Recently in Prisons Category

Common Sense Prevails

| No Comments
If you are a convicted murderer serving a life sentence, well, sorry, you cannot force the taxpayers to cough up the gigantic bill for the sex change operation you declined to pay for yourself before you went to prison.  The Boston Globe has the story.

The en banc First Circuit reversed a district judge who would have forced the government to pony up for this, and today the SCOTUS denied cert.  No dissents noted.

I'm assuming those who relentlessly decry the high cost of incarceration will applaud today's result.
We hear again and again that "over-incarceration" or "incarceration nation" is the subject of considerable public angst, and that there is a "growing, bi-partisan consensus" (see, e.g., here) that we should scale back the prison population ("prison population" being the euphemism for "adjudicated criminals whose offenses are serious enough to earn them a prison term").

Is that proposition true?  Is the public up in arms in any sense about "over-incarceration"?

No, it is not true.  Indeed, the subject barely makes the radar screen, according to this quite informative Washington Post article.  Subjects of more concern to the public are:  Education, budget, healthcare, taxes, transportation, infrastructure, marijuana, energy, jobs, pensions, crime, and ethics.  Only after that is prison (which managed to get mentioned as the third-ranking concern in a total of six states), followed by labor, environment, elections, housing, immigration, civil rights, the economy, guns, privacy and a scattering of others.

So called "over-incarceration" may well be an obsession with the academic left, dead-end liberals and, naturally, criminals, but the public that pays the bill (1) is all but indifferent, and (2) guess what!  --  cares more about crime.

Fact Checking Obama on Crime and Incarceration

| 4 Comments
President Obama said in his State of the Union address:

Surely we can agree it's a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.

Only one problem:  If the President is talking about 2013, which he certainly seems to be (as 2014 statistics on crime and incarceration rates are not yet available), his point is misleading.  The crime rate did indeed fall in 2013 (for the first time in three years), but incarceration increased.  As Obama's own Justice Department reported four months ago:

  • U.S. state and federal correctional facilities held an estimated 1,574,700 prisoners on December 31, 2013, an increase of 4,300 prisoners from year end 2012.

  • The 3-year decline in the prison population stopped in 2013 due to an increase of 6,300 inmates (0.5%) in the state prison population.

  • The federal prison population decreased in size for the first time since 1980, with 1,900 fewer prisoners in 2013 than in 2012.

  • The number of prisoners sentenced to more than a year in state or federal prison increased by 5,400 persons from year end 2012 to year end 2013.

  • The number of persons admitted to state or federal prison during 2013 increased by 4%, from 608,400 in 2012 to 631,200 in 2013.
Today the U.S. Supreme Court decided Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13-6827, regarding a prisoner's right to have a religiously mandated beard under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).  The Court decided unanimously that a 1/2 inch beard posed no threat to an institutional need that outweighed the prisoner's right to free exercise of religion.  The state had not articulated a good reason for not allowing it.

The result in this case doesn't bother me too much.  I am more concerned about the more extravagant applications of RLUIPA, such as the worshippers of Odin and their Annual Pork Feast.  No, I'm not making this up.

A Safer Country, Credibly Reported by the NYT

| 3 Comments
I have not been shy about criticizing editorial stands in the New York Times, most recently its decision to label as "self-pitying" the NYPD's attitude of disgust with the dalliance between Mayor de Blasio and vitriolic enemies of the police, including but hardly limited to Al Sharpton.  The Times used the adjective "self-pitying" to describe the NYPD before the second murdered officer, Wenjian Liu, was even buried.  At that time and under those circumstances, I considered, and still consider, applying the label "self-pitying" to Liu's brothers on the force somewhere between callous and vile.

But credit must be given where due.  Yesterday, Erik Eckholm published a piece in that self-same NY Times noting that, with crime down so much over the last generation, some prominent people in both parties have started to think about reducing prison costs. Not surprisingly, the piece gives most of its attention to those who favor incarceration and sentencing reforms.  Still, when Mr. Eckholm spoke with me in preparing the story, I found him fair and patient, and he correctly quotes me in the article as saying, "When people are incarcerated, they're not out on the street to ransack your home or sell drugs to your high school kid."  I thought that was an apt quotation, summarizing the intuitive reason most people understand that more incarceration means less crime  -- something that has been reliably true for at least the last 50 years.

One quite useful item in the article is a sidebar graph showing the staggering crime decreases since the peak year, 1991.  It was, of course, the early Nineties when the determinate (and tougher) federal sentencing system of the Reagan era  --  copied in many states  --  started to kick in.  More criminals stayed in jail longer.

For those who want to believe that there's only an ineffably mysterious relationship between the amount of crime we get on the street and the number of criminals we take off the street  --  hey, go for it.  There is nothing I'll be able to do to change your mind.

To Live and Lie in L.A.

| No Comments
How much jail time do you get for perjury and fraud in California today?  71 minutes.  Laura Rosenhall reports in the SacBee:

Former state Sen. Rod Wright turned himself in to Los Angeles County jail authorities Friday night to begin a 90-day sentence for his perjury and fraud conviction, but was released before ever seeing the inside of a cell.

Wright, a Democrat, turned himself in around 9:30 p.m. and was released at 10:41 p.m. after being processed and booked, said Nicole Nishida, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

She said he did not get any special treatment for being a politician.

Catch and Release

| No Comments
Federal Judge Richard Kopf at Hercules and the Umpire has this post with a funny cartoon and a serious point.  Down in the comments, he concedes that the point is poorly worded in the original post and substitutes this wording:

My point is really two fold: (1) most of the folks I see should go to prison and most reasonable observers would agree; (2) in the few "close" cases where a judge must decide between prison and probation, I am not good at making that decision personally and [18 U.S.C.] section 3553(a) is not much help.
One of the strongest arguments for continuing to hang tough on imprisonment, and refusing to become unnerved by the racially-charged hectoring of the "Incarceration Nation" crowd, is easy to summarize:  Prison works.  When we have more prison, we have less crime. When we have less prison, we have more crime. It's not a whole lot more complex than that.

This was confirmed once again by statistics posted today on Sentencing Law and Policy, run by my friendly (if defense-leaning) adversary, Doug Berman.  Prof. Berman notes that newly released BJS statistics show that we had a modest decline in crime in 2013.  This is the first time in the last three years that crime went down; it went up in 2011 and 2012.

OK, quick now, what else happened in 2013?  Right you are:  For the first time in the last three years, going back to 2010, the prison population went up.

What an amazing coincidence!!!  But just how amazing is a story that needs to be told, lest we fall for the "smart" sentencing line.

Private Prisons and Recidivism

| No Comments
Lots of interesting stuff in the weekend Wall Street Journal today.  The nonsubscriber links provided should be good for seven days.  The article most clearly on-topic is by Devlin Barrett on private prison companies and rehabilitation.

Damon Hininger, chief executive of Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corp. of America, said in an interview that government clients are increasingly concerned about the long-term costs of housing inmates and are pushing CCA and other private operators to save them money by reducing recidivism, the number of inmates who are released only to do a repeat turn in prison.

He plans to expand the company's prison rehabilitation programs, drug counseling and its prisoner re-entry work in cities around the country. It's a significant shift for CCA, which has built a profitable business from incarcerating people--nearly 70,000 inmates are currently housed in more than 60 facilities. The company is the fifth-largest correction system in the country, after only the federal government and the states of California, Florida and Texas.

"This is a watershed moment for our company and we hope it will be for our entire industry,'' Mr. Hininger said. "We are determined to prove that we can play a leadership role in reducing recidivism and that we have every incentive to do so. The interests of government, taxpayers, shareholders, and communities are aligned. We all just need to recognize that and commit to that.''
My reaction to stories like this is "yes, but..."

The Victims of "Smart Sentencing"

| 9 Comments
Over most of the past decade liberal groups, which originally opposed and have for years sought to eliminate the so-called  "harsh" habitual criminal sentencing policies adopted in the 80s and 90s, have launched collaborative efforts with libertarians and some Republicans to encourage alternative sentencing.  "Right on Crime","Smart on Crime" and "Smart Sentencing" advocates have been successful at changing policies in many parts of the country to reduce sentences for criminals categorized as non-violent, and placing them instead in community programs to help them become law-abiding members of society, with the promise of saving millions in state and federal prison costs.  At a time when crime rates are relatively low, and our European betters and Hollywood movie stars are constantly scolding America as the incarceration nation, the allure of an America where bright, dedicated government employees guide minor offenders off the criminal path is difficult for many to resist. 

Pants on Fire

| No Comments
Dino Cortopassi, a farmer and businessman from California's Central Valley, has been taking out a series of full-page ads in the state's major newspapers (at great expense, no doubt) regarding the spending habits of the state's government.  The series is provocatively titled "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!"  The most recent ad takes on corrections:

The Judicial overcrowding mandate forced a reduction of inmate population in California's prisons. Using that mandate as its cover, Sacramento shifted significant COR costs onto Counties/Cities, while claiming to make Counties/Cities whole via "Realignment" payments. That too was a State con job because Realignment "underfunded" County/City cost increases! By comparing county realignment dollars ($10,900 per capita) to COR avoided costs ($34,960 per capita) the underfunded scam is exposed! i.e., The difference between $34,900 and $10,900 equals $24,000 of per capita costs that COR dumped onto Counties/Cities!

That's why County/City Public Safety costs have become staggering, and virtually all County Jails were forced into inmate "early release" on a daily basis. If your County/City Public Safety costs have exploded, send a Thank You note to Governor Brown! Finally, a 29% reduction in COR's 2011/12 population should have reduced its 2014/15 budget. Surprise! Despite COR's 75,000 inmate/parolee exodus, the 2014/15 budget is HIGHER THAN PRE-EXODUS!  If a cost-cutting Governor was in charge, how could that be?!

Hold Your Horses

| No Comments
The Federal Judicial Conference got it mostly wrong, but got the bottom line right, in assessing the need for "sentencing reform."  That phrase has a more common sense translation meaning, "let felons out earlier than present law would provide and hope for the best."

The Conference Report, out today, noted that:

...policy initiatives curbing over-federalization of criminal law, reforming mandatory minimum sentences and amending the Sentencing Guidelines have the support of the Judicial Conference, but that the Judiciary currently lacks the resources to shoulder resulting increased workload.

"Policy-makers must not create a new public safety crisis in our communities by simply transferring the risks and costs from the prisons to the caseloads of already strained probation officers and the full dockets of the courts," said Judge Irene Keeley, chair of the Judicial Conference Criminal Law Committee." 

**************************

"The Conference most recently supported, with certain conditions including delayed implementation, retroactivity for the Sentencing Commission's recent amendments to the Drug Quantity Table. Implementing this policy on a retroactive basis will result in many inmates being released from prison and into the custody of probation officers, who work for the Judicial Branch.  Without delayed implementation for the Judiciary to seek necessary resources and prepare for this influx of offenders into the probation system, public safety could be compromised."

Very roughly translated, what this means is that we should stand back, take a deep breath, and examine, with patience instead of haste, what the measures already in train (such as lowered present guidelines and DOJ's cutting back on mandatory minimum charges) produce.  Will there be big cost savings?  Or will there be, as there has been in California, significantly more crime?  The Conferences's explicit warning that public safety may be compromised by moving too quickly is a particularly welcome reminder, and should weigh heavily with policy makers.

Dan Walters had this post, with the above title, on the Sacramento Bee's Capital Alert blog last Friday:

Gov. Jerry Brown's "realignment" of criminal justice procedures, aimed at reducing overcrowding in state prisons by diverting more felons into local jails and probation, has not resulted in lower rates of new criminal activity among offenders, a study by the Public Policy Institute of California concludes.

New offenses by those released from custody are known as "recidivism" and putting felons under local control was supposed to include more drug treatment and other programs to reduce their criminal activity.

However, the PPIC study concludes, "We find that the post-realignment period has not seen dramatic changes in arrests or convictions of released offenders. In the context of realignment's broad reforms to the corrections system, our findings suggest that offender behavior has not changed substantially."

"Overall arrest rates of released offenders are down slightly, with the proportion of those arrested within a year of release declining by two percentage points," the authors of the study, Magnus Lofstrom, Steven Raphael, and Ryken Grattet, continue. "At the same time, the proportion of those arrested multiple times has increased noticeably, by about seven percentage points. These higher multiple arrest rates may reflect the substantial increase in the time that released offenders spend on the streets--a result of counties' limited jail capacity."

The PPIC study may provide new ammunition for the critics of realignment who contend that the state is solving its prison overcrowding problem under pressure from federal judges but in doing so is putting new burdens on local governments, particularly county jails, that result in more criminal activity.

A New Way to Smuggle Drugs Into Prison

| No Comments
To heck with body cavities.  Technology carries the day.  And the drugs.

Early Releases: More Cost, More Crime

| 18 Comments
The major promise behind proposed federal legislation to lower mandatory minimum sentences is that it will reduce prison costs while preserving the low crime rate we have achieved over the last 20 years.

That of course is an empirical question.  Many in favor of these proposals, in particular ones like the Smarter Sentencing Act, point to the experience of such states as Ohio and Texas to show that the promise has been kept.

They seem to be much more quiet about the state that has more early releases than the rest of the states combined  --  California.  The second item in today's News Scan shows why:  As the early release program in the Golden State has taken hold over the the last three years, prison costs are up by a whopping two billion dollars and the crime rate is, unlike the majority of the rest of the states, also up.

So what should Congress do with the Smarter Sentencing Act?  I gave the answer in my testimony before the Over-Criminalization Task Force of the House Judiciary Committee last month.

Monthly Archives