.

UPDATE: I am pretty sure the report referenced in this NPR piece is this one just released by the Justice Department titled simply "First Step Act Annual Report."  As stated at the start of the executive summary: "This Report reflects the ongoing efforts of the Department of Justice (the Department) to make the goals of the First Step Act a reality and summarizes the Department’s activities in that respect during the period since the publication of the last annual Report, in December 2020."

April 19, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, April 18, 2022

Notable dissent from three Justices on consideration of racial bias in capital case jury selection

This morning's SCOTUS order list had a lot of denials of cert, along with one dissent that generated a somewhat lengthy opinion.  The opinion in Love v. Texas, No. 21–5050, was technically a dissent from the denial of summary vacatur; Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored this seven-page dissent, which Justices Breyer and Kagan joined. This opinion started and ended this way:

Racial bias is “odious in all aspects,” but “especially pernicious in the administration of justice.”  Buck v. Davis, 580 U.S. ___, ___ (2017) (slip op., at 22) (internal quotation marks omitted).  When racial bias infects a jury in a capital case, it deprives a defendant of his right to an impartial tribunal in a life-or-death context, and it “‘poisons public confidence’ in the judicial process.” Ibid.  The seating of a racially biased juror, therefore, can never be harmless.  As with other forms of disqualifying bias, if even one racially biased juror is empaneled and the death penalty is imposed, “the State is disentitled to execute the sentence,” Morgan v. Illinois, 504 U.S. 719, 729 (1992).

In this case, petitioner Kristopher Love, a Black man, claims that one of the jurors in his capital trial was racially biased because the juror asserted during jury selection that “[n]on-white” races were statistically more violent than the white race.  29 Record 145.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals never considered Love’s claim on the merits.  Instead, relying on an inapposite state-law rule, the court concluded that any error was harmless because Love had been provided with two extra peremptory strikes earlier in the jury selection proceeding, which he had used before the juror at issue was questioned.  That decision was plainly erroneous.  An already-expended peremptory strike is no cure for the seating of an allegedly biased juror.  The state court thus deprived Love of any meaningful review of his federal constitutional claim.  I would summarily vacate the judgment below and remand for proper consideration....

Over time, we have endeavored to cleanse our jury system of racial bias.  One of the most important mechanisms for doing so, questioning during voir dire, was properly employed here to identify a potential claim of bias.  Safeguards like this, however, are futile if courts do not even consider claims of racial bias that litigants bring forward.  The task of reviewing the record to determine whether a juror was fair and impartial is challenging, but it must be undertaken, especially when a person’s life is on the line.  I would ensure that Love’s claim is heard by the Court of Criminal Appeals, rather than leave these questions unanswered.  I respectfully dissent.

April 18, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (15)

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Prison Policy Initiative releases new report providing a "deep dive into state prison populations"

As detailed in this press release, today the "the Prison Policy Initiative published Beyond the Count, a report that examines the most recent and comprehensive demographic data about people in state prisons and provides a groundbreaking view of the lives of incarcerated people before they were locked up."  Here is more about the report from the press release:

The report analyzes data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ “Survey of Prison Inmates,” collected in 2016 and released in late 2020.  The data show what many in the criminal justice reform movement already know: that the U.S. criminal justice system today locks up the least powerful people in society.  Key takeaways include:

  • Many, if not most, people in prison grew up struggling financially. 42% of survey respondents said their family received public assistance before they were 18. Respondents also reported uncommonly high levels of homelessness, foster care, and living in public housing before the age of 18.

  • Most individuals in state prisons report that their first arrest happened when they were children. 38 percent of the people BJS surveyed reported a first arrest before age 16, and 68% reported a first arrest before age 19. The average survey respondent had been arrested over 9 times in their life.

  • The typical person in state prison is 39 years old and has a 10th grade education, a fact that is most likely linked to youth confinement, which disrupts a young person’s life and schooling.

  • Half (49%) of people in state prisons meet the criteria for substance use disorder (SUD), and 65% were using an illicit substance in the immediate lead-up to their incarceration, suggesting that many people who are not locked up for drug offenses are still victims of our country’s choice to criminalize substance use rather than treat it as a health issue.

The Prison Policy Initiative’s report includes more than 20 detailed data tables that allow readers to better understand the people who are in state prisons and the challenges they have faced in their lives.  Beyond the Count also includes a section diving into the data on the race, age, gender identity, and sexual orientation of people in state prisons, explaining that a disproportionate number of incarcerated people are racial minorities, very young or very old, or LGBTQ.  Many of the key demographic findings in Beyond the Count (such as incarcerated people’s age at first arrest) are also broken down by race or gender.  While the data in this report is about people in state prisons, it does not allow statistics to be broken out for individual states.

April 13, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, April 10, 2022

"Transgender Rights & the Eighth Amendment"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article authored by Jennifer Levi and Kevin Barry and just posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The past decades have witnessed a dramatic shift in the visibility, acceptance, and integration of transgender people across all aspects of culture and the law.  The treatment of incarcerated transgender people is no exception.  Historically, transgender people have been routinely denied access to medically necessary hormone therapy, surgery, and other gender-affirming procedures; subjected to cross-gender strip searches; and housed according to their birth sex.  But these policies and practices have begun to change. State departments of corrections are now providing some, though by no means all, appropriate care to transgender people, culminating in the Ninth Circuit’s historic decision in Edmo v. Corizon, Inc. in 2019 — the first circuit-level case to require a state to provide transition surgery to an incarcerated transgender person.  Other state departments of corrections will surely follow, as they must under the Eighth Amendment.  These momentous changes, which coincide with a broader cultural turn away from transphobia and toward a collective understanding of transgender people, have been neither swift nor easy.  But they trend in one direction: toward a recognition of the rights and dignity of transgender people.

April 10, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 31, 2022

New short FAMM memo makes the case for the EQUAL Act

The folks at FAMM today released this short memo titled "The EQUAL Act: Why Congress Must #EndTheDisparity Between Federal Crack & Powder Cocaine Sentences."   Though only two pages, the memo cover a lot of ground, and here are some of its concluding points (with cites removed):

The crack-powder disparity fosters and entrenches racial inequality

  • In 2019, 81% of people convicted of crack cocaine crimes were Black, even though white and Hispanic people have historically accounted for over 66% of crack users.
  • Before Congress established the crack-powder disparity in 1986, the average federal drug sentence for Black people was 11% higher than for whites. Just four years later, the average federal drug sentence for Black defendants was 49% higher.
  • The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that, in the case of crack cocaine penalties, “perceived improper racial disparity fosters disrespect for and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system.”

Passing the EQUAL Act would reunite families sooner and protect taxpayers

  • If enacted, the EQUAL Act would reduce sentences for people serving time for crack offenses by an average of just over six years. This change alone would cut a total of 46,500 years off sentences.
  • For those convicted after the EQUAL Act passes, their average sentence will be reduced by 2.5 years. This change will reduce total sentences over the next ten years by 21,300 years.
  • By reducing unnecessary prison time by an estimated 67,800 years for people, 91 percent of whom are Black, the EQUAL Act will reunite thousands of families sooner and save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the first decade alone.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

March 31, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Split North Carolina court finds some felon disenfranchisement violates state constitution

As reported in this local article, "North Carolina’s law banning many people with felony records from voting after they get out of prison is unconstitutional, a state court ruled Monday."  Here is more (with a link to the lengthy ruling):

Until now, state law allowed people with felony convictions to vote only once they finish their sentence.  That didn’t only include their prison sentence; it also included probation or parole, which sometimes can last for years after someone is released from prison.

Monday’s ruling, first reported by Carolina Public Press, changes that.  Now — pending a potential appeal of the ruling — people with criminal records can vote once they have rejoined society and are no longer behind bars.  The judges wrote that “if a person otherwise eligible to vote is not in jail or prison for a felony conviction, they may lawfully register and vote in North Carolina."

It wasn’t immediately clear if Republican lawmakers, who have defended the law so far, will appeal again.

The law is unconstitutional for generally violating people’s rights, the judges wrote Monday, but also for being explicitly targeted at Black people. Specifically, they wrote that the law “was enacted with the intent of discriminating against African American people and has a demonstrably disproportionate and discriminatory impact.”...

The News & Observer had previously reported that around 55,000 people might be affected by such a change, after an earlier ruling and subsequent appeal in this same case.  The new standard, that people can vote once they leave prison, is the most common practice nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.  Two states, Maine and Vermont, let people vote even while in prison.  But most have at least some restrictions, with varying degrees of severity.

The ruling was 2-1 by the panel of three superior court judges assigned to the case. Judge John Dunlow, a Republican from Granville County, dissented.  The two in the majority were Judge Keith Gregory, a Wake County Democrat, and Judge Lisa Bell of Mecklenburg County, who is unaffiliated.

A small part of the law was already struck down just before the 2020 elections, The News & Observer reported, on the basis that in some cases the requirement still functioned similar to a Jim Crow-era poll tax — since some people remained on probation or parole simply for being unable to pay court fines or other costs.

March 29, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Is Congress finally on the verge of equalizing crack and powder cocaine sentences?

I asked in this post a few weeks ago, "Why is getting the EQUAL Act through the US Senate proving so challenging?".  Excitingly, as detailed in this new Bloomberg piece, headlined "GOP Support Clears Senate Path for Bill on Cocaine Sentencing," it now looks like a bill to equalize crack and powder sentences now may have a ready path to passage. Here are the exciting details:

Ten Senate Republicans have signed on to a bill that would eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between drug offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, paving the way for likely passage in the evenly divided chamber where 60 votes are needed for most legislation.

“That looks like you’d get to 60, really,” said Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, one of the 10 GOP co-sponsors of the EQUAL Act.  “This is the Democrats’ prerogative, it’d be nice if they would bring it to the floor.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor on Monday, but his office did not immediately respond to questions on his plans for floor debate.  The bill passed the House, 361-66, in September and President Joe Biden, who campaigned on criminal justice reform, is expected to sign the measure when it reaches his desk.

The bill, sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, eliminates the lower quantity thresholds for crack cocaine, which the bill’s proponents have said unjustly targets Black offenders.

In 2020, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that 77.1% of crack cocaine trafficking offenders were Black and 6.3% were White.  Yet White people are more likely to use cocaine in their lifetime than any other group, according to the 2020 National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

Current laws establish an 18-to-1 ratio on federal penalties for crack and powder cocaine, meaning anyone found with 28 grams of crack cocaine would face the same five-year mandatory prison sentence as a person found with 500 grams of powder cocaine....

Sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine were originally created in 1986 with a 100-to-1 ratio.  The Sentencing Commission issued a special report in 1995 stating the 100-to-1 ratio punished low-level crack dealers “far more severely” than high-level suppliers of powder cocaine, despite there being no pharmacological difference between the two forms of the drug.  Then-President Bill Clinton and Congress rejected the commission’s recommendations to amend the law.

Fifteen years later, Congress reduced the sentencing disparity from to 18-to-1, but advocates have fought to further narrow the sentencing gap....

Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, recently signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill after studying the issue with constituents, he said, and determining this would be a step toward “criminal justice fairness.” Moran said it is his “expectation that this bill will be considered by the Senate.”

A few related posts on the EQUAL Act:

March 23, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

"Bargaining Without Bias"

The title of this post is the title of this article authored by Cynthia Alkon and recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Bias, disparate treatment, and racism are embedded into the U.S. criminal legal system.  A key player within the criminal legal system who could dramatically reduce or eliminate these disparities are prosecutors.  Prosecutors enjoy extraordinary power and they exercise that power with few constraints. For most defendants the single most important prosecutorial decision, after charging, is the plea offer.  Yet, there are virtually no limitations on prosecutors during the plea bargaining stage and relatively little attention given to how standard plea bargaining practices can exacerbate bias. The prosecutor is the key decision maker and, unfortunately, standard prosecutorial practices can exacerbate the biases that are already embedded into the criminal legal system.  There are multiple challenges that make it difficult for prosecutors to reduce or eliminate their biases.  The first core problem is that plea bargaining is largely unsupervised and prosecutors have extraordinary power and virtually unlimited discretion in the process. Prosecutors regularly engage in hard bargaining tactics and there is no meaningful check on prosecutorial bias in deciding what offers to make on what cases.  The second core problem is that plea bargaining can exacerbate racial disparities and bias.  The third core problem is that once a case comes into the criminal legal system, and the case is charged, a prosecutor’s first offer acts as an anchor in the negotiation, regardless of whether the offer reflects bias.  Unlike in other negotiation contexts, the defendant in a criminal case most often has no meaningful option to counter or walk away from the prosecutor’s offer.

In this article, to work towards decreasing bias in plea bargaining, I propose a structural fix and an individual fix to these core problems.  The structural fix is that prosecutors' offices should adopt policies for blind assessment of cases when the first plea offer is made.  All indicia of race or ethnicity (including names and neighborhoods) should be removed when prosecutors review a case and make the initial plea offer.  This would help prosecutors focus on the facts and their evidence when making a plea offer and prevent bias in decision making.  However, it is not realistic to expect that prosecutors, even in offices that adopt blind charging and plea bargaining policies, would remain blind to who the individual defendant is in all cases, particularly in cases where the first offer is made after arraignment.  Therefore, the individual fix is to train prosecutors on empathy.  Prosecutors' offices should expand and improve training and programs on empathy to change how prosecutors view defendants.  People tend to have empathy for, and in the criminal context give the benefit of the doubt to, those who are "more like them" — including being the same race and socio-economic group. Empathy for others is a skill that can be taught, like trial skills, negotiation, or writing.  Prosecutors' offices need to include empathy skills as an integral part of their overall training. Improved empathy skills would help prosecutors to stop looking at defendants as simply "criminals" — a label that is often racially-based. Instead, more prosecutors could learn to see defendants, in the words of Bryan Stevenson, as "more than the worst thing" they have ever done.

March 22, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Highlighting some disparities identified in recent "Dealing in Lives" report on federal life sentences for drug offenses

In this post a few days ago, I spotlighted this terrific new research paper authored by Alex Fraga, who serves as a Senior Research Associate at Ohio State's Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).  The paper, titled "Dealing in Lives: Imposition of Federal Life Sentences for Drugs from 1990–2020," is the focal point of this new Filter article titled "Federal Life Sentences for Drugs: Unconscionable and Massively Biased." Here is some of the coverage:

Studying federal life and de facto life sentences for drugs in federal courts from 1990 to 2020, Dr. Fraga found stunningly awful racial disparities.  Federal life sentences are practically reserved for defendants who are Black (62.4 percent) or Hispanic (22 percent).  Crack cocaine was the drug involved in roughly half of federal life sentences, yet the disparities held independent of drug type.

In addition, many people were punished more harshly for wanting to exercise their constitutional rights.  As Fraga writes, “An astonishing 72% percent of those sentenced to life or de facto life for drug trafficking exercised their right to trial.”

When the system is largely a conveyor belt of plea bargains, with over 90 percent of cases never going to trial, “astonishing” is right.  Defendants who demand that prosecutors meet their burden of proof are often hit with harsher charges and sentencing outcomes.... 

Yet another layer of inconsistency and arbitrariness in federal drug sentencing exposed by the report covers is geography-based. Just five districts — three in Florida, one in Virginia and one in South Carolina — accounted for 25 percent of all federal life and de facto life sentences imposed for drug trafficking during the study period.  For context, there are 93 federal court districts in the nation. Each has its own presidentially-appointed US attorney, who enjoys a wide band of discretion on who to charge and with what.

How could this happen? Despite ostensible efforts toward uniformity, federal courthouses in different parts of the country have developed their own local legal cultures. For example, in southern Georgia, there is no public defender office for impoverished people charged with federal crimes; they receive appointed attorneys who are often uninvested and lack expertise in criminal law.  That district also has some of the harshest sentencing outcomes in the country.

I am grateful to see this engagement with some of the data in the new report, and there are so many other interesting findings therein.  As mentioned previously, a number of the paper's key findings (and visuals) can be viewed at this DEPC webpage.

Prior related post:

March 10, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (12)

Monday, February 14, 2022

"The High Cost of a Fresh Start: A State-By-State Analysis Of Court Debt As A Bar To Record Clearing"

The title of this post is the title of this new report produced by the National Consumer Law Center and the Collateral Consequences Resource Center.  The report examined how court debt — such as criminal fines, fees, costs, and restitution — serves as impediment to record clearing.  Here is the start of the report's executive summary:

For the nearly one-third of adults in the U.S. with a record of arrest or conviction, their record is not simply part of their past but a continuing condition that impacts nearly every aspect of their life.  Their record makes it hard to get a job and support a family, secure a place to live, contribute to the community, and participate fully in civic affairs.

In recent years, most states have passed laws aimed at restoring economic opportunity, personal freedoms, and human dignity to millions of these individuals by providing a path to clear their record.  But for too many, this relief remains out of reach because of monetary barriers, including not only the cost of applying for record clearing but also the requirement in many jurisdictions that applicants satisfy debt incurred as part of the underlying criminal case before they can have their record cleared.  This can be a high bar: the total amount of fines and fees can run to thousands of dollars for even minor infractions and can be considerably higher for felonies.

People prevented from clearing their record because they cannot afford to pay are usually those most in need of relief.  And, perversely, because a record significantly impairs economic opportunity, having an open record makes it harder to pay off fines and fees and therefore harder to qualify for record clearing.  This burden falls especially heavily on Black and Brown communities, which are more likely to have high concentrations of both criminal records and poverty because of structural racism in criminal law enforcement and in the economy.  Ability-to-pay tests and similar waiver approaches to reduce or eliminate monetary barriers to record clearing have been shown to be poor safeguards in many contexts.

This report explores the extent to which restricting access to record clearing based on outstanding criminal fines, fees, costs, and restitution — collectively known as “court debt” — may prevent poor and low-income people from getting a second chance.  After surveying research on the importance of record clearing and the mushrooming financial burdens imposed on criminal defendants, it analyzes the extent to which outstanding court debt is a barrier to record clearing under the laws of each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal system.  Our study focuses in particular on generally applicable statutory authorities for clearing adult criminal convictions; it excludes record-clearing authorities available for other categories of records (e.g., non-conviction records) or for specific categories of individuals (e.g., victims of human trafficking).

February 14, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

"Gender Favoritism Among Criminal Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Stephanie Holmes Didwania available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Prosecutors enjoy wide discretion in the decisions they make but are largely unstudied by quantitative empirical scholars. This paper explores gender bias in prosecutorial decision-making.  I find that male and female prosecutors exhibit small and statistically insignificant differences in their treatment of defendants overall but demonstrate relative leniency towards defendants of their own gender.  Such favoritism at charging translates into a sentencing gap of roughly five months of incarceration for defendants who are paired with an own-gender prosecutor versus an opposite-gender prosecutor, which represents a roughly eight percent reduction in sentence length at the mean.  The estimates do not appear to be driven by differences in case assignments for male and female prosecutors.

February 2, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (12)

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reports on "Criminal Justice Financial Ecosystem"

This official press release, fully titled "CFPB Report Shows Criminal Justice Financial Ecosystem Exploits Families at Every Stage: Report Finds Products and Services Rife with Burdensome Fees and Lack of Choice," summarizes a notable new publication from the government agency tasked with safeguarding consumer financial products.  Here are excerpts from the press release, which includes a link to the CFPB's new report:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) today published a review of the financial issues facing people and families who come in contact with the criminal justice system. The report, “Justice-Involved Individuals and the Consumer Financial Marketplace,”  describes an ecosystem rife with burdensome fees and lack of choice, and where families are increasingly being forced to shoulder the costs. It walks through the financial challenges families encounter at every stage of the criminal justice process, and the ways in which providers — often for-profit private companies — are leveraging a lack of consumer choice and their own market dominance to impose hefty fees at families’ expense.

“Many incarcerated individuals and their families pay exorbitant fees for basic financial services,” said CFPB Director Rohit Chopra. “Today’s report describes how private companies undermine the ability for individuals to successfully transition from incarceration.”

Contact with the criminal justice system is extremely common in the United States. In 2019, 2.1 million adults in America were in jail or prison, another 4.4 million were under community supervision (such as probation), and 1 in 3 adults — or 77 million Americans — had a criminal record.  Those figures do not reflect the family members and friends who often provide financial support to people who have been arrested, incarcerated, or released from jail or prison, and who are also affected by shoddy financial products and services entwined in the criminal justice system. The burdens of the criminal justice system — and its financial impacts — fall most heavily on people of color, and women and people with lower incomes of all races and ethnicities.  Surveys have repeatedly found women, and specifically Black women, disproportionately shoulder the costs of staying in touch with loved ones in prison and paying court-related debt for family members, sometimes spending up to a third of their income on such costs and even forgoing basic necessities for themselves.

Today’s report examines the financial burdens that can occur from arrest to incarceration to reentry.  It shows that as soon as families come into contact with the criminal justice system, they are confronted with numerous financial challenges, and that for-profit companies are embedded throughout.  Specifically, the report raises issues about:

  • Burdensome fees: Many local, state, and federal governments impose criminal justice debt on the people who interact with it in the form of fines, fees, and restitution.  The consequences of failing to pay fines and fees can be severe, forcing people to choose between making payments they may struggle to afford and risking arrest, prosecution, detention, or reincarceration.  States are also increasingly using third-party debt collectors to collect criminal justice debt.  These debt collectors can tack on additional fines and fees that, if not paid, can result in incarceration.
  • Lack of consumer choice: For incarcerated people and their families, the choice of financial service providers is limited throughout the criminal justice system. In a normal functioning market, products compete on price and quality, but all too often, government contracts in the criminal justice system mean just one choice for consumers....
  • Shifting financial burdens: Increasingly, governments are shifting the cost of incarceration to people who are incarcerated and their families, forcing individuals to pay for charges related to court operations, a court-appointed public defender, drug testing, prison library use, and probation supervision. People are also charged “pay-to-stay” fees for expenses related to their custody and care, like room and board, or medical copayments. When services are outsourced to private companies, the prices set by those companies are often wildly inflated over typical market costs. 

February 1, 2022 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Articulating concerns while celebrating implementation of FIRST STEP earned-time credits

As first discussed in this post, the Department of Justice a few weeks ago officially announced its new rule for "implementing the Time Credits program required by the First Step Act"; as noted in this follow-up post, the process of awarding retroactive credits to prisoners who were eligible and had already done the work to earn credits resulted in an immediate significant reduction of the federal prison population.  And though there is much to celebrate about this stage of implementation of a huge part of the FIRST STEP Act — which was enacted with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and signed by President Trump way back in late 2018 — I have noticed a number of new commentaries and other press pieces flagging concerns to watch.

This CNN opinion piece, by Michael Cohen, E. Danya Perry and Joshua Perry, carries a headline that is most celebratory: "This is an unmistakable win for incarcerated people."  But, after an effective review of the positives of the new DOJ rules on earned-time credits, it closes with these sentiments:

There is still a lot of work to be done. There are strong indications that the BOP is not offering enough high-quality programs to help support people in prison, particularly during the pandemic.  While unquestionably impactful, the act was indeed only a "first step" towards broader changes that are desperately needed to reduce our cruel and counterproductive overreliance on incarceration.  And even this welcome development does not erase the needless suffering of too many people, while the BOP pushed back against inmates seeking time credit and initially proposed a rule that cut against Congress' intent.

This Forbes piece by Walter Palvo picks up these themes with even more concern for the implementation particulars under the headline "Bureau Of Prisons Begins Implementing First Step Act With Release Of Thousands In Custody":

One concern is that there does not appear to be a consistent way these ETCs are being calculated at each institution.  Case managers, who have been keying in classes that prisoners have taken over the past two years, seem to have a liberal way of calculating ETC and those who I have spoke to about their release have no idea how their release date was calculated.  As one man told me, “I was just happy to be released and don’t care how they calculated it.”  However, for the man or woman sitting in prison, it makes a huge difference.  Many advocates may be giving one another high-fives, but, as history has demonstrated, the BOP somehow finds a way to mess up a good thing. The law. already has flaws as there are a number of exceptions carved out to prevent some offenses from being ineligible from earning ETC. 

And this new NPR piece from Carrie Johnson spotlights long-standing concerns about the PATTERN risk-assessment tool central to these new prison policies.  The lengthy piece is headline "Flaws plague a tool meant to help low-risk federal prisoners win early release," and here are excerpts:

Thousands of people are leaving federal prison this month thanks to a law called the First Step Act, which allowed them to win early release by participating in programs aimed at easing their return to society. But thousands of others may still remain behind bars because of fundamental flaws in the Justice Department's method for deciding who can take the early-release track. The biggest flaw: persistent racial disparities that put Black and brown people at a disadvantage.

In a report issued days before Christmas in 2021, the department said its algorithmic tool for assessing the risk a person in prison would return to crime produced uneven results. The algorithm, known as Pattern, overpredicted the risk that many Black, Hispanic and Asian people would commit new crimes or violate rules after leaving prison. At the same time, it also underpredicted the risk for some inmates of color when it came to possible return to violent crime....

Risk assessment tools are common in many states. But critics said Pattern is the first time the federal justice system is using an algorithm with such high stakes. Congress passed the First Step Act in 2018 with huge bipartisan majorities. It's designed to prepare people in prison for life afterwards, by offering credits toward early release for working or taking life skills and other classes while behind bars....

Only inmates who pose a low or minimal risk of returning to crime can qualify for the programs, with that risk level determined using the Pattern algorithm.... The implementation has been rocky. The Justice Department finished the first version of Pattern in a rush because of a tight deadline from Congress. It then had to make tweaks after finding Pattern suffered from math and human errors. About 14,000 men and women in federal prison still wound up in the wrong risk categories. There were big disparities for people of color.

Prior recent related posts:

January 26, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 24, 2022

Connecticut Supreme Court reverses sentence based "materially false information" that defendant was in "mythical group of teenage 'superpredators'"

A few helpful folks made sure I did not miss the notable ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court this past Friday in State v. Belcher, No. SC 20531 (Conn. Jan 21, 2022) (available here). The start of the unanimous opinion sets out the basics:

The defendant, Keith Belcher, a juvenile offender, appeals from the trial court’s denial of his motion to correct an illegal sentence. After his conviction, the defendant received a total effective sentence of sixty years of incarceration.  He claims, inter alia, that the trial court improperly denied his motion to correct on the basis of the court’s conclusion that the sentencing court did not impose the sentence in an illegal manner by relying on materially false information.

Our review of the record reveals that the defendant established that the sentencing court substantially relied on materially false information in imposing his sentence, specifically, on the court’s view that the defendant was a ‘‘charter member’’ of a mythical group of teenage ‘‘superpredators.’’  Therefore, we conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to correct.  Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court, and the case is remanded with direction to grant the defendant’s motion and for resentencing.

The full opinion merits a full read for many reasons.  Therein, one learns that the defendant here was only 14 when committing his crimes way back in 1993 (meaning he has now already served nearly three decades).  Also of note, the court avoids resolution of constitutional claims by deciding he gets resentencing based on the illegal manner of the original sentence's imposition. Here are a few highlights from the interesting opinion:

We conclude that the superpredator theory was baseless when it originally was espoused and has since been thoroughly debunked and universally rejected as a myth, and it therefore constituted false and unreliable information that a sentencing court ought not consider in crafting a sentence for a juvenile offender....

In the context of the sentencing of the defendant, a Black teenager, the court’s reliance on the materially false superpredator myth is especially detrimental to the integrity of the sentencing procedure for two reasons.  First, reliance on that myth invoked racial stereotypes, thus calling into question whether the defendant would have received as lengthy a sentence were he not Black.  Second, the use of the superpredator myth supported treating the characteristics of youth as an aggravating, rather than a mitigating, factor....

In summary, by invoking the superpredator theory to sentence the young, Black male defendant in the present case, the sentencing court, perhaps even without realizing it, relied on materially false, racial stereotypes that perpetuate systemic inequities — demanding harsher sentences — that date back to the founding of our nation.  In addition, contrary to Roper and its progeny, in relying on the superpredator myth, the sentencing court counted the characteristics of youth as an aggravating factor against the defendant.  Although we do not mean to suggest that the sentencing judge intended to perpetuate a race based stereotype, we cannot overlook the fact that the superpredator myth is precisely the type of materially false information that courts should not rely on in making sentencing decisions.  Whether used wittingly or unwittingly, reliance on such a baseless, illegitimate theory calls into question the legitimacy of the sentencing procedure and the sentence.

January 24, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

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)