According to a new report by the Sentencing Project, there are now 206,268 life-sentenced prisoners in the United States, amounting to one in every seven inmates. As a result of a long-term national crime decline and years of effort in many states to divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison, the nation’s overall incarcerated population has been slowly dropping in recent years. However, the number of life-sentenced inmates has continued its seemingly inexorable increase.
The Sentencing Project has helpfully tracked life-sentence trends in a series of reports since 2004, but the new publication includes a valuable addition to the data: those inmates who do not formally have a life sentence, but whose prison terms are so long that they may be fairly characterized as life sentences anyway. The Sentencing Project defines these “virtual life” sentences as those involving prison terms of at least fifty years. Given an average age at arrest of thirty for violent offenders, and a life expectancy of forty-eight more years for American males of that age, the fifty-year cutoff seems reasonable. Using this criterion, the Sentencing Project counted 44,311 inmates with virtual life sentences (included in the 206,268 figure noted above).
Most of the life-sentenced inmates are at least theoretically parole-eligible. Continue reading “1 in 7 U.S. Prisoners Now in for Life”
It remains the paradigmatic moment in the modern history of tough-on-crime politics. In the summer of 1988, Michael Dukakis, the Democratic Governor of Massachusetts, seemed to be cruising toward a presidential election victory in November. Then, Republican operatives began to pummel him for a horrific failure in Massachusetts’s prison furlough program. This program offered short leaves for inmates to spend time at home, which was thought to help prepare them for their permanent release. The program had a good track record until an inmate named Willie Horton absconded during one of his releases and brutally assaulted a young couple. As the Horton story became more widely known nationally, Dukakis’s lead in the polls evaporated. His eventual loss seemed to confirm that politicians could no longer afford even a tangential association with policies or programs that were perceived to be soft on crime.
The Horton story reverberated for years across the whole field of criminal justice, but perhaps its most direct impact was a sharp constriction in prison furlough programs, which had previously been widely accepted and utilized by American corrections officials.
As furlough programs faded away, so, too, did research on their effectiveness. Although several older studies suggested that furloughs might help to reduce post-release recidivism, there has been a growing need for updated research.
A new paper by L. Maaike Helmus & Marguerite Ternes helps to fill the gap. Continue reading “New Research Suggests Potential of Prison Furloughs, But Shadow of Willie Horton Still Looms”
Juvenile courts were invented at the end of the nineteenth century and spread rapidly across the U.S. Proponents argued that juvenile offenders were more readily rehabilitated than adults, and should be handled through a different court system that focused on treatment and spared offenders the permanent stigma of a criminal conviction. By the 1990s, though, attitudes toward juvenile offenders had grown more pessimistic and punitive. Although juvenile courts were not eliminated, most states adopted reforms that either reduced the maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction or facilitated the transfer of some juveniles to adult court.
More recently, the pendulum of public opinion has begun to swing back in favor of juvenile courts. Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have all expanded the jurisdiction of their juvenile courts. There has also been a push in Wisconsin to raise the age of majority and keep some seventeen-year olds in juvenile court. A few states are even considering raising the age of majority to twenty-one.
Two intriguing new articles explore some of the social consequences of channeling more young offenders into juvenile court. Continue reading “Juvenile Court or Adult? New Research on the Consequences of the Decision”
My new book, The Failure of Sentencing Reform, is now out. (Publisher webpage here; Amazon here.) The book is a sort of coming full circle for me. Back in 2002, near the start of my career as a law professor, I wrote a short essay entitled “The New Politics of Sentencing,” in which I heralded bipartisan sentencing reforms that had recently been adopted in a handful of states. The reforms focused particularly on reversing excessive drug imprisonment and resulted in large part from the fiscal pressures created by mass incarceration. “Faced with crushing budget deficits,” I predicted, “states will no doubt continue to look to corrections as a source of cost-savings.”
Fifteen years later, my prediction has been confirmed: nearly all of the states have now adopted reforms that roll back mandatory minimums, permit earlier release from prison, or promote alternatives to incarceration. Yet, the national prison population stands today essentially where it was in 2002. This is the failure I explore in the book. In particular, I highlight two fundamental flaws with reform efforts to date: (1) an excessive emphasis on moving non-violent drug offenders out of prison, even though this population had not been a major driver of mass incarceration; and (2) an excessive reliance on prosecutorial, judicial, and correctional discretion, with little attention to the fiscal and political considerations that push officials to err on the side of incarceration.
To judge by some of the political rhetoric last fall, violent crime must be surging in our nation’s cities. Is that true? The answer may depend on which city you are talking about, and which neighborhood within that city.
Consider the contrast between Chicago and New York. The Windy City had about 762 homicides in 2016, while the Big Apple had just 334. The difference is shocking, especially when you consider that New York has three times Chicago’s population.
To some extent, the contrasting figures from 2016 reflect longstanding trends. Although murders did spike in Chicago last year, New York has been doing better than Chicago on this score for a long time. The two cities had essentially identical per capita homicide rates in the late 1980s, but New York’s fell much faster and further than Chicago’s in the 1990s. New York has maintained a wide advantage ever since.
Still, the dramatic widening of that advantage in 2016 should be of great concern to Chicagoans. The chart below indicates the trends in recent years, based on FBI data. Note that the two cities moved in sync from 2013 through 2015: homicides down the first year, basically unchanged the next, and then up a little in 2015. However, in 2016, even as Chicago’s homicides shot up, New York’s dropped back down to where they had been in 2013 and 2014.
One should not get the sense, however, that one faces a dramatically elevated risk of violence throughout the Windy City. Continue reading “Chicago, New York Heading in Opposite Directions on Crime; Where Does Milwaukee Stand?”
Ringing in the new year, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released its data on prisoners in the United States in 2015. After rising consistently for about four decades, the U.S. prison population (state and federal combined) peaked at a little over 1.6 million in 2009. Since then, the population has declined steadily, but very slowly. For 2015, the total was a little over 1.5 million, or about 35,000 less than 2014. The continued reductions are encouraging, but must be kept in perspective: the population remains many times above its historic norms. The current rate of 458 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents is over four times greater than the long-term rate of about 100 per 100,000 from before the imprisonment boom. We are still very much in the era of mass incarceration.
The Wisconsin numbers continue to be lower than the national norms, but are moving in the opposite direction. At yearend 2015, Wisconsin’s prison population numbered 22,975, up 1.7 percent from 2014. This amounts to 377 prisoners per 100,000. By comparison, Minnesota’s rate was just 196 per 100,000.
Here are a few additional observations:
Continue reading “U.S. Prison Population Continues Slow Decline; Wisconsin’s Inches Up”
It is widely known that many offenders find themselves in trouble with the law again within a few years of their release from prison, but do the recidivism data reflect specialization among criminals? The question has implications for sentencing, among other things. Judges appropriately take risk of reoffense into account when setting prison terms, but, in assessing these risks, it is important to know not only whether a defendant is likely to commit another crime, but also what crimes the defendant is most likely to commit. We may want to keep our likely future murderers and rapists behind bars as long as possible, but we probably feel quite differently about potential future shoplifters and disorderly drunks.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics is an excellent resource for national recidivism trends. As discussed in this earlier post, the BJS’s most recent major report in this area appeared in 2014. Earlier this week, the BJS issued supplemental tables that speak to the specialization question.
In brief, the evidence points to a modest degree of specialization, varying considerably by offense type.
Consider sexual assault, for instance. Continue reading “Recidivism and Criminal Specialization”
In the Marquette Law School Poll conducted earlier this month, fifty-nine percent of registered Wisconsin voters agreed that marijuana “should be fully legalized and regulated like alcohol.” Only thirty-nine percent disagreed.
Support for legalization in Wisconsin follows the recent decisions to legalize marijuana in Colorado and Washington in 2012, and in Oregon and Alaska in 2014. Nationally, support for legalization has grown steadily since the early 1990s and finally crossed the fifty-percent threshold in 2013.
In the Law School Poll, respondents were asked which arguments for legalization they found most convincing.
Continue reading “Strong Support for Marijuana Legalization in Law School Poll, But Results for Other Drugs Harder to Interpret”
The final version of my article “Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward ‘Truth in Sentencing'” is now available at the BYU Law Review website. Coauthored with Darren Wheelock, this article is based on research conducted through the Marquette Law School Poll. Here is the abstract:
In the space of a few short years in the 1990s, forty-two states adopted truth in sentencing (“TIS”) laws, which eliminated or greatly curtailed opportunities for criminal defendants to obtain parole release from prison. In the following decade, the pendulum seemingly swung in the opposite direction, with thirty-six states adopting new early release opportunities for prisoners. However, few of these initiatives had much impact, and prison populations continued to rise. The TIS ideal remained strong. In the hope of developing a better understanding of these trends and of the prospects for more robust early release reforms in the future, the authors conducted public opinion surveys of hundreds of Wisconsin voters in 2012 and 2013 and report the results here. Notable findings include the following: (1) public support for TIS is strong and stable; (2) support for TIS results less from fear of crime than from a dislike of the parole decisionmaking process (which helps to explain why support for TIS has remained strong even as crime rates have fallen sharply); (3) support for TIS is not absolute and inflexible, but is balanced against such competing objectives as cost-reduction and offender rehabilitation, (4) a majority of the public would favor release as early as the halfway point in a prison sentence if public safety would not be threatened, and (5) a majority would prefer to have release decisions made by a commission of experts instead of a judge.
As I discussed in this post, Wisconsin has achieved one of the nation’s higher rates of reduction in imprisonment over the past decade. To be sure, New York, California, and a few other states have far outpaced Wisconsin in this regard, and Wisconsin’s prison population remains nearly ten times larger than it was in the early 1970s. Still, we may appreciate some overall net progress in the Badger State’s numbers since the mid-2000s. As indicated in the following chart, reduced imprisonment of drug offenders has played a central role in driving this trend:
Continue reading “Decline in Wisconsin Prison Population Results From Fewer Drug Offenders Behind Bars”