Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ending the Misery in Missouri

That could be the end result if Missouri continues down the path of rethinking its "lock 'em up" approach to criminal justice.  This editorial in the Columbia Daily Tribune describes the first important steps the state is taking:

... last month the Missouri Department of Corrections said 30,771 inmates are in jail, and the department is budgeted for $660 million in the coming fiscal year.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Ray Price Jr. recently said we must get over the idea long jail time makes the offender better. “It doesn’t. We have to be smarter about what we are doing.”
To that end, Gov. Jay Nixon this week highlighted the formation of the Missouri Working Group on Sentencing and Corrections, co-chaired by Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, and Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mount Vernon. Nixon said the task force is looking at all aspects of the criminal justice system in an effort to reduce costs and hold offenders responsible for their actions. The working group, which has been meeting since June, is expected to complete a report in time for lawmakers to act on it during the 2012 legislative session.
It's easy to think, "Oh, it's just another working group and just another report" about these kinds of situations, but we're encouraged.  In many, many places, harsh sentences and mandatory minimum punishments were enacted willy-nilly, in response to high profile crimes, with little or no rational thought or study beforehand.  Taxpayers have ended up stuck with these nonsensical punishments for decades -- partly because policymakers wouldn't slow down and study the problem first.

Studying sentences before we create them stops stupidity before it starts.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Good and Mad Reading for the Weekend

We missed this excellent article from The New York Times last weekend, called "Sex Offenders: The Last Pariahs," by Roger Lancaster.

The article will make you second-guess everything you think you know about sex offenders.  Take this disturbing excerpt:
Sexual predators play a lead role in the production of a modern culture of fear.
In fact, the crimes that most spur public outrage — the abduction, rape and murder of children — are exceedingly rare. Statistically, a child’s risk of being killed by a sexual predator who is a stranger is comparable to the chance of being struck by lightning. The reported incidence of most forms of child abduction, including the most serious, has declined since the 1980s.
Or how about this paragraph, which shoots holes in the idea the notion that "sex offender = repeat offender":
Advocates for laws to register, publicize and monitor sex offenders after their release from custody typically assert that those convicted of sex crimes pose a high risk of sex crime recidivism. But studies by the Justice Department and other organizations show that recidivism rates are significantly lower for convicted sex offenders than for burglars, robbers, thieves, drug offenders and other convicts.
Only a tiny proportion of sex crimes are committed by repeat offenders, which suggests that current laws are misdirected and ineffective.
And did you know that the "sex offenders" who are given harsh sentences, lifetime registration requirements, and a host of living restrictions may not be the terrifying people we think they are?
Contrary to the common belief that burgeoning registries provide lists of child molesters, the victim need not have been a child and the perpetrator need not have been an adult. Child abusers may be minors themselves. Statutory rapists — a loose category that includes some offenses involving neither coercion nor violence — are covered in some states. Some states require exhibitionists and “peeping Toms” to register; Louisiana compelled some prostitutes to do so. Two-thirds of the North Carolina registrants sampled in a 2007 study by Human Rights Watch had been convicted of the nonviolent crime of “indecent liberties with a minor,” which does not necessarily involve physical contact.
And yet sex offenses are the new "crime du jour":  prime candidates for lengthy, one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences, registries, and residency restrictions.

All mandatory minimums are bad justice, because every offense and every offender -- even a sex offense and a sex offender -- is unique.  We simply cannot simplify justice, especially in cases that involve something as complicated as sex.

For more excellent coverage of the unintended absurdities of harsh sex offender laws, read this piece from Reason.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Florida: Prison Privatization Won't Cut It

That's the message of this excellent editorial from the Orlando Sentinel this week, as Florida continues plans to turn prisons over to private management to save money.  Here's the whole thing, because it's so good:

Seek Savings Beyond Privatizing Prisons

In preparing a massive change to shave $22 million from its prison budget, the state is overlooking other reforms that could save plenty more money.

The state Department of Corrections is readying to complete the largest prison privatization project in the country. On Jan. 1, if all goes according to schedule, 29 state prisons in 18 Florida counties will be operated by private companies.

The operative word is scheduled.

Already the plan's bleeding $25 million in red ink, according to an internal email between Department of Corrections officials. The additional cost owes to compensatory time and vacation and sick leave the state would have to shell out for some 4,000 prison workers who lose their jobs.

Concurrently, DOC put the kibosh on seeking bids to privatize prison health-care services statewide. And the process could be halted by a lawsuit filed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association on behalf of unionized prison guards.

Privatizing prisons won't be the end of the world. The state has already privatized seven facilities.

Our concern is that this next, much larger stage of privatization has eclipsed and shelved potentially more fruitful, cost-effective changes. One of those is sentencing reform.

Florida has an inmate population of 102,000 men and women locked up in 144 facilities. It costs, on average, $19,469 per year to house an inmate. The corrections budget is $2.3 billion.

Advocates and lawmakers have argued — convincingly — that the state judiciary has been required to lock up many non-violent drug users when cheaper alternatives could have been employed. It makes sense that a pain pill addict caught buying or in possession of 24 grams of pills might fare better — and at much less expense to taxpayers — in drug treatment than in a 15-year sentence.

But good luck trying to convince lawmakers jittery about being labeled as soft on crime.

Just this past legislative session, state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and state Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, offered a proposal to give judges more leeway in fashioning sentences to fit an offense. Ed Buss, the head of the Department of Corrections, was on record saying he supported giving judges more discretion.

Yet, the legislation failed.

And so, now, the state is planning a massive hand-over of prison management to save money. Sounds to us like a better option would be to let judges do the job they are best suited for: dispensing justice.

International Overdose Awareness Day is August 31!

Just in case you didn't know it (and I didn't), International Overdose Awareness Day is August 31 -- next week.

FAMM board member Jason Flom has a thoughtful op-ed in The Huffington Post asking what his industry -- the music business -- can do to start talking about and raising awareness of drug overdoses and how to prevent them.  Here's one of his many interesting suggestions:

We cannot forget the lives that have been lost, nor can we allow this catastrophe to continue. I'm calling on radio stations everywhere to help spread the word on International Overdose Awareness Day by playing music created by bands that have lost a member to a drug overdose, like Sublime, Blind Melon, Hole, Alice in Chains, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Ramones. Music by legends like Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. I hope that the radio stations will mention Overdose Awareness Day and to give out the website www.drugpolicy.org/overdose so listeners can learn more about how to reduce overdose deaths.
Check it out and spread the word.

-- Stowe

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How the Justice Department Can Really Save Us $$$

With budget-crunching all the rage in Washington, DC, government agencies have been asked to look at regulations and find out where money can be saved.  The Department of Justice -- which runs the federal prison system -- did an investigation and reported that it could save $60,000.

You read that right:  thousand.  Not million.  Not billion.

Those savings are small potatoes, certainly not enough to dig us out of our deficit or satisfy the Tea Party crowd and liberals and conservatives alike who are calling for a leaner, meaner government machine.

Here's how the Justice Department could really save taxpayers some money:  stop prosecuting low-level offenders.


It's not codified into a law or a regulation, but every day, Justice Department prosecutors from coast to coast decide who to charge, who to try, who to convict, and how long to sentence them to federal prison (thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which tie sentences to charges and tie judges' hands).

Those decisions literally cost taxpayers billions every year.

Over half the people in federal prisons -- to the tune of $28,000+ per prisoner, per year -- are there for a drug offense.  The federal government doesn't have to prosecute these drug offenders or put them in federal prisons.  All 50 states have their own laws against drug possession and trafficking, and the states are perfectly competent and capable of hauling in drug dealers off their own streets, prosecuting them in their own state (not federal) courts, and sending them to their own state (not federal) prisons (if necessary).  And many states, unlike the federal system, have begun using smarter, cheaper alternatives to prison such as drug and mental health courts to help offenders get clean, get jobs, and get past their illegal behavior.

Once upon a time, the people who founded our wonderful country gave a name to this division of labor between the states and the federal government:  "federalism."  But the Department of Justice often seems to forget that (1) it can't do everything, and (2) it shouldn't do everything -- especially when there is a state on hand to do it for them (and do it better and cheaper).

To be fair, there are some drug offenders that the federal government is better-equipped to track down, capture, and prosecute -- for example, people "Miami Vice"-ing giant boatloads of cocaine into Florida ports, or Mexican cartel kingpins that Texas's finest can't just hop the border and arrest.  But your average federal drug offender isn't one of these.  Read stories like those of Sabrina Giles, Derrick Caine, and Darlene Eckles if you don't believe us.  No international, fat-cat dealers there.

Federal prisons are expensive -- and overflowing.  They serve a purpose, and it's federal prosecutors who control who goes there (and, often, for how long).  If the Justice Department really wants to save taxpayers some money and help reduce our budget, they should begin by taking a good, long, hard look at who their prosecutors charge -- and by adopting charging policies that honor the principle of federalism.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What "Inside" Means

This short segment from NPR explores one consequence of California's prison overcrowding:  what to do with prisoners who officials determine are too dangerous to be with the rest of the prison population?

In California, those prisoners go to the "Secure Housing Unit (SHU)," long-term solitary confinement at the remote Pelican Bay prison near the Oregon border.

To get out of the SHU, a prisoner has to snitch — and that's one reason why California legislators are looking to make a change. Hundreds of inmates in solitary confinement won't do it and remain isolated for years.

"What that means in California is that you accumulate these men in Special Housing Units, and when Pelican Bay filled up, then it was necessary to build more of them," says David Ward, a retired criminologist who has studied California's prison system extensively.
So even California's solution for its most dangerous offenders is overcrowded.

This is the first blog post in a series we're calling What "Inside" Means.  One of the dangers of America's love affair with incarceration is that we forget what being in prison -- being "inside" -- really means and actually entails.  This series will highlight stories that remind us of what prison is really like -- and why we must be wise, compassionate, thrifty, and cautious about who goes there and how long they stay.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Massachusetts Monday: Parole: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?


FAMM’s Massachusetts Project, joined by other legal advocacy groups, recently spoke out about the dropping parole rates under the state’s reorganized Parole Board. We told Gov. Deval Patrick that his new appointees to the Board seem to be undermining certain 2010 drug sentencing reforms that he championed as well as his own legislative agenda for the current session of the Legislature.

In January 2011, Gov. Deval Patrick called for the resignations of most Parole Board members, following the murder of a Woburn police officer by a violent career criminal on parole. He then appointed five new members, including a new Chairman, a former prosecutor. As of July 2011 the parole rate for state prisoners had plummeted to 31% from the 58% annual paroling rate in 2010. For county prisoners, the parole rate fell to 46% from the 2010 annual rate of 64%. Despite the tragic events that led to changes at the Parole Board, Massachusetts had a 78% success rate for parolees – far greater than the national average.

FAMM, the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (the state’s public defender agency) and the ACLU of Massachusetts sent a letter to the Governor expressing our concerns that the new Parole Board appears to be undermining the 2010 reforms he signed into law. Those reforms allow certain county drug offenders serving mandatory minimums to be eligible for parole after serving half of their sentences.
We understand that the 2010 reforms offered county drug offenders eligibility for parole, not a guarantee that parole would be granted. Yet we are not aware of any change in the overall county prison population – their offenses, sentences, or other characteristics – that would explain or justify the startling reduction in paroling rates for those men and women. Instead, it appears that the newly reconstituted Parole Board has chosen a policy that has substantially limited the scope of parole.
We also noted that the sharp drop in parole rates could hurt the Governor’s current bill to expand parole eligibility to state prisoners serving mandatory minimum drug sentences.
[W]e are extremely concerned that, even if [the Governor’s bill passes], those reforms may also become increasingly hollow victories, given the Parole Board’s current practices. Quite frankly, we hope and expect that the Administration is equally concerned. Massachusetts can no longer afford either the financial or human costs of lengthy prison sentences with little access to parole release for offenders who do not pose a threat to public safety.
In a Boston Globe article on the widening debate, the Patrick Administration downplayed the low parole rates:
Patrick’s spokesman, Brendan Ryan, said the drop in parole rates does not mean the governor has shifted his philosophy on criminal justice. Ryan noted that Patrick is taking steps to toughen laws for repeat offenders, while pushing for more discretion in sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders.
Parole is a critical tool for prisoners’ successful return to the community, allowing them to make that transition with a re-entry plan and under the supervision of a parole officer. FAMM will continue its efforts to make state drug offenders serving mandatory minimums eligible for parole – and to ensure that parole reforms actually translate into real opportunities for those who have earned them.

Barb Dougan
Massachusetts project director

Friday, August 19, 2011

Canada's Story Sounds Eerily Familiar...

The United States may have bragging rights on having the highest incarceration rate in the world, but we're not the only country whose prison population includes a disproportionate number of people of color.  Canada can claim that, too, and does in this article from Saskatchewan's StarPhoenix.  Our northern neighbors are considering adopting mandatory minimums and harsher sentencing laws in general, and that's bad news for its aboriginal and Native communities:

This malicious crime bill will hit aboriginal offenders especially hard. Right now the rate of aboriginal incarceration is a national disgrace and this will only make it worse.
According to StatsCan, aboriginal people make up 22 per cent of admissions to provincial institutions and 20 per cent to federal institutions. These are national figures and must be taken in the context that we represent only three per cent of the Canadian population.
Aboriginal people tend to have lower rates of parole, and so serve longer sentences. There is an appalling lack of community support and very often individuals reoffend shortly after their release. We are witnessing a growing underclass that is becoming institutionalized and living in chronic poverty.
The government is ignoring the underlying societal factors that lead to increased rates of crime among those that society has dispossessed. In the U.S., the rate of incarceration is especially high among blacks and Hispanics, In Australia it is the Aboriginal People that bear the brunt of incarceration.
This pattern is a worldwide phenomena and simply locking up the socially and economically disadvantaged is no cure.
The (perhaps) even more interesting part of the article says that Canada's crime rates have nose-dived in recent decades -- yet the excessive sentencing proposals are still gaining support.  Why?
The combination of an aging population coupled with a system of corrections that has stressed rehabilitation has resulted in a steady downward trend in the country's crime rate.
This is about to change with the Tories tough-on-crime legislation that calls for tougher sentences, higher rates of incarceration and increased numbers of youth and mentally handicapped people being sentenced to jail terms.
It's been pointed out repeatedly that the legislation won't make things better. Imposing mandatory minimum sentences will tie judges' hands and reduces them to clerks.
Special circumstances will not be tolerated. The minimum sentence will stand and justice may not be served.

When the Conservatives are confronted about the logic of locking up more people at a time of falling crime rates, they switch the discussion from the facts to anecdotal evidence of heinous crimes and old people living in fear.
These stories have always been available so dragging them up to illicit a visceral reaction is specious and does not add to the debate.
Sounds familiar...sounds like how mandatory sentences are created in the U.S.:  scary stories, little debate or study, even less rational thinking about long-term consequences and unforeseen circumstances.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Raj Rajaratnam and the Economic Crimes Sentencing Mess

This column in Forbes by Walter Pavlo, who himself served time for an economic crime, about the upcoming sentencing of insider trader Raj Rajaratnam reveals the chaos that marks the current state of white collar sentencing.

Should Rajaratnam get 20 or so years and die in prison for a first-time offense that didn't involve violence, as the government wants? Or should he make restitution and serve only a few years in prison, as some similar insider traders were required to and as Rajaratnam's lawyer recommends? How much should it matter that the other offenders Rajaratnam holds up as good comparisons pled guilty and cooperated, while he contested the charges aganst him at trial?

The similarities between drug sentencing and while collar sentencing are growing every day, and reformers should focus on building a coalition that can fix both at the same time -- or else neither might get fixed.

- Ingersoll

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Prison is Simple, But Not Always the Solution

That's what this excellent article from The Huffington Post says, covering everything from the question of whether prisons are necessary (yes) to what kinds of alternatives to incarceration we should be using (many more than we currently do).

Especially good:  this discussion of how high incarceration rates don't match up with low crime rates:

Conventional wisdom says that if we lock up criminals they won't be committing crime and therefore society will be safer. This is very simplistic.
First, there is no consistent relationship between mass incarceration and decreased crime rates. Proponents of mass incarceration tend to look at the increase in mass incarceration and the decrease in crime throughout the 1990s. This is a classic case of cherry-picking data. If we go back to the 1970s when mass incarceration began, we find that we can't have it all ways and still have a coherent explanation: 1) Incarceration rates and crime rates bounced up and down a small amount but were fairly level from the 1930s to the 1960s; 2) Incarceration rates and crime rates increased together in the late 1970s-1980s; 3) Incarceration rates continued to go up as crime rates went down in the 1990s; and 4) Incarceration rates continued to go up as crime rates leveled in the 2000s.
Indeed, this is one of the central myths behind mandatory minimum sentences:  lock people up with one-size-fits-all sentences, and crime will go down.  It's so much more complicated than that.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Mexico's Drug War, Feminized

That's the title of this interesting article from The New York Times about how women get involved in drug cartels in Mexico.  The increase in female prisoners in Mexico due to their drug involvement mirrors that of the United States, with many of the same problems.  See if any of this sounds familiar:

The number of women incarcerated [in Mexico] for federal crimes has grown by 400 percent since 2007, pushing the total female prison population past 10,000.
No one here seems to know what to make of the spike. Clearly, the rise can partly be attributed to the long reach of drug cartels, which have expanded into organized crime, and drawn in nearly everyone they can, including women.
Detained lieutenants for cartels have told the police that some act as lookouts. Other women work as drug mules, killers, or as “la gancha” (the hook), using their beauty to attract male kidnapping victims. At least one woman, Sandra Ávila Beltrán, became a major cartel leader, before her arrest in 2007 for trafficking and money laundering.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. More women are working in every aspect of the economy, “including drug trafficking,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an assistant professor of government at the University of Texas, Brownsville. Yet, because Mexico’s justice system is so opaque, incompetent and corrupt, it is nearly impossible to know which prisoners deserve their punishment. Human rights lawyers say this is especially true for women, who are often unwittingly used by men they love. Several women at the prison, for example, said they only realized after their arrests that the cars they were caught driving had been packed full of drugs by boyfriends or brothers.
In both the U.S. and Mexico, more and more women are spending time in prison as the War on Drugs continues (check out FAMM's factsheet on women in prison in the U.S.).  Mandatory minimum sentences are especially unjust in many of these "girlfriend cases," leaving judges powerless to fit sentences to the facts of the case and the woman's role and knowledge.  You can read a few examples of such injustices here, here, and here.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Texas Closes a Prison

We were surprised to learn from this New York Times article that for the first time ever, Texas is actually closing one of its prisons -- all because of sentencing reforms that have transformed that notoriously "tough on crime" state into a "smart on crime" leader:

Some early results have been dramatic. In 2007, Texas was facing a projected shortfall of about 17,000 inmate beds by 2012. But instead of building and operating new prison space, the State Legislature decided to steer nonviolent offenders into drug treatment and to expand re-entry programs designed to help recently released inmates avoid returning to custody.
As a result, the Texas prison system is now operating so far under its capacity that this month it is closing a 1,100-bed facility in Sugar Land — the first time in the state’s history that a prison has closed. Texas taxpayers have saved hundreds of millions of dollars, and the changes have coincided with the violent crime rate’s dipping to its lowest level in 30 years.
“In Texas for the last few years we’ve been driving down both the crime rate and the incarceration rate,” said Marc Levin, the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which helped draft the state’s corrections overhaul. “And it’s not just Texas. South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas and Ohio in the past year or so have done major reforms. These are certainly not liberal states. That is significant.”
Interestingly, reforms can get reversed or short-circuited not because they don't work, but, ironically, because of high-profile crimes (which likely caused the long sentences in the first place):
In addition, at least three other states — Illinois, New Jersey and Wisconsin — suspended or revoked programs that allowed well-behaved inmates to earn early parole. Earlier this year, for example, New Jersey repealed such a program after two former inmates who had been released early were charged with murders.
Public safety is vital, of course, but should a meaningful sentencing reform be rolled back because of one or two high-profile crimes?  Isn't this throwing out the baby with the bathwater?  What are your thoughts?

Britain Asks: Does Prison Work?

In the aftermath of Britain's bewildering riots, here's an interesting discussion in The Guardian about an age-old question:  does prison work?  Most mandatory minimum sentences are created in the heat of the moment, in response to high profile crimes, and with little rational debate or discussion beforehand.  Britain's riots have all the earmarks of a mandatory-minimum-creating event.  Will Britain fall for it?  One MP (that's "Member of Parliament," for us former British subjects here in the States) seems ready to use mandatory minimums.  And yes, us Americans should be ashamed:  we are (again) used as the example of what not to do:

[David Davies, Member of Parliament]: I think there ought to be mandatory two-year sentences for people under a "three-strikes-and-you're-out" rule, no matter what the offence is.

[Juliet Lyon of Prison Reform Trust]: Well, you know they've used that in parts of the US and it's led to extraordinary overcrowding. In the mid-90s [Britain] had a prison population of around about 40,000; today we've got 85,000. There hasn't been a rise in crime that would justify that incredible hike in prison numbers. We spend a lot of money on prison when we could be investing in other public services, and the solutions to crime don't all lie in the criminal justice system. Many lie in preventing children and young people from getting in to trouble in the first place. We have got a vicious cycle in this country where, during their school years, 7% of children experience their dad going to prison – that's remarkably high. If you doubled the size of the prison population, you'd essentially you'd be doubling the problem. The problem is we've overused custody to the point that we've now got a veritable army of former prisoners coming out, ready to offend again, because prison isn't working to cut offending.
This isn't the first time Britain has faced a prison population explosion -- or a temptation to make it even worse by hiking up sentences.  One book any self-respecting sentencing nerd should read is Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding.  That book tells the story of how, in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, Britain's punishments became so harsh that the country filled its prisons to overflowing.  Britain tried to ease the overcrowding through "transportation" -- shipping convicts to Australia, which became a continental prison until transportation ended in 1868.  If you think California's prison overcrowding crisis is bad, you should've seen Britain's in the 18th century.

Whether prison works is a timeless debate.  What we do know: overstuffed prisons are expensive, unwieldy, and don't make rehabilitation a priority -- which isn't good for any of us.  Overly harsh (and especially mandatory) prison sentences contribute to overcrowded, unsustainable prison populations.  That outcome becomes an enormous burden on society, especially when there aren't any continents to ship your prisoners to.

In the wake of the 2011 riots, Britain has an opportunity to overreact and pass more prison-packing mandatory minimum sentences -- or to pause, act rationally, and trust its judges and courts to use limited and costly prison space for the people who most deserve it and most need it.  Britain doesn't have to repeat the mistakes of its own past -- or of America's.

--Stowe

Friday, August 12, 2011

"From Bars to the Stars"

That's the goal of former Michigan prisoner DeWayne Wilkerson, and this enjoyable article describes his efforts to become a filmmaker.

Wilkerson was one of many state prisoners who benefited from FAMM's reform efforts in Michigan, where we convinced the state legislature to give drug offenders parole eligibility (read about our Michigan reforms here).  While in prison, he began writing screenplays, and he is now turning one of them into a movie:

In 1998, Wilkerson was sentenced, under Michigan's harsh mandatory minimums, to 15-to-120 years for selling less than $400 of crack cocaine to a police informant. He got an added 4 1/2 years for attempting to escape after leaving the courthouse.
"I snapped and bolted down the stairs," he told me. Handcuffed and wearing belly chains, Wilkerson ran about 200 yards before a deputy sheriff tackled him. Fortunately, the Legislature changed the state's mandatory minimum drug laws five years later, making Wilkerson eligible for parole in 2009. ...
Wilkerson, who's on parole until November, hopes to release [his film] "The Greatest Gift" this fall -- and then make more films. He's working on a red carpet premiere in Detroit.
Last Saturday, I watched Wilkerson and his crew work in the basement of the Arthur Lesow Community Center in a hard-knock section of Monroe. Wearing a black T-shirt that reads "I'm the Impossible," Wilkerson called for quiet and the cameras started to roll. Even in the stillness, a basketball thumped on the court above.
Handcuffed actor Tommy Ealy, playing a death row inmate, wore the prison number Wilkerson wore for more than 11 years: 206658.
No matter where Wilkerson's dreams take him, it's a number he'll never forget.
We love these stories.  These stories are why we do what we do.  Happy weekend.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What liberal judges?

A lifelong conservative, I know well the argument that part of the nation's crime problem (in the past) was a result of "left-wing" "bleeding hearts" on the federal bench who liked to "coddle" criminals. Overly simplistic? Sure. Political gold? You betcha. When crime was a major national issue - 20 years ago was probably the most recent time - the media seemed to love tell the stories about criminals who received "short" sentences only to get out and commit new crimes. These anecdotes allowed conservatives to restrict judicial discretion. Think mandatory minimum sentences, truth-in-sentencing, three-strikes-and-you're-out laws, etc.

Today, one can still hear grumbling from some prominent national conservatives about federal judges. These fellow travelers point to the rise in judge-initiated downward departures since the Supreme Court's Booker decision and see a group of unelected, unaccountable elites who don't put enough emphasis on public safety. In particular, they point to the number of departures given in cases involving white-collar fraud and child pornography possession and trafficking cases.

Setting aside what I know to be the unreasonableness of the guideline recommendations for those offenses, I thought it would be worthwhile to see who appointed today's crop of soft-headed social engineers. The results should not have surprised me (or anyone who can name the last five presidents of the United States), but they did.

My co-blogger, Stowe, told me about the Federal Judicial Center's excellent research tool, which allows you to sift through tons of historical data about current and former federal judges. I wanted to know how many judges were appointed by presidents of the two major political parties. Here's what I found:

Of all the active federal judges (in courts with general jurisdiction), 437 were appointed by Republicans and 340 were appointed by Democrats. In other words, 56 percent were picked by Republicans. But Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges do not have primary responsibility for sentencing. That awesome power belongs to district court judges.

Using the FJC's handy, searchable database, I learned that Republicans chose 344 of today's active federal district court judges while Democrats selected 263. Even more interesting, I found out that President George W. Bush, who promised to appoint tough-minded federal judges, appointed 249 of today's active sentencing judges. In other words, W's nominees alone are responsible for half of the sentences handed down today in federal court. Mind you, his nominees were supported by the same conservatives in the Senate today who protest most loudly about "soft on crime" sentences.

I know the arguments that my conservative brethren make against Republican-nominated judges gone astray. They almost always include these two words: David Souter. The lack of accountability changes these judges, we hear. They act differently once they put on the black robe, etc. Maybe, but perhaps there are more compelling explanations, such as that judges tend to learn more about how the system really works - and doesn't work. Perhaps they realize that macro statements about toughness do not always translate when a first-time offender with a contrite heart stands before them at sentencing.

We can debate all of these things. They are important. But for those who tend to view the world from the right-of center perspective, as I do, the FJC data makes clear at least this:  if federal judges are the enemy, then the enemy is us.

- Ingersoll

What Do London Riots Say About Crime?

Watching England tear itself apart this week with riots, looting, and fires has made me -- and many others -- ask the all-important question:  why?  Why does a perfectly civilized society suddenly devolve into collective chaos?



While wide-scale rioting and looting are perhaps different beasts than everyday crime, the London upheaval shows how difficult it can be to understand why crime occurs.  Even to experts, rises and falls in everyday crime are often mysterious.  Does a bad economy lead to more crime?  (Apparently not.)  What role does poverty play?  Lack of employment opportunities?  Discontent with government and police?  Feelings of being cut off from the benefits others are receiving from society?  Increased drug use?  General apathy about life?  All of the above?  None of the above?  

London's bizarre crime spree makes us scratch our heads, but the truth is that we're scratching our heads about the causes of crime even when it doesn't involve Facebook-coordinated, city-wide mayhem. 

Mandatory minimums are often touted as a way to curb crime -- pass tough sentences, and crime will go down.  But there's no conclusive, convincing evidence supporting this claim.  

When I look at the London riots, I am convinced that we are fooling ourselves if we think that something as simplistic as a mandatory punishment will unravel the mysteries of why people commit crimes.

-- Stowe

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Economy Stinks, But Sentencing Reform Smells Like Roses

Vanita Gupta discusses the silver lining of the recession in this Huffington Post piece and the ACLU's new report on six states that have responded to our stinky economy with sweet-smelling sentencing reforms.

These reforms carry consequences, but one of them isn't increased crime:

Our report, entitled Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Public Safety, highlights six states — Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio — that recently passed significant bipartisan reforms to reduce their prison populations and budgets. These states also experienced declines in their crime rates while these new policies were in place. If states that are as “tough on crime” as Texas, Mississippi, and South Carolina can engage in more rational criminal justice policymaking and recognize that mass incarceration is not necessary to protect public safety, there is no reason for other states not to follow suit.

Obviously, the reasons to reduce our overreliance on prisons aren’t just fiscal. No dialogue about our criminal justice system is complete without discussing its pervasive and staggering racial injustices. The United States is the largest incarcerator in the world, with communities of color bearing the brunt. Black individuals are imprisoned at nearly six times the rate of their white counterparts, and Latinos are imprisoned at nearly double the white rate. Most of these racial disparities are results of the War on Drugs. While these groups engage in drug use, possession, and sales at rates comparable to their representa­tion in the general population, the system disparately locks up people of color.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Continuing Drug War Coverage

Sentencing here in America is only one front on the global War on Drugs, and we like to keep an eye on some of the other battlefields now and then.  This article from the Sacramento Bee provides coverage of efforts in Mexico to track down major traffickers:

The United States is expanding its role in Mexico's bloody fight against drug trafficking organizations, sending new CIA operatives and retired military personnel to the country, and considering plans to deploy private security contractors in hopes of turning around a multibillion-dollar effort that so far has shown few results.
In recent weeks, small numbers of CIA operatives and U.S. civilian military employees have been posted at a Mexican military base, where, for the first time, security officials from both countries are working side by side in collecting information about drug cartels and helping plan operations. Officials are also looking into embedding a team of U.S. contractors inside a specially vetted Mexican counternarcotics police unit. ...
But a former U.S. law enforcement official familiar with the unit described it as one good apple in a barrel of bad ones.
Some of the officers had not been issued weapons, and those who had guns had not been properly trained to use them. During an intense gunbattle against one of Mexico's most vicious cartels, they had to communicate with one another on their cellphones because they had not been issued police radios.
"It's sort of shocking," said Eric Olson, of the Woodrow Wilson Center. "Mexico is just now learning how to fight crime in the midst of a major crime wave. It's like trying to saddle your horse while running the Kentucky Derby."
Not exactly encouraging.  Going after the suppliers of America's drugs is fine, but what about fixing our own insatiable demand for their products?  Mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders are an expensive and (usually) ineffective way to kick our habit.  There are smarter, cheaper, much more effective sentencing options out there -- and judges need to have the power to use them.


Rockers or Rappers: Who Fares Better Post-Prison?

That's the question in this article from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which argues that rock stars do better after returning from prison than rappers do.  Did they get it right?  You be the judge.

We often talk of the impact of prison time on prisoners and their families -- and that includes the impact on a prisoner's career. Once released, ex-prisoners have missed years of work and career-building -- and with a record, they can find it extremely difficult to get a job or pick up where they left off.  Unlike famous rock stars and rappers who go to prison, though, most returning prisoners don't have the help of notoriety and publicity to help them re-start their careers.

But even as a rock star or rapper, returning from prison and doing well is tough business.

Monday, August 8, 2011

California: Sentencing Reform is Conservative

That's the message Pat Nolan has for the legislators struggling with downsizing the notoriously overcrowded prison system of California in this op-ed from the San Jose Mercury News.  Noting how the Right on Crime movement is bringing conservatives to the table to advocate for smarter sentencing policies and cutting prison costs, Nolan highlights a list of (traditionally) conservative states that are reaping the benefits of fairer, smarter justice:

South Carolina now reserves costly prison beds for dangerous criminals while punishing low-risk offenders through lower-cost mandatory community supervision. The state is expected to save $175 million in prison construction this year alone and $60 million in operating costs over the next several years.
Other states, under both Democratic and Republican governors, enacted similar reforms this year, including Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina. If leaders in those conservative states can reduce their prison populations, surely it's time for California.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Good, Short, and Happy (!) Reading for the Weekend

The Sentencing Project has put out this brief, compelling four-page update on state prison closures around the country.

That's right, closures.

Since states have been hit with the Great Recession, they've been cutting prison sentences, creating safety valves for mandatory minimums, using more alternatives to incarceration, and figuring out how to keep people out of cells.  FAMM contributed to many of the reforms that have allowed states like Michigan, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York to say goodbye to some of their prisons.  The result:  cost savings for taxpayers.

Of course, not all states are going that route -- Florida, a state with stuffed prisons and horrific mandatory minimum laws, is considering privatizing its prisons to save money.  The real problem is the state's devotion to excessive sentences for even minor, nonviolent drug offenders.  Sentencing reform, not prison privatization, is the cure Florida is looking for.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

"Dumb-Ass Stupid"

That's how Canadian Peter Blaikie describes mandatory minimums in this excellent opinion editorial from Montreal's The Gazette.

So, ummm, does that make Americans "dumb-ass stupid" for continuing to use these one-size-fits-all-but-doesn't-make-us-safer-while-costing-us-a-fortune sentences?

Alas, Canada is still considering expanding its mandatory minimums and following the U.S.'s example of unwise, expensive, unjust sentencing.  See if this description of Canada's proposed mandatory minimums rings any bells:

One comical feature of this legislation is that the length of the mandatory prison sentence will depend on the number of marijuana plants grown, and whether they are grown in a prison or near a school. One can easily imagine the following comments by an arresting officer: “Pothead, if you had grown 197 plants instead of 203, and more than 150 yards from the local school, you would be spending far less time in jail.” Dumb-ass stupid.
Ahem.  Yes, that would be the U.S. system, in a nutshell.

Canada, we beg you -- for your own good -- just say no to this nonsense.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Federal Sentencing Growth -- But Why?

This fun but scary interactive graphic over at the Wall Street Journal tracks the phenomenal growth in the number of federal criminal sentences handed out for particular crimes between 1996 and 2010, courtesy of data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The sentence types that saw the biggest increases:  immigration offenses, gun offenses, national defense offenses, and child pornography offenses.  Sentence types that saw the biggest drops in raw numbers:  auto theft, burglary/breaking and entering, and gambling/lottery offenses (yes, those can all actually be federal crimes).

There may be many reasons for seeing increases in certain types of federal crimes and sentences.  Perhaps people are committing more of those crimes now than before, for example.  Or, perhaps police and prosecutors are simply enforcing those laws more than they were before -- the number of crimes hasn't increased, but we're catching and convicting more offenders than we were before.  Or, perhaps a host of factors -- the economy, public fears about crime, unemployment, social changes, internal policy changes in police departments and prosecutors' offices -- are prompting more convictions and sentencings for some crimes than for others.  Or, perhaps the increases in certain kinds of federal sentences are due to states deciding that they don't want to (or can't) handle prosecution of all of those crimes (immigration, for example, is constitutionally and historically the federal government's turf).  

But here's an interesting idea.  Illegal immigration was illegal (and a problem) before 1996, so why did the number of sentences start growing shortly after that year?  Could it possibly be because that's the year we created mandatory minimum sentences for federal immigration offenses?  Is it just a coincidence that the fastest-growing crime categories listed carry more than just a few mandatory minimums?  (See our full chart of federal mandatory minimums here.)  Is it possible that the mere creation of a federal mandatory minimum leads to a higher number of federal sentences for that crime?  If so, why?

Leave your thoughts in a comment.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

New Jersey & Pennsylvania Reassess Sentences

This good article from New Jersey's Asbury Park Press describes how both Pennsylvania and New Jersey are feeling the budget crunch and looking to prisons for cost savings.  A snippet:

“The fact that our budget is $1.86 billion has a lot of people rethinking some of the assumptions we’ve made in the past,” said John E. Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections. “When we over-incarcerate individuals — and there is a portion of our population that we over-incarcerate — we’re not improving public safety. Quite the opposite.”
Advocates of prison reform say Pennsylvania and New Jersey could be well-positioned for change. Both governors are Republican former prosecutors, credentials that buffer accusations that whittling down the prison population means going “soft” on crime.
And Govs. Corbett and Christie have picked corrections chiefs who support a more rehabilitative approach to corrections, a method that, studies show, can reduce recidivism.
Wetzel and New Jersey’s corrections commissioner, Gary M. Lanigan, want to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison, diverting them to drug rehabilitation or other programs instead.
“People are realizing that there is a huge cost to incarceration, and there’s ways to do it smarter,” Lanigan said. “There are people who belong in prison and there’s people who are better served in the community.”
It is flat-out encouraging to see two heads of corrections departments calling for smarter sentences.

Smarter sentencing must include repeal or curtailment of mandatory minimum prison sentences.  All the alternatives to incarceration in the world won't help if judges can't use them.

Now, let's hope these states' governors and legislators listen up and act.

Monday, August 1, 2011

It is -- and isn't -- about numbers

This article from Philadelphia's Daily News does a nice job of showing the potential real impact of recent sentencing reform victories like the retroactive crack sentencing guideline amendment and the DOJ's reversal of its policy on applying the Fair Sentencing Act to pipeline cases:

The [U.S. Sentencing Commission] estimates that 18 crack offenders sentenced in federal court in Philadelphia would be eligible for immediate release when the amendment goes into effect on Nov. 1, and that 15 others could be released by Nov. 1, 2012. An estimated 153 federal crack-offense inmates might be eligible for reduced sentences.
The commission's vote was in response to a law signed by President Obama last Aug. 3 that established lower penalties for crack offenses and eliminated a mandatory five-year prison term for simple possession of crack.
The new amendment does not give retroactive effect to the law.
However, Attorney General Eric Holder directed prosecutors on July 15 to ask courts to apply the law's lower penalties to people whose crimes were committed before Aug. 3 but who have not yet been sentenced.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Lappen estimated that 20 crack offenders sentenced here could be affected by Holder's memo.
And that's just Philadelphia.

Sentencing reform is -- and isn't -- about the numbers to FAMM.  Of course, we want everyone to get just sentences and to benefit from reforms.  But whenever we hear a number -- be it large or small -- we remember that the figure represents a human being, a person with a family, a father or mother, a child or aunt or uncle, a spouse or a grandparent.  That's why we're still fighting for justice:  because it's not just about numbers, it's about real people and real families.