Tuesday, May 22, 2018

"Against Life Without Parole"

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

Over 40,000 people in the United States today are serving life without parole sentences (LWOP) — more than triple the number in 1992.  This figure understates the case, since parole has become increasingly rare for the 140,000 prisoners serving life sentences that ostensibly permit parole. I argue that LWOP sentences should be abolished.

After reviewing the facts about LWOP, I show that of the standard reasons for punishment only retributivism can hope to justify it.  I investigate the varieties of retributivism and argue that plausible versions do not entail or even recommend it.  So, we can reject LWOP without abandoning retributivism — an important point, strategically and perhaps morally as well.

I then make the positive case for abolition, on three main grounds.  First, few (if any) people are fully culpable for their criminal acts; we should mitigate their punishment accordingly.  Second, abolishing life without parole — and indeed all life sentences — is likely to bring many benefits: to prisoners, their loved ones, the community in general, and to those who decide for abolition and who carry it out.  Among these is the promotion of certain attitudes it is good for people to have, including faith in humanity.  Finally, there’s a certain pointlessness in continuing to punish a person who has undergone changes of character that distance them greatly from the person who committed the crime many decades earlier.

May 22, 2018 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 21, 2018

On eve of planned House vote on FIRST STEP Act, NY Times editorial misguidedly asserts a "partial bill could end up being worse than nothing"

The on-going debate over competing proposals for federal statutory criminal justice reform continues to fascinate me, but I am getting ever more troubled by suggestions from certain folks that the FIRST STEP Act is so bad and that the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act is a so much better.  This new New York Times editorial, headlined "The Right Way to Fix the Prisons," reflects this thinking, and here are excerpts with passages stressed that particularly concern me:

For more than a decade, states of every political hue — from Texas and Louisiana to Connecticut and California — have been overhauling their criminal justice systems, to reverse the effects of decades of harsh and counterproductive policies.  But Congress has watched this revolution from the sidelines, thanks to reactionary lawmakers, including Mr. Sessions when he was in the Senate.  Comprehensive federal legislation has been foiled again and again, as states forge ahead, reducing both prison populations and crime rates through bipartisan reforms....

One bill backed by the White House, known as the First Step Act, would improve some prison conditions and help smooth the path to re-entry for people behind bars. It would, for example, require that inmates be housed within 500 miles of their families, prohibit the brutal but disturbingly common practice of shackling pregnant women and expand rehabilitative programs in which prisoners can participate to earn good-time credits.  These are all important and long-overdue fixes to existing law.

But the bill would leave it up to individual prison wardens to decide who gets to use their credits and when, which means inmates would be treated differently based on where they’re locked up.  The bill also restricts early release to halfway houses, even though as many as 40 percent of people behind bars pose no risk to public safety, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, and would do fine with less intensive oversight, such as electronic monitoring.  On top of that, federal halfway houses are so underfunded that even inmates who are eligible for immediate release can’t go anywhere, because there aren’t enough beds available.

The biggest problem with the First Step Act, however, isn’t what’s in it; it’s what’s left out.  Specifically, sentencing reform.  Harsh sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s, like mandatory minimums of 10 or 20 years even for low-level drug crimes, have been among the main drivers of the nation’s exploding prison population....

Mr. Grassley is sponsoring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would reduce the harshest sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and give judges more discretion to issue lighter sentences.  The bill nearly passed Congress in 2016, only to be killed by then-Senator Jeff Sessions.... Mr. Grassley’s bill has the support of top senators of both parties, as well as law-enforcement leaders and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil-rights organizations.  It’s not perfect, but it’s far preferable to the First Step Act, which could get a vote in the House as soon as this week.

Meanwhile, liberal backers of the First Step Act, like Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the New York Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, argue that it’s better than nothing, especially in the current political environment. “We have a Republican president. Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate,” Mr. Jeffries wrote in letter to his colleagues on Friday. “Those are the facts.”

He’s right.  And yet a partial bill could end up being worse than nothing, especially if its benefits don’t live up to expectations, and if Congress, which has many other pressing matters to attend to, decides it’s had enough of the topic.  “Get a bill to my desk,” Mr. Trump said on Friday. “I will sign it.” If he means this, and if he genuinely cares about reforming the federal justice system, he’ll demand a bill that addresses the system’s most pressing problems.

Though this Times editorial references Rep. Hakeem Jeffries' extended letter defending the FIRST STEP Act, I wonder if the details of this important missive was fully understood.  That letter highlights that many of the prison reform provisions are MUCH improved in the FIRST STEP Act as compared to the SRCA.  Of particularly importance, the FIRST STEP Act includes the "Good Time Credit" fix, which serves functionally as a 2% across the board cut to prison terms for all current and all future federal prisoners.  There is no proper way to claim that a permanent and retroactive 2% cut in all federal prison terms "could end up being worse than nothing."  Moreover, it bears noting that the SRCA is anything but major sentencing reform, as it is only forecast to impact less than 5% of all cases annually under the US Sentencing Commission's estimates.  

In other words, the SRCA offers a worse version of prison reform cobbled together with a weak version of sentencing reform.  Even on the substantive merits, I am not sure I would prefer SRCA to the FIRST STEP Act.  (And of course, Congress has been trying to pass variant on the SRCA for now nearly half a decade to no avail.)   Most critically, the passage of the SRCA would be much more likely to bring what the NY Times fears, namely a reform bill that does not live up to expectations and yet allows Congress to feel it can move on after having done something "comprehensive."  In contrast, the FIRST STEP Act, if passed, will be in both name and spirit just what is needed here: a real improvement that is widely understood as only the first of many needed steps toward fixing a deeply flawed federal sentencing and prison system.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: This Politico article from Monday night, headlined "Trump-backed prisons bill DOA in the Senate," suggests that neither the FIRST STEP Act or the SRCA has much of a chance to make it through the Senate no matter what happens in the House.  Though the headline of this Politico piece is disconcerting, the full article is not quite so pessimistic and reinforces that Judiciary Chair Senator Chuck Grassley and Senate Leader Senator McConnell are the critical players for the future of any federal statutory criminal justice reforms for the foreseeable future. 

May 21, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Sex offender registry: More harm than good?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy report appearing in The Connecticut Mirror. The piece is focused mostly on the history of, and debate over, the sex offender registry in The Constitution State, but much of the discussion has a universal quality to it.  Here is how it gets started:

In the 1990s, in response to a number of horrific and highly publicized crimes against children, states and the federal government created stringent penalties for sex offenders, notably registries where offenders’ names and addresses are available to the public.  But now critics across the country are demanding review and revision of these policies, saying they are based on false assumptions, are a waste of money and do more harm than good.

The registries and related policies “are absolutely and fundamentally flawed. They do nothing to support prevention, are not a deterrent and do nothing for people who have survived sexual violence,” said Prof. Alissa Ackerman of California State University Fullerton, a criminologist and national expert on the treatment of sex offenders.

In 2015 the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, at the behest of the General Assembly, began a lengthy examination of Connecticut’s “system of assessment, management, treatment, and sentencing of sex offenders.”  After a two-year study, the commission recommended changing the state’s public registry from one based on the offense — commit most sex-related crimes and you go on the registry — to one based on the risk an offender poses to the community, as determined by a new, eight-member Sex Offender Registration Board.  Individuals found to be low-risk — and some adjudged moderate-risk — would be on a registry only available to law enforcement personnel.

The proposal was crystalized into a bill introduced during the immediate past session of the General Assembly, though it failed to make it out of the Judiciary Committee.

State Sen. Paul Doyle, co-chair of the committee, said the complexity and emotional nature of the issue made it more appropriate for the longer session next year. “We never got to the merits. Leadership was not prepared to deal with it in a short session.” He said he personally would have had to do more research before deciding how to vote.

In a related matter, the nonprofit Connecticut for One Standard of Justice, which advocates for the civil rights of sex offenders, filed a federal lawsuit on April 4 seeking to overturn a Windsor Locks ordinance which bars persons on the sex offender registry from most public places in town. The town’s “child safety zones” include a “park, school, library, playground, recreation center, bathing beach, swimming pool or wading pool, gymnasium, sports field, or sports facility” either owned or leased by the town. The suit claims banning a group of people from these facilities is unconstitutional....

The registry and laws such as child protection zones are based on a set of assumptions that research indicates are highly questionable or outright false. The Sentencing Commission’s 204-page report calls them “myths.”  They include:

  • Nearly all sex offenders reoffend.
  • Treatment does not work.
  • The concept of “stranger danger” — that most sexual assaults are the work of people unknown to the victims.

“Research does not support these myths, but there is research to suggest that such policies may ultimately be counterproductive,” the commission’s report says.

May 21, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

In shadow of Parkland, a notable discussion with victim families about capital prosecutions in Florida

This local article from Florida, headlined "For victims' families, no easy answer on whether the ordeal of a death penalty case is worth it," take a thoughtful look at what a death penalty prosecution can mean for the families of murder victims. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The parents of the murdered students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have been asked — directly by prosecutors, indirectly by defense lawyers, and while talking amongst themselves — whether the young man responsible for mercilessly slaughtering their children should be executed for the crime.

At stake is more than just the life of the killer, Nikolas Cruz.  Whenever the death penalty is ordered in Florida, the case is automatically appealed, guaranteeing the victims’ families will be locked with Cruz in a lengthy process that can take years or even decades to resolve. It’s a position no one envies, but some who have been through similar ordeals say the Parkland parents cannot give a wrong answer, no matter what they decide.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel talked to family members of three victims whose accused killers faced the death penalty. They agreed that the process is long, grueling and takes an emotional toll. Yet none regret their decisions to ask prosecutors to seek a death sentence.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office already announced that it plans to seek the death penalty against Cruz, 19, who killed 14 students and three staff members at the Parkland high school.  Prosecutors won’t say whether the families’ input could change the strategy.  And Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is representing Cruz, has offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was among the dead, said Finkelstein’s offer is tempting. “I support the death penalty,” he said. “But I don’t want to pursue it in the case of my daughter’s killer. … If there’s a chance Cruz is willing to take a plea deal, I say go for it.”  Guttenberg said his main concern is having to relive the case at every stage — a trial, followed by a penalty phase, followed by appeals, the specter of a retrial, repeating the process from the beginning, “only to end up at what is likely to be a life sentence anyway.”...

For Chris Crowley, staying away wasn’t an option.  Crowley waited 27 years to see his sister’s killer executed in 2013. William Frederick Happ confessed in the execution chamber and begged for forgiveness before he was put to death by lethal injection.  His victim, Angela Crowley, had lived in Lauderdale Lakes for just a few months and was working at a travel agency in the spring of 1986.  She was on her way to visit a friend in Citrus County when she was abducted and murdered by Happ.

Chris Crowley, 61, said watching Happ die gave him a kind of closure he never could have gotten had he known the killer was in a cell getting three meals a day. “He would have had the possibility to kill again,” Crowley said. “The possibility of escape. The possibility of a commuted sentence. With the death sentence, there’s finality.”...

Deborah Bowie calls her situation “the textbook case for everything that is dysfunctional about capital punishment.”  Bowie’s sister, Sharon Anderson, was murdered in 1994 along with two others in what became known as the Casey’s Nickelodeon murders.  The other victims were Casimir "Butch Casey" Sucharski, former owner of the popular Pembroke Park bar that gave the case its nickname, and Marie Rogers....  “It’s a marathon every time,” said Bowie. “I feel for any family that is starting a death penalty case at the beginning. They have no idea what they’re in for.” 

May 21, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"President Trump supports prison reform"

85940444-fb0b-4222-9893-8d947ed60a7f (1)The title of this post is the heading of the lead item on "1600 Daily," the daily promotional email coming from the White House.  Here is what appears under the heading:

Crime imposes a significant burden on Americans' well-being and taxpayer-financed resources. These costs are amplified by re-arrest rates for released American prisoners that exceed 50 percent. Many programs have been tried to reverse this trend over the past few decades. Some of them work; some don't.

President Donald J. Trump supports prison reform legislation that builds on evidence-based programs to reduce prisoner recidivism rates. The President has called on Congress to help former inmates who have completed their sentences to have a second chance to become contributing members of society.

The White House hosted a summit on prisons last week. "Prison reform is an issue that unites people from across the political spectrum," President Trump said. "It's an amazing thing. Our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens."

Learn how President Trump wants to fix America's prison system.

WatchHighlights from the President's remarks at the White House summit

This Fact Sheet (which is the first link above) strikes me as a reasonably detailed statement of reasonably progressive federal prison reforms (e.g., there is discussion of the need to "Expand access to prison work programs to allow all eligible inmates who want to work to gain job skills while incarcerated and prepare for successful reentry into society" and "Allowing BOP to place low-risk offenders in home confinement for the maximum amount of time permitted when appropriate" and "Requiring BOP to make female-healthcare products available for female prisoners").  I would be eager to hear from experts who are especially informed about prison reform and the federal system as to what particular prison reforms they see missing from these White House talking points.

Of course, criminal justice reform advocates are rightly troubled by this Administration's disaffinity for any front-end sentencing reforms.  The Fact Sheet notable states: "Rather than lowering sentences, the President supports reforms that empower prisoners participating in recidivism-reducing programming to obtain 'earned-time' credits."  I am not sure if this statement intimates that Prez Trump would veto a bill that included sentencing reforms, but I am sure this statement accounts from why so many GOP leaders are much more bullish on the FIRST STEP Act than on the SCRA.  

Some of many prior related posts:

May 21, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Without explanation, SCOTUS rejects vagueness challenges to pre-Booker mandatory application of career-offender guideline

It was a "civil" morning for US Supreme Court today, with two opinions from the civil side of its docket (one big, one little) and four cert grants on matters that are mostly civil and somewhat procedure (although one, Royal v. Murphy, deals with tribal jurisdiction over a capital prosecution).   But there was still some interesting news for sentencing fans in today's SCOTUS order list in the form of somewhat surprising denials of certiorari in cases dealing with the residue of the Johnson vagueness ruling for guideline-sentenced defendants before Booker make the guidelines advisory.

This part of this SCOTUSblog Relist Watch post by John Elwood from a few weeks ago spotlights cases I have had my eye on:

Lester v. United States17-1366, would justify readers in feeling a bit of déjà vu all over again. The case presents the question whether the residual clause of the career offender sentencing guideline was unconstitutionally vague back before United States v. Booker when the Sentencing Guidelines were still mandatory.  If that seems as familiar as Indiana Jones 4, that very question is already before the court in a number of serial relists: Allen v. United States17-5684Gates v. United States17-6262James v. United States17-6769 (all relisted nine times) and Robinson v. United States17-6877 (relisted seven times). 

Sentencing gurus know that the Supreme Court in Beckles decided that the Court's big vagueness ruling in Johnson dealing with a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act did not entail constitutional problems for a parallel clause of the sentencing guidelines because the guidelines are now advisory, not mandatory.  But defendants in the cases above, which SCOTUS had been mulling over now for many months, were sentenced with the problematic parallel clause of the sentencing guidelines before Booker made the guidelines advisory.  But because judges could (and sometimes did) depart from the guidelines even before Booker made them mandatory (but cannot depart from applying ACCA), these cases presented an interesting and uncertain push-pull between the Johnson ruling and Beckles' gloss on its application.

I had been hoping that the collection of these cases as "serial relists" meant that SCOTUS was busy looking for the right vehicle for considering these post-Johnson matters.  But today, as noted above, certiorari was denied by the Supreme Court in all these cases without any explanation.  Of course, explanations for cert denials are not common.  But because relists often lead to a cert grant or at least some discussion by some justice of the issue, I am starting my week bummed that an interesting intricate piece of sentencing jurisprudence did not prompt any substantive SCOTUS engagement.

May 21, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

"Punishing Risk"

The title of this post is the title of this new article on SSRN authored by Erin Collins.  Here is the abstract:

Actuarial recidivism risk assessments — or statistical predictions of the likelihood of future criminal behavior — drive a number of core criminal justice decisions, including where to police, who to release on bail, and how to manage correctional institutions.  Recently, this predictive approach to criminal justice has entered a new arena: sentencing.  Actuarial sentencing has quickly gained a number of prominent supporters and is being implemented across the country.  This enthusiasm is understandable.  Its proponents promise that actuarial data will refine sentencing decisions, increase rehabilitation, and reduce reliance on incarceration.

And yet, in the rush to embrace actuarial sentencing, scholars and policy makers have overlooked a crucial point: actuarial risk assessment tools are not intended for use at sentencing.  In fact, their creators explicitly warn that these tools were not designed to aid decisions about the length of a sentence or whether to incarcerate someone.  And yet, that is precisely how those who endorse actuarial sentencing — including the American Law Institute in the recently revised Model Penal Code for Sentencing — suggest they should be used.

Actuarial sentencing is, in short, an unintended, “off-label” application of actuarial risk information.  This Article re-examines the promises of actuarial sentencing in light of this observation and argues that it may cause a number of equally unintended and detrimental consequences.  Specifically, it contends that this practice distorts, rather than refines, sentencing decisions.  Moreover, it may increase reliance on incarceration — and for reasons that undermine the fairness and integrity of the criminal justice system.

May 20, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

US District Judge Bennett explains why meth sentencing guidelines are wrong to treat "drug purity [as] a proxy for culpability"

Long-time readers know that US District Judge Mark Bennett has long made his post-Booker mark with thoughtful opinion explaining why various guidelines ought not merit full respect in light of the purposes of sentencing set forth in 18 USC § 3553(a). Judge Bennett's latest important sentencing work, which a helpful reader made sure I did not miss, comes in US v. Nawanna, No. CR 17-4019-MWB (D. Iowa May 1, 2018) (available here). Like so many of Judge Bennett's opinions, this latest ruling is a must-read for all who follow the federal sentencing system, and it starts and ends this way:

The United States Sentencing Guidelines differentiate between methamphetamine mixture and actual (pure) methamphetamine or "ice."  That difference is the primary basis for the defendant's motion for a downward variance.  Even though he is a first-time drug offender who has never been in prison, he argues that he faces a "breathtakingly high" Guidelines sentencing range of 360 months to life, where the methamphetamine at issue was treated as actual (pure) methamphetamine or ice.  He argues that the harsh methamphetamine Guidelines overstate his culpability and should be rejected on policy grounds.  Specifically, his argument, of first impression for me, is that the methamphetamine Guidelines are based on a flawed premise, set out in U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1, cmt. n.27(C), that drug purity is a proxy for culpability.

The prosecution responds that, although I am free to place whatever weight I wish on the various advisory Guidelines, the defendant's advisory Guidelines sentencing range is appropriate in this case, because it reflects the dangerous role the defendant played in dealing pure methamphetamine . Thus, this case requires me, once again, to consider the question of the merits of the advisory Guidelines sentencing range for a defendant convicted of methamphetamine offenses.  In United States v. Hayes, 948 F. Supp. 2d 1009 (N.D. Iowa 2013), I followed the lead of two other federal district judges by reducing a methamphetamine defendant's advisory Guidelines sentencing range by one third, on the basis of a policy disagreement with the methamphetamine Guidelines.  This sort of variance was for low level, non-violent, addict offenders.  This opinion, which supplements my rationale on the record at the defendant's sentencing hearing, explains why I find that a similar reduction, based on a different calculation, is appropriate in this case....

Exercising my discretion to reject the advisory Guidelines sentencing range for methamphetamine offenses on the basis of a policy disagreement, I determined that a downward variance was appropriate in Nawanna's case.  The reasons for rejecting the methamphetamine Guidelines, here, were independent of the reasons for rejecting the methamphetamine Guidelines set out in my decision in Hayes.  Here, I concluded that the methamphetamine Guidelines are based on a flawed assumption that methamphetamine purity is a proxy for role in the offense, which, like Judge Robert C. Brack of the District of New Mexico, I find "is divorced from reality." Ibarra-Sandoval, 265 F. Supp. 3d at 1255.  Nawanna's advisory Guidelines sentencing range of 360 months to life would be greater than necessary to accomplish the purposes of sentencing under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).  Instead, for the reasons stated, above, and on the record during Nawanna's sentencing hearing, Nawanna should be sentenced to 132 months incarceration.

May 20, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Vera Institute of Justice reports on "People in Prison 2017"

Via this web page and this document, the Vera institute of Justice has now providing a valuable new "up-to-date view of the number of people in state and federal prisons." Here is the summary of their efforts from the print document:

Effective advocacy and policy making require up-to-date information. Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) researchers collected data on the number of people in state and federal prisons on December 31, 2017 to provide timely information on how prison incarceration is changing in the United States.  This report fills a gap until the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) releases its next annual report — likely in late 2018 or early 2019 — which will include additional data, such as population breakdowns by race and sex.

At the end of 2017, there were an estimated 1,489,600 people in state and federal prisons, down 15,800 from yearend 2016 (1 percent decline).

There were 1,306,300 people under state prison jurisdiction, 9,900 fewer than in 2016 (0.7 percent decline); and 183,300 in the federal prison system, 5,900 fewer than in 2016 (3.1 percent decline).  The prison incarceration rate in the United States was 457 people in prison per 100,000 residents, down from 465 per 100,000 in the previous year, representing a 1.8 percent drop. (See Figure 1.)  This brings the rate of prison incarceration down 14 percent since its peak in 2007.

The overall decline in the national prison incarceration rate was driven by the large decrease in the number of people in federal prisons, as well as greater than 5 percent declines in several states with large prison populations, such as Illinois, Louisiana, and Maryland.  However, the declines were not universal.  Mass incarceration is still on the rise in some states, such as Kentucky and Tennessee.  (See Table 1 for a summary of the jurisdictions with the highest and lowest prison population counts, rates, and percent changes from 2016.)

In addition to this summery, this document has a bunch of clear and informative charts with total prison populations and rates and changes for every state and region from 2007 to 2017.

May 20, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The latest political back and forth, on both sides of the aisle, as federal prison reform efforts gain momentum

Politico has two fascinating new articles about on-going political debates and maneuvering surrounding the FIRST STEP Act.  That proposal, as reported here, received a 25-5 vote in favor in the House Judiciary Committee ten days ago, and it seems to be the top federal criminal justice reform bill with a real chance to get to the desk of Prez Trump in the coming months. Here are the full headlines and the start of each Politico article:

"Trump pushes for prison reform bill that divides Democrats: The split among Democrats over whether to support a narrow bill or push for sentencing reductions spilled into the open on Friday":

President Donald Trump on Friday embraced a bipartisan prison reform proposal, but a sharp divide among Democrats on the issue threatens to undermine the deal.  The discord was on display Friday as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York circulated a scathing letter accusing fellow Democrats of trying to tank the effort by waging an opposition campaign “riddled with factual inaccuracies.” At issue is whether to move ahead with a more narrow overhaul or to hold out for a broader criminal justice bill that includes sentencing reductions.

Trump vowed in his remarks that his administration would make circumstances "far, far, far greater than ever before" for former prisoners looking to rebuild their lives.  But other leading Democrats are fighting Jeffries' approach, pushing for the sentencing reductions, which are opposed by the Trump administration. Jeffries' rebuke came in response to a letter [posted here] criticizing the narrower prisons bill circulated on Thursday by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), among others.

"Cotton jolts prison reform negotiations":

Multiple law enforcement groups say Sen. Tom Cotton’s office approached them about opposing a bipartisan prison reform bill — a key legislative priority for President Donald Trump — according to emails reviewed by POLITICO.

Cotton’s office says it made no direct request for groups to oppose the bill. But the outreach from the Arkansas Republican, one of Trump's closest allies in Congress, has left supporters of the prison reform effort suspicious that he is trying to tank the Trump-backed legislation before it reaches the Senate.

Cotton is a stalwart critic of broader criminal justice overhaul proposals but has yet to publicly come out against the narrower, prison-focused approach that Trump is backing. However, the emails reviewed by POLITICO show at least two leading law enforcement groups discussing a call by Cotton’s office this week for letters of opposition on prison reform ahead of a White House summit Friday on the issue.

In one instance, the request from Cotton’s camp appears to have lost the prisons bill a supporter: The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which had declared its endorsement in February, wrote to House and Senate Republican leaders on Friday announcing it was reversing that position and would oppose the prison reform bill, citing changes made to the measure in recent weeks. A member of the organization said Cotton’s office had asked the group to send a letter of opposition, according to one of the emails reviewed by POLITICO. The FLEOA did not return a request for comment.

In a separate email shared with POLITICO, another top law enforcement group said it and other similar organizations had been contacted by Cotton’s office with a request to oppose the bill in writing.

Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Tabler said the office had not directly requested any public opposition. “Senator Cotton believes it’s important that we get prison reform right, and that any legislation must fully protect law-abiding Americans. He’s consulted with Arkansans and several law enforcement groups and is actively working with his colleagues to address his concerns with the current bill,” Tabler said in a statement.

I suspect that there are not many examples of Senator Tom Cotton and Senator Kamala voting similarly on a high-profile piece of legislation, but the latest news and developments concerning federal criminal justice reform suggests they may both end up voting no (albeit for different reasons) if and when the FIRST STEP Act comes up for a vote in the Senate. Interesting times.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Noting the distinctive juve sentencing realities to face the Texas school mass murderer

Yet another horrific school shooting, this time by a juvenile offender, provides yet another need to work through modern sentencing realities facing a mass murderers.  This local article reviews the sentencing basics under the headline "The accused Santa Fe shooter will never get the death penalty. Here’s why." Here are excerpts:

The high school junior accused of gunning down 10 students and teachers at a Santa Fe school is facing a capital murder charge - but he’ll never face the death penalty, even in Texas. Some day, he’ll even be eligible for parole.

Though Dimitrios Pagourtzis was charged as an adult and jailed without bond, even if he’s found guilty he can’t be sentenced to death because of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. And in the Lone Star State, he can’t be sentenced to life without parole as the result of a 2013 law that banned the practice for minors....

The Santa Fe High School student admitted to the mass shooting that killed 10 and wounded 10 others early Friday, according to court documents. He planted fake explosives and selected his targets so as to spare the students he liked, he later told police.

For an adult, that sort of crime could lead to the death chamber.  Murders involving multiple victims can be charged as capital offenses, and for adults that leaves two options: death or life without parole.

At one time, those options were both on the table for teens, too. But then in 2005, Christopher Simmons, a Missouri killer condemned to die, won a landmark case in the Supreme Court. After surveying practices in death penalty states, the justices decided that the national consensus was against executing minors.  Only a few states — including Texas —  were the outliers still carrying out death sentences for those convicted of crimes committed as minors....

Before the court’s decision, Texas had been the biggest executioner of juvenile offenders, Dunham said.  Across the nation, there were 22 convicts executed for crimes committed as juveniles - and more than half of them were in Texas. After the court eliminated the practice, in June 2005 Gov. Rick Perry commuted a slew of death sentences to life, removing 28 prisoners from death row, including 12 from Harris County.

Then in 2012, the Supreme Court took it one step further when the justices struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles.  The following year, Texas legislators passed a law making life with parole — instead of life without parole — the only sentencing option for minors charged with capital crimes. For life sentences where parole is an option, Marzullo said, the first chance at release comes after 40 years in prison.

Whether or not he’s ultimately convicted, the accused Santa Fe shooter will be behind bars for the foreseeable future.  During his first court appearance Friday night, a judge opted to hold him without bond. "At the moment he's in solitary confinement," Judge Mark Henry said after the teen's first court appearance Friday evening. "He's going to be here a while."

Because Pagourtzis slaughtered 10 people and injured many more, his case has me wondering about the application of consecutive sentences under Texas laws to potentially extend the period in which a juvenile offender would not be eligible for parole under life sentences. As regular readers know, there is a robust debate in lower courts about whether and how the Supreme Court's announced Eighth Amendment jurisprudence limiting life without parole for juvenile offenders ought to be applied in cases in which a juvenile has committed multiple very serious crimes. That debate may well end up impacting how this latest school shooter gets sentenced.

May 19, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9)

Interesting discussions of new prison units dedicated to offenders who are veteran

The start of this local article, headlined "Allegheny County Jail designates cell block for inmates who are veterans," really struck me:

The new veterans pod at the Allegheny County Jail made David Francis feel welcome in a way he didn't experience when returning from Vietnam.  “(The pod) gives veterans hope where there hadn't been any,” Francis said.  “We were not liked when we came back from Vietnam.  We weren't welcomed in coming home.  It wasn't like other wars.  So this is a blessing.”

Here is more from the piece:

An American flag and other patriotic images are also painted near the pod's entrance — the work of three inmates over the weekend. The paintings are the only visual difference between the pod and others in the jail. It consists of two levels of cells in a circle surrounding a common area, where jail and county officials held a news conference Monday.

The difference, though, will be the specialized services offered to veterans, as well as a chance to interact with their fellow veterans on a daily basis. “We decided we need to do something for the veterans in our facility and prepare them for a successful re-entry into society,” said Warden Orlando Harper, an Army veteran himself.

At least 86 prisons and jails across the country have pods designated for veterans. Many of them have been created in the past five years, according to an Associated Press report in January. Nationally, veterans account for about 8 percent of all inmates....

Placing many of the jail's veterans all in one place makes it easier for organizations to serve them, as well as less costly for the county, officials said. “We want more veterans assistance programs,” Harper said. Many have already committed to participate.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit will offer workforce literacy classes, including help with cover letter and resume writing, according to a county news release. Veterans Administration Veterans Justice Outreach will help the inmates apply for enrollment in the VA health care system, discuss treatment options and legal issues, along with presentations on post-traumatic stress, suicide prevention and job opportunities.

Organizations Soldier On; PAServes; the Veterans Leadership Program; the Duquesne School of Nursing; and Veterans Thinking for Change-Pittsburgh Mercy also have committed to providing services.

The AP article referenced above is available at this link and reports on some encouraging data emerging from this form of prison reform:

Inmates and officials say the Albany pod is cleaner and less troublesome than other tiers. When a guard was attacked here in 2016 by an inmate from another unit, the pod inmates ran from across the common area to the guard’s aid.

“We send all these young men and women overseas and when they come back, a lot of them with PTSD, domestic violence, drug issues,” said Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, who started the veterans pod more than three years ago. “And I just felt we could have treated them better or done something for them.”

Apple said 6 percent of the roughly 331 participating veterans in Albany over the years have returned to jail, far better than the typical jail recidivism rates of more than 40 percent.

It helps that Soldier On also provides post-release services like housing.  So when Tommy Hartmann was released from the Albany jail last year after 90 days he had a place to go. The 29-year-old Army veteran moved into Soldier On’s transitional housing in Leeds, Massachusetts. He also got a job with Soldier On, on the resident staff.

When the group helped serve a holiday meal recently, Hartmann returned to his old block to chat up inmates he knew. This time he wore khakis and a tie. And he got to go home at the end of the night. “They set me up to succeed when I got out,” Hartmann said before his visit. “Rather than just sitting on the tier, playing cards, watching TV, doing pushups, whatever, I was doing positive stuff toward my recovery and becoming a better part in society.”

These stories lead me to want to call modern prison reform efforts another important way to support our troops.

May 19, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Federalism and Constitutional Criminal Law"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Brenner Fissell now available via SSRN.  As the title itself suggests, Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is among the area of Supreme Court decision-making discussed in this paper. Here is the abstract:

A vast body of constitutional law regulates the way that police investigate crimes and the way that criminal cases are handled at trial.  The Supreme Court has imposed far fewer rules regarding what can be a crime in the first place, how it must be defined, and how much it can be punished. What explains this one-sided favoring of “procedure” over “substance?”

This Article aims to unearth and assess the justification that the Court itself most often uses when it refuses to place constitutional limits on substantive criminal law: federalism. While the Court often invokes the concept to rationalize its restraint, this Article argues that federalism is not a universally effective argument against the imposition of these types of constitutional limits.  Instead, different variants of “federalism” vary in their strength when used to resist different types of constitutional rules, and often the federalism-based argument is unjustified.

May 19, 2018 in Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 18, 2018

Head of federal Bureau of Prisons abruptly resigns

As reported in this USA Today article, headlined "Federal prisons chief Mark Inch abruptly resigns from job he took over in September," while Prez Trump and others today at the White House were discussing federal prison reform, the head of the federal prison agency surprisingly resigned. Here is the story and possible backstory:

Mark Inch, the director of the embattled federal Bureau of Prisons, abruptly announced his resignation Friday, the Justice Department announced Friday. There was no immediate reason provided for the departure of Inch, who had just assumed leadership of the country's largest detention system in September.

In a brief statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions thanked Inch for his service wished him "luck in his future endeavors." The attorney general did not elaborate. As director, Inch oversaw 122 detention facilities, 39,000 staffers and 186,000 inmates.

Inch’s resignation also comes as the White House was staging a summit Friday on prison reform. There, White House senior adviser and President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner commended Inch for his work on the Federal Inter-agency Reentry Council, though it was not clear whether he was aware of Inch's resignation. "We're working on the reentry commission, where the new director of the Bureau of Prisons, General Inch, has been working with Attorney General Sessions to look at all the different changes they can make in the prisons,” he said.

Hugh J. Hurwitz, assistant director of the BOP’s Reentry Services Division, will serve as acting director, Sessions said.

For the last year, the Bureau of Prisons has been the focus of a review by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been examining allegations of sexual harassment, management retaliation against staffers and staffing shortages. Those shortages have routinely thrust nurses, teachers, food service workers and others to take up guard duty in under-staffed prison yards and solitary confinement wings.

Hundreds of non-custodial staffers were tapped last year to fill guard posts across the Bureau of Prisons because of acute officer shortages and overtime limits, according to prison records reviewed by USA TODAY and staff interviews. The moves were made despite repeated warnings that the assignments placed unprepared employees at risk. And the practice has continued for years even though the agency has been rebuked by Congress and federal labor arbitrators....

According to his Justice biography, Hurwitz began his career with the BOP as a law clerk in the Office of General Counsel in 1988. He went on to serve in three other agencies before returning to the BOP in 2015 as the senior deputy assistant director of the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division.

May 18, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Prez Trump pledges to sign prison reform that will be "best in the world"

As reported in this CBS News piece, both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a prison reform summit the White House this morning. Here are some of the details:

Pence, taking to the podium, called prison reform a top priority for the Trump administration. Pence said the current prison system "too often" misses an opportunity to help improve people's lives, and instead just makes American communities more dangerous. Pence said the Trump administration will continue to hold accountable those who break the law, but also recognize that too many ex-offenders feel they have nowhere else to turn once they leave prison, and return to crime. "Prison reform is about changing lives, and about changing communities," Pence said.

The White House has hosted such discussions before, although not in such a large summit. But the reforms Mr. Trump's administration has floated before mostly entailed better preparing inmates for reentry and reducing recidivism rates, not the sentencing reform that liberals and some conservatives have hoped for in recent years. Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has made prison reform a top issue in his portfolio, said Mr. Trump is "all in" on prison reform, but explained why the White House's focus is narrow for now.

"Sentencing reform is something that people still have different opinions on," Kushner said, noting how Washington has been unable to come to a consensus on the matter for years. Kushner said he thinks the country's system of governance works well, and requires intense deliberation on pivotal issues like prison reform.

I was able to hear live a few of the comments by Prez Trump, and he pledged to sign the prison reform bill Congress delivered to him and he closed by asserting, in Trumpian fashion, that the prison reforms would be the "best in the world." People who know about prisons around the world, particularly in Scandinavia and other part of Europe, surely realize that Prez Trump is setting quite a high bar for US prison reform. But I was please to hear him make this commitment and continue to be hopeful that the energized support of the Trump Administration helps ensure that at least some form of federal criminal justice reform becomes a reality this year.

May 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Death penalty restoration may get a vote in Illinois House

I have not blogged before about the recent suggestion by the Illinois Gov to restore the death penalty in his state, but this new article reports that the idea may now be headed toward a vote in the Illinois House.  Here are the details:

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan agreed Thursday to allow a vote on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s controversial plan to reinstate the death penalty and expand the waiting period to purchase firearms, creating a political minefield Democrats contend could hurt re-election-seeking Republicans more than themselves.

Madigan said the issues the Republican governor raised “deserve a full hearing and consideration before the House.” “We look forward to hearing from stakeholders and continuing our effort to keep our children, our schools and our communities safe from senseless gun violence,” Madigan said in a statement.

Rauner’s rewrite would create a 72-hour “cooling off” period to buy any firearm and reinstate capital punishment for slaying a law enforcement officer or in cases where two or more people are killed. A new bill containing the governor’s plan will be discussed by the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, and Democrats said Madigan intends for it to be eventually called for a full House vote.

The move provides some political insulation for Madigan, the chief political nemesis of the re-election-seeking governor. It prevents the governor from attacking the veteran House speaker for defending the lives of cop killers by blocking a vote on Rauner’s crime-fighting initiative. It’s doubtful the Rauner plan would pass the House, but Madigan’s move carries several political risks for individual lawmakers in both parties. It also creates significant complications for rank-and-file Republicans.

Lawmakers on both sides who vote against the measure could find themselves targeted by political opponents as being soft on crime and weak in their support of law enforcement by refusing to lift the state’s seven-year ban on capital punishment. That could particularly impact suburban Democratic lawmakers in a region where the party has made increasing inroads on traditionally Republican territory. Still, several lawmakers who served in 2011 when the state abolished the death penalty following a tarnished history of wrongful convictions are already on record with their vote.

The bill is more complex for Republicans. While reinstating the death penalty has its appeal to Republican voters, Rauner’s plan also would create a 72-hour waiting period for all guns, not just military-style firearms contained in the original bill. An expansion of the waiting period is opposed by the politically powerful National Rifle Association and is at odds with many voters in rural Illinois legislative districts represented by Republicans who champion their support for gun rights.

Kudos to leadership for allowing debate and a vote on these matters. Especially in an election year, voters should be able to know when their representatives stand on an array of high-profile political issues. I wish Senator Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders in Congress would take a page from the folks in Illinois when it comes to allowing high-profile criminal justice issues like sentencing reform and marijuana reform get a fair up-or-down vote so that voters can know for sure where there representatives stand and so that proposals with majority support can actually become law.

May 18, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Five prominent congressional Democrats write in opposition to federal statutory prison reform without broader sentencing reform

As reported in this Politico piece, a set of "powerful Democrats stepped up their opposition campaign against a bipartisan bill on prison reform via a lengthy letter Thursday, their latest attempt to stamp out momentum for the proposal before it hits the House floor next week." Here is more:

The Democrats’ five-page opposition letter, which describes the bill as a “step backwards,” is just the latest volley in an ongoing battle over how far Congress should go this year to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system.  The legislation is backed by the White House and could be the last real chance for a bipartisan success — no easy feat in a contentious election year — but has several key opponents, particularly in the Senate.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the revered civil rights leader and one of the most influential members of the House Democratic Caucus, signed on to the letter.  Other Democrats already known to be opposed to the prison bill also added their names: Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

“We write to express our serious concerns with the First Step Act, legislation that purports to reform federal prisons but which would in fact be a step backwards,” they wrote. They go on to say that the bill, which would provide training programs for prisoners that are aimed at reducing repeat offenses, could actually have the opposite effect by putting in place policies that are more discriminatory toward inmates of color.

The letter — particularly Lewis’ opposition — could be a significant blow to efforts by the bill’s supporters to round up support ahead of an expected floor vote next week.  Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), lead authors of the push for prison reform, have been meeting with members since the bill sailed out of committee last week....

The letter takes several shots at the prison reform proposal, saying that it doesn’t provide enough funding to be effective and that Sessions, a vocal opponent of criminal justice reform, would have far too much autonomy over the new programs.

The bill has strong Republican support in the House — all but one Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, including several far-right members, backed the proposal. But the legislation has divided Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Lewis’ opposition to the bill could be particularly influential for Democrats deciding how to vote.  But the bill’s authors can also point to several prominent backers on their side, including CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a leading progressive.

The full five-page "Dear Colleague" letter is available at this link, and it reiterates a series of arguments that the progressive opponents of prison reform have been making for months. As I have said before, though I see merit in many of the criticisms of prison-only reform efforts, I struggle to see any path forward for more robust reforms in the immediate future.  (There is also the irony that the prison-reform provisions they criticize in the FIRST STEP Act also appear in the broader sentencing reform bill they promote as an alternative.) 

As I noted in this recent post, broader reforms have now been robustly discussed for the better part of a decade and they did not become law even when there was a supportive Prez and Attorney General.  Perhaps the authors of this letter have a viable plan for getting a better bill to the desk of the Prez and signed into law, but I know I am more than tired of waiting to see any kind of serious criminal justice reform passed by Congress.  (Keep in mind it has been a full eight years since the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, the last notable statutory sentencing or prison reform, and that law only addressed one crime that makes up now less than 5% of the federal caseload.)

The strategy of hoping for more favorable political conditions for broader sentencing reform strikes me as an especially risky strategy given AG Jeff Sessions' obvious disaffinity for any reforms and his ability and eagerness to use any crime data and developments to make the case against reform.  If crime data in the coming months show a continued rise in crime, AG Sessions is sure to argue that cutting sentences at a time of rising crime is misguided; if data instead show a new decline, AG Sessions is sure to assert that his policy changes have been efficacious and that current law preserves the status quo. 

Some of many prior related posts:

May 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Legal Innocence and Federal Habeas"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Leah Litman that is a must read for anyone following post-Miller or post-Johnson litigation (and who isn't?). Here is the abstract:

Although it has long been thought that innocence should matter in federal habeas corpus proceedings, innocence scholarship has focused almost exclusively on claims of factual innocence — the kind of innocence that occurs when new evidence reveals that the defendant did not commit the offense for which he was convicted.  The literature has largely overlooked cases where a defendant was convicted or sentenced under a statute that is unconstitutional, or a statute that does not apply to the defendant.  The Supreme Court, however, has recently begun to recognize these cases as kinds of innocence and it has grounded its concern for them in innocence-related considerations. 

This Article highlights how the doctrine has started to treat these “legal innocence” cases as cases in which defendants are innocent, as well as the reasons why it has done so.  As this Article explains, legal innocence is conceptually and inextricably linked with factual innocence; in both kinds of cases, the defendant was convicted or sentenced under a law she did not violate.  These cases raise similar concerns and implicate many of the same features of our criminal law system.  By recognizing the emerging category of legal innocence as a kind of innocence, this Article maps out how the existing federal habeas system can provide relief to legally innocent defendants.

May 17, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"How should we deal with wrongdoing? And you can’t say ‘prison.’"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Washington Post commentary authored by Danielle Allen. I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

How should a kid like Michael [involved in multiple armed robberies at age 15] be sentenced? How, more generally, should we respond to wrongdoing? Here’s my challenge to you: In my thought experiment, you can’t answer “prison.”

Given that constraint, what punishment should Michael receive? Here are our goals: We want to respond to wrongdoing so as to ensure that victims are made whole, that society is made whole, and that the wrongdoer, too, becomes whole and, having paid recompense, is prepared to contribute productively to society.

Does your mind draw a blank? If so, you are like most of us, accustomed to a system that thinks incarceration is the only way to respond to wrongdoing.

In the United States, 70 percent of our criminal sanctions consist of incarceration.  That’s why it’s all we can think of. But a world that operates without an extensive reliance on prison is not a utopia; it is only a plane ride away.  In Germany, incarceration is used for 6 percent of sanctions; in the Netherlands, it’s 10 percent, according to a 2013 Vera Institute report comparing our criminal-justice system with theirs.

Germany and the Netherlands rely predominantly on fines, linked to the offender’s ability to pay, and “transactions” or community sanctions — for instance, work orders that benefit the community, or training orders, or a combination. Halfway houses connect residential oversight with supervised work opportunities, which can be connected to paying restitution to victims and the community.  The penal systems are built around the principles of rehabilitation, re-socialization and “association.”  This is the idea that a criminal sanction is more likely to result in a wrongdoer’s successful reentry to society if it works to strengthen, not damage, the wrongdoer’s positive connections to family and community....

Currently, two criminal-justice-reform strategies are moving through Congress. Last fall, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  The act tackles the problem of mandatory minimums and seeks to “improve fairness in sentencing of low-level, nonviolent offenders,” so as to permit law enforcement to focus on “violent offenders, major drug traffickers and criminal masterminds.” This month, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), alongside Reps. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), introduced a prison reform bill called the First Step Act.  This bill would offer individualized recidivism-reduction plans to all people incarcerated in federal prisons, and increase access to vocational training and educational support, as well as substance-abuse and mental-health resources. The bill would also introduce halfway houses or home confinement for the final phase of incarceration.

These bills have wrongly been cast as competitors.  If we are to undo mass incarceration, we have to envision viable alternatives to incarceration.  By making halfway houses and rehabilitative strategies central to our sanctioning system, the First Step Act would help the American public see new possibilities.  It could thereby lay the foundation for true transformation of sentencing.

Policymakers too often forget that three-quarters of their work should be winning the hearts and minds of the public.  To win sustainable, unwavering, widespread support for meaningful sentencing reform, we have to show that strategies of rehabilitation and restorative justice work.  Lawmakers should embrace the First Step Act as a necessary part of painting that new picture.  The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would benefit from our collective ability to imagine alternatives to incarceration.  

May 17, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (15)

Updated accounting of America's aging prison population

In this post four years ago, I spotlighted a notable white paper from The Osborne Association titled ""The High Costs of Low Risk: The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population." Today, via this Crime Report piece, I see that a new version of this paper is available at this link.  Here is the start of the Crime Report's review of its coverage:

At least one-third of the U.S. prison population will be over 50 by 2030, according to a white paper released Thursday by the Osborne Association.

The association, a New York-based advocacy group that works with justice-involved people and their families, cited figures showing that even as states are working to reduce prison populations, the number of older adults in prison and jail is projected to grow by a “staggering 4,400 percent” in the 50-year period between 1980 and 2030—to an estimated 400,000 people.

According to statistics quoted by the researchers, adults over 50 comprised just three percent of the total incarcerated population in 1993, representing 26,300 individuals.

“Justice isn’t served by keeping elderly people locked up as their bodies and minds fail them and they grow infirm and die,” said Elizabeth Gaynes, president and CEO of the Osborne Association, which advocates for improved conditions in prisons and jails, better discharge planning, and expanded compassionate release of the elderly and infirm. “It’s both inhumane and inefficient.”

According to the report, entitled “The High Cost of Low Risk: The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population,” extreme sentences doled out during the tough- on-crime era, as well as limited mechanisms for compassionate release, have driven what is now a costly and inhumane crisis that the corrections system is unequipped to manage.

The medical costs of caring for a burgeoning elderly population behind bars alone will add to the strains of resource-strapped corrections systems, many experts have said. According to data analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union, it costs twice as much to incarcerate someone over 50; in some cases, it may cost up to five times more when medical costs are added.

Between 40 percent and 60 percent of prisoners over 50 have some type of mental illness or cognitive impairment, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Some prisons are setting up makeshift hospice wings and opening nursing wards for people with serious cognitive degeneration.

Elsewhere, inmates suffer from such pronounced dementia that they are unable to follow rules, and may not remember why they are incarcerated. For many with cognitive, visual, or hearing loss, a diminished capacity leads to behaviors that are mistaken for disobedience, subjecting them to punishments such as solitary confinement.

Prisons were never designed to be geriatric care facilities and this surging elder incarceration comes at a high cost,” wrote the authors of the Osborne report. At the same time, research by the Pew Center on the States shows that incarcerated people over 50 pose little public safety risk, and have the lowest recidivism rate as any other inmate demographic.

May 17, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (15)