Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘tough-on-crime politics

New York Times: “Prisons Rethink Isolation”

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In light of the recently filed lawsuit against Arizona alleging overuse of solitary confinement, the New York Times has some timely reporting on other states that have decided to reduce their use of isolation as punishment — including Mississippi, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Washington State, and most recently, California:

The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types of segregation.

At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States. Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades. More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.

In particular, the article discusses the evidence that prolonged isolation can cause and/or exacerbate mental illness:  Read the rest of this entry »

The Fiscal Crisis and Criminal Justice Reform

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Does fiscal crisis promote criminal justice reform? From reading newspapers and magazines, one would certainly think so. State efforts to cut costs by downsizing prisons have been one of the biggest criminal justice stories in recent years — with articles like this one (on California) and this one (on Oregon and… (the list could go on) now a recurring feature in both national and local newspapers. UC-Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram has coined a term for this convergence of fiscal woes with prison reform: “humonetarianism.” And one of the more intriguing political developments of the Obama era — the sudden reversal of many right-wing politicians from their Bush/Clinton/Bush era “tough on crime” stance — can be explained in part by concerns about the runaway costs to taxpayers of mass incarceration. Yet as Malcolm C. Young notes at The Crime Report, state budget woes can also be “double-edged swords” if they lead states to slash social programs that can help keep people out of prison.

In a (relatively) new paper, UW law professor Mary D. Fan provides some timely scholarly analysis of this seeming trend of “budget-cut criminal justice,” and offers suggestions for how states might move beyond expedient cost-cutting to lasting penal reform. In turn, here’s UC-Davis law professor Elizabeth Joh, writing at the legal blog Jotwell, discussing Fan’s findings:

Some of [the recent state-level prison reform] measures are decidedly modest; about half of the states have introduced “back-end” sentence reductions in their early release and parole programs so that individual prisoners receive small adjustments in their sentences in the interest of collective fiscal savings. Wisconsin has introduced “Taco Tuesdays” to save $2 million dollars a year by shaving off ten cents per inmate meal. Other measures, though, are decidedly more ambitious. Fan draws upon many examples. In 2008, Mississippi amended a law requiring prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentences, so that parole boards could decide to release prisoners after serving 25 percent of their sentences. In 2009, New York amended its law to give counties the discretion to establish “local conditional release committees” to review applicants for early release. In 2010, the Colorado House of Representatives passed a bill with bipartisan support that lowers the penalties for several drug possession and use crimes.

Fan suggests public officials consciously embrace a fiscally responsible, evidence-based approach to penal policies that focuses on alternatives to automatically increasing sentences and warehousing prisoners. Unlike the rehabilitative ideal of the first half of the twentieth century, this rehabilitation pragmatism is less interested in the moral transformation of the prisoner and more concerned with cost-effective measures that nevertheless assure the public of its safety. Fan draws our attention to a moment in our history that may well be a turning point for prison policies that desperately need political will and legislative attention.

Historian Rebecca McLennan on “When Felons Were Human”

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Thanks to a reader who sent me this article by Berkeley historian Rebecca McLennan, which traces the nineteenth-century legal and political changes that have enabled twentieth-century Americans to write prisoners out of the categories of “human” and “citizen.” McLennan writes:

Why do the courts, lawmakers, and majority opinion ignore the mounting evidence that a large-scale human rights crisis is underway in the United States? Why, on those occasions when news media document the most extreme prison abuses, do few of us conceptualize them as human rights abuses? Why, in a country where mass movements mobilized in both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries to protest and change prison conditions, is there so little public concern over prison violence, overcrowding, the long term use of indefinite isolation, and the de jure and de facto erosion of prisoners’ civil rights?

In the course of my work as a historian of American law and society, I have pondered these questions frequently—enough to realize that, as formulated here, they’re in need of considerable refinement. But the history of America’s various modes of legal punishment leads me to suspect that our general failure to recognize certain prison abuses as human rights abuses is largely a consequence of the exceptional and degraded legal and moral status of convicted offenders. If we understand human rights as inalienable rights that flow from the mere fact of being human, it is hard to escape the conclusion that here in the United States prisoners and convicted offenders more generally do not count, at least in the eyes of the law and a vocal minority of opinion-shapers, as fully human. This drastic erosion of prisoners’ status transpired in the last twenty years of the 20th century and is the result of complex social, economic, and political forces. But, as I’ll suggest here, the courts and lawmakers of the nineteenth century helped lay the legal pathway to this dismal state of affairs by reviving and modernizing the early medieval legal fiction of the convict’s civiliter mortuus (civil death).

The article is well worth a read. McLennan is the author of a history of nineteenth-century punishment, The Crisis of Imprisonment, which I also highly recommend to anyone interested in the deep past of the American criminal justice system. A theme of that book is how widespread popular dissent led to the dismantling of systems of imprisonment at several moments in American history.

Written by sara

August 19, 2011 at 7:20 am

How Has Marsy’s Law Affected California Lifers?

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In 2008, California voters passed Prop 9, also known as Marsy’s Law, also known as the Victims’ Rights Bill of 2008. It was designed to decrease lifers’ chance of parole release by lengthening the amount of time between parole hearings, and to give victims a greater opportunity to participate in parole hearings. Thus far the law appears mainly to be succeeding at the former goal. A new study finds that

the passage of Marsy’s Law nearly doubled the amount of time set by the Parole Board between parole hearings. It is unclear whether Marsy’s Law has increased victim participation at parole hearings or has impacted the quality of victim participation at parole hearings.

(Keep in mind that California lifers already have a very small chance of being paroled.)

Written by sara

July 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm

New Study: Prosecutors, Not Police, Have Driven Prison Population Growth

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The United States prison population has exploded over the past 40 years. But why? Have police been making more arrests? Have prosecutors been charging more people with crimes? Have judges been issuing longer sentences? Have parole boards become stricter? (All of the above?) Since many accounts of mass incarceration collapse “the criminal justice system” into a single monolith, it can be hard to know exactly what part of the system has driven the growth in the prison population.

A new empirical study by Fordham law professor John Pfaff aims to provide a more granular explanation of the causes of mass incarceration. Pfaff concludes that only one other relevant number has changed as dramatically as the prison population has: the number of felony case filings per arrest. In other words, police haven’t been arresting more people:

[B]etween 1982 and 1995, arrests rose by 26% (from 3,261,613 to 4,118,039) while mean [prison] admissions rose by 149% (from 212,415 to 530,642); between 1995 and 2007, arrests fell by 28.6% while admissions rose by another 31.9%. It is thus clear that arrests are not driving the growth in incarceration—and by extension neither are trends in crime levels, since their effect is wholly mediated by these arrest rates. 

Rather, prosecutors have become more likely to charge those arrested with crimes:  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

July 18, 2011 at 7:18 am

America’s Prison System as a System of “Permanent Exclusion”

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Continuing what seems to be this week’s theme of LWOP here at the Prison Law Blog, here’s UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich:

Of the 2.3 million people currently behind bars in the United States, only 41,000 – a mere 1.7% – are doing LWOP. Based on these numbers, one might well regard LWOP as the anomaly, and certainly not emblematic of the system as a whole. … I argue that it is LWOP that most effectively captures the central motivating aim of the contemporary American carceral system: the permanent exclusion from the shared social space of the people marked as prisoners. This exclusionist system has no real investment in successful reentry. … If this project is to be abandoned and its destructive effects reversed, the implicit assumption that individuals who have been subject to criminal punishment have thereby forfeited their status as fellow citizens and fellow human beings must be confronted and rejected.

That’s from the abstract to Dolovich’s new paper, “Creating the Permanent Prisoner,” available on SSRN. It’s from the compilation Life without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty?, forthcoming from NYU Press.

Written by sara

June 24, 2011 at 9:11 am

The Federal Judge’s Case for Criminal Justice Reform

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Here’s Fourth Circuit judge Andre Davis, concurring reluctantly with a federal LWOP sentence for crack dealing (h/t Doug Berman):

The record shows that [defendant Tony] Gregg was a classic “utility player” in America’s forty-year “war on drugs”: user, seller, “snitch.” A tenth-grade drop-out (after repeating the second grade and the seventh grade) with four half-siblings, he began to use illegal narcotics in his early teens. For a time, he lived in an abusive family environment; later, he moved between his mother, grandmother, and father, sometimes in Virginia, sometimes in Ohio. As a young man, he attempted suicide more than once (although he described the episodes as mere attempts to “get high”). Throughout his 20s and early 30s, he was in and out of jails and prisons on a regular basis, sometimes for assaultive behavior. …

Understandably, perhaps, to many, Gregg is not a sympathetic figure; they will think: he got what he deserved. To many others, perhaps, matters are not so clear. Indeed, many would say that Tony Gregg seems to be one more of the drug war’s “expendables.” …

This case presents familiar facts seen in courts across the country: a defendant addicted to narcotics selling narcotics in order to support his habit. Unfortunately for Gregg and 
countless other poorly-educated, drug-dependant offenders, current drug prosecution and sentencing policy mandates that he spend the rest of his life in prison. He is not alone: the United States currently has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. …

The mass incarceration of drug offenders persists into the second decade of the twenty-first century despite the fact that research consistently demonstrates that the current approach to combating illegal drug use and drug trafficking is a failure. 

The opinion can be downloaded here (PDF) and is well worth reading in full.

Written by sara

June 24, 2011 at 7:43 am

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