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 (2)

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)

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Sentencing Project reports one of every 15 women in prison (nearly 7,000) serving life or virtual life sentence

Via email I received this morning this fact sheet from The Sentencing Project titled "Women and Girls Serving Life Sentences" (which lead me to see that, a few weeks ago, it also release this related fact sheet titled "Incarcerated Women and Girls"). Here is the start of this latest publication:

Nationwide one of every 15 women in prison — nearly 7,000 women — is serving a life or virtual life sentence.  One-third of them have no chance for parole, so their prospects for release are highly improbable.  The number of women serving life sentences has grown dramatically despite declining rates of violent crime among women.

As is the case with imprisonment generally, men comprise the overwhelming proportion of people in prison for life; 97% of lifers are men.  At the same time, the number of women serving life sentences is rising more quickly than it is for men.  The Sentencing Project collected life-imprisonment figures by gender in 2008 and 2016. W e find that during this nine-year period the number of women serving life sentences increased by 20%, compared to a 15% increase for men.

The rise in life imprisonment among women has also been far more rapid than the overall prison population increase among women for violent offenses.  Between 2008 and 2016 there was a 2% increase in the number of imprisoned women for a violent crime, but a 20% increase in the number of women serving a life sentence.  When analysis is limited to life-without-parole sentences, we see that the number of women serving these sentences increased by 41% compared to 29% for men.

June 26, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

"Bail and Mass Incarceration"

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

It is widely known that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world, and the causes and ramifications of mass incarceration are the subject of intense study.  It is also increasingly widely recognized that the high rates of pretrial detention, often linked to the use of money bail, are unjust, expensive, and often counterproductive.  But, so far, the links between money bail, pretrial detention, and mass incarceration have been largely unexplored.  Our criminal justice system relies primarily on plea bargains to secure convictions at a relatively low cost.  And, as shown by recent empirical work, the bail system, which results in high pretrial detention rates for indigent defendants, plays a significant role in incentivizing quick pleas, and leads to more convictions and longer sentences.

Releasing more defendants pretrial would generate more pretrial motions, lengthier plea negotiations, and more trials, and would thus raise the cost — in the form of prosecutors, public defenders, and judges — of convictions and imprisonment.  In other words, if we release significantly more defendants pretrial, we will have to either spend more on criminal justice or convict fewer people and punish them less severely.  In addition to inducing quick, inexpensive guilty pleas from defendants unable to post bond, money bail also plays a more subtle role in sustaining high incarceration rates.  Money bail, by its very nature, discriminates based on wealth, and thus provides a built-in sorting mechanism — politically weak low-income defendants are pushed into the quick-plea process, while wealthier defendants are able to obtain release and the increased access to more robust process that it affords.  If politically better-represented wealthy and middle-class defendants were detained, and thus subjected to at least some of the same pressures to plead guilty as indigent defendants, there would, in all likelihood, be more demand for reform.

This Article explores the role of bail in mass incarceration, concluding that opponents of mass incarceration should pay increased attention to the pretrial process as a locus of reform.  Relatedly, it analyzes the likely impact of the bail–plea bargain link on future bail reform — which, of course, serves important interests beyond reducing the prison population, such as fairness and the avoidance of wrongful convictions.

June 11, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Spotlighting the enduring business of jails

Keith Humphreys has this notable new Washington Post piece headlined "How jails stay full even as crime falls."  Here are excerpts:

Crime has fallen dramatically in recent decades.  The number of people in jail for committing crimes hasn’t.

New Bureau of Justice Statistics data reveal that jails held 745,200 inmates in 2017, virtually identical to the 747,500 they held in 2005, and significantly higher than the 584,400 they held in 1998.  How does the correctional system keep jails full when there just aren’t as many crimes as there used to be?  By locking up an increasing number of people who are awaiting trial and could well be innocent.

The number of individuals held in jail while awaiting trial has soared 45.3 percent, from 331,800 in 1998 to 482,000 in 2017.  By contrast, the number of convicted inmates is almost the same as it was 20 years ago (252,600 in 1998 vs. 263,200 in 2017).  About 95 percent of the jail population’s growth is thus accounted for by people who haven’t been convicted of a crime.

By jailing more and more people who are awaiting trial, the criminal justice system can keep jails full no matter how much crime falls.  This may be seen as a good thing by the hundreds of thousands of people who work in jails, the companies that supply services to jails (i.e., food), and the communities that value correctional facilities as a form of economic stimulus.  But it’s a world-class bug from the point of view of innocent people who are jailed while awaiting trial, not to mention taxpayers.

Given the internal incentives to keep jails full, change will have to come from outside the criminal justice system.  The most obvious lever available, which is picking up steam in multiple states, is bail reform.  States could simply mandate that individuals accused of low-level crimes are automatically released on their own recognizance before trial. Jurisdictions that have experimented with this approach have found rates of appearing at trial in excess of 98 percent....

States, cities and counties should also consider closing or at least downsizing jails.  If the system is going to find ways to keep every bed full regardless of the crime rate, cutting the number of beds available may be the only way to prevent an increasing number of people accused of crimes from being punished as harshly as those who are actually convicted.

June 6, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Making the case, now a quarter century after the 1994 Crime Bill, for the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act

Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Inimai Chettiar, who helped draft of the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act back in 2015 (first discussed here), have this new New York Daily News commentary making the case for this approach to prison reform under the headline "Joe Biden, Cory Booker, the 1994 Crime Bill and the future: How to unwind American mass incarceration."  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

As the 2020 field of candidates gets more crowded, Democrats have started weaponizing one of the most influential pieces of criminal justice legislation in the last 50 years — the 1994 Crime Bill.  Joe Biden, a key author of the bill when he served in the Senate, has doubled down, while his primary opponents correctly point to how it helped contribute to mass incarceration.

The debate is important, but an exclusive focus on the past underplays a crucial question: Moving forward, how will the country end mass incarceration that decades of federal funding helped create?  And what are presidential candidates’ plans to reverse failed policies?

The size of the U.S. prison system is unparalleled.  If each state were its own country, 23 states would have the highest incarceration rates in the world.  People of color are vastly overrepresented. African Americans make up 13% of the country’s population but almost 40% of the nation’s prisoners.

In response, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), along with Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), have just reintroduced the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act.  The bill, which they first introduced last Congress, provides financial incentives to states (which house 88% of America’s prison population) to reduce imprisonment rates.  It starts to unwind the web of perverse incentives set in motion by the Crime Bill and other laws.

To receive federal funding awards under the Act, states must reduce the imprisonment rate by 7% every three years and keep crime at current record lows.  States can choose their own path to achieve those goals, since the legislation sets targets instead of dictating policy....

The federal government has a long history of using federal funds to shape the criminal justice landscape.  For example, a bill passed in 1968 — amid concerns over rising crime rates — set up grant programs that allocated money to states to be used for any purpose associated with reducing crime.  Over two years, it authorized $400 million (roughly $2.7 billion in today’s dollars) in grants.  Two decades later, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 played a central role in government policy in the War on Drugs by reinstating mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, establishing $230 million (nearly $500 million today) in grants to fund drug enforcement while not permitting funding of drug prevention programs.

The 1994 Crime Bill extended that trend. It promised $8 billion ($13 billion in today’s dollars) to states if they adopted “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which required incarcerated individuals to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.  A study by the Urban Institute found that between 1995 and 1999, nine states adopted truth-in-sentencing laws for the first time, and 15 states reported the Crime Bill was a key or partial factor in changing their truth-in-sentencing laws.  By 1999, a total of 42 states had such laws on the books....

Over the past decade, states have taken steps to move away from harsh sentencing laws. And Congress has made reforms to sentencing at the federal level, including the FIRST STEP Act, passed last year.

Certainly, one piece of federal legislation alone will not end mass incarceration, just as the 1994 Crime Bill was not solely responsible for causing it. Innovative changes at the local level must continue....  But the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act is one of the strongest steps the federal government can take to end mass incarceration.  By providing financial incentives to help power important changes at the local level, it’s a national bill that would help set a tone across the country.  It will encourage states to orient criminal justice strategies across the country toward more just and fair outcomes.

A few prior related posts:

May 23, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Shouldn't it now constitutional problematic for extreme LWOP sentences to be preserved after legislative changes to three-strikes laws?

The question in the title of this post might be directed to some important federal cases in the wake of the FIRST STEP Act.  But this morning the question comes to mind due to this new AP article discussing state sentencing changes not made retroactive in Washington.  The article is headlined "‘3 strikes’ sentencing reform leaves out Washington inmates," and here are the disconcerting details:

A small group of inmates, disproportionately black, are set to stay in Washington state prisons for life — left out of the latest in a multi-year wave of reforms easing tough-on-crime “three strikes” laws around the U.S.

At least 24 states including Washington passed such laws during the 1990s, embracing tough-on-crime rhetoric. But nearly half have since scaled them back amid concern that habitual but less-violent offenders were being stuck behind bars for life with hardcore felons.

Washington’s 1993 three-strikes law was among the first and stands out as among the nation’s strictest. But lawmakers targeted it for reform this year with legislation removing second-degree robbery — generally defined as a robbery without a deadly weapon or significant injury — from the list of crimes qualifying for cumulative life sentences.

But while the original reform included a retroactive clause, making inmates sentenced under the old law eligible for resentencing, an amendment pushed by a prosecutors’ group cut out retroactivity. Washington governor and Democratic presidential contender Jay Inslee signed the changes into law April 29.

That means about 62 inmates convicted of second-degree robbery will be left serving life sentences, according to state records, even after judges stop “striking out” new offenders convicted of the same crimes. About half are black, despite African Americans making up only 4% of Washington’s population.

Under the original bill, the inmates with a robbery “strike” would have had the opportunity to have their life sentences re-examined by judges — but now they won’t. Supporters of the amendment have said even less-serious robberies can leave emotional scars, and that prosecutors might have set aside more serious charges because they knew second-degree robbery convictions would mean life in prison for those offenders.

But inmates among the 62 described frustration that offenders with similar records may face drastically shorter sentences going forward. “It’s just wrong on its face, to make people rot in prison for the rest of their life on a sentence that doesn’t even exist anymore,” said John Letellier, 67, whose 1999 fast food restaurant robbery earned him his third strike.

The push to take out the reform’s retroactivity clause emerged from the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a group that represents prosecutors. Russell Brown, the group’s director, said he reviewed most of the cases listing second-degree robbery as the third strike, and believed that prosecutors in many probably refrained from seeking more serious charges because of the guarantee the charge — known in legal circles as “Rob 2” — would count as a third strike. But he acknowledged that he never confirmed his suspicions with any of the prosecutors who handled the cases....

In Washington, second-degree robbery has one of the lowest seriousness levels of any crime on the three-strikes list, hypothetically encompassing anything from demanding money from a clerk to snatching a purse. At least 11 states including Washington have eased their three strikes laws since 2009, often removing property crimes from “strike” lists or restoring discretion to judges over previously mandatory life sentences.

But lawmakers have also often been reluctant to make the three-strikes reforms retroactive: Out of the 11 only California has included such a clause...

In phone and email interviews, inmates among the 62 in Washington described how the reform raised their hopes — and the amendment dashed them. Among them is Devon Laird, age 54 and serving life on a robbery third strike. Convicted of snatching a wallet from an elderly man outside a drugstore in 2007, Laird’s court records include convictions for violent crimes in his early 20s, but also testimony portraying him as attempting to escape a past that included being stabbed at 14 and shot twice before age 21. “When they said it wasn’t retroactive, it really set in on me that, man, I got life,” said Laird.

Cheryl Lidel, 60, is also serving life for a 2010 robbery after being convicted of other robberies and theft. She described her crimes as driven by substance abuse that began shortly after she was sexually assaulted as a young girl. In charging documents for her third-strike robbery, prosecutors said Lidel was going through heroin withdrawal when she robbed a Subway blocks from a police station, sticking her hand in her pocket to imitate a gun. She then asked a taxi to take her to an area known for drug dealing. “The first time I came here I was 23 years old, and in March of this year I turned 60,” Lidel said.

While it’s hard to say exactly how much time any of the 62 would have faced without their robbery charges counting as strikes, few would have faced life.... According to state guidelines, the maximum for second-degree robbery, given to the highest-level offenders, is less than seven years....

Some of the 62 might not have received shorter sentences because of other serious crimes on their record, including at least eight with early robbery convictions but a final strike for murder. But nearly half the inmates on the list received a third strike only for some form of robbery.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Jeannie Darneille, said before the state’s legislative session ended that she did not want to change her bill with the amendment killing retroactivity but that it would have been at risk of failing without support from law enforcement or prosecutors because lawmakers would have feared being labeled soft on crime.

The particulars of this story are all too familiar, and long-time readers know that I have long argued that the standard presumption in favor of finality for criminal judgments need not and should not be elevated over other critical criminal justice interests when a defendant seeks only to modify an ongoing prison sentence based on new legal developments.  (My full perspectives on "sentence finality" and retroactivity appear in a law review article, "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences", and in some prior posts reprinted below).   

Moreover, as the question in the title of this post highlights, I think these issues have constitutional implications when extreme sentences are in play.  Notably, many state courts have ruled that it would be unconstitutional to carry out a death sentence for a person long ago sentenced for murder after a state legislature prospectively abolished the death penalty.  Given that the Supreme Court has in the last decade applied my capital Eighth Amendment precedents to the application of LWOP sentences, it seems reasonable to argue that state courts should find it unconstitutional to not reconsider an extreme LWOP sentence for a person long ago sentenced to LWOP on a basis that a state legislature has prospectively abolished.

(Significantly, and in response to the concerns so often raised by prosecutors in this retroactivity setting, a narrow version of the constitutional claim here might be just that a past LWOP sentence needs to be reexamined, not automatically changed.  Under such an approach, prosecutors would be able to argue against a sentence change by bringing forward evidence that the defendant could and would have gotten an LWOP sentence on grounds other than those changed by the legislature.  But at the very least, I think the constitutional norm should be reexamination of now-changed sentences, rather than their harsh preservation. )

Some (of many) prior posts on sentencing finality:

May 21, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Brennan Center releases great new collection of essays titled "Ending Mass Incarceration: Ideas from Today's Leaders"

Back in late April 2015, roughly 18 months before a big election, the Brennan Center for Justice released this fascinating publication (running 164 pages) titled "Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice."  That 2015 publication had nearly two dozen leaders, mostly prominent political figures with big histories and/or plans, discussing a variety of criminal justice reform topics from a variety of perspectives.  In my original post about this great 2015 collection, I expressed concern that former Prez Bill Clinton was tasked with authoring the forward and that former Prez George Bush was not a contributor to the collection.  Others noted, quite rightly and tellingly, that Hillary Clinton's essay in this collection was filled "with platitudes and self-aggrandizing references" within a "shallow discussion" that was "especially embarrassing compared to Ted Cruz's."  I also noted here that the seven GOP political leaders included in the collection had set forth an array of reform priorities and proposals that made me optimistic for potential future bipartisan reforms.

Fast forward four years, and the Brennan Center for Justice is at it again.  Specifically, this morning it just released a 2019 version of timely criminal justice essays, this time under the title "Ending Mass Incarceration: Ideas from Today’s Leaders."  Interestingly, this new must-read collection is a bit shorter (only 112 pages), and it feels a lot more titled toward the left.  Specifically, as noted above, the 2015 collection had essays from seven prominent GOP politicians as well as two additional essays from past or present leaders of right-leaning advocacy groups (not to mention tough-on-crime Democrats like both Clintons and then-VP Joe Biden).  The new collection of essays, though it does include pieces by Jared Kushner, Mark Holden and Holly Harris, fails to have any essays from any elected Republicans or would-be presidential aspirants other than those running for the Democratic nomination.  Given that then-VP Joe Biden appeared in the last volume, I would have liked to now see an essay by current VP Mike Pence on these topics.  Notably, interesting Dem voices like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris got a chance to do repeat performances in this latest volume, but interesting GOP folks like Rand Paul and Rick Perry do not.  And many folks running for Prez on the Dem side are included, but we do not hear from folks like William Weld or John Kasich or any other distinctive right leaning voices.

I would not be surprised if the Brennan Center tried to get more GOP voices involved and ultimately had their requests for contributions denied.  So my goal here is not to fault the efforts in putting together this still very important volume.  I just think it important and significant (and perhaps telling) that the essays here do not appear nearly as bipartisan as they did back in 2015.  But that reality makes this collection no less significant, and I am looking forward to finding time soon to read (and perhaps blog about) all these essays here.

Prior related posts about 2015 volume:

UPDATE: I now see that the New York Times has this good article about this new publication under the bad headline "Left and Right Agree on Criminal Justice: They Were Both Wrong Before." (It is a bad headline because the "Right" is not really fully captured in this collection.)  Here are excerpts from the Times piece:

Of the more than 20 politicians and activists who contributed essays, all but three framed the issue explicitly as a matter of racial justice, emphasizing the deep disparities in a system in which people of color are many times more likely than white people to be incarcerated. Nine called for reducing or abolishing mandatory minimum sentences.  Eight called for eliminating cash bail.  Seven called for alternatives to prison for nonviolent crimes....

No one in the 2015 report suggested decriminalizing marijuana, but Mr. Booker, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas did in the new one, and other candidates have suggested it elsewhere.  In 2015, limiting employers’ ability to ask about criminal history was the central proposal from Cornell William Brooks of the N.A.A.C.P.  This year, Mr. Booker, Mr. Kushner, Mr. O’Rourke and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio all called for it.

The new centerpieces include eliminating cash bail and getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences altogether.  Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York suggested abandoning prison sentences for low-level offenses.  Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Ms. Warren and Mr. O’Rourke proposed abolishing for-profit prisons, which, Mr. Sanders wrote, “have a greater interest in filling the pockets of their shareholders by perpetuating imprisonment” than in rehabilitation.

May 16, 2019 in Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 11, 2019

New issue of Crime and Justice covers "American Sentencing — What Happens and Why?"

I just received an email reporting that the latest issue of Crime and Justice is in print, and all sentencing fans will want to get access to this volume. This issue has 10(!) amazing articles put together by editor Michael Tonry around the topic of "American Sentencing — What Happens and Why?." Here is the list of titles and authors (and clicking through here enables seeing abstracts for each):

May 11, 2019 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

"Does our county really need a bigger jail?"

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

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

The report’s 33 questions for policymakers include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Terrific vision and plans in "Beyond Guilt," a new project of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center

Cropped-bg_ojpc_gavelI am so very pleased to see the announcement of a great new project by a leading criminal justice reform group in the Buckeye State. Specifically, the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC) has just launched "Beyond Guilt," which its website says "aims to do for over-punished prisoners who admit guilt what innocence projects have for wrongfully convicted persons who claim actual innocence."  I am especially drawn to the "Strategies" discussion set out in the new project's "Our Mission" statement, which I will quote here:

Beyond Guilt will seek to do for over-punished prisoners who admit guilt what innocence projects have done for wrongfully convicted persons who claim actual innocence.  Beyond Guilt is OJPC’s answer to criminal legal system reform efforts that focus narrowly on a more palatable side of the reform movement — freeing innocent prisoners and people convicted of low-level, non-violent offenses.  Unfortunately, current reform efforts leave many behind, particularly individuals convicted of more serious offenses, including violent crimes. Beyond Guilt will advance reform initiatives to include people who have paid their debt to society for serious crimes and can safely be released.  The project will do so in four ways:

First, Beyond Guilt will identify unfairly sentenced Ohio prisoners who illustrate widespread problems in our criminal legal system (e.g. imposition of life sentences for felony-murder; life without parole sentences for youthful offenders; broken parole systems that refuse to provide a second chance) and then fight for their release.  The project will represent individuals who have served significant portions of their sentences and can demonstrate rehabilitation within the prison walls and who have the skills and support systems on the outside to continue the process of rehabilitation once they are released.  Whenever possible, Beyond Guilt will partner with prosecutors, law enforcement officers and crime survivors who can help convince courts to release prisoners through various avenues.

Second, Beyond Guilt will lift up the stories of the people it represents to humanize these individuals and other prisoners like them whom society writes off for committing violent crimes.  The project will tell their stories through a variety of means, including traditional media, social media, film and a blog hosted on a dedicated Beyond Guilt website.  The project will also facilitate in-person meetings between its incarcerated clients and legislators who can benefit from seeing, face to face, the impact of overly punitive sentencing laws.  The goal is to enable our clients to tell their own stories, to be living breathing testaments to the power of people to change, and to become disciples, who through their stories, can inspire others to care about those that they left behind in prison.

Third, Beyond Guilt will partner with its clients — both those who are freed and those who remain incarcerated — to push for reform of Ohio sentencing laws that overly punish people who have committed serious crimes and parole systems that keep offenders locked up for longer than they need to be.

Fourth, Beyond Guilt will seek to build a national network of similar projects that work to reform sentencing practices for people convicted of violent crimes and to promote evidence-based ways to reduce lengthy sentences without compromising public safety.  Beyond Guilt will partner with law schools and public defender offices to build this network and with community and faith-based groups who work with returning citizens who need assistance once released.

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

Noting the encouraging story of reduced rates of incarceration for African Americans

Charles Lane and Keith Humphreys have this nice new Washington Post commentary spotlighting one notable part of the last BJS numbers on prison populations (discussed here).  The piece is headlined "Black imprisonment rates are down.  It’s important to know why."  Here are excerpts:

The imprisonment rate for African Americans is falling, has been falling since 2001 and now stands at its lowest level in more than a quarter-century.  These remarkable data are hidden in plain sight, in the latest annual statistical survey of prisoners issued last week by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Comparing 2017 survey results with prior years shows that the African American male imprisonment rate has dropped by a third since its peak and is now at a level not seen since 1991.  African American women’s rate of imprisonment has dropped 57 percent from its peak and is now at a 30-year low.

How big a change does this represent? Had African American imprisonment held steady at its highest point (2001 for men, 1999 for women) instead of declining, about 300,000 more African Americans would be in prison right now.  Instead they are free to live in the community, to raise families, to hold jobs, to be healthy and happy.

Dramatic failures command attention and therefore often drive efforts at policy reform and innovation. Yet success can be just as informative. It’s just as vital to understand why black imprisonment rates have fallen as it was to understand why they rose.  Yet, so far, there is still more discussion about the latter than the former.

It’s time for the debate to catch up with the data.  Collapsing crime rates in black neighborhoods surely reduced imprisonment rates, but how did that increase in public safety come about?  Did programs to make policing and sentencing more equitable also contribute?  Do prisoner reentry programs deserve any credit for reducing incarceration, and if so, which ones?  What is being done right that should be expanded to accelerate the positive trends?

Obviously, there is a risk of feeding complacency in taking note of — and celebrating — the decrease in black imprisonment. Yet to do otherwise risks feeding defeatism in the face of clear evidence that progress is possible. It also would miss an opportunity to break down racist myths: The declining imprisonment rate for African Americans definitively rebuts any notion of intractable black criminality....

Undeniably, today’s still-high and still-disproportionate rate of black imprisonment represents the appalling legacy of institutional racism.  Equally undeniably, the continuing presence of about 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons poses a challenge to public policy and the nation’s conscience.  But in important respects, the situation is getting better.  We need to say so: The nation’s reformers could use the recognition and the inspiration.

May 1, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Spotlighting that, within top incarceration nation, it is not quite clear which state tops the per capital incarceration list

A helpful reader sent me this notable little local article headlined "Is Louisiana still the incarceration capital of the U.S.?". The piece serves as a useful reminder that data on incarceration (like data on just about everything in criminal justice systems) is subject to some interpretation. Here are excerpts:

For close to a year, Gov. John Bel Edwards has championed that Louisiana has lost its title as the incarceration capital of the United States after law changes he backed got through the Louisiana Legislature in 2017.  “I made a promise that, by the end of my first term, Louisiana would not have the highest incarceration rate in the nation,” Edwards said last June at a press conference.  “We have fulfilled that promise to Louisiana.”

Yet a report released by the Vera Institute of Justice last week [blogged here] called that victory into question.  The nonprofit, a leader in criminal justice research, concluded that Louisiana still had the top of incarceration rate in the country at the end of 2018, five months after the governor announced the state had lost that title to Oklahoma.

The discrepancy appears to be not so much about Louisiana’s prison population, but how prisoners in Oklahoma are counted.  Those who believe Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate count hundreds of people who have been sentenced to prison time -- but are still in county jails and haven’t become part of the prison system officially yet -- as part of that state’s prison population. Without those inmates included in the prison population count, Louisiana still has the highest incarceration rate.

As of the end of December 2018, the number of people waiting to enter the Oklahoma prison system at county jails totaled 753.  If they’re included in the state count, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is 702 people per 100,000 residents, higher than Louisiana’s rate of 695. If they aren’t included, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is 683.

Pew Charitable Trusts and the Edwards administration use the higher Oklahoma count, therefore concluding that Louisiana has fallen to second place. Vera Institute used the lower count. “It seems like right now, the two states are really close . If a statistician was handling this question, they would say something like they are tied,” Jacob Kang-Brown, one of the authors of the Vera Institute report, said in an interview Thursday (April 25)....

Another nonprofit organization, the Prison Policy Initiative, concluded that Oklahoma passed Louisiana as the state with the highest incarceration rate back in 2016, before Louisiana approved its package of criminal justice changes in 2017.  That analysis took a wider view of incarceration. It counted not just state prisoners but also juveniles in custody, people in local jails and people from Louisiana in federal custody.  That report came out last year, prompting the Tulsa World newspaper to declare Oklahoma the prison capital of the country.

April 30, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, April 25, 2019

BJS releases "Prisoners in 2016" and "Jail Inmates in 2017" reporting notable declines in incarcerated persons

As reported in this press release, "from 2007 to 2017, incarceration rates in both prisons and jails decreased by more than 10%, according to reports released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics." Here is more from the release:

Over a decade, the incarceration rate among state and federal prisoners sentenced to more than a year dropped by 13%, from 506 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2007 to 440 prisoners per 100,000 in 2017. The prison incarceration rate also dropped 2.1% from 2016 to 2017, bringing it to the lowest level since 1997. The jail incarceration rate decreased by 12% from 2007 to 2017, from 259 to 229 jail inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, but did not decline from 2016 to 2017.

The U.S. prison population was 1.5 million prisoners at year-end 2017, and the population of jail inmates in the U.S. was 745,000 at midyear 2017. There were 1.3 million prisoners under state jurisdiction and 183,000 under federal jurisdiction. From the end of 2016 to the end of 2017, the number of prisoners under federal jurisdiction declined by 6,100 (down 3%), while the number of prisoners under state jurisdiction fell by 12,600 (down 1%).

By citizenship status, non-citizens made up roughly the same portion of the U.S. prison population (7.6%) as of the total U.S. population (7.0%, per the U.S. Census Bureau). This is based on prisoners held in the custody of publicly or privately operated state or federal prisons. Among racial groups, the imprisonment rate for sentenced black adults declined by 31% from 2007 to 2017 and by 4% from 2016 to 2017, the largest declines of any racial group.

However, the imprisonment rate for sentenced black males was more than twice the rate for sentenced Hispanic males and almost six times that for sentenced white males (2,336 per 100,000 black males compared to 1,054 per 100,000 Hispanic males and 397 per 100,000 white males). The rate for sentenced black females was almost double that for sentenced white females (92 per 100,000 black females compared to 49 per 100,000 white females).

Among state prisoners sentenced to more than one year, more than half (55%) were serving a sentence for a violent offense at year-end 2016, the most recent year for which state data are available. An estimated 60% of blacks and Hispanics in state prisons were serving a sentence for a violent offense, compared to 48% of whites. At the end of fiscal year 2017, nearly half of all federal prisoners were serving a sentence for drug trafficking.

Privately operated prison facilities held 121,400 prisoners, or 8% of all state and federal prisoners, at year-end 2017. Inmates in these facilities were under the jurisdiction of 27 states and the Bureau of Prisons. The number of federal prisoners held in private facilities decreased by 6,600 from 2016 to 2017 (down 19%).

In 2017, almost two-thirds (482,000) of jail inmates were unconvicted, awaiting court action on a charge, while the rest (263,200) were convicted and either serving a sentence or awaiting sentencing.

The demographic characteristics of persons incarcerated in jails shifted from 2005 to 2017. During this period, the percentage of the jail population that was white increased from 44% to 50%, while the percentage that was black decreased from 39% to 34%. Hispanics accounted for 15% of all jail inmates in 2017, the same as in 2005. Asians accounted for less than 1% of jail inmates in both years. In 2017, the jail incarceration rate for blacks was more than 3 times the rate for whites and Hispanics, and more than 20 times the rate for Asians.

Jails reported 10.6 million admissions in 2017, which represented no change from 2016 but a 19% decline from 13.1 million in 2007. The overall weekly inmate turnover rate was 54% in 2017, while the estimated average time spent in jail before release was 26 days.

The full BJS reports are chock full of additional important data points, and are excitingly titled "Prisoners in 2017" (running 44 pages) and "Jail Inmates in 2017" (running 18 pages).  Especially because I am busy with end-of-semester tasks, I would be grateful to hear from others about any particular data points within these documents that seem especially notable and important.  Helpfully, the Sentencing Project has this release about the data with these interesting observations:

Analysis of the new data by The Sentencing Project reveals that:

  • The United States remains as the world leader in its rate of incarceration, locking up its citizens at 5-10 times the rate of other industrialized nations. At the current rate of decline it will take 75 years to cut the prison population by 50%.
  • The population serving life sentences is now at a record high. One of every seven individuals in prison — 206,000 — is serving life. 
  • Six states have reduced their prison populations by at least 30% over the past two decades — Alaska, Connecticut, California, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont. 
  • The rate of women’s incarceration has been rising at a faster rate than men’s since the 1980s, and declines in recent years have been slower than among men. 
  • Racial disparities in women’s incarceration have changed dramatically since the start of the century.  Black women were incarcerated at 6 times the rate of white women in 2000, while the 2017 figure is now 1.8 times that rate. These changes have been a function of both a declining number of black women in prison and a rising number of white women. For Hispanic women, the ratio has changed from 1.6 times that of white women in 2000 to 1.4 times in 2017.

April 25, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Vera Institute documents another drop in the US prison population in 2018

The Vera Institute of Justice today released this notable new "Evidence Brief" titled simply "People in Prison in 2018."  Here is part of this document's summary:

Effective advocacy and policy making require up-to-date information. V era Institute of Justice (Vera) researchers collected data on the number of people in state and federal prisons on December 31, 2018 to provide timely information on how prison incarceration is changing in the United States.  This report fills a gap until the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) releases its 2018 annual report — likely in early 2020 — which will include additional data, such as population breakdowns by race and sex.

At the end of 2018, there were an estimated 1,471,200 people in state and federal prisons, down 20,000 from year-end 2017 (1.3 percent decline).  There were 1,291,000 people under state prison jurisdiction, 16,600 fewer than in 2017 (1.3 percent decline); and 179,900 in the federal prison system, 3,200 fewer than in 2017 (1.7 percent decline).

The prison incarceration rate in the United States was 450 people in prison per 100,000 residents, down from 458 per 100,000 in the previous year, representing a 1.8 percent drop. This brings the rate of prison incarceration down 15.2 percent since its peak in 2007.

The overall decline in the national prison incarceration rate was driven by the large decrease in the number of people in federal prisons, as well as greater than 5 percent declines in incarceration rates in seven states.  Of those states, a few have large prison populations, such as Missouri, South Carolina, New York and North Carolina.  However, the declines were not universal.  Mass incarceration is still on the rise in some states, such as Indiana, Texas, and Wyoming.

Vera has some visualizations and other related materials at this webpage.  The Marshall Project has this article about Vera's findings providing a broader context for the data and including these important points:

Advocates for prison reform have come to rely on Vera’s data as the federal reports are increasingly outdated. The Bureau of Justice Statistics compiles a comprehensive data set on people in prison, which includes demographic information. But because of budget cuts the latest report, released in 2018, covers prisoners in 2016. The 2017 data is set to be released on Thursday.

Timely data on the people in prison helps analysts and legislators understand where criminal justice changes are having the biggest impact, said Jacob Kang-Brown, one of the study’s authors. “This report shows whether states are following through and reducing the number of people that are locked up in prison,” he said, and which are “bucking the trend.”

April 24, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 22, 2019

"The case against solitary confinement"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 18, 2019

"Quelling the Silver Tsunami: Compassionate Release of Elderly Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this 2018 article authored by Jalila Jefferson-Bullock recently posted to SSRN. Though authored before the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, the article is still particularly timely in light of that new law's various provisions enabling the moving certain defendants out of prison and into home confinement.  Here is the article's abstract:

Sentencing reform appears resurrected.  Following a brief hiatus and an expectedly unwelcoming recent federal response, sentencing reform is again reemerging as a major initiative.  Congress and the several states are poised to immediately accomplish major reform of the United States criminal sentencing structure.  Proposals that would, among other initiatives, drastically reduce criminal sentences, restore rehabilitative programs to inmates, generate sentencing parity, normalize probation for low-level offenses, and shrink the overall prison footprint are ambling through various legislative processes throughout the country.  Though groundbreaking and certainly welcome, these reforms largely ignore the special needs of the imprisoned elderly.  One of the most foreseeable, yet ironically ignored, consequences of 1980's and 1990's harsh sentencing laws, is the dramatic upsurge in prison population through the predictable process of human aging.  Coined the prison “silver tsunami” phenomenon, surging numbers of elderly inmates raises significant moral, health, and fiscal implications deserving keen scrutiny.  It is imperative, then, that any overhaul of criminal sentencing focuses on how to meaningfully address the graying of America's prisons.

April 18, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Notable account of similar states now having different approaches to parole and sentencing reforms

Thanks the the Marshall Project, I just saw this recent local article headlined "As Alabama slowed early paroles, it was slapped for its overcrowded prisons."  The piece is notable in the wake of the recent awful Justice Department report, noted here, about the horrible condition of Alabama's prisons.  And I found particularly interesting the lengthy article's contrasting account of parole and sentencing reform practices in a neighboring state:

Mississippi, according to the Sentencing Project, took several steps highlighted in the Sentencing Project report, some which Alabama has yet to consider: It scaled back sentencing guidelines for nonviolent convictions and applied them retroactively, leading to a substantial increase in paroles and accounting for two-thirds of the population reduction.

Alabama, by contrast, did not apply its 2015 prison reform legislation retroactively and the Justice Department, in its scathing review of Alabama’s prison system, has taken note: “In an effort to decrease the prison population, the law created a new class for felonies for low-level drug and property crimes and reformed parole boards. However, it did not apply retroactively, and the effect on Alabama’s prison population has been minimal.”

Bennett Wright, executive director with the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said there “is a lot of discussion” in Montgomery toward possible retroactive considerations toward leniency. “I haven’t heard a legislator stand up and definitively say that, but there has been a lot of conversation about it,” said Wright. “That’s where our immediate future is in evaluating the possible effects and possible reforms on Alabama’s existing (prison) population and population moving forward.”

Mississippi adopted a risk assessment instrument that contributed to doubling of parole approval rate to more than 50 percent. The measures retroactively allowed consideration for parole for more types of crimes where certain “aggravating circumstances” had previously disqualified inmates from consideration.  Also, individuals deemed “nonviolent habitual offender” were allowed to petition for parole consideration.  The changes also allowed parole consideration for people ages 60 and up and who had served at least 10 years and were parolable under other provisions of the law.

Alabama, by contrast, does not have detailed risk assessment measurements, although the Board of Pardons and Paroles considers factors like family ties and employment prospects when considering early parole applications.  

A few decades ago it often seemed states were competing to see who could be tougher on crime.  Encouragingly (though still not consistently), modern politics and practical realities make it essential for states to try be ever smarter on crime.

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