Thursday, September 22, 2022

Council on Criminal Justice releases "Justice System Disparities: Black-White National Imprisonment Trends, 2000 - 2020"

Three years ago, as flagged in this post, the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) released a notable report detailing notable modern changes in the modern demographics of prison, jail, probation, and parole populations titled "Trends in Correctional Control by Race and Sex."  Today, CCJ has released another important data report looking a racial disparity data under the title "Justice System Disparities: Black-White National Imprisonment Trends, 2000 - 2020."  The full report is available at this link, and here is what's listed as "key findings" in the first few pages of the full report:

September 22, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

District Court declares § 922(n), which criminalizes a person under indictment from receiving a firearm, to be unconstitutional

A few months ago, in a series of posts right after the Supreme Court's big Second Amendment decision Bruen (basics here), I suggested that a number of broad federal criminal firearm prohibitions might be subject to new constitutional challenges.  Specifically, I focused on how the Bruen court's recasting of Second Amendment analysis might impact the federal felon-in-possession statute, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) and the federal drug-user-in-possession statute, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3) (see posts linked below).  Interestingly, I did not even think about how Bruen might impact another federal firearm prohibition provision, 18 U.S.C. § 922(n), which criminalizes a person under indictment from receiving a firearm. Yesterday, as detailed in this AP article, a federal district court in Texas decided that Bruen renders § 922(n) unconstitutional:

A U.S. law banning those under felony indictments from buying guns is unconstitutional, a federal judge in West Texas ruled Monday.  U.S. District Judge David Counts, whom then-President Donald Trump appointed to the federal bench, dismissed a federal indictment against Jose Gomez Quiroz that had charged him under the federal ban....

In a 25-page opinion filed in Pecos, Texas, Counts acknowledged “this case’s real-world consequences — certainly valid public policy and safety concerns exist.”  However, he said a Supreme Court ruling this summer in a challenge brought by the New York Rifle & Pistol Association “framed those concerns solely as a historical analysis.”

“Although not exhaustive, the Court’s historical survey finds little evidence that ... (the federal ban) — which prohibits those under felony indictment from obtaining a firearm — aligns with this Nation’s historical tradition.”

Hence, he ruled the ban unconstitutional as the “Second Amendment is not a ’second class right,” as noted in a 2008 Supreme Court ruling.  ”No longer can courts balance away a constitutional right,” Counts wrote.  After the New York case, “the Government must prove that laws regulating conduct covered by the Second Amendment’s plain text align with this Nation’s historical tradition.  The Government does not meet that burden.”

The full 25-page ruling in US v. Quiroz, PE:22-CR-00104-DC (W.D. Tex. Sept. 19, 2022), is available at this link.  The full opinion is worth a full read, in part for a bits of west Texas flair such as this line: "Some feel that a grand jury could indict a [burrito] if asked to do so." 

Some prior related posts:

September 20, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (15)

Thursday, September 15, 2022

US organizations file complaint at United Nations stating LWOP and other extreme prison terms "are cruel in violation of the international prohibition on torture"

As reported in this new Guardian piece, headlined "US civil rights groups file complaint against ‘death by incarceration’ to UN," a coalition of organizations today filed a notable broadside against all extreme prison terms in the US.  Here are the basics:

A coalition of civil and human rights organizations on Thursday filed a complaint urging United Nations special rapporteurs to declare the United States’ longstanding practice of subjecting people to life sentences, including without possible release, “cruel, racially discriminatory” and “an arbitrary deprivation of liberty” that violates incarcerated people’s rights.

They argued that “death by incarceration”— a term describing life sentences without parole coined by [Terrell] Carter and other members of the Right to Redemption Committee, a group of incarcerated people seeking the abolition of the practice — amounted to torture.  In their complaint, the civil rights organizations asked the international watchdogs to pressure the United States, who leads the world in sentencing people to life imprisonment, to abolish the extreme practice altogether.  They proposed instead to impose maximum sentencing laws that would eliminate the practice of “virtual life” sentences — those longer than a person’s remaining years of life expectancy, often more than 50 years....

Dozens of testimonies from incarcerated people sentenced to life detail the horrific toll so-called “death by incarceration” has not just on their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing but also the lasting impact separation has on their family members.  Carlos Ruiz Paz, who is serving a life sentence in California, wrote in a testimonial that a life sentence without parole signaled a person was “irreparably damaged without hope of redemption”, adding: “Extreme sentences affect the kids who grow up without us and the parents that will die without us at their side.”

The complaint noted that the United States’ use of virtual life sentences increased exponentially since the 1970s, particularly after the supreme court abolished the death penalty in 1972, prompting states to strengthen life sentencing laws for offenders.  Even after the supreme court reversed course in 1976, extreme sentencing practices continued.  By the 1980s and 90s, as the federal government incentivized states to impose harsher sentencing practices in an effort to curtail perceived rises in crime, more and more people were imprisoned for longer.

The toll of that suffering has disproportionately upended the lives of Black and brown people who have been subjected to over-policing throughout time, exposing them to the US carceral system and led to escalating mass incarceration.  Organizers argue that that violates international human rights law prohibiting racial discrimination. “This systemic deprivation of resources, including education, healthcare and other social support and services, is coupled with the entry of more police and prisons in these communities and exposure to the criminal legal system,” the complaint noted.

The US is the only country that sentences children under 18 to life without parole, a practice that the United Nations has already singled out. And the US accounted for more than 80% of people worldwide serving life sentences without parole.

The full complaint is available at this link, and it runs 160 pages in total (though 3/4 of the document is comprised of an Appendix with testimonials from persons serving extreme sentences). Here is a paragraph from the complaint's introduction:

The United States’ use of DBI sentences violates a range of international human rights.  First, the disproportionate imposition of DBI sentences on racial minorities, in particular Black and Latinx people, violates the prohibition against racial discrimination.  Second, by arbitrarily and permanently sentencing individuals to prison terms that result in their premature death, DBI sentences violate individuals’ right to life.  Third, as recognized by numerous international human rights bodies, by depriving individuals of their right to hope and to rehabilitation, DBI sentences violate the international prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.  The devastating consequences on an individual’s right to family life further exacerbate the cruelty of DBI sentences.  Finally, the failure of DBI sentences to serve any legitimate purpose further demonstrates that such sentences are an impermissibly arbitrary deprivation of liberty.  To comply with international human rights standards, the United States must abolish DBI and restore incarcerated individuals’ right to hope.

September 15, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 12, 2022

Noting opaque SCOTUS rulings, split Ninth Circuit panel rejects habeas Eighth Amendment claim against 292-year prison term

Being sentenced to serve in 292 years in prison for a bunch of non-violent offenses certainly seems pretty "cruel."  And such an extreme prison term is still somewhat "unusual" in modern times, and surely would have been entirely unknown to the Founders. (Remarkably, were someone sentenced to 292 years in prison in 1790, he would still have 60 years left to serve circa 2022.)  But, despite textualist and originalist turns in other areas, modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence does not (yet?) focus on the text and original understanding of this provision.  Indeed, because there have been so few modern cases about application of the Eighth Amendment to extreme adult prison sentences, it remains unclear just whether and how the Eighth Amendment still serves to limit extreme adult prison terms at all.

I flag these issues in the wake of a notable recent split Ninth Circuit panel decision in Patsalis v. Shinn, No. 20-16800 (9th Cir. Sept. 6, 2022) (available here), in which the very opaqueness of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence provided the basis for rejecting a habeas challenge to a 292-year state prison term. Here is the start of the majority opinion in Patsalis providing context as well as passages from the discussion:

Petitioner-Appellant Atdom Patsalis seeks federal habeas relief, arguing that his 292-year total sentence imposed by an Arizona state court is grossly disproportionate to his crimes and, therefore, cruel and unusual in violation of the Federal and Arizona Constitutions. Patsalis was convicted of 25 felonies (mostly residential burglaries) committed against multiple victims over a three-month period. These were not his first crimes. The trial court imposed consecutive sentences on all but two of the 25 counts, resulting in an overall sentence of 292 years imprisonment.

The Arizona Court of Appeals rejected Patsalis’s constitutional claim concluding that proportionality should be assessed based on each individual conviction and sentence, not the cumulative effect of consecutive sentences, and that none of Patsalis’s individual sentences were disproportionate. Patsalis sought habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He argued that the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s (AEDPA) deferential standard of review does not apply to the Arizona Court of Appeals’ decision because that court did not consider the cumulative impact of his sentence. Instead, he argued that he was entitled to de novo review on this claim. The district court disagreed, afforded AEDPA deference to the Arizona court, and concluded that Patsalis is not entitled to relief. We affirm....

There is no clearly established law from the Supreme Court on whether Eighth Amendment sentence proportionality must be analyzed on a cumulative or individual basis when a defendant is sentenced on multiple offenses.... Lockyer is instructive....  The Court noted that its sentence-proportionality precedents “have not been a model of clarity.” Id. at 72. It further recognized that it has “not established a clear or consistent path for courts to follow” in analyzing proportionality of a sentence to a term of years. Id. Nor has it been clear about “what factors may indicate gross disproportionality” or provided “clear objective standards to distinguish between sentences for different terms of years.” Id. (cleaned up). Other than the basic principle of proportionality, the only thing that the Court has established is that the rule against grossly disproportionate sentences is violated “only in the exceedingly rare and extreme case.” Id. at 73 (cleaned up)....

To grant Patsalis’s habeas petition, we must conclude that “there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree” that the Arizona Court of Appeals’ decision conflicts with the Supreme Court’s clearly established precedents. Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102.  This we cannot do given the limited Supreme Court precedent regarding the prohibition against disproportionality of a sentence to a term of years.

Judge Christen penned a lengthy dissent, and here are parts of its opening and analysis:

Atdom Patsalis was convicted of various non-violent theft-related crimes committed over a three-month period when he was twenty-one years old. The total value of the property was about $5,000. Pre-trial, the State of Arizona made two plea offers of twenty years or less. Patsalis rejected both offers and was convicted of the charged offenses after a jury trial. The longest sentence imposed for any of his crimes was 15 years, but the court specified that his multiple sentences would run consecutively. The net result was a cumulative sentence of 292 years....

On appeal, my colleagues agree that AEDPA deference applies and they affirm on that basis. The majority acknowledges that the state court did not address Patsalis’s cumulative sentence — yet it asserts that the state court rejected Patsalis’s federal claim on the merits. The state court’s opinion is clear: it affirmed Patsalis’s individual sentences while expressly declining to consider whether his 292-year sentence was grossly disproportionate. Because the state court did not reach the merits of the claim Patsalis actually presented, there is no state-court decision to which we can defer and de novo review is the proper standard. Reviewing Patsalis’s claim de novo, I conclude that his cumulative sentence violates the Eighth Amendment. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent....

The facts and circumstances in the Supreme Court’s Solem and Graham opinions inescapably point to the conclusion that Patsalis’s 292-year sentence is one of the extremely rare cases that gives rise to an inference of disproportionality at the first step of the Eighth Amendment analysis. Patsalis was just 21 years old when he committed his offenses so he did not have a track record that had accumulated over the course of even the eleven years at issue in Solem. (Indeed, he had only been an adult for three years.) His offenses were non-violent and theft-related, and he stole random items (e.g., a drill, a flashlight, a telescope) with a total value of roughly $5,000. While four of his offenses involved entering private residences — admittedly serious conduct — eighteen of the twenty-two burglaries for which Patsalis received consecutive sentences did not involve entry into a home, but into a garage, a vehicle, and a detached shed. All of them were deemed “non-dangerous” by the trial court. As was the case in Graham, the sentence Patsalis received was multiples of the sentences imposed for murderers or rapists, yet Patsalis did not injure anyone and there is no indication that any violence or weapons were involved in any of his offenses.

Remarkably, in an era in which life sentences and lengthy term-of-years sentences keep reaching historic new levels (see reports discussed here and here), it has now been nearly two full decades since the Supreme Court has addressed an Eighth Amendment challenge to an adult term of years sentences.  Lockyer and Andrade were decided way back in 2003, and Justice Thomas is now the only member of SCOTUS who remains on the Court since those rulings were handed down. 

With SCOTUS transitions and the recent textualist and originalist turns in other jurisprudence, I would like to imagine Patsalis as the kind of case in which certorari might be granted and the Justices might look to finally clean up precedents that have not been a "model of clarity" and that seem quite inconsistent with the text and original understanding of the Eighth Amendment.  But, I should probably know better than to hope and expect that people sentenced to live in a cage for nearly three centuries will garner the kind of constitutional attention as praying football coaches and college admissions officers.

September 12, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, September 08, 2022

New Sentencing Project report addresses "How Many People Are Spending Over a Decade in Prison?"

The Sentencing Project has long done a lot of great work on long sentences, especially through various reports on life sentences (examples here and here).  Today, The Sentencing Project has a notable new publication looking at persons serving sentences of a decade or longer.  This new report is titled with a question: "How Many People Are Spending Over a Decade in Prison?".  But the subtitle of the report provides this answer: "In 2019, over half of the people in U.S. prisons — amounting to more than 770,000 people — were serving sentences of 10 years or longer — a huge jump from 2000."  Here are other "key findings" from the start of the report:

September 8, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

"Policing Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article available via SSRN authored by Fred O. Smith, Jr.  Here is its abstract:

In Presumed Guilty: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky issues an indictment of the Supreme Court, charging that institution with facilitating undue state violence, wrongful convictions, invasions of dignity, and racial inequality.  The Supreme Court has produced these consequences by offering needlessly narrow remedies for constitutional wrongs and by issuing crabbed constructions of criminal procedural rights.  Chemerinsky’s indictment is written with clarity, comprehensiveness, and humanity.

This Book Review argues that mass incarceration presents an immense barrier to the author’s goals of producing less violent, more accurate, less invasive, and less racist policing.  First, many of Chemerinsky’s proposals for police reform assume a system of criminal trials.  In our system of mass incarceration, the overwhelming majority of incarcerated persons never receive a trial.  If the criminal legal system did attempt to rely on trials instead of coerced guilty pleas, the system would collapse under the weight of the sheer number of people we prosecute.  Second, Chemerinsky argues that we should revisit and raise the requisite standard for police to search a suspect from reasonable suspicion to probable cause.  But in a system of mass incarceration, probable cause is not hard to come by. The more things we label “crime,” the more reasonable it is to believe that someone is likely committing one.  Third, mass incarceration feeds on legal reforms that are not aimed at decarceration.  A “criminal caste” is more tolerable if the government gives the caste members “rights” before stripping them of humanity and core dimensions of citizenship.

It is imperative to reverse and control mass incarceration to achieve lasting transformation of the police.  There is no equitable way to police in a world of mass incarceration. 

September 7, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

"Have American jails become the inferior replacement for mental hospitals?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Salon piece.  Here are a few excerpts:

London's Bedlam psychiatric hospital is infamous today for how its staff brutally abused their patients....

Things are arguably better for mentally ill people in 21st century America.  Yet a new study by George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government, and published in the medical journal BMC Health Services Research, suggests that any improvement may not be as great as we'd like to think.  At present, there are 10 times as many people with mental illnesses in jails and prisons than in state psychiatric hospitals.  In other words, we've substituted jails for treatment facilities. 

Niloofar Ramezani, assistant professor of statistics at George Mason University and corresponding author of the study ... believes that the study's "most important finding," is that "one should focus on building up the community's capacity to provide mental health services."  Ramezani pointed out that their study also found that "after accounting for the availability of mental health care services, the size of the violent crime problem no longer has an effect to how the jail is used."  American society is filling up its jails with mentally ill individuals in a way that, quantifiably, cannot be plausibly linked to any kind of meaningful violent crime problem....

"We've known for some time that this country's chief response to serious mental illness is incarceration, a fact that stands out because prisons are so clearly unsuited to treating mental illness," Wanda Bertram, Communications Strategist at Prison Policy Initiative, told Salon by email.  "Our organization recently found that even though 43% of people in state prisons have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, only 26% have received some form of mental health treatment, and only 6% are currently receiving treatment."...

Ramezani and the study's other co-authors ultimately argue, as Ramezani put it to Salon, that "more research needs to be done on the type of individuals with mental health issues who are incarcerated and how they are handled.  Once we know more about them, their mental health journey, and how their mental health condition is changing over time while incarcerated, we can find better solutions to provide helpful support to them if they end up in jail."

In addition to doing more research, American policymakers need to exercise the "political will" necessary to address mental health issues in a humane and effective way.

September 6, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, September 03, 2022

Lots of notable new briefings and other interesting items from the Prison Policy Initiative

The start of a new semester and other matters have left me behind on reading and blogging on various fronts, particularly with respect to a number of notable new items from the Prison Policy Initiative.  In an effort to catch up, here is a reprinting of links to notable recent PPI works:

September 3, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 02, 2022

"The Miseducation of Carceral Reform"

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

Public education looms large in criminal law reform.  As states debate what to invest in — other than criminal law enforcement — to provide safety and security to the public, public schools have emerged as a popular answer.  Today, legislatures move money from prisons to public education, arguing that this reinvestment can address the root causes of mass incarceration.  This Article analyzes this reinvestment trend from the perspective of public schools.  It takes seriously the possibility that diverting money from incarceration to public education can help address the root causes of mass incarceration and it argues that realizing this possibility requires a more expansive approach to reinvestment than is demonstrated in current legal reforms.  This expansive approach to reinvestment situates the provision of education within a constellation of interconnected needs, increases power over diverted funds for those who have historically been excluded from educational decisions, and confronts the underlying race, class, and gender resentments used to justify asymmetrical spending on incarceration and public education.  By analyzing reinvestment approaches to carceral reform from the perspective of public schools, this Article underscores the contested nature of the reinvestment movement.  It maps both the restrictive and transformative directions carceral reinvestment can take, and it points to several promising efforts that make use of a more transformative approach to reconfigure the relationship between public welfare and the carceral state.

September 2, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, August 27, 2022

"The Injustice of Under-Policing in America"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Christopher Lewis and Adaner Usmani and published in the American Journal of Law and Equality. Here is part of its introduction:

Since 2014, viral images of Black people being killed at the hands of the police — Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and many, many others  — have convinced much of the public that the American criminal legal system is broken. In the summer of 2020, nationwide protests against police racism and violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were, according to some analysts, the largest social movement in the history of the United States.  Activists and academics have demanded defunding the police and reallocating the funds to substitutes or alternatives. And others have called for abolishing the police altogether.  It has become common knowledge that the police do not solve serious crime, they focus far too much on petty offenses, and they are far too heavy-handed and brutal in their treatment of Americans — especially poor, Black people.  This is the so-called paradox of under-protection and over-policing that has characterized American law enforcement since emancipation.

The American criminal legal system is unjust and inefficient.  But, as we argue in this essay, over-policing is not the problem.  In fact, the American criminal legal system is characterized by an exceptional kind of under-policing, and a heavy reliance on long prison sentences, compared to other developed nations . In this country, roughly three people are incarcerated per police officer employed.  The rest of the developed world strikes a diametrically opposite balance between these twin arms of the penal state, employing roughly three and a half times more police officers than the number of people they incarcerate.  We argue that the United States has it backward.  Justice and efficiency demand that we strike a balance between policing and incarceration more like that of the rest of the developed world.  We call this the “First World Balance.”

We defend this idea in much more detail in a forthcoming book titled What’s Wrong with Mass Incarceration.  This essay offers a preliminary sketch of some of the arguments in the book.  In the spirit of conversation and debate, in this essay we err deliberately on the side of comprehensiveness rather than argumentative rigor.  One of us is a social scientist, and the other is a philosopher and legal scholar.  Our primary goal for this research project, and especially in this essay, is not to convince readers that we are correct — but rather to encourage a more explicit discussion of the empirical and normative bases of some pressing debates about the American criminal legal system.  Even if our answers prove unsound, we hope that the combination of empirical social science and analytic moral and political philosophy we contribute can help illuminate what alternative answers to those questions might have to look like to be sound.  In fact, because much of this essay (and the underlying book project) strikes a pessimistic tone, we would be quite happy to be wrong about much of what we argue here.

August 27, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 26, 2022

Latest "Time-in-Cell" report estimates that, as of July 2021, "between 41,000 and 48,000 people were held in isolation in U.S. prison cells"

Solitary_report_cover_front_only_2021This Guardian article, headlined "Nearly 50,000 people held in solitary confinement in US, report says," reports on the latest version of the important work done by Correctional Leaders Association and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School to estimate the number of people held in solitary confinement in the United States.  Here is part of the press reporting:

In a new report spearheaded by Yale Law School, the number of prisoners subjected to “restrictive housing”, as solitary is officially known, stood at between 41,000 and 48,000 in the summer of 2021. They were being held alone in cells the size of parking spaces, for 22 hours a day on average and for at least 15 days.

Within that number, more than 6,000 prisoners have been held in isolation for over a year. They include almost a thousand people who have been held on their own in potentially damaging confined spaces for a decade or longer....

The new solitary study, Time-In-Cell: A 2021 Snapshot of Restrictive Housing, extrapolates its findings from the reported figures of 34 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Though it finds that levels of solitary remain shockingly high, it also stresses that the figures are moving in the right direction.

When the researchers began the series of annual snapshots in 2014 the number of prisoners trapped in isolation was almost twice today’s level, at between 80,000 to 100,000. Since then the graph has steadily declined, with a growing number of states introducing new laws to restrict or even ban the practice.“In the 1980s people promoted solitary confinement as a way to deal with violence in prisons,” said Judith Resnik, Yale’s Arthur Liman professor of law. “It is now seen as a problem itself that needs to be solved.”

California, a state with a dark history of abusive solitary confinement, is currently debating new legislation. The California Mandela Act would require every custodial institution in the state to impose strict rules and reporting, and would ban solitary for pregnant women, people under 26 or over 59, and those with mental or physical disabilities.

Last year New York state passed similar legislation, joining a growing list. The Yale study finds that three states – Delaware, North Dakota and Vermont – reported having no inmates in such confinement in 2021, and two other states said they had fewer than 10 people.

Despite such optimistic signs, restrictive housing continues to inflict untold suffering on thousands of men and women. 

This press release about the report provides some more details and context:

Time-In-Cell: A 2021 Snapshot of Restrictive Housing estimates that, as of July 2021, between 41,000 and 48,000 people were held in isolation in U.S. prison cells. The report defines solitary confinement as 22 hours or more on average a day for 15 days or more. 

The report’s co-authors have worked together for a decade to generate this data, producing the only longitudinal, nationwide database documenting the reported use of solitary confinement in prisons in the United States. 

According to the most recent study, three states reported holding no one in isolation in July 2021, two other states reported fewer than 10 people in solitary, and 10 states reported not using solitary in any of their women’s prisons. In contrast, in 2014, every jurisdiction reported using solitary confinement. That year, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people were in solitary in prisons throughout the United States.....

Time-in-Cell also examined the demographics of people held in isolation. The report found that solitary confinement continues to be used for people whom reporting jurisdictions define as having serious mental illness. Moreover, the report found that the number of Black women held in solitary was higher than the number of white women.

The full report includes the numbers, duration, and conditions of people in solitary confinement and the changes underway.

August 26, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases big report on COVID's impact on prisons during pandemic's first year

As detailed on this BJS webpage, this morning the Bureau of Justice Statistics released this 45-page "Special Report" titled "Impact of COVID-19 on State and Federal Prisons, March 2020–February 2021."  The BJS webpage has a press release, a summary and this overview:

Description

This report provides details on the effects of COVID-19 on state and federal prisons from March 2020 to February 2021. The report presents data related to COVID-19 tests, infections, deaths, and vaccinations.  It also provides statistics on admissions to and releases, including expedited releases, from state and federal prisons during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Highlights

  • BJS’s survey to measure the impact of COVID-19 on U.S. prisons from the end of February 2020 to the end of February 2021 found that the number of persons in the custody of state, federal, or privately operated prisons under state or federal contract decreased more than 16%.
  • The prison population declined by 157,500 persons during the first 6 months of the COVID-19 study period through the end of August 2020, and by 58,300 in the 6 months through the end of February 2021.
  • Twenty-four states released a total of 37,700 persons from prison on an expedited basis (earlier than scheduled) during the COVID-19 study period.
  • State and federal prisons had a crude mortality rate (unadjusted for sex, race or ethnicity, or age) of 1.5 COVID-19-related deaths per 1,000 prisoners from the end of February 2020 to the end of February 2021.
  • From the end of February 2020 to the end of February 2021, a total of 196 correctional staff in state and federal prisons died as a result of COVID-19.

August 25, 2022 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 14, 2022

"How Little Supervision Can We Have?"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Evangeline Lopoo, Vincent Schiraldi, and Timothy Ittner which is forthcoming in the Annual Review of Criminology. Here is its abstract:

Use of probation and parole has declined since its peak in 2007 but still intrudes into the lives of 3.9 million Americans at a scale deemed mass supervision.  Originally intended as an alternative to incarceration and a means of rehabilitation for those who have committed crimes, supervision often functions as a trip wire for further criminal legal system contact. This review questions the utility of supervision, as research shows that, in toto, it currently provides neither diversion from incarceration nor rehabilitation.  Analysis of national supervision, crime, and carceral data since 1980 reveals that supervision has little effect on future crime and is not a replacement for incarceration.  Case studies from California and New York City indicate that concerted efforts to reduce the scope of mass supervision can effectively be achieved through sentencing reform, case diversion, and supervisory/legal system department policy change, among other factors, without increasing crime.  Therefore, we suggest extensive downsizing of supervision or experimentation with its abolition and offer actionable steps to enact each possibility.

August 14, 2022 in Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 12, 2022

"The Arbery case is heinous, but his killers’ sentences are extreme"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Washington Post commentary (which, as of noon Friday already prompted well over 3000 comments). The piece is authored by David Singleton, and I recommend it in full. Here are excerpts:

As a human being, I felt nauseated watching the video of Ahmaud Arbery being shot to death by three White men who had hunted him down as he jogged through a Brunswick, Ga., neighborhood.  As a Black man, I feared that Arbery’s killers would escape justice before an almost all-White jury in a state court.  And as a political progressive committed to dismantling white supremacy, I was relieved when the jury found Arbery’s killers guilty of murder.

Yet the punishments the three men received — in the state case, life in prison for William “Roddie” Bryan, who joined the pursuit of Arbery and recorded the incident with his cellphone, and life in prison without parole for Gregory McMichael and his son Travis, who fired the fatal shots; and just this week in the federal case, two more life sentences plus additional years for the McMichaels and 35 years for Bryan — left me questioning whether such lengthy sentences are what justice requires.  As a former public defender who now works to end mass incarceration and the extreme sentences that contribute to it, I believe the answer is clear: no....

Contrary to what many believe, mass incarceration is not the result of locking lots of people up for low-level, nonviolent crimes.  According to such sentencing experts as Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis, life and other extreme sentences are the real drivers of the 500 percent increase in the prison population over the past 40 years.  In their book “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences,” Mauer and Nellis note that one out of seven people in prison in the United States has been sentenced to life.  They say that lengthy sentences make no sense from a public safety perspective, given that most people age out of committing violent crimes by their mid-20s. Additionally, continuing to imprison people long past the time when they can be safely released is expensive, especially when they are elderly.

But the economic costs of mass incarceration are not the only costs.  To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson and Sister Helen Prejean, people should not be defined forever by the worst things they’ve done.  But a life sentence, especially life without parole, does just that.  When we keep people incarcerated who have transformed themselves behind bars, are no longer dangerous, and have the potential to be productive citizens, we all lose....

If we are to end mass incarceration, state and federal authorities must eliminate such draconian punishment and enact laws that allow judges to revisit sentences based on the incarcerated person’s demonstrated rehabilitation and fitness to live in society.  Meanwhile, although I am relieved that Arbery’s murderers are being held accountable, I hope they will someday be released — after they have served an appropriate period of their sentences and demonstrated their fitness to return to society.

Prior related posts:

August 12, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Man beats his dog ... and gets 25 years in a Texas prison!?!

I just saw a discussion of what sound like a remarkable local sentencing case out of Texas.  This local story, headlined "San Antonio man handed one of Texas' longest ever animal abuse prison sentences," provides these basics:

A San Antonio man is headed to prison on one of the longest sentences for animal abuse in Texas History.

Animal Care Services said that Frank Javier Fonseca was sentenced to 25 years in prison on animal abuse charges for a violent beating of his puppy, which was captured on video. He was sentenced in June and has previous felony convictions that include drug possession and crimes of retaliation, according to an ACS news release.

The video was captured in February 2019, showing Fonseca repeatedly hitting his young Rottweiler puppy named Buddy with his fists and a piece of wood, as well as kicking and choking the dog. ACS said the video was recorded by "an anonymous Good Samaritan." Court records show Fonesca was arrested in September 2021.

The 56-year-old San Antonio man told ACS that he was disciplining the dog for leaving his yard on Fenfield Avenue. Buddy survived the abusive attack and is now living with a new adoptive family, officials said.

This new Reason commentary, authored by Billy Binion, rightly questions this outcome under this full headline: "A 25-Year Prison Sentence for Beating Up a Dog Is Not Justice: Frank Javier Fonseca's punishment, which may amount to a life sentence, is a microcosm for many of the issues with the U.S. criminal legal system."  

A quick google search has not turned up much more information to justify or even fully explains what seems like a severe outcome, though I suppose I should never be too surprised by the lengthy sentences that can be and often are imposed under various habitual offender statutes.

August 11, 2022 in Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Visiting "The Visiting Room Project"

This week brought the launch of "The Visiting Room Project," a great new oral history project and website.  This new Guardian article provides an overview under the headline "An extraordinary story of forgiveness: from life without parole to finding grace; A new project gives a voice to people serving life sentences in Louisiana – and brought together two men whose lives collided in tragedy." Here is how the site itself describes the project at this link:

The Visiting Room Project is a digital experience that invites the public to sit face-to-face with people serving life without the possibility of parole to hear them tell their stories, in their own words.  More than five years in the making, the site is the only collection of its kind, containing over 100 filmed interviews with people currently serving life without parole.  The interviews were filmed at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is, in many ways, the epicenter of life without parole sentences worldwide.  As of 2022, more than 55,000 Americans are living in prisons serving life without parole, their lives largely hidden from public view.

Marcus Kondkar and Calvin Duncan created The Visiting Room Project.  Marcus is chair of the sociology department at Loyola University New Orleans, where he researches incarceration and sentencing patterns.  Calvin is an expert in post-conviction law. After being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life without parole, he served 28½ years in Louisiana prisons before winning his freedom in 2011.  Originally, Marcus and Calvin gathered information on life sentences for an academic audience, but, due to their shared belief that the public needs to hear directly from people who had served decades in prison, their collaboration became The Visiting Room Project, documenting stories of growth behind prison walls.  Arthur Carter, who has served more than 30 years of a life sentence, captured the meaning of The Visiting Room Project during his interview, stating, “If I have to die here, I appreciate this opportunity to be able to let my voice be heard.”

This is a living project that didn’t conclude when the last interview was filmed. Instead, the project team and the men who were interviewed together created The Visiting Room Collaborative to share and document the continuing impact of these life stories.  The Visiting Room Collaborative has two missions.  First, to ensure that the participants’ loved ones and communities have access to their interviews.  Secondly, to create opportunities for public audiences to engage with the project material through exhibits, screenings, and collaborations with artists.  As The Visiting Room Project continues to evolve, this site will be updated with new information.

August 10, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 05, 2022

ABA House of Delegates considering a number of notable sentencing resolutions

As detailed in this ABA news release from last week, the "American Bar Association’s policymaking body, the House of Delegates, convenes next month to conclude the ABA 2022 Annual Meeting with more than 30 items on the agenda, including several resolutions that address the country’s incarceration challenges and other criminal justice issues." Here is more from the release with links to some key sentencing-related resolutions being considered:

The in-person-only ABA 2022 Annual Meeting begins on Wednesday, Aug. 3. The House, known as the HOD, encompasses 583 delegates from ABA entities and state, local and specialty bar associations and meets Aug. 8-9....

With the posted agenda set weeks in advance of the HOD meeting, late resolutions could be added under certain circumstances to reflect proposed ABA policy responses to national developments during the past few weeks....

Resolution 501 offers the ABA Criminal Justice Standards on Diversion, which provide guidance on various aspects of diversion programs.  The standards are consistent with efforts to reduce collateral consequences; address over-criminalization; reduce incarceration; curtail the burden on and investment in the criminal legal system; and eradicate racial disparities throughout the system.

Resolution 502 urges governmental entities to enact legislation permitting courts to hear petitions that allow hearings to take a “second look” at criminal sentences where individuals have been incarcerated for 10 years.  The report to support the resolution noted that the U.S. is home to less than 5% of the world’s population but houses nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners, adding incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color.

A related Resolution 604 asks governmental entities to adopt the ABA Nine Principles on Reducing Mass Incarceration, suggesting governmental jurisdictions could immediately begin reducing the number of people they incarcerate by following the principles....

For details on all policy resolutions and other matters for consideration during the two-day session, click here. HOD proposals do not become ABA policy until approved by the House, which meets twice annually.

August 5, 2022 in Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Great new Robina Institute report on "Examining Prison Releases in Response to COVID"

I was so pleased to see this week that the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice has this great big new report titled "Examining Prison Releases in Response to COVID: Lessons Learned for Reducing the Effects of Mass Incarceration."  The full 86-page report is a must read and it so rich and intricate, I can only here excerpt a portion of the executive summary:

In response to the global pandemic in 2020, states and the federal government began to make non-routine releases from prison in order to reduce prison populations to allow for social distancing in prison facilities. This report is aimed at describing where such prison releases occurred, the legal mechanisms used to achieve these releases, and the factors within jurisdictions that made non-routine prison releases more or less likely to occur. We write this report, not to examine the national response to the pandemic, but to better understand when and how extraordinary measures may be used to effect prison release, and to determine whether there are lessons from this experience that can be applied to reducing the effects of mass incarceration.

Prevalence of Release:

  • We estimate that a total of 80,658 people were released from prisons in 35 jurisdictions (34 states and the federal prison system) due to COVID-related policies, which was equivalent to about 5-1/2% of the total state and federal prison population in 2019.
  • Most COVID-related releases were quite modest, amounting to the equivalent of less than 10% of the 2019 prison populations in 27 of the 35 jurisdictions in which releases occurred (Figure 2).

Legal Mechanisms:

  • The legal mechanisms used most frequently to release people from prison during the pandemic were parole (11 jurisdictions), compassionate release (10 instances in 9 jurisdictions), home confinement (8 jurisdictions), commutation (7 jurisdictions), and good time or earned time credits (6 jurisdictions) (Figure 3).

Criteria for Release:

  • Type of crime, COVID health risk, and time left to serve on one’s sentence were the criteria most frequently used — either alone or in combination — to determine eligibility for release due to COVID-related policies.
  • Most release groups (39 of 73) required that a person had to have been convicted of a non-violent offense (Figure 4).
  • COVID health risks — addressing both medical vulnerability and age — were used as criteria in 38 of 73 release groups (Figure 6).
  • Most release groups (37 of 73) required that a person have a short time left to serve on their sentence (Figure 7). Though the amount of time varied from 30 days in New Mexico to 5 years in Kentucky, the average was 9 months, and the most frequently used time period was 12 months.

Political and Structural Influences:

  • Gubernatorial leadership played a larger role in whether the jurisdictions made releases, with fewer jurisdictions with Republican leadership making releases. However, determinacy may have affected how many releases were possible, with indeterminate jurisdictions making larger releases than determinate jurisdictions regardless of political leadership.
  • All but three Democratic-led jurisdictions (21 of 24) made COVID-related prison releases while only about half of Republic-led jurisdictions (14 of 27) did so (Table 4).
  • Nearly all of the jurisdictions (7 of 8) with the largest COVID-related releases — those greater than 10% of the 2019 prison population — were indeterminate in structure.

July 27, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

US Sentencing Commission reports on "Life Sentences in the Federal System"

Cover_life-sentencesI received an email this morning spotlighting two interesting and important new data reports from the US Sentencing Commission. One of these new USSC reports is this 40-page effort titled simply "Life Sentences in the Federal System." Highlights are provided via this USSC webpage where one can find this "Summary" and "Key Findings":

There are numerous federal criminal statutes authorizing a sentence of life as the maximum sentence allowed, such as for offenses involving drug trafficking, racketeering, and firearms crimes.  While convictions under these statutes are common, sentences of life imprisonment are rare, accounting for only a small proportion of all federal offenders sentenced. 

In February 2015, the Commission released Life Sentences in the Federal Criminal Justice System, examining the application of life sentences by federal courts during fiscal year 2013.  Using data from fiscal years 2016 through 2021, this report updates and augments the Commission’s previous findings by examining the offenses that led to the life sentences imprisonment imposed, along with offender demographics, criminal histories, and victim-related adjustments.

Offenders Sentenced to Life Imprisonment

  • During fiscal years 2016 through 2021, there were 709 federal offenders sentenced to life imprisonment, which accounted for 0.2 percent of the total federal offender population.
  • Almost half (48.7%) of offenders sentenced to life imprisonment were convicted of murder.
  • Approximately half (47.5%) of offenders sentenced to life imprisonment were found to either have possessed a weapon in connection with their instant offense or were convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) — for possession or use of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence or drug trafficking crime.  This is almost five times the rate for offenders who were sentenced to less than life imprisonment (9.8%).
  • Nearly one-third (31.4%) of offenders sentenced to life imprisonment received an aggravating role enhancement as an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor in the offense, which is approximately eight times higher than those sentenced to less than life imprisonment (4.2%).
  • Offenders sentenced to life imprisonment qualified as repeat and dangerous sex offenders in 11.8 percent of cases, in comparison to 0.6 percent of offenders sentenced to less than life imprisonment.
  • The trial rate of offenders sentenced to life imprisonment was 75.6 percent, which was over thirty times higher than the 2.3 percent trial rate for all other federal offenders.
Offenders Sentenced to De Facto Life Imprisonment
  • There were 799 offenders sentenced to de facto life imprisonment, which accounted for 0.2 percent of the total federal offender population.
  • Half (50.6%) of offenders sentenced to de facto life imprisonment were convicted of sexual abuse.
  • One-third (33.2%) of offenders sentenced to de facto life imprisonment were found to either have possessed a weapon in connection with their instant offense or were convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) — for possession or use of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence or drug trafficking crime.
  • More than one-in-seven (15.4%) offenders sentenced to de facto life imprisonment received an aggravating role enhancement as an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor in the offense.
  • Offenders sentenced to de facto life imprisonment qualified as repeat and dangerous sex offenders in 39.4 percent of cases.
  • The trial rate of offenders sentenced to de facto life imprisonment was 39.4 percent.

July 26, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | 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)

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Council on Criminal Justice releases "Long Sentences by the Numbers"

In this post a couple of month ago, I noted the formation of the Council of Criminal Justice's impressive Task Force on Long Sentences. Today, I was alerted to the release are this fascinating new resource from CCJ titled "Long Sentences by the Numbers."  The full resource merits a deep dive, and here are excerpts:

Launched by the Council in Spring 2022, the Task Force on Long Sentences is assessing our nation’s use of long prison terms and formulating recommendations to advance safety and justice.  This series of charts serves as a foundation for the deliberations of the group, a diverse set of experts from varied sectors of the criminal justice field and across the ideological spectrum.

The data below address three fundamental questions.  Each provides a different perspective on the nature and extent of long prison sentences, which the Task Force defines as a court-imposed prison term of 10 years or more, independent of the time people actually serve.

  • Admissions: What are the number and share of people admitted with a long prison sentence? Admissions data show changes in the frequency with which courts impose long sentences.
  • Population: What is the size of the prison population serving long sentences, and what share of the total population do these individuals represent?  Prison population data, based on a snapshot of people incarcerated at a moment in time (typically at year’s end), reveal how many people behind bars are serving long sentences.
  • Releases: What are the number and share of people released from prison after serving a long sentence and how much time did they actually serve?  Every jurisdiction has statutes and policies such as discretionary parole and credits for good behavior that permit people to be released prior to serving their maximum sentence. Release data enable us to discern how many people are released after having served 10 or more years, independent of the upper limit of their sentences.

[These data are drawn] from varying combinations of up to 29 state prison systems submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice's National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) from 2005 through 2019.  Council researchers selected the states and time period because they offered the most complete and consistent set of relevant national-level data to describe basic trends in long sentences....

Key Takeaways

  • People with long sentences account for a relatively small share of state prison admissions and releases, but because they serve long periods, their numbers stack up over time.  In 2019, 17% of people admitted to prison were sentenced to 10 years or more, and 3% of those released had served 10 years or more.  At year-end, 57% of people in prison were serving a long prison sentence, up from 46% in 2005.

  • The length of time served by people sentenced to 10 years or more has grown. Between 2005 and 2019, the average amount of time served by this group increased from 9.7 years to 15.5 years.

  • The share of people convicted of a violent crime who received long sentences grew from 7% in 2005 to 10% in 2019. The percentage of people convicted of property and drug offenses who received long sentences remained stable, at 3% and 2%, respectively.

  • The shares of Black and White people receiving long sentences have grown over time and the gap between those shares has widened, from 1 percentage point in 2005 to 4 percentage points in 2019. When accounting for conviction offenses, Black people are more likely to receive long sentences for violent crimes while White people are for some property crimes. White people convicted of drug crimes were more likely than Black people to get a long sentence in 2005 but less likely by 2019.

  • Compared to other age groups, people aged 55 and over are the fastest-growing age group serving long sentences. Between 2005 and 2019, the share of people serving long sentences who were aged 55 and over grew from 8% to 20%.

  • Men are more likely than women to receive and serve a long sentence. On average, men are about 72% more likely to receive a long sentence and over three times more likely to serve a long sentence than women, mostly because men are convicted of more serious, violent crimes. Greater shares of both men (up 4%) and women (up 3%) received sentences of 10 years or more in 2019 than in 2005.

July 20, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, July 03, 2022

"What the end of Roe v. Wade will mean for people on probation and parole"

The title of this post is the title of this notable briefing authored by Wanda Bertram and Wendy Sawyer of the Prison Policy Initiative giving attention to how the Supreme Court's Dobbs's ruling will impact the large number of women on probation or parole. Here is how it gets started:

With several states preparing to criminalize abortion now that Roe v. Wade is over, and some states talking about criminalizing traveling out of state to get an abortion, it’s worth remembering that for many people on probation and parole, traveling out of state for abortion care is already next to impossible.  On any given day in the U.S., 666,413 women are on probation (a community-based alternative to incarceration) or parole (the part of a prison sentence that someone serves in the community).  In many jurisdictions — for instance, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Idaho, Texas, and the federal system, as well as some juvenile probation systems — it’s common for people on probation and parole to face restrictions on where they can travel, whether they can move to another county or state, and with whom they can “associate” (including, potentially, people who assist in coordinating abortion access, where such help is criminalized).  All of these restrictions will make it harder for people under supervision to get abortion care.

In the last few days, many news outlets have reported on how people in prison can be blocked from seeking an abortion, especially in states where abortion is already illegal.  (Ironically, as we’ve discussed before, prisons deny people quality pregnancy care even as they deny abortion access.)  The end of Roe v. Wade will create new barriers to abortion care for incarcerated people, since it will likely trigger

But an even greater number of people on probation and parole stand to be affected: About 231,000 women are in prison or jail on any given day, but several times as many women are on probation and parole, the result of gendered differences in offense types: women are more likely than men to be serving sentences for lower-level property and drug crimes

In the thirteen states with abortion ban “trigger laws” on the way, more than 200,000 women are under probation and parole supervision, which will make it difficult or impossible for many of them to travel out of state for an abortion, or potentially even talk to people coordinating abortion care, given the typical restrictions of probation and parole.

A few prior related posts:

July 3, 2022 in Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 01, 2022

Two different criminal justice reforms now effective in two southern states

The start of July marks the official start for two notable and notably different criminal justice reforms in Florida and Tennessee. Here are parts of press accounts:

"Florida criminal justice reform laws go into effect Friday"

Florida’s new law making reforms to the state’s criminal justice system is set to go into effect on Friday. Senate Bill 752, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) earlier this month, will allow Floridians on probation to receive new education and workforce credits that will shorten their probation terms and help them gain a GED or other degree or vocational certification and maintain full-time employment.

Individuals under this law can earn at least 30 days off their supervision terms for each six-month period in which they work for at least an average of 30 hours per week. It also gives them the ability to earn 60 days off their probation term for each completed educational activity....

Multiple organizations and coalitions including the REFORM Alliance led the push for the Florida Legislature to pass the bill. The REFORM Alliance is a nonprofit social justice organization founded in 2019 by rapper Meek Mill, Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin and rapper and mogul Shawn “Jay Z” Carter.  “This new law will help more than 150,000 on probation in Florida by removing barriers to their success and rewarding them for doing well,” Rubin, who serves as a co-chair for the organization, said in a statement. “Not only was this unanimously supported by members of the Florida legislature, but probation officers, business owners, and community service providers all joined us in the effort to pass this new law.”

"New public safety laws to take effect on July 1 in Tennessee"

A truth in sentencing act is among a number of new criminal and public safety laws in Tennessee that are slated to go into effect on July 1.... The new law requires a person convicted of certain offenses to serve 100% of the sentence imposed before becoming eligible for release.

The new sentencing act requires felons convicted of eight different offenses to serve 100% of their sentences undiminished by any sentence reduction credits for which the person is eligible or earns.  Those eight offenses are attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder, vehicular homicide, especially aggravated kidnapping, especially aggravated robbery, carjacking and especially aggravated burglary.

The law also identifies another 16 offenses that require 100% of the sentence to be served unless the inmate earns a satisfactory program performance.  In such cases, an inmate can receive credits for a GED or job training that can be used for parole eligibility once a person has served a minimum of 85% of their sentence.

July 1, 2022 in Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

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)

Thursday, June 23, 2022

"Nothing but Time: Elderly Americans Serving Life Without Parole"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from The Sentencing Project. Here is most of the executive summary and recommendations from the start of the report:

Prisons are a particularly hazardous place to grow old.  The carceral system is largely unprepared to handle the medical, social, physical, and mental health needs for older people in prison.  Nearly half of prisons lack an established plan for the care of the elderly incarcerated....

Warnings by corrections budget analysts of the crushing costs of incarcerating people who are older have gone almost entirely unheeded. Indeed, sociologist and legal scholar Christopher Seeds accurately described a transformation of life without parole “from a rare sanction and marginal practice of last resort into a routine punishment in the United States” over the last four decades.  And in the contemporary moment of rising concerns around crime, there are reasons to be concerned that ineffective, racially disproportionate, and costly tough-on-crime measures such as increasing sentence lengths will proliferate, leading to even higher numbers of incarcerated people who will grow old in prison.  In this, as in many other aspects of its carceral system, the United States is an outlier; in many Western democracies those in their final decades of life are viewed as a protected class from the harsh prison climate.

Older incarcerated people describe sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) — with the expectation that they will die in prison — as particularly cruel, involving a devastating loss of human dignity.  Considering the consistent observation across dozens of studies that people “age out” of criminal conduct, the dedication of resources toward a group that is of extremely low risk is a foolish investment.  Yet people serving LWOP are a growing share of the overall life-sentenced population and the number of people in prison serving LWOP is at an all-time high.  While LWOP sentences have been a sentencing component of the American punishment spectrum for much of its existence, recent mandatory and preferential imposition of life sentences with no chance for parole are a more prominent feature than ever.  In 2020, The Sentencing Project produced a 50-state survey of departments of corrections that revealed that more than 55,000 Americans are incarcerated in state and federal prisons with no chance of parole, reflecting a 66% rise in people serving LWOP since 2003.

Because compassionate release, whether based on chronological age (geriatric parole) or diagnosis of a terminal illness (medical parole), typically excludes people serving life sentences by statute, the only option for an early release for people serving LWOP is executive clemency.  While clemency was common for older people serving life sentences sixty years ago, it was nearly terminated by the 1970s, and is still rarely used today.

This report explores the features of the LWOP population in more detail, focusing on the aging demographic in particular.  The data presented in this report reflect the patterns of 40,000 people serving LWOP sentences across 20 states.  These 20 states reflect three quarters of the LWOP population nationwide. The main findings in this report are the following:

• Almost half (47%) of the people serving LWOP are 50 years old or more and one in four is at least 60 years old.

• In ten years, even if no additional LWOP sentences were added in these states, 30,000 people currently serving LWOP will be 50 or older.

• 60% of the elderly imprisoned serving LWOP have already served at least 20 years....

• Half of aging people serving LWOP are Black and nearly 60% are people of color....

• The majority of people serving LWOP have been convicted of murder, but a growing share of the overall LWOP population has been convicted of less serious crimes, reflecting an over-expansion of LWOP.

We make a series of recommendations for reform based on the research presented in this report:

• Reinstate parole or resentencing opportunities for those currently ineligible.

• Give added weight to advanced age at review hearings. Advanced age considerations should begin at age 50 in light of the accelerating aging process that accompanies imprisonment.

• Allow immediate sentence review with presumption of release for people who are 50 and older and have served 10 years of their LWOP sentence.

• Revise medical parole release statutes to include all incarcerated people regardless of crime of conviction and age.

• Upon release, transition elderly persons, including those who have been convicted of a violent crime and those who are serving LWOP and other life sentences, to well-supported systems of community care if they are too frail to live independently.

• Require states to disclose the cost of incarcerating elderly people, including the cost of all medical care, as well as projections for future costs. Failing in such fiscal transparency keeps taxpayers in the dark about the true cost of mass incarceration.

• Expand clemency release opportunities to reflect their higher usage in earlier eras.

June 23, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

"Chronic Punishment: The unmet health needs of people in state prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the Prison Policy Initiative authored by Leah Wang.  Here is how the report gets started (with some original links retained):

Over 1 million people sit in U.S. state prisons on any given day.  These individuals are overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately Black, Native, Hispanic, and/or LGBTQ, and often targeted by law enforcement from a young age, as we detailed recently in our report Beyond the Count.  And all too often, they are also suffering from physical and mental illnesses, or navigating prison life with disabilities or even pregnancy.  In this, the second installment of our analysis of a unique, large-scale survey of people in state prisons, we add to the existing research showing that state prisons fall far short of their constitutional duty to meet the essential health needs of people in their custody.  As a result, people in state prison are kept in a constant state of illness and despair.

Instead of “rehabilitating” people in prison (physically, mentally or otherwise), or at the very least, serving as a de facto health system for people failed by other parts of the U.S. social safety net, data from the most recent national  Survey of Prison Inmates show that state prisons are full of ill and neglected people.  Paired with the fact that almost all of these individuals are eventually released, bad prison policy is an issue for all of us — not just those who are behind bars.

This report covers a lot of ground, so we’ve divided it into sections that can be accessed directly here:

Physical health problems: Chronic conditions and infectious disease

Access to healthcare: People in state prison disproportionately lacked health insurance

Mental health problems: Exceptionally high rates among incarcerated people

Disabilities: Disproportionate rates of physical, cognitive, and learning disabilities

Pregnancy and reproductive health: Expectant mothers are underserved in prison

Conclusions and recommendations: How do we begin to address unmet needs in prisons?

Methodology: Details about the data and our analysis

Appendix tables: Explore the data yourself

June 22, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

US Sentencing Commission releases another report on "Length of Incarceration and Recidivism"

A few years ago, as noted in this blog post, the US Sentencing Commission released a report titled "Length of Incarceration and Recidivism."  Today, the USSC has issued another report under the same title, and this webpage provides an overview and key findings:

Overview

This study, the seventh in the recidivism series, examines the relationship between length of incarceration and recidivism. In 2020, the Commission published its initial comprehensive study on length of incarceration and recidivism.  In that study, which examined offenders released in 2005, the Commission found that federal offenders receiving sentences of more than 60 months were less likely to recidivate compared to a similar group of offenders receiving shorter sentences.  This study replicates the prior analysis, however, it examines a more current cohort of federal offenders released in 2010.  This study examines the relationship between length of incarceration and recidivism, specifically exploring three potential relationships that may exist: incarceration as having a deterrent effect, a criminogenic effect, or no effect on recidivism.

This study examines 32,135 federal offenders who satisfied the following criteria:

  • United States citizens;
  • Re-entered the community during 2010 after discharging their sentence of incarceration or by commencing a term of probation;
  • Not reported dead, escaped, or detained;
  • Have valid FBI numbers which could be located in criminal history repositories (in at least one state, the District of Columbia, or federal records).

Key Findings

  • The results of this study, examining federal offenders released in 2010, are almost identical to the findings established in prior Commission research examining federal offenders released in 2005.  In both studies, the odds of recidivism were lower for federal offenders sentenced to more than 60 months incarceration compared to a matched group of offenders receiving shorter sentences.
  • The odds of recidivism were approximately 29 percent lower for federal offenders sentenced to more than 120 months incarceration compared to a matched group of federal offenders receiving shorter sentences.
  • The odds of recidivism were approximately 18 percent lower for offenders sentenced to more than 60 months up to 120 months incarceration compared to a matched group of federal offenders receiving shorter sentences.
  • For federal offenders sentenced to 60 months or less incarceration, the Commission did not find any statistically significant differences in recidivism.

June 21, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 20, 2022

Mississippi Supreme Court upholds, against Eighth Amendment challenge, mandatory LWOP habitual-offender sentence for marijuana possession

Last year in this post, I reported on a Mississippi state intermediate appeal court ruling that upheld a mandatory life without parole sentence for possession of over 30 grams of marijuana because the defendant was a violent habitual offender under Mississippi law.  Last week, the Supreme Court of Mississippi, by a 6-3 vote, affirmed this sentence in Russell v. Mississippi, No. 2019-CT-01670-SCT (Miss. June 16, 2022) (available here).  Here is the start and some concluding parts of the  majority opinion:

This certiorari case considers whether Allen Russell’s life sentence without the possibility of parole for possession of marijuana, as an habitual offender under Mississippi Code Section 99-19-83 (Rev. 2020), violates his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The Court of Appeals stalemated five to five, resulting in an affirmance of the judgment of the trial court. Russell v. State, No. 2019-KA-01670-COA, 2021 WL 1884144, at *3 (Miss. Ct. App. May 11, 2021).  We affirm Russell’s sentence....

In the limited scenario in which the mandatory sentence facing a defendant under Section 99-19-83 is life without parole and the crime for which the defendant is being sentenced, unenhanced, is a nonviolent crime that carries a minimal-maximum sentence (i.e. less than ten years), trial judges should specifically consider “all matters relevant to” the sentence as contemplated in Presley to determine the issue of gross disproportionality and the constitutionality of the sentence as to that particular defendant. Presley, 474 So. 2d at 620....  None of this benefits Russell. We reiterate, once again, that the burden is upon the defendant to show that the sentence mandated by the legislature is unconstitutional as to that particular defendant.  Because Russell presented no evidence, the only substantive evidence before the court were the prior convictions....

The record is replete with additional evidence, as documented in the separate opinion of the chief justice.  We would refer the reader to the chief justice’s separate opinion for a thorough recounting of the details surrounding Russell’s arrest.  However, it is pertinent to note that the arrest came while law enforcement was attempting to serve another drug related warrant on Russell as well as execute a search warrant on his premises. The search warrant came about as a result of Russell’s being developed as a suspect in a murder in a hotel room where a medical document naming Russell was found....

In Russell’s case, the trial judge followed our procedure and the law, Russell presented no evidence related to the Solem factors and the trial judge sentenced Russell to the only sentence available.  Therefore, we affirm.

The lengthy separate concurring opinion is an interesting read that seeks to highlight "Solem’s weaknesses." Here is how it concludes:

Based on both this Court’s precedent and the rulings of the United States Supreme Court in Rummel, 445 U.S. 263, Harmelin, 501 U.S. 263, Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, and Ewing, 538 U.S. 11, Russell’s sentence as an habitual offender was not grossly disproportionate.  His sentence meets the prescribed statutory punishment.  There is no legal basis to vacate Russell’s sentence.  It is neither cruel nor unusual.  As Russell has failed to prove that the threshold requirement of gross disproportionality was offered and met, because his sentence fell within the statutory requirement, and because his sentence is a constitutionally permissible sentence, we should affirm Russell’s conviction and sentence.

The short dissenting opinion includes this point in making the case Solem ought to help Russell:

Recent developments in Mississippi and elsewhere concerning the treatment of marijuana possession arguably provide a material difference between Solem and Russell that favors Russell as to the objective factors.  In the past year, the state of Mississippi joined many of its sister states in adopting a medical marijuana program.  Pursuant to the bill creating the program, the difference going forward between going to jail for possessing 2.5 ounces of marijuana and owning it legally would be a prescription.  See S.B. 2095, 2022 Miss. Laws.  For better or for worse, the adoption of a medical marijuana in Mississippi is in keeping with a nationwide change on the treatment of marijuana in the law.  An April 2021 law journal article points out that thirty-six states now have medical marijuana programs, and fourteen states and the District of Columbia now allow its recreational use.  Paul J. Larkin, Jr., Cannabis Capitalism, 69 Buff. L. Rev. 215, 216-217 (2021).  Less than thirty years ago, however, all states and the federal government outlawed its distribution. Id. Whether it be wisdom or folly, the above-described move toward decriminalizing the use of marijuana considered in light of the first objective Solem factor, i.e., the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty, surely weighs in favor of Russell.  There appears to be no similar widespread movement to legalize “uttering a ‘no account’ check[.]” Solem, 463 U.S. at 281.

June 20, 2022 in Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, June 11, 2022

"The Dangerous Few: Taking Seriously Prison Abolition and Its Skeptics"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay by Thomas Ward Frampton just published in the Harvard Law Review.  Here is its abstract:

Prison abolition, in the span of just a few short years, has established a foothold in elite criminal legal discourse.  But the basic question of how abolitionists would address “the dangerous few” often receives superficial treatment; the problem constitutes a “spectral force haunting abolitionist thought . . . as soon as abolitionist discourses navigate towards the programmatic and enter the public arena.”  This Essay offers two main contributions: it (1) maps the diverse ways in which prison abolitionists most frequently respond to the challenge of “the dangerous few,” highlighting strengths and infirmities of each stance, and (2) proposes alternative, hopefully more productive, responses that interrogate and probe the implicit premises (empirical, ideological, or moral) embedded in and animating questions concerning “the dangerous few.”

June 11, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, June 09, 2022

"Incarcerated LGBTQ+ Adults and Youth"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from The Sentencing Project. Here is how the document starts:

This fact sheet examines the criminalization and over-incarceration of LGBTQ+ adults and youth.  The LGBTQ+ population is comprised of people with non-heterosexual identities — those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and others — and people with non-cisgender identities — those who are trans and gender non-conforming.  LGBTQ+ adults are incarcerated at three times the rate of the total adult population.  LGBTQ+ youth’s representation among the incarcerated population is double their share of the general population.

LGBTQ+ people experience high rates of homelessness, poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and violence — factors which drive their overrepresentation in the criminal legal system. In both adult and youth facilities, imprisoned LGBTQ+ people face physical, sexual, and verbal harassment and abuse, as well as a lack of gender-affirming housing, clothing, personal hygiene products, medical care, and mental health treatment.  To help alleviate these harms, states and the federal government should repeal laws that criminalize LGBTQ+ people, limit the use of solitary confinement, mandate access to gender-affirming health care in correctional facilities, and invest in drug and mental health treatment and reentry programs for LGBTQ+ youth and adults

June 9, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Supreme Court of Canada declares all LWOP sentences unconstitutional as "degrading in nature and thus intrinsically incompatible with human dignity"

As this press article details, "Canada’s supreme court has ruled that life sentences without the chance of parole are both “cruel” and unconstitutional, in a landmark decision that could give more than dozen mass killers who committed “inherently despicable acts” the faint hope of release in the future." Here is more from the press piece about Friday's ruling:

The court unanimously determined on Friday that sentencing killers to lengthy prison terms with little hope of freedom risked bringing the “administration of justice into disrepute”.

The closely watched case centred on the fate of Alexandre Bissonnette, the gunman who killed six worshippers at a mosque in Québec City in 2017, but the court’s decision will possibly have consequences for at least 18 others who are serving multiple life sentences.

In Canada, those serving a life sentence for first-degree murder are eligible to apply for parole at 25 years. But in 2011, the Conservative government gave justices the ability to hand out consecutive sentences, rather than concurrent blocks of 25 years.

In the case of Bissonnette, the 27-year-old pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder in 2018, after he entered the Islamic Cultural Centre in Québec City with a semi-automatic rifle and pistol, opening fire on worshippers. The prime minister, Justin Trudeau, called the act a “terrorist attack”.

Drawing on the 2011 provision, Crown prosecutors asked a judge to impose a parole ineligibility period of 150 years, the harshest sentence ever handed down in Canada since the abolition of the death penalty. Prosecutors said Bissonnette should serve 25 consecutive years for each of the six people he murdered.

The sentencing judge instead ruled Bissonnette would have the chance of parole at 40 years. That decision was overturned in 2020 by Quebec’s court of appeal, which ruled unanimously that Bissonnette should have a chance of parole at 25 years. Bissonnette, now 32, will be eligible to apply for parole in his 50s.

The ruling of the court applies retroactively to 2011 and could affect at least 18 others whose parole eligibility exceeds 25 years, even those who have exhausted their appeals. In some cases, people have been handed a 75-year wait period before being able to apply for parole....

Acknowledging the heinous crimes of those serving multiple life sentences, Chief Justice Richard Wagner wrote that the ruling “must not be seen as devaluing the life” of innocent victims. “This appeal is not about the value of each human life, but rather about the limits on the state’s power to punish offenders, which, in a society founded on the rule of law, must be exercised in a manner consistent with the Constitution.”

The full ruling in R. v. Bissonnette, 2022 SCC 23 (Canada May 27, 2022), is available here.  Here is just one of many notable passages: 

The objectives of denunciation and deterrence are not better served by the imposition of excessive sentences. Beyond a certain threshold, these objectives lose all of their functional value, especially when the sentence far exceeds human life expectancy.  The imposition of excessive sentences that fulfil no function does nothing more than bring the administration of justice into disrepute and undermine public confidence in the rationality and fairness of the criminal justice system.  A punishment that can never be carried out is contrary to the fundamental values of Canadian society.

The effects of a sentence of imprisonment for life without a realistic possibility of parole support the conclusion that it is degrading in nature and thus intrinsically incompatible with human dignity.  Offenders who have no realistic possibility of parole are deprived of any incentive to reform, and the psychological consequences flowing from this sentence are in some respects comparable to those experienced by inmates on death row, since only death will end their incarceration. For offenders who are sentenced to imprisonment for life without a realistic possibility of parole, the feeling of leading a monotonous, futile existence in isolation from their loved ones and from the outside world is very hard to tolerate, so much so that some prefer to put an end to their lives rather than die slowly and endure suffering that seems endless to them.  Furthermore, in international and comparative law, a sentence that deprives offenders of any possibility of being released is generally considered to be incompatible with human dignity.

To review, then, in Canada it is unconstitutional to impose functional life without parole sentences on even mass murderers, wheres in the United States many thousands of persons (and mostly persons of color) have been sentenced in recent decades to LWOP terms for federal drug offenses.

May 28, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, May 23, 2022

Notable (pandemic-impacted) justice data in "Federal Justice Statistics, 2020"

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has this new publication full of notable federal statistics under the title ""Federal Justice Statistics, 2020."  Here is how the 30-page document is briefly introduced:

Federal arrests declined 42% from fiscal year (FY) 2019 to FY 2020, reaching their lowest level since FY 2001. Of the 346,681 persons under federal correctional control at fiscal year-end 2020, about 56% were in secure confinement and 44% were on community supervision. This was a decline from fiscal year-end 2010, when 401,198 persons were under federal correctional control.

This report describes cases processed by the federal criminal justice system. Data are from the Federal Justice Statistics Program, which collects, standardizes, and reports on administrative data received from six federal justice agencies: the U.S. Marshals Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC), Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), and U.S. Sentencing Commission.

There is way too much data in this document to summarize, though the impact of the pandemic is clear in a lot of the 2020 data points. Here are some sentencing/prison passages of note concerning fiscal year 2020 data:

Convicted males (69%) were sentenced to prison more often than convicted females (58%). Twenty-one percent of convicted females received a probation-only sentence, compared to 6% of convicted males. Convicted black defendants (85%) were the most likely to receive a prison sentence, followed by convicted American Indian or Alaska Native (79%); white (76%); Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Other Pacific Islander (67%); and Hispanic (60%) defendants.  Among those sentenced to prison, white and black defendants were both sentenced to a median of 60 months....

In FY 2020, a total of 36,914 federally sentenced persons were admitted to federal prison. Of these, 28,747 persons entered federal prison on U.S. district court commitments.  Another 8,167 persons were returned to federal prison for violating conditions of probation, parole, or supervised release or were admitted to federal prison for any reason other than a U.S. district court commitment.  Thirty-seven percent (21,972) fewer admissions occurred in FY 2020 than in FY 2019. (See Federal Justice Statistics, 2019 (NCJ 301158, BJS, October 2021).)  In FY 2020, a total of 13,619 persons entered federal prison for a drug offense, most of whom (10,415 or 76%) had been sentenced to more than 1 year.

A total of 59,044 persons were released from federal prison in FY 2020.  Most (45,694) were being released for the first time since their U.S. district court commitment.  Ten percent (6,537) fewer releases occurred in 2020 than in 2019. (See Federal Justice Statistics, 2019 (NCJ 301158, BJS, October 2021).)  There were 22,130 fewer persons in federal prison at the end of FY 2020 (September 30, 2020) than at the start of FY 2020 (October 1, 2019), a much larger drop than in previous years due in part to the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.  The last time the year-end federal prison population was this low (132,291) was in 2000 (129,329).  From the start to the end of FY 2020, 8,039 fewer persons were in prison for a drug offense and 5,492 fewer were in prison for an immigration offense.

May 23, 2022 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 13, 2022

Federal prison population up a lot more than another 1,500 persons in a little more than a month

Regular readers are now used to my regular monthly posts about the federal prison population based on Bureau of Prison data.  These posts of late have regularly noted significant and steady population growth in recent months  In this post on March 18, I noted that the federal prison population had grown by over 1,100 persons in just four weeks from mid February and mid March.  And this post on April 8 noted that it then took only three weeks for another 1000+ person surge of federal prisoners between mid March and early April. 

The federal Bureau of Prisons now has updated reporting of "Total Federal Inmates" as of May 12, 2022, and these basic growth trends are continuing.  As of April 7, 2022, the official BOP count was at 155,274, but now as of May 12, the total number of federal inmates is at 156,939.  So, in just the last five weeks, there has been another 1,655 more federal prisoners added to the population compared to the total in early April.  If this pace of federal prison growth continues in coming months, it is quite possible that 2022 could experience a level of federal incarceration growth we have not seen in decades. 

As I have said before, I am inclined to guess that this recent spike in the number of federal prisoners reflects some "return to normal" operations for the federal criminal justice system, with fewer COVID-related delays in cases and prison admissions (and fewer COVID-related releases).  Such a development (especially after 2021 being a year of notable federal prison population growth) would be particularly significant given that candidate Joe Biden promised to "take bold action to reduce our prison population" and to "broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes."   To his credit, since my last posting on prison population, Prez Biden did grant 75 commutation to federal inmates (most of whom were already serving their time on home confinement).  But a one-time grant of 75 clemencies necessarily looks somewhat paltry in the face of week-over-week-over-week-over-week federal prison population growth averaging more than 300 persons.

May 13, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

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)

Saturday, May 07, 2022

"Prisons and jails will separate millions of mothers from their children in 2022"

The title of this post is the title of this briefing by Prison Policy Initiative authored by Wendy Sawyer and Wanda Bertram and published in time for Mother's Day.  Here is how it gets started:

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

Most of these women are incarcerated for drug and property offenses, often stemming from poverty and/or substance use disorders.  Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that punishing them with incarceration tears their children away from a vital source of support.  And these numbers don’t cover the many women preparing to become mothers while locked up this year: An estimated 58,000 people every year are pregnant when they enter local jails or prisons.

150,000 mothers separated from their children this Mother’s Day is atrocious in and of itself — but that’s just one day.  How many people in the U.S. have experienced separation from their mothers due to incarceration over the years?  Unfortunately, these specific data are not collected, but we calculated some rough estimates based on other research to attempt to answer this question:

  • Roughly 570,000 women living in the U.S. had ever been separated from their minor children by a period of imprisonment as of 2010.
  • An estimated 1.3 million people living in the U.S. had been separated from their mothers before their 18th birthdays due to their mothers’ imprisonment, also as of 2010.

May 7, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Notable CCJ new task force examining long prison terms

I was pleased to see this announcement of the Council of Criminal Justice's new Task Force on Long Sentences. The membership roster is very impressive, and here is how the task force is described on the CCJ site:

The Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Long Sentences is examining how long prison terms affect public safety, crime victims and survivors, incarcerated individuals and their families, communities, and correctional staff and developing recommendations that will strengthen public safety and advance justice.

Guided by research and data, and informed by the experiences of victims and survivors of violent crimes and those who have been incarcerated, the Task Force is assessing the drivers of growth in the number of people sentenced to 10 years or more and the impact of such sentences on racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in the prison system.  It also is considering ways to improve the post-release success of people serving long prison terms, most of whom return to the community.

The Task Force is co-chaired by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who was also U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, and Trey Gowdy, a long-time federal and state prosecutor who served four terms in the House of Representatives.  Joining them are 14 other members representing a broad range of experience and perspectives, including crime victims and survivors, formerly incarcerated people, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, courts, and corrections.

Launched in spring 2022, the Task Force on Long Sentences follows CCJ’s Violent Crime Working Group, which released a series of bulletins on strategies to address community violence and in January produced a roadmap of 10 essential actions that policymakers can take to reduce violence now. 

May 4, 2022 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

"Why Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee should veto mass-incarceration crime bill"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary authored by David Louis Raybin. I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Crime rates do not drive a state’s prison population — policy choices do.

Every year the General Assembly passes a few bills which lengthen sentences for a few crimes.  This year the flood gates opened.  Two dozen offenses have been amended to require service of 85% or even 100% of the total time before release. There are no “behavior” credits which reduce these sentences further. Some offenses now prohibit parole.

Our current sentencing scheme includes lengthy sentences that can be a mix of prison and supervised parole release on a case-by-case basis.  For example, a first offender might get a sentence of six years, but he or she would be eligible for parole supervision after service of about 30% of that time.  Now, he or she will serve the full 6 years.

There are better ways to accomplish certainly in sentencing such as by having mandatory minimums of real time behind bars but coupled with rehabilitative programs.  The sentence lengths under current law were never designed for 100% or even 85% sentences.  But now the real time in prison is doubled or even tripled with no hope and release perhaps decades later with little or no supervision.

In 1979, crime was getting out of hand. Gov. Lamar Alexander’s legal counsel and I were asked to draft a crime bill....  We came up with what was known as the Class X Felony Law of 1979.  Much like the current legislation, this law eliminated early parole and sentencing credits.

While it seemed like a good idea at the time, in a few years the prisons were filled and eventually overflowing.  There were riots in four prisons.  Correctional officers and nurses were held hostage.  A fire started at one prison caused millions in damage.  A federal court took over our prisons.  The General Assembly was called into an emergency special session.  As a result, parole and credits were restored as a reward for good behavior and to allow for supervised release of compliant inmates. We should learn the lessons of the not-too-distant past and not repeat the same mistakes.

The cost to taxpayers of this current legislation is astronomical: $95 million.  Thousands of people are convicted each year of the offenses that will now require substantially increased prison sentences.  Our prisons are already bursting at the seams with inmates backing up in the jails.  We would need to build new prisons each year to house the increase in inmates....  As part of the budget the legislature also approved funding for a covered football stadium.  We may need it to house all the extra prisoners this crime bill will generate.

With his veto pen, Governor Lee has an opportunity to give the General Assembly a chance to reconsider ill-advised, mass incarceration legislation.  This is not the kind of “criminal justice reform” the governor campaigned for and that voters resoundingly elected him to implement.

As someone who has helped draft numerous sentencing laws over the years, including a similar bill that had disastrous effects, I request Governor Lee to use his constitutional powers to let us catch our breath and work together for a long-term solution which will make us all safer.

May 3, 2022 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, April 25, 2022

"Did Mass Incarceration Leave Americans Feeling Less Afraid? A Multilevel Analysis of Cumulative Imprisonment and Individual Perceptions of Fear"

The title of this post is the title of this new research article now available online which is to be published in the journal Justice Quarterly and is authored by Andrea Corradi and Eric Baumer.  Here is its abstract:

Much of the political rhetoric that facilitated mass incarceration was predicated on the promise of reducing fear among the public.  Yet, it remains unclear whether the large increases in imprisonment experienced in many areas made residents feel less afraid.  We examine this issue by integrating geographic data on imprisonment with individual-level data on fear from the General Social Survey (GSS).  We find that people from states and counties with greater “cumulative imprisonment” rates were no less afraid than their counterparts from areas that imprisoned many fewer people.  These findings hold for the public overall and for non-Latino whites and members of the working and middle classes, who frequently were target audiences for political rhetoric linking mass incarceration era policies to fear reduction.  Our study supports growing calls to decouple crime and criminal justice policy from politics and electoral cycles, and to develop evidence-based punishment approaches organized around transparent normative principles.

April 25, 2022 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Great panel series to explore "The Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Decarceration: First Step Act and Beyond"

CJHDI keep hoping and hoping that we will be getting nominations from Prez Biden to the US Sentencing Commission just about any day now. Excitingly, even while being kept waiting for long-overdue USSC nominations, I can now look forward to a weekly panel series dedicated to examining thoroughly and thoughtfully what new nominees should be doing.  Specifically, the Center for Justice and Human Dignity (CJHD) is presenting a series of panels on the "Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Decarceration: First Step Act and Beyond," which will run Tuesdays at 12noon ET from May 3 through May 24.

CJHD is a nonprofit organization whose mission is explained here in terms of seeking "to reduce prison incarceration in the United States while improving conditions for those imprisoned and working inside.  We promote values of human dignity and shared safety while keeping in mind the needs of survivors, directly impacted people, and society at large. Alongside diverse partners, we collaborate with judges on alternative sentencing, correctional leaders on the conditions of confinement, and policymakers on early release strategies."

This events page provides this account of this panel series:

While the President considers the U.S. Sentencing Commission appointments, judges and judicial-focused organizations are examining how the agency might better address the myriad ways its guidelines impact mass incarceration.  The nation has an opportunity to reimagine how the Commission might use its authority to further decarceration efforts and address other system disparities through its guidelines and policy statements.

During this symposium, judges, scholars and practitioners will share their thoughts on these topics and reflect on how legislation like the First Step Act has expanded the use of compassionate release and other opportunities for decarceration.

Over the course of four weeks in May, this virtual symposium will offer weekly panels addressing how the U.S. Sentencing Commission can be supportive of federal alternative to incarceration programming, sentencing review mechanisms, promising practices from state sentencing commissions, and changes to the guidelines practitioners and other leaders in the field are interested in seeing once commissioners are appointed.

The Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Decarceration: First Step Act and Beyond. A weekly panel discussion, Tuesdays at 12pm ET, May 3-24, 2022 Click here to register online

I had the pleasure of helping just a bit in planning some of the topics for these panels, as well as the great honor of moderating one part of this important discussion. The speakers involved are really great, and I am looking forward to the whole series (and I sure hope we finally have some Commissions nominees from Prez Biden before the series concludes).

April 20, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

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)

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Reviewing the application of Miller and juvenile LWOP in the federal system

This AP story, headlined "Juvenile lifer seeks reprieve amid broader push for leniency," focuses on one high-profile juvenile lifer case while also discussing some of the other realities of juve LWOP in the federal system since the Supreme Court's major Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller v. Alabama a decade ago.  Here are some excerpts from a lengthy piece worth reading in full:

Shortly after Riley Briones Jr. arrived in federal prison, he cut his long, braided hair in a symbolic death of his old self. As a leader of a violent gang and just shy of 18, Briones drove the getaway car in a robbery turned deadly on the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Community outside Phoenix in 1994. He was convicted of murder and given a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

In prison, he has been baptized a Christian, ministers to other inmates who call him Brother Briones, got his GED and has a spotless disciplinary record, his attorneys say in their latest bid to get the now 45-year-old’s sentence cut short. “He’s clearly on the side of the line where he should be walking free,” said his attorney, Easha Anand.

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for that possibility with a 2012 ruling that said only the rare, irredeemable juvenile offender should serve life in prison. Over the past decade, most of the 39 defendants in federal cases who received that sentence have gotten a reprieve and are serving far fewer years behind bars. Meanwhile, more than 60 legal experts and scholars have asked the federal government to cap sentences for juvenile offenders at 30 years, create a committee to review life sentences in the future and reconsider its stance in Briones’ case.

But the move toward greater leniency has been gradual and not without resistance. Briones is among those whose life sentences have been upheld in recent years, though he still has another chance. Prosecutors in his case have opposed a reduced term. They argue despite Briones’ improvements, he minimized his role in the gang and its crimes that terrorized Salt River amid an explosion of gang violence on Native American reservations in the 1990s....

Briones’ case became eligible for resentencing after the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama.  It was part of a series of cases in which the court found minors should be treated differently from adults, partly because of a lack of maturity.  The court previously eliminated the death penalty for juveniles and barred life-without-parole sentences for juveniles except in cases of murder.  A handful of the defendants in the 39 federal cases — most of whom are minorities — have been released from prison.

The Feb. 17 letter seeking reform from the Justice Department pointed to statistics that show the median sentence for adults convicted of murder in the federal system is 20 years — nearly half the median for the juvenile offenders.  “Taking a life is really, really serious, and I don’t belittle that at all,” said Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center, one of the signatories.  “But a full life in prison when you’re a juvenile and you’re talking about 40, 50, 60 years in prison is exceedingly excessive probably in almost every case and not consistent with typical sentences for homicides, even adults.”...

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims rights group, said changes in the law that continually allow juvenile offenders to get another shot at freedom are damaging for the families, communities and the criminal justice system. “Some of these crimes are just very horrible, and the impacts on the families are substantial, and they never go away,” said the group’s president, Michael Rushford.

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth has long argued the changes a person makes once they’ve entered prison should matter, and juveniles offenders should be able to live as adults outside prison walls.  “If the facts of the crime are always going to be the overpowering force, then Miller isn’t going to be meaningfully interpreted to outweigh all this positive growth,” said Rebecca Turner, who tracks the federal cases for the group.

The federal court in Arizona has resentenced more of the juvenile offenders to life in prison than any other state. Texas has two juvenile offenders who are serving life but weren’t able to be resentenced because of how courts interpreted Miller v. Alabama. South Carolina resentenced one inmate to life.  All three federal cases in Arizona were from Native American reservations, where the federal government has jurisdiction when the suspect, victim or both are Native American for a set of major crimes, including homicide. The penalties, in general, are stricter than if the crimes happened off the reservation and the cases ended up in state court.

April 12, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, April 08, 2022

A new normal?: federal prison population now growing by over 1000 persons for multiple months

In this post on March 18, I noted that the federal prison population had grown by over 1100 persons in just four weeks from mid February and mid March.  Specifically, "Total Federal Inmates," on March 17, 2022 stood at 154,194, nearly 1150 more prisoners than the total number of federal inmates on February 17, 2022, when the number stood at of 153,053.  It is now early April, and checking in at the federal Bureau of Prisons updated reporting of "Total Federal Inmates," one now sees that it has only taken three weeks for another 1000+ person surge of federal prisoners.  As of April 7, 2022, the official BOP count reads at 155,274, and so another 1080 more federal prisoners have been added to the population compared to the total on March 17.

As I have said before, I am inclined to guess that this recent spike in the number of federal prisoners reflects some "return to normal" operations for the federal criminal justice system, with fewer COVID-related delays in cases and prison admissions (and fewer COVID-related releases).  But, whatever the particulars, if this level of month-over-month growth in the federal prison population were to continue through much of the current year, 2022 could end up becoming a year for historically high increases in the federal prison population.  Such a development (especially after 2021 being a year of notable federal prison population growth) would be particularly significant given that candidate Joe Biden promised to "take bold action to reduce our prison population" and to "broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes." 

April 8, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (15)

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Brennan Center concludes is terrific essay series titled "Punitive Excess"

In this post last year, I was pleased to spotlight a new essay series unveiled by the Brennan Center for Justice, titled "Punitive Excess."  Today, I received an email noting that the series in concluding in an exciting way (links from the original):

Today the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law published the final essay plus a new video (90-second version here) in its Punitive Excess series.  The video includes voices from the essay collection, each showing a different way that the American legal system takes punishment to the extreme. Asia Johnson and Shon Hopwood speak from personal experience with being behind bars. In the last essay for the series, criminal justice experts Jeremy Travis and Bruce Western propose an “honest reckoning” with the harms of punitive excess as the path to a “new vision of justice that promotes community well-being, not oppression, and celebrates democracy, not racial domination.”...

The series will be published as a book by Columbia University Press. Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, co-edited the series with Daniel Okrent.

April 5, 2022 in Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, April 02, 2022

"The Trouble with Time Served"

The title of this post is the title of this new article recently posted to SSRN and authored by Kimberly Kessler Ferzan. Here is its abstract:

Every jurisdiction in the United States gives criminal defendants “credit” against their sentence for the time they spend detained pretrial.  In a world of mass incarceration and overcriminalization that disproportionately impacts people of color, this practice appears to be a welcome mechanism for mercy and justice.  In fact, however, crediting detainees for time served is perverse.  It harms the innocent.  A defendant who is found not guilty, or whose case is dismissed, gets nothing.  Crediting time served also allows the state to avoid internalizing the full costs of pretrial detention, thereby making overinclusive detention standards less expensive.  Finally, crediting time served links prevention with punishment, retroactively justifying punitive, substandard conditions.  The bottom line is this: Time served is not a panacea.  To the contrary, it contributes to criminal justice pathologies.

This Article systematically details the rationales for pretrial detention and then analyzes when, given those rationales, credit for time served is warranted.  The analysis reveals that crediting time served is a destructive practice on egalitarian, economic, expressive, and retributive grounds.  Time served should be abandoned.  Detainees should be financially compensated instead.  Given that many detentions are premised upon a theory similar to a Fifth Amendment taking, compensation is warranted for all defendants — both the innocent and the guilty — and can lead to positive reforms.  Only by abandoning credit for time served can the link between prevention and punishment be severed, such that detention will be more limited and more humane.

April 2, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

New report claims many successes attributable to Proposition 47's sentencing reductions in California

The Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice has this notable new report on developments in California titled "Proposition 47: A $600 Million Lifeline to California Communities." Here is the 10-page report's introduction (with cites preserved):

Proposition 47 (Prop 47), one of the most significant criminal justice reforms in California history, has now been in effect for more than seven years.  The initiative, which passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2014, sought to interrupt cycles of frequent incarceration and redress decades of overly punitive sentencing by reclassifying several low-level drug and property offenses from potential felonies to misdemeanors (SOS, 2014; 2014a).  The result has been a marked decline in California’s incarcerated population (Bird et al., 2016; 2018; Graves, 2020).

A key provision of Prop 47 was the reinvestment of state dollars from prisons into community-based prevention programs.  This year, as part of his Fiscal Year (FY) 2022-23 budget proposal, Governor Gavin Newsom announced an additional $150 million in prison savings attributed to Prop 47 (DOF, 2022).  This latest investment would increase total funding to nearly $600 million.

Proposition 47 has been a lifeline to vulnerable Californians. This support has proved critical as California now faces an unprecedented set of challenges.  These include significant disruption and loss of life due to COVID-19, a reckoning over police violence against people of color, sharp increases in the cost of living, and rising rates of homelessness and drug overdose.  Most recently, there are changing public narratives around crime and the impacts of justice reform.  To date, Prop 47 has:

1. Coincided with a period of record-low crime in California (CJCJ, 2020; 2020a; 2021; 2021a).

2. Reduced unconstitutional overcrowding in state prisons (Graves, 2020).

3. Offered resentencing, release, and/or record change opportunities to thousands of Californians.

4. Lessened racial disparities in California’s criminal justice system (Lofstrom et al., 2020).

5. Reinvested more than half a billion dollars into local programs that address the root causes of incarceration for as many as 40,000 people by reducing homelessness and boosting employment.

March 30, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 28, 2022

"Decarceration’s Inside Partners"

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

This Article examines a hidden phenomenon in criminal punishment.  People in prison, during their incarceration, have made important, sometimes extraordinary, strides toward reducing prison populations.  In fact, stakeholders in many corners, from policymakers to researchers to abolitionists, have harnessed the legal and conceptual strategies generated inside the walls to pursue decarceral strategies outside the walls that were once considered impossible.  Despite this outside use of inside moves, legal scholars and reform-minded actors have disregarded the potential of looking to people on the inside as partners in the long-term project of decarceration.

Building on the change-making agency and revolutionary ideation inside the walls, this Article points the way to a new, alternative approach to decarceration: thinking alongside people banished from the polity.  Criminal law scholars routinely recount their stories but rarely do we consider people held in prison as thought leaders, let alone equal partners, to progress toward a noncarceral state.  Despite conducting extensive research on prisons and those held inside them, legal scholars know — and wonder — tremendously little about the decarceral work, decarceral ideas and “think tanks” that surge behind bars.  The absence of our curiosity reflects and reproduces the ideological work of carceral punishment.

This Article demonstrates that an alternative vision of decarceration that resists this ideological work opens up more promising paths to create the legal and social change that our current moment demands.  It calls on law scholars to find ways to discover, ignite and emancipate more decarceral visions on the inside.  And it argues that, unless we make this challenging shift, we suppress innovative, effective and more conceivable possibilities to radically transform our carceral state.

March 28, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 27, 2022

"Charging Time"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Pamela Metzger and Janet Hoeffel. Here is its abstract:

On the day William Haymon turned 16, it was his 511th day in jail in Mississippi and a prosecutor had yet to formally charge him with a crime.  William is one of thousands of people across the country arrested and jailed for weeks, months, and even years without charges.  In one year in New Orleans, 275 people each spent an average of 115 days in jail only to have the prosecution decline all charges against them.  Together, these men and women spent 31,625 days in one of the nation’s most dangerous jails, with no compensation for their incarceration, fear, lost wages, shame and distress. Yet this violates no laws; it circumvents no constitutional protections.

To date, there has been no study of the necessity of the extended time period between arrest and charging.  Until a prosecutor decides to accept or decline charges, the arrestee is in a procedural abyss.  In this Article, we explore the equities at stake and the realities at play in this dark period. State statutes give prosecutors extended or indefinite time periods to make the formal charging decision and prosecutors appear to take that time.

A recent original study reveals that prosecutors’ crushing caseloads, shoddy and inadequate investigative work by police officers, and a lack of training or written policies on charging contribute to the delay. From the detained defendants’ perspective, the consequences of delayed charging are steep.  Extended time in jail risks lives, health, jobs and case outcomes.  Yet we explain how neither the constitutional protections granted to criminal defendants nor statutory provisions provide any remedy at this uncharged stage.  After exposing this disturbing state of affairs, we offer practical, subconstitutional solutions to minimize needless delay in the charging decisions of prosecutors across the country.

March 27, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, March 25, 2022

Prison Policy Initiative provides terrific accounting of COVID pandemic's early impact on prison and jail populations

Wendy Sawyer at the Prison Policy Initiative has authored this great new report that effectively explores the various forces that contributed to declining incarcerated populations in the early COVID period. The report, which merits a full and careful read, is fully titled "Untangling why prison & jail populations dropped early in the pandemic: Reductions in prison and jail populations were due to COVID-related slowdowns in the gears of the criminal legal system. Without intentional action, these reductions will be erased." Here is how it gets started (with links from the original):

Last week, we released the latest edition of our Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie report, in which we showed about 1.9 million people locked up by various U.S. systems of confinement, according to the most recent data available.  Out of context, that number would be cause for celebration among those of us fighting to end mass incarceration: it’s almost 400,000 fewer people than were locked up before the pandemic.  Unfortunately, this reduction in the incarcerated population is unlikely to last very long without more lasting policy change.  In fact, fear-mongering about upticks in certain specific crimes may make this work even harder and lead to policy changes that make mass incarceration even more intractable.

It’s important, therefore, to understand what changes — intentional or not — led to the prison and jail population drops in 2020 and 2021. This briefing offers the context needed to temper expectations about sustaining those population drops and to maintain focus on the policy changes needed to permanently reduce the use of confinement. Without those needed changes, we can expect prison and jail populations to return to pre-pandemic “normal” (extreme by any other measure) as the criminal legal system returns to “business as usual.”

The changes that have had the most impact on incarceration since the start of the pandemic include:

  • 24% fewer arrests in 2020 compared to 2019, largely due to changes in everyday behaviors under widespread “stay at home orders,” as well as short-term guidance issued by some police departments to limit unnecessary contact and jail bookings;
  • 21% fewer criminal cases filed in state courts in 2020 compared to 2019 — the result of fewer arrests and changes in some prosecutorial practices;
  • 36% fewer criminal cases resolved in state courts from 2019 to 2020, attributable to court closures, operational changes, and delays in case processing;
  • A 17 percentage point net drop in criminal case clearance rates in state courts, indicating a growing backlog of pending cases;
  • 40% fewer admissions to state and federal prisons in 2020 compared to 2019, largely the result of court slowdowns but also partly due to the refusal of some prisons to accept transfers from local jails to prevent the spread of the virus.

March 25, 2022 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Sentencing Project and Fair and Just Prosecution produce "Felony Murder: An On-Ramp for Extreme Sentencing"

The Sentencing Project and Fair and Just Prosecution today released this interesting new report about sentencing in felony murder cases titled "Felony Murder: An On-Ramp for Extreme Sentencing." Here is part of its executive summary:

Murder typically refers to an intentional killing.  But “felony murder” laws hold people like Mendoza liable for murder if they participated in a felony, such as a robbery, that resulted in someone’s death.  These laws impose sentences associated with murder on people who neither intended to kill nor anticipated a death, and even on those who did not participate in the killing.  As such, they violate the principle of proportional sentencing, which is supposed to punish crimes based on their severity.  These excessively punitive outcomes violate widely shared perceptions of justice.  With one in seven people in U.S. prisons serving a life sentence, ending mass incarceration requires bold action to reduce extreme prison terms such as those prescribed for felony murder.

These laws run counter to public safety, fiscal responsibility, and justice.  Although other countries have largely rejected the felony murder doctrine, 48 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government still use these laws.  The only two states that do not have felony murder laws are Hawaii and Kentucky.  Six other states require some proof of intentionality regarding the killing to consider it murder, though the use of a gun — or mere knowledge of a codefendant’s gun use — satisfies this requirement in some jurisdictions.  In any case, all felony murder laws use the underlying felony to either a) treat as murder a killing that would not have otherwise been considered murder, or b) increase the gradation of murder, such as from second to first degree.

This report evaluates the legal and empirical foundation, and failings, of the felony murder rule, profiles impacted individuals, and highlights recent reform efforts in 10 jurisdictions. Key findings include:

1. Felony murder laws widen the net of extreme sentencing and are counterproductive to public safety.

  • For felony murder convictions for adults, eight states and the federal system mandate LWOP sentences, 15 states mandate LWOP in some cases, and 17 states and Washington, DC make LWOP a sentencing option.  Four states permit or require a virtual life sentence of 50 years or longer for some or all felony murder convictions.
  • In Pennsylvania and Michigan, one quarter of people serving LWOP were convicted of felony murder — over 1,000 people in each state.
  • Felony murder laws have not significantly reduced felonies nor lowered the number of felonies that become deadly.
  • The extreme prison sentences associated with felony murder laws add upward pressure on the entire sentencing structure.
  • Felony murder laws spend taxpayer dollars on incarcerating people who no longer pose a danger to the community and divert resources away from effective investments that promote public safety.
2. Felony murder laws have particularly adverse impacts on people of color, young people, and women.
  • In Pennsylvania in 2020, 80% of imprisoned individuals with a felony murder conviction were people of color and 70% were African American.
  • Felony murder laws ignore the cognitive vulnerabilities of youth and emerging adults by assuming that they recognize the remote consequences of their own actions — and those of others in their group. In Pennsylvania, nearly three-quarters of people serving LWOP for felony murder in 2019 were age 25 or younger at the time of their offense, as were over half of Minnesotans charged with aiding and abetting felony murder in recent years.
  • An exploratory survey in California found that 72% of women but only 55% of men serving a life sentence for felony murder were not the perpetrators of the homicide.  The California Coalition for Women Prisoners reports that the majority of their members convicted of felony murder were accomplices navigating intimate partner violence at the time of the offense and were criminalized for acts of survival.

March 23, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, March 18, 2022

Federal prison population, now at 154,194, has grown by well over 1100 persons in a short month

In this post last month, I suggested it may be foolish to be obsessed with weekly federal prison population data.  But, I cannot help myself in light of the roller-coaster story of recent times: after historic federal prison population declines over the last two presidential terms (for a wide variety of reasons), the federal prison population slowly climbed through 2021 before another big drop in early 2022 with the implementation of FIRST STEP earned-time credits.

Checking in this week at the federal Bureau of Prisons updated reporting of "Total Federal Inmates," I see that we are back to the up-slope of this roller-coaster ride.  Specifically, "Total Federal Inmates," now clocks in at 154,194, nearly 1150 more prisoners than the total number of federal inmates as of just four weeks ago, February 17, 2022, when the number stood at of 153,053.  

I continue to suspect and assume this new data reflects some "return to normal" operations for the federal criminal justice system, with fewer COVID-related delays in cases and prison admissions (and many fewer COVID-related releases) producing this significant one-month federal prison population growth.  But, whatever the particulars, I will not forget that candidate Joe Biden promised to "take bold action to reduce our prison population" and to "broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes."  Fourteen months into his administration, I am unaware of any bold action taken by Prez Biden and he has still yet to use his clemency power a single time, let alone broadly.

March 18, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (11)