Recently in Prisons Category

Epstein Jail Guards Indicted

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Rebecca Davis O'Brien reports for the WSJ:

Two federal corrections workers who were on duty the night Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in a Manhattan detention cell have been indicted on federal charges in connection with the disgraced financier's death, according to charges unsealed Tuesday.
In writing my review of John Pfaff's anti-incarceration book Locked In, I was particularly struck by his argument that the absence of the incarcerated, criminal parent from the household was bad for the children and therefore an unaccounted-for cost to society.

This seemed to me to be a bad case of "Can't See the Trees for the Forest Syndrome," i.e., the fallacy of finding a fact that is true for the average of a group and assuming it is true for every member of the group.

Another View of Locked In

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As previously noted on the blog, I wrote a review of Locked In by John Pfaff for the Federalist Society Review. I have recently been reminded of a previous review of the same book at Law & Liberty by Barry Latzer, whose invaluable work I have noted several times on this blog.

John F. Pfaff's Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform is probably the best book on so-called mass incarceration to date. Its great strength is that it is empirically grounded. Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham, doesn't cherry-pick data to support some a priori theory, he grapples with the hard realities that the data present. As he well understands, this makes his argument for reducing imprisonment a very tough sell.

After all, if violent crime and other serious offenses are the primary reasons for incarceration then why should we reduce imprisonment? And if we still wish to disincarcerate, despite the compelling reasons for all the lockups, then how might this be achieved? Unfortunately, Pfaff's answers to these questions are the least persuasive portions of his book.
That is consistent with my view of the book.

Unduly and Harshly Punitive?

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Theodore Dalrymple has this article in the City Journal, contending that popular view that the nation's criminal justice system is unduly and harshly punitive is wrong. The twist is that the nation in question is Britain, not the United States.

Among other points, Dalrymple notes, as I have many times on this blog, that the popular metric of "incarceration rate" as a measure of "harshness" is wrong. I call this the Fallacy of the Irrelevant Denominator. The correct denominator is not the general population but a measure of crime. Getting the right measure is the tricky part.
Sadie Gurman has this article in the WSJ on a wave of prisoner releases today as a result of the First Step Act.

Federal sentencing law has long been more severe than most state laws, and some adjustments are in order. I was in favor of bringing down then-Senator Biden's absurd 100/1 crack/powder ratio for cocaine, for example.

Whether the First Step Act is successfully implemented to separate those who actually deserve earlier release from those who need to be kept locked up remains to be seen. The dismal drafting of the bill certainly is no guarantee. See this post and this letter.

With Bill Barr at the helm, we at least have a shot that this won't turn out to be a massive jailbreak. Of course, administrative implementation can be reversed by a subsequent administration, but the policies established at the threshold do have a tendency to get baked in, so there is some hope.

Violence Surging In CA Jails

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In the roughly 8 1/2 years since California lawmakers embarked on an historic sentencing reform campaign, homicides in the state's county jails have increased by 46%.  Alyssa Hodenfield and John Walker of the Sacramento Bee report that the state's effort to eliminate prison overcrowding has transformed jails into violent and overcrowded mini-prisons with neither the resources, training, or the facilities to serve the influx of hardened repeat felons no longer eligible for prison.  In October of 2011, Governor Brown's "Public Safety Realignment" law, AB 109, took effect.  The law shifted sentences for habitual property and drug offenders from prison to county jails, requiring jails originally designed to hold drunks and petty thieves for a year or less to accommodate habitual drug dealers, wife beaters, car thieves, and commercial burglars for years rather than months.  While the state has classified these offenders as low risk for violence, many are violent, gang-affiliated criminals.  The article cites a study by the Public Policy Institute of California that AB 109 has not had an effect on public safety, although the FBI Uniform Crime Report has shown increased violent crime in California for 2015, 2016, and 2017.  This is the first three-year increase in violent crime since 1992.  Also, as noted in earlier posts, thousands of property crimes converted to misdemeanors by Proposition 47, are no longer reported to police, meaning while the overall crime rate (violent+property) appears slightly lower, this is a false indicator.
Leaders of the notorious Aryan Brotherhood prison gang were indicted in Federal Court Thursday for ordering killings, smuggling drugs, cigarettes and cell phones.  Stan Stanton of the Sacramento Bee reports that the charges are the result of a years long investigation by federal authorities into the gang's activities both in and outside of California prisons. Wiretaps monitored over 1,800 phone calls during the investigation disclosing orders from the gang's leaders for killings, and allowing agents to warn some of the targets before they became victims.  Among the 16 gang members indicted by U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott were two of the gang's leaders, both serving life terms for murder.  Both filed lawsuits against the state regarding solitary confinement at the high security prison at Pelican Bay.  The suits sparked a well- publicized 2014 hunger strike by inmates that resulted in Governor Brown softening state policy and allowing more of the gang's members into the general population.  Investigators say this enabled the gang to expand its illegal activities.  The head of the state prison system, Ralph Diaz disputes this, defending his department's handling of prisons.
Dear Governor Newsom:

If the murderer described in Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado's story in the Fresno Bee is, in fact, convicted of the new crime charged, what punishment do you think is appropriate?

(a) Death

(b) No punishment at all (a.k.a. a life sentence for a person already sentenced to life in prison)

Jamming Prison Cell Phones

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Sherri Lydon, US Attorney for South Carolina, has this op-ed in the WSJ, calling for Congress to amend communications law so that state prisons can jam smuggled cell phones, just as federal prisons do. Inmates use the phones to continue running their crime organizations from within prison.

In addition, in my opinion, prison need to do--and need to be allowed to do--a better job of stopping smuggling generally. When I visited San Quentin a few years back, I was appalled to see that you can get into a prison with less sophisticated scanning than you get boarding an airplane. Our guide said they were going to get the advanced scanners, but the prisoner rights lobby squawed so loudly about invading the privacy of the visitors that they had to back off. There should also be a zero tolerance, one-strike rule for both visitors and staff caught smuggling: one offense and you never visit/work there again.

USDOJ Report on Alabama Prisons

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The U.S. Department of Justice has issued a report on Alabama prisons. The press release is here and the transmittal letter and full report are here.

The principal problem is failure to prevent further crimes by criminals already sentenced to prison. "The Department concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the men's prisons fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and fail to provide prisoners with safe conditions." The fact that the victims of these crimes are mainly other inmates is not a reason to tolerate this.

Prisons should be as secure as they need to be to incapacitate criminals from committing more crimes for the duration of their term. I haven't read the whole report yet, but the incidents described in the introduction all appear to be of the insufficient security variety.

Beware the Next Step

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On Monday, the WSJ published this op-ed by Barry Latzer, who is probably the foremost scholar on crime issues today.

But having passed the First Step Act, lawmakers should be cautious about the next step. Progressives believe that the U.S. overincarcerates and needs to cut back sharply on the number of people in jails and prisons. But the "mass incarceration" claim doesn't withstand much scrutiny.
*      *      *

What about overpunishment? Are penalties so harsh that American prisons are filled with men and women who are languishing there for decades because of some youthful indiscretion? That is the image the disincarceration movement wants to conjure up. But it is false.

First, 23% of felons convicted of violent crimes are sentenced to no incarceration whatever. Second, nearly 80% of state prison inmates are released before serving their full terms. If we measure punishment by actual time served, the picture is not disturbing. Some might argue that America has an underpunishment problem.

*      *      *
The risk in the second step of criminal-justice reform is that it goes too far. The justice system, flawed though it is, provides incentives to desist from crime. The weaker it gets, the greater the risk of a significant crime increase. That happened in the late 1960s: When the crime tsunami began, the system caved in. Police arrested fewer offenders, and courts imposed fewer and lighter punishments. That contributed to the 20th century's worst sustained violent-crime wave.
For more on the history of crime -- which we should neither forget nor repeat -- I highly recommend Professor Latzer's book, The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America.

Faux Pas Act Up for Senate Vote

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The bill titled the First Step Act is coming up for a vote in the Senate as early as the end of this week, Natalie Andrews reports for the WSJ. As I explained in this post in August, the version that passed the House would more appropriately have been called the Faux Pas Act. The Senate version is no better.

As explained in more detail in my July letter to Senator Cotton, the claim that this bill requires participation in "evidence-based" rehabilitation activities to earn credits is a shameless fraud. The definition of "evidence based" is so loose as to be wide open to junk science, and then on top of that the bill allows credits for "productive activities" in the alternative, which can be practically anything the Bureau of Prisons says.

The Senate version also includes some cutting back on mandatory sentencing provisions. I will leave commentary on that to others.

Paul Mirengoff has this post at PowerLine. See also Daniel Horowitz at Conservative Review.

From the WSJ story:

There is a major political push going on to get law enforcement organizations to flip and support the badly drafted and ill-conceived legislation titled the "First Step Act," which I prefer to call the Faux Pas Act.  See this post.

There have been reports that the National Sheriffs' Association, the Major County Sheriffs Association, and the Major Cities Chiefs Association had "gone wobbly" on us, to borrow Margaret Thatcher's famous phrase. They have not.


These three organizations today issued this joint letter.

The current draft of the First Step legislation remains troubling to the leaders of law enforcement. Sheriffs are elected solely to protect our communities, and Police Chiefs have taken an oath to protect the public. We feel unless the changes recommended below are enacted, this legislation creates a high-risk path for dangerous criminals with gun crime histories to early release from prison. This amounts to a social experiment with the safety of our communities and the lives of Sheriffs, deputies and police officers in the balance. Please know that we did not come to this conclusion lightly. We have been working diligently with the Administration to correct these inequities. It is our hope the Senate will listen to the nation's elected Sheriffs and the Chiefs of Police of our nation's most populous cities.
*      *      *
In its current form, we oppose this legislation. However, if these changes can be made to address our concerns, we stand ready to work further with the Senate and the Administration.
Reports that the Fraternal Order of Police has gone wobbly are, unfortunately, true.

And Another 1000

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Every bill in Congress should have two names -- one attached by its supporters and one by its opponents.  H.R. 5682, passed by the House earlier this summer, is titled the FIRST STEP Act, but I would call it the Faux Pas Act.

The drive to put ever more criminals and more dangerous ones on the streets gathers steam, funded by Soros money on the left and Koch money on the libertarian side, leaving relatively few defenders of the strong and sensible policies that have been a major factor in the tremendous drop in crime since the peak in the early 1990s.  Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas is one of the few, and he has this op-ed in the WSJ with the above headline.

While the House bill has some flaws, the Senate can fix them on a bipartisan basis. But under no circumstances should Congress cut mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes or give judges more discretion to reduce those sentences. That foolish approach is not criminal-justice reform--it's a jailbreak that would endanger communities and undercut President Trump's campaign promise to restore law and order.
"Some flaws" is an understatement.  Here is a letter I sent Senator Cotton in July, explaining the flaws in more detail.

But wait, there's more.  Paul Mirengoff has this post at Powerline warning that an even-worse version is gaining momentum in the Senate.  I understand that version has not yet been formally introduced.  Let's hope that the misguided Senators see what they are doing before they take the whole country down California's downward path.

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