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)

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

"Association between county jail incarceration and cause-specific county mortality in the USA, 1987–2017: a retrospective, longitudinal study"

Concerns about public safety and justice have long been central to discussions and debate over modern mass incarceration in the United States.  But, especially as a result of the COVID pandemic, we are seeing more and more consideration of incarceration as a public health issue.  Consequently, I was really struck by this new research published online at The Lancet Public Health which analyzes mortality associated with jails over three decades (and has the title that serves as the title of this post).  Here is the "Summary" from this paper:

Background

Mass incarceration has collateral consequences for community health, which are reflected in county-level health indicators, including county mortality rates.  County jail incarceration rates are associated with all-cause mortality rates in the USA. We assessed the causes of death that drive the relationship between county-level jail incarceration and mortality.

Methods

In this retrospective, longitudinal study, we assessed the association between county-level jail incarceration rates and county-level cause-specific mortality using county jail incarceration data (1987–2017) for 1094 counties in the USA obtained from the Vera Institute of Justice and cause-specific mortality data for individuals younger than 75 years in the total county population (1988–2018) obtained from the US National Vital Statistics System.  We fitted quasi-Poisson models for nine common causes of death (cerebrovascular disease, chronic lower respiratory disease, diabetes, heart disease, infectious disease, malignant neoplasm, substance use, suicide, and unintentional injury) with county fixed effects, controlling for all unmeasured stable county characteristics and measured time-varying confounders (county median age, county poverty rate, county percentage of Black residents, county crime rate, county unemployment rate, and state incarceration rate).  We lagged county jail incarceration rates by 1 year to assess the short-term, by 5 years to assess the medium-term, and by 10 years to assess the long-term associations of jail incarceration with premature mortality.

Findings

A 1 per 1000 within-county increase in jail incarceration rate was associated with a 6·5% increase in mortality from infectious diseases (risk ratio 1·065, 95% CI 1·061–1·070), a 4·9% increase in mortality from chronic lower respiratory disease (1·049, 1·045–1·052), a 2·6% increase in mortality induced from substance use (1·026, 1·020–1·032), a 2·5% increase in suicide mortality (1·025, 1·020–1·029), and smaller increases in mortality from heart disease (1·021, 1·019–1·023), unintentional injury (1·015, 1·011–1·018), malignant neoplasm (1·014, 1·013–1·016), diabetes (1·013, 1·009–1·018), and cerebrovascular disease (1·010, 1·007–1·013) after 1 year.  Associations between jail incarceration and cause-specific mortality rates weakened as time lags increased, but to a greater extent for causes of death with generally shorter latency periods (infectious disease and suicide) than for those with generally longer latency periods (heart disease, malignant neoplasm, and cerebrovascular disease).

Interpretation

Jail incarceration rates are potential drivers of many causes of death in US counties.  Jail incarceration can be harmful not only to the health of individuals who are incarcerated, but also to public health more broadly. Our findings suggest important points of intervention, including disinvestment from carceral systems and investment in social and public health services, such as community-based treatment of substance-use disorders.

March 2, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Will NJ Gov veto a bill to repeal mandatory minimums for certain non-violent crimes because it repeals too many?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local story reporting on notable legislative developments our of New Jersey, headlined "Bill to end mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes in N.J. now goes to Murphy’s desk."  Here are highlights of a story with so many interesting elements (with links from the original and my emphasis added):

A landmark criminal justice bill that would end mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes in New Jersey, including non-violent drug offenses, is now heading to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk after being passed by the state Assembly on Monday.

The bill (S2586/A4369) is the major reform recommended by the state’s Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, which Murphy convened in 2018 due to the state having the worst disparity in the country for rates of incarceration between Black and white offenders.  The commission found that ending mandatory minimums for certain crimes would help to eliminate the disparity in the state’s criminal justice system, an initiative Murphy has championed as governor.

It is unclear if Murphy, a Democrat, will sign the bill into law.  “We’ll have further comment when we are ready to take action on the bill,” a spokesman for the governor said Monday afternoon.

As the bill was moving through the legislature, state Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-Hudson, added an amendment to the bill to make the legislation also apply to official misconduct charges, which is sometimes used to prosecute politicians, police officers and other public workers.  The son of Sacco’s girlfriend is facing an official misconduct offense for allegedly submitting false timesheets in North Bergen, where Sacco is the mayor. 

Murphy has been publicly steadfast in that he does not support a bill that included ending mandatory sentences for official misconduct. “Let me say unequivocally, official misconduct was not on the list. I just want to say as clearly as I can, I do not support official misconduct being roped into this legislation,” the governor said in September.

But advocates continued to press lawmakers to move forward with the bill with or without the official misconduct charge included in it due to the number of people impacted, and the few number of people charged with official misconduct in recent years.

“Pass it for the thousands of people who will see earlier parole,” NJ Together, a non-partisan coalition of faith groups, wrote in a letter to lawmakers last week. “Pass it for the tens of thousands who will benefit in the future because they will not be subject to these unfair sentencing practices. Pass it for their families and for a more just criminal justice system here in New Jersey.”...

“This legislation, if signed by Gov. Murphy, will serve as a national model for criminal justice reform,” said Assemblyman Nick Chiaravalloti, D-Hudson. “This is an important social justice issue.”

The bill retroactively applies to inmates serving certain mandatory minimum sentences, including non-violent drug offenses, making more than 2,000 inmates immediately eligible for parole, if signed into law.  More than 80% of inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are either Black or Hispanic, Joseph Krakora, the state’s top public defender, previously said.

Assemblyman John DiMaio, R-Warren, said he recognized the “social injustice issues that would be addressed by this bill,” but added, “I just do not understand where the social justice issue comes in” when removing official misconduct from the list of mandatory minimum sentences.  “Those sections that deal with the public trust, elected officials and public officials should not be in this bill,” he said before Monday’s vote.

However, NJ Together also found that official misconduct charges overwhelming are handed down to Black New Jerseyans.  It found that Black people in New Jersey are three and a half times as likely to spend time in state prison for official misconduct than others, according to an analysis of 36,000 prison records....

A spokesman for Murphy did not immediately respond when asked when the governor may make a decision.

I am instinctually against all (prison-time) manadtory minimums, which fundamentally shift sentencing powers from judges to prosecutors and make sentencing more opaque and often less consistent.  Mandatory minimums seem especially pernicious when applied to non-violent offenses where there can be a broad array of offense conduct and offender circumstances that a judge ought be able to consider in open court (and be subject to appeal).  Against that backdrop, from the get-go I think it is problematic (and telling) that reform-minded officials are so quick to oppose the repeal of the official misconduct NJ mandatory minimums (which seem pretty severe, though do include some waiver opportunities).

Even more important, and kudos for this reporting, racial disparity would seem to be a real concern in the application of this particular mandatory minimum in New Jersey, just as there tends to be disparity in the application of so many other mandatory minimums in so many jurisdictions.  If a primary goal of this whole bill is to reduce racially disparate sentencing laws, then repealing the misconduct minimums seems very much in service to a main goal of this bill.

FInally, and perhaps most important in service to criminal justice reform generally, any vision of the best reforms cannot and should not be the enemy of good reforms.  Today, tomorrow and every day until misguided sentencing laws are reformed and made retroactive, real people and their families are subject to real excessive prison time (and taxpayers are paying the economic and other  costs of excessive and unfair sentences).  If Gov Murphy were to veto this bill, he would be denying immediate relief and hope for more than 2,000 folks now serving problematic sentences in order to .... just preserve prosecutorial sentencing powers that they seem to be using unevenly and that should be in the hands of judges.

Prior related post:

March 2, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 28, 2021

"Prisons are getting Whiter. That’s one way mass incarceration might end."

The title of this post is the headline of this provocative Washington Post commentary authored by Keith Humphreys and Ekow N. Yankah. Here are excerpts:

Research shows that many White Americans see incarceration as a “Black problem,” and the more they see it that way, the less willing they are to do anything about it.  Biden and others might surmount this resistance, however, by highlighting a surprising trend: White Americans have been filling jails and prisons at increasing rates in the 21st century. Reducing incarceration, reformers can credibly argue, will benefit Whites as much as Blacks....

Racial codings of social problems influence public attitudes through two basic processes.  The first is in-group favoritism, which is greater appreciation of and empathy for people we perceive as similar to ourselves.  Such favoritism increases willingness to help a stranger in distress, leave a big tip at a restaurant or grant a promotion at work, among many other kindnesses. In-group favoritism is not limited to race (we can be favorably disposed to someone over something as trivial as sharing a first name or a birthday), and people of all races are prone to it.  But race is clearly one of the many dimensions by which we judge similarity, so that as more White Americans understand that more Whites are behind bars, they may feel increased compassion toward prisoners and voice more support for policies to reduce incarceration.

The other process in play is more disturbing, because it implies an active attempt to harm others.  Sociologists Rachel Wetts and Robb Willer documented that, when told the income gap between White Americans and Black and Latino Americans was shrinking, Whites favored social welfare programs that they believed particularly helped other Whites. But they became less supportive of programs that they thought particularly helped minorities.  Wetts and Willer concluded that perceived threats to the racial hierarchy drive White opposition to helping Black Americans.  The same Whites who recoiled at a Black man rising to the presidency, for example, might oppose prison reforms (shorter sentences, better health care, early release for the sick and elderly) precisely because they believe that the beneficiaries will mainly be Black. Informing such people that prisoners are increasingly White could soften their hostility.

Persuading people to join the fight against mass incarceration because Whites stand to benefit is bound to repulse those already committed to the cause.  But because each state runs its own prison system and sets most criminal penalties, building a nationwide coalition is essential.  That can happen only by shifting the opinion of people who are not moved by — or indeed are even comforted by — the thought of prison populations being mostly Black. And exploding the idea that mass incarceration is only a “Black problem” may allow us to reimagine a broad range of other issues, such as the policing that helps feed it....

In the effort to control Black and Brown people through the criminal justice system, White Americans have shown a stunning willingness to tolerate a huge number of White prisoners as collateral damage.  And once such systems are built, they have a remarkable capacity for self-preservation; jail populations, for instance, have stayed constant even as crime has plummeted.  So we cannot say how well a strategy drawing attention to the Whitening trend will work. In his book “Dying of Whiteness,” physician Jonathan Metzl argues that White people’s racial resentment can lead them to cut off their nose to spite their face — opposing policies that would help them because they would help Black citizens, too. Indeed, numerous economists have concluded that America’s long history of hostility toward Black people has left it the sole advanced economy without some form of universal health care.  If some White Americans are willing to give up health care to keep their place in the racial hierarchy, perhaps they are willing to risk imprisonment as well.  Yet the reversal in rhetoric during the opioid crisis shows that entrenched policies can be changed.

What’s more, in a remarkable moment of convergence, libertarians, religious leaders and racial-justice advocates oppose mass incarceration for separate but overlapping reasons.  Were our country more just and less dismissive of Black pain, growing White incarceration would have no special weight in assessing the moral value of locking up more than 2 million of our fellow citizens.  Opponents of mass incarceration — including Biden — should continue to denounce racism within the criminal justice system.  But the president can also remind Americans that our racial fates are joined: All of us would benefit from the end of mass incarceration.

February 28, 2021 in Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Sentencing Project releases "No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment"

The Sentencing Project has done remarkable work in recent years tracking (and advocating against) the growth of life and functional life sentences in the United States. This great work continues with the release today of this big report authored by Ashley Nellis titled "No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment." The whole 46-page report is worth a close read for anyone concerned about extreme punishments and mass incarceration, and here the start of the report's initial "Findings and Recommendations" section:

Before America’s era of mass incarceration took hold in the early 1970s, the number of individuals in prison was less than 200,000.  Today, it’s 1.4 million; and more than 200,000 people are serving life sentences — one out of every seven in prison. More people are sentenced to life in prison in America than there were people in prison serving any sentence in 1970.
Nearly five times the number of people are now serving life sentences in the United States as were in 1984, a rate of growth that has outpaced even the sharp expansion of the overall prison population during this period.  The now commonplace use of life imprisonment contradicts research on effective public safety strategies, exacerbates already extreme racial injustices in the criminal justice system, and exemplifies the egregious consequences of mass incarceration.
In 2020, The Sentencing Project obtained official corrections data from all states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to produce our 5th national census on life imprisonment.
KEY FINDINGS
• One in 7 people in U.S. prisons is serving a life sentence, either life without parole (LWOP), life with parole (LWP) or virtual life (50 years or more), totaling 203,865 people;
• The number of people serving life without parole — the most extreme type of life sentence — is higher than ever before, a 66% increase since our first census in 2003;
• 29 states had more people serving life in 2020 than just four years earlier;
• 30% of lifers are 55 years old or more, amounting to more than 61,417 people;
• 3,972 people serving life sentences have been convicted for a drug-related offense and 38% of these are in the federal prison system;
• More than two-thirds of those serving life sentences are people of color;
• One in 5 Black men in prison is serving a life sentence;
• Latinx individuals comprise 16% of those serving life sentences;
• One of every 15 women in prison is serving life;
• Women serving LWOP increased 43%, compared to a 29% increase among men, between 2008 and 2020;
• The population serving LWOP for crimes committed as youth is down 45% from its peak in 2016;
• 8,600 people nationwide are serving parole-eligible life or virtual life sentences for crimes committed as minors.

February 17, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Examples of "over-punishment", Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

New California Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code issues report urging sweeping sentencing reforms

As reported in this local article, headlined "California Commission Recommends Ending Mandatory Minimum Sentences," a notable new government body in the Golden State is recommending an array of notable new sentencing reforms.  Here are the basics:

A newly formed state commission is recommending that California end mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes and allow judges to reconsider all criminal sentences after someone has spent 15 years in prison.

Those are two of the 10 recommendations laid out in an 89-page report by the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, which is charged with examining California’s criminal sentencing laws and recommending changes.

Among their findings: That the state’s legal system has racial inequality at its core and that many laws are outdated, unsupported by data and don’t make the public more safe. "We really tried to do a complete survey of punishments in California from driving infractions, all the way to life in prison," said commission Chair Mike Romano, who runs the Three Strikes Clinic at Stanford Law School.

"What we found is that California has an unbelievably bloated criminal legal system and that there are a tremendous number of people who are serving punishments that are unnecessary in terms of enhancing public safety, in fact quite the opposite," he said.

The group heard from a wide range of experts, including every major law enforcement group in the state, current and former prosecutors and judges and state officials. The commission learned that California is spending $83,000 a year to lock up each prisoner, for a total of $16 billion. Yet the report also details evidence that California is enjoying the lowest crime rates since statewide tracking began in 1969, even as the state has enacted laws that reduce the number of people incarcerated.

“Aspects of California’s criminal legal system are undeniably broken," the report states. “The current system has racial inequity at its core," the commission wrote, adding that inequality may be worse than imagined as "people of color are disproportionately punished under state laws.”

The group is made up of legal experts and two state lawmakers. There are 10 recommendations in its inaugural report — all focusing on changes that could be made by the Legislature, without going to voters.

The full report is available at this link, and here is its executive summary:

When the Legislature and Governor Gavin Newsom established the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, California launched its first concerted effort in decades to thoroughly examine its criminal laws. The Legislature gave the Committee special data-gathering powers, directing it to study all aspects of criminal law and procedure and to make recommendations to “simplify and rationalize” the state’s Penal Code. This is the Committee’s first report, and it details 10 reforms recommended unanimously by Committee members. Our recommendations span California’s entire criminal legal system, ranging from traffic court to parole consideration for people serving life sentences. If enacted, these reforms would impact almost every person involved in California’s criminal system and, we believe, measurably improve safety and justice throughout the state.

Our recommendations follow a year of studying California’s criminal punishments. We were guided by testimony from 56 expert witnesses, extensive public comment, staff research, and over 50 hours of public hearings and Committee deliberation. We believe the recommendations represent broad consensus among a wide array of stakeholders, including law enforcement, crime victims, civil rights leaders, and people directly impacted by the legal system. The report contains extensive support for each recommendation, including empirical research, experiences from other jurisdictions, and available data on California’s current approach to these issues.

The recommendations are: 

  1.  Eliminate incarceration and reduce fines and fees for certain traffic offenses.
  2.  Require that short prison sentences be served in county jails. 
  3.  End mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses.
  4.  Establish that low-value thefts without serious injury or use of a weapon are misdemeanors.
  5.  Provide guidance for judges considering sentence enhancements.
  6.  Limit gang enhancements to the most dangerous offenses.
  7.  Retroactively apply sentence enhancements previously repealed by the Legislature.
  8.  Equalize custody credits for people who committed the same offenses, regardless of where or when they are incarcerated.
  9.  Clarify parole suitability standards to focus on risk of future violent or serious offenses.
  10.  Establish judicial process for “second look” resentencing.

February 9, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

The Sentencing Project releases new report documenting "Racial Disparities in Youth Incarceration Persist"

Josh Rovner has authored this new report for The Sentencing Project titled " "Racial Disparities in Youth Incarceration Persist." Here is its executive summary:

In an era of declining youth incarceration, Black and American Indian youth are still overwhelmingly more likely to be held in custody than their white peers.

In ten years, the United States has cut youth incarceration in half. While the reduction is impressive, youth involvement in the juvenile justice system continues to impact youth of color disproportionately.

In every state, Black youth are more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, about five times as likely nationwide. American Indian youth are three times as likely to be incarcerated as their white peers. For Latinx youth disparities are smaller but still prevalent; Latinx youth are 42 percent more likely than their white peers to be incarcerated.

Nationally, disparities are essentially unchanged from 10 years’ prior for Black and American Indian youth, but represent a 21 percent decrease in incarceration disparities for Latinx youth. In state rankings, New Jersey warrants special mention due to its number one and number three status for highest Black-white and Latinx-white disparities in youth incarceration, respectively.

These disparities are not only caused by differences in offending but also by harsher enforcement and punishment of youth of color.  White youth are less likely to be arrested than other teenagers, which is partly attributable to unequal policing and partly to differential involvement in crime.

After arrest, youth of color are more likely to be detained pre-adjudication and committed post adjudication.  They are also less likely to be diverted from the system.  These patterns hold across a range of offenses.

Advancement of racial justice priorities with youth decarceration efforts has proven elusive.  More steps must be taken to invest in youth and communities in order to prevent crime and to protect youth from overly punitive system responses to misbehavior.

Recommendations

1. Racial impact statements

States and localities should require the use of racial impact statements to educate policymakers about how changes in sentencing or law enforcement policies and practices might impact racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system.

2. Publish demographic data quarterly

States and counties should publish demographic data quarterly on the number of incarcerated or justice-system involved youth, including race and ethnicity. The federal government should disseminate this information nationwide.

3. Invest in communities

States and localities must invest in communities to strengthen public infrastructures, such as schools and medical and mental health services, with particular focus on accommodating the needs of children of color.

February 3, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

"Local Spending on Jails Tops $25 Billion in Latest Nationwide Data"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the Pew Charitable Trust folks.  Here are excerpts from the report's overview:

Historically, the roughly 3,000 local jails operating in the United States have received less public and policymaker attention than prisons.  But now, the COVID-19 pandemic has put jails — secure correctional facilities, generally operated by county or municipal governments, where people are detained before trial or confined post-conviction for periods usually lasting less than a year — under additional scrutiny.  Jails rely on close confinement and so are high risk for disease transmission.  Local governments are also confronting the budget implications of the pandemic and looking for potential savings, especially in costly areas such as corrections.

This environment provides an opportunity to examine correctional expenditures and consider strategies that may offer enduring public safety and fiscal benefits.  The available data indicates that to mitigate COVID-19 exposure risk, jurisdictions reduced jail populations by about 31% nationwide from March to May 2020, and although those populations partially rebounded, they were still 15% below March levels as of October 2020.  Further, people released from jail in March were readmitted less often over the ensuing six months than those released in January, suggesting that the pandemic-related decreases in jail populations did not affect public safety.  These reductions may not yield immediate savings, but a sustained commitment to safely cutting the number of people in jail could provide long-term financial benefits.  The recent experience of reducing prison populations offers a glimpse of the potential cost savings: The 9% drop in the prison population from 2008 to 2018 virtually flattened corrections spending, which had averaged 5.4% annual growth from 1991 to 2007.

To support state and local efforts to reduce jail spending and protect public safety, The Pew Charitable Trusts undertook an analysis of jail costs, using expenditure data for all U.S. localities, primarily from 2007 and 2017, and related criminal justice data..... 

Key findings include:

Local governments spend billions on jails.  As of the end of 2017:

  • Jail and other local corrections costs had risen sixfold since 1977, with jail costs reaching $25 billion.
  • Almost 2 in 5 dollars spent on state and local correctional institutions went to jails.
  • About 1 in 17 county dollars was spent on jails.
  • The average annual cost of holding a person in jail was about $34,000.
  • Roughly a third of jail facility capacity was more than 30 years old, and about 20% of jails were overcrowded, which could present significant capital challenges to local budgets.

Jail costs rose even as crime and admissions to jail fell.  As of the end of 2017:

  • A 20% decrease in crime and a 19% drop in jail admissions since 2007 had not led to reduced jail spending.
  • The portion of local budgets spent on jails did not correlate with state crime rates.
  • Small localities spent more per capita on jails than most other jurisdictions, despite having lower crime rates.

Nationwide, counties and cities are seeking to address budgetary pressures during these difficult fiscal times and for the long term.  New policies and practices — including many they already have embraced in response to the pandemic — can safely reduce jail populations and associated costs and help them achieve those goals.

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

Friday, January 29, 2021

"The Transparency of Jail Data"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN and authored by William Crozier, Brandon L. Garrett and Arvind Krishnamurthy. Here is its abstract:

Across the country, pretrial policies and practices concerning the use of cash bail are in flux, but it is not readily possible for members of the public to assess whether or how those changes in policy and practice are affecting outcomes.  A range of actors affect the jail population, including: law enforcement who make arrest decisions, magistrates and judges who rule at hearings on pretrial conditions and may modify such conditions, prosecutors and defense lawyers who litigate at hearings, pretrial-service providers who assist in evaluation and supervision of persons detained pretrial, and the custodian of the jail who supervises facilities.  In the following Essay, we present the results of a case study in Durham, North Carolina.  We began this project in the fall of 2018 by scraping data portraying daily pretrial conditions set for individuals in the Durham County Jail.  The data was scraped from the Durham County Sheriff’s Inmate Population Search website and details the individual’s name, charges, bond type, bond amount, court docket number and time served.  Scraping was initiated on September 1, 2018, and continues to the present.

Beginning in early 2019, the judges and prosecutors in Durham, North Carolina, adopted new bail policies, reflecting a shift in the pretrial detention framework.  This Essay provides a firsthand look into the pretrial detention data following these substantive policy changes. Our observations serve as a reflection on how the changes in Durham reflect broader pretrial detention reform efforts.  First, we observe that a dramatic decline in the jail population followed the adoption of these policy changes.  Second, we find that the policy changes corresponded with changes in aggregate conditions imposed pretrial. We describe, however, why public data that simply reports initial pre-trial conditions cannot answer additional questions concerning the jail population or outcomes for the released population.  Nor can this data fully answer questions concerning which actors can be credited with the observed changes.  During a time in which jail populations are a subject of pressing public concern, we have inadequate information, even in jurisdictions with public jail websites, to assess policy.  We conclude by discussing the implications of data limitations for efforts to reorient bail policy.

January 29, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 28, 2021

ACLU urging Prez Biden to "use his clemency powers to bring home 25,000 people" from federal prisons

In this post yesterday reviewing commentary on former Prez Trump's use of the clemency power, I mentioned that on this front I am always more eager to look forward than look back.  Consequently, I am pleased to see that via this press release that the ACLU is looking forward and pressing the new President to use his clemency powers boldly.  Here are excerpts:

On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced a slate of executive orders on racial justice. Notably missing was any executive action to boldly use his power of clemency. Today, the American Civil Liberties Union launched a six-figure advertising buy asking President Biden to honor his commitment to significant decarceration by immediately using his clemency authority to help tens of thousands of people in federal prison who could be safely released immediately.

poll released by the ACLU last year found widespread support for executive officials to use their clemency authority to correct past injustices.... “The American public, voters, and most importantly, incarcerated people and their families were encouraged by President Biden’s commitment to reduce our country’s prison population significantly. Now that he is in office, the president has the opportunity to act on this commitment and correct the harms created by decades of racist policies that have led to the unjust and disproportionate incarceration of Black and Brown people by using his executive power to grant clemency to thousands of people,” said Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of the ACLU’s Justice Division and former project manager for the Obama administration’s 2014 Clemency Initiative. “Clemency provides an opportunity for the Biden administration to show mercy to those who are incarcerated, repair injustices, and mend communities most impacted by mass incarceration. The new administration must commit itself to the routine and bold use of clemency.”

Specifically, the ACLU is asking President Biden use his clemency powers to bring home 25,000 people in some of our most vulnerable populations including individuals who are currently incarcerated under statutes that have since changed, older people and medically vulnerable people, particularly people at risk of COVID-19 infections, and people incarcerated for drug offenses. Collectively, these categories add up to tens of thousands of people currently incarcerated in the federal prison system.

I am quite pleased that the ACLU is making a big, big ask in this way, but I think it critical for everyone to also be pushing Prez Biden to just get his clemency pen flowing ASAP in even modest ways.  Though it would be amazing to see thousands of commutations in short order, Prez Biden could send a powerful signal by simply making a regular habit of commuting, say, a few dozen sentences every week while also encouraging all the nation's governors to do the same. 

If Prez Bden would just grant 10 clemencies each week (with perhaps five pardons and five commutations), he would set a record-setting pace for the use of the historic clemency power.  According to the latest BOP data, there are over 10,000 federal prisoners aged 60 or older and over 66,000 in for drug offenses; surely five can be found among this group each week who could safely be released from confinement.  There are hundreds of thousand of Americans still bearing the burdens of a long-ago federal conviction, surely five can be found among this group each week who deserve a pardon.

Interestingly, though not properly attributed to anything done by the Biden Administration, the federal prison in the last week has increased by over 400 persons.  Last week, BOP reported the federal prison population at 151,646; today, BOP reports that it stands at 152,071.  This reality provide an important reminder that, absent proactive and sustained effort to decarcerate, the federal punishment bureaucracy may often be lkely to drive up prison populations.

January 28, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Vera Institute reports on "People in Jail and Prison in 2020" and finds US total now well below two million

Images (7)The Vera Institute of Justice has been taking on the challenging task of collecting data on the number of people in state and federal prisons and jails to provide more timely information on incarceration that the Bureau of Justice Statistics releases in its annual reports. Impressively, Vera has already produced this great new report, titled "People in Jail and Prison in 2020," with the latest nationwide prison and population headcounts. Here his part of the start of the report (with a few sentences I have emphasized):

The United States saw an unprecedented drop in total incarceration between 2019 and 2020.  Triggered by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and pressure from advocates to reduce incarceration, local jails drove the initial decline, although prisons also made reductions.  From summer to fall 2020, prison populations declined further, but jails began to refill, showing the fragility of decarceration.  Jails in rural counties saw the biggest initial drops, but still incarcerate people at double the rate of urban and suburban areas.  Despite the historic drop in the number of people incarcerated, the decrease was neither substantial nor sustained enough to be considered an adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and incarceration in the United States remains a global aberration.

Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) researchers collected data on the number of people in local jails and state and federal prisons at both midyear and fall 2020 to provide timely information on how incarceration is changing in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Vera researchers estimated the national jail population using a sample of 1,558 jail jurisdictions and the national prison population based on a sample of 49 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons....

Generally, jails and prisons do not make race and gender data available.  However, preliminary results from other studies suggest that race inequity in incarceration may be worsening during the pandemic.

The number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails in the United States dropped from around 2.1 million in 2019 to 1.8 million by mid-2020 — a 14 percent decrease.  This decline held through the fall. This represents a 21 percent decline from a peak of 2.3 million people in prison and jail in 2008.  State and federal prisons held an estimated 1,311,100 people at midyear 2020 — down 124,400, or 9 percent, from 2019.  Prisons declined by an additional 61,800 people in late 2020, bringing the total prison population to 1,249,300 people, a 13 percent decline from 2019 to late 2020 (the end of September or beginning of October).

Local jails had steeper population declines than prisons in the first part of 2020. From June 2019 to June 2020, the jail population decreased by 182,900 people, or 24 percent.  However, from June to September, jail populations increased substantially, growing 10 percent in just three months. By late 2020, there were 633,200 people in local jails, up from an estimated 575,500 people at midyear.  In total, the national jail population declined 17 percent from midyear 2019 to late 2020, with jail incarceration trending upward in recent months.

The national jail population counts hide stark divergence across the urban-to-rural continuum. In the past year, the largest and most sustained jail population declines were in rural areas, where the jail population dropped by 60,400 (33 percent) between midyear 2019 and midyear 2020, and subsequently grew by 10,600 (9 percent) between midyear 2020 and late 2020.  Urban areas and small and midsized metro areas had smaller incarceration declines followed by slightly higher subsequent growth from June to September 2020. Even with dramatic declines, rural areas still have the highest incarceration rates by far.  Three out of five people incarcerated in local jails are in smaller cities and rural communities.

This four-page fact sheet goes with the report and provides a lot of its highlights and includes recommendations for policy-makers.

January 27, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 25, 2021

"Is Mass Incarceration Here to Stay?"

The title of this post is the title of this recent essay authored by Lynn Adelman and now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This article argues that the number of people imprisoned in the United States is so large and that policymakers’ concerns about being perceived as soft on crime are so significant that it is very possible that mass incarceration will be with us for a very long time.  The article discusses some of the reasons that have been put forward as to why the United States has imprisoned so many people in the last 50 years and the harms that mass incarceration has brought about.  The article also explores some of the proposals that scholars and others have offered to reduce the number of people imprisoned.  Ultimately, however, the article questions whether there is sufficient will to address the enormity of the problem.

January 25, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 22, 2021

"Can We Wait 60 Years to Cut the Prison Population in Half?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this new publication authored by The Sentencing Project's Senior Research Analyst Nazgol Ghandnoosh.  Here is how it gets started:

The U.S. prison population declined 11% in 10 years after reaching an all-time high in 2009.  This modest reduction follows a nearly 700% increase in the prison population between 1972 and 2009.  As of year end 2019, 1.4 million people were in U.S. prisons; an imprisonment rate unmatched worldwide.  At the recent pace of decarceration, it will take nearly six decades to cut the U.S. prison population in half.

This analysis is based on the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on people serving sentences greater than one year.  Since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, a number of states and the federal system have made additional, albeit limited, reductions in their prison populations.  This analysis underscores the need to reduce unnecessarily high levels of imprisonment amidst a public health crisis and going forward.  Meaningful decarceration, as explained below, requires reducing excessive prison terms for violent convictions.

January 22, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Anyone bold enough to make predictions about the federal prison population — which is now at 151,646 according to BOP?

Regular readers know that I have been following federal prison population data quite closely during the COVID era and giving particular attention to the numbers the federal Bureau of Prisons updates weekly at this webpage.  This morning, which just happens to be the first full day of the new Biden Administration, BOP reports "Total Federal Inmates" at 151,646.  I am very curious to hear predictions as to what this number might be a year from now, or two years from now, or four years from now.

Here is some notable recent historical perspective.  Thanks to the wayback machine, we can see here that during Prez Trump's first week in office in late January 2017, BOP was reporting 189,212 total federal inmates.  Because I cannot find parallel data going back to the Obama inaugural months, I can just link to BOP historical data showing the federal prison population was reported at 201,668 at the end of 2008 and was at 218,687 at the end of 2012.  So, roughly speaking, the federal prison population increased by 17,000 persons during Prez Obama's first term (roughly 8%), and then it declined nearly 20,000 persons during Prez Obama's second term (roughly 9%).  And then the federal prison population decreased by nearly 38,000 persons(!) during Prez Trump's term (nearly 20%).

Gosh knows I would not have predicted that the federal prison population would have increased so significantly during Prez Obama's first term, and I also would not have predicted that this prison population would have decreased so much more significantly during Prez Trump's time in office.  Of course, the unpredictable COVID pandemic is a big part of this Trump era story, but BOP data shows that the federal prison population was declining at a pretty steady clip even in the pre-COVID years of the Trump era despite the fact Trump's Justice Department back in 2017, as noted here, was forecasting prison population increases. 

In short, hindsight shows that the direction of the federal prison population is quite hard to predict.  So, all the more reason for me to want to hear any and all new predictions now.  I am tempted to predict the federal prison population will be relatively steady during the Biden years, at least initially.  Though I would like to see Biden's Justice Department do a lot more to get a lot more vulnerable inmates out of federal prisons, I suspect it may be many months before we see any big DOJ policy changes and likely many more months before any big policy changes start to impact the federal prison population.  (I would love to see the Biden Administration have the gut to set a target of a federal prison population under 100,000, but I will save discussion of that idea for a future post.)

So, dear readers, any federal prison population predictions for the Biden era?

January 21, 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)

Sunday, January 17, 2021

"Mass Incarceration, Meet COVID-19"

The title of this post is the title of this paper now available via SSRN authored by Sharon Dolovich. Here is its abstract:

With the global pandemic still unfolding, we are only beginning to make sense of the overall impact of COVID-19 on the people who live and work inside American prisons and jails, and of what effect, if any, the pandemic will have on the nation’s continued commitment to mass incarceration under unduly harsh conditions.  In this Essay, I take stock of where things now stand.  I also consider how we got to this point, and how penal policy would need to change if we are to prevent another round of needless suffering and death when the next pandemic hits.

Part I explains why the incarcerated face an elevated risk of infection and potentially fatal complications from COVID-19. Part II describes the measures various corrections administrators took at the start of the pandemic to try to limit viral spread inside jails and prisons, and why, however well-intentioned, these measures were insufficient to bring the virus under control.  Part III addresses the steps taken by public officials at all levels to reduce the number of people in custody and offers initial thoughts as to why, after a concerted push for releases on the part of many public actors in the first months of the pandemic, these efforts had already considerably slowed by the latter part of May 2020. (Here, the focus is primarily, though not exclusively, on the federal courts’ nonresponse to urgent petitions from incarcerated plaintiffs.)

Part IV draws on the work of the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.  It explores what the data shows regarding infection rates and COVID deaths in custody, describes the limits of the available data, and explains why the impact on people in jails and prisons is likely even greater than the official numbers suggest.  Part V zeroes in on the culture of secrecy that American corrections administrators have long been empowered to cultivate regarding what goes on behind bars.  It argues that this culture has exacerbated the threat COVID poses to the incarcerated as well as to staff, that such secrecy is at odds with the imperatives of a public institution, and that we need to replace the reigning default posture of concealment with an ethos of transparency.  This Essay concludes with a call for a broad normative reorientation toward assessing carceral policy through a public health lens.

January 17, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Interesting account of folks in Washigton state having second thoughts about three-strikes sentences

This lengthy new local article, headlined "New laws lead some Washington prosecutors to rethink three-strike life sentences," is an interesting review of efforts to review extreme sentences in the Evergreen State. Here are some excerpts from the piece:

Following the law enforcement killing of George Floyd, policing has grabbed the lion’s share of attention when it comes to reforming criminal justice. Yet, statistics reveal stark racial disparities in who goes to prison, and for how long.

In Washington, there is probably no greater example than the three-strikes law approved by voters in 1993 — the nation’s first and an embodiment of the tough-on-crime era, designed to ensure “persistent offenders” would never be free to commit more crimes.  Judges are required to hand down life sentences to repeat offenders of a wide array of crimes, from murder and rape to robbery and assault, and every year, more men and women are sentenced under the law.

While a majority of three-strikes prisoners are white, ... Black people, representing about 4% of the state’s population, account for 38% of 289 current three-strikes prisoners sentenced in Washington (including eight transferred to other states), according to the most comprehensive data released to date by the Department of Corrections (DOC), provided to The Seattle Times in December.  An additional six of 16 people who died in prison while serving three-strikes sentences were Black....

Ever since three strikes was enacted, people have argued about whether those it targets deserve their fate.  And yet, it has been surprisingly hard to track what crimes they committed.  The state stopped reporting the records of three strikes prisoners after 2008 and only recently resumed.

But a Seattle Times analysis of DOC data for the 289 current three-strikes prisoners shows more than half, 155 people, received a life sentence after assault, burglary, robbery or drug-related convictions triggered the third and final strike. Some previously committed more severe crimes.  About half of current three-strikes prisoners have murder, manslaughter or sex crimes on their record.

January 3, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Federal prison population closes out 2020 at new modern low of 152,184 according to BOP

Screenshot 2020-12-31 at 9.56.12 AMA helpful reader recently reminded me that the last federal prison population headcount from the Bureau of Prisons in 2019 — specifically from December 26, 2019 — reported "175,858 Total Federal Inmates."  That number was itself a pretty notable decarceration achievement for the federal system: just six years earlier, in 2013, the federal prison population clocked in at around 220,000 total inmates according to the BOP.

I am focused on the last federal prison population headcount from last year because the Bureau of Prisons this morning reported at this webpage the "Total Federal Inmates" count at the very end of 2020.  Remarkably, this remarkable year has brought a decline of over 23,500 inmates, as the total now stands at 152,184

The COVID pandemic, of course, accounts in various ways for these 2020 decarceral developments.  It is hard to unpack just how much this year's decline can be attributed to a lot more persons being moved out of federal prisons or a lot fewer people being moved into federal prison.  (As noted in this post, the US Sentencing Commission released some early COVID-era sentencing data showing that the number of federal sentences imposed between April and June 2020 dropped about 40% from the usual rate.)  Interestingly, after the pace of declines in the federal prison population seemed to slow considerably in the late summer and fall, there has now been a 2000-person decline in the BOP population since Thanksgiving.  These data make me a bit more hopeful that we could end up below 150,000 total federal inmates during the first few months of 2021.

A few of many prior related posts:

December 31, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Following the Garden State's path to ending mass incarceration

This new commentary authored by Jeremy Travis and Marc Mauer provides yet another reason to love the Garden State. The piece is headlined "New Jersey shows that we can end mass incarceration," and here are excerpt:

New Jersey is on a path to release more than 3,000 people from prison as part of Gov. Phil Murphy’s attempts to fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the criminal justice system.  While the pandemic has kept far too many of us feeling trapped at home, Murphy is responding to this crisis in a way that prioritizes freedom for thousands of Americans.  In fact, since the beginning of the outbreak, New Jersey’s prison population has shrunk by 35%.

But it shouldn’t take a deadly virus to know that too many Americans remain stuck in prisons, serving sentences that are unnecessarily long and being denied basic human dignities like privacy and safety....

Rather than asking taxpayers to maintain this massive prison system, our nation should be demanding a different investment strategy.  Prison budgets should be cut and the savings directed to support crime prevention strategies of proven effectiveness, including substance abuse treatment programs, early intervention with families at risk, and community-based anti-violence initiatives.  Savings should also be reinvested in Black and brown communities that have borne the brunt of this failed policy.  Achieving this goal will move society toward repairing decades of harm while also advancing a stronger and healthier nation....

The United States has become the world leader in incarceration not simply because we send more people to prison.  We also keep them behind bars far longer than other nations. One in every seven people in prison today — an estimated 206,000 — is serving some form of a life sentence.  People are staying behind bars well into old age, leading modern-day prisons to resemble a network of high-security nursing homes.

These excessive sentences are counterproductive in reducing crime because individuals “age out” of their high crime years.  Long prison terms frequently extend well past the point of diminishing returns for public safety.  Other democracies have recognized this statistical truth and rarely imprison individuals for more than 20 years.

New Jersey is already starting to make these changes.  Following the recommendations of a bipartisan Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, the state is tackling critical reforms that may shrink the prison population and close the racial gap in incarceration rates.  So far, the Legislature has debated policies like ending mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent crimes, expanding compassionate release, and resentencing people assigned multi-decade punishments when they were teenagers.

Under the leadership of Gov. Murphy, New Jersey is becoming a model for how states can use thoughtful, systemic, and data-driven policies to chart the end of mass incarceration and eliminate racial disparities.... In response to the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of people have been released from U.S. prisons.  It took the United States 40 years to quadruple its incarceration rate. With brave leadership and sustained community advocacy, we can end the reality of mass incarceration and its underlying systemic racism within a generation.  Our national promise of freedom demands no less.

December 22, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Prison Policy Initiative reports on "Mass Incarceration, COVID-19, and Community Spread"

Gregory Hooks and Wendy Sawyer with the Prison Policy Initiative has authored this important new report titled "Mass Incarceration, COVID-19, and Community Spread." The full report is today's must-read, and here are parts of its introduction and conclusion:

In 2020, a decades-long American policy failure — mass incarceration — collided with a brand new American policy failure: the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. After decades of needlessly locking up ever more people in jails and prisons, state and federal lawmakers now faced a public health disaster if they were unable to decarcerate quickly. In this report, we show that the persistent overuse of incarceration — despite decades of evidence of its inefficacy and harms — has had serious consequences. Mass incarceration and the failure to reduce prison and jail populations quickly led directly to an increase in COVID-19 cases, not just inside correctional facilities, but in the communities and counties that surround them.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, it was abundantly clear that the crowded and unsanitary conditions in American prisons and jails would facilitate the rapid spread of the virus, putting incarcerated people and staff at serious risk once the novel coronavirus entered facilities. Officials across the country ignored the threat for too long, perhaps imagining that confined populations would be too isolated from the outside world to contract the virus. But the boundaries between life “inside” and surrounding communities are actually quite porous, with staff, vendors, volunteers, and visitors constantly flowing in and out of correctional facilities — not to mention the frequent turnover and transfers of incarcerated people themselves....

This report outlines our initial findings so that they may be immediately useful to policymakers and advocates; the full study, which includes an analysis of nursing homes and ICE facilities, will be published by co-author Gregory Hooks separately. In addition, we have compiled Appendix tables with more detailed state and local data. In brief, however, we find that:

  1. COVID-19 caseloads grew more quickly over the summer of 2020 in nonmetro counties with more people incarcerated.
  2. COVID-19 caseloads grew much more quickly over the summer of 2020 among counties in multicounty economic areas with more people incarcerated.
  3. Mass incarceration added to COVID-19 caseloads in multicounty economic areas and states. Nationally, this impact reached a tragic scale: Mass incarceration added more than a half million cases in just three months....

The number of people in prisons and jails has led to more COVID-19 cases, among those working or confined in these facilities and among those who simply live near them. As documented here, the number of new COVID-19 infections over the summer of 2020 was greater in counties and multicounty areas with larger and more concentrated incarcerated populations. In total, we estimate that mass incarceration led to 560,000 additional COVID-19 cases nationwide in just three months....

What is needed immediately, at the policy level, is an increased use of clemency, parole expansion, and other legal mechanisms to depopulate prisons and stop the virus from spreading behind bars.  But there is a greater need over the long term: a profound rethinking of how we use incarceration in this country.  It has never been more obvious that locking up millions of people in crowded and unsanitary conditions is harmful — not only for those who are locked up, but for people outside prisons as well.  With the pandemic dragging on, our ability to radically reduce our use of incarceration is now a life or death matter.  If lawmakers cannot make swift changes to reduce correctional populations and keep them low, we should expect that more COVID-19 outbreaks — and more deaths — in prisons and the communities that surround them are still to come.

December 15, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 10, 2020

"The Mass Criminalization of Black Americans: A Historical Overview"

The title of this post is the title of this article that is soon to be published in an issue of the Annual Review of Criminology and is authored by Elizabeth Hinton and DeAnza Cook. Here is its abstract:

This review synthesizes the historical literature on the criminalization and incarceration of black Americans for an interdisciplinary audience.  Drawing on key insights from new histories in the field of American carceral studies, we trace the multifaceted ways in which policymakers and officials at all levels of government have used criminal law, policing, and imprisonment as proxies for exerting social control in predominantly black communities from the colonial era to the present.  By underscoring this antiblack punitive tradition in America as central to the development of crime-control strategies and mass incarceration, our review lends vital historical context to ongoing discussions, research, and experimentation within criminology and other fields concerned about the long-standing implications of institutional racism, violence, and inequity entrenched in the administration of criminal justice in the United States from the top down and the ground up.

December 10, 2020 in Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, November 28, 2020

"Misaligned incentives and the scale of incarceration in the United States"

Thanks to twitter, I just saw this notable recent article, which I use for the title of this post, published in the November 2020 issues of the Journal of Public Economics. The article is authored by Aurélie Ouss and here is its "highlights" and "abstract":

Highlights
  • In the US, states typically pay for prison, while county employees (judges, prosecutors, probation officers…) determine time spent in custody.
  • When the cost of incarceration is internalized by the entity choosing punishment, incarceration is lower, without detectable effects on crime.
  • Misaligned incentives in criminal justice may have contributed to the growth of incarceration in the United States

Abstract

The incarceration rate has increased substantially in the United States between the 1980s and the 2000s.  In this paper, I explore an institutional explanation for this growth: the fact that costs of incarceration are not fully internalized.  Typically, prison is paid for at the state level, but county employees (such as judges, prosecutors or probation officers) determine time spent in custody.  I exploit a natural experiment that shifted the cost burden of juvenile incarceration from state to counties, keeping overall costs and responsibilities unchanged.  This resulted in a stark drop in incarceration, and no increase in arrests, suggesting an over-use of prison when costs are not internalized.  The large magnitude of the change suggests that misaligned incentives in criminal justice may be a significant contributor to the current levels of incarceration in the United States.

November 28, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

New Sentencing Project fact sheet on "Incarcerated Women and Girls"

The Sentencing Project has released today this notable new fact sheet titled "Incarcerated Women and Girls" which examines (pre-COVID) female incarceration trends. I recommend the full piece (which includes lots of informative graphics), and here are excerpts:

Over the past quarter century, there has been a profound change in the involvement of women within the criminal justice system.  This is the result of more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women.  The female incarcerated population stands over seven times higher than in 1980. More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.

Between 1980 and 2019, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 222,455 in 2019....

Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense.  Twenty-six percent of women in prison have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 13% of men in prison; 24% of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime, compared to 16% among incarcerated men.

The proportion of imprisoned women convicted of a drug offense has increased from 12% in 1986 to 26% in 2018.

November 24, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 15, 2020

"The Curriculum of the Carceral State"

The title of this post is the title of this recently published essay by Alice Ristroph.  Here is its abstract:

This Essay scrutinizes the canons of substantive criminal law, with a particular focus on the curricular canon.  By curricular canon, I mean the conceptual model used to teach the subject of criminal law, including the cases, narratives, and ideas that are presented to students.  Since the middle of the twentieth century, American law schools have offered (and often required) a course in criminal law in which homicide is the paradigm crime and legality is a core organizing principle.  The curricular canon depicts criminal law as a necessary and race-neutral response to grave injuries, and it also depicts criminal law as capable of self-restraint through various internal limiting principles. 

This model does not correspond closely to actual legal practices, and it never did; it was designed to model what criminal law could become.  Though this curricular model was developed by men who wanted to improve and constrain the criminal law, instead it probably contributed to the vast expansion of criminal interventions in the second half of the twentieth century.  The Essay reveals the pro-carceral implications of the prevailing canon, and it offers the outline of a different model that could alter American attitudes toward criminal law.  

I highly recommend everything penned by Alice Ristroph, and I am especially excited to see her turn her attention to the gaps between "our curricular model and our present criminal law reality" and to how "American law schools, through the required course on substantive criminal law, have contributed affirmatively to the collection of phenomena commonly labeled mass incarceration."  And reading this great piece reminded me of this very short commentary I wrote in the very first issue of the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law way back in 2003 to flag my concerns that "failing to discuss the modem dynamics of criminal law doctrine and practice ... [results in] a substantive criminal law course that is often archaic, incomplete and perhaps unjustifiable."  My point back then was that modern criminal justice developments, particularly the drug war, plea realities and sentencing reforms, made the Model Penal Code outdated as a fundamental teaching text.  As I put it then:

The original MPC retains important historical value as a compendium of post-war scholarly thinking about criminal law, and its impact as a practical reform project remains profound. However, because the fundamental issues and concerns of criminal law doctrine and practice have shifted so dramatically in the last 40 years, the original MPC's continued use as a criminal law textbook operates, in my view, as a considerable disservice to criminal law academics and students, and ultimately to the entire field of criminal justice....

[T]he front-line realities of modem criminal law doctrine and practice have become quite grim and messy, and yet study of the original MPC can suggest that criminal law doctrine and practice is quite enlightened and orderly.  The MPC — and our teaching of it — trumpets the foundational concepts of actus reus and mens rea; yet the act requirement is often functionally eclipsed in a world in which conspiracy and possession offenses are staples, and the import of mental states is often functionally eclipsed in a world in which most sentencing factors are strict liability elements.  The MPC — or perhaps more particularly our teaching of it — suggests that homicides and other serious offenses are the central concern of the criminal justice system; yet modem criminal dockets are clogged with 60 times more felony drug and property cases than homicide cases. The MPC — and especially our usual methods for teaching it — suggests that many cases raise legal and factual claims and defenses that are resolved at trials where burdens of proof and precise offense elements are scrupulously considered; yet such matters very rarely occupy real criminal courts as judges spend the bulk of their time processing and sentencing the 19 out of every 20 defendants whose convictions are secured through guilty pleas.  And of course the MPC could not discuss — and I fear our teaching still fails to discuss — the enormous economic and personal costs and consequences of making mass incarceration a defining element of the modem American criminal justice system.

Gosh, I sure wish these musings of mine from this 2003 article felt more dated now, but Alice Ristroph's article effectively highlights how these problems have only gotten worse over time.

November 15, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Eager to honor our veterans caught up in our nation's massive criminal justice systems

5fa97d96f3264.imageEvery year when Veterans Day rolls around, I find myself giving a lot more thought to all the veterans who get caught up in our criminal justice systems.  I often see exhortations to honor "all who served" on this important day, and that necessarily means we need to be sure to honor the disconcerting large number of veterans who spend this day behind bars, or under active criminal justice supervision, or struggling with the enduring burdens of a criminal record.

According to these latest (but dated) BJS statistics, "in 2011–12, an estimated 181,500 veterans (8% of all inmates in state and federal prison and local jail excluding military-operated facilities) were serving time in correctional facilities."  Even if the present-day percentage had shrunk considerably, we can still state without any question that there are tens of thousands of veterans spending Veterans Day behind bars today.

And though I cannot find any detailed data on veteran status and probation/parole rate, even if veterans were only 5% of all persons on probation/parole in the US, that would still means that there are hundreds of thousands of veterans currently spending Veteran's Day subject to active community supervision today.

And though I cannot find any detailed data on veteran status and criminal convictions, even if veterans were only 5% of all persons with a criminal record in the US, that would still means that there are millions of veterans currently burdened with a criminal record on Veterans Day 202.

As highlighted in some posts below, I have often used this day to urge the President of the United States to use his clemency pen to honor this day with some grants to veterans.  But, of course, the vast majority of veterans involved in our nation's criminal justice systems are caught up in a state system.  So, those of us eager to really honor all who served ought to be advocating that all chief executives play their part in doing something meaningful for a population that has done something meaningful for all of us.

Some older (some very older) prior related posts: 

November 11, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 05, 2020

New Jersey COVID-related prison releases results in single-day 15% drop of state's prison population

As detailed in this local article, headlined "'It's over, baby': NJ begins releasing inmates who survived COVID spread in prisons," there was a big reform story in New Jersey that became an especially tangible reality yesterday.  Here are some of the details:

"I'm coming out!" Lissette Cardoso shouted through a second-floor window of a beige, nondescript halfway house in Paterson.  Four family members stood on the street in the cold outside.  They'd been waiting for more than 10 years.

Cardoso walked out of the halfway house just before 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, after a decade-long prison term for a string of convenience store robberies.  Her sentence ended three months early and with a kiss to her boyfriend — through their masks — amid a flood of hugs and tears.  "It's over, baby," Luz Salamanca, Cardoso's sister, said as Salamanca's daughter kissed Cardoso's cheeks.  "It's over, you hear me?"

Cardoso was one of thousands of people expected to leave state prisons and halfway houses on Wednesday under a first-in-the-nation law reducing sentences for inmates who served time during the coronavirus pandemic.  State officials said 2,261 inmates would be released throughout the day, marking a single-day drop of 15% in the state prison population.

The drastic decline was lawmakers' response to the coronavirus's devastation in New Jersey prisons.  The death rate inside Garden State prisons was the highest in the nation, according to the nonprofit criminal justice newsroom The Marshall Project....

While Gov. Phil Murphy has scored high marks with the public for his handling of the virus overall, prisons remained a trouble spot.  Murphy and his administration were criticized for moving too slowly to test the incarcerated population and reduce the number of people locked up, both efforts seen as key ways to slow the contagious virus's spread in a setting where social distancing is nearly impossible.

In fact, all but one of the 52 COVID-related deaths in state prisons were reported after Murphy in April created a framework for people to be released.  Lawmakers and prisoner advocacy groups said Murphy's plan allowed the corrections commissioner, Marcus Hicks, too much discretion and that more people should have gotten out.

Ultimately lawmakers put forward a bill, S2519, that reduced sentences by up to eight months for inmates who served during the public health emergency.  According to the American Civil Liberties Union and Prison Policy Initiative, the effort is unique in the nation because it changed state law instead of leaving action up to the executive branch.

Only inmates who are within a year of release are eligible for time off their sentences, and those convicted of murder and some sexual offenses are not allowed to get out early. The law will also give inmates time off if there is another public health emergency.  "We now have a system in place that allows us to be prepared the next time there is an infectious disease that causes pandemonium in our prison systems," said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney and director of Supreme Court advocacy for the ACLU in New Jersey. "And that puts us really far ahead.”

But the law wasn't easily passed.  It was delayed for weeks in Trenton because of concerns that the state cut funding for reentry programs just as it was about to embark on an unprecedented release effort.  Ultimately that state aid was replenished, and Murphy signed the bill into law last month, greenlighting up to 3,000 releases over the next three months. The bulk of those inmates were to get out Wednesday....

While many New Jerseyans were awaiting election results early Wednesday, an informal army of advocates, religious leaders and reentry professionals flooded transit centers, hoping to catch people as they were released.  Each inmate met with a social services worker before being released to connect them with resources, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Liz Velez.  The department also gave people with a financial need a food stipend, packages of food or "an emergency supportive stipend to those who have indicated the greatest hardship," she said.

Velez said on Tuesday afternoon, the eve of the releases, that she did not have numbers of how many people had been given identification cards or enrolled in benefits like food stamps or Medicaid.  Releasing a large number of people all at once has prompted concern among some reentry groups and officials, who said the Murphy administration was not providing them enough information to identify who needs help.

November 5, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 01, 2020

"Life Without Parole Sentencing in North Carolina"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Brandon Garrett, Travis Seale-Carlisle, Karima Modjadidi and Kristen Renberg now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

What explains the puzzle of life without parole (LWOP) sentencing in the United States?  In the past two decades, LWOP sentences have reached record highs, with over 50,000 prisoners serving LWOP.  Yet during this same period, homicide rates have steadily declined.  The U.S. Supreme Court has limited the use of juvenile LWOP in Eighth Amendment rulings. Further, death sentences have steeply declined, reaching record lows.  Although research has examined drivers of incarceration patterns for certain sentences, there has been little research on LWOP imposition.

To shed light on what might explain the sudden rise of LWOP, we examine characteristics of the more than 1,627 cases in which LWOP was imposed from 1995 to 2017, in North Carolina, one of the states that imposes the largest numbers of these sentences.  We begin by analyzing defendant race, crime, and sentence patterns by county.  We associate LWOP with homicide rates, and examine interactions between homicide, victim race, and prior LWOP sentencing. 

This first empirical analysis of adult LWOP sentences finds important local variations in its imposition.  We find that as the homicide rate increases within a county, we observe fewer LWOP sentences.  We find that fewer LWOP sentences are predicted to occur as the number of black victim homicides increase in a county, but no such relationship is found when considering the number of white victim homicides.  Finally, we find a strong path dependency and concentration of LWOP sentences in counties, where counties that have imposed LWOP sentences in the past are more likely to continue to do so.  These findings have implications for efforts to reconsider the most severe sentences in the U.S., and they suggest that prosecutorial discretion in seeking long sentences will be important subjects for future research and policy.

November 1, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 30, 2020

Will problematic definition of "violence" convictions impact Oklahoma sentencing reform initiative SQ 805?

I have highlighted in a few prior posts SQ 805, a fascinating Oklahoma ballot initiative seeking to block non-violent prior convictions from enhancing statutory punishment ranges.  This new Mother Jones story provide useful context concerning Oklahoma reforms while also noting a potential problem with how SQ 805 is drafted.  The full headline of the piece serves to summarize its coverage: "How a Domestic Violence Loophole Could Doom a Campaign to Cut Oklahoma’s Harsh Prison Sentences: A wrinkle threatens public support for the state’s progress against mass incarceration."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

For the last four years, the fight against mass incarceration in Oklahoma has been a story of unlikely success.  In 2016, after decades of creeping prison populations, the state’s incarceration rate reached levels so astronomical that the Prison Policy Initiative would dub it the “world’s prison capital“: More than 1 in 100 Oklahomans was locked up in a prison, jail, juvenile hall, or immigration detention facility.  But that year, the same electorate that voted to send Donald Trump to the White House by a 36-point margin also approved a ballot measure softening their state’s notoriously hardline criminal code.

That measure, State Question 780, was a turning point.  It downgraded drug possession and a slate of minor property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, while a second measure ensured the money saved by downsizing prisons would go to rehabilitative programs.  In 2017, 14,000 fewer felony charges were filed by Oklahoma prosecutors; not long after, the state’s prison population began to fall. Meanwhile, politicians took note of the message the voters had sent.  In 2018, the state legislature, where Republicans hold a supermajority, passed more reforms, including streamlining the parole process.  Republican businessman Kevin Stitt made reducing the prison population part of his pitch for the governor’s seat, and won.

This year, Oklahoma voters could send another jolt to the system by voting for State Question 805 — another adjustment to the state’s harsh sentencing practices.  If it passes, SQ 805 could reduce the prison population by 8.5 percent over the next 10 years, according to a projection by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank that supports the initiative.

SQ 805 would add a provision to the state constitution prohibiting prosecutors and courts from jacking up the sentences of people convicted of nonviolent felonies if they have an earlier nonviolent felony on their record....

But there’s a significant wrinkle threatening public support for SQ 805, and in turn, Oklahoma’s slow but steady progress against mass incarceration: The measure distinguishes violent from nonviolent felonies using an outdated list from Oklahoma’s legal code.  As of January, that list of “violent” crimes did not include certain domestic violence charges, such as domestic abuse by strangulation, or domestic assault with a dangerous or deadly weapon. If SQ 805 passes, it would continue to allow courts to impose enhanced sentences for any crimes on that list as of January 1, 2020 — including assault and battery, murder, rape, child abuse, and so on — but not those domestic violence charges.  (Oklahoma lawmakers added some domestic violence charges to the violent felonies list in May, too late for SQ 805’s cutoff date.)

Prior related posts:

October 30, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 23, 2020

REMINDER Call for Papers: "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment"

6a00d83451574769e2026bde959014200c-320wiI said before that I was going to regularly remind folks of this recent call for papers relating to an exciting event I am excited to be involved in helping to plan, "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment."  So, here again is the full call, which is also available as a full pdf document at this link:

INTRODUCTION
Discussion of the “war on drugs” frequently fails to examine precisely how drug offenders are sentenced — and how they should be.  Drug sentencing practices are implicated in many fundamental criminal justice issues and concerns.  Research suggests incarcerating people for drug offenses has little impact on substance use rates or on crime rates more generally.  And, despite reports of comparable use rates, people of color are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug-related offenses than white counterparts.  Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes are applied commonly, but inconsistently, in drug cases and for persons with a criminal history that involves drug offenses.  And while states have created specialty courts to handle the cases of low-level drug offenders, the efficacy and appropriateness of the “drug court movement” has long been subject to debate.

Distinct state and federal realities complicate our understanding of the relationship between the drug war and punishment.  Nearly all federal drug defendants get sent to prison and nearly 50% of the federal prison population is comprised of drug offenders; relatively few state drug offenders are sent to prison and less than 20% of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges.  But data on arrests, jail populations, and community supervision highlight the continued, significant impact drug cases still have on state and local justice systems.  The role of drug criminalization and sentencing contributes to mass incarceration, yet mass punishment can look quite different depending on the criminal justice system(s) and the drugs.


ABOUT THE CALL
These issues and others related to drug sentencing will be part of a symposium jointly sponsored by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Academy for Justice at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.  "Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment," will take place on June 10–12, 2021, at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law in Columbus, Ohio. As part of this symposium, we invite scholars to submit papers for inclusion in the workshop scheduled for June 12.  Accepted submissions will be paired with a discussant who will review and provide feedback on the paper during the workshop.  Each paper should reflect on some aspect of drug prosecutions and sentencing in the United States.  Participants should have a draft to discuss and circulate by May 17, 2021.  The papers will be gathered and published in a Spring 2022 symposium edition of the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, a peer-reviewed publication.  Participants should have a completed version to begin the publication process by August 15, 2021.  Final papers may range in length from 5,000 – 20,000 words.

Deadline for submission is November 1, 2020. Please submit a title and an abstract of no more than 300 words to Jana Hrdinová at hrdinova.1@osu.edu. Accepted scholars will be notified by December 1, 2020

October 23, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Bureau of Justice Statistics reporting that, as of end of 2019, "US imprisonment rate at its lowest since 1995."

I was pleased this morning to get see this press release from the Bureau of Justice Statistics with this ALL CAPS heading: "U.S. IMPRISONMENT RATE AT ITS LOWEST SINCE 1995." Here are the details from the press release, which are drawn from this latest BJS report titled "Prisoners in 2019":

The combined state and federal imprisonment rate of 419 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2019 was the lowest imprisonment rate since 1995, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today.   The imprisonment rate in 2019 marked a 17% decrease from 2009 and a 3% decrease from 2018, and it marked the 11th consecutive annual decrease.  The imprisonment rate — the portion of U.S. residents who are in prison — is based on prisoners sentenced to more than one year.

The imprisonment rate rose 23% from 1995 to its peak in 2007 and 2008 (506 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents in both years).  It then fell back below the 1996 level (which was 427 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents) in 2019.  Across the decade from 2009 to 2019, the imprisonment rate fell 29% among black residents, 24% among Hispanic residents and 12% among white residents.  In 2019, the imprisonment rate of black residents was the lowest it has been in 30 years, since 1989.

At year-end 2019, there were 1,096 sentenced black prisoners per 100,000 black residents, 525 sentenced Hispanic prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic residents and 214 sentenced white prisoners per 100,000 white residents in the U.S.  Among sentenced state prisoners at year-end 2018 (the most recent data available), a larger percentage of black (62%) and Hispanic (62%) prisoners than white prisoners (48%) were serving time for a violent offense.

An estimated 14% of sentenced state prisoners were serving time for murder or non-negligent manslaughter at year-end 2018, and 13% were serving time for rape or sexual assault.  At the end of fiscal-year 2019, 46% of sentenced federal prisoners were serving time for a drug offense (99% for drug trafficking), and 8% were serving time for a violent offense.

The total prison population in the U.S. declined from 1,464,400 at year-end 2018 to 1,430,800 at year-end 2019, a 2% decrease.  This marked the fifth consecutive annual decrease of at least 1% in the prison population.  At year-end 2019, the prison population had declined 11% from its peak of 1,615,500 prisoners in 2009.

In 2019, privately operated facilities held 7% of state prisoners and 16% of federal prisoners. Public and private adult prisons held 653 prisoners age 17 or younger at year-end 2019, down 11% from the 730 held at year-end 2018.

This news and the broader trends represented are good news for those who care about human liberty, though I am disinclined to celebrate too much given that the US incarceration rate remains the highest in the world and still reflects worrisome disparities.  Still, progress is worth appreciating, and so I am today appreciative of this latest reporting of (modest) good news.

October 22, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 17, 2020

"Punishment in Prison: Constituting the 'Normal' and the 'Atypical' in Solitary and Other Forms of Confinement"

The title of this post is the title of this new lengthy article by multiple authors now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

What aspects of human liberty does incarceration impinge?  A remarkable group of Black and white prisoners, most of whom had little formal education and no resources, raised that question in the 1960s and 1970s.  Incarcerated individuals asked judges for relief from corporal punishment; radical food deprivations; strip cells; solitary confinement in dark cells; prohibitions on bringing these claims to courts, on religious observance, and on receiving reading materials; and from transfers to long-term isolation and to higher security levels.

Judges concluded that some facets of prison that were once ordinary features of incarceration, such as racial segregation, rampant violence, and filth, violated the Constitution. Today, even as implementation is erratic and at times abysmal, correctional departments no longer claim they have unfettered authority to do what they want inside prisons walls.  And, even as the courts have continued to tolerate the punishment of solitary confinement in the last decade, a few lower courts have held unconstitutional the profound sensory deprivations such isolation has entailed.

Prisoners have also sought procedural protections to constrain arbitrary decision-making about placements in solitary confinement and transfers to adverse settings.  In response, the Supreme Court has required that, to state a Fourteenth Amendment claim that their liberty had been infringed, prisoners have to demonstrate that a specific practice imposed an “atypical” and “significant hardship.”

What is typical in prisons?  What are the sources of knowledge and the baselines used by Justices to decide?  How did isolation come to be seen as an ordinary incident of prison life?  We answer these questions through analyzing debates in both the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts about what deprivations in prison are “normal.”  After excavating the conflicts within the Court about the kinds of liberty interests prisoners retained, we mined hundreds of lower court opinions to learn how judges determine when constrictions on human movement meet the test of atypicality and hardship.  By documenting the high tolerance many federal judges have for periods of isolation lasting months, years, and decades, we demonstrate the central role judges play in constructing the “normal” of prisons.

October 17, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

"COVID-19 in Juvenile Facilities"

The title of this post is the title of this short new report written by Josh Rovner at The Sentencing Project. Here is the start of its coverage:

COVID-19 has infected hundreds of youth housed in and staff working in juvenile facilities.  Given the close proximity that defines life in congregate care settings, such as detention centers and residential treatment centers, such spread was inevitable without significant reductions in population in these facilities.  Since March, The Sentencing Project has urged the release of as many youth as possible to bend the curve of infections within the juvenile justice system.  As of July, four staff members working in these facilities have died from COVID-19.

Among detained youth, COVID-19 cases have been reported in 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Cases among staff have been reported in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

October 13, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Arizona Supreme Court rejects Eighth Amendment claims by juvenile offenders given de facto life sentences for multiple offenses

On Friday, the Supreme Court of Arizona handed down a unanimous rejection of claims by multiple juvenile offenders subject to de facto life sentences for multiple sentences in Arizona v. Soto-Fong, No. CR-18-0595 (Ariz. Oct. 9, 2020) (available here).  Here is how the opinion begins and a concluding paragraph:

We consider whether consecutive sentences imposed for separate crimes, when the cumulative sentences exceed a juvenile’s life expectancy, violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.”  We conclude that such de facto life sentences do not violate the Eighth Amendment, as interpreted in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016). Consequently, Graham, Miller, and Montgomery do not constitute a significant change in the law under Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g)....

Despite the shifting and confusing reasoning embodied in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery, we are bound by the Supremacy Clause to faithfully apply this jurisprudence as we fairly construe it.  Davis, 206 Ariz. at 384 ¶ 34 n.4.  But because those cases do not address or implicate de facto juvenile life sentences, we decline Petitioners’ invitation to expand this jurisprudence one step beyond its reach.  Our respect for the separation of powers, the will of our citizens, and principles of judicial restraint, rather than dicta from inapposite cases, compel our decision.  Thus, we hold that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit de facto juvenile life sentences.

As this last quoted paragraph may reveal, the Soto-Fong opinion is full of a good deal of snark about the US Supreme Court's rulings in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery.  Discussing Graham, for example, the Arizona Supreme Court calls part of the SCOTUS ruling "dubious" and then takes a "pause" to express "concern" with the Graham opinion’s reference to international law.  Perhaps it is thus unsurprising that the Arizona Supreme Court was seemingly keen to affirm in this case an "enhanced concurrent and consecutive prison sentences totaling nearly 140 years" for a teenager who committed a series of serious arsons.

October 11, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Federal prison population hits new modern law at 155,197 according to BOP reporting

Regular readers know that I have been closely watching COVID-era changes in the federal prison population because of dramatic declines in the federal Bureau of Prisons' weekly updated "Total Federal Inmates" numbers.  At the start if the COVID era, the reported federal prison population was around 175,000.  But, as I highlighted in a series of prior posts, according to BOP's reporting, most weeks through much of the spring the federal prison population shrunk around or over 1,000 persons per week.  Into and through the summer months, weekly declines continued but at a rate closer to about 500.  Roughly a month ago, as reported in this post, the BOP reported "Total Federal Inmates" was down to 155,483; but then, as noted here, the BOP reported federal prison population ticked up a few hundred persons the following week for first time in COVID era.

Today, checking the new BOP numbers at this webpage report "Total Federal Inmates" shows seemingly a new modern population low at 155,197.  So, though it seems weekly federal prison population declines are no longer consistent or dramatic, we still seem to be experiencing small decreases many weeks and thus it is possible we have not yet hit "the bottom" as to COVID era federal prison population declines.   

I have wondered repeatedly in these posts whether COVID-delayed sentencings or stalled federal prison transfers or any number of other factors may largely account for these declines.  But a persistent lack of any real-time sentencing data from the US Sentencing Commission and the opaque nature of BOP data make it hard for me to be sure just what these weekly reported population numbers represent.  I remain hopeful that we may eventually get some timely sentencing data from the USSC, but I am not optimistic it will ever be easy to fully understand and account for all the ways the the federal criminal process and prison populations have been impacted by and are adjusting to the COVID era.

A few of many prior related posts:

October 8, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 05, 2020

"Decarceration and community re-entry in the COVID-19 era"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece by multiple authors published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.  Here is its "Summary":

Jails and prisons are exceptionally susceptible to viral outbreaks, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.  The USA has extremely high rates of incarceration and COVID-19 is causing an urgent health crisis in correctional facilities and detention centres.  Epidemics happening in prisons are compounding the elevated risks that COVID-19 poses to people of colour, older people, and those with comorbidities.  Intersectoral community re-entry efforts in the USA and other countries have shown that releasing people from correctional facilities as a pandemic-era public health intervention is safe and can support both public safety and community rebuilding.  Therefore, substantial decarceration in the USA should be initiated.  A point of focus for such efforts is that many people in prison are serving excessively long sentences and pose acceptable safety risks for release.  Properly managed, correctional depopulation will prevent considerable COVID-19 morbidity and mortality and reduce prevailing socioeconomic and health inequities.

October 5, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 03, 2020

"#MeToo and Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece on SSRN authored by Aya Gruber.  Here is its abstract:

This Symposium Guest Editor’s Note is an adapted version of the Introduction to The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration (UC Press 2020).  The book examines how American feminists, in the quest to secure women’s protection from domestic violence and rape, often acted as soldiers in the war on crime by emphasizing white female victimhood, expanding the power of police and prosecutors, touting incarceration, and diverting resources toward law enforcement and away from marginalized communities.  Today, despite deep concerns over racist policing and mass incarceration, many feminists continue to assert that gender crime law is not tough enough.  This punitive impulse, I argue, is dangerous and counterproductive, and should be abandoned.  History reveals that feminists' carceral approach often exacerbated social inequalities by expanding and underwriting the repressive criminal system, that harmed defendants, victims, and their families and communities.

This essay begins with the feminist defense attorney dilemma I felt as a law student, when I trained to represent marginalized people against state prosecutorial power but did so with a dread of defending horrific rapists and batterers. Later, as a public defender, I represented clients like Jamal, an accused abuser whose story is related in detail, and I saw firsthand the costs of the tough-on-crime machine that carceral feminism built.  The essay then moves to the present day, with a discussion of the #MeToo movement and campus rape reform.  I counsel contemporary feminists that their noble fight against sexual misconduct can easily collapse into simple crime-control politics and urge them to articulate their complex beliefs about gender and violence without relying on penal discourses and institutions that are steeped in hypermasculinity and gratuitous violence.

October 3, 2020 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 01, 2020

"Explaining the Past and Projecting Future Crime Rates"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report coming from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and authored by James Austin, Todd Clear and Richard Rosenfeld.  Here is the relatively short report's abstract:

To date criminologists have a poor record of anticipating future crime rates.  As a result, they are ill-equipped to inform policy makers about the impact of criminal justice reforms on future crime.  In this report, we assess the factors that explain changes in crime during the past three decades.  Our analysis shows that macro-level economic and demographic factors best explain trends in violent and property crime.  Together, those factors outweigh the impact of imprisonment rates on crime.  We also show that it is possible to lower imprisonment rates without causing an increase in crime.  Indeed, several states have done exactly that.  Finally, we present models for projecting future crime rates.  Based on these models, crime is projected to decrease over the next five years.  The next step should be to apply similar analyses to individual states and local jurisdictions to advise policy makers on the implications of their criminal justice reform strategies for public safety.

October 1, 2020 in National and State Crime Data, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

"Youth Justice Under the Coronavirus: Linking Public Health Protections with the Movement for Youth Decarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report written by Josh Rovner at The Sentencing Project.  Here is the start of its executive summary:

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has infected more than 1,800 incarcerated youth and more than 2,500 staff working in the detention centers, residential treatment facilities, and other settings that comprise the deep end of the juvenile justice system.  More than six months after the first infections emerged, the emergency is not over.

According to data collected by The Sentencing Project, COVID-19 cases have been reported among incarcerated youth in 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.  In five states, more than 100 incarcerated youth have tested positive.  Four staff members working in juvenile facilities have died from the virus.

In congregate care settings, this contagious pathogen’s spread was inevitable.  States and localities have taken steps to mitigate COVID-19’s impact, including releasing confined youth, curtailing admissions, limiting visitation and programming, and isolating youth in a manner that mimics solitary confinement.  Given the persistent racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice, there is little doubt that youth of color are suffering disproportionately from the virus and the changes within facilities that it has brought.

This report summarizes lessons learned through the first months of the pandemic, focusing on system responses, both positive and negative, to slow the virus’s spread and to protect the safety and wellbeing of youth in the juvenile justice system while keeping the public informed.  Drops in admissions during the pandemic, alongside decisions to release youth at a higher rate than during ordinary times, buttress the long-standing case that youth incarceration is largely unnecessary.  Jurisdictions must limit the virus’s damage by further reducing the number of incarcerated youth.

September 30, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)