Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 20, 2021

Notable accounting of a decade of decarceration via Decennial Census

The Marshall Project has this notable new piece fully headlined "There Are Fewer People Behind Bars Now Than 10 Years Ago. Will It Last?: Census data show incarceration rates are down. It may have more to do with the pandemic than broad reforms."  The piece highlights census data that ought to be encouraging to those troubled by modern mass incarceration, but also notes why April 2020 incarceration data may not reflect persistent realities.  I recommend the piece in full, in part because it enables drilling down into a lot of great data, and here are excerpts:

Nearly two million adults were incarcerated across the country, according to the 2020 Decennial Census.  The latest figures show a 13% drop in the total number of incarcerated people, or nearly 300,000 fewer people, compared with the 2010 Census.  Roughly one-third of the drop in total numbers occurred in just two populous states — California and New York.  In total, 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico saw reductions in the total number of incarcerated people.

In five states, the number of incarcerated people actually increased compared with a decade ago, but the incarceration rate still shrank because their total population grew more quickly than the prison population. Just four states — West Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska and Arkansas — saw their incarceration rate increase.

The Decennial Census offers a comprehensive and geographically granular look at the U.S. population by attempting to collect information about where everyone lives as of April 1.  By definition though, it is a snapshot of a brief moment in time, which is a limitation in trying to capture fluctuating numbers.

If the Census was held later in the year, for example, it might have shown a more substantial drop.  The Marshall Project’s COVID-19 tracker showed state and federal prisons had 100,000 fewer prisoners in June 2020 than in April, when the census was taken.  Another study estimated that from mid-year 2019 to mid-year 2020, county jails nationwide had 185,000 fewer people.

Experts say that a combination of factors contributed to this decrease: The court system and parole offices slowed down as they moved operations online, which has reduced the number of people who were sentenced or caught up in parole violations.  In many jurisdictions, police departments also cut back on proactive tactics, such as traffic stops, and the number of drug crimes dropped significantly.  Some prison and jail officials also rushed to empty out facilities to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.

Broadly, these numbers have already started to tick back up as criminal courts begin to reopen and the criminal justice system is returning to normal, according to a recent report from the Vera Institute of Criminal Justice.  Given how unstable incarceration rates have been since the start of the pandemic — which overlapped with the entire period of census data collection — it may be impossible to draw any long-term conclusions from the apparent drop seen in Census data....

In most states, the raw numbers of incarcerated people didn’t change much, despite widespread efforts to decarcerate prisons and jails during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Instead, a few populous states lost a larger share.  For example, California’s incarcerated population shrunk by 50,000, and New York’s by 30,000.  Together, they account for approximately one-third of the national decrease in incarcerated population, while representing less than one-fifth of the country’s population.  Nine states saw an increase in the incarcerated population.

The incarceration rate provides another perspective.  Many southern states with slightly higher incarcerated populations also saw the fastest population increase in the past ten years. Because the number of people in these states grew faster than the number of incarcerated people, their incarceration rates still went down.

September 20, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

"States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2021"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Prison Policy Initiative authored by Emily Widra and Tiana Herring.  Here is part of the start of the report:

Louisiana once again has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S., unseating Oklahoma to return to its long-held position as “the world’s prison capital.”  By comparison, states like New York and Massachusetts appear progressive, but even these states lock people up at higher rates than nearly every other country on earth.  Compared to the rest of the world, every U.S. state relies too heavily on prisons and jails to respond to crime....

If we imagine every state as an independent nation ... every state appears extreme.  24 states would have the highest incarceration rate in the world — higher even than the United States.  Massachusetts, the state with the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, would rank 17th in the world with an incarceration rate higher than Iran, Colombia, and all the founding NATO nations.

In fact, many of the countries that rank alongside the least punitive U.S. states, such as Turkey, Thailand, Rwanda, and Russia, have authoritarian governments or have recently experienced large-scale internal armed conflicts. Others struggle with “violent crime” on a scale far beyond that in the U.S.: South Africa, Panama, Costa Rica, and Brazil all have murder rates more than double that of the U.S.  Yet the U.S., “the land of the free,” tops them all....

The incarceration rates in every U.S. state are out of line with the entire world, and we found that this disparity is not explainable by differences in crime or “violent crime.”  In fact, there is little correlation between high rates of “violent crime” and the rate at which the U.S. states lock people up in prisons and jails.

When we compare U.S. states and other nations in terms of both “violent crime” and incarceration, we find ourselves more closely aligned with nations with authoritarian governments or recently large-scale internal armed conflicts.  Rather than any of the founding NATO member countries traditionally compared to the United States, the only countries that approach the incarceration rate and “violent crime” rates of the 50 states are El Salvador, Panama, Peru, and Turkey.  Every U.S. state, and the United States as a nation, is an outlier in the global context.  No other country incarcerates as many people, including countries with similar rates of “violent crime.”

September 8, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

"More Community, Less Confinement: A State-by-State Analysis on How Supervision Violations Impacted Prison Populations During the Pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of a great new analysis by the Council of State Governments Justice Center looking at prison populations as impacted by the pandemic and reactions thereto.  This press release provides this overview (and helpful links at the end):

State prison populations shrank by an unprecedented 14 percent in 2020 due to changes spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data released today by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center.  The study, More Community, Less Confinement, was conducted in partnership with the Correctional Leaders Association (CLA) and with support from Arnold Ventures.
 
Despite the decline in total prison population, supervision violations still drive a substantial share of new admissions — accounting for 42 percent of prison admissions in 2020. This included roughly 98,000 people admitted to prison for technical violations, such as missed curfews or failed drug tests.  The share of the population in prison for supervision violations was 20 percent in 2020, down slightly from 23 percent in 2018.
 
“As these data underscore, during the COVID-19 pandemic, probation and parole agencies made significant changes to the way they do business. These changes protected the health and safety of people in the justice system, including corrections staff,” said Megan Quattlebaum, director of the CSG Justice Center.  “Now, we have a unique and important opportunity to explore which of these policy changes should be retained to maximize success for people serving on community supervision.  Each of the 98,000 people admitted to prison—not for new crimes, but for violating the conditions of their probation or parole — represents 98,000 opportunities to improve public safety while saving states money. When people on probation and parole succeed, it is a win-win-win for them, their communities, and all taxpayers.”
 
In response to the threat of COVID-19, many parts of the criminal justice system halted operations to reduce in-person contact and prevent the spread of the virus.  The CSG Justice Center surveyed corrections leaders in all 50 states to understand the impact of community supervision on state prison populations. The resulting data span 3 years — from 2018 to 2020 — and uncover how the number of people sent to prison for supervision violations changed during and prior to the pandemic. 
 
While some states released people from prisons early to help reduce spread of the virus, the population decline in state prisons was largely driven by a drop in the number of people being admitted to prisons.  Roughly 200,000 fewer people were admitted to prison in 2020 due to changes in offending behaviors, local law enforcement, community supervision, and court operations....
  
Overall, there were roughly 167,000 fewer people in state prisons in 2020. One-third of the total drop (57,000 people) was due to fewer people sitting in prison for supervision violations. In addition, about 73,000 fewer people entered prison for supervision violations in 2020 — a 30 percent drop in a single year.  The cumulative result over this 3-year data collection effort showed that there were 31 percent fewer people in prison for technical supervision violations and 18 percent fewer people in prison for new offense violations, while all other populations (primarily new court commitments) dropped just 12 percent....
 
Learn more:

September 1, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

"States of emergency: The failure of prison system responses to COVID-19"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Prison Policy Initiative authored by Tiana Herring and Maanas Sharma giving state-by-state grades to pandemic responses in incarceration nation. As the title suggestion, a whole lot of states received failing grades. Here is how the report gets started:

From the beginning of the pandemic, it was clear that densely packed prisons and jails — the result of decades of mass incarceration in the U.S. — presented dangerous conditions for the transmission of COVID-19. More than a year later, the virus has claimed more than 2,700 lives behind bars and infected 1 out of every 3 people in prison.

A year after we first graded state responses to COVID-19 in prisons, most state departments of corrections and the federal Bureau of Prisons are still failing on even the simplest measures of mitigation.

In this report, we evaluated departments of corrections on their responses to the pandemic from the beginning of the pandemic to July 2021.  We looked at a range of efforts to:

  • Limit the number of people in prisons: States received points for reducing prison populations as well as for instituting policies that reduced admissions and facilitated earlier releases.
  • Reduce infection and death rates behind bars: We penalized prison systems where infection and mortality rates exceeded the statewide COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, because some key decisions were based on correctional agencies’ faulty logic that prisons were controlled environments and therefore better positioned to stop the spread of infection than communities outside prison walls.
  • Vaccinate the incarcerated population: States were rated higher for including incarcerated people in their vaccine rollout plans, as well as for higher vaccination rates among their prison populations.
  • Address basic health (and mental health) needs through easy policy changes: We credited states for waiving or substantially reducing charges for video and phone calls, or providing masks and hygiene products to incarcerated people.  States also received points for suspending medical co-pays (which can discourage people from seeking treatment), requiring staff to wear masks, and implementing regular staff COVID-19 testing.

While some states performed well on one or two of these criteria, no state’s response to COVID-19 in prison has been sufficient.  The highest letter grade awarded was a “C”, and most states completely failed to protect incarcerated people.

September 1, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 30, 2021

Justice Counts officially unveils its new 50-State scan of all sorts of criminal justice data

7ee4529a-2a57-c490-a090-f44255823417I have previously blogged about the need for better national criminal justice data, and also about a new effort to fill data gaps by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center through a project called "Justice Counts."  (Some of many posts on these topics can be found below.)  I was pleased this morning to get a new email about the CSG effort under the heading "Justice Counts Unveils a New 50-State Scan of Criminal Justice Data."  This email is available at this link, and here is some of its texts and links:

Policymakers are often forced to make critical decisions using limited or stale criminal justice data.  Over the past year, every trend from crime to revocations has shifted quickly and dramatically.  Facing significant challenges, state leaders need up-to-date information from across the justice system, presented in a digestible way.

As part of the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Justice Counts initiative, researchers from Recidiviz and The Council of State Governments Justice Center conducted a 50-state scan of publicly available, aggregate-level corrections and jails data.

The national dashboard demonstrates that while policymakers in several states have access to up-to-date information, data collection still has a long way to go. 

View the national dashboard

Each state’s data dashboard provides a central, practical resource for stakeholders to identify gaps and inconsistencies in data reporting.
 
View your state’s dashboard
 
The scan looked at the availability of eight core corrections indicators scattered across hundreds of agency reports, as well as a review of statewide and county jail confinement rates across all 50 states.  The scan shows how much — and how little — state policymakers have to work with.

Recent related posts:

August 30, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

"When the Conditions Are the Confinement: Eighth Amendment Habeas Claims During COVID-19"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Michael Zuckerman with an abstract now available via SSRN.  Here is that abstract:

The COVID-19 pandemic cast into harsher relief much that was already true about mass incarceration in the United States.  It also cast into harsher relief much that was already true about the legal barriers confronting people seeking to make its conditions more humane.  This Article offers a brief overview of the legal landscape as the COVID-19 crisis arose and then dives into surveying eight prominent federal cases involving habeas claims related to COVID-19 outbreaks at carceral facilities.  The Article then distills six key tensions from these cases and discusses their implications for future litigation and doctrine. 

Specifically, the Article addresses: (a) the relationship between habeas and classic “conditions of confinement” cases; (b) the nature of Eighth Amendment “deliberate indifference” in this context; (c) the efficacy and availability of class-wide procedures for adjudicating these kinds of claims; (d) issues involving federalism and comity, and how courts may source such concerns through exhaustion requirements; (e) whether temporary release is better conceived of under these circumstances as preliminary or final relief; and (f) the fraught interplay between rights and remedies.  The Article concludes by suggesting potential solutions for courts and legislatures.

August 25, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 16, 2021

An effective (but already quite dated) reminder that US mass incarceration has been getting a bit less mass (but still globally exceptional)

FT_21.08.12_Incarceration_2John Gramlich over at Pew Research Center has this effective new posting under the headline "America’s incarceration rate falls to lowest level since 1995." The piece looks at some data on US incarceration rates and puts them in a bit of historical and global context.  Unfortunately, the analysis is drawn from data as of the end of 2019, and a heck of a lot has obviously changed over the last 20 months.  In particular, as documented through March 2021 by the Vera Institute, there is a reasonable basis to think incarceration rates may have dropped an addition 10 to 15 percent (or more) since the end of 2019.  Still, the Pew discussion sets a useful marker for where we were heading into the pandemic, and here is some of the discussion (with links from the original):

The U.S. incarceration rate fell in 2019 to its lowest level since 1995, according to recently published data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the statistical arm of the Department of Justice. Despite this decline, the United States incarcerates a larger share of its population than any other country for which data is available.

At the end of 2019, there were just under 2.1 million people behind bars in the U.S., including 1.43 million under the jurisdiction of federal and state prisons and roughly 735,000 in the custody of locally run jails. That amounts to a nationwide incarceration rate of 810 prison or jail inmates for every 100,000 adult residents ages 18 and older.

The nation’s incarceration rate peaked at 1,000 inmates per 100,000 adults during the three-year period between 2006 and 2008. It has declined steadily since then and, at the end of 2019, was at the same level as in 1995 (810 inmates per 100,000 adults).

The number of prison and jail inmates in the U.S. has also decreased in recent years, though not as sharply as the incarceration rate, which takes population change into account. The estimated 2,086,600 inmates who were in prison or jail at the end of 2019 were the fewest since 2003, when there were 2,086,500. The prison and jail population peaked at 2,310,300 in 2008....

A variety of factors help explain why U.S. incarceration trends have been on a downward trajectory. Violent and property crime rates have declined sharply in recent decades despite a more recent increase in certain violent crimes, especially murder. As crime has declined, so have arrests: The nationwide arrest rate has fallen steadily over the long term.

Changes in criminal laws, as well as prosecution and judicial sentencing patterns, also likely play a role in the declining incarceration rate and number of people behind bars. In late 2018, for example, then-President Donald Trump signed a law aimed at reducing the federal prison population. In its first year, the law led to shorter sentences for thousands of federal offenders and earlier release dates for many others, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Despite these downward trends, the U.S. still has the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the World Prison Brief, a database maintained by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London.  The database compares incarceration rates across more than 200 countries and territories using publicly available data for each jurisdiction....

In addition to its high rate of incarceration, the U.S. also has the largest overall number of people behind bars. With more than 2 million jail and prison inmates, the U.S.’s total incarcerated population is significantly greater than that of China (approximately 1.7 million) and Brazil (about 760,000).  But data limitations in China and other countries make direct comparisons with the U.S. difficult. The World Prison Brief notes, for instance, that China’s total excludes people held in pre-trial detention or “administrative detention” — a group that may number more than 650,000. China’s total also excludes the estimated 1 million Uyghur Muslims who are reportedly being detained in camps in the Xinjiang autonomous region.  If these two groups were added to the total, China would far surpass the U.S. in terms of its total incarcerated population.

August 16, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 30, 2021

Lots and lots more great new content at great new Inquest website

I blogged here earlier this week about the launch of the great new website Inquest, which describes itself as "a forum for advancing bold ideas to end mass incarceration in the United States."  This week the site already has so much great and important new content, I am already falling behind in trying to keep up with this new forum.  Valuably, I have this blog space to note (and then later return to) all the significant new content filling this new site:

"Incarceration by Another Name: Jurisdictions are selling electronic monitoring as an alternative to imprisonment. It’s anything but." By James Kilgore, Emmett Sanders & Kate Weisburd

"The Keeper and the Kept: The carceral system dehumanizes not just the people we condemn, but also its massive workforce." By Kaia Stern

"Carceral Democrats: There is empirical evidence that Democratic governors will outspend and out-incarcerate Republicans if their reelection depends on it. That’s entirely avoidable."  By Anna Gunderson

"Immigration Imprisonment Is a Choice: Quickly, legally, and unilaterally, the Biden administration could easily free tens of thousands trapped in ICE detention. Whether it wants to is another story."  By César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández

July 30, 2021 in Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 26, 2021

Excited for the launch of Inquest, "a forum for advancing bold decarceral ideas"

E676CJ9WQAEKg4PI was pleased to receive via email this morning the first official announcement of Inquest, which as explained here "is published by the Institute to End Mass Incarceration [but] not the voice of the Institute."   Here are excerpts from the Inquest mission page:

Inquest is a forum for advancing bold ideas to end mass incarceration in the United States. Here, you will find original, insightful work by thinkers and doers across a broad range of experience and expertise, united in the belief that mass incarceration is an epic injustice that can and must urgently end.

Our authors include leading and new voices across fields, from activism and community organizing, to law and policy, to academia, journalism, and public health. Drawing on their lived experience and their accumulated wisdom, they come here to share ideas, narratives, and analyses that boldly explore the causes and consequences of mass incarceration and that provoke rigorous discussion — all aimed at driving thoughtful action....

Rather, our mission is to create a space where the voices of those doing the thinking and the work — the people closest to the problem, including those directly impacted by mass incarceration — can come together to share ideas and be heard as they pursue bold solutions.

And here is some of the text from the introductory email that I received along with links to the first set of materials and essays on the site:

We are so excited to share this new publication and its core mission with you.  Our opening slate of original, thought-provoking essays is below.  We hope you will take a look today and come back often. Inquest is a forum for advancing bold ideas to end mass incarceration.  The publication features original, insightful work by thinkers and doers across a broad range of experience and expertise, united in the belief that our system of mass incarceration can and must urgently end....

Read a welcome note from our founding editors and visit Inquest to check out our opening slate of essays, all linked below:

Joel Castón, the first incarcerated person ever elected to public office in Washington, D.C., shares his story and vision with Inquest.

Tomas Keen, incarcerated in Washington State, highlights the problems with a prison closure plan.

"To get to real justice, we have to stop depending on the department bearing that name." — Rachel Barkow & Mark Osler

Maneka Sinha on forensics: "[M]any of the reforms proposed to date . . . serve to shore up the legitimacy of the field in the same ways that conventional reform proposals do in the policing context."

All these essays look great, and I am very excited to keep up with both Inquest and the new Institute to End Mass Incarceration.

July 26, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

BJS releases new reports on "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2019" and "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2019"

Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics always produces terrific reports on national criminal justice realities, though there is necessarily a time lag in the data reported.  But given they ways the COVID pandemic has changed (and not changed) our criminal justice systems, I think it is especially timely that BJS has just released to big new reports on the state of US correctional populations at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic hit.  Via email, I got news and short descriptions of these new BJS reports:

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics today released two reports that present statistics on adults in the U.S. correctional system. Correctional Populations in the United States, 2019 – Statistical Tables provides data on both incarcerated persons and those on probation or parole, while Probation and Parole in the United States, 2019 focuses on persons under community supervision on probation or parole.

Correctional Populations in the United States, 2019 – Statistical Tables presents statistics on persons supervised by U.S. adult correctional systems at year-end 2019, including those supervised in the community on probation or parole and persons incarcerated in state or federal prison or local jail.  It describes the size and change in the total correctional population from 2009 to 2019.  Findings are based on various BJS data collections, including the Annual Probation Survey, Annual Parole Survey, Annual Survey of Jails, Census of Jails, National Prisoner Statistics program and Survey of Jails in Indian Country.

Probation and Parole in the United States, 2019 presents national data on adult offenders under community supervision on probation or parole in 2019.  It includes characteristics of the population such as sex, race or Hispanic origin, and most serious offense.  The report details how offenders move onto and off community supervision, such as completing their term of supervision, being incarcerated, absconding or other unsatisfactory outcomes while in the community.  Findings are based on data from BJS’s 2019 Annual Probation Survey and Annual Parole Survey.

July 22, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 19, 2021

New UNODC report details interesting global realities and trends in incarceration

A section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has released this interesting new data report highlighting on its cover page "Nearly twelve million people imprisoned globally; nearly one-third unsentenced; with prisons overcrowded in half of all countries."  This release about the report provides some context and highlights: 

One in every three prisoners worldwide are held without a trial, which means that they have not been found guilty by any court of justice, according to the first global research data on prisons published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The research brief, released ahead of Nelson Mandela International Day on 18 July, examines the long-term trends of imprisonment, stating that over the past two decades, between 2000 and 2019, the number of prisoners worldwide has increased by more than 25 per cent, with a global population growth of 21 per cent in the same period, with 11.7 million people incarcerated at the end of 2019.  This is a population comparable in size to entire nations such as Bolivia, Burundi, Belgium, or Tunisia.

At the end of 2019 — the latest year data is available — there were around 152 prisoners for every 100,000 population. While Northern America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe have experienced a long-term decrease in imprisonment rates of up to 27 per cent, other regions and countries, such as Latin America and Australia and New Zealand, have seen growth over the last two decades of up to 68 per cent.

At 93 per cent, most of the persons detained in prison globally are men.  Over the past two decades, however, the number of women in prisons has increased at a faster pace, with an increase of 33 per cent versus 25 per cent for men.

For those concerned about mass incarceration in the US and elsewhere, this report provides a terrific global snapshot of recent trends and some of the latest data. For example:

As of 2019, there were an estimated 152 prisoners for every 100,000 population globally.  This global rate has not changed much over the last two decades — it stood at 151 prisoners in 2000.  There is, however, considerable sub-regional variation: as of 2019, a much larger share of the population was imprisoned in Northern America (577 per 100,000 population), Latin America and the Caribbean (267) and Eastern Europe (262), than in Sub-Saharan Africa (84), Melanesia (78), or Southern Asia (48).  Furthermore, gender-specific rates also vary substantially across sub-regions. The high male imprisonment rate in the Northern American sub-region (1,048 male prisoners per 100,000 male population) is particularly noteworthy.

July 19, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Federal prison population starting to grow again as we approach six months into Biden Administration

The day after Joe Biden was inaugurated, I authored this post posing this question in the title: "Anyone bold enough to make predictions about the federal prison population — which is now at 151,646 according to BOP?".  That post highlighted notable realities about the the federal prison population (based on BOP data) during recent presidencies: during Prez Obama's first term in office, the federal prison population (surprisingly?) increased about 8%, climbing from 201,668 at the end of 2008 to 218,687 at the end of 2012; during Prez Trump's one term, this population count (surprisingly!) decreased almost 20%, dropping from 189,212 total federal inmates in January 2017 to 151,646 in January 2021.

Of course, lots of factors play lots of expected and unexpected roles in shaping federal prosecutions and sentencings, and broader phenomena like the COVID pandemic can impact the federal prison population more than specific justice policies.  Consequently, I was disinclined to make any bold predictions about what we might see in the Biden era, though I suggested we should expect the federal prison population to be relatively steady at the start because it could take months before we saw any major DOJ policy changes and many more months before any policy changes started impacting the federal prison population count.  

Sure enough, when we hit the "100 days" milestone for the Biden Administration, I noted in this May 6, 2021 post that the federal prison population clocked in at 152,085 according to the federal Bureau of Prisons accounting.  In other words, no significant prison population growth early on in the Biden era.  But two months later, as we approach the six month mark for the Biden Administration, the federal prison population is starting to really grow again according to the prison population numbers that the federal Bureau of Prisons updates weekly at this webpage.  Specifically, as of the ides of July 2021, the federal prison population clocks in at 154,596.

A BOP-measured growth of over 2500 federal inmates in just over two months strikes me as pretty significant, although I would guess that an easing of the COVID pandemic is the primary explanation.  The number of federal sentencings and the number of persons required to report to begin serving federal sentences have likely increased significantly in the last few months; I doubt any new Biden Administration (or AG Garland) policies or practices account for the (now 2%) growth in the federal prison population during the first six months of Joe Biden's presidency.

That said, I hope I am not the only one watching this number closely.  Especially given that the COVID pandemic is not really over and that a lot more surely could be safely "cut" from a bloated federal prison population, it will be quite disappointing if the Biden first term replicates the Obama first term marked by quite significant federal prison population growth.

July 15, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

New fact sheets from Sentencing Project on disparities in youth incarceration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Reviewing realities of life imprisonment around the globe

The Economist has this effective lengthy article about life imprisonment around the world under the headline "As the death penalty becomes less common, life imprisonment becomes more so." I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Lifelong imprisonment seems to be spreading as a punishment for the worst crimes.  In 2019 Serbia passed “Tijana’s law” in response to the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl.  It allows judges to sentence some murderers and rapists of children to life in prison without parole.  In June last year, after the gang rape of a 13-year-old girl by soldiers, Colombia overturned its constitutional ban on life sentences.  Britain’s government recently proposed legislation to reduce the age at which judges can impose “whole-life” sentences from 21 to 18.

The most heinous crimes are rare, but the world’s population of lifers is large and probably growing.  According to the World Prison List the population of inmates rose by 20%, to 10.4m, from 2000 to 2015. Meanwhile between 2000 and 2014 the number of people serving life sentences worldwide rose by 84%, to 479,000, according to “Life Imprisonment”, a recent book.  America held 40% of them, and more than 80% of those have no prospect of parole.  The Sentencing Project, a think-tank in Washington, DC, reckons that the number of Americans serving life sentences without parole rose by two-thirds, to 56,000, between 2003 and 2020. Turkey, India and Britain also lock up a lot of people for life.  South African jails hold nearly 17,000 lifers, up from 500 in 1995.  In 2014 some sort of formal life sentence was on the books of 183 countries and territories....

Opponents of life without parole hope to repeat the success of campaigners against capital punishment. Since 1976 more than 70 countries have abolished the death penalty.  The number of executions worldwide in 2020 fell for the fifth year running to its lowest in a decade, says Amnesty International, a human-rights group. In America just 17 people were executed last year.  If campaigners have their way, life sentences will be the next sort to be branded cruel and rendered unusual.

Making this case is not simple.  For one thing, life-sentencing regimes vary enormously.  Some are relatively lenient, as in Finland, where few “lifers” spend more than 15 years in prison.  Others are staggeringly harsh.  Some American states still lock up juvenile offenders for life. China imposes the sentence on corrupt officials.  Australia and Britain do so for drug offences.  Life with a chance of parole may not be much better than without it if parole is granted rarely.  Life sentences can be disguised as indeterminate or very long fixed-term sentences.  El Salvador, which does not impose life sentences, can lock people up for 60 years....

Some campaigners use the courts to curb life sentences.  A clutch of treaties prohibit governments from inflicting degrading treatment on anyone, including prisoners. In 2013 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that offenders have at the outset of their sentences a right to hope for eventual release. The International Criminal Court says after 25 years sentences must be reviewed.  “Twenty-five years is increasingly established in international law as the maximum minimum,” says Dirk van Zyl Smit, Ms Appleton’s co-author....

Malawi may become a model for countries seeking to avoid simply replacing capital punishment with life sentences. After its High Court struck down the death penalty as mandatory for murder in 2007, the top appeal court ordered that more than 150 condemned prisoners be resentenced. (In practice, all were serving life, since Malawi has executed no one since 1992.) It directed judges to consider the circumstances of each to determine whether the death penalty should be upheld, converted to life or to a shorter sentence....

Of the prisoners who have been resentenced, one was handed a life sentence but more than 140 have been released after completing shorter prison terms.  To prepare the way, workers on the project fanned out to villages to explain what the ex-cons had endured and to find out whether they would be welcomed back.

July 6, 2021 in Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Sentencing Project releases "A New Lease on Life" looking at release mechanisms and recidivism realities

Images (3)The Sentencing Project today released this timely new report titled "A New Lease on Life" which starts with these "Findings and Recommendations":

A dramatic consequence of America’s investment in mass incarceration is life imprisonment.  Today there are more people serving life sentences alone than the entire prison population in 1970, the dawn of the mass incarceration era.  Though life sentences have always been allowable in the U.S., it is only in recent decades that these sentences have become normalized to such an extent that entire prisons are now filled or nearly filled with people serving life terms.

Despite a cultural tendency for Americans to view the U.S. crime and criminal legal system as “exceptional,” other countries have experienced ebbs and flows in crime rates but have not resorted to the levels of imprisonment, nor the lengths of prison sentences, that are commonplace in the U.S.  To the contrary, restoration of human dignity and the development of resilience are at the core of an evolved criminal legal system; systems elsewhere that emphasize the responsibility of government support to returning citizens serves as a model for the U.S.

In this report we set out to accomplish two tasks.  First, we examine reoffending rates among people released from prison after a violent crime conviction and review research on the topic, covering both domestic and international findings.  Second, we provide personal testimony from people who have left prison after a violent crime conviction.  Inviting impacted persons to share their transition experiences serves policymakers and practitioners in strengthening necessary support for successful and satisfying reentry from prison. This report focuses on the outcomes of a narrow segment of the prison population: people convicted of violent crimes, including those sentenced to life and virtual life sentences, who have been released to the community through parole or executive clemency.  People with violent crime convictions comprise half the overall state prison population in the U.S. They are depicted as the most dangerous if released, but ample evidence refutes this.

Findings

• We can safely release people from prison who have been convicted of violent crime much sooner than we typically do. Most people who commit homicide are unlikely to do so again and overall rates of violent offending of any type among people released from a life sentence are rare.

• Definitional limitations of the term “recidivism” obstruct a thorough understanding of the true incidence of violent offending among those released from prison, contributing to inaccurate estimates of reoffending.

• People exiting prison from long term confinement need stronger support around them. Many people exhibit a low crime risk but have high psychological, financial, and vocational demands that have been greatly exacerbated by their lengthy incarceration.

• People exiting prison after serving extreme sentences are eager to earn their release and demonstrate their capacity to contribute in positive ways to society. Prison staff and peers view lifers as a stabilizing force in the prison environment, often mentoring younger prisoners and serving as positive role models.

We make five recommendations that, if adopted, will advance our criminal legal system toward one that is fair, efficient, and humane.

1. Standardize definitions of recidivism. Authors of government reports and academic studies should take great care to standardize the definition of criminal recidivism so that practitioners, policymakers, the media, and other consumers of recidivism research do not carelessly interpret findings on reoffending statistics without digging into either the meaning or the accuracy of the statements.

2. Insist on responsible and accurate media coverage. Media consumers and producers alike must insist on accurate portrayals of crime despite the temptation to skew media coverage so that rare violent crime events appear as commonplace. Heavily skewed media coverage of rare violent crime events creates a misleading view of the frequency of violent crime. Add to this the overly simplistic assumption, allowed by inarticulate reporting, that people released from prison have caused upticks in violence.

3. Allow some level of risk. Reset the acceptable recidivism rate to allow for reasonable public safety risk. The public’s risk expectation is currently set at zero, meaning that no amount of recidivism is politically acceptable in a system that “works” even though such expectations are not attainable in any sphere of human endeavor or experience. But this expectation is largely based on highly tragic and sensationalized events that are falsely equated as the result of releasing people from prison. We have to balance our aspirations for a crime-free society with reasonable approaches to public safety and human rights considerations for both those who have caused harm and those who have been victimized by it.

4. Reform and accelerate prison release mechanisms. Decisionmakers considering whether to grant prison release rely too heavily on the crime of conviction as the predominant factor under consideration. This approach is neither fair nor accurate. It is unfair because it repunishes the individual for a crime for which they have already been sanctioned. Risk of criminal conduct, even violent criminal conduct, closely tracks aging such that as people age into adulthood there is a sharp decline in proclivity to engage in additional acts of violence.

5. Substantially improve housing support. Inability to secure housing after release from prison was mentioned frequently by people we interviewed for this report. Failure of the correctional system to ensure stable housing upon exit from decades-long prison sentences imposes unnecessary challenges. Though some released persons will be able to rely on nonprofit charity organizations, shelters, or family, the most vulnerable people will fall through the cracks. We have both a public safety and a humanitarian obligation to avoid this result.

June 30, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

"The Impact of COVID-19 on Crime, Arrests, and Jail Populations - An Expansion on the Preliminary Assessment"

The title of this post is the title of this new expanded report on COVID impacts on some critical criminal justice metrics.  Here is the 20+ page report's executive summary:

Beginning in March 2020, local and state criminal agencies took several actions to mitigate the rising number of people being infected with the COVID-19 virus.  To address these concerns, a variety of policies were enacted to reduce the number of persons held in jails.  These polices were designed to 1) mitigate the number of people being arrested and booked into local jails and 2) reduce the length of stay (LOS) for those admitted to jail.  Concurrently, public safety concerns were raised that by lowering the jail populations, crime in the community would increase.

To address these concerns, the JFA Institute (JFA), through resources provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) program, began tracking and analyzing six cities and counties participating in SJC (jurisdictions) and their jail and crime data in real time to monitor the impact of these mitigation activities.  In October 2020, JFA expanded the study to eleven jurisdictions and collected the data through December 2020 to examine longer term trends and a potential rebound.

Analysis of the eleven jurisdictions:

  • Analysis of the eleven jurisdictions studied revealed jail populations declined, yet crime and arrests declined as well, giving indication that declining jail populations did not compromise public safety.

  • Overall, total reported crime was 22% lower in December 2020 when compared to December 2019 and 14% lower for the total number of reported crimes for CY 2020 versus CY 2019.

  • When combining all jurisdictions, there was an average 39% decrease in jail bookings, which equates to over 130,000 fewer jail bookings in a one-year time frame.  Jail booking decreases were fueled by the decrease in property crime and arrests, primarily for misdemeanor and lower-level felony charges.

  • As a result of the change in jail bookings, the composition of the jail populations changed postCOVID-19, with a higher proportion being male and charged with violent felony and non-drug felony crimes.

  • The LOS for people in jail has increased due to the changing make-up of the jail populations and a slowdown in court case processing.

  • After the historic initial decrease, jail populations rebounded somewhat but stabilized in October 2020. During this time, there was no substantial increase in overall crime.

There are challenges ahead in keeping jail populations low, namely maintaining lower arrests, jail bookings, and reducing the length of stay by expediting the disposition of criminal cases.  The response to COVID-19 has shown that such reforms are possible and can safely reduce the number of persons held in jail but sustaining lower jail populations will require maintaining these reforms in some manner.

June 23, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 21, 2021

"Can Criminal Justice Reform Survive a Wave of Violent Crime?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by John Pfaff in The New Republic.  The subheadline of the piece highlights its data-crunching themes: "An uptick in homicides across the country is getting blamed on reforms. That argument gets the data all wrong."  I recommend everything Pfaff writes in full, and here are excerpts from this very lengthy piece:

Even as the pandemic lockdown helped push down many crimes, last year saw an unprecedented spike in homicides nationwide, likely more than twice the largest previous one-year rise.  And given the retaliatory nature of lethal violence and the ongoing disruption from the pandemic, we should expect homicides to remain high in 2021 as well.  One study in Chicago, for example, found evidence that cycles of retaliation and counterretaliation meant that a single shooting was often the root cause of three, or sometimes 60, or once almost 500 subsequent shootings over the next few years.

How to stop this wave of violence is thus one of the most important policy questions for 2021, but asking it has rarely felt more fraught.  The surge in homicide comes at a moment when conventional responses to crime face more intense criticism than any time since the civil rights movements of the 1960s.  Reformers and activists across the country have spent the past decade campaigning to reduce our reliance on prisons, jail, probation, and even the police.  The changes we’ve seen may be less dramatic than what many advocates have hoped for, and certainly less dramatic than how many of their detractors describe them, but they both reflect and have nurtured a growing shift in popular views on crime control....

Perhaps the most important feature of last year’s rise in homicides is just how uniform it appears to be.  In 2020, homicides rose in 60 of the 69 major police departments noted above, and in almost all cases at a rate more or less proportional to homicides in 2019.  Any one city’s share of homicides was roughly the same as its share in 2019, just appreciably higher.  Unlike many previous periods, the spike was not the product of a few cities experiencing an especially bad year (in 2016, around 20 percent of the national increase in homicides was just due to Chicago), but of almost every city suffering in something close to unison.

One important upshot of this uniformity is that there is no evidence that cities with more progressive prosecutors experienced relatively worse outcomes than those with more conventional district attorneys.  In fact, two of the eight departments that reported declines in homicides — Baltimore City, Maryland, and St. Louis County, Missouri — are home to two of the country’s most high-profile “progressive prosecutors,” Marilyn Mosby and Wesley Bell.  Opponents of progressive prosecution are already invoking the homicide spike to push back against the movement, but the data simply do not back them up....

It is also important to note the inaccuracy of trying to pin rising homicides on efforts to “defund” the police.  In a December 2020 press conference, for example, Gregg Sofer, at the time the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, tried to blame Austin’s rise in homicides on the city’s recent decision to cut police funding.  The problem?  Homicides had started to rise well before the cuts, in no small part because the budget in question did not go into effect until October 2020, so almost none of the proposed cuts would have occurred until 2021 at the earliest — and most of the 2021 cuts involve simply shifting which agencies are responsible for certain tasks....

If not progressive prosecution or defunding, what caused the surge in homicides?  It will be years before we have a clear answer, but the two leading explanations are the chaos wrought by the Covid pandemic and some product of the protests that have taken place against police violence.  (Other factors surely mattered, too, such as an unprecedented uptick in gun purchases.) Both theories are valid, but in complicated ways....

It is nearly impossible to understate the chaos of the past year and a half: not just an epochal pandemic that has caused mass death and brought once-in-a-generation economic devastation in its wake, but the fearmongering rhetoric of Donald Trump, the unsettling and still-unresolved insurrection of January 6, and widespread protests of the sort that risk scaring and unnerving white voters.  These are conditions that would push much of the public in a more punitive direction even absent any change in crime rates; add in the unprecedented spike in homicides, and demands for severity will grow even stronger, politically speaking.

The signs of that growing severity are widespread.  Even though prisons and jails have been leading hot spots for spreading the coronavirus — not just to the poor communities of color overrepresented in the prisons’ populations, but also to the more rural and white working-class communities where correctional officers tend to live — state prison populations barely budged, and early declines in county jail populations have been mostly undone.  Democrats and Republicans, governors and legislators and mayors: Almost no one was willing to reduce prison or jail populations.  The pandemic provided compelling political cover for releasing large numbers of people from prison; that so few took advantage is telling evidence of a deeper reticence toward real change....

Reform efforts will inarguably face tougher opposition in the years ahead.  The social and economic upheavals of Covid, like the emotional shock of 9/11, would likely have been enough on their own to shift many people’s attitudes on crime policy in a more punitive direction; the homicide spike of 2020, and its continuing fallout through 2021, all but guarantee such a move — especially for issues like police funding.  Conservative state legislatures show increasing interest in limiting the cuts that can be made by bluer cities, where support for reform may remain high.  But all these transformations do not mean that the defenders of the status quo are guaranteed a victory.  They are using the current atmosphere of fear to push hard against reforms, but they are also facing more effective and motivated opposition than at any other time recently, and support for reform still seems high in the communities that are most directly affected.  Meanwhile, there is little to no evidence linking the rise in homicides to the reforms that have actually been implemented, many of the reforms being fought for are designed to reduce violence immediately, and many may do so both more effectively and at a lower social and human cost than the status quo.  The politics may be turning toward the status quo, but the data are not.

These excerpts only capture a small slice of Pfaff's interesting discussion in this new piece.  But I find problematic and discouraging that he fails to note the latest encouraging data from the Vera Institute concerning declines in US prison populations.  Pfaff states here that "state prison populations barely budged" during the COVID pandemic, but this Vera report finds that the US prison population dropped by over 240,000 persons (17%) from 2019 to spring 2021.  This is much more than "barely budging," though I know many advocates were hoping to see even broader decarceration efforts during the pandemic.  Still, Figure 5 of the Vera report shows that nearly every state experienced at least 10% decline in its prison population during the pandemic and many states saw declines of 25% or more. 

As I noted when the Vera data was released earlier this month, the national prison populations according to this data is now the lowest it has been in over 25 years and the lowest per capital  rate in more than three decades.  Pfaff is right to wonder and worry about how increases in violent crime might impact recent reductions in mass incarceration, but I fear he tends to too often see the criminal justice reform story through the lens of violent crimes when it has so many other notable dimensions.  I believe many states (and the federal system) did a reasonable job reducing the number of less serious offenders subject to incarceration.  If we can continue to do that and only use incarceration for the most serious, violent offenders (and also allow persons subject to long terms to get sentencing second looks) we might have reason to be optimistic that the US will soon no longer be the world's leader in locking its people in cages.

June 21, 2021 in National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, June 17, 2021

"Life Without Parole Isn’t Making Us Any Safer"

The title of this post is the title of this video guest essay now on the New York Times opinion page.  Here is the text which accompanies the video:

Robert Richardson robbed a bank of about $5,000 in 1997 and was sentenced to 60 years in prison without the possibility of probation or parole.  He was 30 years old when he was locked away in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, making his penalty a virtual life sentence.

Mr. Richardson doesn’t deny that he did wrong.  He concurs with the adage “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

But in the video guest essay above, he contends that life sentences without parole are counterproductive — for the prisoner and society alike — and should be prohibited.  He is joined in the video by his wife, Sibil Fox Richardson, whose decades-long effort to secure his release was documented in the film “Time,” and by one of their sons, Freedom.

Mr. Richardson focuses his lobby on Louisiana, one of the states with the most prisoners serving life sentences without parole.  Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana has sought to shed the state’s reputation as the nation’s incarceration capital, signing into law a package of criminal justice reform bills intended, in part, to reduce the size of the prison population.

But Mr. Richardson says there’s an urgent need for further reform, and he implores the governor and the state legislature to ban life sentences without parole.

June 17, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

National Registry of Exonerations reports on "25,000 Years Lost to Wrongful Convictions"

I saw this notable new report from the folks at the National Registry of Exonerations titled "25,000 Years Lost to Wrongful Convictions."  here is part of the start of the report:

In 2018, the National Registry of Exonerations reported a grim milestone: Exonerated defendants had collectively served 20,000 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Just three years later, in June 2021, we reached another: Time lost to false convictions exceeded 25,000 years.  The total now stands at 25,004 years, on average more than 8 years and 11 months in prison for each of the 2,795 exonerees in the Registry.  Innocent Black defendants served a majority of that time — a total of 14,525 years lost to unjust imprisonment.

The National Registry of Exonerations reports every known exoneration in the United States since 1989, a total of 2,795 as of June 1, 2021.  Dozens of defendants exonerated since our 2018 report served more than 25 years in prison for crimes they did not commit....  Not all of the exonerees who served many years for crimes they did not commit were convicted of violent crimes like murder or rape. Lawrence Martin spent nearly 19 years in California prisons for possession of a knife with a locking blade....

It is hard to fathom spending decades in prison, knowing all the while that you are innocent.  But even those who served relatively short sentences suffered tremendously.  People often refer to the time we have spent in 2020 and 2021 under COVID-19 restrictions as a “lost year.”  We’ve missed the ability to travel freely, socialize with friends, and see loved ones. For people wrongfully incarcerated, every year is a lost year.  To exonerees who served sentences of a year or two for crimes they did not commit, it must have felt like an eternity.  For those who served decades, the suffering is incomprehensible.

Unfortunately, the 2,795 exonerations we know about only begin to tell the story of wrongful convictions and the toll they take.  Many exonerations remain unknown to us, though we keep looking. The vast majority of false convictions go uncorrected and therefore are never counted.  Our calculation also does not include time lost to the thousands of people cleared in large-scale group exonerations, which arise when groups of defendants are cleared upon the discovery of a common pattern of systemic misconduct by a government official in the investigation and prosecution of their cases.  Finally, our calculations include only time spent in prison after the wrongful conviction and consequently do not capture the significant time lost in custody awaiting trial.  Put simply, while 25,000 years is a staggering number, it is a significant undercount of the true losses these falsely convicted men and women suffered.

June 15, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

A different assessment of "America’s Dangerous Obsession" with innocence on death row

Thirteen years ago, in an article titled Reorienting Progressive Perspectives for Twenty-First Century Punishment Realities, 3 Harv. L.& Pol'y Rev. Online (2008), I explained the basis for my concern that "progressive criminal justice reform efforts concerning innocence issues, abolition of the death penalty, and sentencing disparities may contribute to, and even exacerbate, the forces that have helped propel modern mass incarceration."  That old article feels fresh again upon seeing this new lengthy Atlantic piece by Elizabeth Bruenig titled "America’s Dangerous Obsession With Innocence."  Here are a few excerpts from the piece:

It goes without saying that the state should not kill innocent people, and that it is a good thing to save the innocent from a fate no one thinks they deserve.  I believe it is a good thing, too, to save the guilty from a fate some would argue they have earned.  That the one stance may occlude the other reflects the death penalty’s bizarre moral universe....

According to the national Registry of Exonerations, more than 1,000 people have been exonerated for murder in the United States since 1989.  Many of these cases were initially decided when forensic techniques and technologies were less advanced and less accurate than they are now.  People with plausible innocence claims have, in some instances, been able to bring new technology to bear on preserved evidence to great effect.  That phenomenon spurred the innocence movement in capital-punishment advocacy as we know it.

“Around the year 2000, there’s this ferment all over the place to create innocence programs,” David R. Dow, the founder and director of one such program, the Texas Innocence Network, told me. “They’re kind of sexy. Funders want to fund them. People are beginning to pay attention to the fact that there are innocent people in prison.”

Marissa Bluestine, the assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, told me that more than 50 innocence organizations now operate in the United States.  They differ in size, scope, region, and budget, but they “all have the same goals: They work to identify people who did not commit the underlying crime they were convicted of and they try to exonerate them.”

That’s well and good, except that the number of innocence claims that can be confidently settled in labs is not infinite, and may in fact be dwindling. Dow, who teaches law at the University of Houston, has represented more than 100 clients on death row in his 30 years of practice; out of that number, he counts only eight as credibly innocent. He doesn’t suspect that his future will hold many more....

More generally, a 2014 published by the National Academy of Sciences found that if all of American death-row inmates were to remain condemned indefinitely, approximately 4.1 percent would eventually be exonerated — a proxy for the share of innocent inmates. That’s an admittedly conservative estimate. But even if the number of innocent inmates were doubled, the number of guilty ones would still make up more than 90 percent of death row....

To put it succinctly: Innocence cases indicate that some capital sentences are unfair, but decades of studies on death-qualified juries; race, gender, and immigration-status bias among jurors; law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct; weak forensic science and poor representation at trial all suggest that a fair capital sentence is virtually impossible.  Ultimately the fight should be waged not against particular injustices, but against the unjust system itself.

Especially for those inclined toward capital abolition, I fully understand the logic of speculating that there many not be that many innocent persons left on death row and so even more fight needs to be directed toward the guilty on death row.  However, the fight against against all of death row has been pretty robust and pretty effective over the last 20 years (surely aided by the innocence movement).  Nationwide, since 2000, death row has shrunk about 30%, the number of executions has shrunk about 75%, and the number of death sentences imposed has shrunk 85%.

But, shifting our focus from formal death sentences to what are sometimes called "death in prison" sentences, the modern story changes dramatically.  As detailed in a recent Sentencing Project report (discussed here), the "number of people serving life without parole — the most extreme type of life sentence — is higher than ever before, a 66% increase since ... 2003."   Moreover, while there are currently around 2500 people on death row who have all been convicted of capital murder, there are now roughly 4000 people "serving life sentences [who] have been convicted for a drug-related offense."  And well over 200,000 persons are now "serving a life sentence, either life without parole (LWOP), life with parole (LWP) or virtual life (50 years or more)."  

If we keep the focus on innocence, and use the 4% number discussed in this Atlantic article and extrapolate, these data mean we could have 100 innocent persons on death row, but also 160 innocent persons serving life for a drug-related offense and over 8000 innocent persons serving LWOP or LWP or virtual life.  If there are lots of innocent groups and not a lot of "good" capital client, there would seem to be no shortage of innocent lifers needing help.  (And, on the data, I am always inclined to speculate that there are now an even larger number of innocent persons serving life than death because capital cases historically get more scrutiny.)

That all said, I obviously share this article's sentiment that guilty persons ought not endure unfair sentences and its advocacy for assailing "the unjust system itself."  However, the capital punishment system, for all its persistent flaws, still strikes me as somewhat less unjust than so many other parts of our sentencing system.  There are no mandatory death sentences, jurors play a central role in every death sentence, and state and federal appellate judges often actively review every death sentence.  There are nearly 100 people serving some type of life sentence for every person serving a death sentence in large part because life sentences are imposed so much more easily as subject to so much less scrutiny. 

Put simply, and I have said before, I worry it is a continued obsession with the death penalty, and not with innocence, that may be problematic in various ways.  But since that very obsession is largely what accounts for capital punishment's modern decline, I am disinclined to be too critical of capital obsessives.

June 9, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, June 07, 2021

FAMM urges AG Garland to prevent those on home confinement during pandemic from being returning to federal prison

In various prior posts (some linked below), I have covered the Office of Legal Counsel memo released at the very end of the Trump Administration which interprets federal law to require that certain persons transferred from federal prison to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act be returned to federal prison when the pandemic ends.  The folks at FAMM have done a great job spotlighting the problems this OLC memo creates, and Kevin Ring at FAMM today sent this new extended letter to Attorney General Garland urging him to address these matters "as quickly as possible."  Here are excerpts from the letter:

Dozens of members of Congress who voted for the CARES Act have written to you, clarifying that they did not intend people on home confinement to return to prison.  The BOP did not tell people who were transferred to home confinement that they might have to return. Corrections officers were unaware of the possibility....

There is no public safety reason to require anyone abiding by the terms of their transfer to be reincarcerated.  The BOP screened each one of the approximately 4,000 people currently on home confinement using strict criteria established by Attorney General William Barr.  Those deemed to pose no danger to the community now wear ankle monitors and are subject to rigorous surveillance.  Some have been home for a full year. Only a vanishingly small percentage have violated the terms of their confinement, according to the BOP....

Attorney General Garland, we urge you to end now the needless suffering and extreme stress these families are experiencing.  You can do so in a number of ways.

First, you have the authority to rescind or overrule the OLC memo.  We, along with a bipartisan group of members of Congress and advocacy organizations, have urged and continue to urge you to do so.

If you feel constrained to follow the OLC’s opinion, you can and should recommend to the president that he act now to grant clemency to anyone who is serving CARES Act home confinement and has complied with the rules of their supervision.  The Department then should do everything it can to support clemency petitions, including ensuring the speedy review and transfer of cases to the president.  The president has expressed a desire to use his clemency authority more robustly.  Commuting the sentences of these extraordinarily low-risk people would be a smart and easy start.

The Department could use its existing authority to keep people home by transferring those eligible for the Elderly Offender Home Detention Program.  It also could use its authority to seek compassionate release for those on CARES Act home confinement, especially those who have years left on their sentences.  At a minimum, the Department should direct that U.S. Attorneys not oppose compassionate release motions brought by people in those circumstances.

In all cases, the Department should direct the BOP to use its furlough authority to prevent anyone whose status is not resolved before the end of the emergency period from having to return to prison.  This approach also would be useful for those people nearing the end of their sentences and for whom the measures discussed above are not necessary because they will shortly be eligible for transfer under 18 U.S.C. § 3624(c).

Some prior recent related posts:

June 7, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Vera Institute reports on "People in Jail and Prison in Spring 2021" and finds US total below 1.8 million

The Vera Institute of Justice is continuing to do terrific work on the challenging task of collecting (close-to-real-time) data on the number of people in state and federal prisons and jails.  Vera is now regularly reporting much more timely information on incarceration than the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which often releases data that lags a full year or more behind.  Impressively, and as reported in this post, Vera produced a great report titled "People in Jail and Prison in 2020" in January, and now it already produced this updated report titled "People in Jail and Prison in Spring 2021" with the latest nationwide prison and jail population headcounts. Here is part of the start of the report (with a few sentences I have emphasized):

When the COVID-19 pandemic was first detected in the United States, it was clear that the virus would cause widespread suffering and death among incarcerated people. Advocates were quick to call for prison and jail releases. However, a little more than a year later, decarceration appears to have stalled.  After an unprecedented 14 percent drop in incarceration in the first half of 2020 — from 2.1 million people to 1.8 million — incarceration declined only slightly from fall 2020 to spring 2021.  Generally, states that started 2020 with higher incarceration rates made fewer efforts to reduce incarceration through spring 2021. This pattern speaks to the political, economic, and social entrenchment of mass incarceration.

At the federal level, the number of people in civil custody for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is less than one-third of the 2019 population, while the number of people detained for the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) facing federal criminal charges reached an all-time high.

Jail populations in rural counties dropped by 27 percent from 2019 through March 2021, the most of any region.  The historic drop in the number of people incarcerated was neither substantial nor sustained enough to be an adequate response to the pandemic, and incarceration in the United States remains a global aberration.

Recent evidence from the Bureau of Justice Statistics also shows that racial inequity worsened as jail populations declined through June 2020.  Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) researchers collected data on the number of people incarcerated throughout 2020 and into early 2021 to provide timely information about how incarceration is changing in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Vera researchers estimated the incarcerated population using a sample of approximately 1,600 jail jurisdictions, 50 states, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the USMS, and ICE.

I find all this data fascinating, and I am actually encouraged that prison populations as reported by Vera is now below 1.2 million, which is the lowest it has been in over 25 years (and probably the lowest per capital in more than three decades).  This Vera report is clearly eager to stress that incarceration is still "mass" in the US, but I am still eager to note that we are still generally trending in the right direction.  Whether that will hold as we get closer to getting past COVID, as as murders and gun assaults are spiking, is the story I will be watching closely in the months and years ahead.

June 7, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 04, 2021

"Jails, Sheriffs, and Carceral Policymaking"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by Aaron Littman just published in the Vanderbilt Law Review. Here is its abstract:

The machinery of mass incarceration in America is huge, intricate, and destructive.  To understand it and to tame it, scholars and activists look for its levers of power — where are they, who holds them, and what motivates them?  This much we know: legislators criminalize, police arrest, prosecutors charge, judges sentence, prison officials confine, and probation and parole officials manage release.

As this Article reveals, jailers, too, have their hands on the controls.  The sheriffs who run jails — along with the county commissioners who fund them — have tremendous but unrecognized power over the size and shape of our criminal legal system, particularly in rural areas and for people accused or convicted of low-level crimes.

Because they have the authority to build jails (or not) as well as the authority to release people (or not), they exercise significant control not merely over conditions but also over both the supply of and demand for jail bedspace: how large they should be, how many people they should confine, and who those people should be.  By advocating, financing, and contracting for jail bedspace, sheriffs and commissioners determine who has a say and who has a stake in carceral expansion and contraction.  Through their exercise of arrest and release powers, sheriffs affect how many and which people fill their cells. Constraints they create or relieve on carceral infrastructure exert or alleviate pressure on officials at the local, state, and federal levels.

Drawing on surveys of state statutes and of municipal securities filings, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, case law, and media coverage, this Article tells overlooked stories — of sheriffs who send their deputies out door knocking to convince voters to support a new tax to fund a new jail, and of commissioners who raise criminal court fees and sign contracts to detain “rental inmates” to ensure that incarceration “pays for itself.”  It also tells of sheriffs who override the arrest decisions of city police officers, release defendants who have not made bail, and cut sentences short — and of those who would rather build more beds than push back on carceral inertia.

A spotlight on jails and the officials who run them illuminates important attributes of our carceral crisis.  The power and incentives to build jail bedspace are as consequential as the power and incentives to fill it.  Expanding a county’s jailing capacity has profound ramifications across local, state, and federal criminal legal systems.  Sheriffs have a unique combination of controls over how big and how full their jails are, but this role consolidation does not produce the restraint that some have predicted.  Their disclaimers of responsibility are a smokescreen, obscuring sheriffs’ bureaucratic commitment to perpetuating mass incarceration.  State courts and federal agencies have increasingly recognized and regulated public profiteering through jail contracting, and advocates have begun to hold jailers accountable, challenging expansion in polling booths and budget meetings.

June 4, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 28, 2021

Most of California DAs file court action challenging new rules expanding good behavior credits to state prisoners

As reported in this recent AP piece, "three-quarters of California’s district attorneys sued the state Wednesday in an attempt to block emergency rules that expand good conduct credits and could eventually bring earlier releases for tens of thousands of inmates."  Here is more about the suit:

The lawsuit objects on procedural grounds, arguing that Corrections Secretary Kathleen Allison used the emergency declaration to bypass the usual regulatory and public comment process.  The rules affecting 76,000 inmates, most serving time for violent offenses, took effect May 1, although it will be months or years until inmates accumulate enough credits to significantly shorten their sentences.

Forty-four of the state’s 58 district attorneys brought the lawsuit, which says the only stated emergency was the corrections department’s desire to follow the “direction outlined in the Governor’s Budget Summary” nearly a year earlier.  Notably absent were district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco who have backed criminal sentencing changes.

The lawsuit asks a Sacramento County Superior Court judge to throw out the regulations and bar the department from granting any of the good conduct credits until it goes through the regular process.  “There is no actual emergency, and they cannot meet those emergency requirements,” the lawsuit contends.  “Nowhere in the supporting documents is there an explanation of how last year’s budget has become an operational need for the adoption of the regulations on an emergency basis.”

The department said it acted under the authority given it by voters when they passed Proposition 57 in 2016, allowing earlier parole for most inmates.  It “filed regulations to promote changes in good behavior credits, and followed all policies and procedures by the Office of Administrative Law,” the department said in a statement promising to “continue to work with our partners to promote rehabilitation and accountability in a manner consistent with public safety.”

The emergency rules boost good behavior credits for a projected 63,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes, allowing them to prospectively serve two-thirds of their sentences rather than the previous 80%.  Another 10,000 prisoners convicted of a second serious but nonviolent offense and nearly 2,900 nonviolent third strikers would be eligible for release after serving half their sentences, down from two-thirds.  Inmate firefighters and minimum-security inmates in work camps, regardless of the severity of their crimes, are eligible under the new rules for a month of earlier release for every month they spend in the camp.

A press release about the suit from the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office is available here, and the actual filing is available here.

A few recent related posts:

May 28, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Timely reminder of US Sentencing Commission's decarceral potential ... when it is functional

I flagged in this post last week that the US Sentencing Commission had just released a host of notable new materials with lots of interesting data via the USSC's website.  Upon reflection and review, I was especially struck by this new data run detailing retroactive application of "Amendment 782 -- The 2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment, often referred to as 'Drugs Minus Two'."  These data reminded me of how impactful a functional and forward-thinking US Sentencing Commission can be on its own ... and why I hope Prez Biden will soon put forward nominations that would lead the USSC to become functional and forward-looking once again.

A bit of background, drawn from this report: "On April 30, 2014, the Commission submitted to Congress an amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines that ... reduced by two levels the offense levels assigned to [drug] quantities....  On July 18, 2014, the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to Amendment 782."  In other words, the USSC in 2014 reduced the basic guideline offense level by two for all drug offenses and made this change retroactively applicable to all federal drug defendants still imprisoned for offenses before 2014.  Because drug offense are a huge part of the federal criminal docket and an even larger part of the federal prison population, this relatively small guideline change has had a huge prison time impact.

Specifically, as this retroactive new data report details, a total of 31,908 persons in federal prison were granted sentence reductions that averaged 26 months.  In other words, the retroactive application of the "drugs -2" guideline amendment resulted in just about 70,000(!) years of retroactive reduced imprisonment.  Further, with well over 100,000 federal drug cases sentenced over the last six years, the "prospective" impact of the  drugs -2 guideline amendment has surely been at least another 200,000 years of reduced imprisonment for federal drug offenders (and still counting). 

Critically, the drugs -2 amendment was not a direct reaction to any congressional legislation, it was a (bipartisan) decision made by a (bipartisan) expert commission shaped by evidence and sound policy analysis in all respects.  In other words, this was a consequential (decarceal) reform moved forward in precisely the good-government process that Judge Marvin Frankel envisioned when he astutely suggested the creation of a Commission on Sentencing for the federal criminal justice system. 

Sadly, the US Sentencing Commission is now essentially non-functional, at least for guideline amendments and any big initiatives, for going on three years because of the lack of commissioners.  As discussed in a number of prior posts linked below, I hope Prez Biden will get the USSC up and running again.  In the meantime, I will keep doing posts to note the wisdom and reform potential we risk losing until the USSC is functional and forward-looking once again.

 A few prior recent related posts:

May 26, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 23, 2021

More notable new essays in Brennan Center's "Punitive Excess" series

I highlighted here last month a new essay series assembled by the Brennan Center for Justice, titled "Punitive Excess," in which "writers highlight how our nation has prioritized excess punishment over more supportive and less traumatic ways of dealing with social harm."  The first three essays in the series were linked in this prior post, and now I see that these three additional essays have been added to the series:

May 23, 2021 in Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, May 20, 2021

"But Who Oversees the Overseers?: The Status of Prison and Jail Oversight in the United States"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Michele Deitch in the American Journal of Criminal Law.  Here is part of the issue's introduction:

In 2010, I published research demonstrating that external oversight over prisons and jails was a rarity in the United States.  Ten years later, this article reveals a similar conclusion — despite the extraordinary concerns surrounding conditions of confinement and the treatment of people in custody, relatively few jurisdictions have established independent agencies tasked with scrutinizing these institutions and addressing the problems they find.  However, there have also been significant signs of change over the last decade: the national landscape for independent correctional oversight is improving, with greater awareness of this issue, more calls for the creation of oversight mechanisms, more concrete efforts to establish these entities, and the successful implementation of several new oversight bodies.

This article builds on my 2010 report to highlight those recent developments and to assess the current state of correctional oversight in the United States.  Part I describes the concept of correctional oversight and explains its goals to improve transparency and increase accountability within prisons and jails.  It goes on to outline the benefits of oversight that can accrue to diverse stakeholders, including incarcerated persons, correctional administrators, policymakers, judges, the media, and the public at large.  This section also discusses the prevalence of independent oversight bodies in other countries, and how the lack of such oversight makes the United States an anomaly on the world stage.

In Part II, I discuss America’s historical reliance on court oversight as a way to address problematic institutional conditions and how this has inhibited the development of preventive oversight mechanisms.  But as litigation has become a less reliable tool for prison reformers, and as the drawbacks of court oversight have become more obvious, advocates have begun to emphasize the need for preventing harm through routine inspections of facilities rather than waiting until conditions hit rock bottom to get involved in reform efforts.

Part III examines the growing interest in correctional oversight and discusses recent calls for the development of independent oversight mechanisms in this country.  Since 2006, there has been a series of notable highlights in the nascent oversight movement, and this section sets forth a chronology of those key events.

Part IV describes a multi-year research project conducted at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas to find, interview, and catalog all external prison and jail oversight bodies that currently exist for adult correctional facilities around the nation.  This part of the article presents and analyzes the key findings about these various oversight bodies.  In this section, I also highlight those jurisdictions that have established oversight bodies since 2010, to show the shifting landscape of correctional oversight in the United States. This section of the article also includes charts with lists of various prison and jail oversight bodies at the state and local levels.

Finally, Part V concludes with an overall assessment of the status of correctional oversight in the United States.  That assessment mixes optimism and excitement about the future of oversight with a dose of realism about the challenges ahead and a recognition that we continue to trail our peer nations when it comes to belief in the critical importance of independent oversight.  But still we must push on in our efforts to promote transparency and accountability in all places of confinement.

May 20, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

"The Origins of the Superpredator: The Child Study Movement to Today"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.  Here is its introduction:

The 1995 superpredator narrative is often called out as the impetus for our nation's harmful sentencing policies for Black children.  After all, 75 percent of all kids sentenced to life without parole (JLWOP) were sentenced in the 90s or later, and 70 percent of this population are kids of color (60 percent Black).  But the pseudo-scientific, unsubstantiated, and racialized superpredator theory is actually part of an American tradition of deeming some children something other than children.

The term superpredator first appeared in a publication by American political scientist John J. DiIulio, Jr. in 1995. DiIulio predicted that a wave of teenagers driven by "moral poverty" numbering in the tens of thousands would soon be on the streets committing violent crime. These "hardened, remorseless juveniles" were framed in the article as a pressing "demographic crime bomb."  DiIulio's narrative used racist tropes to further stoke fear — broadly attributing "moral poverty" to "Black inner-city neighborhoods" and families and specifically and repeatedly calling attention to gang violence and "predatory street criminals" among "Black urban youth." 

Five years later, DiIulio renounced the superpredator theory, apologizing for its unintended consequences.  While Dilulio predicted that juvenile crime would increase, it instead dropped by more than half.  Conceding that he made a mistake, Dilulio regretted that he could not “put the brakes on the super-predator theory” before it took on a life of its own.

Despite his later distancing from the idea, DiIulio's terminology spread like wildfire through major news outlets and academic circles.  Coming just a few years after headlines using "wilding" and "wolf pack" to describe five teenagers convicted and later exonerated of raping a woman in Central Park, the rhetorical dehumanization of youth suspected of violence was not new, but DiIulio's coining of "superpredator" lent new credibility and energy.  The superpredator myth reinforced and sought to legitimize longstanding fears of Black criminality, disguised as developmental science and resting on pseudo-scientific assumptions that certain children are not children at all.

While the widespread adoption and popularization of DiIulio's rhetoric and the broader tough on crime atmosphere of the 1990s is instructive in examining our extreme sentencing policies, it is important to place them in the context of our long history of only regarding some children as worthy of protection.  This report highlights the superpredator theory as one manifestation of a longstanding practice in which policymakers, lawyers, and academics classify children on the basis of moral and racial beliefs.  These classifications permit racially biased perceptions of deviance to replace chronological age as the defining characteristic of youth.

This report takes as its jumping off point the Child Study movement of the 19th century, which had long lasting impact on the contours of academic inquiry and the American legal system.  The Child Study movement itself was of course rooted in a deeply racist culture, profoundly influenced by the justifications used to uphold slavery and Jim Crow, and with its own ideological predecessors dating back to the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

May 19, 2021 in Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 14, 2021

"Mass Incarceration Retards Racial Integration"

The title of this post is the title of this recent working paper authored by Peter Temin for the Institute for New Economic
Thinking.  Here is its abstract:

President Nixon replaced President Johnson’s War on Poverty with his War on Drugs in 1971.  This new drug war was expanded by President Reagan and others to create mass incarceration.  The United States currently has a higher percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any other industrial country.  Although Blacks are only 13 percent of the population, they are 40 percent of the incarcerated.  The literatures on the causes and effects of mass incarceration are largely distinct, and I combine them to show the effects of mass incarceration on racial integration.  Racial prejudice produced mass incarceration, and mass incarceration now retards racial integration.

May 14, 2021 in Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 07, 2021

"Life 'With' or 'Without'?: An Empirical Study of Homicide Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper authored by Michael O'Hear and Darren Wheelock now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The number of Americans serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole (“LWOP”) has grown rapidly over the past generation and now exceeds 50,000.  Yet, little empirical research has been conducted on the determinants of LWOP sentences.  The dearth of research on LWOP sentencing stands in sharp contrast to the many dozens of studies that have been conducted on the determinants of death sentences — studies that have consistently found that race, gender, and other questionable factors may influence sentencing outcomes.  The present study is the first to employ a similar methodology to identify both case- and county-level variables that are correlated with the imposition of discretionary LWOP sentences.

More specifically, we have assessed the relationship between fifty different variables and LWOP decisions in 450 homicide cases in Wisconsin between 2001 and 2018.  In our final model, we find seven variables that are correlated with sentencing outcomes.  Of particular note, we find that judge and prosecutor personal characteristics are statistically significant correlates of LWOP decisions.  We also find a significantly greater likelihood that LWOP sentences will be imposed in counties that are more Republican.  We conclude with a proposal for a new LWOP sentencing process that may help to ensure that this very severe sentence is reserved for the most serious crimes committed by the most dangerous defendants.

May 7, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Federal prison population holding steady at just over 152,000 through first 100 days of the Biden Administration

The day after Joe Biden was inaugurated as President, I authored this post posing a question in the title: "Anyone bold enough to make predictions about the federal prison population — which is now at 151,646 according to BOP?".  That post highlighted notable numerical realties about the the federal prison population (based on BOP data) during recent presidencies: during Prez Obama's first term in office, the federal prison population (surprisingly?) increased about 8%, climbing from 201,668 at the end of 2008 to 218,687 at the end of 2012; during Prez Trump's one term in office, this population count (surprisingly!) decreased almost 20%, dropping from 189,212 total federal inmates in January 2017 to 151,646 in January 2021.

Of course, lots of factors play can and do play lots of different expected and unexpected roles in shaping federal prosecutions and sentencings, and these case processing realities in turn can have unpredictable impacts on the federal prison population.  Consequently, I was disinclined in this January 2021 post to make any bold predictions about what we might see in the Biden era, though I suggested we should expect the federal prison population to be relatively steady at the start because it could take months before any major DOJ policy changes and many more months before any big policy changes start impacting the federal prison population.  

Sure enough, we are now well past the "100 days" milestone for the Biden Administration, and the prison population numbers that the federal Bureau of Prisons updates weekly at this webpage show little change.  Specifically, as of May 6, 2021, the federal prison population clocks in at 152,085. 

Given that the federal prison population has not been anywhere near 150,000 in over two decades, folks troubled by modern mass incarceration should perhaps be inclined to celebrate that the considerable yearly population declines that got started in 2014, and that kicked into a higher gear during to the pandemic, may now have set something of a "new normal" for these population totals.  But, few should forget that, in historical and comparative terms, the modern federal prison population is still quite massive, that almost half of this population is incarcerated for a drug offense, that almost a third of this population has "little or no prior criminal history," and that only around a quarter of this group is "serving a sentence for an offense involving weapons" (details drawn from this USSC quick facts as of June 2020).

A few prior related posts:

May 6, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

"Prisons and jails will separate millions of mothers from their children in 2021"

The title of this post is the title of this notable, timely new briefing from the Prison Policy Initiative authored by Wanda Bertram and Wendy Sawyer.  Here is how it gets started (with links in original): 

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

Most of these women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.  Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that punishing them with incarceration tears their children away from a vital source of support.  And these numbers don’t cover the many women who will become mothers while locked up this year: An estimated 58,000 people every year are pregnant when they enter local jails or prisons.

May 5, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 02, 2021

With new good behavior rules, is California on track to achieve historic "cut 50" in its prison population?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article, headlined "76,000 California inmates now eligible for earlier releases," though it also picks up on a broader, decades-long prison reform story in the Golden State. First, from the AP:

California is giving 76,000 inmates, including violent and repeat felons, the opportunity to leave prison earlier as the state aims to further trim the population of what once was the nation’s largest state correctional system.

More than 63,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes will be eligible for good behavior credits that shorten their sentences by one-third instead of the one-fifth that had been in place since 2017.  That includes nearly 20,000 inmates who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole.

The new rules take effect Saturday but it will be months or years before any inmates go free earlier. Corrections officials say the goal is to reward inmates who better themselves while critics said the move will endanger the public.

Under the change, more than 10,000 prisoners convicted of a second serious but nonviolent offense under the state’s “three strikes” law will be eligible for release after serving half their sentences.  That’s an increase from the current time-served credit of one-third of their sentence.  The same increased release time will apply to nearly 2,900 nonviolent third strikers, the corrections department projected....

The changes were approved this week by the state Office of Administrative Law. “The goal is to increase incentives for the incarcerated population to practice good behavior and follow the rules while serving their time, and participate in rehabilitative and educational programs, which will lead to safer prisons,” department spokeswoman Dana Simas said in a statement.  “Additionally, these changes would help to reduce the prison population by allowing incarcerated persons to earn their way home sooner,” she said....

Simas said the department was granted authority to make the changes through the rulemaking process and under the current budget.  By making them “emergency regulations” the agency could impose the new rules without public comment.  The department now must submit permanent regulations next year. They will be considered a public hearing and opportunity for public comment.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation that represents crime victims, said the notion that the credits are for good behavior is a misnomer. “You don’t have to be good to get good time credits. People who lose good time credits for misconduct get them back, they don’t stay gone,” he said. “They could be a useful device for managing the population if they had more teeth in them. But they don’t. They’re in reality just a giveaway.”...

California has been under court orders to reduce a prison population that peaked at 160,000 in 2006 and saw inmates being housed in gymnasiums and activity rooms.  In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court backed federal judges’ requirement that the state reduce overcrowding.

The population has been declining since the high court’s decision, starting when the state began keeping lower-level felons in county jails instead of state prisons.  In 2014, voters reduced penalties for property and drug crimes.  Two years later, voters approved allowing earlier parole for most inmates.  Before the pandemic hit, the population had dropped to 117,00 inmates. In the last year, 21,000 more have left state prisons — with about half being held temporarily in county jails.

This blog has long followed the many remarkable chapters in California's prison reform story (see a sampling below).  I particularly recall amusing myself with this post and title, "Hasta la vista, prison overcrowding!", when Gov Schwarzenegger 15 years ago issued a proclamation calling the California Legislature into special session to address prison crowding issues.  The state prison population was actually well over 170,000 around that time.  Some population reductions started around the Plata litigation — the SCOTUS ruling noted that, at "the time of trial, California’s correctional facilities held some 156,000 persons" — and further prison population reduction efforts kicked into high gear in the years following the Supreme Court's important Plata decision.

As this AP article notes, before the pandemic, the California prison population was under 120,000.  But as of last week, as detailed in this state weekly population report, the population now stands at 95,817.  If these new good behavior rules could possibly result in another prison population reduction of around 10,000 — and that is probably a very big "if"  — then California will have achieved a remarkable decarceration milestone.  If it can get down to around 86,000 prisoners, the state of California — which not so long ago had the largest state prison population within a country with the largest prison populaion in the world — will have cut its prison population by 50%.  I would surely call that a golden achievement for the Golden State. 

A few of many prior related posts about California prison populations and reforms:

May 2, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, April 30, 2021

"A better path forward for criminal justice: A report by the Brookings-AEI Working Group on Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new report which, as the title explains, is a product of a working group of The Brookings Institution and The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  In addition to the full pdf, one can also access each part of this report online here, and here is are the closing sentiments authored by Rashawn Ray and Brent Orrell in the report's conclusion:

As we prepare to exit pandemic conditions, we recommend a strategic pause to gather data that will help us understand why criminal activity has gone up and inform both immediate responses as well as longer-term reform initiatives. There will be a temptation – on both sides – to argue that the recent spike confirms their prior understandings and policy preferences; either that the recent burst of crime can be effectively controlled by a ratcheting up “tough-on-crime” policies and practices or that it is exactly these practices that create the predicate for crime surges by disrupting lives, families, and neighborhoods through excessive reliance on force and incarceration. We should resist both of these views while we strive for a better understanding of the forces driving and shaping patterns of criminal offenses. It is entirely possible, given the unprecedented conditions of the past 12 months, we will find ourselves surprised by what we learn.

As is often the case, we may need an “and” approach rather than an “or” approach. Policies need to address recent rises in crime and overpolicing. This is why our report focuses on the criminal justice as a whole. Policing is the entree to the criminal justice system that sorts people based on race, social class, and place. Most people do not want less policing. They want equitable policing, and equitable treatment once interacting with the criminal justice system, either as a victim or perpetrator.

The sources of criminal activity and public safety challenges are multifaceted while our responses to them are often singular: more and tougher policing, prosecution, and incarceration. Not every public order challenge is a nail in need of a hammer. If we are to honor the dignity of every person and respect the sanctity of human life, we need a more balanced and diversified approach that recognizes confrontation and coercion are not the only, and often not the best, strategies for protecting our communities. Research-informed innovation that builds a more flexible and effective toolbox of responses is needed to move us towards the more peaceful, flourishing, and just society that is the shared objective of conservatives and progressives alike.

The essays in this volume and the recommended supplemental readings provide much food for thought about the major areas of criminal justice reform that should be at the top of the nation’s agenda.  The recommendations are varied and informed by differing perspectives on how to better balance the requirements of community safety, civil liberty, policing and procedural protections, and supporting and achieving lasting changes in attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes among justice-involved individuals as befits a nation committed to the idea of rehabilitation and not just retribution.  The authors in this volume will continue convening to discuss, debate, and research these complex issues, with a shared goal of identifying ways to improve our country’s criminal justice system.  These are deeply interconnected issues requiring a thorough, thoughtful, and comprehensive response rather than an immediate reversion to long-held and -argued views that may fit recent history or current conditions. A nation that incarcerates so many at such a high cost in public resources and wasted human lives can ill-afford to do otherwise.

All the individual chapter should be of interest to folks concerned about all aspects of criminal justice reform, and these chapters ought to be of particular interest to those who follow sentencing and corrections issues closely:

April 30, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 15, 2021

"Long Road to Nowhere: How Southern States Struggle with Long-Term Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this recent report from Southern Poverty Law Center.  I just noticed the report because it was recently made available here via SSRN, where one finds this abstract:

The Deep South is the epicenter of mass incarceration.  The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country, with prison populations growing by 86% between 1990 and 2019.  For Southern states, prison populations exploded by 127% during that same period.  During this time in history, America implemented “tough on crime” policies that responded to public health issues like the drug epidemic with incarceration instead of rehabilitation.  Laws for even nonviolent crimes became more punitive with longer sentences, and people of color were disproportionately pushed into prisons with little hope for parole.  Today, incarceration rates for Latinx and Black people are more than two and five times the incarceration rate of whites, respectively.  The commitment to the “tough on crime” narrative led to significantly overcrowded prisons, which not only put a strain on state budgets, but also created human rights challenges regarding how to maintain a safe and healthy prison environment.

Three Southern states in particular — Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana — exemplify how prison populations have grown to be problematic in three unique ways.  Alabama is home to the most overcrowded prisons in the country, currently at 151% of capacity.  Even after sentencing reforms were passed in 2017, recent legislation concerning the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles has severely diminished the parole chances of currently incarcerated people.  Florida, with over 95,000 imprisoned people, has the third-largest prison population of any state in the country, and still adheres to a “Truth in Sentencing” rule requiring incarcerated people to serve at least 85% of their sentences, regardless of any demonstration of rehabilitation.  As a result, Florida has grown to have the oldest prison population in the South, a group whose care is increasingly expensive.  Louisiana has been known as the “incarceration capital of the world” for consistently having incredibly high incarceration rates.  A large factor is the number of people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, including juveniles.

The lack of early prison release is just one of many contributors to mass incarceration in the South. The solutions also vary — from expanding parole eligibility and making it retroactive, to increasing incentives for rehabilitation credits, to re-calibrating triggers for life without parole sentences.  This report will investigate the impact that over-incarceration has had in three Southern states, and provide recommendations on how each state can address the issue through policy change.

April 15, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Brennan Center launches notable new essay series titled "Punitive Excess"

I was very pleased to receive a few emails this morning alerting me to a new essay series unveiled today by the Brennan Center for Justice, titled "Punitive Excess." Here is how L.B. Eisen, the Director of the Brennan Center Justice Program, describes this notable new series of essays:

America’s criminal legal system is unduly harsh.  Experts explain how we got here and solutions that will benefit everyone.

America can’t shrink its reliance on mass incarceration until we confront our approach to punishment.  These essays by renowned experts in a variety of fields focus on our deep-rooted impulse to punish people in ways that are far beyond what could be considered proportionate.  Together, they illustrate how necessary it is to rein in the punitive excess of the criminal legal system, which is inexorably entwined with the legacy of slavery. T hey also highlight how we have marginalized poor communities and people of color through criminalization and punishment.

Addressing a range of issues — from policing to prosecution to incarceration to life after prison — the writers highlight how our nation has prioritized excess punishment over more supportive and less traumatic ways of dealing with social harm. The essays explore whether, when, and how we could have made different decisions that would have changed the way these systems of punishment and social control evolved.

Looking ahead, they also ask how we can learn from this failed experiment with mass incarceration and prioritize human dignity over human misery.  We hope this series will spur increased discussion on these vital topics.

And here are the first set of essays in the series:

April 13, 2021 in Race, Class, and Gender, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 12, 2021

"The Practice and Pedagogy of Carceral Abolition in a Criminal Defense Clinic"

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

For many, carceral abolition might once have been considered irreconcilable with the goals of legal education.  However, the energy produced by recent social movements focused on issues of race and the criminal legal system has helped to advance widespread interest in the long-standing work of abolitionists.  While abolitionist thought has flourished in organizing and non-legal academic spaces, law students and legal scholars are increasingly considering how a carceral abolitionist perspective can inform legal education and practice.  Abolitionists understand that the criminal legal process ineffectively uses state-sanctioned violence, surveillance, punishment, and exclusion to address, and counterproductively create, the underlying problems that produce violence and harmful behavior in our communities.  Abolition focuses on dismantling our current carceral systems and finding completely new, restorative and collaborative ways of addressing harmful social behaviors.

This Article examines whether abolitionist ethics fit into the practice and pedagogy of law school criminal defense clinics. It argues that although carceral abolition and the institutional role of public defense are an imperfect fit, criminal defense clinics should teach students how to effectively advocate for their clients through a lens of carceral abolition.  Clinicians have an opportunity to expose students to practice that does more than just reinforce or merely critique the criminal legal system as it exists.  Rather clinic students can explore ways to lawyer as “fellow travelers,” operating to actively shield individual clients from the weight of the state, while also supporting the efforts of organizers who are seeking to transform how we deal with social problems.  The Article provides a brief introduction to abolitionist thought, explores the challenges and benefits of incorporating an abolitionist framework into defense clinics, and provides an approach for clinicians seeking to inform their teaching and practice with an understanding of carceral abolition.

April 12, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 11, 2021

New statement from prosecutors and law enforcement urging review of extreme prison sentences

The Fair and Just Prosecution folks this past week released this joint statement from "64 elected prosecutors and law enforcement leaders ... urging policymakers to create mechanisms to reduce the number of people serving lengthy sentences who pose little or no risk to public safety, including by creating second chances for many in our nation currently behind bars."  (This quoted language comes from this extended press release about the joint statement.)  Here is the start and key section of the statement:

As current and former elected prosecutors and law enforcement leaders from across the country, we know that we will not end mass incarceration until we address the substantial number of individuals serving lengthy sentences who pose little or no risk to public safety.  We call on all other leaders, lawmakers, and policymakers to take action and address our nation’s bloated prison populations.  And we urge our state legislatures and the federal government to adopt measures permitting prosecutors and judges to review and reduce extreme prison sentences imposed decades ago and in cases where returning the individual to the community is consistent with public safety and the interests of justice. Finally, we call on our colleagues to join us in adopting more humane and evidence-based sentencing and release policies and practices.  Sentencing review and compassionate release mechanisms allow us to put into practice forty years of empirical research underscoring the wisdom of a second look, acknowledge that all individuals are capable of growth and change, and are sound fiscal policies....

Therefore, we are committing to supporting, promoting and implementing the changes noted below, and calling on others to join us in this critical moment in time in advancing the following reforms:

1. Vehicles for Sentencing Review: We call on lawmakers to create vehicles for sentencing review (in those states where no mechanisms exist) that recognize people can grow and change.  These processes should enable the many middle aged and elderly individuals who have served a significant period of time behind bars (perhaps 15 years or more) to be considered for sentence modification.... We do not ask that all such persons be automatically released from custody. We ask only that there be an opportunity, where justice requires it, to modify sentences that no longer promote justice or public safety.

2. Creating Sentencing Review Units and Processes: We also urge our prosecutor colleagues to add their voices to this call for change and to create sentencing review units or other processes within their offices whereby cases can be identified for reconsideration and modification of past decades-long sentences.

3. Expanded Use of Compassionate Release: We urge elected officials, criminal justice leaders (including judges, prosecutors and corrections leaders), and others to pursue and promote pathways to compassionate release for incarcerated individuals who are eligible for such relief, including people who are elderly or terminally ill, have a disability, or who have qualifying family circumstances....

4. High Level Approval Before Prosecutors Recommend Decades-Long Sentences: Finally, we urge our prosecutor colleagues to create policies in their offices whereby no prosecutor is permitted to seek a lengthy sentence above a certain number of years (for example 15 or 20 years) absent permission from a supervisor or the elected prosecutor. 

April 11, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 08, 2021

"What is Life?" podcast gives voice to people serving LWOP in Pennsylvania

2000WhatisLifeDarkI had seen last month this enticing podcast preview:

What is Life?

Through phone calls with men and women serving life without parole in Pennsylvania, What is Life takes you inside the prison walls to answer the question -- what is life to someone sentenced to die behind bars.

Now I see the first three episodes of this podcast are available at this link.  Here is how they are previewed:

What is Life?  Charles Diggs

In this episode you'll hear from Charles Diggs, a man who has spent nearly 50 years in prison serving life without the possibility of parole.  Charles discusses the effect the COVID-19 pandemic, which he described as the worst experience of imprisonment, has had on incarcerated people.

What is Life?  Heather Lavelle

In this episode of What is Life? you'll hear from Heather Lavelle, a woman who after more than 20 years of substance use and mental health issues killed her ex-boyfriend.  In Heather's poem, "Under the Glass," she discusses living a life feeling separated from others, reckoning with harms she's caused and trying to find redemption in prison.

What is Life?  David Mandeville

In this episode of What is Life? you'll hear from David Mandeville as he discusses the realities of living in prison knowing he, and many others, will die behind bars.

All of the episodes include this program note: "This podcast is sponsored by FAMM, a national nonpartisan advocacy organization that promotes fair and effective criminal justice policies that safeguard taxpayer dollars and keep our communities safe.  Founded in 1991, FAMM is helping transform America’s criminal justice system by uniting the voices of impacted families and individuals and elevating criminal justice issues all across the country."

April 8, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Four notable new short reports on prison populations from the Bureau of Justice Statistics

I received this press release this morning pointing me to a number of new notable publications. Here is the text of the release, with links to the materials:

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics today released Time Served in State Prison, 2018.  This report presents findings on the time served by prisoners released from state prison in 2018, including the length of time served by most serious offense and the percentage of sentence served.  Findings are based on data from BJS’s National Corrections Reporting Program, which is an annual voluntary data collection of records on prisoners submitted by state departments of corrections.

BJS also released three briefs: Veterans in Prison, Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children, and Disabilities Reported by Prisoners. The brief on veterans describes their demographics, offenses, sentence length, military branch and combat experience.  The brief on parents provides demographic information about prisoners who have at least one minor child and the number of minor children reported by parents in prison.  The brief on disabilities details statistics about demographics and types of disabilities reported by prisoners.  The findings are based on data collected in the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, a survey conducted through face-to-face interviews with a sample of state and federal prisoners.

Time Served in State Prison, 2018 (NCJ 255662) by BJS Statistician Danielle Kaeble

Veterans in Prison: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016 (NCJ 252646) by BJS Statisticians Laura M. Maruschak, Jennifer Bronson, Ph.D. (former) and Mariel Alper, Ph.D. (former)

Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016 (NCJ 252645) by BJS Statisticians Laura M. Maruschak, Jennifer Bronson, Ph.D. (former) and Mariel Alper, Ph.D. (former)

Disabilities Reported by Prisoners: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016 (NCJ 252642) by BJS Statisticians Laura M. Maruschak, Jennifer Bronson, Ph.D. (former) and Mariel Alper, Ph.D. (former)

The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice is the principal federal agency responsible for collecting, analyzing and disseminating reliable statistics on crime and criminal justice in the United States. Doris J. James is the acting director.

March 30, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Notable new briefings from the Prison Policy Initiative

Regular readers are familiar with my posts highlighting the cutting-edge research and analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, and in recent weeks PPI has a bunch of notable new "briefings" on pressing and persistent prison and jail issues:

Visualizing the unequal treatment of LGBTQ people in the criminal justice system; LGBTQ people are overrepresented at every stage of our criminal justice system, from juvenile justice to parole.

New data on jail populations: The good, the bad, and the ugly; A new BJS report shows that U.S. jails reduced their populations by 25% in the first few months of the pandemic. But even then, the U.S. was still putting more people in local jails than most countries incarcerate in total.

Research roundup: Violent crimes against Black and Latinx people receive less coverage and less justice; We explain the research showing that violent crimes against Black Americans — especially those in poverty — are less likely to be cleared by police and less likely to receive news coverage than similar crimes against white people.

It’s all about the incentives: Why a call home from a jail in New York State can cost 7 times more than the same call from the state’s prisons

March 25, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, March 14, 2021

With a new Attorney General now in place, should we expect to see any changes in the federal prison population?

Regular readers know that I have been following federal prison population data quite closely during the COVID era, giving particular attention to the numbers that the federal Bureau of Prisons updates weekly at this webpage.  But I have not blogged on this topic in nearly two months because, after a tumultuous 2020, there has been a notable stability in BOP reports of "Total Federal Inmates" during the Biden era.  As noted here, the day after Prez Biden's inauguration, BOP reported a total population of 151,646; as of March 11, 2021, this population stands at 151,703. 

Back in 2017, when Prez Trump was elected and Jeff Sessions took over as Attorney General and implemented new charging and sentencing policies for federal prosecutors, there was understandable concern (see articles here and here) that reductions in the federal prison population that took place during Prez Obama's second term would get reversed.  Indeed, Trump's Justice Department back in 2017, as noted here, was forecasting and budgeting for federal prison population increases.  But, due to a varety of factors, most notably the passage of the FIRST STEP Act and especially the COVID pandemic, the federal prison population actually dropped dramatically during in Trump era.  Specifically the federal prison population decreased by nearly 38,000 persons during Prez Trump's term (nearly 20%), which highlights that the plans, policies and practices of any Attorney General can be eclipsed by other factors impacting the federal prison population.

Against this backdrop, I am wondering (a) if new Attorney General Merrick Garland is going to implement policies and practices that consciously seeks to continue shrinking the federal prison population, and (b) whether we will see any real changes in the federal prison population anytime soon.  In this January post, I predicted the federal prison population would be relatively steady to start the Biden era because it could take months before we see any major DOJ policy changes and many more months before any big policy changes start impacting the federal prison population. 

A few recent prior related posts:

March 14, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 12, 2021

"Are Life Sentences a Merciful Alternative to the Death Penalty?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new extended Mother Jones article.  Here are excerpts:

In the midst of [recent] victories in the fight against capital punishment, many advocates are attempting to address a different form of punishment, questioning how much more merciful life imprisonment is compared to the death penalty.

Life without parole has many of the same qualities that make the death penalty so abhorrent.  Capital punishment is riddled with racial disparities, junk science, and a legal system that routinely fails the marginalized. “Those same exact flaws exist across the whole system,” says Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the advocacy organization The Sentencing Project.  Looked at logically, staying alive, albeit in prison, just has to be a better outcome than being executed.  But looked at more closely, is the lesser sentence really “better” than the harshest one?  “I would not call it a humane alternative to the death penalty,” Shari Silberstein, the executive director of the Equal Justice USA, a criminal justice nonprofit, tells me.  In fact, it’s a punishment both extreme and one that disproportionately affects the most marginalized people....

For Silberstein, anti-death penalty activists shouldn’t focus solely on life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty, but they should consider an entire reconfiguration of what justice means, and what it should look like.  After someone has been harmed, “there’s a need for healing, safety, accountability, and a sense of justice,” she explains. But it is unrealistic to expect “that a prison sentence can meet all of those needs.”  Clearly, they haven’t, she notes.  Harsh sentences persevere, even in places where the death penalty has already been abolished because of the underlying belief that, as Silverstein explains succinctly, “The only sense that justice has been done is if someone else suffers.”

Perhaps now — when execution as a punishment has never seemed so obscene and unacceptable — it’s the right time to reconsider all punishments.  What is the real difference between spending years behind bars only to die strapped to a gurney while correctional staff administer enough drugs to kill you, and languishing behind bars until so-called natural causes finally, mercifully, takes your life?  Are these differences sufficient to end one punishment and while still justifying another?  If the United States is on the cusp of abolishing the death penalty, perhaps it should take the next logical step and abolish another form of cruel and unusual punishment as well: life imprisonment.

March 12, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases new report on "Impact of COVID-19 on the Local Jail Population, January-June 2020"

The Bureau of Justice Statistics yesterday released this notable new report titled "Impact of COVID-19 on the Local Jail Population, January-June 2020."  Here is part of the start of the document and its listed "Highlights."

Local jails in the United States experienced a large decline (down 185,400 inmates) in their inmate populations from June 30, 2019 to June 30, 2020, which can be attributed mainly to the COVID-19 pandemic (figure 1 and table 1). The inmate population confined in local jails was 549,100 at the end of June 2020, down from 734,500 at the end of June 2019. The midyear 2020 inmate population was the lowest since 1996, when 518,500 inmates were confined in local jails (not shown in tables).

The impact of COVID-19 on local jails began in March 2020, with a drop of 18% in the inmate population between the end of February and the end of March, followed by an 11% drop by the end of April. By the last weekday in April 2020, the number of jail inmates dropped to a low of 519,500. By the end of May 2020, the population increased about 3% and was up another 2% by the end of June 2020.

The decline in the inmate population since midyear 2019 resulted from both a reduction in admissions to jails and expedited releases in response to the COVID-19 pandemic from March to June 2020.

Local jails reported 8.7 million admissions during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2020, which was about 16% lower than the 10.3 million admissions during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2019 (appendix table 10)....

This special report is the first of two that describe the impact of COVID-19 on the local jail population. BJS will release a final report that will include results from July to December 2020.

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • From March to June 2020, about 208,500 inmates received expedited release in response to COVID-19.

  • During the pandemic, jail facilities became less crowded, as indicated by the decrease in occupied bed space from 81% at midyear 2019 to 60% at midyear 2020.

  • The number of inmates held for a misdemeanor declined about 45% since midyear 2019, outpacing the decline in the number of inmates held for a felony (down 18%).

  • The percentage of inmates held for a felony increased from 70% at midyear 2019 to 77% at midyear 2020.

  • From March to June 2020, jails conducted 215,360 inmate COVID-19 tests. More than 11% of these tests were positive.

  • Jails in counties with confirmed residential COVID-19 infection rates of 1% or more tested nearly 21% of persons admitted to their jails from March to June 2020. 

  • From March to June 2020, nearly 5% (10,850) of all local jail staff (233,220) tested positive for COVID-19.

March 11, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Highlighting why those concerned about mass incarceration need to be concerned with murder spike

Adam Gelb has this notable new USA Today opinion piece under the headline "America's surge in violence: Why we must reduce violent crime for prison reform to work: We simply won’t shed our status as the planet’s leading incarcerator without reducing violence." Here are excerpts:

Amid the pandemic and protests last year, violent crime spiked. Homicides in 34 large cities rose 30%, a single-year jump that is unprecedented in modern American history.

In those cities alone, there were 1,268 more murders in 2020 than in 2019. On top of the tragic loss of life, the burst of violence represents a major setback for the movement to reduce incarceration and achieve racial justice.

There has been significant progress on these fronts: the overall rate of serious crime is less than half what it was in the early 1990s, and a wave of state and federal reforms has cut the level of punishment per crime, especially for minor offenses.

As a result, the number of people locked up at the end of 2020 had fallen to 1.8 million, a sizable dip from the 2.3 million held at the peak of U.S. incarceration in 2008. But a large chunk of that drop came from reductions in arrests and other COVID-related adjustments, which may prove temporary. Jail populations already are creeping back to prepandemic levels.

The upshot is that if we hope to further shrink the number of Americans behind bars and reduce racial disparities, we can’t rely on cutting punishment alone.  We must also curb the commission of crime in the first place, particularly the serious, violent crime that victimizes so many young Black men and lands them in prison....

A nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice task force outlined a plan for strategic federal assistance to the 40 cities hardest hit by homicide.  By one estimate, a $900-million targeted federal investment in those cities over eight years could cut murders in half, and save many times that much in social and taxpayer costs.  President Joe Biden endorsed this plan during his campaign.

Perhaps the 2020 homicide spike is a blip, a fleeting artifact of the toxic mix of pandemic stress, economic hardship and protest outrage.  Once the COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing mandates end, the face-to-face outreach that characterizes the most successful anti-violence programs can resume, and the bloodshed hopefully will ebb.

But even before last year’s startling rise in crime, too many Americans were becoming victims, and too many were facing long years behind bars. Until we change that, the death toll will mount and the pace of progress toward a more racially equitable justice system will be glacially slow.

March 9, 2021 in National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 08, 2021

"Expanding Voting Rights to All Citizens in the Era of Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this short new document from The Sentencing Project, which gets started this way:

In order to strengthen democracy and address significant racial disparities, states must pass reforms establishing universal voting for people impacted by the criminal legal system.

5.2 million people in the United States are currently denied access to the vote because of a felony conviction.  The number of people disenfranchised has grown, from 1.2 million in 1976, as a product of mass incarceration and supervision.  Of people denied the vote, one in four (1,240,000) are currently incarcerated.  While many states have expanded access to the vote for people who have completed their sentences, only DC has joined Maine, Vermont, and Puerto Rico by granting full voting rights to people in prison. In order to strengthen democracy and address significant racial disparities, states must pass reforms establishing universal voting for people impacted by the criminal legal system.

The United States maintains far greater restrictions on voting while in prison than any other democratic country in the world.  The Supreme Court of Canada has twice ruled in favor of protecting voting rights for people in prison, stating that the “denial of the right to vote on the basis of attributed moral unworthiness is inconsistent with the respect for the dignity of every person that lies at the heart of Canadian democracy.”  Five years after the fall of Apartheid, the Constitutional Court of South Africa ensured voting rights for people in prison.

March 8, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Prisons as first frontier of the welfare state in The Last Frontier state

The nickname of the state of Alaska is The Last Frontier, which inspired the title of this post about this local article headlined "Alaska now spends more on prisons than its university system, and the gap is widening."  Here are excerpts explaining what I mean by the post title (with my emphasis added):

Alaska is now spending more on prisons than its state university, a reversal of the state’s longtime practice, and the gap would widen under a draft budget being considered by the state legislature.

Since 2015, when adjusted for inflation, Alaska has cut by 22.4% the amount it spends on the operations of all state agencies combined.  The Alaska Department of Corrections is the only agency whose inflation-adjusted budget has grown during that period.

Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, called the current situation “sad.”  Bishop is co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which on Thursday held a hearing that questioned whether the Legislature and governor have reached the limit of budget cuts they can make without significant changes to state law.

Though state spending (not including the Permanent Fund Dividend) has declined by almost half from its peak in 2015, most reductions came early in that period.  The cuts of the past two years have been almost entirely erased by inflation and other annual cost increases....

The budgets for the University of Alaska and the state prison system illustrate the problems now faced by the Legislature and governor.  In 2019, the governor signed an agreement with the University of Alaska Board of Regents that called for three years of budget cuts.  Though the Alaska Legislature was not party to the agreement, it has followed it so far.

At the time, the university system received $327 million from the portion of the budget paid for with revenue from the Permanent Fund and taxes. In the budget under consideration now by the Legislature, the university is slated to receive just $257 million.

One month before signing the university agreement, Dunleavy signed a bill that rolled back prior prison reform legislation.  That prior legislation, known as Senate Bill 91, had encouraged alternatives to prison, such as electronic monitoring, halfway houses and supervised release.

SB 91 reduced prison costs, but many Alaskans believed it was contributing to an increase in property crime and pushed for its repeal.  Since then, the budget of the Alaska Department of Corrections has grown from $291 million in 2019 to $345 million in the plan now being considered by the Legislature.

Much of that increase is due to increases in spending on inmate healthcare and rehabilitation, budget documents show. Department officials told a legislative panel last month that 65% of Alaska’s prison inmates are mentally ill, 80% have some kind of substance abuse disorder, and 65% have reported some kind of traumatic brain injury. Almost one in four inmates is positive for Hepatitis C.

Several hundred inmates were released from custody to relieve prison crowding during COVID-19, but the department now projects a continued rise in the state’s prison population, estimating that by June 2025, more than 4,900 Alaskans will be in prison.  As of February, more than half of the state’s prison population consisted of people who were awaiting trial, not those who had been sentenced.

I share the view that this situation is "sad" with more money now to be spent by Alaskans to cage its citizens than to provide higher education. And it is especially interesting to read that the increased prison spending is mostly for "healthcare and rehabilitation," which likely includes some educational programming, and that the majority of Alaskan prison inmates are mentally ill and/or have substance abuse disorder and/or a serious brain injury.  As is likely true in many states, Alaska is spending more and more monies on prisons in order to tend to its most vulnerable populations, though only after they get involved with the criminal justice system (while other welfare programs like higher education get cut in order to provide welfare services to the incarcerated).

March 8, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 04, 2021

New Sentencing Project fact sheet provides updated data on private prison populations in US

The Sentencing Project has this new fact sheet titled simply "Private Prisons in the United States."  The document has lots of data and helpful graphics in a short space, and here is how it gets started:

Private prisons in the United States incarcerated 115,954 people in 2019, representing 8% of the total state and federal prison population.  Since 2000, the number of people housed in private prisons has increased 33% compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 3%.

However, the private prison population has declined 16% since reaching its peak in 2012 with 137,220.  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, Montana held 47% of its prison population in private facilities, while 19 states did not employ any for-profit prisons. Data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and interviews with corrections officials find that in 2019, 32 states and the federal government incarcerated people in private facilities run by corporations including GEO Group, Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), LaSalle Corrections, and Management and Training Corporation.

Twenty-one 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, 12,516.

Since 2000, the number of people in private prisons has increased 33%, compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 3.5%. In eight states the private prison population has more than doubled during this time period: Arizona (480%), Indiana (313%), Ohio (253%), North Dakota (221%), Florida (205%), Montana (125%), Tennessee (118%), and Georgia (110%).

March 4, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)