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The Shell Game on the Federal Prison Population

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On Wednesday, the pretend-neutral but actually hard Left Pew Charitable Trusts put out a study titled, "Prison Time Surges for Federal Inmates."  

I did a double take when I saw this, because I know for a fact that the federal prison population is in decline and has been declining for at least the last 24 months (I think it's actually 30 months, but I'm not sure).  I don't know anyone who even disputes this.  So I asked myself what is going on with Pew.

This is what is going on:  The study slams the door at the end of 2012.  The most plausible reason I can think of that Pew headlines with the present tense  --  claiming that prison time "surges"  --  is that its report was timed to coincide with the House Judiciary Committee's approval of the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015.  One of the most important reasons urged in support of that bill is that the prison population, and hence prison costs, are out of control.

It would undermine that rationale for Pew to issue a report titled, "Federal Prison Population Decline Continues," although that would more nearly capture the truth of the matter.

Bottom line:  The Pew report has about the same degree of trustworthiness as Linda Greenhouse's claim that the country has embraced a "widespread de facto moratorium" on executions, when, this year, we have had one every 13 days. 
I have criticized media "fact-checker" columns from time-to-time, as they occasionally show political bias and a loose association with the truth themselves.  WaPo fact-checker Glenn Kessler gets it right this time, though, with four statements by President Obama and candidates Carly Fiorina, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton. 

But the statements ... also reflect a basic misunderstanding of the data on prison populations. We've listed the statements in order, from the least egregious to the most outlandish, to demonstrate how -- almost like a game of telephone -- the facts get increasingly unmoored from the actual data. It's a complex issue, which leads itself to facile explanations.
A big part of the energy behind sentencing "reform" takes root in the belief that we have not only too many people in prison, but the wrong people.  Under this view, prisons are packed with "low level drug offenders" ("pot offenders" is often implied), leaving insufficient room for the "truly dangerous."

As Heather McDonald explains in "The Decriminalization Delusion," this is pure hogwash.  She shows, for example:

[Contrary to President] Obama, the state prison population (which accounts for 87 percent of the nation's prisoners) is dominated by violent criminals and serial thieves. In 2013, drug offenders made up less than 16 percent of the state prison population, whereas violent felons were 54 percent of the rolls and property offenders, 19 percent. (See graph below.) Reducing drug admissions to 15 large state penitentiaries by half would lower those states' prison count by only 7 percent, according to the Urban Institute.

No as to both.

Drug offenders account for less than 20% of the total federal-state prison population, and most of them are in for trafficking hard drugs like heroin and methamphetamine, not smoking a joint.  Essentially no one gets a prison sentence for just smoking a joint.  And the clear majority of prisoners are in for violent crime.

In addition, as the Washington Post reports:

Given the relatively small share of drug offenders, ending the war on drugs would not significantly alter the racial disparity in incarceration rates, contrary to the conventional wisdom.

Blacks make up 37.5 percent of all state prisoners, about triple their share of the population as a whole, according to the Justice Department. If we released all 208,000 people currently in state prison on a drug charge, the proportion of African Americans in state prison would still be 37 percent. 

Translation:  Sentencing reform has been doing a lot of false advertising.  The kinds of proposals we see being put forward about leniency for "low level, non-violent" drug offenders will neither decrease the prison population to anything like what reformers demand, nor will they do anything at all to curb racial disparity in the prison population.

The idea that society should decide about incarceration based on racial statistics is repulsive to me (I guess we don't have enough Jewish prisoners, yes?), but, as the Post article shows, even if we were to adopt it, it won't produce the claimed results.

Chandra Bozelko has this op-ed in the WSJ, including the above statement.  The opening line is, "I made $1.75 a day in prison and I never felt exploited."

"Exploited" is a favorite term of people stuck in the past who still view the world through Karl Marx's glasses.  One might as well try to do advanced mathematics with Roman numerals or study cutting-edge astronomy with Galileo's telescope.

Although I am skeptical of the claimed reduction in recidivism rates with most programs, I have long believed that prison employment is a program we need more of, and Bozelko provides strong personal, albeit anecdotal, support:

The clamor over low inmate pay neglects one essential fact, one that is central to the current preoccupation with justice reform: Inmate work programs are the best known way to rehabilitate prisoners. Honest work elevates people regardless of what they are paid. Work humanizes inmates; employed inmates seem less like caged animals. While they paid me less than two dollars a day, my supervisors valued me as a person and an employee, at a time when no one else did, including myself.
We are endlessly lectured about how "alternatives to incarceration" will cost less, keep us just as safe, and improve rehabilitation.

And that's true, if one spells "rehabilitation" as  E-S-C-A-P-E.  From the Associated Press:

More than 240 inmates have slipped away from federal custody in the past three years while traveling to halfway houses, including several who committed bank robberies and a carjacking while on the lam, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.


What Evidence-Based Reform Would Look Like

We are frequently lectured that the country should adopt "evidence-based" sentencing.  That opaque language is simply code for "reduced prison terms" (or, for many crimes, none at all, see, e.g., Prop 47).

Still, no sensible person can deny that sentencing should, in fact, be based on evidence  --  that is, we need to look honestly at what's happening in the world and make our decisions in light of what we see.

If we do that, two facts stand out.  First, since the evidence shows that increased incarceration has helped bring about a huge decrease in crime (crime rates are 50% lower than they were when "mass incarceration" took off 25 years ago), we should build upon that success rather than cash it in.  You change what's failing, not what's working.

Second, the evidence about what criminals do after release must also inform our thinking, and it is far more depressing. As last week's BJS report recounts (admittedly down in its seventh paragraph), slightly more than three-quarters of prisoners recidivate within five years of release, almost 30% for a violent crime.

In other words, our efforts to rehabilitate have been as much of a failure as our efforts to incapacitate have been a success.  (Not that this is new).

What to do?

My answer, with apologies for "going soft" in my old age, is that we have to treat inmates much better than we do now.
After the Republican Debate Wednesday night, numerous media outlets published "fact-check" stories regarding claims made during the debates.  So far I have not found a single "mainstream media" fact-check story that has questioned Carly Fiorina's whopper, "Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for non-violent offenses, mostly drug related."

As this pie chart illustrates (click on the graph for a larger view), that is not remotely close to the truth.  Why the silence?

Prisoners: What are they in for?

As noted in Steve's post earlier today, at the Republican Presidential Debate last night, Carly Fiorina said, "We have the highest incarceration rates in the world.  Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for non-violent offenses, mostly drug related." Whether this is a whopping falsehood or a misleading half-truth depends on what she meant by "our."
Along with Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Md. has become an epicenter of the Black Lives Matter Movement.  It took root in Maryland in the Freddie Gray case, in which a black drug dealer died in police custody after having been transported  --  under still not clearly known but possibly negligent, or worse, conditions  --  in a police van.  Both black and white police officers have been charged in the death by States Attorney Marilyn Mosby. This was back in April.

Rioting immediately ensued.  The Mayor declared that there needed to be "space to destroy."  Baltimore's rate of violent crime took off.

Six days ago, in mid-August, the Baltimore Sun announced:  "Baltimore records 211th homicide, equalling total for 2014."

It's  not telling tales out of school to observe that the huge majority of Baltimore murder victims are black (it's possible that nearly all of them are, I don't know).  In the wake of the galvanizing of the BLM Movement, and the ensuing fusillade of criticism of the police, there are now dozens more black murder victims in that unhappy city than in decades. 

Is there a lesson here?

Killers and Rapists, Rejoice!

One thing my father taught me was to thank God for your opponents.  As usual, he was right.

My opponents in the sentencing reform battle  --  those favoring mass sentencing reduction and the additional crime that is certain to come with it  --  have been shrewd up to now in being relatively quiet about the fact they they favor releasing killers, rapists and muggers of all sorts along with the fabled "low-level, non-violent" offender.

But, giddy (and careless) with new momentum as more and more Republicans allow themselves to be bull-rushed into sentencing "reform," the other side has prematurely tipped its hand.

It was never about just "low-level, non-violent" offenders; that was the head fake. It was about creating a new violent crime wave in America (something that is already happening as serious policing has come under attack and, in California, Prop 47's dumbing down of the criminal code has started to do its work).

Hat tip to Doug Berman for putting up two op-eds that spell it out.

Prison Transgender Case Moot?

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The clerk of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit today entered this order in Michelle-Lael Norsworthy v. Jeffrey Beard, et al, No. 15-15712:

The Defendants-Appellants' Reply Brief informed the court that "A panel of the Board of Parole Hearings has since provisionally granted Ms. Norsworthy parole." Reply Brief at 22. The parties are ordered to file status reports on or before Tuesday, July 28, 2015 regarding whether this case may be mooted by the Board of Parole Hearings panel's decision and commenting as to any possible effect on whether this court should conduct the oral argument scheduled for Thursday, August 13, 2015. The parties are further ordered to update this court within 7 days of any parole decision regarding the Plaintiff-Appellee.

Obama to Apologize to Criminals

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President Obama will make a trip to a federal prison in Oklahoma and will meet with, among others, inmates.  "Inmates" is another word for "criminals."  The story is here.

I'll take bets here and now that the President will have a great deal more to say about what's wrong with "the system" than what might have been wrong with the behavior of the inmates  --  the behavior that got them sent to prison in the first place.

Really.  I invite bets.  Any takers?

Obama, of course, is scarcely alone in thinking the problem is not in the behavior of hoodlums, but the behavior of the rest of us. Republicans like Rand Paul, Newt Gingrich and numerous others are increasingly falling for the line that criminals are victims (victims of our callousness, that is) and it's the rest of us who need to Get Our Minds Right.

With this thinking so prevalent in Washington and other places like legal academia, the era of falling crime is coming to an end.  We will all be hurt by this, but those who will be hurt the most are those living in the most crime-ridden areas.  This conspicuously would not include White House staff, congressmen and senators, and Soros- or Koch-funded think tanks. 

The Left Goes Bonkers, Part II

In my original "The Left Goes Bonkers," I described a theory that the Just Compensation Clause entitles criminals to whitewash their record and fabricate their resumes' by just making stuff up (or composing "from whole cloth," as the theorist candidly acknowledged).

I had no idea that, instead of merely whitewashing one's prior stint in prison, the Left would come up with the idea of whitewashing  --  or more correctly, eliminating altogether  --  prison itself.

And no, I am not making this up.  The idea is advanced by Prof. Allegra McLeod of Georgetown University Law Center.  If Prof. McLeod has missed a single liberal shibboleth, I haven't been able to think of it.  Below is one paragraph from the abstract of her piece (courtesy of SL&P):

[T]his Article explores a form of grounded preventive justice neglected in existing scholarly, legal, and policy accounts. Grounded preventive justice offers a positive substitutive account of abolition that aims to displace criminal law enforcement through meaningful justice reinvestment to strengthen the social arm of the state and improve human welfare.  This positive substitutive abolitionist framework would operate by expanding social projects to prevent the need for carceral responses, decriminalizing less serious infractions, improving the design of spaces and products to reduce opportunities for offending, redeveloping and "greening" urban spaces, proliferating restorative forms of redress, and creating both safe harbors for individuals at risk of or fleeing violence and alternative livelihoods for persons subject to criminal law enforcement.  By exploring prison abolition and grounded preventive justice in tandem, this Article offers a positive ethical, legal, and institutional framework for conceptualizing abolition, crime prevention, and grounded justice together.

I am seldom left speechless, but this time...................

The Huffington Post, an anti-death penalty outlet, has a story about the escape from maximum security of two New York killers.  It's titled, "Escaped Murderers Left Behind Racist 'Have a Nice Day' Note."  The story begins thusly:

Richard Matt and David Sweat, the two men who were discovered this weekend to have escaped a maximum security prison in upstate New York, left a parting message: "Have a nice day!" But they certainly didn't mean it in a nice way.

Matt, 48, and Sweat, 34, reportedly left the taunting note prior to their escape. The two men, both convicted murderers, were discovered missing early Saturday morning from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York...

The note also includes a racist image -- a "yellow square of paper with a smiling, bucktoothed face," as the Associated Press describes it.

The Huffington Post's article contains not a single word about the grisly nature of the killings, nor about the fact that even the tightest security could not keep the public safe from whatever these escapees have planned next.  This would not be a source of concern had they been executed.

It's telling, and mind-bending, that from a certain point of view, what is newsworthy about this episode is the racist escape note.  It is literally the case that one killer's dismembering one of his victims was not even an afterthought. 

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