Friday, March 06, 2020

"Women in Prison: Seeking Justice Behind Bars"

100The title of this post is the title of this nearly 300-page(!) "briefing report" released last week by the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Here is a brief overview of the report from the transmittal letter that fronts it:

This report examines the civil rights of women in United States prisons.  The population of women in prison has increased dramatically since the 1980s, and this growth has outpaced that of men in prison, yet there have been few national-level studies of the civil rights issues incarcerated women experience.  The Commission studied a range of issues that impact incarcerated women, including deprivations of women’s medical needs that may violate the constitutional requirement to provide adequate medical care for all prisoners; implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA); and the sufficiency of programs to meet women’s needs after release.  The Commission also examined disparities in discipline practices for women in prison compared with men, and the impacts of incarcerated women being placed far from home or having their parental rights terminated.

The Commission majority approved key findings including the following: Many prison policies and facilities are not designed for women or tailored to their specific needs. Rather, many policies were adopted from men’s prison institutions without evaluating their application to women’s prison institutions.  Incarcerated women report extremely high rates, and much higher rates than men, of histories of physical, sexual, and mental trauma.  Notwithstanding federal statutory legal protections such as the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), aimed at protecting incarcerated people, many incarcerated women continue to experience physical and psychological safety harms while incarcerated and insufficient satisfaction of their constitutional rights.  Department of Justice (DOJ) litigation against prison systems involving sexual abuse among other wrongs has secured important changes to safeguard incarcerated women’s rights.

Classification systems that are not calibrated for gender-specific characteristics have been shown to classify incarcerated women at higher security requirement levels than necessary for the safety and security of prisons; women classified at higher security levels may receive fewer vocational and educational, community placement, and reentry opportunities than they would have received had they been classified at lower security levels.  Many incarcerated women are placed at facilities far from their families, limiting visitation opportunities.  Many prison policies do not prioritize family visits, such as by permitting extremely limited family visitation hours that often do not reflect distances visiting family must travel.

Some prisons provide adequate healthcare specific to women, such as gynecological and prenatal care, while others do not.  The high rates at which incarcerated women report past trauma results in the need for mental health care and treatment while incarcerated. Sexual abuse and rape remain prevalent against women in prison. Incarcerated women who report sexual assault have experienced retaliation by their institutions and prison personnel in violation of the law.

The Commission majority voted for key recommendations, including the following: DOJ should continue to litigate enforcement of the civil rights of incarcerated women in states that violate these mandates and the rights of incarcerated women.  Prison officials should adopt validated assessment tools, currently available, to avoid inaccurately classifying incarcerated women to a higher security level than appropriate.  Prison officials should give strong preference to placing incarcerated women in as close proximity as possible with location of their family, provide free video and lowcost phone services to incarcerated persons, and not ban in-person visits for non-safety reasons.

Prison officials should implement policies to address women’s specific healthcare needs, including gynecological and prenatal care, as is constitutionally required. Prisons should have adequate mental health care staff and treatment programs available to meet the needs of the many incarcerated women with mental health challenges, such as past trauma.  Congress should enact stricter penalties for non-compliance with PREA standards focused on inmate safety and consistently appropriate funding sufficient to ensure correctional agencies comply with PREA.  Prisons should implement evidence-based, trauma-informed discipline policies to avoid harsh punishments for minor infractions, and recognizing the significant harms that can result from placement in restrictive housing.  Prisons should ensure restrictive housing is not used against people of color, LGBT people, and people with mental health challenges in a discriminatory manner.

March 6, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 23, 2020

"The Extraordinary Ordinary Prisoner: Essays From Inside America’s Carceral State"

Jeremiah-book-coverThe title of this post is the title of this notable new book authored by Jeremiah Bourgeois. The book is a collection of columns, mostly written while Jeremiah Bourgeois was serving a term of life imprisonment for a crime committed at the age of fourteen. Here is how the work is described at Amazon:

On June 7, 2016, an email from a prospective writer appeared in the inbox of The Crime Report, a nonprofit criminal justice news site. The last line in the message caught the editors' attention: “I realize that submissions should include more information. However, I hope you overlook that requirement in light of the fact that I am incarcerated.”

Over the next three years, Jeremiah Bourgeois, then confined to the Stafford Creek Corrections Center, a mixed medium-minimum security prison for men near Aberdeen, Washington, contributed 36 columns on his own transformation from self-destructive rage to dedicated writer and on subjects such as the treatment of gay and transgender prisoners, the lack of a #MeToo movement for incarcerated women, and the hypocrisies of prison “family visitation” events.

Months after Bourgeois finally won his parole in 2019, The Crime Report is publishing this collection of Jeremiah Bourgeois's most searing and unforgettable work.

The Crime Report provides more of the story in this posting:

When he wrote us, he was 38 years old — and had already spent the previous 24 years behind bars for the May 19, 1992, revenge killing of Seattle store owner Tecle Ghebremichale, who had testified against his brother in an assault case. Aged 14 at the time of his crime, he was sentenced to life without parole in the era before the Supreme Court ruled such sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.  Jeremiah had every expectation of spending the rest of his life in prison. “It was probably the saddest case I’ve ever had,” his lawyer, Michael Trickey, told the Seattle Times in 2005, noting both Jeremiah’s age and length of sentence.

Jeremiah spent much of his first decade in prison in a permanent state of anger and defensiveness, frequently in conflict with corrections officers and fellow inmates.  But then something changed.  Prisoner #708897, as he would later write in his columns, realized that he was on a path to self-destruction.  He began reinventing and reeducating himself through long hours in the prison library.

He is not the first incarceree to write his story.  Prison writing has long been a special genre, and The Crime Report has frequently published work written behind bars — by both juveniles and adults. But Jeremiah’s emergence as an independent, often contrarian, voice has been especially timely as our national debate about mass incarceration approaches a crossroads.

February 23, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, February 21, 2020

"People Serving Life Exceeds Entire Prison Population of 1970"

The title of this post is the title of this new fact sheet released by The Sentencing Project’s Campaign to End Life Imprisonment.  Here is how the document (which is full of interesting images) get started:

As states come to terms with the consequences of 40 years of prison expansion, sentencing reform efforts across the country have focused on reducing stays in prison or jail for those convicted of nonviolent drug and property crimes.  At the same time, policymakers have largely neglected to address the staggering number of people serving life sentences, comprising one of seven people in prisons nationwide.  International comparisons document the extreme nature of these developments.  The United States now holds an estimated 40% of the world population serving life imprisonment and 83% of those serving life without the possibility of parole.  The expansion of life imprisonment has been a key component of the development of mass incarceration.  In this report, we present a closer look at the rise in life sentences amidst the overall incarceration expansion.

To place the growth of life imprisonment in perspective, the national lifer population of 206,000 now exceeds the size of the entire prison population in 1970, just prior to the prison population explosion of the following four decades.  In 24 states, there are now more people serving life sentences than were in the entire prison population in 1970, and in an additional nine states, the life imprisonment total is within 100 people of the 1970 prison population.  

February 21, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 20, 2020

"From Decarceration to E-Carceration"

I am sorry to have missed this article by Chaz Arnett with the title used for the title of this post when it was first posted to SSRN some months ago, but I am glad to have seen it as recently revised. Here is its abstract:

Each year, millions of Americans experience criminal justice surveillance through electronic ankle monitors. These devices have fundamentally altered our understanding of incarceration, punishment, and the extent of the carceral state, as they are increasingly offered as moderate penal sanctions and viable solutions to the problem of mass incarceration. They purportedly enable decarceration, albeit with enhanced surveillance in the community as the compromise. Proponents of the devices tout the public safety and cost benefits while stressing the importance of depopulating prisons and returning individuals to their communities. In recent years, an oppositional movement has developed, focused on highlighting the social harms of electronic monitoring as part of a burgeoning e-carceration regime, where digital prisons arise, not as substitutes to brick and mortar buildings, but as net-widening correctional strategy operationalized to work in tandem.

This Paper examines this debate on the effectiveness of electronic ankle monitors using a social marginalization framework. It argues that the current scholarly debate on the use of electronic ankle monitors is limited because it fails to consider the potential harm of social marginalization, particularly for historically subordinated groups subjected to this form of surveillance. It uses system avoidance theory to elucidate the argument that intensive criminal justice surveillance has the counterproductive effect of causing those subjected to surveillance to avoid institutions necessary for adequate reintegration and reduction in recidivism. It offers a theory of the carceral state as malleable, extending beyond prison walls, expanding our carceral reality, and placing great strains on privacy, liberty, and democratic participation. Ultimately, it stresses that a move from decarceration to e-carceration, or from mass incarceration to mass surveillance, will likely fail to resolve, and may exacerbate, one of the greatest harms of mass incarceration: the maintenance of social stratification. Thus, adequately addressing this challenge will demand a more robust and transformative approach to criminal justice reform that shifts a punitive framework to a rehabilitative one focused on proven methods of increasing defendants’ and former offenders’ connections to their community and civic life, such as employment assistance programming, technical and entrepreneurial skill development, supportive housing options, and mental health services.

February 20, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

"The Expansive Reach of Pretrial Detention"

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

Today we know much more about the effects of pretrial detention than we did even five years ago.  Multiple empirical studies have emerged that shed new light on the far-reaching impacts of bail decisions made at the earliest stages of the criminal adjudication process.  The takeaway from this new generation of studies is that pretrial detention has substantial downstream effects on both the operation of the criminal justice system and on defendants themselves, causally increasing the likelihood of a conviction, the severity of the sentence, and, in some jurisdictions, defendants’ likelihood of future contact with the criminal justice system.  Detention also reduces future employment and access to social safety nets.  This growing evidence of pretrial detention’s high costs should give impetus to reform efforts that increase due process protections to ensure detention is limited to only those situations where it is truly necessary and identify alternatives to detention that can better promote court appearance and public safety.

February 19, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Oklahoma ballot initiative (State Question 805) seeks to block non-violent prior convictions from enhancing statutory range of punishment

Thanks to an ACLU event, I just learned that Oklahoma criminal justice reform advocates are working toward bringing a fascinating (and potentially far-reaching) new reform proposal directly to the voters.  This local press piece from a few weeks ago explains the basics:

Criminal justice reform advocates want to amend the Oklahoma Constitution to prohibit sentence enhancements based on previous felonies for nonviolent offenders. The measure would also allow nonviolent offenders serving enhanced sentences to seek a modification in court.

“A former conviction for one or more felonies shall not be used to enhance the statutorily allowable range of punishment, including but not limited to minimum and maximum terms, for a person convicted, whether by trial or plea of guilty or nolo contendere, of a felony,” reads the proposed measure [which is available here].  I This measure would not apply to those who have been convicted of a violent felony as defined by Oklahoma Statutes. This includes assault, battery, murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, child abuse, rape and human trafficking.

Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform, a bipartisan coalition championing the measure, filed the petition in November and began collecting signatures [in December]. State Question 805 requires nearly 178,000 signatures by 5 p.m. March 26 to be put to a statewide vote in 2020.

“The reality is that Oklahoma has an incarceration crisis,” said Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR). “We have the second-highest incarceration rate per capita of any state in the United States, and we have the highest female incarceration rate in the nation. Unfortunately, we’ve held that distinction since 1991, and the disparity in the number of women we incarcerate continues to grow.”

According to a 2019 report by FWD.us, Oklahoma sends more people to prison than other states, especially for nonviolent crimes, and keeps them incarcerated for much longer. Eight in 10 women go to prison for nonviolent offenses. “Research has shown these long stays in prison have little or no effect on recidivism when people come home,” reads the report. “At the same time, these extra weeks, months and years place emotional and financial burdens on the families of those incarcerated.”

Proponents of the initiative say the state’s incarceration crisis is driven in large part by enhanced sentences, and they hope momentum from recent criminal justice reforms help the initiative succeed. “We’ve been working on responsible criminal justice reform for over a decade, and the good news is that support among voters continues to grow,” Steele said. “We have seen some tremendous momentum in recent years, and we are hoping to build on that momentum and deepen the conversation level of understanding and support statewide for a more effective approach to public safety.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt has publicly opposed the initiative, saying a constitutional amendment is the wrong way to go about criminal justice reform. Steele argues that a constitutional amendment would prevent lawmakers from trying to repeal the measure if approved by voters. He cited an attempt to repeal State Questions 780 and 781 only months after they were approved in November 2016....

District attorneys across the state have also publicly opposed the measure, saying it would negatively impact public safety. But proponents of the measure disagree because they don’t see many positives outcomes from the state’s high incarceration rates.

Some of the concerns of DAs are expressed in this local opinion piece authored by Jason Hicks, President of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, under the headline "Proposed state question could affect domestic violence sentencing."  Meanwhile, the  "Yes on 805" campaign has this website, but not a lot of details about 

I have no sense of whether proponents of this interesting initiative will be able to get it to voters, nor do I have any sense of whether Oklahoma voters might be supportive of this proposal.  But I think those troubled by mass incarceration, extreme sentencing terms and racially disparate sentencing practices are wise to focus criticism on the often out-sized impact of (even minor) criminal history at sentencing.  I do not know if this Oklahoma ballot initiative might be just the start of a whole new front for sentencing reform efforts, but I hope it can help generate a robust discussion of the many important issues that relate to the use of criminal history at sentencing.

February 13, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 03, 2020

"What Would a World Without Prisons Be Like?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this recent piece from The New Yorker.  Of course, the question does not lend itself to an easy answer, and this piece includes a 20+-minute podcast to dig deeper.  Here is how the segment is previewed:

Mass incarceration is now widely regarded as a prejudiced and deeply harmful set of policies.  Bipartisan support exists for some degree of criminal-justice reform, and, in some circles, the idea of prison abolition is also gaining traction.  Kai Wright, the host of the WNYC podcast “The United States of Anxiety,” spoke about the movement with Paul Butler, a law professor and former federal prosecutor who saw firsthand the damage that prosecution causes, and sujatha baliga, a MacArthur Foundation fellow and a survivor of sexual violence who leads the Restorative Justice Project at the nonprofit Impact Justice.

“Prison abolition doesn’t mean that everybody who’s locked up gets to come home tomorrow,” Butler explains.  Instead, activists envision a gradual process of “decarceration,” and the creation of alternative forms of justice and harm reduction.  “Abolition, to my mind, isn’t just about ending the prisons,” baliga adds. “It’s about ending binary processes which pit us as ‘us, them,’ ‘right, wrong’; somebody has to be lying, somebody’s telling the truth. That is not the way that we get to healing.”

February 3, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Rehearing petition (and guest post) in Mississippi Supreme Court case upholding 12-year prison term for mere possession of cell phone in jail

6a00d83451574769e2022ad3762ba2200c-320wiIn this post earlier this month, I noted a disheartening ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court upholding 12-year prison term for mere possession of cell phone in jail.  Will Bardwell, an attorney in the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, last week sent me a copy of a motion for rehearing that he helped file in the case (which can be accessed below).  I asked Will if he might want to do a guest posting to go along with my posting of the motion, and here is what he sent my way:

On its edges, sentencing law can be a bit of a technical thicket — difficult to navigate for laymen, or even for practitioners who don’t often work in that field. But at its heart, sentencing law — and the constitutional demands under which it exists – embodies our society’s sense of fairness. Above all else, sentencing demands that punishment must fit the crime.

It is not news that a consensus has developed among Americans that our criminal justice system’s priorities must be recalibrated. Nor is it news that our laws have failed to keep pace with that consensus. Unfortunately, though, the human toll of that failure does continue to make news.

In early January, the Mississippi Supreme Court added another ignominious chapter to that story when it affirmed the 12-year prison sentence of my client, Willie Nash.  In 2017, Willie was arrested for a misdemeanor in Newton County, Mississippi. The county jail’s policy is to strip-search all arrestees, but when Willie arrived, the jail violated that policy — so the cell phone that a search would have uncovered remained with Willie.  Willie never lied about the phone or made any effort to conceal it.  And guards might never have discovered the phone if Willie had not offered it up and provided the passcode to unlock it.

For this, Willie was convicted of taking a cell phone into a jail — and sentenced to an astonishing 12 years in prison.  No fewer than 36 states punish cell phone possession in a correctional facility with no more than five years in prison.  If anyone in American history has ever gotten 12 years for doing what Willie did, then my partners and I at the Southern Poverty Law Center are unaware of it. 

When Willie’s sentencing judge announced that decision, he pointed to Willie’s two prior burglary convictions some two decades earlier and explained that, if prosecutors had indicted Willie as a habitual offender, then Willie could have received 15 years — “so I want you to consider yourself fortunate,” the judge said.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Mississippi Supreme Court’s affirmance of that sentence shocked the world: the decision made headlines as far as way as New Zealand. And you don’t need a law degree to be as alarmed by the Mississippi Supreme Court’s reasoning as by its result.

Like Willie’s sentencing court, the Mississippi Supreme Court rested its decision heavily on Willie’s prior convictions. It pointed out the sentencing judge’s reliance on “evidence of Nash’s criminal history;” and it distinguished authority favorable to Willie by explaining that “Nash’s prior felony convictions subjected him to fifteen years’ imprisonment, to be served day for day, had the State charged him as a habitual offender.”

Like Willie’s sentencing judge, the Mississippi Supreme Court seems to think that Willie should consider himself lucky. But I’ve been in a room with Willie. I’ve looked into his tired eyes, heard his quiet voice, and seen how his oversized prison uniform hangs over his thin, slumping frame.

Willie doesn’t feel lucky.  And the many Mississippians that I’ve spoken to, from the widest imaginable political perspectives, don’t think Willie is lucky.

In fairness, the Mississippi Supreme Court must view Willie’s case through a different lens than most people.  For most of us, the shock to our consciences has been enough for us to know that Willie’s punishment does not fit his actions. For the Mississippi Supreme Court, though, that question has been complicated by the United States Supreme Court’s contorted precedent concerning the Eighth Amendment’s proportionality requirement.

That the Eighth Amendment requires proportionality is no longer up for debate.  Aside from its existence, though, the Court’s decisions over the past 40 years have left nearly every other detail of the proportionality requirement unsettled.  Seemingly irreconcilable decisions have been left unreconciled, and ambiguities have been left unclarified. In recent years, the Court has seemed content to keep its silence on the issue, perhaps hoping that lower courts will clarify what it has muddled.

But the outcome in lower courts has been predictably chaotic.  These unanswered questions are not merely fodder for academic debate.  There are human beings languishing in prison because of this case law jumble. Willie is one of them.

In particular, one unanswered question lies at the heart of Willie’s case: the Mississippi courts’ use of his prior convictions to justify his sentence.  Despite his two burglary convictions nearly 20 years ago, Willie was not charged as a habitual offender.  Mississippi’s courts relied on those convictions anyway -- and urged him to “consider yourself fortunate.”

But none of the United States Supreme Court’s proportionality decisions hold that prior convictions contribute to a crime’s gravity when the defendant was not charged as a recidivist.  In Ewing v. California, the Court insisted that “weighing the gravity of Ewing’s offense” required it to “place on the scales not only his current felony, but also his long history of felony recidivism.” But Ewing had been sentenced under California’s “three strikes” law. Likewise, the defendants in Rummel v. Estelle and Lockyer v. Andrade – both of whose challenges to their life sentences failed – were sentenced under habitual offender statutes.

But Willie wasn’t charged as a habitual offender. And if Mississippi courts wanted to sentence him like a habitual offender, then prosecutors should have charged him as a habitual offender.  But they didn’t.

Not surprisingly, lower courts have taken this unworked detail in different directions.  In 2016, for example, the South Dakota Supreme Court held that “[f]or purposes of challenging the constitutionality of a sentence in a noncapital case, it appears that a defendant’s criminal history is only relevant when the sentence is enhanced under recidivism statutes.”  That court is not alone in its view. Obviously, Willie’s case illustrates that the Mississippi Supreme Court has reached the opposite result; neither is it alone.

I’m hopeful that the Mississippi Supreme Court will correct the injustice of Willie’s case [based on the rehearing motion below] without the need to petition the United States Supreme Court.  Willie’s case certainly does not rely on novel legal theories; even under the proportionality requirement’s framework as unsettled as it is, Willie’s sentence is grossly disproportionate.  If, instead of taking a cell phone into jail, Willie instead had committed second-degree arson or poisoned someone in an effort to kill them, Mississippi law would have imposed a shorter sentence than the one he is serving today.  A 12-year sentence for something so much more innocuous simply doesn’t pass the straight-face test.

But even if the Mississippi Supreme Court reconsiders Willie’s case, our society’s sense of basic fairness cries out for the United States Supreme Court to begin cleaning up the mess that its predecessors have made of the proportionality doctrine.  The cost of that confusion is human lives like Willie’s.  And that cost is growing.

Download Nash v State - Motion for Rehearing (filed)

Prior related post:

January 30, 2020 in Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, January 27, 2020

"(Un)Constitutional Punishments: Eighth Amendment Silos, Penological Purposes, and People's 'Ruin'"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece now available via SSRN authored by Judith Resnik. Here is its abstract:

In 2019, all Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in Timbs v. Indiana that the Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines applied to the states.  The Court’s opinion discussed the Excessive Fines Clause’s “venerable lineage” and termed its protections “fundamental.”  Justice Thomas, concurring, wrote that the English prohibition against excessive fines aimed to insulate citizens from what historians called “ruinous fines.”

This Essay puts Timbs into the context of the Court’s search for metrics to assess the legitimacy of governments’ choices about punishment.  In and after the 1960s, as convicted and incarcerated people asserted that constitutional law constrained sovereign powers, the Court repeatedly encountered challenges to punishment.  I bring together lines of cases that have sat in doctrinal silos to show the links between the concerns animating judicial limits on sentencing and judicial recognition of incarcerated people’s rights to safety, sanitation, food, medical care, access to courts, and religious observance.  I argue that this body of law, produced through convicted individuals’ insistence that they were entitled to constitutional protection, should be read to constitute a nascent anti-ruination principle that all branches of government need to implement.

January 27, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Council on Criminal Justice releases new papers on "Federal Sentencing Provisions of the 1994 Crime Bill"

Sentencing_Report_LinkI noted in this post this past summer the notable new group working toward criminal justice reform called the Council on Criminal Justice.  In September, I flagged in this post that the Council on Criminal Justice had gotten started on a great new set of  papers and resources taking a close look at the 1994 Crime Bill.  The first two paper in the series, Overview and Reflections by Richard Rosenfeld and Impacts on Prison Populations by William Sabol and Thaddeus Johnson, both provided terrific perspectives and details on the import and impact of the 1994 Crime Bill.

I am now very pleased to report that the third paper in this series has been published under the title "Tough and Smart: Federal Sentencing Provisions of the 1994 Crime Bill."  If you click through to the full paper, you can see that one of the reasons I am pleased to see it published is because I am its author.  I was very honored to get a chance to work with the CCJ team on this project, and all the folks involved with CCJ were quite effectively invested in helping me work through the various complicated federal sentencing stories that emerged from the 1994 Crime Bill.

I recommend that interested persons read this piece in full, as there are lots of intricacies to this story that I was only able to partially capture in what is meant to be a short read.  The start and end of the piece provides a hint of its essential points:

When President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (the Crime Bill), he called it the “toughest and smartest crime bill in our history.” Enhancing penalties across a wide range of offenses, the Crime Bill included many provisions that not only justified the “tough” label, but also fueled “get-tough” rhetoric and behavior by federal, state, and local officials nationwide.  This well-known legacy, however, obscures what may be one of the most consequential sentencing provisions in this massive law — a “smart” sentencing section that has allowed tens of thousands of people convicted of drug crimes to avoid certain severe mandatory minimum terms enacted by Congress in the 1980s....

Reflecting the “tough-on-crime” attitudes of the times, some federal lawmakers criticized the Crime Bill as not tough enough despite its many punitive elements. Just weeks after passage of the landmark legislation, Republican lawmakers introduced the Contract with America, which included a promise to adopt a Taking Back Our Streets Act within the first 100 days of what signers hoped would be a Republican-held Congress.  This pursuit of even harsher penalties and even more federal funding for prison construction than what was authorized in the Crime Bill was not surprising; in fact, such calls reflected much of the political and policy thinking of the time — on both sides of the aisle.  In this era, talking tough was widely seen not only as essential to success at the ballot box, but also as the sound policy response to all crime concerns.

While the spirit and text of the Crime Bill focused on a tougher approach to crime and punishment, its sentencing provisions with among the greatest tangible impact were those that enabled people convicted of lower-level drug offenses to receive less severe sentences, and laid the foundation for future crack cocaine sentencing reforms.  Despite that often overlooked reality, the Crime Bill fostered and reinforced tough-on-crime attitudes in Washington and among state and local criminal justice officials that contributed to historic growth in national prison populations.

January 22, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Sentencing Project reports briefly on "Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2019"

The folks at The Sentencing Project have this helpful new short brief reviewing "Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2019." The four-page document starts and ends this way:

The United States is a world leader in incarceration and keeps nearly 7 million persons under criminal justice supervision.  More than 2.2 million are in prison or jail, while 4.6 million are monitored in the community on probation or parole. More punitive sentencing laws and policies, not increases in crime rates, have produced this high rate of incarceration.  Ending mass incarceration will require changing sentencing policies and practices, scaling back the collateral consequences of conviction, and addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.  In recent years most states have enacted reforms designed to reduce the scale of incarceration and the impact of the collateral consequences of a felony conviction.  This briefing paper describes key reforms undertaken in 2019 prioritized by The Sentencing Project....

During 2019, lawmakers in several states enacted legislative changes to address high levels of imprisonment. While the reforms help improve criminal justice policy, most measures will have a modest impact on the scale of incarceration.  It will take more far-reaching measures to markedly reduce the nation’s rate of incarceration, which is far above that of other western nations. Given the limited impact of incarceration on crime, there is potential for significant reductions in state prison populations.  Lawmakers and advocates should explore key changes that limit the use of incarceration, challenge racial disparity, address collateral consequences, and improve outcomes for justice-involved youth.

January 17, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 09, 2020

"Should Judges Have to Weigh the Price Tag of Sending Someone to Prison?"

The title of this post is the title of this new Mother Jones piece with this subheadline: "A handful of reformist DAs think so. But they’re meeting plenty of resistance."  Here is the start of a long piece (with good links) that merits a full read:

There’s one trial that Buta Biberaj will never forget. Biberaj, a former defense attorney, remembers how Virginia jurors in 2017 requested 132 years of prison for a man who stole car tires.  The jurors may have been unaware that taxpayers could pay more than $25,000 a year to keep someone incarcerated — so by proposing their sentence, they were also suggesting that society fork over $3 million. For tires.

Last week, Biberaj started her term as district attorney in Virginia’s Loudoun County. As part of a wave of progressive candidates that swept district attorney elections in Virginia in November, Biberaj is calling for changes that reformers elsewhere have championed, like ending cash bail and letting marijuana crimes go.  But she’s also touting a proposal that goes a step beyond what most liberal district attorneys have floated: She wants courts to grapple with the financial toll of incarcerating people.

Normally, if someone commits a felony like rape or murder, a prosecutor from a district attorney’s office tells a jury or judge why the victim deserves to see the offender locked away.  Prosecutors are often evaluated by the number of convictions they receive and the types of lengthy sentences they secure, with some touting their toughness to win reelection.

Biberaj, during her 25-plus years as a defense lawyer and more than a decade as a substitute judge, came to believe that the sentencing process is flawed. So now as district attorney, she wants her office to tell juries exactly how expensive it is to send people to prison.  “If we don’t give them all the information, in a certain way we are misleading and lying to the community as to what the cost is,” she said in an interview before the election.

Biberaj is not the first prosecutor to suggest such a policy.  In 2018, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, one of the country’s most famous progressive prosecutors, launched a similar experiment.  Shortly after his election, he instructed his office’s attorneys to tell judges how much recommended prison sentences would cost, noting that a year of unnecessary incarceration in the state rang in at about $42,000—around the salary of a new teacher, police officer, or social worker.  “You may use these comparisons on the record,” he told them. Chesa Boudin, the former public defender elected as district attorney in San Francisco in November, says he plans to implement a similar policy after taking office this week....

But so far, other than Biberaj and Boudin, the idea hasn’t caught on widely.  While more progressives are running, about 80 percent of prosecutors go unopposed in elections, meaning that many tough-on-crime district attorneys maintain their seats.

And some judges don’t want to know how much a prison term will cost. They argue that money has no place in decisions about punishment and justice.  Choosing a sentence, they say, should involve weighing the specific situation and needs of the offender and victim, irrespective of budget. And if elected judges feel pressure to save money for taxpayers, it could skew their opinions, argues Chad Flanders, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law.  “Asking judges to make budgetary decisions in sentencing is just another way of asking them to be politicians,” he wrote in a paper on the subject in 2012.  Some judges in Philadelphia have asked Krasner’s attorneys not to share the cost data with them.

January 9, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

"An Intellectual History of Mass Incarceration"

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

There is much criticism of America’s sprawling criminal system, but still insufficient understanding of how it has come to inflict its burdens on so many while seemingly accomplishing so little.  This Article asks, as Americans built the carceral state, what were we thinking?  The Article examines the ideas about criminal law that informed legal scholarship, legal pedagogy, and professional discourse during the expansion of criminal legal institutions in the second half of the twentieth century.  In each of these contexts, criminal law was and still is thought to be fundamentally and categorically different from other forms of law in several respects.  For example, criminal law is supposedly unique in its subject matter, uniquely determinate, and uniquely necessary to a society’s wellbeing.  This Article shows how this set of ideas, which I call criminal law exceptionalism, has helped make mass incarceration possible and may now impede efforts to reduce the scope of criminal law.  The aim here is not to denounce all claims that criminal law is distinct from other forms of law, but rather to scrutinize specific claims of exceptionalism in the hopes of better understanding criminal law and its discontents.

December 24, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

PPI releases "Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019"

Youth_pie_2019The Prison Policy Initiative has today posted the latest of its remarkable pie charts and reports providing an extraordinary look at confinement realities in the United States.  This new report by Wendy Sawyer is focused on youth confinement, and here is part of the report's introductory text and some other excerpts (along with the great infographic):

On any given day, over 48,000 youth in the United States are confined in facilities away from home as a result of juvenile justice or criminal justice involvement. Most are held in restrictive, correctional-style facilities, and thousands are held without even having had a trial. But even these high figures represent astonishing progress: Since 2000, the number of youth in confinement has fallen by 60%, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.

What explains these remarkable changes? How are the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems different, and how are they similar? Perhaps most importantly, can those working to reduce the number of adults behind bars learn any lessons from the progress made in reducing youth confinement?

This report answers these questions, beginning with a snapshot of how many justice-involved youth are confined, where they are held, under what conditions, and for what offenses. It offers a starting point for people new to the issue to consider the ways that the problems of the criminal justice system are mirrored in the juvenile system: racial disparities, punitive conditions, pretrial detention, and overcriminalization. While acknowledging the philosophical, cultural, and procedural differences between the adult and juvenile justice systems, the report highlights these issues as areas ripe for reform for youth as well as adults.

This updated and expanded version of our original 2018 report also examines the dramatic reduction in the confined youth population, and offers insights and recommendations for advocates and policymakers working to shrink the adult criminal justice system....

Black and American Indian youth are overrepresented in juvenile facilities, while white youth are underrepresented.  These racial disparities are particularly pronounced when it comes to Black boys and American Indian girls.  While 14% of all youth under 18 in the U.S. are Black, 42% of boys and 35% of girls in juvenile facilities are Black.   And even excluding youth held in Indian country facilities, American Indians make up 3% of girls and 1.5% of boys in juvenile facilities, despite comprising less than 1% of all youth nationally.

Racial disparities are also evident in decisions to transfer youth from juvenile to adult court.  In 2017, Black youth made up 35% of delinquency cases, but over half (54%) of youth judicially transferred from juvenile court to adult court. Meanwhile, white youth accounted for 44% of all delinquency cases, but made up only 31% of judicial transfers to adult court.  And although the total number of youth judicially transferred in 2017 was less than half what it was in 2005, the racial disproportionality among these transfers has actually increased over time.  Reports also show that in California, prosecutors send Hispanic youth to adult court via "direct file" at 3.4 times the rate of white youth, and that American Indian youth are 1.8 times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence.

December 19, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 16, 2019

Vera Institute produces new report highlighting big increases in rural jail populations

This recent New York Times piece, headlined "‘A Cesspool of a Dungeon’: The Surging Population in Rural Jails," fills out the picture presented by the statistical story set out in this new Vera Institute report on jail populations in the United States. Here is part of the NY Times piece:

Jail populations used to be concentrated in big cities. But since 2013, the number of people locked up in rural, conservative counties such as Hamblen has skyrocketed, driven by the nation’s drug crisis.

Like a lot of Appalachia, Morristown, Tenn., about an hour east of Knoxville, has been devastated by methamphetamine and opioid use. Residents who commit crimes to support their addiction pack the 255-bed jail, which had 439 inmates at the end of October, according to the latest state data. Many cities have invested in treatment options and diversion programs to help drug users. But those alternatives aren’t available in a lot of small towns.

“In the big city, you get a ticket and a trip to the clinic,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, which released a report on Friday analyzing jail populations. “But in a smaller area, you might get three months in jail.”

The disparity has meant that while jail populations have dropped 18 percent in urban areas since 2013, they have climbed 27 percent in rural areas during that same period, according to estimates in the report from Vera, a nonprofit group that works to improve justice systems. The estimates are drawn from a sample of data from about 850 counties across the country.

There are now about 167,000 inmates in urban jails and 184,000 in rural ones, Vera said. Suburban jail populations have remained about the same since 2013, while small and midsize cities saw a 7 percent increase.

Rural jails now lock up people at a rate more than double that of urban areas. And increasingly, those inmates are women.

Here is part of the summary from the Vera report, which is titled "People in Jail in 2019":

At midyear 2019, there were an estimated 758,400 people in local jails, up 13,200 (1.8 percent increase) from midyear 2017, which is the most recently available BJS data.  This is the highest number of people in jail since midyear 2009, and the number is up 31,000 since the recent trough in 2015 (4.3 percent increase).  Most people in jail have not been convicted of the charges they are facing, and many are being detained in civil matters, such as people incarcerated pretrial for immigration cases or those incarcerated due to unpaid child support or fines and fees.

The jail incarceration rate in the United States was an estimated 230 people in jail per 100,000 residents, up from 229 per 100,000 in 2017, representing a 0.5 percent increase. This brings the rate of jail incarceration up 1.3 percent since the recent trough in 2015.  Jail incarceration rates are 2.8 times higher than they were in 1960.

The national increase in the local jail population hides stark diverging trends across the urban to rural continuum.  Since 2013, jail populations have grown 27 percent in rural counties and 7 percent in small and mid-sized metropolitan areas.  During the same period, jail populations have declined 18 percent in large urban counties and are down 1 percent in the suburban counties surrounding those large urban counties.  In 2019, rural counties’ jail incarceration rates were more than double those of urban counties.

December 16, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 13, 2019

Reviewing LWOP populations in Louisiana and nationwide

5deadab9df7fc.imageI am just finding time to blog about this lengthy terrific piece from last weekend in The Advocate under the headline "Louisiana's life without parole sentencing the nation's highest — and some say that should change." I recommend the piece in full, and here are some excerpts:

About 15 percent of Louisiana's prison population consists of people serving life without parole, which is the highest percentage among all states. Those numbers are the result of sentencing laws enacted decades ago — including mandatory minimums and a 1979 decision from state legislators to abolish parole for all life sentences, creating a rigid structure that critics argue limits opportunities to ensure the punishment fits the crime.

Perhaps the biggest outlier is Louisiana's response to second-degree murder, a broad statute that treats getaway drivers and lookouts the same as trigger pullers. It allows prosecutors to sidestep proving intent in some cases, but nonetheless carries a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole....

Louisiana has more inmates serving life without parole than Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee combined: about 4,700 people behind bars with no chance at release.

Those convicted of second-degree murder make up the largest subset — 51 percent of the total — compared to 19 percent for aggravated rape and 16 percent for first-degree murder, according to Department of Corrections data analyzed by researchers at Loyola University. More than half were under 25 when convicted and about 75 percent are black. When factoring in other long sentences too, almost one in three Louisiana prison inmates will die behind bars, according to the national nonprofit The Sentencing Project.

Many places, including Southern states, make most lifers eligible for parole after 20 or 30 years. But in Louisiana "life means life." People convicted of certain crimes are automatically locked up forever, with no input from judges, juries or the state's parole board.

Opponents of Louisiana's sentencing practices cite extensive research showing people "age out" of crime, meaning their likelihood of getting rearrested decreases the older they get. LSU research published in 2013 shows extremely low — almost nonexistent — recidivism rates among former Louisiana lifers who were released on commuted sentences after decades behind bars. "Giving lifers a chance at parole is about creating a world in which people still keep a little hope," said Jamila Johnson, an attorney with the New Orleans nonprofit Promise of Justice Initiative. "That glimmer of hope changes how people interact in our criminal justice system."

Louisiana lawmakers considered major changes after pledging to pass a criminal justice reform package during the 2017 legislative session. They discussed making lifers eligible for parole after serving at least 30 years and reaching age 50, excluding those convicted of first-degree murder, which carries either death or life without parole.

But the Louisiana District Attorney's Association came out in opposition to all proposals addressing serious and violent offenses. The association, which represents the state's prosecutors, argued that releasing inmates convicted of the bloodiest crimes would pose a real threat to public safety and break promises to victims and their families. Some crimes are so heinous, and cause so much trauma, prosecutors said, that they essentially demand retributive justice.

Those negotiations in the legislature produced a series of reforms that softened sentences and changed parole requirements for minor and nonviolent crimes alone. The changes reduced Louisiana's prison population, but in doing so raised the percentage of inmates serving life sentences.

Other states and the federal government have similarly limited recent prison reform efforts to nonviolent offenses, but advocates now argue that truly addressing mass incarceration must include rethinking the American response to violent crime.

Leaders of the Louisiana Department of Corrections have also argued that keeping aging prisoners behind bars is both expensive and unnecessary, though officials failed to comment further for this story. Some have become vocal critics of Louisiana's most extreme sentencing practices, which often leave the state responsible for the medical treatment and burgeoning healthcare costs of geriatric inmates.

"Part of the challenge is getting the general public to endorse the idea of rehabilitation for violent convicted criminals," corrections department Executive Counsel Natalie LaBorde said during a seminar in Baton Rouge earlier this year. "It is not about absolving anyone of the consequences of crime. … But it is also not about making a decision based on a set moment in time and throwing away the key forever."...

Louisiana hasn't always pursued such harsh sentencing laws despite the current rhetoric surrounding crime and punishment in the Pelican State. For five decades starting in 1926, most people sentenced to life were released on parole after serving just 10 years and six months.

That started to change following the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the death penalty nationwide. Louisiana lawmakers responded to the ruling with new policies to keep former death row inmates behind bars longer, delaying parole eligibility for lifers — first to 20 years and then 40. Finally in 1979, the state legislature abolished parole for lifers entirely. 

While Louisiana stands out among other states, America itself is an outlier within the Western world for its use of both life without parole and the death penalty, according to a 2015 article in the Ohio State Law Journal. The author, a University of Mississippi law professor, also asserts a "worldwide consensus against the use of life without parole sentences."

I was not aware that extensions of prison terms in Louisiana were so directly linked to Supreme Court restrictions on the death penalty, but I suppose that story is not all that surprising and may well be a big part of the story in other jurisdictions.

December 13, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

"The Missing Link: Jail and Prison Conditions in Criminal Justice Reform"

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

At any given moment in the United States, approximately 2.3 million people are behind bars, at least a quarter of whom have not been convicted of a crime.  Louisiana was second in the nation — and the world — in incarceration rates in 2018, but it is last nationwide in other relevant rankings: health care, infant mortality, economy, education, and infrastructure.  Louisiana only lost its title of “Incarceration Capital of the World” to Oklahoma following bipartisan state legislation enacted in 2017, which lowered our per capita incarceration rate.  Louisiana still far outpaces the nation, incarcerating 712 people per 100,000, compared to a national average of 450 people per 100,000.

The goal of this article is simple: to connect the dots between conditions in jails and prisons and broader criminal justice reform efforts.  This Article looks at conditions in Louisiana jails and prisons, examines recent reforms, and draws from other states and national data to establish broader trends.  It discusses recent criminal justice reform efforts, summarizes some of the key features of prison and jail conditions, with particular attention to how these conditions impact both the people incarcerated and their broader communities, and recommends several strategies to improve prisons and jails based on the relationships between their conditions and existing criminal justice reforms.

December 11, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Council on Criminal Justice releases new report on "Trends in Correctional Control by Race and Sex"

This morning the Council on Criminal Justice released this interesting new report detailing notable modern changes in the modern demographics of prison, jail, probaton, and parole populatons.  Like all good data-driven reports, this one defies easy summary, and so I will just here reprint the report's page of "Key Findings":

• From 2000 to 2016, racial and ethnic disparites declined across prison, jail, probaton, and parole populatons in the U.S. For example, the black-white state imprisonment disparity fell from 8.3-to-1 to 5.1-to-1, and the Hispanic-white parole disparity fell from 3.6-to-1 to 1.4-to-1.i

• Black-white disparites in state imprisonment rates fell across all major crime categories. The largest drop was for drug ofenses.  In 2000, black people were imprisoned for drug crimes at 15 tmes the rate of whites; by 2016, that rato was just under 5-to-1.

• Among women, the black-white disparity in imprisonment fell from 6-to-1 to 2-to-1, a sharper decrease than the decline among men. The disparity among women fell because of an increase in the imprisonment rate for whites for violent, property, and drug crimes, and a decrease in the imprisonment of black women for drug crimes.

• The change in the black-white male imprisonment disparity occurred as the number of black men in state prisons declined by more than 48,000 (to about 504,000) and the number of white men increased by more than 59,000 (to roughly 476,000). Comparatvely, the black-white female disparity decreased as the number of black women in state prison fell by more than 12,000 (to about 24,000) and the number of white women increased by nearly 25,000 (to about 60,000).

• Reported ofending rates of blacks for rape, robbery, and aggravated assault declined by an average of 3% per year between 2000 and 2016, decreases that contributed to a drop in the black imprisonment rate for these crimes. This decrease was ofset in part by an increase in the expected tme to be served upon admission, which increased for both blacks and whites.

• Hispanic-white disparites in all four correctonal populatons have narrowed steadily since 2000. For Hispanics and whites on probaton, the data showed no disparity in rates by 2016.

For some context and perspectives on the report, the Marshall Project has this new piece headlined "The Growing Racial Disparity in Prison Time: A new study finds black people are staying longer in state prisons, even as they face fewer arrests and prison admissions overall."

December 3, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Two new disconcerting reports on southern justice

This past week I saw two notable new reports from pubic policy groups about criminal justice problems in southern states.  Here are links to the reports and excerpts from them:

About Alabama via the Equal Justice Initiative, "As Prison Spending Increases, So Does Violence and Misconduct":

A new study by the Equal Justice Initiative on Alabama’s prisons concludes:

  • In the first 10 months of 2019, twice as many Alabama prisoners have been murdered (13) than the entire 10-year period between 1999 and 2009, making Alabama’s current system the most violent in the nation

About Mississippi via FWD.us, "We All Pay: Mississippi’s Harmful Habitual Laws":

Mississippi has an incarceration crisis, driven in large part by its use of extreme sentences. In fact, long prison sentences have become the norm in Mississippi. First-time drug possession can land you in prison for 20 years. Stealing tools from a garage can result in 25 years behind bars. These excessively long sentences weaken Mississippi’s families and workforce and waste tax dollars since they also do nothing to make neighborhoods safer....

Of the more than 2,600 people in prison today who have been sentenced with a habitual penalty, one-third (906 people) have been sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. Nearly half of that group (439 people) has been sentenced to die in prison through either a life or virtual life sentence of 50 years of more.

The impact of these laws is not felt equally across communities: Habitual penalties are applied overwhelmingly and disproportionately to Black men. Despite making up 13 percent of the state’s population,75 percent of the people with 20+ year habitual sentences are Black men.

November 24, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

"Usual Cruelty The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System"

Usual_cruelty_finalThe title of this post is the title of this notable new book authored by former public defender, Alec Karakatsanis.  The publisher, The New Press, provides this accounting of the book: 

From an award-winning civil rights lawyer, a profound challenge to our society’s normalization of the caging of human beings, and the role of the legal profession in perpetuating it.

Alec Karakatsanis is interested in what we choose to punish.  For example, it is a crime in most of America for poor people to wager in the streets over dice; dice-wagerers can be seized, searched, have their assets forfeited, and be locked in cages. It’s perfectly fine, by contrast, for people to wager over international currencies, mortgages, or the global supply of wheat; wheat-wagerers become names on the wings of hospitals and museums.

He is also troubled by how the legal system works when it is trying to punish people.  The bail system, for example, is meant to ensure that people return for court dates. But it has morphed into a way to lock up poor people who have not been convicted of anything.  He’s so concerned about this that he has personally sued court systems across the country, resulting in literally tens of thousands of people being released from jail when their money bail was found to be unconstitutional.

Karakatsanis doesn’t think people who have gone to law school, passed the bar, and sworn to uphold the Constitution should be complicit in the mass caging of human beings — an everyday brutality inflicted disproportionately on the bodies and minds of poor people and people of color and for which the legal system has never offered sufficient justification. Usual Cruelty is a profoundly radical reconsideration of the American “injustice system” by someone who is actively, wildly successfully, challenging it.

This Amazon page about the book provides a "look inside" that includes the introduction explaining that the book is primarily the collection of three notable essays by Alec Karakatsanis that have been previously published.  This recent Intercept piece has an interview with the author that gets set up this way:

Alec Karakatsanis's “Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System” should be assigned reading for every first-year law student.  Published last month by The New Press, the book is an unusually blunt takedown of a system the author never once refers to as a criminal “justice” system.  Litigated with the intellectual vigor of someone who has won a number of landmark fights in federal court, “Usual Cruelty” clearly lays out a case for why our criminal legal system is not broken, but doing exactly what it was designed to do.

At a time when talk of justice reform has become mainstream but risks becoming hollow, and phrases like “progressive prosecutor” contribute to the deception that we are, in fact, making progress, Karakatsanis is clear-eyed about the bigger picture. But while “Usual Cruelty” is ultimately an abolitionist book that calls on people to imagine a world with fewer laws and in which jails and prisons aren’t the default response to all social problems, Karakatsanis is also keenly aware of how lawyers can use the law’s tools to fight the law’s harm.  At Civil Rights Corps, the nonprofit he founded, Karakatsanis takes on cases challenging systemic injustices in the legal system — like cash bail and the systems of fines and fees that keep poor people in jail — which he says have become so “normalized and entrenched” they barely give us pause.

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

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Iowa court rejects LWOP inmate's claim that his brief "death" before medical resuscitation completed his "life" sentence

A number of readers kindly made sure I did not miss an amusing sentencing story out of Iowa effectively summarized by the headline of this local press report, "Court: Life sentence not finished until death is permanent." Here are the basics via the press account:

The Iowa Court of Appeals has rejected the claims of a Wapello County man convicted of murder in 1997 who said a medical emergency fulfilled his life sentence.

Benjamin Schreiber was convicted in the 1996 beating death of John Terry. Court documents show in March 2015 large kidney stones “caused him to urinate internally, which in turn led him to developing septic poisoning.” Schreiber collapsed in his prison cell and was taken to the hospital, where “he was resuscitated five times.” He underwent surgery and antibiotic treatment and eventually recovered.

According to the court’s ruling, “Schreiber filed this [post-conviction relief] application in April 2018. In it he claims he momentarily died at the hospital, thereby fulfilling his ‘life’ sentence … . Because his sentence has been fulfilled, he argues, he is imprisoned illegally and should be immediately released.”

The court ruling is available in full at this link, and here is the heart of its legal analysis and rejection of the inmate's claim:

In essence, Schreiber claims that he “died” and was resuscitated by medical staff in 2015 against his wishes, thereby completing his sentence.  He asserts he was sentenced to life without parole, “but not to Life plus one day.”  Therefore, he is being held in violation of his rights under the Due Process Clause and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.  We do not find his argument persuasive.  He cites no case law that supports his position, and Iowa Code section 902.1 directs the district court to commit defendants guilty of class “A” felonies — like Schreiber — “into the custody of the director of the Iowa department of corrections for the rest of the defendant’s life.” Iowa Code § 902.1(1) (emphasis added).  Because chapter 902 does not define “life,” we give that term its plain meaning.  State v. Hearn, 797 N.W.2d 577, 583 (Iowa 2011). “[O]ur primary goal is to give effect to the intent of the legislature.” State v. Anderson, 782 N.W.2d 155, 158 (Iowa 2010).

The plain reading of the statute is that a defendant convicted of a class “A” felony must spend the rest of their natural life in prison, regardless of how long that period of time ends up being or any events occurring before the defendant’s life ends.  We do not believe the legislature intended this provision, which defines the sentences for the most serious class of felonies under Iowa law and imposes its “harshest penalty,” State v. Oliver, 812 N.W.2d 636, 645 (Iowa 2012), to set criminal defendants free whenever medical procedures during their incarceration lead to their resuscitation by medical professionals.  See State v. Louisell, 865 N.W.2d 590, 598 & n.6 (Iowa 2015) (noting “life in prison is the intended punishment for” class “A” felonies and “[l]esser offenses are notably punished less severely”).  We conclude the correct reading of section 902.1(1) requires Schreiber to stay in prison for the rest of his natural life, regardless of whether he was resuscitated against his wishes in 2015.

November 10, 2019 in Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, November 07, 2019

"Taking a second look at life imprisonment"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Boston Globe commentary authored by Nancy Gertner and Marc Mauer. Here are excerpts:

While there has been a great deal of attention in recent years to the impact of the drug war on growing prison populations, in fact, the main drivers of the prison system now are excessive sentences for violent offenses.

The statistics are troubling.  There are as many individuals [in Massachusetts] serving life sentences as the entire state prison population in 1970, and more than half are black or Latino. Of the 2,000 lifers in the state, about half are not eligible for parole.  Barring executive clemency, they will die in prison after spending decades behind bars.

Since 90 percent of lifers nationally have been convicted of serious violent crimes, supporters of lifelong incarceration argue that incapacitating such people is an effective crime-control mechanism.  In fact, it is the opposite: It is counterproductive for public safety.

Criminologists know that individuals “age out” of crime.  Any parent of a teenager understands that misbehavior, often serious, is all too common at this stage.  FBI arrest data show that the rate of arrest for teenage boys rises sharply from the mid-teen years through the early 20s but then declines significantly. Arrests for robbery, for example, peak at age 19 but decline by more than half by age 30 and by three-quarters by age 40. The same is true for other violent crimes.

The reason is clear.  As teenage boys enter their 20s, they lose their impulsivity, get jobs, find life partners, form families, and generally take on adult roles.  Violent behavior becomes less attractive.

For public safety purposes incarcerating people past age 40 produces diminishing returns for crime control; less and less crime is prevented by incapacitation each year.  This impact is magnified by resource tradeoffs.  National estimates for the cost of incarcerating an elderly person are at least $60,000 a year, in large part due to the need for health care.  With finite public safety resources, these costs are not available to invest in family and community support for the new cohort of teenagers, for whom proactive initiatives could lower the risk of antisocial behavior.

Legislation introduced by Representative Jay Livingstone of Boston and Senator Joe Boncore of Winthrop, along with 34 cosponsors, would help to ameliorate this problem in Massachusetts.  Under the bill’s “second look” provision, individuals serving life without parole would be eligible for a parole review after serving 25 years....

Recently, there has been a bipartisan critique of the effects of mass incarceration, particularly on low-income communities of color.  State policy makers across the country are exploring ways to reduce excessive prison populations without adverse effects on public safety.  The proposed “second look” provision offers one significant alternative.  It should be passed.

November 7, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

"Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019"

Womenpie2019_pressimage_croppedThe Prison Policy Initiative continues to do an amazing job with updated accounts of the "whole pie" of different aspects of the US criminal justice system, and today's latest report is this updated version of an accounting of women who are incarcerated in the United States.  Here is part of the report's introductory text:

With growing public attention to the problem of mass incarceration, people want to know about women’s experience with incarceration. How many women are held in prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities in the United States? And why are they there? How is their experience different from men’s? While these are important questions, finding those answers requires not only disentangling the country’s decentralized and overlapping criminal justice systems, but also unearthing the frustratingly hard to find and often altogether missing data on gender.

This report provides a detailed view of the 231,000 women and girls incarcerated in the United States, and how they fit into the even broader picture of correctional control. We pull together data from a number of government agencies and calculates the breakdown of women held by each correctional system by specific offense. The report, produced in collaboration with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, answers the questions of why and where women are locked up...

In stark contrast to the total incarcerated population, where the state prison systems hold twice as many people as are held in jails, more incarcerated women are held in jails than in state prisons. As we will explain, the outsized role of jails has serious consequences for incarcerated women and their families.

Women’s incarceration has grown at twice the pace of men’s incarceration in recent decades, and has disproportionately been located in local jails. The data needed to explain exactly what happened, when, and why does not yet exist, not least because the data on women has long been obscured by the larger scale of men’s incarceration. Frustratingly, even as this report is updated every year, it is not a direct tool for tracking changes in women’s incarceration over time because we are forced to rely on the limited sources available, which are neither updated regularly nor always compatible across years.

Particularly in light of the scarcity of gender-specific data, the disaggregated numbers presented here are an important step to ensuring that women are not left behind in the effort to end mass incarceration.

October 29, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Guest post by Anonymous: "Donald Trump Not A Boon to Private Prison Industry"

Download (5)A thoughtful person recently sent me an email with thoughtful observations on what the Trump era has meant for the private prison industry in the financial markets.  I asked if I could post the musings, and I was allowed to put up this text under the byline "Anonymous."  Enjoy:

Anyone remotely interested interested in criminal justice reform could hardly forget the immediate effect that President Trump’s law-and-order election had on the private prison industry.  Almost immediately, there was an out with the old (Obama) and in with the new (Sessions) ideological shift that saw the value of these companies double in value (press report here). There was very little reason to hope that many reformer’s goal of banning private prisons would come to fruition.

Almost three years later, my life as an investor — along with the non-stop chatter about the S&P 500 at new all-time highs — had me curious to see what the performance of these stocks was since President Trump took over.  My discovery was somewhat astonishing (although pleasantly so); GEO (GEO Group) and CXW (Core Civic Inc. — formerly Corrections Corporation of America) are now trading at Pre-Trump levels (prices that factored in a Hilary Clinton presidency and the potential banishing of the private prison industry as a whole).  Coupled with the fact that this is happening notwithstanding the S&P 500 hitting an all-time high today and rallying 50% or so since Trump's election.  Now when you factor in that these stocks doubled in the weeks following the election, they are actually down 50% since!  That is EXTREME relative underperformance.

What does this all mean?

1.  The major share holders of these stocks feel there is significant likelihood of a Democrat being elected in 2020 — so much so that they have ALREADY begun to dump their stocks a year early,

2.  Trump’s policies are seriously emptying out the private prison through expedited deportations and/or decreasing of prison populations,

3.  States have significantly begun to reduce its number of inmates (after all, there are far more state inmates than federal ones), 

4.  Nothing at all.

Just an interesting thought that intersects last week’s criminal justice forum and today’s new stock market highs.

One thing is for certain — President Trump has not done well for the private prison industry, and that’s just fine by me.

            — Anonymous

October 29, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, October 28, 2019

"We've Normalized Prison: The carceral state and its threat to democracy"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Washington Post commentary authored by Piper Kerman.  I recommend the full piece (which is part of this new Prison issue in the Post's magazine), and here are excerpts:

The reach of the American criminal punishment systems stretches to clutch far more people than many imagine.  I know this not only from being incarcerated, but also from teaching nonfiction writing classes in state prisons.  My students’ stories bravely reveal difficult personal truths and bring to light much wider realities in a way that only lived experience really can.  What incarcerated writers’ voices illustrate is that the American criminal justice system does not solve the problems — violence, mental illness, addiction — that it claims to address....

Indeed, far from solving our problems, the carceral state is causing a massive one: A nation that locks up so many people and creates an expansive apparatus that relies on violence and confinement is a nation in which democracy, over the long term, cannot thrive.  For centuries, the U.S. political economy has relied on millions being sidelined from democratic participation, most notably African Americans and, before 1920, women.  Violence, in the form of lynching, was always important to limit democracy in this country (and agents of law enforcement were often complicit).  As we near 2020, civic exclusion is still a critical tool for those invested in preserving an inequitable status quo, and the policies surrounding mass incarceration are invaluable for continuing to deny participation to millions of Americans.

Last year, the citizens of Florida voted to amend the state constitution to allow people like me, with felony convictions, to regain the right to vote after returning home.  Quickly and shamelessly, the Florida legislature and governor responded by passing a poll tax to prevent those voters — disproportionately people of color and poor people — from having a voice.  Many other states also restrict voting rights of prisoners or ex-prisoners, especially states with large African American populations — not a coincidence, as they remain overly targeted and punished by the criminal justice system.  As a result, we have not only normalized prison but normalized the exclusion of large groups of people from participating in our democracy....

Freedom and safety are too often imagined as being in opposition, but nothing could be further from the truth. Americans who have the most freedom — freedom to learn, freedom from illness, freedom of movement, freedom from violence — are invariably the safest, and the whitest, and the richest.  We did this to ourselves: Mass incarceration is a result of policies that have grown out of a history of slavery, colonialism and punishment of the poor.  Until we reconcile with these hard truths, by listening to the people most affected by the loss of freedom, we will fall far short of equity. We have a choice: We can permit injustice to remain a growth industry or we can elect to have a more fair, restorative and effective system.  And this isn’t an abstract choice — it is one you will make today, and tomorrow, and next week. Ending mass incarceration is imperative for democracy, safety and freedom.  Do you see what is happening in your own community?  And are you ready to do your part?

October 28, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Sentencing Project releases new fact sheet on "Private Prisons in the United States"

The Sentencing Project released this new fact sheet on "Private Prisons in the United States."  Here are excerpts from the text (and click through for notable charts and graphs):

Private prisons in the United States incarcerated 121,718 people in 2017, representing 8.2% of the total state and federal prison population.  Since 2000, the number of people housed in private prisons has increased 39%.  However, the private prison population reached its peak in 2012 with 137,220 people.  Declines in private prisons’ use make these latest overall population numbers the lowest since 2006 when the population was 113,791.

States show significant variation in their use of private correctional facilities.  Indeed, the New Mexico Department of Corrections reports that 53% of its prison population is housed in private facilities, while 22 states do not employ any for-profit prisons.  Data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and interviews with corrections officials find that in 2017, 28 states and the federal government incarcerated people in private facilities run by corporations including GEO Group, Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), and Management and Training Corporation.

Eighteen states with private prison contracts incarcerate more than 500 people in for-profit prisons.  Texas, the first state to adopt private prisons in 1985, incarcerated the largest number of people under state jurisdiction, 12,728.

Since 2000, the number of people in private prisons has increased 39.3%, compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 7.8%.  In six states the private prison population has more than doubled during this time period: Arizona (479%), Indiana (310%), Ohio (277%), Florida (199%), Tennessee (117%), and Georgia (110%).

The Federal Bureau of Prisons maintains the nation’s highest number of people managed by private prison contractors.  Since 2000, its use increased 77%, and the number of people in private federal custody — which includes prisons, half-way houses and home confinement — totaled 27,569 in 2017.  While a significant historical increase, the population declined 15% since 2016, likely reflecting the continuing decline of the overall federal prison population.

Among the immigrant detention population, 26,249 people — 73% of the detained population — were confined in privately run facilities in 2017. The privately detained immigrant population grew 442% since 2002.

October 24, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Might as well face it, "we're addicted to jail"

156aa1d654fcab80912437f490d1ce5eWith apologies to Robert Palmer, this recent Hill commentary by David Oscar Markus has me wanting to riff on a rock classic:

Whoa, you like to think that we're a nation that's free, oh yeah
It's closer to the truth to say we can't let people be
You know you're gonna have to face it, we're addicted to jail

The last phrase of my tortured lyric here is the headline of the Hill commentary that should be read in full.  Here are its closing flourishes:

We issue jail sentences like candy, to address every known problem that we have.  Drug problem — jail.  Using your family member’s address to get your child into a better school — jail.  Paying college athletes — jail.  The United States jails more people than any other country in the world.  We have higher incarceration rates than Russia, Iran, and Iraq — by a lot.  We tolerate innocent people sitting in jail when we only suspect that they might have done something wrong, as one man did for 82 days when he brought honey into the United States.  82 days.

Even though oversleeping doesn’t seem to be a rampant problem, the judge in Deandre [Somerville]’s case admitted that he was trying to solve a broader jury “misconduct” issue with jail.  This is not how it should be.  The jail solution has become much worse than the diseases it was trying to cure. So what do we do about it?

One easy fix — appoint more criminal defense lawyers and civil lawyers to the bench and fewer prosecutors. According to the Cato Institute, former prosecutors are “vastly overrepresented” throughout the judiciary.  As to federal judges alone, the ratio of former prosecutors versus former criminal defense lawyers is four to one (and if you include lawyers who worked for the government on the civil side, the ratio is seven to one).  A criminal case or a civil rights case has a 50 percent chance to be heard by a former prosecutor and only a six percent chance to be heard by a judge who has handled a case against the government.  Cato explains the unfairness of this with a simple example — we would never allow four of the seven referees of a Ohio State-Michigan football game to be alumni of Michigan.  Ohio State fans would never tolerate it.  And yet, there are no criminal defense lawyers on the Supreme Court and there hasn’t been one for more than 25 years.

In many cases, former prosecutors have never represented a person sentenced to jail.  They have never visited a client in jail.  They have never explained to a family — while the family cried — that their loved one is going to be taken from them.  As prosecutors, they have only put a lot of people in jail.  And so, as judges, this addiction to jail continues, even for someone like Deandre, who ends up serving a jail sentence because he overslept.

We have many problems in this great country, and our addiction to jail is high on the list.

October 9, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

"How many people in your state go to local jails every year?"

The question in the title of this post is the heading of this new posting at the Prison Policy Initiative building off the the group's recent big report Arrest, Release, Repeat.  Here is part of the set up to the latest state-by-state data analysis (which requires a click through to see in detail):

County and city jails have been called “mass incarceration’s front door,” but campaigns to reform or close jails often don’t receive the attention they deserve. Why? Because the traditional way we measure the impact of jails — the average daily population — significantly understates the number of people directly affected by these local facilities.

Because people typically stay in jail for only a few days, weeks or months, the daily population represents a small fraction of the people who are admitted over the course of a year. But the statistic that better reflects a jail’s impact on a community — the number of people who go to jail — is rarely accessible to the public.

Thankfully, we can now get close to closing this gap in the data and making the impact of jails clearer.  Building on our new national report Arrest, Release, Repeat, we’re able to estimate the number of people in every state who go to local jails each year.

September 18, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

"U.S. Prison Population Trends: Massive Buildup and Modest Decline"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new briefing paper authored by Nazgol Ghandnoosh who is a Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project. The short paper is full of great charts and data, and here is the start of the text:

By yearend 2017, 1.4 million people were imprisoned in the United States, a decline of 7% since the prison population reached its peak level in 2009.  This follows a nearly 700% growth in the prison population between 1972 and 2009.

The overall pace of decarceration has varied considerably across states, but has been modest overall. Thirty-nine states and the federal government had downsized their prisons by 2017.  Five states — Alaska, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, and New York — reduced their prison populations by over 30% since reaching their peak levels.  But among the 39 states that reduced levels of imprisonment, 14 states downsized their prisons by less than 5%. Eleven states, led by Arkansas, had their highest ever prison populations in 2017.

If states and the federal government maintain this pace of decarceration, it will take 72 years — until 2091 — to cut the U.S. prison population in half.

The United States has made only modest progress in ending mass incarceration despite a dramatic decline in crime rates.  Reported crime rates have plummeted to half of their 1990s levels — as they have in many other countries that did not increase imprisonment levels.  Expediting the end of mass incarceration will require accelerating the end of the Drug War and scaling back sentences for all crimes, including violent offenses for which half of people in prison are serving time.

September 17, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, September 12, 2019

"The Democrats’ Shameful Legacy on Crime"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new New Republic piece by Marie Gottschalk.  It carries this subheadline: "Bill Clinton isn't the only one who deserves blame for turning America into a carceral state."  Here are excerpts:

For decades, a growing number of Democrats had been trying to reposition themselves as the party of law enforcement and to lure white voters away from the GOP.  With Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging Clinton to seize control of the issue by “upping the ante,” Democrats and Republicans engaged in a bidding war to see who could be the toughest and meanest sheriff in town.

The $30 billion law [known as the 1994 Crime Bill], passed 25 years ago this month, was the capstone of their efforts.  It included some modest funding for crime prevention programs, such as “midnight basketball,” but its main thrust was a vast array of punitive measures.  The crime bill funded 100,000 new police officers, established a federal three-strikes law, authorized more than $12 billion to prod states to lengthen time served and build new prisons, banned certain assault weapons, created dozens of new death penalty offenses, and ended federal educational Pell grants for inmates.  The crime bill did not significantly lower crime rates; it did, however, help transform the United States into the world’s warden, incarcerating more of its residents than any other country.

The United States has now begun a long overdue national reckoning about the bill — four years ago, Hillary Clinton faced questions about her and Bill Clinton’s complicity in mass incarceration, and Biden has also had to answer for his leading role in engineering the punitive turn taken by the Democratic Party.  But this reckoning still falls far short, partly because deep misunderstandings persist about the wider impact of the bill and other get-tough measures that built the carceral state over the last five decades.

While the Clintons and Biden are guilty as charged, they had many accomplices, some of whom were not the usual suspects.  For years, House and Senate Democrats had been pushing new legislation to curb domestic violence, but it did not come up for a floor vote until the Senate incorporated the measure into the crime bill in fall 1993.  To its credit, the Violence Against Women Act heightened public awareness of sexual assault and domestic violence and provided states and communities with important new resources for crisis centers, shelters, hotlines, and prevention programs.  But VAWA also emphasized law enforcement remedies and included measures that raised serious civil rights concerns — all with the help of many national and local organizations working against rape and domestic violence.  Many of these groups have since had second thoughts about “carceral feminism.”

During her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton claimed that the crime bill was passed with strong support from African Americans who were clamoring for tough measures to halt rising crime rates.  In reality, African Americans were deeply divided over the legislation and other criminal justice issues.  These divisions have only widened in the 25 years since then, as a new generation of “post-racial” black politicians sought to appeal to white and African American voters by castigating young black men and women as addicts, drug dealers, and common street criminals.  (In one notable example from 2011, then-Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia chastised black fathers as “sperm donors” and “doggone hoodie-wearing teens.”)  With the rise of Black Lives Matter, however, these and other activists are at last calling attention to the ways in which mass incarceration constitutes a new system of social control, one with disturbing parallels to the old Jim Crow era.

This stark reality is now a leading public issue, as it should be.  But it overshadows the deepening impact of the carceral state on other demographic groups.  The incarceration rate for white Americans — about 633 per 100,000 residents — appears relatively low compared to the rates for African Americans (3,044 per 100,000) and Hispanics (1,305 per 100,000), but it is more than ten times the national incarceration rates of certain Western European countries.  All told, half of all adults in the United States — or about 113 million people — have seen an immediate family member go to jail or prison for at least one night.

September 12, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, September 08, 2019

"Why America Needs to Break Its Addiction to Long Prison Sentences"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Politico commentary authored by Ben Miller and Daniel Harawa." The piece carries the subheadline "Shorter sentences will end prison crowding and even reduce crime," and here are excerpts:

[A] pressing ... problem in our criminal legal system [is the] lack of meaningful mechanisms in place to allow people in prison to obtain release once they have proven to no longer pose a danger to our communities....  We have forgotten that our justice system is supposed to rehabilitate people, not just punish them....  Though some may point to parole as an option, the potential for release on parole has proven slim, with the federal government and 14 states having eliminated it completely.

For decades, while we made it increasingly difficult to obtain release, we have sent people to prison for longer and longer.  We became reliant on extreme sentences, including mandatory minimums, “three-strike” laws, and so-called truth-in-sentencing requirements that limit opportunities for people to earn time off their sentences for good behavior. As a result, the United States laps the world in the number of people it incarcerates, with 2.2 million people behind bars, representing a 500 percent increase over the past four decades, with 1 in 9 people in prison serving a life sentence....

[I]f we want to significantly reduce the number of people this country incarcerates, legislation is needed at the federal level and in every state to allow everyone after a certain period in prison the opportunity to seek sentence reductions. Sentence review legislation recognizes that as we have increased the length of prison sentences and limited the ability to obtain release, our prisons have become overwhelmed with people whose current conduct proves further incarceration is not in the public interest.

We increased sentence lengths and made it more difficult for people to be released because we were told it was needed for public safety.  But sending people to prison for long periods does not reduce crime. In fact, longer sentences, if anything, create crime.  David Roodman, a senior adviser for Open Philanthropy, reviewed numerous studies on the impact of incarceration and concluded that “in the aftermath of a prison sentence, especially a long one, someone is made more likely to commit a crime than he would have been otherwise.”

Not only are lengthy prison sentences ineffective at reducing crime, but they have devastated low-income and minority communities.  As the Vera Institute aptly put it: “We have lost generations of young men and women, particularly young men of color, to long and brutal prison terms.”  While black people are just 13-percent of the country’s population, they account for 40 percent of the people we incarcerate.

If the ineffectiveness of long prison terms or the impact on poor communities of color is not reason enough to revisit lengthy prison sentences, the financial drain of long prison terms is staggering.  For example, U.S. prisons spend $16 billion per year on elder care alone.  Billions of dollars are diverted to prisons to care for the elderly who would pose no real risk if released when that money could be going to our schools, hospitals, and communities.

Given this reality, we need to pursue every option that would safely reduce our prison population.  One proposal by the American Law Institute recommends reviewing all sentences after a person has served 15 years in prison.  Another example is the bill Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced that would provide sentence review for anyone who has served more than 10 years in prison or who is over 50 years old.  Notably, neither proposal is restricted by the type of offense, which is critical, because to combat mass incarceration, to echo the Prison Policy Initiative, reform has “to go further than the ‘low hanging fruit’ of nonviolent drug offenses.”

The opposition to any sentence review policy is predictable.  Opponents will decry the danger of releasing “violent” people into the community.  This criticism is straight out of the failed tough-on-crime playbook that created the country’s mass-incarceration crisis in the first place.  It was this same message that pushed legislators and prosecutors for years to enact and seek extreme sentences that have overburdened prisons across the country.  This criticism rings hollow.

Measures that promote sentence review would not automatically release anyone.  Instead, people would be given a chance to show a court that they are no longer a danger to public safety.  A judge — after weighing all relevant circumstances, including hearing from any victims and their families — would then decide whether a person should be released....

Robust sentence review legislation that would help reduce both our prison population and the strain on government budgets must be part of every discussion about criminal justice reform.  Sister Helen Prejean has often said, “People are worth more than the worst thing they've ever done.”  Our policies should reflect the ability of people to change over the course of years — or decades — of incarceration.

September 8, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

USA Today starts series on non-violent lifers

Eileen Rivers has this new lengthy piece in USA Today, which notes that this is "the first installment in a series about prisoners serving life sentences for non-violent crimes ... being published in conjunction with the Buried Alive Project."  This first piece is fully titled "The graying of America's prisons: 'When is enough enough?'" and "Inmates over 55 are among the fastest growing population. They burden prisons and taxpayers, but pose the lowest threat to society."  Here is an excerpt:

In 1990, a federal judge sentenced [Wayne] Pray to life in prison without parole, plus three 25-year stints for, among other things, cocaine and marijuana possession and distribution.

Now 71, Pray has been locked up for three decades on nonviolent offenses, most recently at the federal prison in Otisville, New York.  He is one of about 20,000 older federal inmates — prisoners over 55 who are among the fastest growing population in the federal system. Many of them were given life amid the war on drugs of the 1990s.

Mandatory life sentences mean a federal prison population that is graying in large numbers.  This group puts the greatest financial burden on U.S. prisons, while posing the lowest threat to American society.

Pray's status, and that of others aging in the system, presents tough questions: How old is too old to remain incarcerated? Is Pray, at 71, the same threat he was at 41?  And if he isn't, then why is he still behind bars?...

From 1993 to 1996, nearly 800 drug offenders were sentenced to life without parole in federal prison, according to the Buried Alive Project, which tracks rates by year and state.  That's 57% higher than during the previous four-year period.

Prosecutors wield a lot of power when it comes to sentencing. It isn't uncommon for attorneys to push plea deals on defendants in exchange for information.  And the rejection of those deals sometimes means elevated charges that result in mandatory minimum federal sentences, including life....

While the First Step Act, passed by Congress last year, changes mandatory minimums for some federal offenders, not all will be helped by it, including inmates such as Pray who were convicted in cases involving powder cocaine instead of crack....

Pray says his brother started selling drugs at age 14 and was dead by 31. Court documents show that Pray was dealing by the time he was in his late 20s.  He used drug money to open up other businesses, according to Coleman. Pray says at one point he owned two used car dealerships and was a fight promoter.  "The lifestyle itself becomes addictive," Pray says.

The charges that led to his life sentence involved more than 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of cocaine and about 200 pounds of pot.  He maintains that the "kingpin" charge was trumped up, the result of a rejected plea deal. Prosecutors wanted information about other people, including politicians, that Pray says he refused to give....

Pray has applied for clemency twice to no avail.  Yet he still holds out hope that he'll be able to spend his final days with his family....  "I'm not trying to justify what I did. But let the punishment fit the crime," Pray said during our phone interview. "When is enough enough?"

September 4, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Making the case for exempting juvenile offenders from being subject to adult mandatory minimums

Nila Bala and James Dold have this new commentary at The Hill under the headline "Mandatory minimums harm children." Here are excerpts:

An estimated 76,000 children are tried as adults every year.  These children end up in a system that is poorly equipped to serve them.  Children are fundamentally different from adults, which is why we do not let children vote in elections, join the military, or buy cigarettes.  Young people often make bad decisions without pausing to think about the consequences. But because their brains are still developing, they also have an incredible capacity for change, and who they are when they are teenagers is certainly not who they will be for the rest of their lives.  This is why the Supreme Court, in a series of rulings, has struck down the use of the death penalty for those under 18 and declared life without parole an impermissible sentence for the vast majority of children.

Yet, many children still face incredibly long sentences that are harmful to them and provide no commensurate benefit to public safety.  A few decades ago, a group of academics propagated the false notion that some young people could not be rehabilitated because they were so evil and remorseless that they should be termed “superpredators.”  This idea has been completely debunked.  Unfortunately, the bad policies that allowed children to be easily transferred into the adult criminal justice system in the wake of the superpredator era had a lasting impact across the country.  Children continue to be subject to lengthy mandatory minimum sentences when they are tried as adults, and their status as children is often not considered during sentencing.

The adult system is not the right place for children, who grow up without educational opportunities, age appropriate services, or treatment if they are placed in it.  In the adult system, they face far greater risks of physical and sexual abuse, and are far more likely to commit suicide than youth committed to the juvenile justice system.  Long sentences driven by mandatory minimums further compound the harm these children suffer.  When we prosecute children in the adult system, where the focus is on punishment instead of on treatment, we continue failing to address why kids end up committing crimes in the first place....

As the law stands now, the hands of judges are tied when sentencing under statutes that require harsh mandatory minimums that do not consider the capacity of children to change.  Under House Resolution 1949, however, judges would be required to consider how children are fundamentally different from adults and would be authorized, but would not be required, to depart up to 35 percent from the otherwise applicable mandatory minimum sentence.  Similar legislation has been championed at the state level by members of both parties, and most recently by Republican state lawmakers in Arkansas and Nevada.

I believe this commentary means to reference this bill, H.R. 1949.  But the text of the bill, though it does allow a judge "to impose a sentence that is 35 percent below a level established by statute as a minimum sentence so as to reflect the juvenile’s age and prospect for rehabilitation," does not actually expressly require a judge to consider how juvenile offender are different than adult.  

August 27, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

"The Thirteenth Amendment: Modern Slavery, Capitalism, and Mass Incarceration"

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

The Article makes two conceptual contributions.  First, it tells a story about the Thirteenth Amendment forbidding one form of slavery while legitimating and preserving others. Of course, the text does not operate absent important actors: legislatures and courts.  Yet, as explained by Reva Siegel, despite “repeated condemnation of slavery,” such united opposition to the practice "may instead function to exonerate practices contested in the present, none of which looks so unremittingly 'evil' by contrast."  In this case, uncompensated prison labor inures economic benefits to the state and the companies capable of extracting it.

The Article argues that this preservation of the practice of slavery through its transformation into prison labor means only that socially, legislatively, and judicially, we have come to reject one form of discrimination: antebellum slavery, while distinguishing it from marginally remunerated and totally unremunerated prison labor, which courts legitimate.  The Article tells the story of post-slavery convict leasing; fraud and debt peonage; as well as the heinous practices imposed on children through coercive apprenticeship laws throughout the American south.  The Article then addresses modern slavery's transformations, including federal and state prison labor and the rise of private prisons.  It concludes by offering pathways forward.

August 21, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Senator Elizabeth Warren releases her plan for "comprehensive criminal justice reform"

Via this lengthy new Medium post, Senator Elizabeth Warren has joined the ranks of a number prominent candidates for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, in particular Joe BidenCory Booker, Pete Buttigeig and Bernie Sanders, in releasing a details agenda for criminal justice reform.  As is always the case, the full discussion merits a full read, and in this space I can only flag a few notable sentencing elements (with lots of links to be found in the original):

The United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, but nearly 20% of the world’s prison population. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with over 2 million people in prison and jail.

Our system is the result of the dozens of choices we’ve made — choices that together stack the deck against the poor and the disadvantaged.  Simply put, we have criminalized too many things. We send too many people to jail. We keep them there for too long.  We do little to rehabilitate them. We spend billions, propping up an entire industry that profits from mass incarceration. And we do all of this despite little evidence that our harshly punitive system makes our communities safer — and knowing that a majority of people currently in prison will eventually return to our communities and our neighborhoods.

To make matters worse, the evidence is clear that there are structural race problems in this system. Latinx adults are three times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. For the exact same crimes, Black Americans are more likely than whites to be arrested, charged, wrongfully convicted, and given harsher sentences. One in ten Black children has an incarcerated parent....

Address the legacy of the War on Drugs. For four decades, we’ve subscribed to a “War on Drugs” theory of crime, which has criminalized addiction, ripped apart families — and largely failed to curb drug use. This failure has been particularly harmful for communities of color, and we need a new approach. It starts with legalizing marijuana and erasing past convictions, and then eliminating the remaining disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. And rather than incarcerating individuals with substance abuse disorders, we should expand options that divert them into programs that provide real treatment....

Prosecutorial and Judicial Reform. Our current criminal system is complex and places enormous power in the hands of the state. The government controls what leads to pursue, what charges are levied, whether a plea is offered, and how long someone spends behind bars. It has massive resources at its disposal, and enjoys few obligations to share information and limited oversight of its actions. All of this makes it challenging to ensure that the accused can go to trial, can get a fair trial, and can receive a just and reasonable sentence if convicted. To make matters worse, race permeates every aspect of the system — people of color are twice as likely to be charged with crimes that carry a mandatory minimum sentence. Reform requires a transparent system that emphasizes justice, that gives people a fighting chance — and truly treats everyone equally, regardless of color. Here’s how we can start.

Strengthen public defenders and expand access to counsel. The Sixth Amendment provides every American accused of a crime with the right to an attorney — but too many defendants cannot afford one, and too often, public defenders are under-resourced, overworked, and overwhelmed. If we expect fair adversarial trials, we need to balance resources on both sides of each case in every jurisdiction. I’ll fund federal public defenders and expand targeted grant funding for public defenders at the state level, to ensure that they have the tools to effectively defend their clients. I’ll also reopen and expand DOJ’s Office for Access to Justice, which worked with state and local governments to expand access to counsel. We should ensure that our public defenders are paid a fair salary for their work, and that their caseloads allow for the comprehensive defense of their clients. Finally, I’ll provide funding for language and cultural competency training, including on gender identity and treatment of individuals with disabilities, so that public defenders are best able to serve their clients....

Reforming Incarceration

The federal prison population has grown 650% since 1980, and costs have ballooned by 685%. This explosion has been driven in large part by rules requiring mandatory minimum sentences and other excessively long sentencing practices. These harsh sentencing practices are not only immoral, there’s little evidence that they are effective. As president I will fight change them.

Reduce mandatory minimums. The 1994 crime bill’s mandatory minimums and “truth-in-sentencing” provisions that require offenders to serve the vast majority of their sentences have not proven effective.  Congress should reduce or eliminate these provisions, giving judges more flexibility in sentencing decisions, with the goal of reducing incarceration to mid-1990s levels.  My administration will also reverse the Sessions memo that requires federal prosecutors to seek the most severe possible penalties, and allow federal prosecutors discretion to raise the charge standards for misdemeanors and seek shorter sentences for felony convictions...

End the death penalty. Studies show that capital punishment is often applied in a manner biased against people of color and those with a mental illness. I oppose the death penalty.  A Warren administration would reverse Attorney General Barr’s decision to move forward with federal executions, and Congress should abolish the death penalty.

Use the pardon and clemency powers broadly to right systemic injustices.  The president has significant powers to grant clemency and pardons, and historically presidents have used that power broadly. But today’s hierarchical process at DOJ results in relatively few and conservative clemency recommendations. I’ll remove the clemency process from DOJ, instead empowering a clemency board to make recommendations directly to the White House. I’ll direct the board to identify broad classes of potentially-deserving individuals for review, including those who would have benefited from retroactivity under the First Step Act, individuals who are jailed under outdated or discriminatory drug laws, or those serving mandatory minimums that should be abolished.

While I will leave it to others to assess this plan as a whole, I must initially express disappointment that plan calls only to "reduce mandatory minimums"  rather than eliminate them.  And, in context, it seems that Senator Warren is only focused on the 1994 Crime Bill mandatory minimums whereas a number of other ones are far more consequential and pernicious. 

Even more worrisome is Senator Warren setting a "goal of reducing incarceration to mid-1990s levels."  Incarceration levels were already crazy-high by the mid-1990s: as this BJS report notes, "prisons at yearend 1996 totaled 427 sentenced inmates per 100,000 residents -- up from 292 in 1990."  Meanwhile, at the end of 2017, as detailed in this BJS document, ten years of small reductions had us down to "440 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents."  In other words, our incarceration rates are already pretty close to "mid-1990s levels" and we might well be below those levels by the end of this year thanks in part to the FIRST STEP Act and its echoes.

A few of many prior recent related posts:

August 20, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Enduring examinations of the data and dynamics of modern mass incarceration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 15, 2019

"Is Mass Incarceration Inevitable?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Andrew Leipold now available on SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The claim that American justice system engages in "mass incarceration" is now a cliché, albeit one that seems entirely justified by both the number and rate of people who are behind bars.  As a result, a large number of states and the fed­eral government have engaged in wide-ranging reform efforts to shorten senten­ces, divert people from prison, and in general reduce incarceration numbers to more manageable levels.  Although these efforts have made modest gains, there has been little discussion of whether their ultimate goal is feasible-reducing incarceration levels to a point where "mass" incarceration is no longer an apt description.

This article explores the likelihood of a meaningful, sustained reduction in incarceration rates. It begins by asking what we really mean by mass incarcera­tion and finds that while the definition is surprisingly complex, the label ulti­mately seems justified.  Then, using existing and original compilations of data, the article examines some of the less-obvious obstacles to reducing prison popula­tions.  In particular, it highlights the difficulty of reducing incarceration rates without addressing the problems created by those convicted of violent crimes, something few reforms have been willing or able to do.  It also argues that those who believe prison reform will lead to economic savings-a primary motivation in virtually every state-are misguided, and that illusion of economic savings might ultimately derail the reform efforts.

The article then takes a further step and suggests that efforts to decrease incarceration levels will inevitably be frustrated unless the most influential per­son in the creation of mass incarceration, the prosecutor, is induced to play a more central role.  To date, reform efforts have routinely targeted everyone in the process except prosecutors, and this article offers both suggestions on why this is so and an argument for why prosecutors are an indispensable part of any change.  The article concludes with the sobering prediction that, as useful as recent reforms have been, as currently constructed they will ultimately be inad­equate to erase the mass incarceration label for years to come.

August 15, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Shouldn't all prosecutors (and judges and defense attorneys and police and probation officers) make regular and repeated visits to prisons?

Last month the folks at FAMM started the #VisitAPrison challenge which calls on lawmakers to visit a prison or jail and which rightly highlights that many legislators who make and change laws governing incarceration often have no direct or personal experiences with prisons or persons incarcerated therein. I consider the FAMM campaign very valuable and important, and this interesting new piece by Daniel Nichanian at The Appeal Political Report prompted the follow-up question that serves as the title of this post.  This piece is headlined "Prosecutor Sends Staff to Prison, in a Bid to Counter Their Reflex to Incarcerate,"and I recommend it in full. Here are excerpts:

Sarah Fair George, the state’s attorney of Chittenden County (home to Burlington) in Vermont, has instructed all staff and prosecutors who work in her office to visit the St. Albans prison, also known as the Northwest State Correctional Facility. “Most prosecutors have never stepped foot in the buildings that they sentence people to spend years in,” she wrote on Twitter. “That needs to change.”

I talked to George on Wednesday about her initiative, and how it could change practices in her office. She said prosecutors often treat prison time “nonchalantly,” as something abstract, and get in the habit of “just throwing out numbers.” “We say six months or two years, and don’t really have to think about what it means for the person,” she explained.

“It’s important to stand in that space and see it for yourself, and feel it for yourself,” she added. “My hope is that people recognize that six months is a long time to spend in jail. Maybe thirty days can be enough time, maybe no jail. Just being more cognizant of the space you’re sending people to when you put an arbitrary number on an offer sheet.”

George said this perspective should fuel shorter sentences, but also restrain prosecutors from seeking incarceration in the first place. “They spent an hour and a half there and were relieved to get out,” she said of staff members who have already visited St. Albans as part of her initiative. “So let’s imagine how this might impact somebody who is there for six months or a year, and how this impacts them as a community member when they get back out. Is there a way that we can avoid that entirely, and not risk them coming out a more violent person or with some type of trauma having been in jail? Can we find another way?”...

The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Q: You announced that you have instructed prosecutors in your office to visit a prison in the next month. What is the impetus for this, and what insights do you wish them to glean?

A:  For me, it has gone back to my own experience having been in some of these prisons. It has shaped a lot of my reform policies and how I approach prosecution in general. When I was in grad school, I went to multiple prisons and was on the mental health wards at those prisons, which were in some cases pretty appalling. Then, when I was at the public defender’s office, I went to several prisons and met with clients and heard the stories of either how they were treated in jail or the conditions of jail, solitary confinement, stuff like that. I came into being a prosecutor with that background, and with that idea of what some of those prisons are like.

I have always thought it is important for people to understand what probation does, and what some of our community partners do, and that’s always been stressed. But it’s never been stressed that they should also fully understand what prison means, and what a jail sentence means for these individuals. As prosecutors, we get very comfortable with just throwing out numbers as an amount of time. We say six months or two years, and don’t really have to think about what it means for the person, that six months for one person could be detrimental to their entire lives.

What are you thinking of when you say it’s important to understand what prison means for individuals? What it is that you think people in your office should have to witness?

Literally just seeing the facility, and understanding literally where they’re sending people. But also being in one of those cells and sitting on the bed in a cell and seeing how small that space is, and seeing a solitary confinement room and seeing how claustrophobic you get in five minutes in that room. Hearing those sounds in the jail of those doors closing, and how cold and harsh all of those sounds are. Seeing inmates in that environment. In Vermont, there is this idea that jail isn’t that bad, and in some sense we’re very lucky, but that’s a lot easier to say on the outside. You spend an hour and a half in the jail and you find yourself relieved to come out. You know you were always coming out, but you have that experience and you think, “Okay, maybe that TV and that good food is not as important as I thought it was when I just lost my freedom for an hour and a half, knowing full well I’ll be coming out and I’m still relieved.”

As a prosecutor, the only time I’ve been to a jail is for a deposition of an inmate, or an inmate who wants to do a proffer. Those meetings are very structured, they’re in a space right inside the jail, so you’re not going very far. There’s really nobody else around. That doesn’t count for me, that’s a very easy way to say you’ve been in a jail without actually being in a facility. I think it’s important to really stand in that space and see it for yourself, and feel it for yourself.

Q:  How exactly do you think prosecutors should take these things into account in the course of their work? At what stages of their discretion should this weigh in?

A: It may not start necessarily with the charging decisions, but I think in some cases it could. If you know for example that this person’s parole could be revoked and they may go back to jail, or you know that they might be held in bond or some other violation, then maybe it does charge at the charging decision. But at the very least, I think that when you’re giving an offer on a case and you nonchalantly say six months as if that’s not a lot of time, my hope is that people recognize that six months is a long time to spend in jail. Maybe thirty days is enough time, maybe no jail. Just being more cognizant of the space you’re sending people to when you put an arbitrary number on an offer sheet.

But also understanding where people are coming from. Somebody may have a long record, and that record has led to incarcerative sentences several times in their history — maybe you can have a better understanding of why they are in the place that they’re in, having spent all that time in jail. Maybe doing it again isn’t going to do them hasn’t favors. That hasn’t worked, that person is back. Maybe we need to find another way to address this particular person.

August 15, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, August 11, 2019

"Between 2007 and 2017, 34 States Reduced Crime and Incarceration in Tandem"

The title of this post is the title of this recent posting over at the Brennan Center for Justice authored by Cameron Kimble and Ames Grawert. The subheading provide a summary of its main points: "Some still argue that increasing imprisonment is necessary to reduce crime. Data show otherwise." Here are excerpts:

It’s now been several decades since states around the country began experimenting with criminal justice reform — specifically, by reducing the number of people behind prison bars. Now we can start to take stock of the results. They’re encouraging — but with the prison population still sky-high, there’s a lot more to do.

Between 2007 and 2017, 34 states reduced both imprisonment and crime rates simultaneously, showing clearly that reducing mass incarceration does not come at the cost of public safety. The total number of sentenced individuals held in state prisons across the U.S. also decreased by 6 percent over the same decade. And these drops played out across the country....

While it’s tempting to focus on the Southern states — which were some of the most notable early adopters of reform — reductions in the last decade occurred across the board. The Northeast saw the largest average decline in imprisonment rate (24 percent), with only Pennsylvania recording an increase (3 percent). Crime rates also dropped fastest in the Northeast region, falling by just over 30 percent on average.

By contrast, the Midwest saw imprisonment rates drop by only 1 percent on average, and that modest reduction was driven by Michigan (20 percent), where recent criminal justice reforms are focused on reducing recidivism. With returns to prison down 41 percent since 2006, the state is home to one of the most comprehensive statewide reentry initiatives in the country....

It’s tough to say why some states successfully reduced their prison population while others failed. One possible commonality relates to socioeconomic well-being. Over half of the states where imprisonment rates grew had poverty rates above the national average as well. Those states were also some of the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic. West Virginia typifies this experience: crime rates dropped, but incarceration rose amidst the state’s struggles with opioid abuse and poverty....

The data clearly demonstrate that the United States’ prison population can be reduced without sacrificing the public safety gains of recent decades. Thirty-four states seem to have accepted this notion, as reflected by their (often) sharp declines in rates of imprisonment. Others lag far behind.

To this day, the United States imprisons its citizens at a higher rate than any other Western democracy. Though recent progress is surely encouraging, at the current rate of decarceration it would take nearly 40 years to return to imprisonment rates observed in 1971 — the last time the national crime rate was this low. And some aspects of justice reform are moving backwards. According to one recent study, jail reform is a purely urban phenomenon, as rural incarceration rates are actually increasing.

There’s no single solution to mass incarceration. Instead, states must continue making efforts to reduce imprisonment. And the minority of states that have not embraced decarceration need not look far to see that overreliance on incarceration is an ineffective and expensive means of keeping the public safe.

August 11, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Notable Govs make the case for pressing forward with additional criminal justice reforms

Jerry Brown, former governor of California, and Matt Bevin, current governor of Kentucky, have this new Hill commentary under the headline "The US has barely scratched the surface on criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

In these highly polarized times, our nation is awash in loud and public fights about immigration, health care, global warming, and other daunting challenges. Criminal justice used to be on that list of divisive topics.  But now Americans of nearly every political and demographic perspective agree — we need a public safety approach that works better and costs less.

As current and former governors who prioritize greater justice and safety, we believe this historic moment carries great opportunity, but even greater responsibility.  We must ensure that our momentum does not slip away, and we must push forward with nonpartisan purpose toward a criminal justice system worthy of our nation.

Our states of Kentucky and California are very different.  But we and other leaders across the country have coalesced around the principle that while people must be held accountable for breaking our laws, we cannot build our way to a safer society with ever-more prisons....

But while several dozen states and the federal government have made laudable progress, we’ve barely scratched the surface of all that must be done.  Taxpayers spend a quarter trillion dollars per year to arrest, try, sentence, and supervise the 7 million adults behind bars or on probation and parole.  Yet return-to-prison rates remain high, too many communities struggle with violence and substance abuse, and new technologies are increasing our vulnerability to cybercrime and other threats.

Fortunately, we know a lot more about what works in criminal justice than we did 40 years ago, when our nation began an incarceration boom that has exacted a heavy toll, in both fiscal and human costs.  While there are no magic bullets, research has spotlighted effective strategies to stop the cycle of reoffending and better equip people leaving prison to resume stable lives....

We’ve witnessed the power of shifting political winds, and we know that, particularly with criminal justice reform, we must double down on our efforts and guard against backward-looking proposals that are borne of emotion or recycle failed ideas of the past.

August 6, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 01, 2019

"Using the ADA's 'Integration Mandate' to Disrupt Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now on SSRN authored by Robert Dinerstein and Shira Wakschlag.  Here is the abstract:

As a result of the disability rights movement's fight for the development of community-based services, the percentage of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and mental illness living in institutions has significantly decreased over the last few decades.  However, in part because of government failure to invest properly in community-based services required for a successful transition from institutions, individuals with disabilities are now dramatically overrepresented in jails and prisons. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act's (ADA) "integration mandate" -- a principle strengthened by the Supreme Court's 1999 Olmstead v. L.C. decision, entitling individuals with disabilities to receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs -- may provide one avenue to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and overrepresentation of people with I/DD and mental illness in prisons and jails.  In this Article, we explore how the federal government and private parties have used--and are beginning to use in new ways -- the integration mandate to advocate for the rights of individuals with disabilities to receive the supports they need to thrive in the community and avoid unnecessary entanglement with the criminal justice system.

August 1, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

"The Singularity and the Familiarity of Solitary Confinement"

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

More than 60,000 people are held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.  This essay explores the ways in which solitary confinement is distinctive and yet also is a familiar feature of U.S. prisons.  To do so, I track the expansion of solitary confinement, analyze the debate in federal courts about its lawfulness, and provide recent data on its widespread use.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court condoned the use of solitary confinement, even as it also licensed courts to inquire about whether a particular version imposed an “atypical and significant hardship” on an individual.  If a prisoner can make such a showing, prison officials must provide some procedural buffers against arbitrary placements.

Empirical understandings of the use of solitary confinement comes through nation-wide surveys undertaken by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Liman Center at Yale Law School.  Data from 2018 identified more than 60,000 individuals who were placed in cells for 15 days or more for 22 hours or more.  Almost 4,000 people have been so confined for three years or more.

Solitary confinement is thus all too “typical” a facet of prison life.  Yet its commonplace occurrence ought not insulate solitary confinement from the conclusion that it is an illicitly cruel practice that debilitates individuals.  The complexity of doing so stems not only from the widespread use of solitary confinement, but also from the ways in which U.S. prisons are committed to many practices that are isolating and disabling of individuals.

August 1, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Noticing the (inevitable?) contentions that the right people are in prison and the wrong people are getting out

At a time of considerable excitement about a range of criminal justice reforms (including leading Prez candidates seeking to outdo each other with ambitious reform proposals), and with the mainstream press giving coverage to many important human (and human-interest) stories surrounding the release of prisoners with the implementation of the FIRST STEP Act, it can be all too easy to forget that not everyone sees a need for criminal justice reform and not everyone is excited to see people released from prison.  These pieces caught my eye in recent days as providing useful examples that there are still plenty of folks eager to contend that the right people are in prison and the wrong people are getting out:

From the City Journal by Rafael Mangual, "Everything You Don’t Know About Mass Incarceration: Contrary to the popular narrative, most American prisoners belong behind bars."

From the Conservative Review by Daniel Horowitz, "Well, well: Criminal justice ‘reform’ wasn’t about ‘non-violent’ offenders after all"

From Fox News by Gregg Re, "Exclusive: Violent criminals and sex offenders released early due to 'First Step Act' legislation"

Some of these pieces are more responsible than others (e.g., the Fox News piece is particularly ugly for making much of the fact that all types of prisoners got the benefit of the "good time fix" that became effective last week). But all of these pieces highlight the kind of rhetoric and reasoning that it seems will be an inevitably enduring part of criminal justice conversations.

UPDATE: I have now seen these two notable responses to the last of the pieces noted above:

From Reason by C.J. Ciaramella, "Tucker Carlson's Unhinged Rant Against Prison Reform Makes Us All Dumber: Carlson claims the law 'allowed hundreds of violent criminals' back on the street. Here's what he didn't tell you."

From the Washington Examiner by Derek Cohen, "Tucker Carlson and John Kennedy get the First Step Act all wrong"

July 24, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

US House Subcommittee hearing spotlights "Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System"

Last week, as noted over at my marijuana blog, the Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee of the Committee of the Judiciary of the US House of Representatives conducted a notable hearing titled "Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform."   This week, that subcommittee continue to spotlight the need for criminal justice reform through a hearing this morning titled "Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System."  This ABC News piece, headlined "House Judiciary subcommittee meets on growing population of women behind bars," provides a an effective summary of parts of the hearing, and here are excerpts:

Like 80% of women incarcerated in the U.S., Cynthia Shank was a mother when she went to prison.  Shank was pregnant when she was indicted and like many incarcerated women, she served time for nonviolent offenses -- in her case, she was sentenced to 15-years for federal conspiracy charges related to crimes committed by her deceased ex-boyfriend.  Nearly 150,000 women are pregnant when they are admitted into prison.

Shank, along with other prison reform advocates, appeared in front of the House Judiciary subcommittee for a hearing on women in the criminal justice system to discuss ways to make sure women are not overlooked in the conversation on criminal justice reform.  "Prison destroyed my small young family," Shank said.  "Prison is set up to separate and destroy bonds."...

Piper Kerman, author of the novel turned Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," also shared what her experience was like while imprisoned and why there needs to be a shift in policy to directly impact the growing number of women in prison.  "Policies, not crime, drive incarceration," Kerman said.

Women are now the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population and initiatives to slow and even reverse the growth of the prison population have had disproportionately less effect on women, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.  The total number of men incarcerated in state prisons fell more than 5% between 2009 and 2015, while the number of women in state prisons fell only a fraction of a percent, 0.29% "In a number of states, women's prison populations are growing faster than men's, and in others, they are going up while men's are actually declining," said Aleks Kajstura, legal director of the Prison Policy Initiative.

The war on drugs is what many of the panelists and lawmakers pointed to as part of the reason there are such high rates of women incarcerated.  "Much of the growth of women in prisons can be attributed to the war on drugs," said Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director of the Washington legislative office for the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Addressing this unfair issue is important because the war on drugs appears to be a large driver of the incarceration rates of women, as illustrated by the fact that the proportion of women in prison for a drug offense has increased from 12% in 1986 to 25% in more recent years." Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said.

An estimated 61% of women are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, according to The Sentencing Project.  McCurdy touched on what many women, including Shank, fall victim to in the criminal justice system -- conspiracy charges as they relate to a significant other, also known as the "Girlfriend problem."

"You don't have to necessarily have dealt drugs, you have to have some role in a conspiracy and that role is very little," McCurdy said. "You can pick up the phone in your house that you live in with your partner and that's enough to implicate you in a conspiracy."

Family trauma was also a major focal point of the hearing, as lawmakers turned to the panel to seek their insight on the best ways to address the trauma of family separation. Shank told the subcommittee members that while she was incarcerated in a federal prison in Florida, she was only able to see her children once a year and that her children would beg her not to hang up the phone when they spoke.  "I'm an adult, I accepted the consequences of my sentencing, but my children were the innocent victims of this," Shank said.

The committee also spent time discussing the relationship between male prison guards and female inmates, with both Shank and Kerman saying that there needs to be more attention on the safety of women who are behind bars with male guards. "I never felt safe changing," Shank said.  "Guards know your schedule, and if they want to single you out they will."

Panelists were also asked to speak on the need of bail reform for women behind bars, as 1 in 4 women who are incarcerated have not been convicted and over 60% of women who could not make bail are parents of minor children, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.  Kerman said that there needs to be primary care consideration in the courts that require judges to consider the impact on families in both pre-trial hearings and sentencing.

"Women will no longer be overlooked in the criminal justice conversation," Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., said. "We must have an overall approach to criminal justice reform that specifically considers women.

The full two-hour+ hearing, along with the written testimony submitted by the official witnesses, can all be found at this official webpage.  And Piper Kerman's written testimony has a first footnote that provides this statistical basis for heightened concerns about the modern treatment of women and girls in the criminal justice system: "Since 1978, women’s state prison populations have grown 834%, while men’s state prison populations have grown 367%."

July 16, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

FAMM releases materials in support of new "Second Look Act" proposed by Senator Cory Booker

As noted in this post, Senator Cory Booker is now promoting a notable new second look provision to be added to federal sentencing laws.  The group FAMM has marked this development with this press release that includes notable new materials helping to make the case for a second look provision in federal law.  Here is part of the press release and its linked materials:

This week Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) will be introducing the Matthew Charles and William Underwood Act. The bill would create a second look sentencing provision to allow judges to reduce lengthy sentences if a person has served more than 10 years, has made significant strides toward rehabilitation, and is no longer a risk to public safety.

“We have to stop throwing so many people away. People can change, and our sentencing laws ought to reflect that,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring. “Lengthy prison sentences are not always the right answer, especially when someone has proven their commitment to rehabilitation. Public safety can be improved by taking a second look at those lengthy sentences, reducing them when warranted, and redirecting anti-crime resources where they might actually do some good.”...

The bill is named in honor of Matthew Charles, a FAMM Justice Fellow and the first beneficiary of the First Step Act’s retroactive sentencing reform, and William Underwood, who is currently serving a life without parole sentence for a federal drug conviction....

In support of the new legislation, FAMM is releasing the following:

FAMM has been a longtime supporter of expanding ways to revisit harsh sentences, including executive clemency, compassionate release, and second look. Last month, USA Today published an op-ed co-authored by Ring and former federal judge Kevin Sharp on the need for second look sentencing laws.

July 16, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

More coverage prisoner reentry issues as FIRST STEP Act's "good time" fix approaches

Prior FIRST STEP Act implementation posts (linked below) noted the delayed application of the Act's "good time" fix, which provides that well-behaved prisoners now get a full 15% credit for good behavior amounting to up to 54 days (not just 47 days) per year in "good time."   And in this post last month, I noted press coverage and efforts surrounding this "good time" fix as it gets closer to kicking in this month (assuming the Attorney General complies with a key deadline in the Act).  This press coverage continues with this Fox News piece headlined "Thousands of ex-prisoners to reunite with their families this month as part of First Step Act," and here are excerpts therefrom:

More than 2,200 federal inmates are returning to their families this month from behind bars under the bipartisan prison reform bill President Trump signed into law last year, according to policy experts and prisoner advocates involved in the effort.

This month will see the largest group to be freed so far under a clause in the First Step Act that reduces sentences due to "earned good time."  In addition to family reunification, the formerly incarcerated citizens, 90 percent of whom have been African-American, hope to get employment opportunities touted by Trump last month at the White House as part of the "Second Chance" hiring program.

"We’re a nation that believes in redemption," the president said, noting Americans with criminal backgrounds are unemployed at rates up to five times the national average, which was around 3.8 percent earlier this year. "You're gonna have an incredible future."

The Trump Administration has asked the private sector to help the ex-prisoners reacclimate to their newfound freedom with jobs and housing in one of the largest criminal justice public-private-partnerships ever assembled.

Kim Kardashian West, who successfully lobbied President Trump to free Alice Johnson, a great-grandmother who was serving a life sentence convicted of drug trafficking for a first-time, non-violent drug offense, announced a partnership with rideshare organization Lyft to hand out gift cards for reformed criminals to get to and from job interviews as transportation can be a barrier. "I just want to thank the president for really standing behind this issue and seeing the compassion that he's had for criminal justice has been really remarkable," the "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" star said during a Second Chance Hiring and Re-entry event at the White House in June....

Matthew Charles, the first inmate released from the program and recognized by Trump for being a “model citizen,” told “America’s Newsroom” barriers to employment and housing need to be “eliminated” so former inmates don’t find themselves back in prison.  The Trump Administration has a broad amount of support across governmental departments from labor to DOJ to DOE, as well as governors across the country streamlining state services in order to reduce the barriers Charles mentioned.

This article seems to imply that ninety percent of those who will be released from prison soon thanks to the "good time" fix are African-American, but that racial statistic actually relates to the distinct group of prisoners who have received reductions in their crack sentences due to a different provision in the FIRST STEP Act.  The group getting relief thanks to the operation of the "good time" fix later this month is likely to be more closely representative of the entire federal prison population (which is, very roughly speaking, about 1/3 white, 1/3 black, and 1/3 Latino).  And, as noted in another recent press article, a good number of non-citizen offenders will be deported upon their release from prison.

Prior related posts:

July 9, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 08, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Mass-Incarceration Inevitable? by Andrew Leipold

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 05, 2019

"The rapid expansion of the US prison population since the 1970s might have contributed substantially to the ongoing increase in overdose deaths"

The quote in the title of this post is a line from this notable new Lancet Public Health study titled "Economic decline, incarceration, and mortality from drug use disorders in the USA between 1983 and 2014: an observational analysis."  This new study, authored by Elias Nosrati, Jacob Kang-Brown, Michael Ash, Martin McKee, Michael Marmot and Lawrence King, starts with this summary:

Background Drug use disorders are an increasing cause of disability and early death in the USA, with substantial geographical variation.  We aimed to investigate the associations between economic decline, incarceration rates, and age-standardised mortality from drug use disorders at the county level in the USA.

Methods In this observational analysis, we examined age-standardised mortality data from the US National Vital Statistics System and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, household income data from the US Census Bureau, and county-level jail and prison incarceration data from the Vera Institute of Justice for 2640 US counties between 1983 and 2014.  We also extracted data on county-level control variables from the US Census Bureau, the National Center for Health Statistics, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  We used a two-way fixed-effects panel regression to examine the association between reduced household income, incarceration, and mortality from drug use disorders within counties over time.  To assess between-county variation, we used coarsened exact matching and a simulation-based modelling approach.

Findings After adjusting for key confounders, each 1 SD decrease in median household income was associated with an increase of 12·8% (95% CI 11·0–14·6; p<0·0001) in drug-related deaths within counties.  Each 1 SD increase in jail and prison incarceration rates was associated with an increase of 1·5% (95% CI 1·0–2·0; p<0·0001) and 2·6% (2·1–3·1; p<0·0001) in drug-related mortality, respectively.  The association between drug-related mortality and income and incarceration persisted after controlling for local opioid prescription rates.  Our model accounts for a large proportion of within-county variation in mortality from drug use disorders (R²=0·975).  Between counties, high rates of incarceration were associated with a more than 50% increase in drug-related deaths.

Interpretation Reduced household income and high incarceration rates are associated with poor health. T he rapid expansion of the prison and jail population in the USA over the past four decades might have contributed to the increasing number of deaths from drug use disorders.

UPDATE: I see now that this journal issue also has this related editorial titled "US mass incarceration damages health and shortens lives." Here is an excerpt:

The findings of this study support a plausible case that mass incarceration has added to the damaging effects of economic decline in increasing drug use and mortality. Incarceration can lead to drug addiction and death by feeding feelings of stigmatisation, by entrenching poor economic prospects, by breaking up families and communities, and by worsening individual mental health.

Over the past 40 years, US politicians of all stripes have sought to appear tough on crime, which has led to an over-reliance on incarceration across many types of offences and damaged public health.  Drastic changes to the justice system will be needed to seriously reduce the prison population.  Legislators need to repeal regressive sentencing laws that inflate the use of imprisonment (such as the three strikes law) and allow judges to pass sentences that are proportional to the crime.  Discriminatory policies and those that unfairly pull the poor into incarceration — such as money bail, plea bargaining, and arrests for crimes of poverty — must also be addressed.  Finally, chronic substance abuse should be confronted with treatment, not criminalisation.  As Natasa Gisev and colleagues' study shows, also in this issue, consistent opioid agonist treatment can reduce criminal involvement.  Drug misuse is a public health issue; more than a criminal one, and like many other petty crimes, it would be more effectively addressed by investment in social and community services, and not in steel bars.

July 5, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior recent related posts:

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