Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Prison is Really Costing Us

It costs about $26,000 to put a person in federal prison for one year.

But that's not what prison really costs us, says this excellent new report from the Pew Economic Policy Group and the Pew Center on the States.

A press release sums up the gruesome details:
  • Before being incarcerated, two-thirds of male inmates were employed and more than half were the primary source of financial support for their children. 
  • After release, former male inmates work nine fewer weeks annually and take home 40 percent less in annual earnings, making $23,500 instead of $39,100. That amounts to an expected earnings loss of nearly $179,000 through age 48 for men who have been incarcerated.
  • Of former inmates who were in the bottom of the earnings distribution in 1986, two-thirds remained there in 2006, twice the number of non-incarcerated men.
Who really suffers when we send a breadwinner to prison?  Might it be their families and children?  This isn't exactly news, but Pew uses some interesting data to show how the real costs of prison fall on those who are innocent.  According to Pew,
more than 2.7 million minor children now have a parent behind bars, or 1 in every 28. For African American children the number is 1 in 9, a rate that has more than quadrupled in the past 25 years.
The report includes a quote from Attorney General Eric Holder:
People sometimes make bad choices.  As a result, they end up in prison or jail.  But we can't permit incarceration of a parent to punish an entire family.
While of course connecting former inmates to jobs is essential, we don't have this problem at all if people don't go to prison in the first place.  America's over-reliance on prisons is costing us a fortune -- and it's not just poured into bars and concrete.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Silver Lining of the Recession

Need to brush up on sentencing law developments in a hurry?

The Vera Institute of Justice has this new report on a decade's worth of sentencing reforms in the states -- and it proves that there is a silver lining to this cloud of a recession hanging over America.

The first decade of the millennium was bookended with recessions, and Vera found that those low points caused "spikes in criminal justice reform legislation" -- including redefining or reclassifying crimes, creating alternatives to incarceration and specialty courts, and reducing sentences.

Among the many interesting developments cited in the report:  mandatory minimum reforms FAMM worked on in New Jersey and Michigan, as well as reforms in six other states.  Interestingly, five of the eight states scaling back mandatory sentencing laws did so in 2009 or 2010 -- in the heat of the recession.  The other three reforms happened in the first three years of the decade -- another recession.

So, while a recession may be bad news to just about everyone else, it should apparently be good news to sentencing reformers.  Mandatory minimums are the cash cows of the corrections system, so in an economic downturn they should be the first -- not the last -- laws to change.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Retroactivity is Doable, Fair

Making the recently-passed crack reform law apply to people who are already in prison is something only Congress can do. Today in The National Law Journal, an ex-prosecutor and a law prof make all the right arguments for making crack reforms retroactive.  It's doable, but more importantly, it's fair:

Most important, regardless of any burden it might impose, basic equity requires retroactive application of the new law. No one questions that narcotics offenses are serious crimes. But if Congress believes that a shorter prison term is long enough for a crack offender today, surely the same holds for one sentenced yesterday. Indeed, 25 years of sentencing reform have been devoted to the idea of eliminating irrelevant and unjustified differences in punishment. The notion that a crack offender will continue to sit in prison under a sentence that would be considered unjust if imposed today should be unacceptable to everyone.
So, you tell us:  Why should Congress make crack reforms retroactive?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Round-Up

A few interesting tid-bits to round out this week in sentencing:
  • Today, Lindsay Lohan is going back to jail pending her probation violation hearing on October 22.  Last week, she tweeted, "Substance abuse is a disease, which unfortunately doesn't go away overnight. I am working hard to overcome it and am taking positive steps."  September is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month (yes, there actually is one), so here's hoping Ms. Lohan can soon join the millions who are celebrating recovering this month. 
  • Mexico's raging drug war impacts journalists, too:  this NPR feature describes how Mexican journalists hope to hop the border legally and find asylum from the corrupt and/or vengeful public officials and drug cartels their writing has irked.
  • 14,440 Years:  We challenge you to find a longer sentence than that one, given in the Philippines to a man who raped his daughter on a daily basis for a year.  That works out to about 40 years for each of the 360 counts of rape.
And because it is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month, SentenceSpeak says a hearty congrats to everyone out there who is in recovery and living drug- and alcohol-free.  

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Good Prosecutor, Bad Prosecutor

The cover of today's USA Today features this lengthy, excellent article on prosecutorial misconduct (known to us laypeople as prosecutors messing up).  It doesn't paint a pretty picture:

Federal prosecutors are supposed to seek justice, not merely score convictions. But a USA TODAY investigation found that prosecutors repeatedly have violated that duty in courtrooms across the nation. The abuses have put innocent people in prison, set guilty people free and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees and sanctions. ...
USA TODAY documented 201 criminal cases in the years that followed in which judges determined that Justice Department prosecutors — the nation's most elite and powerful law enforcement officials — themselves violated laws or ethics rules. In case after case during that time, judges blasted prosecutors for "flagrant" or "outrageous" misconduct. They caught some prosecutors hiding evidence, found others lying to judges and juries, and said others had broken plea bargains.
But the most common prosecutorial misconduct that USA Today fails to mention is the misconduct that occurs when prosecutors make charging decisions -- because in the federal and many state systems, the charge determines the sentence. Mandatory minimums are written into the criminal code by legislatures, so when prosecutors charge someone with breaking a law that carries a mandatory minimum, that mandatory minimum will apply. In short, prosecutors don't just prosecute -- they also sentence.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Make New Crack Law Retroactive Now

Before Congress adjourns at the end of the year, it should modify the Fair Sentencing Act - the law signed in August that reduces the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences from 100:1 to 18:1 - to make the law retroactive. The disparity was based on bad science; it was a mistake. Congress has a responsibility to undo the damage caused by its mistake. Fixing it for the future is nice, but it doesn't address the problem. When a car or toy manufacturer finds a mistake, they are expected to conduct a recall of their defective products. The federal government doesn't say, "Hey, guys, don't worry about those who might be harmed by your broken and dangerous products. Just try to make better ones in the future." Why should Congress hold itself to a lower standard for its mistakes?

We know people will argue that Congress changes laws all the time and it can't always make them retroactive, to which we respond, "We agree." We are not arguing that new laws that do things such as reduce taxes or provide greater government benefits should be made retroactive. These types of laws are different: they adjust policies over time to reflect the economic and social conditions of the time. Further, some new laws just do not lend themselves to backward enforcement. The new health care law, for example, requires insurers to cover children with pre-existing conditions. What good would it do to make that law retroactive?

Finally, a criminal sentencing law, such as the Fair Sentencing Act, involves one of the most serious issues for a free democratic republic such as ours - and that is the question of when the state should deprive an individual of his or her liberty. This is an argument that has existed since the beginning of civilization and will continue perhaps forever. It is a good and necessary debate and one in which reasonable people can disagree about the particulars. But it seems to us beyond rational debate that when a government bases a punishment scheme on science and data that is proven erroneous - and the government admits as much - that government should apply its remedy to all who endured its original mistake.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pass the Joint, Hold the Crack

The Office of National Drug Control Policy announced the release of the 2009 report last week, and its key findings seem to be that marijuana, meth, and ecstasy use are up, cocaine use is down, and more young people now think using pot isn't risky.  Click here to read highlights of the findings.  The ambitious amongst us can read all the survey results here.

This year, an estimated 21.8 million Americans over age 12 reported using drugs in the previous month.  The 8.7% of the population who used in 2009 is slightly higher than the 8% who reported using drugs in the 2008 survey.  Marijuana is the most commonly used drug and the only drug used by 58% of the people who reported lighting up.  The drug in second place isn't crack, cocaine, meth, or heroin.  It's prescription drugs:

An estimated 9.2 million people aged 12 or older (3.6 percent) were current users of illicit drugs other than marijuana in 2009. The majority of these (7.0 million persons or 2.8 percent of the population) used psychotherapeutic drugs nonmedically in the past month. An estimated 5.3 million persons used pain relievers nonmedically in the past month in 2009, 2.0 million used tranquilizers, 1.3 million used stimulants, and 370,000 used sedatives.
So, how many people are using the "hard" drugs?  From the report:
  • The number of past month methamphetamine users decreased between 2006 and 2008, but then increased in 2009. The numbers were 731,000 (0.3 percent) in 2006, 529,000 (0.2 percent) in 2007, 314,000 (0.1 percent) in 2008, and 502,000 (0.2 percent) in 2009.
  • The estimated number and percentage of persons aged 12 or older who used cocaine in the past month in 2009 (1.6 million users or 0.7 percent) were similar to those in 2008 (1.9 million or 0.7 percent), but lower than the estimates in 2006 (2.4 million or 1.0 percent).
  • Hallucinogens were used in the past month by 1.3 million persons aged 12 or older (0.5 percent) in 2009, including 760,000 (0.3 percent) who had used Ecstasy. The number and percentage of Ecstasy users in 2009 were higher than in 2008 (555,000 or 0.2 percent). Longer term data show that there were 676,000 Ecstasy users in 2002; the number decreased to 450,000 in 2004, then increased to 760,000 in 2009.
Those relatively tiny percentages show, in short, that marijuana is the drug of choice among Americans.  This NPR feature argues that marijuana use has increased because legalizing medical marijuana has convinced people that pot is socially acceptable and not that harmful.

The true sentencing nerds in our ranks may enjoy going back through the NSDUH surveys over the years.  What they'll find is that the drug du jour changes.  It once was crack; now, it may be meth or ecstasy (though marijuana seems to be perpetually popular).  Drugs, just like teen pop stars and bell bottoms, go in and out of fashion.

Historically, Congress has a bad habit of slapping harsh sentences on the drug du jour.  Increased prison sentences mean higher prison costs, and then it can become difficult to scale those sentences back (for fear of being labeled "soft on crime").  So the spiral goes -- years later, when that drug du jour is no longer as popular or frightening, it's the American people who are left footing the bill for sentences that make no sense.

But punishing the drug du jour need not be a one-way street to higher and longer sentences.  As recent crack reforms have shown, high sentences for once-preferred drugs can be reigned in -- even if reform comes only after decades of battle.  Crack use today is not what it was in 1986.  Years of experience, research, and declining use of the drug have helped to show Congress and the public that those original fears (and sentences) were unjustified.

Wouldn't it be nice if Congress responded to the drug du jour with reasoned foresight, instead of panic and longer sentences?  It can and should, with thoughtful, evidence-based approaches to reducing the use and trafficking of the drug du jour.  Hiking up sentences is not a cure-all for every trendy drug that scores big on the NSDUH.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Who's Working for Justice Now?

Flashback:  A FAMM lobby day group from the 1990s.

Why do we do what we do?  Why do FAMM staffers, other advocates, family members, and former and current prisoners work on reforming sentencing laws?  Some of us are working for justice because the laws impacted us or a loved one.  Some of us are in it because we just can't stand unfair, irrational laws.  This periodic column, "Who's Working for Justice Now?", will feature people working on sentencing reform both in and outside of FAMM's office.  We'll start with FAMM's Member Services Director, Andrea Strong.  She's been working with FAMM on sentencing reform since 1991.  Below, she explains why:

Why do you work for FAMM?

Andrea:  I work for FAMM because I want to be part of making a difference.  In 1991, my brother was given a mandatory LIFE sentence for his involvement in a marijuana conspiracy.  I was able to get national media attention for his story.  They included Julie Stewart, President of FAMM, in the piece. After the show aired, I went to Washington, DC and met Julie.  I talked to her for hours and knew she was sincere and really meant to change unjust sentencing laws.  Her brother had also just been sentenced to a mandatory sentence. At first I thought only of our brothers, but one visit to a prison visiting room showed me how much change needed to happen and how much bigger it was than just our brothers!   

What does a day in your life at FAMM look like?

I answer FAMM's e-mail, write and send updates to prisoners, and talk to members.  I have spent many, many hours answering families’ questions, just being there for them, letting them know they are not alone.  I answer many questions about laws, bills, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and many more things.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part is when I have spent a lot of time on the phone with a member whose loved one may have just gone to prison.  This person is usually very broken-hearted and having a hard time adjusting.  When we are done talking and they say something like, "thanks for talking to me, you have helped me so much.  I just needed someone who understands to listen."  Their thanks make my whole day worth it! 
What's the most difficult part?

Andrea:  Telling someone that a bill that passed is not retroactive [and] won't help their loved one already in prison.  It's also very difficult to talk to a parent whose child is facing a very long sentence and has never been in prison before.   Hearing about a kid of 18 or 19 that is looking at a 10-year sentence is very heartbreaking.  Their 20's will be gone by the time they come home.  To talk to a family member whose has several young children and the Dad was just sentenced to 20 years is awful hard too.  It's seems like such a waste of life…I consider all members part of the FAMM-ily.  I just wish I could do more.
What don't most people know about sentencing reform, but should?

Andrea:  That it takes time.  When I started with FAMM almost 20 years ago, I, too, thought a bill would pass and my brother would come home and life would go on as normal.  It took a little while to understand that changes in laws do not happen that fast!  I also find that members think one phone call, one letter and one visit to their congressmen is enough to get the job done.  The better you get to know your representatives and the better they get to know your feelings, the faster changes may come. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Listen Up! Words Matter!

The invaluable Pew Center on the States has done it again.

This time, "it" is the commissioning of a poll on public attitudes toward crime and punishment and also engaging focus groups to learn more about what language works when talking about criminal justice reforms. (Hint: stop talking about "community corrections." It makes people think of community service).

Sentencing reform advocates should find comfort in many of Pew's findings. For example, the public thinks 22 percent of current prisoners could be released without impacting public safety. Nearly 90 percent of those polled believed that prison sentences for low-risk, nonviolent offenders should be reduced. There's lots more to chew on in the full survey but this summary will give you the flavor.

It's helpful to be reminded that, while ideas matter, so do the words you use to express those ideas.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Today's the Day to Make a Difference

It's National Call-in Day at FAMM! Today's the day to call your senators in Congress and ask them to pass the National Criminal Justice Act, S. 714. All the information you need -- including a tool for finding your senators -- is available right here.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), would create a national commission to study the criminal justice system, grade it, and recommend changes to Congress. Almost every major, positive development in federal sentencing law in this country began with a Commission. Creating the National Criminal Justice Commission would pave the way for a smarter, fairer, more cost-effective system nation-wide.

While the bill will not have an immediate effect on sentences, we believe that the Commission will engage even the most cautious members of Congress in a dialogue that has the potential to create the conditions for real reform.

Call your senators today!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Check, please

Kudos to Doug Berman over at Sentencing Law and Policy for highlighting Missouri's innovative new approach to sentencing:  let judges see the bill for the punishment before they hand it out.
It is the first state to provide judges with defendant-specific data on what particular sentences would cost the taxpayers, and on the likelihood that the person in the dock will reoffend.

Experts say Missouri is the only state to distribute an invoice on a case-by-case basis. ...

"We're seeing a trend where judges are asking for more evidence about best practices," said Greg Hurley, of the National Center for State Courts. "They are looking at an offender's track record and other predictive data that may show which treatments or programs may work best to cut down on recidivism."
But no other state is injecting the cost of a particular sentence into the conversation, Hurley said.
Could this become a new trend in sentencing?  Granted, the cost of a sentence shouldn't be the only factor judges consider, but judges should go into sentencing armed with information that allows them to do a reasoned cost-benefit analysis.  That way, judges can help taxpayers spend less on people who don't need expensive prison terms, and spend more on prison sentences for people who are dangerous or highly likely to reoffend.

And that makes me think of all kinds of new campaign slogans for judicial elections.  Most Missouri county judges are elected.  There's an old belief that judges must be tough on crime to win elections, but what about judges who are smart on crime?  There's more than one way to win an election, and in this recession, many voters care about state officials managing the budget rather than mangling it.  Missouri's invoicing system could give its judges some new campaign ammunition.  Instead of pointing the finger at their opponents and saying, "He let the wrong people out," judges could say, "I put the right people in and kept the wrong people out, saving you money.  What did my opponent do?"

That's a question I'd love to hear in any campaign.

-- Stowe

Monday, September 13, 2010

"Obama backing off strict crime policy"

That was the title of this article on Politico Saturday. The piece opens this way:

For years, it was one of the GOP’s most potent political epithets — labeling a Democrat “soft on crime.” 
But the Obama White House has taken the first steps in decades to move away from a strict lock-‘em-up mentality on crime — easing sentences for crack cocaine possession, launching a top-to-bottom review of sentencing policies and even sounding open to reviewing guidelines that call for lengthy prison terms for people convicted of child pornography offenses.
The article notes that Obama, while trying to restore some commonsense to criminal justice policy, is mindful of the danger of going too far, too fast. Yet, as FAMM's Mary Price told Politico, that fear might be misplaced since more and more Republicans seem to be questioning the lock-'em-up mentality of the past.
Mary Price of Families Against Mandatory Minimums noted that the crack-disparity bill passed in Congress with remarkably little consternation. “I think other concerns have crowded out some of the hysteria around crime,” Price said.
“Republicans could have said, ‘If this passes, we’ll make this an issue in the midterms.’ Nobody said that,” Price observed. “This was not an issue for Republicans.”
Check out the full story if you have a few minutes.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Stephen Colbert: A Question for Senator Webb?

Tonight, ace faux-newsman Stephen Colbert will feature Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb (a/k/a the man behind the National Criminal Justice Act, S. 714, which you can read about here) as one of his guests.

Senator Webb is a fascinating man -- a veteran, a novelist, a Senator -- and will be appearing as part of The Colbert Report's tribute to the troops returning from Iraq.  While we expect a lot of talk on the military, we'd love to see Colbert ask the Senator about his efforts to reform America's criminal justice system and end our addiction to incarceration.  Senator Webb's bill has passed the House and would create a national commission to do a much-needed, top-to-bottom review of our criminal justice system (including our sentencing policies).

So, come on, Stephen -- let's talk some prison policy!

You can view Senator Webb's last guest appearance on Colbert here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Who's Afraid of Grandpa Cont'd

The State of Virginia is also finding out the hard way that keeping 80-year-olds in jail can get really expensive. See the story here and our first post on this topic here. We're scratching our heads trying to think of a good public policy reason that justifies the cost of running an assisted living center for barely mobile convicts.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

End the Drug War? No, Say Overwhelming Majority of Mexicans

This interesting new survey by Pew Research slipped past us last month. The self-proclaimed "fact tank" examined Mexican attitudes toward drug trafficking, who was responsible for the drug trade with the U.S., and what should be done about it. Some of the somewhat surprising highlights:

  • Fully 80% of Mexicans support using the army to fight drug traffickers, essentially unchanged from 83% in 2009.
  • There is widespread support for American involvement in the battle against drug cartels.  Fully 78% favor the U.S. providing training to Mexican police and military personnel, unchanged from the 2009 poll.
  • When asked which country is mostly to blame for their country's drug violence, 27% name the U.S., while 14% say Mexico, and 51% say both nations are to blame. These results are almost identical to those registered in 2009, when 25% blamed the U.S., 15% blamed Mexico, and 51% said both.
What these numbers make clear to me is that the will to end illegal drug trafficking is present on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Alas, these numbers also confirm for me that the general will of the public is not as strong as either the addiction of the user or the greed of the major trafficker.

- Ingersoll

Friday, September 3, 2010

Who Do Drug Lords Worship?

I've been catching up on some old issues of National Geographic and found a provocative article in the May 2010 edition entitled "Troubled Spirits."  As the drug war rages and Mexico struggles with the violence and corruption left in its wake, new cults around several saints have gained popularity -- particularly among those impacted by or involved in drug trafficking:

It's not only the crisis but also the types of problems people face these days that have fueled the expansion of the cults. Let's say, for example, that you live in one of the cities along the border taken over by the drug trade and that the crackle of machine-gun fire bursts out every night, filling you with terror of stray bullets. Is it not understandable to pray for protection to someone like the outlaw narco-saint Jesús Malverde, whom drug traffickers revere? Mexicans who retain a strong connection to the Roman Catholic faith might turn instead to St. Jude Thaddeus. At a time when no-win situations abound, he is experiencing a rise in popularity comparable only to that of La Santa Muerte, perhaps because he is known in the Catholic Church as the patron saint of desperate causes.
La Santa Muerte ("Holy Death") is a highly preferred saint of both traffickers and everyday citizens.  If you live in a place like Chihuahua, which had over 4,000 drug-related deaths in a three-year period, praying to death itself for protection might seem pretty sensible.

This article shows that the War on Drugs goes so much deeper than just dollars and cents.  I blogged recently that this war seems to have its own language; at least in Mexico, it also appears to have its own religion.

The article also does a nice job briefly describing the rise of drug cartels in Mexico and the mechanics of how these cartels started satiating America's longings for cocaine, marijuana, and meth. 

Which, of course, highlights the two-front nature of the drug war:  going after suppliers and going after their customers.  Our complaint isn't that we're sending people to prison for drug crimes (some drug traffickers need to be in prison).  Our complaint is that we're forcing judges to use long prison sentences when more effective options might (and should) be available. 

If all we keep doing is trying to incarcerate our way out of this problem, we better start saying some prayers to St. Jude.

-- Stowe

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Crack in the States

The Feds' recent changes to the crack-powder cocaine disparity prompted two reporters to ask:  What's the disparity in the states?

Denise Lavoie and Bill Draper report their findings in this AP article.

If you thought the federal crack disparity resulted in some crazy cases, this article proves it can happen in some state courts, too:

Dan Viets, a Missouri defense attorney who handles a lot of drug cases, has a client who was convicted last month of trafficking 9 grams of crack and faces a prison term of 10 years to life when he is sentenced in October.

"The effect of having these incredibly harsh crack cocaine laws is we have a great deal more African-Americans behind bars in this state for crack offenses," Viets said.

"It's just another form of cocaine, after all," he said. "The hysteria around crack cocaine in the '80s pretty much has been disproved."
Not in Missouri, apparently.  Those of us working in sentencing reform are really trying to work ourselves out of a job -- when there are no more unjust sentencing laws, we'll all have to find something else to do.  With 50 states out there, it looks like we'll unfortunately have jobs for a long time coming.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Reducing Prison Supply Before Demand is Recipe for Disaster

Look, we at SentenceSpeak love that so many states are getting into the reform act. Over the past year and a half, we've applauded as New York and Rhode Island overthrew their drug mandatory minimums. We saluted New Jersey and Massachusetts for taking smaller but important steps to change their "tough on taxpayers" approach to locking up everyone.

We understand that a big factor in forcing states to rethink their prison policies is the ongoing budget crisis. Hey, whatever works, right? Well, not so fast...

As this story from the Connecticut Mirror explains, the Nutmeg State is hoping to save some money by closing a prison. Yet absent from the story is any discussion whatsoever of the proposal or adoption of sentencing reform policies that will allow for reduced prison spending while maintaining public safety. Listen up: Closing prisons solely to achieve budget savings, ie, without simultaneous sentencing reforms, is not going to solve states' long-term problems and will likely boomerang against those of us pushing for change.

By the way, the idea of cutting prisons without reforms is especially nutty in states like Connecticut where the legislature passed some strict new mandatory minimums just a few years ago.