Monday, January 30, 2012

FAMM in Prize-Winning Documentary!

The annual Sundance Film Festival in Utah just ended, and although FAMM was not there in person, we were there on screen!  

FAMM’s president, Julie Stewart, appeared several times in the documentary The House I Live In, which won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize for Documentary!  The House I Live In is about the development of America's 40-year war on drugs and its ripple effects, including mandatory prison sentences given to thousands of drug offenders every year.  That’s, of course, how Julie’s expertise was displayed in the documentary.

The executive producer of the documentary is actor Danny Glover, and it was directed by Eugene Jarecki and Melinda Shopsin, the team behind numerous documentaries including Why We Fight, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance in 2005. The House I Live In will be distributed nationally and will eventually air on PBS. 

For now, watch a short introduction to The House I Live In.  

Massachusetts Monday

This Sunday's Boston Globe featured a holy-cow, cracker-jack editorial on reforming Massachusetts' mandatory minimum sentencing laws -- and avoiding a new, budget-breaking disaster of an amped-up three-strikes law.  Here it is in full:

Patrick offers a fairer, smarter approach to 'three strikes' law
Boston Globe, Jan. 29, 2012

Governor Patrick made clear in his State of the Commonwealth address last week that he won't abide a one-dimensional crime bill that continues to warehouse lesser offenders for costly and fruitless prison stays. Now it's up to the Legislature to deliver a crime bill that makes sense both economically and in terms of public safety.

The latest incarnation of the crime bill - now in a House-Senate conference committee - was born of righteous anger over the 2010 murder of Woburn police officer John Maguire by a parolee. But what emerged was a flawed "three-strikes'' approach. The underlying rationale is sound - to eliminate parole eligibility for anyone convicted three times of violent felonies. But the legislation covers almost 60 third-strike felonies, including some that wouldn't necessarily involve violence, such as breaking and entering a building at night.

The bill needs to focus exclusively on repeat offenders who commit overt acts of violence. That's not the case now. In the House version of the bill, for example, someone convicted and imprisoned twice for distributing drugs could receive a life sentence after a third-strike conviction for unarmed robbery.

The Senate passed its version of the crime bill unanimously, and the House passed its by an overwhelming 142-12 margin. Lawmakers were in a congratulatory mood. So Patrick's insistence that they deliver a better bill raised some hackles. But the governor needed to stand up and stress the importance of being both tough and smart on crime.

In his speech, Patrick pointed to a 30-percent increase in state spending on prisons over the last decade, which he attributed in large part to longer sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. He's right to stress the importance of eliminating some mandatory minimum drug sentences not only as a means to enhance treatment and reintegration into society, but as a way to free up prison space for violent criminals.

The Senate version of the bill did make a sincere effort to balance its three-strikes provision with another to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. But the House chose to deal only with the three-strikes provision. That leaves little room to maneuver. Conference committee reports are not subject to amendments on the floor, thereby limiting opportunity for House members to improve their bill.

At this stage, the best strategy is to suspend the conference committee until House members can debate a balanced sentencing bill - one that cracks down on violent offenders, shortens sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and lightens up on taxpayers who bear the cost of incarceration.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Close Prisons, Save Money

FAMM's Florida project director Greg Newburn has a thought-provoking piece in the Orlando Sentinel today, arguing that prison closures are good news, not bad, for states -- even if those closures mean some lost prison jobs.
We see the jobs created when government builds a prison, but we don't see the jobs that would have been created if the money had been left with taxpayers. While legislators rightly care about the workers negatively impacted by prison closures, what of the people who can't find jobs because money that would have been used to hire them was taken in taxes? Who speaks for the unseen? ...

Prisons are not "employment and economic opportunities." Ideally, they are built to house offenders who have proved unable to cooperate peacefully in civil society. In Thomas Paine's words, they are "necessary evils." Prisons play a vital role in public safety, but they should never be used as jobs programs or payoffs to union bosses.

Government should not spend money on any project not necessary for the public well-being. Instead, it should leave as much money as possible with taxpayers, who can and will use it on projects they find worthwhile. Doing so will create real jobs of real value across the state.
It is easy to point to the prosperity of certain areas buoyed by state spending projects, but we should always remember that "to spend is to tax" because someone always has to pay the bill — and that someone is us.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

NJ Governor Christie: "No Life is Disposable"

Massachusetts isn't the only state with a governor calling for big-time sentencing reforms.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former prosecutor and a Republican, included a moving plea for mandatory treatment for nonviolent drug offenders in his recent State of the State address.  FAMM President Julie Stewart applauds his courage and compassion in this Huffington Post editorial.  

Here are the governor's thoughts:
"...let us reclaim the lives of those drug offenders who have not committed a violent crime. By investing time and money in drug treatment -- in an in-house, secure facility -- rather than putting them in prison.

Experience has shown that treating non-violent drug offenders is two-thirds less expensive than housing them in prison. And more importantly -- as long as they have not violently victimized society -- everyone deserves a second chance, because no life is disposable.
I am not satisfied to have this as merely a pilot project; I am calling for a transformation of the way we deal with drug abuse and incarceration in every corner of New Jersey.
So today I ask this Legislature and the Chief Justice to join me in this commitment that no life is disposable.
I propose mandatory treatment for every non-violent offender with a drug abuse problem in New Jersey, not just a select few. It will send a clear message to those who have fallen victim to the disease of drug abuse -- we want to help you, not throw you away. We will require you to get treatment. Your life has value. Every one of God's creations can be redeemed."
It's rare to hear this kind of affirmation -- but so important that more leaders start saying it out loud. Here at FAMM, we hear it every day from family members and prisoners alike. As Julie writes:
The reason our sentencing policies, especially with regard to nonviolent, drug offenses, remain so punitive is that we have learned to dehumanize people who break the law. They have become The Other, the ones who asked for it and now are going to get it. This lack of empathy is bewildering in light of the fact that almost all of us know someone good who did something bad.
Governor Christie's words -- and plan for nonviolent drug offenders -- call all of us to the better angels of our nature. To the addict and abuser, Christie says, "Your life has value... We want to help you, not throw you away." This is the exact opposite message that prisoners and their families receive from today's judicial system and bureaucratic prison-industrial complex.
How do you think we can change more hearts and minds and remind people that prisoners are, well, people?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mass. Governor Wants Mandatory Minimum Reform!

Last night, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick delivered his annual State of the Commonwealth address.  He listed sentencing reform as one of his top three priorities for the year.  He made it clear that he will not sign any new habitual offender bill unless the state's Legislature also sends him a mandatory minimum bill.  “Both are important and you must send me both.” Read his full speech here, and FAMM's thoughts on it here.

The Governor went on to say:

“At the other end of the spectrum are non-violent drug offenders.  And in these cases, we have to deal with the fact that simply warehousing non-violent offenders is a costly policy failure. . .  We have moved, at massive public expense, from treatment for drug offenders to indiscriminate prison sentences, and gained nothing in public safety. . . [W]e must make non-violent drug offenders eligible for parole sooner. . . Again, for the good of the Commonwealth, send me a bill with the right reforms to both our Habitual Offender law and our mandatory minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders.  I will not accept one without the other.”

If you live in Massachusetts, tell your state representatives that you agree with the Governor!  The Senate already passed a bill that includes mandatory minimum reforms.  We are now waiting for the House of Representatives to do the same thing. Click here to send a message to your state Representative.  Let the House know that the Governor is right.

As always, please let us know if you have any questions.

Barb Dougan
Massachusetts Project Director
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)

Friday, January 20, 2012

FAMM in Huffington Post: Why Does Mercy Bug Us So Much?

FAMM's Molly Gill has an opinion piece published over at the Huffington Post right now, asking "Why did Governor Haley Barbour's pardons cause such a backlash?"
The last 30 years of sentencing policy may provide an answer. Thirty years ago, America's approach to punishment shifted. We rejected the notion that a criminal could be rehabilitated, and many states and the federal government began abolishing parole eligibility. They replaced it with sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentencing laws that deprive judges of the power to tailor sentences to fit individuals and their unique crimes. ...
Pardons clash with this recent history and cause a kind of philosophical whiplash. They shouldn't. We are also a people who claim to be predominantly Christian and believe in mercy and redemption. Christian or otherwise, most of us extol second chances. With punishments as draconian as ours have become, second chances can literally be the difference between life and death, being an active or absent parent, prosperity or poverty. The pardon power is often the only remedy for those who have been unfairly or excessively punished in the harsh and inflexible sentencing system we have spent 30 years building. Pardons and commutations can correct some of these injustices. They grant forgiveness when, sadly, we forget to be merciful. Our founding fathers included the pardon power in our Constitution for precisely this reason. They betted on us going too far in our zeal to punish and created pardons as a safeguard for those on the receiving end of our excess.
Governor Barbour's pardons are an invitation to our better natures to forgive and to recognize that people can change.  We applaud him for his courage and thank him for the reminder.

Good and Mad Reading for the Weekend: Virginia Edition

Virginia lawmakers are off to the races to create new mandatory minimum sentences. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has the skinny on proposed new mandatory minimums for drugs, drunken driving, and sex offenses:
[L]egislation carried by Del. Robert B. Bell, R-Albemarle, (House Bill 968) and Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, (Senate Bill 159) would establish a mandatory minimum sentence of five years imprisonment for second-time drug traffickers (excluding marijuana) who have been convicted of a violent felony and 10 years for third-time offenders.
Currently, there is no mandatory minimum incarceration for a second offense and the minimum for a third is five years. ...
Bell and Obenshain also are carrying a proposal backed by McDonnell to impose a mandatory minimum life sentence for rape, forcible sodomy and object sexual penetration of a child under age 13. ...
Del. David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, is carrying House Bill 49, which would establish a one-year mandatory minimum sentence for involuntary manslaughter resulting from a DUI and a mandatory five-year minimum for aggravated involuntary manslaughter from a DUI.
We give two-thumbs down to this proposal. Mandatory minimum sentences are expensive (the governor has already added millions to the state budget proposal to cover the new ones he wants), unjust, and less effective than cheaper alternatives like drug courts.  Mandatory sentences also help pack prisons.

This is the problem with getting "tough on crime" -- "tough" never seems to be tough enough.  The result is a one-way ratcheting of sentences higher and higher -- at taxpayer expense.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Barbour Defends Pardons

Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has been under the gun for pardoning more than 200 people recently, including several murderers who worked at the governor's mansion.  But he's not taking the criticism lying down -- today in the Washington Post, he hits back with a thoughtful and eloquent defense of his decision to show mercy.

Here's a snippet:

In Mississippi, the constitutional power of pardon is based on our Christian belief in repentance, forgiveness and redemption — a second chance for those who are rehabilitated and who redeem themselves. Other great religions have similar tenets; so does the U.S. Constitution.
Mississippi spends about $350 million a year on our corrections system, much of it aimed at rehabilitating those who went wrong. Regrettably there are bad actors who will never be rehabilitated, but many who go to prison can be helped. Our state recidivism rate is just above 30 percent, far below the national average.
For some who are rehabilitated and redeem themselves, the governor is the only person who can give them a second chance. I am very comfortable giving such people that opportunity.
FAMM applauds Barbour for his courage and for reminding us of the value of mercy and second chances.

Now, if only other governors and President Obama would follow Barbour's lead!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Miss America's Unconventional (?) Cause

AP photo
World peace.  Starving children.  Curing disease.  All noble, worthy, and traditional causes that many a Miss America has picked up and used her platform to champion.

But to our knowledge (we confess that we are not devoted followers of the pageant), the new 2012 Miss America will be the first to champion the children of incarcerated parents -- mostly because she is one herself.

USAToday reports:
[Miss Wisconsin Laura] Kaeppeler, 23, has an unusual background. She says she thought long and hard as to whether she should make her father's jail time for mail fraud part of her pageant platform, reports AP.
Her father, Jeff Kaeppeler, served 18 months in federal prison for mail fraud, a sentence he started when Laura was entering college. He was backstage Sunday night with his daughter, who called him her "best friend."
Kaeppeler's mission: She wants children of incarcerated adults to feel less alone, to have mentoring and as much of a relationship with their parents as possible.
She majored in music and vocal performance at a private Lutheran liberal arts college in Kenosha and initially said she wanted to become a speech therapist, but now Kaeppler plans to use her $50,000 scholarship money to become a lawyer, specializing in helping children of incarcerated adults.
Wahoo!  We extend a warm, heartfelt welcome to Miss Kaeppeler and admire her for shining a spotlight (literally) on this important issue.  The United States is the world's largest jailer, with 2.3 million in prison and an additional five on some form of court supervision.  There are over 1.7 million children with incarcerated parents in our country.  Draconian prison terms -- including mandatory minimum sentences -- perpetuate our addiction to incarceration when better, smarter, cheaper options exist (and would keep families together).

We applaud you, Miss America, and invite you to join us in our work for justice!

Visit Miss America's website, Circles of Support, for more information about her worthy cause.

Congress: You Can't Foresee Everything, So Get Rid of Mandatory Minimums

That's the message of this excellent op-ed from FAMM President Julie Stewart in The Washington Times, providing FAMM's take on the case of ex-Marine Ryan Jerome, who faces a possible 3.5-year mandatory minimum despite his good-faith efforts to follow New York's gun laws.  

The op-ed points out one of the ironic aspects of Congress's creation of mandatory minimums:  often, when one of these laws (which they created) is used in a way Congress doesn't approve of, it's the prosecutor who gets a tongue-lashing at an investigation, and the president who has to intervene with a commutation to save the day. But why rely on mandatory minimums, prosecutors, and presidents when Congress could simply restore to judges the power to get it right in every imaginable (and unimaginable) case?  Writes Julie:
In many ways, the Jerome case reminds me of the prosecution of U.S. border agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean. They were sentenced in 2006 to more than a decade in prison after a jury found them guilty of shooting an unarmed illegal immigrant and covering it up. The agents’ long sentences were required by a federal mandatory minimum sentencing law. Nevertheless, members of Congress hauled the prosecutor who tried the case to Washington for a grilling. They couldn’t believe he had the audacity to use the law they had written. Seeing that the judge had no discretion, many members of Congress then asked President George W. Bush to intervene, which he ultimately did by commuting the agents’ sentences. ...
Ramos and Compean were relatively lucky. Perhaps Mr. Jerome will get lucky, too, and the Manhattan D.A. will find some way to resolve the case without Mr. Jerome going to jail. But it’s not reasonable to expect that presidents and governors are going to be able (or willing) to save every unforeseen defendant from being saddled with an ill-fitting mandatory sentence. The only way to make sure that the time fits the crime is to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences and let judges consider all the relevant factors in crafting individualized sentences.
Hear, hear!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Good and Mad Reading for the Weekend

The title of the subject of this week's good and mad reading alone should prompt you to read it:  it's called "Have Gun? Don't Travel!"

It tells the story of Ryan Jerome, a Marine now facing a mandatory minimum of 3.5 years for carrying a gun in New York -- even though he had a valid concealed carry permit from Indiana and had no idea that it wasn't good in New York State.  The story neatly highlights the flaws with mandatory minimum sentences, as well as the injustice that might result when a person doesn't know he's breaking the law:
The first major issue Jerome’s case raises is the justice of the “mandatory minimum” sentence. Mandatory minimums are what they sound like—they are minimum sentences delineated by state legislatures or Congress to ensure that certain acts are punished with at least a given amount of time in prison, notwithstanding that a judge, knowing the relevant facts of a particular case, might feel that a lower sentence would better serve the ends of justice. And the judicial neutering is, often, the express intent behind the legislation, and certainly was in the case of the New York City gun laws. In 2005, new mandatory minimum sentences for gun violence became a part of the city’s strategy to reduce violent crime. As New York City’s Criminal Justice Coordinator John Feinblatt was quoted as stating in the New York Timesabout NYC gun laws before the change: “there was an exception in practice that you could drive a truck through…if the facts of the case suggested to the judge that there was some sympathetic reason why the defendant should not face time in jail, they could sentence them to anything they wanted, including just probation.” In other words, before the 2005 law, the judge could take into account “the facts of the case” and “sympathetic reason[s]”, and rule accordingly; put another way – prior to the enactment of the mandatory minimum sentence, the judge was free to exercise judgment. But not anymore; as Mayor Bloomberg bragged in his victory lap after the legislation passed, “Now, if you are convicted, you will serve a minimum of 3½ years behind bars – no exceptions.” (Presumably, the executives and managers of Bloomberg’s media empire were allowed – indeed, encouraged – to use judgment in running the business, accounting for its huge success over the years.) ...

More likely than not, a lack of ill intent argument will not work; it is the citizens’ responsibility to understand the laws of the polity in which he is residing, no matter how draconian or absurd the laws seem. If a person knows that he has a gun in New York City, even if he thinks that his possession accords with the law, he will be found liable.
Jerome’s fate, then, rests not with a due-process guarantee, nor with the “mercy of the court”—remember, “the court” can no longer render mercy—rather, the ultimate question will be whether the district attorney brings the charge or not. Whereas in earlier times the judge represented a potential bulwark against a harsh penalty—even if the defendant were to plead guilty—the prosecutor now has sole discretion, and will likely be the only arbiter of Jerome’s fate.
Most people in Jerome’s situation find themselves helpless, and end up pleading guilty to a crime where they intended the act but did not intend to flout the law. They might make a deal that gives them “only” two years in prison; a harsh penalty to be sure for an essentially law-abiding citizen.
Mandatory minimums are a bad idea in all cases, but they are an especially bad idea in situations where a person unwittingly breaks the law even as they're attempting to follow the rules.

What Good can a Murderer Do?

Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has been taking more flak than a WWII fighter pilot this week for pardoning 200 people, including murderers.  The public outcry has ranged from "He didn't follow the Constitution" to "What's he doing letting murderers and rapists out?!" to "Why do we have this antiquated pardon system anyway?"  

But to me, the saddest part is the tone of those who are essentially saying, "Once a murderer always a murderer."  There is no affirmation of the human spirit here; no recognition that some people -- not all people, but some people -- can and do change and deserve a second chance out here with the rest of us.  There is no humility; no acknowledgment that, but for the grace of God, it could be me sitting behind bars serving life for killing someone.  There is no mercy; only a dehumanizing condescension that says, "These murderers are not people -- they are, forever and always, only murderers."

Well, this stirring article from the Detroit Free Press takes a deeper look at what good a band of murderers can do in Michigan's Ryan Correctional Facility:
In 2008, more than a dozen inmates -- members of an NAACP prison program -- started bringing troubled young men, ages 15-18, into Ryan once a month for some real talk on life and crime. It happened again on Dec. 16, when more than 20 Detroit teenagers, mostly from Osborn High School, walked through the metal detectors into the drab prison visiting room, many expecting some kind of lame and discredited Scared Straight show.
But Ryan's Youth Deterrent Program is not Scared Straight. I'm not sure you can scare kids today, anyway. Prisoners don't scream, threaten or get into anyone's face. They speak calmly and respectfully, sitting with young people in a circle on cheap plastic chairs, telling their stories, asking questions and listening. ...

Wearing numbered orange and blue uniforms, most of these prisoners are serving life sentences for murder. Only they can separate the fantasies of thug life from the realities of living doubled-up in a closet-sized steel cell, losing family and friends, submitting to strip searches and enjoying no privacy. ...
So far, the results are encouraging. Noah Bruner, founding director of Operation Reach community center in Saginaw, brought 100 teenagers into Ryan from March 2009 to March 2010. (Ryan inmates just contributed $500 to the community center to help pay for two vans.) None got in serious trouble afterward, Bruner said. The community must, however, follow up with mentors and other social and recreation services.
I don't know the facts of all of the cases Governor Barbour pardoned or commuted.  It does sound like at least some of the clemency grants were done improperly and hastily, and that victims were not given the consideration they would have liked to receive.  If a few undeserving folks slipped through, it should not reflect on those who deserved and earned clemency.  FAMM advocates for increased use of the pardon power, and Governor Barbour has acted bravely.  We'd like to see that much courage displayed by other governors and President Obama.  

Prisoners -- who are, at the end of the day, human beings just like you and me -- can redeem themselves.  They have powerful stories that can make a positive impact, as the Michigan story shows.  It’s not just nonviolent offenders who get sentences that don’t fit, or earn a second chance at society’s trust.

-- Stowe

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What's it Save Us?

For many a state legislator, that's the top question for sentencing reform proposals.  The problem:  many states can't provide a good answer.

That problem is highlighted and discussed in this new report released by the ACLU and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.  This blog post by Inimai Chettiar summarizes the report (a good thing for those of us who aren't budget analysts) and offers an excellent example of how states can sabotage their own sentencing reform bills:
many state budget analyses tend to focus on the upfront start-up costs of a bill, but fail to examine the later savings these programs will bring — even savings that could be realized in the following year.
Earlier this year, for example, bipartisan legislators in Maryland proposed a bill to create non-prison sanctions for individuals who commit technical parole violations, such as missing a meeting with their parole officer or failing to complete community service. More than one-third of the people behind bars in this country are there for similar technical violations, not for new crimes. Several other states have implemented this same kind of reform and reduced its prison population and spending within just a few years, while continuing to see their crime rates drop. But in Maryland, a poorly performed state budget evaluation considered only the up-front costs of the proposed program and ignored the future savings it would bring, concluding incorrectly that the reform would cost too much. As a result, the bill was scaled back. Now, Maryland will continue to automatically send most individuals who violate parole conditions back to prison even if it is for something as small as missing a parole meeting.
What a costly mistake!  There is more to good sentencing reform legislation than smart-on-crime solutions that keep the public safe.  Legislators need to know what reforms will cost -- and save.  If they don't, the results could be counterproductive.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Immigration Mandatory Minimum Scorned in Australia

We all know how it works:  legislators get upset about some sensational or controversial crime and create a "get tough" mandatory minimum sentence for it.  One of these hot-button crimes du jour is illegal immigration.  It's a topic that raises strong emotions on all sides, but are mandatory minimum sentences really a good idea for these offenses?

In Australia, 62% of the readers of the Sydney Morning Herald appear to say no (at least, the figure was 62% when we responded to the unscientific poll).  This brief article describes a judge's resistance to imposing a five-year mandatory minimum sentence on a "people smuggler" who earned less than $500 for bringing 20 Afghani refugees into Australia.  (In the U.S., a similar offense would carry a three-year mandatory minimum.)  Here's the skinny:
The court heard [the defendant] Hasim had agreed to make the journey after being approached by organisers in Indonesia.
He was paid less than AU$500 for his role.
Defence barrister Catherine Morgan told the court Hasim was illiterate, and had agreed to the job so he could to help his mother and sister, for whom he was the sole provider.
Judge Martin agreed Hasim's personal circumstances made him as desperate and as vulnerable to exploitation as the refugees on his boat.
"The reward for the passengers was some chance of living in Australia, while your reward for this risky voyage was, it seems, approximately $480," Judge Martin said.
"It's blindingly obvious that you had no understanding of the true consequences of your conduct."
Judge Martin imposed the five-year term, but said the penalty did not reflect the facts of the case.
"Commonly savage penalties are being imposed upon the ignorant, who are simply being exploited by organisers - you are one such person," he said.
"It's obvious that the legislation imposing a minimum mandatory penalty deprives a court from exercising a full and proper sentencing discretion in cases such as this."
Illegal immigration is a hot-button topic everywhere.  This international example shows that mandatory minimum sentences for immigration offenses produce unjust and irrational results -- just like mandatory minimums for any other crime.

Paying a Price, Long After the Crime

That's the title of a head-turning New York Times opinion editorial by criminal justice experts Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura, which describes the experience of countless former offenders (and non-offenders) who have paid their debts to society ... or so they thought.

The op-ed raises some disturbing facts about just how many Americans have a run-in with the law -- and find that it changes their lives:

A stunning number of young people are arrested for crimes in this country, and those crimes can haunt them for the rest of their lives. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Crime Commission found that about half of American males could expect to be arrested for a nontraffic offense some time in their lives, mostly in their late teens and early 20s. An article just published in the journal Pediatrics shows how the arrest rate has grown — by age 23, 30 percent of Americans have been arrested, compared with 22 percent in 1967. The increase reflects in part the considerable growth in arrests for drug offenses and domestic violence.
The impact of these arrests is felt for years. The ubiquity of criminal-background checks and the efficiency of information technology in maintaining those records and making them widely available, have meant that millions of Americans — even those who served probation or parole but were never incarcerated — continue to pay a price long after the crime. In November the American Bar Association released a database identifying more than 38,000 punitive provisions that apply to people convicted of crimes, pertaining to everything from public housing to welfare assistance to occupational licenses. More than two-thirds of the states allow hiring and professional-licensing decisions to be made on the basis of an arrest alone. 
That's horrible news in the best of times, much less in a global economic downturn like the one we're currently wishing would end (and soon, please).  In the U.S., there are currently over 7.3 million people in our criminal justice system -- and those are only the people who got convicted, not just arrested.

So, is there any data that hints when it might be absolutely safe to hire someone with a conviction or arrest record?
It is well established that the risk of recidivism drops steadily with time, but there is still the question of how long is long enough. By looking at data for more than 88,000 people who had their first arrest in New York State in 1980, and tracking their subsequent criminal histories over the next 25 years, we estimate the “redemption time” — the time it takes for an individual’s likelihood of being arrested to be close to that of individuals with no criminal records — to be about 10 to 13 years. We also found that about 30 percent of the first-time offenders in 1980 were never arrested again, in New York or anywhere else.
If our sole goal of punishment is public safety -- making sure people don't commit more crimes -- these numbers raise some interesting questions about sentencing policies.  If 30% of first-time offenders are unlikely to ever be arrested again, should that 30% ever go to prison?  Perhaps the encounter with the criminal justice system is itself enough to lead them away from crime.  If the "redemption time" is 10 to 13 years after a conviction, should a sentence ever be longer than that?

I don't know the answers -- I'm just asking the questions.


A Position That I Think Worth Stating

311 has been one of my favorite bands since a co-worker lent me a tape of theirs in 1994. Their August 1995 show at the Night Owl in Pensacola, Florida was one of the first shows I ever attended. At that time 311 had recently released their third album, which featured a few songs that would become huge hits and quickly propel them to the top of the music industry.

Yesterday, on my drive to Tallahassee, I threw in a CD (they still exist!) I hadn’t listened to in a while: 311’s second album, “Grassroots.” Released in 1994, “Grassroots” is still among my all-time favorite albums.

While I’ve memorized every lyric, guitar riff, drum fill and bass line on that record, I hadn’t remembered that one of 311 ‘s two vocalists, Nick Hexum, had written a verse that is as relevant to FAMM’s work today as it was then. I won’t repeat the title of the song on FAMM’s family-friendly blog, but in the penultimate track on the album, Hexum writes:
“. . . sing along with a cry of a mandatory sentence for a crime with no victim, when everybody knows jail terms should be picked in the order of the pain that they cause; ‘do what thou wilt’ should be the whole of the laws until you violate the rights of another; respect the space of your sister and your brother. The war on drugs may be well intentioned but it falls (expletive) flat when you start to mention an overcrowded prison where a rapist gets paroled to make room for a dude who has sold a pound of weed; to me that’s a crime. Here’s to good people doin’ time . . .”
Admittedly, the other verses in the song aren’t quite as poignant, but in just a few lines Hexum makes a compelling argument against mandatory sentences and the drug war. FAMM takes no position on drug legalization generally, but prison overcrowding is one of the many negative consequences of mandatory minimum prison sentences, and the federal government continues to lock up thousands of marijuana offenders every year.

311 has been doing their thing since 1991 and have sold nearly nine million albums in the U.S. FAMM, of course, has been fighting mandatory minimum sentences and making the case for fairness in the criminal justice system for more than 20 years. And have had our fair share of success, too. There’s still a lot of work to be done. Nick, if you’re out there, join us!

Listen to the song here.

Buy 311 albums and help FAMM by clicking the Amazon link here.

Greg Newburn, the author of this post, is the Director of FAMM's Florida Project.  Find out more about FAMM's work in Florida here.  You can also follow FAMM's Florida Project on Twitter:  @FloridaFAMM.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The President's Stingy Use of Pardons

That's the title of this powerful editorial in Sunday's Washington Post, which issues a resounding call for more pardons and commutations from the Obama administration.

Every day, FAMM hears more and more stories of nonviolent, low-level offenders spending decades in prison -- many remaining long after they have conquered the personal demons that put them there.  Commutations can cut years off of unjust terms and reward hard-earned rehabilitation.  Pardons can give people a new lease on life and better chances at good jobs. Clemency isn't just a boon to those who receive it; it can also increase respect for the justice system by repairing injustices.  President Obama need not be criticized or scandalized by using his pardon power, if he uses it wisely and without showing political or personal favoritism.

Here's the full editorial:

By Editorial Board, Published: January 8
IN A RECENT series of articles on presidential pardons, Dafna Linzer and Jennifer LeFleur revealed disturbing and disappointing truths about a process that is meant to correct injustices against those who have been unfairly or disproportionately punished by the criminal justice system. What was designed as a tool to bestow mercy often turns on the most cynical of factors and produces results few would recognize as fair.

The series, which was produced by ProPublica and published in The Post, found that white offenders are four times more likely to receive presidential pardons than are minority individuals guilty of similar crimes and sentenced to similar terms.

Presidents increasingly neglect the pardon power, and on those rare occasions when they act they often do so with great timidity.

President Obama has not broken the pattern. Since taking office in 2009, he has issued 22 pardons and one commutation. Last year, he pardoned a man convicted in the 1960s for whittling away the edges of pennies to pass them off as dimes in vending machines. Like most of those Mr. Obama has pardoned, the coin mutilator did not serve time behind bars.

Mr. Obama is on track to underperform President George W. Bush, who issued a measly 189 pardons during his two terms in office — the stingiest record of any two-term president since World War II.

But there is reason to hope that Mr. Obama will reverse course. In November he issued his first act of mercy involving a crack cocaine defendant when he commuted the sentence of [FAMM member] Eugenia Marie Jennings of Illinois.

Ms. Jennings, an African American mother of three who was a victim of domestic abuse, was sentenced in 2001 to nearly 22 years in prison for selling 13.9 grams of crack to an undercover officer. She was also required to pay a $1,750 fine and submit to eight years of supervision once released. During her decade behind bars, Ms. Jennings overcame her own addiction and began speaking with students about the dangers of drug abuse.

Mr. Obama — in what thus far has been his most muscular use of the pardon power — ordered that Ms. Jennings be freed Dec. 21, in time for the holidays and to see her daughter graduate from high school; he kept in place the supervised release requirement.

Ms. Jennings was one of the fortunate few who had the help of top-flight lawyers, D.C. advocates and a home-state U.S. senator (Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin). Surely there are others just as worthy who may not have secured the lobbying support to distinguish their cases among thousands filed each year. Many of them are victims of laws that treated crack cocaine far more harshly than powder cocaine. Their petitions should not and need not be neglected.

The president should build on his courageous pardoning of Ms. Jennings by directing the Justice Department to help him fulfill his constitutional duty to see that justice is done.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Alabama's New Year's Resolution?

You'd think that if your prison system held almost twice as many prisoners as it was built for, the state legislature would do something about it.

Not in Alabama, apparently, as this editorial from The Anniston Star bemoans:
The new year has arrived, yet Alabama remains saddled with one of its most pressing problems — the profound overcrowding of its state prison system. Last year, officials discussed possible options. Nothing substantial was decided. The state has carried that problem from one year to the next. ...
In Alabama’s case, the devil resides in the numbers. The state’s prisons are at 190 percent of capacity. They’re designed to hold less than 15,000 inmates, and today they house nearly 31,000. One doesn’t need to interview Commissioner Thomas to have a vague idea of the widespread logistical and health-related problems that causes. ...
Our response early in 2012 is the same as it was in 2011: Any effort to lessen prison overcrowding must also include the revival of sentencing-reform legislation that has died in past sessions of the Legislature. ...
Today, Alabama continues to need a two-pronged approach: one legislative, another in corrections. It’s tough to see a scenario where some sort of inmate release isn’t warranted — particularly first-time offenders convicted of non-violent, non-sex crimes. Alabama’s state prisons are too crowded to think otherwise.
However, the Alabama Legislature owns a critical role; it must make sentencing reform a priority in its upcoming session. This is where the state’s Republican majority needs to demonstrate true leadership and make those “tough decisions” that will alleviate this obvious and severe problem.
Alabama isn't the only state resolving to cut corrections costs:  Georgia, Kansas, and Oregon are a few others.

Sentencing reform must be on the table, but will legislators be brave enough to do it?  Many say no, but who says sentencing reform has to be a political disaster?  Or that it has to endanger the public?  This black-and-white thinking is exactly how we got into this mess in the first place:  instead of using smart-on-crime options, legislators went for the toughest sentences they could think of.

And now taxpayers are paying for it -- and can no longer afford to.

Here's hoping states like Alabama keep this New Year's resolution and reform their mandatory sentencing laws.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Anatomy of a New Mandatory Minimum

Ever wonder what inspires lawmakers to create rotten new mandatory minimum sentences?

If you think it's research, expert advice, and crime data, you'd be wrong.

One bad story -- one crime, one offender -- is enough to inspire a new, bad law.

This little article from the Rock Hill, South Carolina Herald explains everything that's wrong with this way of creating sentencing laws:
A bill recently filed by state Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, addresses a real problem. But we're not convinced his proposal is the best solution.
Martin's bill would add five more crimes to the list defined as "most serious offenses." Once on the list, the offenses would be eligible for a life sentence in prison [under South Carolina's two-strikes and three-strikes laws].
Martin said the bill was motivated by a case in which an offender, Robert Odell Brown, with a long criminal record was charged with shooting a Spartanburg County deputy who was trying to arrest him. The deputy lost the sight in one eye as a result of the shooting.
Brown's previous offenses included convictions for assault and battery with intent to kill, possessing a stolen car and providing false information to a law enforcement officer. Martin contends that if Brown had been sentenced to prison for life, he could not have shot the deputy.
In this case, Martin probably is right. Brown's list of convictions seems serious enough to have put him away for life. ...
But two-strike, three-strike mandatory sentencing isn't necessarily appropriate in every situation. Judges ought to have the discretion to consider the different aspects of each case that comes before them without using a cookie-cutter approach to sentencing.
No two cases are exactly alike. And extenuating circumstances can affect which sentence is appropriate.
Under Martin's bill, the only one who could exercise such discretion would be the solicitor. This would increase the likelihood that solicitors, who are elected officials, would seek life sentences in high-profile cases but not in less visible cases. The fate of a defendant might depend on the amount of public outrage against him.
We understand the inclination to lock criminals up and throw away the key. But that is one reason our state prisons now are so overcrowded.
Some people deserve to spend their lives behind bars. But the system should be able to dole out appropriate punishments without resorting to one-size-fits-all mandatory sentencing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2012 is Off with a Bang!

The FAMM staff is back in the office, and we hope you had a great holiday season.

And 2012 is already off with a bang.  Today's news roundup is full of all kinds of sentencing goodies:

  • The Crime Report has a useful analysis of recent drops in state prison populations around the country and offers New York, New Jersey, and Michigan (the latter two where FAMM won significant victories) as examples of states combating prison population growth effectively through reforms.
  • This excellent article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette looks at the dangers of mandatory minimums and the power prosecutors have to use (and abuse) them during plea bargaining.  It's part of a bigger, interesting series on the consequences of a drug bust.
  • This Washington Post editorial celebrates the low crime rates the U.S. is currently enjoying and concludes with what any sentencing nerd can tell you:  we still don't really know why.
  • And 2012 could see movement on new state sentencing reforms:  Georgia is considering alternatives to incarceration, and Oregon's Commission on Public Safety is urging more research so that it can propose smart-on-crime sentencing reforms to keep the state's prison population from growing.
  • The Christian Science Monitor has this thoughtful piece titled "Four Ways to Relieve Overcrowded Prisons."
  • This interesting story from The Daily Caller is a warning and a reminder: just because you have a gun carrying permit in one state doesn't mean you can't be charged with a gun crime -- and face a mandatory sentence for it -- in another state.
We'll keep the fascinating sentencing news coming here on the blog, all throughout 2012!

Happy New Year!