Tuesday, December 12, 2017

"Sex Registries as Modern-Day Witch Pyres: Why Criminal Justice Reform Advocates Need to Address the Treatment of People on the Sex Offender Registry"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new In Justice commentary authored by Guy Hamilton-Smith. I quoted the title in full because it is all worthy of reflection, as is the entire commentary that follows. Here is an excerpt:

The sex offender is the modern-day witch: the registry, the contemporary pyre. A scarlet letter for our technocratic era, forcing people to register as sex offenders “is what puritan judges would’ve done to Hester Prynne had laptops been available.” While undoubtedly there are those on the registry who have been convicted of blood curdling crimes, the designation is also extended to those who have been convicted of far more banal ones.

Reformers urgently need to draw public attention to the cruel and unnecessarily harsh treatment afforded to sex offenders within the justice system. Sex offender registries are rapidly proliferating and becoming an increasingly popular back-end tool for feeding people into the carceral state.

In understanding the reasons why sex offenders ought to be a higher priority for mainstream justice reform advocates, a grasp of the evolution and operation of the sex offender registry is critical....

The number of people listed on a sex offender registry in the United States has grown from slightly more than 500,000 in 2005 to 874,725 today. Research has found that sex offender registries have a disproportionate impact on minorities.

While registries and their attendant requirements are sold as enhancing public safety, research consistently indicates that they are exceedingly bad at this goal. One explanation is because, contrary to Smith’s baseless assertion and what most believe, people on the registry have one of the lowest rates of re-offending out of any class of criminal....

As a piece of criminal justice machinery brought to bear on people, the registry can best be thought of as a two-headed beast: a 1–2 punch of distinct effects.

The first head is the direct impact on the lives of those on the registry itself. With no Due Process or Ex Post Facto brakes to slow down the juggernaut, it has become weaponized.  A far cry from its origins as a simple list of purported perverts, it has morphed into a web of prison-without-bars that would make Franz Kafka blush. The oppressiveness, breadth, and lack of due process inherent in these modern day sex offender registries led a federal court in Colorado to label it a cruel and unusual punishment; a legal conclusion virtually unheard of outside of the cloistered world of death penalty litigation.

The second head is the tangle of legal requirements for those on the list: a knot of vague, illogical, ever-expanding, and sometimes contradictory laws that even lawyers, judges, and law enforcement have difficulty interpreting.  Examples can include strict time limits on reporting even minor changes in information (such as online accounts) or residence, residency restrictions, or even the clothing one wears. States promise swift felony prosecutions if individuals do not observe hyper-technical compliance with these requirements.

Unsurprisingly, it is exceedingly easy to run afoul of the requirements, keeping those that do trapped in a cycle of legislatively-crafted “crime” that can be tantamount to a de facto life sentence. “Failure to register” is fast becoming the crime of choice for returning those on the registry to prison.  In 2008 in Minnesota, failure to register charges became the most common reason sex offenders were returned to prison.  Between 2000 to 2016, Texas saw a more than 700% increase in FTR arrests, from 252 in 2005 to 1,497 in 2017. To borrow a phrase from computer programming, this is not some kind of criminal justice bug. It is a feature.

December 12, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Curious reminder of limits of empirical evidence showing federal sentencing disparity before modern guideline reforms

ProPublica has this lengthy new article that seems way too eager to suggest that some empirical shenanigans fester below the Supreme Court's 1989 Mistretta opinion upholding the structure of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The full headline and subheadline showcases the ominous theme of this reporting, "Suspect Evidence Informed a Momentous Supreme Court Decision on Criminal Sentencing: The U.S. Sentencing Commission helped send more people to prison for longer terms. It’s a shame it was created to address a nonexistent crisis. Here’s how the Supreme Court got misled."  I fear that ProPublica's valuable push to fact-check SCOTUS opinions has, in this case, led to some problematic assertions about the history of sentencing reform and Mistretta.  Though this blog space is not an ideal setting for nitpicking this long ProPublica piece, the article's start (with one sentence emphasized) provides a flavor for its points and problems:

More than 30 years ago, Congress identified what it said was a grave threat to the American promise of equal justice for all: Federal judges were giving wildly different punishments to defendants who had committed the same crimes.  The worries were many.  Some lawmakers feared lenient judges were giving criminals too little time in prison. Others suspected African-American defendants were being unfairly sentenced to steeper prison terms than white defendants.

In 1984, Congress created the U.S. Sentencing Commission with remarkable bipartisan support.  The commission would set firm punishment rules, called “guidelines,” for every offense.  The measure, signed by President Ronald Reagan, largely stripped federal judges of their sentencing powers; they were now to use a chart to decide penalties for each conviction, with few exceptions.

Five years later, a legal challenge to the sentencing commission wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court.  In a case titled Mistretta v. U.S., the court was asked to consider whether Congress had overreached by taking on what seemed to be a role for the judiciary.  In an 8-1 decision, the justices determined that the sentencing commission was constitutional.  And they took care to say that the commission was also needed — to end the widespread and “shameful” sentencing disparities produced by the biases of individual judges.

Mistretta was a momentous decision, but it’s now clear the high court relied on evidence that was flimsy and even flat-out wrong.  The justices, in issuing the 1989 decision, had cited a single congressional report in concluding that there were disturbing and unacceptable sentencing disparities that needed to be addressed.  That single report, in turn, was based primarily on two studies conducted in the early 1970s, both deeply flawed.

Critically, the Mistretta case legally and practically did not turn at all on whether researchers had adequately proven pre-guideline sentencing disparity or whether Congress relied on "flimsy" evidence when enacting the Sentencing Reform Act.  Constitutional issues, not empirical ones, were the focal point of Mistretta.

To its credit, this ProPublica article does a nice job spotlighting problems with the disparity evidence cited by Congress in the legislative history of the Sentencing Reform Act.  But Kate Stith and Jose Cabranes made this point effectively two decades ago in Fear of Judging, and sentencing reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, at both the federal and state level, were driven by (and could be justified by) a lot more than just concerns about sentencing disparities.  Moreover, and perhaps most important, the few cites by Congress to studies about sentencing disparities were really only the tip of the evidentiary iceberg: as Norval Morris stressed in this great 1977 piece, he started effectively documenting "gross and unjust variations in sentences imposed on convicted criminals" in the 1950s.  As he put it, by the mid 1970s, the decade before Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act, "the data on unjust sentencing disparity [had] indeed become quite overwhelming and will ... convince anyone who will take the time to study them."   

In short, I think it deeply misguided to label the concerns about sentencing disparities before modern reforms a "nonexistent crisis," and it is even more problematic to suggest that these concerns were the only reason Congress passed the SRA or the only reason Mistretta came out as it did.  I am always grateful for journalism seeking to thoughtfully unpack federal sentencing reforms and Supreme Court sentencing rulings, and there can and should be continued debate about whether and how modern sentencing reforms may have increased rather than reduced certain types of sentencing disparities.  But the notion that there were not any truly justified concerns about sentencing disparity before modern reforms cannot withstand serious scrutiny, nor can the suggestion that SCOTUS was "misled" by bad data in its Mistretta ruling.

December 12, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 11, 2017

"Assessing Risk Assessment in Action"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper available via SSRN authored by Megan Stevenson.  Though the paper addresses pretrial risk-assessment, I think folks interested in risk-assessment tools at sentencing should be interested in the findings.  Here is the abstract:

Recent years have seen a rush towards evidence-based tools in criminal justice.  As part of this movement, many jurisdictions have adopted actuarial risk assessment to supplement or replace the ad-hoc decisions of judges.  Proponents of risk assessment tools claim that they can dramatically reduce incarceration without harming public safety. Critics claim that risk assessment will exacerbate racial disparities. Despite extensive and heated rhetoric, there is virtually no evidence on how use of this “evidence-based” tool affects key outcomes such as incarceration rates, crime, or racial disparities.  The research discussing what “should” happen as a result of risk assessment is hypothetical and largely ignores the complexities of implementation.

This Article is one of the first studies to document the impacts of risk assessment in practice.  It evaluates pretrial risk assessment in Kentucky, a state that was an early adopter of risk assessment and is often cited as an example of best-practices in the pretrial area.  Using rich data on more than one million criminal cases, the paper shows that a 2011 law making risk assessment a mandatory part of the bail decision led to a significant change in bail setting practice, but only a small increase in pretrial release. These changes eroded over time as judges returned to their previous habits.  Furthermore, the increase in releases was not cost-free: failures-to-appear and pretrial crime increased as well.  Risk assessment had no effect on racial disparities in pretrial detention once differing regional trends were accounted for.

Kentucky’s experience does not mean we should abandon risk assessment, but it should temper the hyperbolic hopes (and fears) about its effects.  Risk assessment in practice is different from risk assessment in the abstract, and its impacts depend on context and details of implementation.  If indeed risk assessment is capable of producing large benefits, it will take research and experimentation to learn how to achieve them.  Such a process would be evidence-based criminal justice at its best: not a flocking towards methods that bear the glossy veneer of science, but a careful and iterative evaluation of what works and what does not.

December 11, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Will any state really start conducting executions with opioids?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Washington Post article, headlined "States to try new ways of executing prisoners. Their latest idea? Opioids." Here is how it gets started:

The synthetic painkiller fentanyl has been the driving force behind the nation’s opioid epidemic, killing tens of thousands of Americans last year in overdoses. Now two states want to use the drug’s powerful properties for a new purpose: to execute prisoners on death row.

As Nevada and Nebraska push for the country’s first fentanyl-assisted executions, doctors and death penalty opponents are fighting those plans. They have warned that such an untested use of fentanyl could lead to painful, botched executions, comparing the use of it and other new drugs proposed for lethal injection to human experimentation.

States are increasingly pressed for ways to carry out the death penalty because of problems obtaining the drugs they long have used, primarily because pharmaceutical companies are refusing to supply their drugs for executions. The situation has led states such as Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma to turn to novel drug combinations for executions. Mississippi legalized nitrogen gas this spring as a backup method — something no state or country has tried. Officials have yet to say whether it would be delivered in a gas chamber or through a gas mask. Other states have passed laws authorizing a return to older methods, such as the firing squad and the electric chair.

“We’re in a new era,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University. “States have now gone through all the drugs closest to the original ones for lethal injection. And the more they experiment, the more they’re forced to use new drugs that we know less about in terms of how they might work in an execution.”

Supporters of capital punishment blame critics for the crisis, which comes amid a sharp decline in the number of executions and decreasing public support for the death penalty. States have put 23 inmates to death in 2017 — the second-fewest executions in more than a quarter-century. Nineteen states no longer have capital punishment, with a third of those banning it in the past decade.

“If death penalty opponents were really concerned about inmates’ pain, they would help reopen the supply,” said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for the rights of crime victims. Opponents “caused the problem we’re in now by forcing pharmaceuticals to cut off the supply to these drugs. That’s why states are turning to less-than-optimal choices.”

Prison officials in Nevada and Nebraska have declined to answer questions about why they chose to use fentanyl in their next executions, which could take place in early 2018. Many states cloak their procedures in secrecy to try to minimize legal challenges. But fentanyl offers several advantages. The obvious one is potency. The synthetic drug is 50 times more powerful than heroin and up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

“There’s cruel irony that at the same time these state governments are trying to figure out how to stop so many from dying from opioids, that they now want to turn and use them to deliberately kill someone,” said Austin Sarat, a law professor at Amherst College who has studied the death penalty for more than four decades.

Another plus with fentanyl: It is easy to obtain. Although the drug has rocketed into the news because of the opioid crisis, doctors frequently use it to anesthetize patients for major surgery or to treat severe pain in patients with advanced cancer. Nevada officials say they had no problem buying fentanyl. “We simply ordered it through our pharmaceutical distributor, just like every other medication we purchase, and it was delivered,” Brooke Keast, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Corrections, said in an email. “Nothing out of the ordinary at all.”

Notably, Nevada has not had an execution since 2006 and Nebraska has not had an execution from 1997, and that reality leads me to question whether these states are likely to be conducting opioid-based executions anytime soon. But, as the Post article details, Nevada was fully geared up for a fentanyl-included execution last month before a court intervened, and they may have plans for another execution early in 2018.

December 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Graduating Economic Sanctions According to Ability to Pay"

The title of this post is the the title of this new and timely article authored by Beth Colgan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

There is growing recognition that economic sanctions — fines, surcharges, fees, and restitution — are routinely imposed at rates many people have no meaningful ability to pay, which can exacerbate financial instability and lead to the perception that economic sanctions are unfairly punitive to people of limited means.  Concerns triggered primarily by highly punitive tactics, including incarceration and long-term probation of low-income debtors for the failure to pay, have led to increasing calls for reform.  While much attention is now being paid to the back-end of the system, and particularly limitations on punitive responses for the failure to pay due to poverty, this Article considers the problem from the front-end.  In particular, this Article focuses on a potential reform with increasing bipartisan support: the graduation of economic sanctions according to a person’s financial circumstances.

To that end, this Article explores several key considerations essential to designing a system of graduation, relying heavily on a largely-forgotten experiment in seven geographically, demographically, and politically diverse jurisdictions in the United States with the “day-fine.”  A day-fine is calculated using a penalty unit assigned based on the seriousness of the offense of conviction.  The penalty unit is then multiplied by the defendant’s adjusted daily income to determine the day-fine amount.  The result is an economic sanction adjusted to offense seriousness and simultaneously graduated to the defendant’s financial condition.  This Article mines the historical record of the American day-fines experiments — complemented by recent interviews with people involved in the design and implementation of the projects and experiences with means-adjustment in the consumer bankruptcy, tax, and public benefits contexts — for lessons on the design of graduating economic sanctions.  What emerges from this review is promising evidence that a properly designed and implemented system for graduation is consistent with efficient court administration, revenue generation, and equality in sentencing. 

December 11, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Is due process satisfied by a "minimal indicia of reliability" standard for key sentencing evidence and determinations?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by an opinion issued earlier this year by the Supreme Court of Delaware in Smack v. Delaware, No. 601 (Del. Oct. 11, 2017) (available here). The first paragraph of the Smack opinion provides the basic facts and procedural issue:

Adrin Smack pleaded guilty to four counts of drug dealing, one count of possession of a firearm by a person prohibited, and one count of conspiracy second degree.  At sentencing, the State claimed that Smack acted as a “kingpin” in a drug operation and should be sentenced to the fifteen years recommended by the State instead of the eight years recommended by the defendant.  Smack requested an evidentiary hearing as part of sentencing, and argued that the State must prove his status as a drug “kingpin” by a preponderance of the evidence.  The Superior Court denied Smack’s request for an evidentiary hearing and ruled it could consider evidence offered by the State at sentencing if it met a “minimal indicia of reliability” standard. The court sentenced Smack to an aggregate of fourteen years at Level V followed by probation. Smack appeals and argues the Superior Court violated his due process rights by denying him an evidentiary hearing and applying the wrong burden of proof at sentencing.  According to Smack, the State was required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Smack was a drug kingpin.  Because this Court has previously upheld the use of a minimal indicia of reliability standard to consider evidence offered at a sentencing hearing, and due process does not require an evidentiary hearing, we affirm the Superior Court’s decision.

Here is the heart of the Delaware Supreme Court's analysis of the issue and rejection of the defense's contentions (with footnotes removed):

First, this Court settled the evidentiary standard in Mayes v. State, holding that “in reviewing a sentence within statutory limits, this Court will not find error of law or abuse of discretion unless it is clear from the record below that a sentence has been imposed on the basis of demonstrably false information or information lacking a minimal indicium of reliability.”  Smack argues Mayes does not apply because the standard was not contested.  But the fact the standard was not at issue is irrelevant — the Court explicitly stated the sentencing judge “comported with due process by relying on information meeting the ‘minimal indicium of reliability beyond mere allegation’ standard.”  Subsequent cases rely on Mayes in applying this standard.

Smack relies on a series of federal cases where the court applied a preponderance of the evidence standard to establish facts warranting a sentence enhancement under the federal sentencing guidelines.  According to Smack, the same burden of proof should apply to the State when it argued for a harsher sentence based on Smack’s status as a drug kingpin.  The federal cases, however, are inapposite.  Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the judge must find facts at sentencing using evidentiary burdens because those factual determinations can cause an increase in the sentencing ranges under the guidelines.  Here, Smack’s guilty plea resulted in a sentencing range of two to seventy-six years. To fix the sentence within that statutory range, the judge was entitled to consider all facts that had a minimal indicia of reliability — including the intercepted text messages and phone conversations that led to the seventy-seven charges of drug dealing brought against Smack.  The court could and did find from these facts that Smack was more than a street-level drug dealer.

As hard-core sentencing fans know, the Supreme Court three decades ago in McMillan v. Pennsylvania, rejected a challenge to a Pennsylvania statute's use of a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard in the application of a mandatory minimum sentencing statute.  Chief Justice Rehnquist in that opinion explained why the Court had "little difficulty concluding that ... the preponderance standard satisfies due process."  Of course, aspects of McMillan were overturned in Alleyne v. US with respect to any fact-finding that formally alters any legal limit of a judge's sentencing discretion, but that decision itself stressed it was not contradicting "the broad discretion of judges to select a sentence within the range authorized by law."  

Through communications with the attorney representing in the defendant in this case, I have learned that a cert petition is in the works.  Given the remarkable reality that we have gone nearly 230 years into our constitutional history without having come close to settling just what due process means at sentencing, I think it would be great (and long overdue) for SCOTUS to take up a case like this.

December 10, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Fascinating look at sentencing mitigation videos (and advocacy film festival)

The New York Times has this great new "op-doc" by Lance Oppenheim on the topic of sentencing mitigation videos under the headline "No Jail Time: The Movie." All sentencing fans will want to take the full 10 minutes to check out the video that is the heart of this op-doc (e,g., two-thirds in is an interesting reference to "the real America"). Here is part of the text that the filmmaker has with the video:

When my parents went to law school in the 1980s, they took courses on contracts, torts, criminal law, constitutional law — the list goes on. While there were lessons on persuasion, to be sure, they never took a class on how to tell a story. And they certainly never learned how to make a film.

Today, however, a growing number of lawyers are creating empathetic biographical mini-documentaries, or “sentencing videos,” to reduce their clients’ prison sentences. Inspired by the storytelling techniques of traditional documentary film, some lawyers team up with independent filmmakers while others become filmmakers themselves. These films are made for an audience of one: the presiding judge.

While videos have historically been permitted in the courtroom, this phenomenon took off in 2005, when the Supreme Court, in United States v. Booker, allowed trial courts to consider an offender’s “personal history and characteristics.” Before Booker, judges were bound by sentencing guidelines and were generally restricted in looking past a defendant’s crime and criminal record.

In sentencing videos, lawyers try to portray their clients in a positive light, notwithstanding the nature of the crime of which they were found guilty. These short videos, which can cost $5,000 to $25,000 to make, can be extremely effective, sometimes substantially decreasing sentences, including those involving the death penalty.

I immersed myself in this phenomenon at the The Sentencing and Post-Conviction Film Festival, held in New Orleans in June at an annual training conference for federal public defenders. The event is organized by Doug Passon, an attorney, filmmaker, attorney-filmmaker, and sentencing video expert.

Mr. Passon, who took film classes after law school and now runs a joint law firm and video production company in Scottsdale, Ariz., treats sentencing videos in an artful manner nearly indistinguishable from narrative-driven, fictional films. He has narrowed his focus to how sentencing videos can sway a judge’s decision. Having seen results from his own clients’ films, he’s determined to teach other lawyers how to create powerful stories.

In a drab hotel conference room filled with beleaguered lawyers, Mr. Passon offers a model: “Make judges suffer.” Not only should judges “agonize over the proper sentence in each case,” Mr. Passon said, they must also “truly feel the client’s pain as they do so.”

In photography and film, there’s an elusive color tone halfway between black and white called middle gray. Just like the phenomenon of middle gray, sentencing videos exist in an in-between space where legal conceptions of fact and fiction, right and wrong, become amorphous. Even though the videos are grounded in truth, their ability to play with judges’ emotions challenge the courtroom’s conception of “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” What I discovered from looking at the growing practice of sentencing videos was far more complicated than I ever imagined.

In the aftermath of making this film, and as a filmmaker myself, I have continued to ask myself whether all documentaries are like sentencing videos. Facts presented in a subjective manner, with footage altered or deleted to serve the filmmaker’s message and elicit a particular emotion from an audience. In the case of sentencing mitigation films, we know the judge will be the final arbiter. For all other documentaries, though, the court of public opinion will need to decide what is, in fact, “true.”

A few prior related posts about sentencing videos:

December 10, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, December 9, 2017

"Make or Buy? The Provision of Indigent Defense Services in the U.S"

I blogged here in August 2016 about an interesting draft paper authored by Yotam Shem-Tov then titled "Public Defenders vs. Private Court Appointed Attorneys: An Investigation of Indigent Defense Systems."  The draft sought to empirically examine different outcomes for defendants assigned different types of counsel.  The authored of that draft emailed me today to report that the paper is now "much more complete" compared to the prior noted draft.  The revised paper, available here via SSRN, is now going by the title that is the title of this post, and here is the new abstract:

U.S. courts provide constitutionally mandated legal services to indigent defendants via private court-appointed attorneys and public defenders' organizations.  I investigate the relative efficacy of these two modes of indigent defense by comparing outcomes of co-defendants assigned either a public defender or a private court-appointed attorney within the same case. Using data from San Francisco and federal district courts, I argue and show empirically that in multiple defendant cases public defender assignment is as good as random. Estimates show that public defenders reduce the probability of any prison sentence by 22%, as well as the length of prison by 10%.

Interestingly, as noted in a prior post, the early draft's abstract indicated a finding that "defendants assigned a public defender in co-defendant cases had slightly worse outcomes."  But then, as blogged here in January 2017, the author can to the inverse conclusion after checking his data and receiving feedback about his draft analysis.  And now it seems that, after finalizing the numbers, the author has seemingly concluded once-and-for-all that his data show that public defendants generally producing better outcomes than private court-appointed attorneys.

Prior related posts:

December 9, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Notable new push to push for expanded use of compassionate release programs

As reported in this press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, "a coalition of criminal justice reform, health policy, human rights, and faith-based organizations launched a new public education and advocacy campaign to urge the creation, expansion, and robust use of federal and state programs that grant early release to prisoners with compelling circumstances, such as a terminal or age-related illness."  Here is more from the release (with links from the source):

The Campaign for Compassionate Release” comprises a diverse group of organizations, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), American Conservative Union Foundation, Human Rights Watch, National Council of Churches, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and National Disability Rights Network.  “It is cruel and senseless to prisoners and families alike to abandon an individual to suffer or die alone in prison, separated from loved ones. These prisoners are the least dangerous and most expensive to lock up, yet compassionate release often exists in name only. It often fails the people it is intended to help. And we’re fed up,” said Mary Price, general counsel of FAMM.

To kick off the Campaign, 36 organizations and individuals endorsed a statement of principles. The principles focus on the humanitarian, public safety, and economic benefits of granting early release to elderly prisoners, those with disabilities, or prisoners facing extreme family changes. While the Campaign will target both federal and state policies, the first stages of the launch focus on reforms to the federal compassionate release program.

The federal compassionate release program, created by Congress, has existed for decades but is rarely used.  The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) must decide if prisoners meet program criteria and then seek their release in the courts, but in reality, the BOP only brings a trickle of release motions to the courts annually. Delays also plague the program; prisoners commonly die awaiting a decision.  Congressional appropriators, government watchdogs, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and outside advocates all have questioned the BOP’s failure to use the program as Congress intended, especially since sick, dying, and elderly prisoners are the least likely to re-offend and the most expensive to house.

Today, many Campaign members and others sent a letter to BOP Director Mark Inch, urging him to expand the program’s use. The letter echoes a similar letter signed by a bipartisan group of senators in August.

December 9, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Portugal’s radical drugs policy is working. Why hasn’t the world copied it?"

1960The title of this post is the title of this lengthy recent Guardian article taking an in-depth look at how Portugal achieved and operationalizes its distinctive approach to drug use and abuse.  The extended article takes a deep dive into a lot of particular, but here are excerpts from the more general discussion:

In 2001, ... Portugal became the first country to decriminalise the possession and consumption of all illicit substances.  Rather than being arrested, those caught with a personal supply might be given a warning, a small fine, or told to appear before a local commission — a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker — about treatment, harm reduction, and the support services that were available to them.

The opioid crisis soon stabilised, and the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates.  HIV infection plummeted from an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015.  The data behind these changes has been studied and cited as evidence by harm-reduction movements around the globe.  It’s misleading, however, to credit these positive results entirely to a change in law.

Portugal’s remarkable recovery, and the fact that it has held steady through several changes in government — including conservative leaders who would have preferred to return to the US-style war on drugs — could not have happened without an enormous cultural shift, and a change in how the country viewed drugs, addiction — and itself.  In many ways, the law was merely a reflection of transformations that were already happening in clinics, in pharmacies and around kitchen tables across the country.  The official policy of decriminalisation made it far easier for a broad range of services (health, psychiatry, employment, housing etc) that had been struggling to pool their resources and expertise, to work together more effectively to serve their communities....

In spite of Portugal’s tangible results, other countries have been reluctant to follow.  The Portuguese began seriously considering decriminalisation in 1998, immediately following the first UN General Assembly Special Session on the Global Drug Problem (UNgass).  High-level UNgass meetings are convened every 10 years to set drug policy for all member states, addressing trends in addiction, infection, money laundering, trafficking and cartel violence.  At the first session — for which the slogan was “A drug-free world: we can do it” — Latin American member states pressed for a radical rethinking of the war on drugs, but every effort to examine alternative models (such as decriminalisation) was blocked. By the time of the next session, in 2008, worldwide drug use and violence related to the drug trade had vastly increased.  An extraordinary session was held last year, but it was largely a disappointment — the outcome document didn’t mention “harm reduction” once.

Despite that letdown, 2016 produced a number of promising other developments: Chile and Australia opened their first medical cannabis clubs; following the lead of several others, four more US states introduced medical cannabis, and four more legalised recreational cannabis; Denmark opened the world’s largest drug consumption facility, and France opened its first; South Africa proposed legalising medical cannabis; Canada outlined a plan to legalise recreational cannabis nationally and to open more supervised injection sites; and Ghana announced it would decriminalise all personal drug use.

The biggest change in global attitudes and policy has been the momentum behind cannabis legalisation.  Local activists have pressed Goulão to take a stance on regulating cannabis and legalising its sale in Portugal; for years, he has responded that the time wasn’t right.  Legalising a single substance would call into question the foundation of Portugal’s drug and harm-reduction philosophy.  If the drugs aren’t the problem, if the problem is the relationship with drugs, if there’s no such thing as a hard or a soft drug, and if all illicit substances are to be treated equally, he argued, then shouldn’t all drugs be legalised and regulated?

Massive international cultural shifts in thinking about drugs and addiction are needed to make way for decriminalisation and legalisation globally.  In the US, the White House has remained reluctant to address what drug policy reform advocates have termed an “addiction to punishment”.  But if conservative, isolationist, Catholic Portugal could transform into a country where same-sex marriage and abortion are legal, and where drug use is decriminalised, a broader shift in attitudes seems possible elsewhere.  But, as the harm-reduction adage goes: one has to want the change in order to make it.

December 9, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, December 8, 2017

SCOTUS grants cert on two(!) federal sentence reduction issues

The Supreme Court this afternoon issued his new order list which adds seven new cases to its merits docket. Two of the new cases involve (narrow) related federal sentencing issues concerning the application of 18 USC § 3582(c)(2).  Here are the case pages and issues via SCOTUSblog:

Hughes v. United States

Issue: Whether, under Freeman v. United States, a petitioner is eligible for a sentence reduction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(2) based on a retroactive amendment to the Sentencing Guidelines, when the petitioner was sentenced after entering into a binding Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement that required a specific sentence not expressly tied to the guidelines.

Koons v. United States

Issues: Whether a defendant who is subject to a statutory mandatory minimum sentence, but who substantially assisted the government and received a sentence below the mandatory minimum pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e), is eligible for a further sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), when the Sentencing Commission retroactively lowers the advisory sentencing guidelines range that would have applied in the absence of the statutory mandatory minimum.

As long-time readers should know, I am not a big fan of undue finality concerns in the sentencing context (see paper here), so my first instinct is to root for SCOTUS to take an expansive view of the reach and application of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). But I will need to dig into the particulars of these cases before being ready to make any predictions about where the Justices may want to go with them.  But, as long-time readers should also know, a cert grant on TWO sentencing cases makes me a happy camper no matter what may follow.

December 8, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Child molester/gymnastics coach Larry Nassar gets maxed-out, 60-year federal prison sentence for child porn offenses

The typical defendants sentenced in federal court for child porn offense have not been convicted of contact offenses and have strong arguments for being sentenced below the severe federal sentencing guideline ranges.  But former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar is not your typical federal child porn offender and, as reported here, he did not convince a judge he should get a below guideline sentence. Indeed, he got the maxed out in every possible way at his sentencing in federal court yesterday:

Larry Nassar, the 54-year-old former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor whose work took him to multiple Olympic Games, received an effective life sentence when a federal judge on Thursday sentenced him to 60 years in federal prison on child pornography charges.

"He has demonstrated that he should never again have access to children," U.S. District Judge Janet Neff said as she imposed a sentence that went beyond guidelines calling for 22 to 27 years in prison. He was sentenced to 20 years on each of three counts to which he's admitted. The sentences are to be served consecutively.

Neff also ordered that his federal time would be served consecutively to state sentences for sexual assault to which he's also admitted. He will be sentenced next month on those charges.The courtroom was filled to capacity. Among those in attendance were several victims of Nassar's admitted sexual assault, their relatives and their attorneys. Several victims said after the sentencing they were still trying to process their feelings, but it was a step toward justice.

“I was blown away with what the judge did today, and I thought it was very fitting," Larissa Boyce, who first raised concerns about Nassar to an MSU coach in 1997, said at a news conference after the hearing. "I can’t thank her enough for the things that she said."

In court filings last week, Nassar's attorneys asked Neff to show leniency, saying the doctor had worked toward redemption by helping fellow inmates and taking Bible classes since his arrest nearly a year ago. Nassar, speaking in a barely audible voice from the courtroom podium on Thursday, told Neff he’d long battled an addiction he likened to alcoholism or drug addiction. His shame kept him from asking for help, he said. He said he hoped his crimes would educate people about the problem to prevent others from being hurt in the future....

But Neff said Nassar’s crimes hurt so many people on so many levels. That includes the unnamed children in the pictures who feel assaulted every day knowing someone somewhere could be viewing their bodies, she said. It includes the women Nassar assaulted who now struggle to trust doctors and struggle with their own sense of self-worth.

The judge said she'd sentenced defendants in child pornography cases for a decade but Nassar was "unique" in the sheer volume of pornography he'd collected and the brazen way he assaulted women during medical appointments with parents in the room. "You have to wonder whether he felt he was omnipotent, whether he felt he was getting away with something so cleverly," Neff said as several victims and family members in the room started to cry. "I am a mom of two daughters. I cannot imagine that kind of situation."

Federal prosecutors had argued for the maximum 60 years, saying Nassar "poses an immense risk to the community" and quoting one victim who said he "will not hesitate to reoffend" if he's ever freed. Neff agreed.

Nassar pleaded guilty in July to three federal charges after investigators said he possessed at least 37,000 graphic videos and images of child pornography, including images of prepubescent children engaged in sex acts. He also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for trying to destroy the evidence. The U.S. Attorney's Office said Nassar paid to have his work laptop wiped clean and threw away hard drives containing the pornography. Investigators were only able to obtain those hard drives at Nassar's Holt property because the garbage truck happened to be running late that day, according to court records.

Some of the videos appeared to show Nassar assaulting young girls in a pool, investigators said. As part of a deal with federal prosecutors to obtain his guilty plea, prosecutors agreed they would not charge him with alleged sexual exploitation of children in relation to four reported victims. Thursday's sentencing ends one of three criminal cases against Nassar. He's also pleaded guilty to sexual assault charges in both Ingham and Eaton counties and could get to up to life in prison in those cases when he's sentenced next month.

Prior related post:

December 8, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Invisible Punishment is Wrong – But Why? The Normative Basis of Criticism of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece now on SSRN authored by Christopher Bennett. Here is its abstract:

This article is concerned with the way in which criminal justice systems cause harms that go well beyond the ‘headline’ punishment announced at sentencing.  This is the phenomenon of ‘collateral consequences of criminal conviction’.  This phenomenon has been widely criticised in recent criminological literature.  However, the critics do not normally explore or defend the normative basis of their claims — as they need to if their arguments are to strike home against sceptics.

I argue that the normative basis of the critics’ position should be seen as involving important normative claims about the responsibilities that societies have towards those who break the law.  Some important strands of criticism, I claim, rest on the view that we have associative duties towards offenders (and their dependants and communities) as fellow participants in a collective democratic enterprise, duties that are violated when states impose, or allow, harms that go significantly beyond the sentence.

December 8, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Latest data from National Crime Victimization Survey adds a bit of uncertainty to 2016 crime story

As explained in this press release, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics today released estimates of crime from the 2016 National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). These passages from the release provide the basic numbers and then explains  why it is difficult to use the 2016 NCVS data to compare to previous data:

In 2016, U.S. residents age 12 or older experienced 5.7 million violent victimizations, including rape or sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated and simple assault.  This was a rate of 21.1 violent victimizations per 1,000 persons.  An estimated 1.3 percent of U.S. residents experienced one or more violent victimizations in 2016....

These estimates of crime are presented in BJS's annual report on criminal victimization, which focused primarily on the level and nature of violent and property crimes in 2016.  The ability to compare 2016 estimates of crime to 2015 or other years was limited due to a redesign of the NCVS sample.  In 2016, BJS introduced new areas to the NCVS sample to reflect population changes based on the 2010 Decennial Census and to produce state- and local-level victimization estimates, which will be released in early 2018.  Among sampled areas that did not change, there was no measurable difference in rates of violent or property crime from 2015 to 2016.

For a better understanding of what this latest data tells us and does not tell us, here are some thoughtful short commentaries emerging in the wake of this new data:

From FiveThirtyEight here, "Why We Can’t Be Sure If Violent Crime Is On The Rise"

From Vox here, "Federal report: violent crime rose in 2016. Other federal report: eh, maybe not."

From Wonkblog here, "We were told violent crime rose in 2016. That may not be true."

December 7, 2017 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (1)

Judge "convicts" Michael Slager of murdering Walter Scott and gives him 20 years in federal prison

As noted in this prior post, in federal court there was this week a homicide mini-trial as part of the sentencing of former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights offense as a result of his lethal shooting of Walter Scott.  This lengthy local article, headlined "Former officer Michael Slager sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting of Walter Scott, reports on the results of the judicial inquisition and ultimate sentencing decision.  Here are a few particulars:

Two and a half years after millions saw a cellphone video of Michael Slager gunning down Walter Scott, the 20-year prison sentence he was handed Thursday will be etched into history as one of the most significant for an American police officer involved in a fatal shooting.

Findings by a federal judge aligned with accusations that observers nationwide had aired against the former North Charleston officer since the footage emerged in April 2015: He committed murder when he shot at Scott eight times as the black motorist ran away. He also later misled investigators and lied during court testimony, the judge determined.

The judge rejected the 36-year-old's claim that Scott's own actions at least initially warranted the gunfire. The decision ended a courtroom battle that has played out since scrutiny befell North Charleston amid a national conversation about police killings. But Slager's penalty on a federal charge of violating Scott’s civil rights may extend that legal fight through appeals. It was more than twice what Slager’s defense team had hoped for, and it came as a surprise to many on both sides of the dispute....

U.S. District Judge David Norton had acknowledged two families who cried in his downtown Charleston courtroom and described how their lives had been torn apart by the shooting. Neither, he said, would be satisfied with Slager’s punishment.  "Judging by (Slager’s) history and characteristics, he has lived a spotless life," he said. "Regardless, this is a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened."...

Slager pleaded guilty in May to the federal civil rights violation for using excessive force. But it was the judge’s responsibility to decide the underlying offense: second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter.

Norton largely dismissed Slager’s manslaughter argument that the officer had been provoked by Scott’s resistance, calling the motorist’s actions “wrongful” but not deserving of Slager’s reaction. Instead, the officer acted with malice by repeatedly shooting the unarmed and fleeing Scott, the judge said.

In reaching the murder finding, Norton rejected a pre-sentencing report’s recommendation that Slager should serve between 10 and 13 years behind bars.  The judge reduced the penalty from the maximum lifetime term for reasons that had little to do with the shooting: for the way federal and state prosecutors collaborated on his prosecution and the risk of abuse Slager will face in prison because he’s a former police officer.

The sentencing relied on several legal determinations based on Norton’s view of the facts, and in delivering the penalty, he mentioned that he had consulted his wife, a forensic pathologist, in reviewing Scott’s autopsy. Defense attorneys took exception to those comments and the result, but the judge said their complaints would have to be addressed by an appeals court.

Slager will likely get credit for the more than yearlong stint he has already spent in jail. In the federal justice system, there is no parole.

Prior related posts:

December 7, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"The Effects of Aging on Recidivism Among Federal Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the US Sentencing Commission. Here is how the USSC describes the report and its highlights on this webpage:

The Effects of Aging on Recidivism Among Federal Offenders is the fourth report in a series examining a group of 25,431 federal offenders who were released from prison or placed on probation in calendar year 2005. This report analyzes the impact of the aging process on federal offender recidivism and, once age is accounted for, the impact of other offense and offender characteristics. The findings included in this report build on those in the Commission’s 2016 Recidivism Overview report. (Published December 7, 2017)...

Report Highlights

Older offenders were substantially less likely than younger offenders to recidivate following release.  Over an eight-year follow-up period, 13.4 percent of offenders age 65 or older at the time of release were rearrested compared to 67.6 percent of offenders younger than age 21 at the time of release.  The pattern was consistent across age groupings, and recidivism measured by rearrest, reconviction, and reincarceration declined as age increased.

For federal offenders under age 30 at the time of release, over one-fourth (26.6%) who recidivated had assault as their most common new charge.  By comparison, for offenders 60 years old or older at the time of release, almost one quarter (23.7%) who recidivated had a public order offense6 as their most serious new charge.

Age and criminal history exerted a strong influence on recidivism.  For offenders in Criminal History Category I, the rearrest rate ranged from 53.0 percent for offenders younger than age 30 at the time of release to 11.3 percent for offenders age 60 or older.  For offenders in Criminal History Category VI, the rearrest rate ranged from 89.7 percent for offenders younger than age 30 at the time of release to 37.7 percent for offenders age 60 or older.

Education level influenced recidivism across almost all categories.  For example, among offenders under age 30 at the time of release, college graduates had a substantially lower rearrest rate (27.0%) than offenders who did not complete high school (74.4%).  Similarly, among offenders age 60 or older at the time of release, college graduates had a somewhat lower rearrest rate (11.6%) than offenders who did not complete high school (17.2%).

Age exerted a strong influence on recidivism across all sentence length categories.  Older offenders were less likely to recidivate after release than younger offenders who had served similar sentences, regardless of the length of sentence imposed.  In addition, for younger offenders there was some association between the length of the original federal sentence and the rearrest rates, as younger offenders with sentences of up to six months generally had lower rearrest rates than younger offenders with longer sentences. However, among all offenders sentenced to one year or more of imprisonment, there was no clear association between the length of sentence and the rearrest rate.

For certain major offense types, the type of federal offense that offenders had committed also had an effect on recidivism across age groups.  For example, firearms offenders had a substantially higher rearrest rate across all age categories than drug trafficking offenders, who in turn had a higher rearrest rate across all age categories than fraud offenders.  For example, for offenders under age 30 at the time of release, the rearrest rates were 79.3 percent (firearms), 62.5 percent (drug trafficking), and 53.6 percent (fraud).  Similarly, for offenders age 60 and older at the time of release, the rearrest rates were 30.2 percent (firearms), 17.5 percent (drug trafficking), and 12.5 percent (fraud).

At every age group, federal prisoners had a substantially lower recidivism rate than state prisoners who also were released in 2005 and tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  For example, for offenders age 24 or younger at the time of release, 63.2 percent of federal prisoners were rearrested within five years compared to over four-fifths (84.1%) of state prisoners.  Like federal prisoners, older state prisoners were less likely to recidivate than younger state prisoners.

December 7, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Notable state and federal developments in the Garcia Zarate/Kate Steinle case

Last week, I blogged here about the California state court verdict in a high-profile homicide case, asking in the title of my post "Can, should and will AG Sessions seek a federal prosecution of Garcia Zarate after 'disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case'?."  As noted below, we already have an answer to this question, though there is also state prosecution news we should cover first.

Specifically, as reported here, the "attorneys who won acquittal for a homeless undocumented immigrant on murder, manslaughter and assault charges in the shooting of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco Bay pier will seek to have the sole conviction in the case dismissed as well." Here is more:

A jury last week found Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 45, guilty of a lesser count of being a felon in possession of a gun in connection with Steinle’s death on Pier 14 in July 2015, after the defense argued at trial that the shooting was an accident that happened after the defendant found a stolen gun wrapped in a T-shirt or cloth under a bench.

Now the defense says the conviction is inconsistent with the jury’s larger acquittal. If the panel believed Steinle may have been killed by an accidental discharge, lawyers assert, Garcia Zarate should not be held responsible for possessing the weapon — even though he threw it in the bay as Steinle lay dying.  Matt Gonzalez of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the lead attorney in the case, said he will appeal the charge at some point after Garcia Zarate’s Dec. 14 sentencing in Superior Court. Gonzalez said his appeal will contend jurors should have been told that “momentary” possession of a gun is not necessarily a crime. “If you possess it just to dispose of it or abandon it, it wouldn’t be a crime,” he said.

Because I am not well versed in California's law of possession, I cannot provide an informed assessment of whether this defense claim provides a compelling basis to reverse the one state conviction the state jury brought back against Garcia Zarate. But I can provide a link to and excerpt from this press release from the US Department of Justice highlighting why federal possession law is now of great import to Garcia Zarate:

A federal grand jury indicted Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate today for being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, and for being an illegally present alien in possession of a firearm and ammunition, announced United States Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions; United States Attorney Brian J. Stretch from the Northern District of California; and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent in Charge Jill Snyder.

According to the indictment, on July 1, 2015, Garcia-Zarate, a citizen of Mexico who reportedly is 47 years old, possessed a semi-automatic pistol and multiple rounds of ammunition in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) (felon in possession of a firearm) and 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5) (unlawfully present alien in possession of a firearm).

An indictment merely alleges that a crime has been committed and Garcia-Zarate, like all defendants, is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Garcia-Zarate currently is in state custody on other charges.  If convicted of either violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), Garcia-Zarate faces a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison.  However, any sentence will be imposed by the court only after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.

Prior related post:

December 6, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

VW executive gets seven years in federal prison for emissions fraud

This Reuters article reports on today's notable white-collar sentencing in the Motor City.  Here are the sentencing basics:

A U.S.-based Volkswagen AG executive who oversaw emissions issues was sentenced to seven years in prison and fined $400,000 by a judge on Wednesday for his role in a diesel emissions scandal that has cost the German automaker as much as $30 billion.

The prison sentence and fine for the executive, Oliver Schmidt, were the maximum possible under a plea deal in August the German national made with prosecutors after admitting to charges of conspiring to mislead U.S regulators and violate clean-air laws.

“It is my opinion that you are a key conspirator in this scheme to defraud the United States,” U.S. District Judge Sean Cox of Detroit told Schmidt in court. “You saw this as your opportunity to shine ... and climb the corporate ladder at VW.”

Schmidt read a written statement in court acknowledging his guilt and broke down when discussing his family’s sacrifices on his behalf since his arrest in January. “I made bad decisions and for that I am sorry,” he said.

U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney Benjamin Singer argued in court that Schmidt was “part of the decision making process” at VW to hide a scheme to fake vehicle emissions results and had opportunities tell regulators the truth. “Every time he chose to lie,” Singer said.

In March, Volkswagen pleaded guilty to three felony counts under a plea agreement to resolve U.S. charges that it installed secret software in vehicles in order to elude emissions tests....

Schmidt was charged with 11 felony counts and federal prosecutors said he could have faced a maximum of up to 169 years in prison.  As part of his guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to drop most of the counts and Schmidt consented to be deported at the end of his prison sentence.

December 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Envisioning an Alternative Future for the Corrections Sector Within the U.S. Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable Rand research report that I just came across authored by Joe Russo, George Drake, John Shaffer and Brian Jackson. Here is a summary with some points from the report in via this Rand webpage:

Challenged by high costs and concerns that the U.S. corrections sector is not achieving its goals, there has been a growing focus on approaches to reform and improve the sector's performance.  Policies initiated during the tough-on-crime era led to aggressive prosecution, lengthier sentences, and an exploding correctional population.  In recent years, the corrections sector has been gradually shifting toward efforts to provide treatment, alternatives to incarceration, and enhanced programs to facilitate offender reentry.  Although judicial and policy decisions and public attitudes toward crime and sentencing determine the corrections population and the resources available for staffing and reform, the sector has a unique perspective and therefore can provide critical insight regarding what is working, what is not, and how things should be.

To contribute to the policy debate on the future of the corrections sector, researchers interviewed a group of prominent correctional practitioners, consultants, and academics. This report outlines their perspectives on the current state of corrections and their vision for the future.  These experts were specifically asked how they would redesign the corrections sector to better serve the country's needs.  The findings offer both an assessment of what is and is not working now and potential solutions to better achieve justice policy goals going forward.

Key Findings

The Corrections Sector Has Little Control Over the Many Factors That Affect Its Operations

  • Judicial and policy decisions and public attitudes toward crime and sentencing determine the corrections population and the resources available for staffing and reform.
  • The sector does have some control over how offenders are treated once they enter the system.

A Panel of Experts Agreed That the Sector's Primary Role Should Be to Facilitate Positive Offender Behavioral Change, but This Is a Complex Task

  • Three broad types of changes would be necessary for the sector to support this mission and help ensure offenders' successful reintegration into society: new programs and improved education and training for corrections staff, the elimination of revenue-generating correctional operations, and cultural change to prioritize rehabilitation over punishment.
  • There are many opportunities for the sector to leverage the latest developments in science, technology, and evidence-based practices to create alternatives to incarceration, guide the investment of scarce resources, and engage communities in initiatives to reduce recidivism and support offender reentry.

Recommendations

  • Panelists put forward several solutions to support the corrections sector's mission of facilitating positive offender behavior change, including diverting low-risk offenders and those with mental health or substance use problems to specialty facilities while reserving prisons for violent and dangerous offenders; shortening sentences and ensuring that offenders have a clear, attainable path to release; and creating smaller and safer facilities that are closer to cities with programs to support reentry.
  • In the near term, panelists recommended expanding and adequately funding probation, parole, and community-based resources to support offenders' reentry into their communities.

December 6, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Notable advocate makes notable pitch to abolish juve LWOP

Malcolm Jenkins, who I still remember as a great Buckeye ballplayer, is now an NFL star using his voice and platform to discuss criminal justice reform issues.  He has this notable new commentary about juve LWOP under this full headline "America is the only country in the world still sentencing our kids to die in prison:For too long we have depicted our youth, especially our black youth, as lost causes. But they can change."  Here are excerpts:

As a black man in America, I’m keenly aware that people who look a lot like me are over-represented in the criminal justice system. The way adults of color are treated in our justice system is already upsetting, but the way our justice system treats children, especially black children, is simply deplorable.

Nowhere is this more clearly evident than on the issue of juvenile sentencing. Black children are grossly over-represented when it comes to kids sentenced to life without parole. This disturbing reality is personal to me: In Pennsylvania, where I live and play football for the Philadelphia Eagles, nearly 80% of juvenile lifers are black.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that life sentences without parole should only be given to juveniles in the rarest of circumstances.  Last year, it ruled that those individuals currently serving life sentences without parole should have their cases reviewed.  Currently, more than 2,100 people who were sentenced as children are eligible to have their sentences reviewed and earn a second chance.  Approximately 300 of these people are from the city of Philadelphia alone.

In its decision, the Supreme Court said that juvenile life without parole, where kids are sentenced to literally die in prison, should only be given to teens found to be “irreparably corrupt.”  But in reality, according to the Fair Punishment Project, the “irreparably corrupt” child is a myth.  We have to stop locking up kids and throwing away the key. According to human rights groups, America is the only country that sentences kids to life without parole....

The infuriating irony here is that the kids who have received life without parole sentences are, in many ways, the young people who needed our help the most.  According to study conducted by the Sentencing Project, 79% of this population witnessed violence in their homes growing up, 40% were enrolled in special education classes, nearly half experienced physical abuse, and three-quarters of the girls had experienced sexual abuse.

America failed them once.  Today, these kids deserve a second chance.  Contrary to the super-predator rhetoric utilized by politicians in the past to justify locking up kids for life, adolescents really are different from adults — in almost every way.  Their brains are underdeveloped, they struggle with judgment, they are susceptible to peer pressure.

For too long, we have depicted our youth, especially our black youth, as fully developed adults who are a lost cause.  But they can change.  These are not the soulless “super-predators” the media scared its readers with in the 70s and 80s.  These are children.  Studies show that even those accused of the most serious crimes age out of crime....

A lot of people might question why, as a professional athlete, I’m speaking out on criminal justice issues.  I believe that it is my duty to use my platform to raise awareness of the kinds of institutional injustices that so rarely make the news — and that we so rarely question.  And I want to elevate the work that so many amazing community grassroots organizations are doing to try and bring about this change.

Fortunately, there is some hope, finally, in my hometown.  Philadelphia’s newly elected District Attorney has stated he will not seek juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) for any kid, no matter the crime. He has also vowed to allow older cases to be considered for parole.  This is a great start.  Now, other prosecutors should follow suit.

No matter their race or hometown, rehabilitation is a beautiful thing. After all, there is nothing more American than giving someone who has worked hard a (second) chance to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

December 5, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)