Recently in Prisons Category

Ben Mathis-Lilley reports for Slate:

Unrepentant mass killer Anders Breivik's isolated confinement in a three-room prison suite furnished with a treadmill, a refrigerator, a DVD player, a Sony PlayStation, a desk, a television, and a radio constitutes "inhuman or degrading treatment" under the European Convention on Human Rights, an Oslo court has ruled. The court instructed Norwegian authorities in nonspecific terms to relax the restrictions imposed on Breivik and ordered the government to pay his legal fees, which total about $50,000.
Some people argue that we should emulate Europe in our treatment of criminals.  In my view, Europe is a contrarian indicator.  If Europe does X, that makes X somewhat more likely to be a bad idea.

Thanks for the tip to our frequent commenter "notablogger," who notes, "I wish this were a story in the Onion.  Alas, it is not."

The Myth of Mass Incarceration

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Last month I noted Barry Latzer's WSJ op-ed, the Myth of Mass Incarceration.  The ACLU sent in a letter to the editor criticizing the article, and today Latzer has this response.

It seems the ACLU made the common error of citing federal prison statistics to support an argument about incarceration in the nation generally.  As Latzer points out, federal prisons are only 13% of the total and not at all representative.

What Are Prisoners Really In For?

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A pervasive myth in America today, one that we have denounced many times on this blog, is that our prisons are full of harmless people locked up for minor offenses who can be released with no danger to the public.

Hard data are hard to come by, especially at the state level.  The information available is often aggregated into broad categories that make it very difficult to present the truth clearly.  We know anecdotally that overall prosecutors are only seeking prison sentences and judges are only imposing them in cases where they are genuinely deserved, with exceptions being rare.  Still, the myth has a firm hold and has fooled people who should know better.

CJLF has recently obtained data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that tallies up the state prisoner population by offense of commitment at the detailed level.  Marissa Cohen, our Public Policy Director, has put the data into charts.  The pie chart is to the left, and the bar chart is after the break.  Click on the chart for a larger version.

On the pie chart, start at 12 o'clock and go clockwise.  Homicide, robbery, assault, sex crimes, and kidnapping bring us all the way to 9 o'clock.  Three-quarters of state prisoners are in for crimes of violence.  Add in burglary of homes, and we are up to 10 o'clock -- five-sixths.  Burglary of a home is a crime of psychological violence.  The harm it inflicts goes far beyond the monetary damage from forced entry and theft.  The drug offenders are mostly in for trafficking, not possession for personal use.

Jailbreak: A Love Story?

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The search is over.  Three California inmates who managed to escape a Santa Ana jail are back in custody.  The prison teacher arrested last Thursday for allegedly aiding in their escape, however, is being released due to insufficient evidence, for now at least.

Since the daring January 22 escape, word has circulated that the English-as-a-second-language teacher, Nooshafarin Ravaghi, and one of the escapees, Hossein Nayeri, had a relationship that was "close" and "personal," highly atypical for a prison teacher and an inmate, not to mention inappropriate and completely banned.  It is believed that Ravaghi provided Nayeri and two other inmates, Bac Duong and Jonathan Tieu, with a printed photograph from Google Earth to help them escape from the maximum-security facility.  Authorities believe she may have helped them on the outside as well.
Yesterday, Mike Rushford wrote a post detailing the dismal experiences California has had implementing its version of dumbed-down sentencing and early release called "realignment."  Realignment was signed by Gov. Brown roughly five years ago, in April 2011, in response to years of problems with prison overcrowding.

As Mike noted, the results have ranged from disappointing to dreadful.  One promise of realignment has been kept, true:  The state has about 30,000 fewer prison inmates.  But the main promise to the electorate  --  cost savings  --  has been shredded.  As Mike pointed out, the state is spending two billion more per year now on incarceration than when the reforms were adopted.  That would be T-W-O  B-I-L-L-I-O-N.

The other main promise was that Californians would be just as safe.  Crime wouldn't increase; if anything, it would decrease, as the state adopted a more humane attitude and spent more on social services (which it has certainly done to the point of non-trivial bankruptcy concerns).

What has become of that critical promise?
The anti-incarceration crowd has had a surprising amount of success in recent years getting some people of generally conservative leanings to support their efforts.  The pitch has been that reducing prison populations will cut government spending, and there are few things more musical to the conservative ear than cutting government spending.  A funny thing happened on the way to reality.

Robin Respaut has this article for Reuters:

In 2012, under court order to reduce prison overcrowding, California announced an ambitious criminal justice reform plan that promised not only to meet the court mandate but also to improve criminal sentencing and "save billions of dollars."

Now, three years after implementing the changes, California has reduced its prison population by some 30,000 inmates, and the state is in the vanguard of a prison reform movement spreading across the country, with support from both the right and the left.

But the promise of savings - a chief goal of prison reform nationwide - has not been realized. Instead, costs have risen.
...until it actually starts, in which case.....well......you can read about it here.

This is enough to make Prop 47 seem like a model of paying attention.

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.

Oooops.

What Evidence-Based Reform Would Look Like

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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.
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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?

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