The commission’s analysis of demographic prison data from 2012 to 2016 found that black men serve sentences that are on average 19.1 percent longer than those for white men for similar crimes.
The racial disparity in sentencing can’t be accounted for by whether an offender has a history of violence, according to the study by the commission, an independent bipartisan agency that is part of the U.S. federal judiciary branch.
“Violence in an offender’s criminal history does not appear to contribute to the sentence imposed” except as it may factor into a score under sentencing guidelines, the study said.
When accounting for violence in an offender’s past, black men received sentences that were on average 20.4 percent longer than that of white men, according to the commission’s analysis of fiscal year 2016 data, the only year for which such data is available.
The new study updates an earlier commission report in 2012, known as the Booker report, that came after a Supreme Court decision in 2005, United States vs. Booker, which permitted judges to enhance an offender’s sentence based on “facts” determined by their own judgment. Before then, federal judges were only allowed to sentence an offender based on guidelines provided by the sentencing commission
According to the non-profit organization, The Sentencing Project, the U.S. is the world’s leader in incarceration, with 2.2 million people in prison as of 2015, a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years.
The Sentencing Project also found that black men are nearly six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated, and Hispanic men are 2.3 times as likely. For black men in their 30s, one in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day, according to 2015 data cited by the organization.
Yoga Behind Bars, a Seattle based non-profit organization, visits eight of the department’s twelve facilities. Yoga Behind Bars, which started in 2008, has approximately 40 volunteers that travel to state correctional facilities. Programs like yoga, aid in supporting people’s ability to grow and change, a core value of the agency.
Yoga classes at the Monroe Correctional Complex meet twice a week. Classes at the facilities regularly have 25 to 30 students with some classes even having waiting lists. Yoga is offered to all custody classifications from minimum to maximum custody and there is even a mindfulness program in segregation. To better serve the population, thirteen inmates have become certified yoga instructors.
Excellent. Yoga is an excellent way to manage stress. It’s holistic benefits allow people – and especially inmates – deal with negativity throughout their day in a healthy way. Hopefully, inmates will reap the many benefits of yoga and continue practicing it after they’re released from prison.
In Entler v. Gregoire, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a prisoner may not be disciplined for threatening to file civil suit against prison staff. The filing of a criminal complaint against prison officials by a prisoner, as well as the threat to do so, are protected by the First Amendment, provided they are not baseless.
John Thomas Entler is a prisoner at the Washington State Penitentiary (“WSP”). During the summer of 2012, he took issue with certain incidents at the WSP and submitted written complaints to the prison officials involved.
In all but one, Entler threatened to initiate civil litigation if his concerns were not addressed; in the other, he threatened to file a criminal complaint against a number of state officials and have them arrested. Entler was disciplined for these threats under a Washington Department of Corrections (“DOC”) regulation that bars prisoners from
intimidating or coercing prison staff.
Later, Entler brought a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated when he was disciplined for threatening to initiate civil litigation and file a criminal complaint against prison officials.
The complaint ended up in federal court.
The Defendants – here, the DOC – moved for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c). Initially, the federal district court summarily adopted Magistrate Judge Hutton’s Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) recommending that Defendants’ 12(c) motion be granted and that the complaint be dismissed with prejudice.
Entler sought reconsideration. In a written decision denying Entler’s motion, the federal district court, disagreeing with the magistrate judge, held that Entler’s informal complaints were not protected by the First Amendment because they “were not part of the grievance process”; but the court agreed that there was a “rational connection” in the “particular context” of the case with the correctional institution’s “legitimate penological interest,” namely the “peaceable operation of the prison through the insistence on respect.” The court also agreed with the R&R that, in any event, “defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.”
This appeal followed.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals began by saying that running a prison is an inordinately difficult undertaking, and that it should give adequate consideration to the judgment of the prison authorities.
“We cannot, however, condone punishing a prisoner for simply threatening to sue if his grievances are not addressed,” said the Court of Appeals. It reasoned that regardless of the prisoner’s misdeeds—however reprehensible—prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution:
“The most fundamental of the constitutional protections that prisoners retain are the First Amendment rights to file prison grievances and to pursue civil rights litigation in the courts . . . for without those bedrock constitutional guarantees, inmates would be left with no viable mechanism to remedy prison injustices.”
With that, the Court reasoned that Entler did exactly what he was “expected” to do by the DOC Grievance Program Manual: he sought informal resolution of his concerns through regular administrative channels prior to utilizing the grievance machinery by submitting “kites” to the appropriate prison officials. “This is as it should be,” said the Court. “Entler gave the prison administration the opportunity in the first instance to attempt to resolve his concerns and thus obviate the need to engage in the formal grievance process—with its attendant administrative burdens and costs —and litigation.”
Furthermore, the Court reasoned that it may well be that if the prison officials were able to address Entler’s concerns rather than to punish him for his threats to sue, this litigation might never have come to pass. “It would have been a good thing,” said the Court.
In 2012, the year Entler initiated this suit, prisoners nationwide filed 54,402 of the 267,990 civil cases brought in the district courts.14 In 2016, the most recent year with complete statistics, these filings had increased to 76,417 out of 292,159.15 Thus, over 25% of the district courts’ civil caseload in our country entails prisoner litigation.
The Court of Appeals concluded that Since Entler has alleged cognizable First Amendment
retaliation claims regarding his threats to sue, it was improper to dismiss the complaint in its entirety under Rule 12(c). However, in regard to Entler’s threat to file a criminal complaint, even
My opinion? Good decision. As the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said, “The most fundamental of the constitutional protections that prisoners retain are the First Amendment rights to file prison grievances and to pursue civil rights litigation in the courts.” Exactly. Prisons are nowhere fun, and they’re not easy to manage, but an inmate’s Constitutional rights do not totally disappear once they’re incarcerated. Indeed, the only right inmates have left to exercise is the First Amendment. And denying them that one right – the right to express themselves – chills free speech. Pure and simple.
In her article titled Visions of Freedom, author Hanna Kozlowska discusses a New York art exhibit where artists capture the artistic requests of inmates held in solitary confinement.
The project “Photo Requests from Solitary” offers inmates held in solitary confinement a chance to ask for any image that they want, and to get their request fulfilled by professional photographers, artists. The inmates’ ideas range from the mundane to the elaborate—from a simple photo of a frog in its natural habitat, to an imaginary scene where a black man dramatically unshackles.
According to Kozlowska, the exhibition opened Sept. 13 as part of Photoville, a photography festival in New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park. Viewers see the requests and the photos alike. It’s meant to raise awareness about solitary confinement, as a movement to abolish isolation in New York prisons is gaining ground. Meanwhile, the photos,sent to inmates in their cells, provide them some form of relief in conditions of extreme sensory deprivation and isolation proven to be psychologically damaging.
“The idea is that human imagination can survive even this,” said Jean Casella co-director of the watchdog group Solitary Watch.“When you ask people what they want to see, there’s never any shortage of images or fantasies… Part of the message of this show is that you can’t take that away, no matter what you do.” The exhibit also shows the inmate’s detailed requests, which the organizers say are just as powerful, if not more moving to the viewer.
When discussing a poetry exchange with inmates, someone asked if they could send the prisoners photos. But with each photo sent, the inmate would have to give up one of their own. Reynolds asked: “Why not ask them what they want?”
Tamms was shut down in 2013, and the project was expanded to other states. The Brooklyn exhibition shows requests and photos from New York.
Over the years, certain categories emerged in what the inmates wanted to see in their cells. “I think those categories are useful in thinking about the experience of being in prison,” Reynolds says.
My opinion? It’s a wonderful idea. Legally speaking, there’s strong debate that solitary confinement is “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Cruel and unusual punishment includes torture, deliberately degrading punishment, or punishment that is too severe for the crime committed.
Artistically speaking, inspiration can come from many places. Dark and lonely places; even, where people are forgotten, downtrodden, separated from families and their aspirations destroyed by their choices and terrible circumstances. What do prisoners think about when placed in solitary confinement? What does one dream and yearn for? These visions of freedom are powerful indeed.
An unknown number of those 500-plus facilities have also adopted “remote” video visitation, something akin to Skype, in which a “visitor” can communicate with an inmate via a computer, from any location. Unlike the in-facility video visitation systems, these remote setups come with charges of up to a dollar per minute, not counting account-deposit fees and set-up charges—expenses that can be quite burdensome for the often-poor families of inmates.
Despite the expense, however, the benefits cannot be ignored. Many visitors may conclude that driving to the jail is a waste of time and gas, and opt to pay. And jailers argue that video visitation has obvious security advantages and improves staff efficiency, as deputies don’t have to remove a prisoner from a housing unit or check visitors in.
Additionally, the revenues cannot be ignored either. Video chat systems make jailers—whether local governments or private corporations—the de-facto business partners of the companies, while enriching private-equity firms (which own many video-visitation providers) and their investors. “Video visitation is a link in the whole system that sees inmates as a revenue opportunity,” says Daniel Hatcher, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and the author of The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens. “It’s part of a larger system that sees the broader vulnerable family as a revenue opportunity, too.”
A LUCRATIVE BUSINESSReporter Brian Alexander says that inmate-communication services have proven to be a very lucrative business, and expensive phone charges borne by the families of prisoners have stoked controversy for years. In response, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped per-minute rates in 2015. Prison-telecom companies sued. President Trump’s appointee to head the FCC, Ajit Pai, dropped the FCC’s defense of the rate-cap rules, and, in June, a court struck them down. Even so, the phone charges became a scandal and some in Congress vowed to take action. Administrators began to feel queasy about the rates.
The procedural hurdles and the outright bans on in-person visitation seem designed to nudge visitors to stay home and visit remotely. This not only benefits providers, but jails, prisons, and local jurisdictions too, which can use income from company commissions or profit-sharing to benefit the facility, a county’s general fund, or some other local cause. For example, the Prison Policy Initiative uncovered a contract between Securus and Maricopa County, Arizona, that provided for a 10 percent commission to the county of gross monthly revenues, but only if the number of paid video visits reached at least 8,000 for that month. If Securus grossed $2.6 million or more, the county’s percentage rose to 20 percent.
VIDEO VISITATION NO REPLACEMENT FOR IN-PERSON VISITS.
Alexander emphasizes that video visitation is no replacement for in-person visits. As an oft-cited Minnesota Department of Corrections study from 2011 showed, “prison visitation can significantly improve the transition offenders make from the institution to the community. Any visit reduced the risk of recidivism by 13 percent for felony reconvictions and 25 percent for technical violation revocations.” Also, a report by the National Institute of Corrections (part of the U.S. Department of Justice) similarly concluded that video visitation “cannot replicate seeing someone in-person, and it is critical for a young child to visit his or her incarcerated parent in person to establish a secure attachment.”
INVESTORS ARE PIQUED
Meanwhile, because the largest inmate telecom-and-video providers generate a healthy flow of cash, they’ve attracted the interest of private equity, or PE. The fees that flow upward from prisoners and their families find their way to these firms and their investors. In 2013, for example, Global Tel Link, another major inmate phone-and-video provider, borrowed $885 million to fund dividend recapitalizations at the behest of its PE sponsor, American Securities; that debt would be paid back with the proceeds from inmate calls and video visitations.
VIDEO CHAT: GOOD OR BAD?
Alexander says that even a critic like Hatcher, the author and law professor, believes that video visitation has the potential for good. Such a service can complement in-person visits. It could allow an inmate to see a child’s school performance. It could substitute for an in-person visit when weather makes travel to a jail or prison hazardous. But Hatcher fears that it’s being used to restrict contact and drain money from people who are often already poor.
Interesting article by Stephen Dinan of The Washington Times claims that a stunning 22 percent of the federal prison population is immigrants who have either already been deemed to be in the country illegally or who the government is looking to put in deportation proceedings, the administration said Tuesday.
All told, the government counted more than 42,000 aliens in federal prisons as of June 24. About 47 percent already face final deportation orders, making them illegal immigrants, and 3 percent are currently in immigration courts facing deportation proceedings.
Almost all of the rest are being probed by federal agents looking to deport them.
Immigrants who commit serious crimes, even if they once had legal status, can have that status revoked and can be subject to deportation, which explains the high number of cases where an alien is still being probed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The U.S. Marshal Service, meanwhile, is holding about 12,000 “self-reporting” aliens, and almost all of them have already been ordered deported.
Government officials said they’re still trying to collect information on the foreign-born population in state and local prisons and jails.
Kelly suggest reforms to rein in the charging powers of prosecutors. He recommends the creation of independent panels of clinical experts that would screen offenders and recommend to prosecutors who ought to be diverted to treatment.
“There is nothing about punishment that changes the underlying conditions, disorders and deficits that the majority of criminal offenders bring into the justice system,” Kelly says. Arrestees with mental illness, substance-use disorders, homelessness and other problems churn through the system and into prison, where the underlying issues that led to a lawless life are ignored.
In a conversation with TCR Contributing Editor David J. Krajicek, Kelly explains why he believes the system should incorporate more carrot and less stick for offenders and how the Trump administration’s approach threatens to make things worse. He also suggests that the public already has a more sophisticated view of how to fix the system than our political leaders.
The Crime Report: What is the impact of the country’s justice policy failures?
William R. Kelly: The short financial and statistical answer is that over the past 45 years, we have spent $1 trillion on the war on crime, $1 trillion on the war on drugs and have accomplished a recidivism rate of 65 percent. Nearly all of this effort has focused on trying to punish crime out of people, based on naïve conceptions of criminality such as “hanging around with the wrong people” and “making bad decisions.” The evidence is quite clear that crime has much more complex origins and correlates.
What we have accomplished is a nearly perfect recidivism machine, placing all of us at the unnecessary and avoidable risk of criminal victimization, and wasting extraordinary amounts of money.
TCR: You refer to “the culture of American criminal justice.” What are its key characteristics and how do you change it?
Kelly: It is squarely based on the “tough on crime” mantra. This has dictated the decisions of legislators, prosecutors, judges, and corrections officials. The focus over the past 45 years has been driven by retribution and misguided assumptions that punishment deters re-offending. The question that has been routinely asked is how much punishment does this offender deserve. A more productive question for many offenders is how do we reduce the likelihood a particular offender will reoffend…
We need to provide clear incentives to motivate changing how we think about crime and punishment. Cost-benefit analyses conclusively show that behavioral change through clinical intervention like mental health and substance use disorder treatment is much more effective and cost efficient. The financial advantages should motivate legislators and local government officials. Reducing recidivism should be an incentive for prosecutors, judges, public defenders, and probation and parole officers, who will benefit from reductions in caseloads. Then there is the greater good of enhanced public safety, something we incorrectly assume the justice system already does.
TCR: You say the facile American view of crime and punishment got us here. Have voters grown more sophisticated, or are reform-minded pols still at risk of being Willie Hortoned?
Kelly: Public opinion data demonstrate that much of the public has a more nuanced view of crime and punishment than many legislators, prosecutors and judges. The public believes that the purpose of corrections is to rehabilitate offenders and therefore reduce recidivism. Many have moved beyond “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”
Unfortunately, many policymakers, elected officials and some segments of the public still seem to be holding on to the idea that criminals are just bad people deserving maximum punishment. I’m sorry to say that Willie Horton is alive and well…There appears to be a reluctance to really embrace meaningful, comprehensive criminal justice reform.
TCR: You write, “We have arrived at the nadir of politics and policy.” Did you write that before or after Donald Trump’s election?
Kelly: I wrote that before Trump was elected when I incorrectly believed that we had already reached bottom. Who would have thought that anyone with any sense of history and even a superficial exposure to the evidence would run as the law-and-order candidate and resurrect the war on drugs?
TCR: How do you demonstrate that “tough” and “dumb” are synonyms when it comes to criminal justice?
TCR: Who’s to blame for the state of “correctional malpractice” you say we are in?
Kelly: First and foremost, elected officials who have blindly championed “tough on crime” policies to their political benefit, but to the detriment of public safety and the prudent use of tax dollars. State legislators and Congress have provided the mechanisms for tough on crime—mandatory sentences, restrictive parole release laws, and an ever-expanding criminal code that seems to make criminal justice the go-to system for just about every social ill.
But the culpability of elected officials goes well beyond that. The vast majority of offenders in the criminal justice system have a substance-use disorder, 40 percent are mentally ill, and 60 percent have had a least one traumatic brain injury often leading to neurocognitive dysfunction…The decision to not properly fund public health, schools and social welfare agencies has created problems that by default are managed by the criminal justice system.
Criminal justice reform means much more than merely reforming the criminal justice system. It requires massive changes to and investment in a variety of collateral institutions.
TCR: Your book articulates and recommends a scientific approach to justice reform. Yet science is out of favor in Washington and many state houses. Is there a scientific path forward?
Kelly: Yes there is, but I am afraid that we need to disguise it for some, by minimizing the science and emphasizing the public safety benefits and cost savings.
TCR: You note an overlooked data point: The country has 21 million people with substance-use disorders, the world’s third-highest rate. What explains this particular American exceptionalism?
Kelly: It is largely a result of the lack of public substance abuse resources, including inadequate treatment capacity and insurance coverage. Much of it can be attributed to the failure of the war on drugs and the belief that we can either punish or threaten substance abuse out of people. Criminalizing substance abuse rather than treating it as a public health problem has led to the failure to provide adequate funding for treatment.
Unfortunately, the picture is bleaker. The majority of substance abuse and mental health treatment in the U.S. is paid for by Medicaid. Current versions of repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act call for substantial cuts to Medicaid. That does not bode well for a problem that is crippling the country, the economy, communities, families, and the justice system.
TCR: You write that we have used an absurdly simplistic approach (lock ‘em up) for a boundlessly complex problem. Explain briefly the research on co-morbidity among inmates.
Kelly: The vast majority of offenders in the criminal justice system have clearly identifiable disorders, deficits and impairments. Many have more than one disorder, known as co-morbidity or co-occurring disorders. For example, the majority of offenders with a mental illness also have a substance-use disorder. Neuro-cognitive problems are often co-morbid with mental health and substance abuse. It does not require a clinician to appreciate that “lockin’ ‘em up” does nothing to alleviate these conditions and in fact typically exacerbates them.
When we do attempt to address these problems–diversion to a drug court or a mental health court–our focus is on just one crime-related condition. Our correctional treatment and rehabilitation efforts typically ignore co-morbidity.
TCR: What do the rest of us in a presumably civilized society owe these damaged people?
Kelly: I don’t think it’s so much what we owe them, but what do we owe ourselves: lower crime and recidivism, lower risk of being victims of crime, and lower cost of criminal justice. We have the tools to accomplish these things, but making it a political priority has been elusive.
TCR: You compare the U.S. system to those of Germany and Holland; it doesn’t stack up well. You cite one lesson we can learn from those countries: “If you treat inmates like humans, they will act like humans.” How is it possible that we don’t know that already?
Kelly: In order to justify our draconian and dysfunctional reliance on punishment, we need to think of criminals as “not like us” in fundamental ways, as deserving retribution and harsh punishment. Punishment is what we have been told is the only thing “these people” will understand.
Psychological research confirmed a long time ago that, in most cases, incentives work much better than punishment for changing behavior. This is another example of the disjuncture between scientific evidence and criminal justice policy.
TCR: Your key recommendation is an “unprecedented expansion” of diversion away from court toward intervention and treatment. Describe the panel review process you suggest.
Kelly: Traditional criminal prosecution, conviction and punishment are entirely appropriate for many offenders. For example, violent offenders and chronic, habitual offenders probably need to be separated from society through incarceration in the interest of public safety. For many others, such as non-violent offenders and many drug offenders, we have a much better chance of reducing recidivism by diverting them and mitigating the factors that are associated with their criminality. One of the key issues here is making good decisions about who to divert and who to prosecute.
We developed the concept of independent panels of clinical experts to facilitate better decision-making, both in terms of who should be diverted and what treatment or intervention will decrease the probability of recidivism. Offenders often have complex clinical needs that require the special expertise of psychiatrists, psychologists and clinical social workers who can assess and diagnose, determine the risk of re-offending, and make recommendations to prosecutors.
The goal is to divert appropriate individuals away from traditional prosecution to situations where their risk can be supervised and managed and where they can receive adequate treatment and intervention.
TCR: And this is the “disruptive innovation” of your book title?
Kelly: The panels are part of it. Implementing this concept will require a substantial shift in how prosecutors do their jobs, as well as how we think about crime and punishment. In effect, this requires changing the criminal justice culture.
We also argue that all levels of government need to address major deficiencies in public health, a fundamental consideration in assuring adequate capacity and expertise for intervention and treatment. The bigger picture is that criminal justice reform requires disruptive innovation of collateral institutions, such as public health.
TCR: And how might it be greeted by prosecutors, who hold all the power right now?
Kelly: This will not be easy. However, reasonable incentives for prosecutors should be recidivism reduction, in turn reducing caseloads.
The primary reasons that prosecutors’ caseloads are so large and unmanageable relate to the failure to reduce recidivism.
TCR: You say these changes will force us to redefine success in our justice system. How so?
Kelly: Success should be measured by recidivism rates, something directly related to performance of criminal justice. As it stands now, there really is no accountability. Everyone involved in criminal justice–legislators, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and corrections officials–should all be held responsible for recidivism reduction. That would also be a disruptive change.
TCR: Tell me about the process of partnering with Robert Pitman and William Streusand in this book.
Kelly: I wrote the book, but both Pitman and Streusand played very important roles in devising solutions. For example, Pitman, a former U.S. Attorney who is now a federal judge, brought his knowledge and expertise to the task of developing statutory and procedural details for how the expert panels would fit into the roles and responsibilities of prosecutors, defense counsel and judges.
The input of Streusand, a psychiatrist, was crucial in the development of the clinical protocol for the expert panels and assessing offender dysfunction, as well as the discussions about fixing public health.
TCR: You were going through a serious health crisis while writing this book, as you point out in the introduction. I hope you are doing well. I wonder if that diversionsomehow informed the book’s content.
Kelly: Thank you. I am in complete remission and feel very blessed. To be honest, it could not have worked out any better. I was diagnosed in early March of 2016, when I had a rough draft of one chapter written. I was so fortunate that I had this project to distract me from the reality of being pretty sick and going through some difficult chemo. It was also fortuitous that I had two collaborators who are very good friends and played important roles in my recovery.
I’m not sure that being sick informed the content, but I suspect it influenced the tone. If I sound impatient at times in the book, it is probably a result of being confronted with the reality that life is short.
**Excellent article, and excellent book by Mr. Kelly.
In The Prison Paradox, author Don Stemen summarizes the weak relationship between incarceration and crime reduction, and highlights proven strategies for improving public safety that are more effective and less expensive than incarceration. He writes that, despite its widespread use, research shows that the effect of incarceration as a deterrent to crime is minimal at best, and has been diminishing for several years.
“Indeed, increased rates of incarceration have no demonstrated effect on violent crime and in some instances may increase crime,” writes Stemen. “There are more effective ways to respond to crime—evidenced by the 19 states that recently reduced both their incarceration and crime rates.”
The report suggests that policymakers should adopt “crime reduction strategies that seek to engage the community, provide needed services to those who are criminally involved, and begin to address the underlying causes of crime.”
Measuring Public Safety
In Measuring Public Safety, author Bruce Frederick examines erroneous conclusions about current crime trends—using both existing and original research—and describes how to avoid common pitfalls when interpreting statistics on violent crime.
“With a few hyper-localized exceptions that require targeted attention, violent crime rates are lower today than they have been at any point over the past four decades,” says Frederick. “However, this era of public safety has been misrepresented by some media reports and public commentary concluding that violent crime increases in a few cities equal a sweeping national problem.”
Apparently, over-generalizing data on homicides from a small sample of major U.S. cities has led to premature conclusions being drawn about a nationwide reversal of the general decline in violent crime.
Such reports were “unfounded,” the Frederick says, adding that today’s relatively lower crime rates are “not a cause for complacency because some of our communities are experiencing significant increases in violent crime.”
My opinion? It’s important for criminal defense attorneys to be informed and aware of crime trend data. Oftentimes, our judiciary mistakenly cites unproven or misinterpreted data when they hand down lengthy prison sentences to citizens convicted of crimes. Therefore, it’s important to “fact check” and assist our judiciary in making clear, reasonable decisions whenever possible using studies like those mentioned above.
Article by Samantha Michaels of Mother Jones discusses how one out of every nine prisoners in the United States is currently serving a life sentence—a record high—even as the overall prison population has fallen.
That’s according to a depressing new report by the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that’s been tracking life sentences since 2004. Almost 162,000 people are now serving life behind bars, up from 132,000 about a decade ago and 34,000 in 1984.
To put that in perspective, for every 100,000 people in America, 50 have been locked up for life. That’s roughly the total incarceration rate—including inmates whose sentences are just a few months—in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. And it doesn’t even account for the tens of thousands of Americans handed sentences of 50 years or more, which are considered “de facto life sentences,” says Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project who co-authored the report.
What’s driving the uptick? It’s not a rise in violent crime or murder—both have dropped substantially since the mid-1990s. Nor is it an increase in the number of criminals behind bars: A majority of states saw declining overall prison populations from 2010 to 2015.
According to Michaels, the continuing rise in lifers is a legacy of three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentencing.
“It may also be related to the shift away from capital punishment,” she says. She further elaborates that in some states that no longer allow executions, elected officials like governors and prosecutors have championed life-without-parole sentences—which account for the biggest increase in life sentences nationally—as a way to appear tougher on crime.
“Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, said in 2012 when his state abolished the death penalty. But these lengthy punishments probably aren’t keeping the public safer. “The impulse to engage in crime, including violent crime, is highly correlated with age,” the Sentencing Project notes. “Most criminal offending declines substantially beginning in the mid-20s and has tapered off substantially by one’s late 30s.”
The biggest losers of all this? Minorities. Of all the lifers and de facto lifers in the country, almost half are African American. What’s more, 12,000 of the total are locked up for crimes they committed as kids, though some are eligible for release thanks to recent court decisions.
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles who didn’t commit homicide. In 2012, the justices went further, saying that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for kids, including those who committed homicide, are also unconstitutional. Nineteen states and DC now ban any kind of life-without-parole sentence for juveniles.)
Finally, according to Michaels, it’s important to remember that many of the prisoners serving these long sentences never actually hurt anyone: Two-thirds of lifers or de facto lifers in the federal system committed nonviolent crimes—and one-third of them are serving time for drug crimes.
My opinion? We shouldn’t be surprised. Over the past 20 years, Americans have seen a significant increase in the harsh penalties for intoxicated drivers. Perhaps this is necessary move given the thousands of lives lost to drunk drivers. Speaking as a criminal defense attorney, there’s serious question as to whether people commit these violations purely out of willful disregard for the law and for the safety of others or because of an untreated mental illness or alcohol addiction. Nevertheless, public outcry has led to increased sentences.
Many attorneys in Whatcom County and Skagit County claim to represent clients in DUI cases, but not all attorneys have the experience and successes of attorney Alexander F. Ransom. To learn more about DUI laws or if you have been charged with a driving offense, make your first call count. Call the Law Office of Alexander F. Ransom today.