Archive for the ‘Politics of Crime and Punishment’ Category

Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward “Truth in Sentencing”

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Preoccupied by a couple of other projects, I’ve fallen behind in my blogging.  However, I’m pleased to report that one project is now complete and posted on SSRN (available here).  Coauthored with Darren Wheelock (Marquette Department of Social and Cultural Sciences) and entitled “Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward ‘Truth in Sentencing,’” the paper provides more in-depth analysis of the Wisconsin survey research I’ve discussed in a number of posts (e.g., here and here).  The abstract goes like this:

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.

The paper will be published in early 2015 in the BYU Law Review.

Print Friendly

Truth in Sentencing and Early Release: A Follow Up

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

Last week, I spoke on truth in sentencing at Marquette Law School as part of Mike Gousha’s “On the Issues” series.  My PowerPoint slides and a video of the event are available here.  Alan Borsuk summarized some of the key points in this blog post.

If you watch the video, you will see that time constraints caused me to skip over a couple of slides.  I’ll fill in those gaps here and then suggest where I would like to see Wisconsin go with early release.

First, I think one of the most interesting and puzzling aspects of our polling research is that substantial numbers of Wisconsin voters say they support both truth in sentencing (“TIS”) and release from prison when an offender can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to public safety, even though these two policies are in tension with one another.  My Marquette colleague Darren Wheelock and I have been studying this “both-and” group to better understand what underlies their thinking.  Comprising more than one-quarter of our polling sample, I think of this group as the TIS swing voters — the people who support TIS, but not so strongly as to categorically rule out support for a well-designed, well-justified early release program.   (more…)

Print Friendly

Thoughts on the Holder Address: Two Cheers for the New Paradigm

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a widely noted address to the American Bar Association that seemed to promise significant changes in federal prosecutorial policies.  I wrote these reactions for the Federal Sentencing Reporter.

Following decades in which the U.S. Department of Justice has consistently advocated for a rigid and harsh legalism in criminal justice policy—in which DOJ, in the name of abstract principles of national uniformity, has willfully disregarded the devastating impact of its charging, plea-bargaining, and sentencing practices on real-life human beings—Attorney General Holder’s ABA address seems a breath of fresh air. He calls for a more flexible federal criminal justice system, in which prosecutorial charging priorities are more specifically tailored to meet local needs, in which sentencing is more individualized to the offender and prosecutors sometimes forego mandatory minimum sentences, and in which individual U.S. Attorney Offices experiment with new diversion programs as an alternative to conventional case-processing. Holder believes—correctly, I think—that a more flexible and pragmatic system can achieve better public-safety results at a lesser cost than a system in which preserving the integrity of the federal sentencing guidelines is the overriding value.

Through Holder’s address, DOJ offers its most prominent and unequivocal endorsement yet of an emerging new criminal justice paradigm.   (more…)

Print Friendly

New US DOJ “Smart on Crime” Policy

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

AG Holder’s remarks to the ABA earlier this week, announcing new DOJ initiatives, are here.  The related “Smart on Crime” report is here.  Press coverage of the Holder speech focused on the announcement that federal prosecutors would no longer seek to have “draconian” mandatory minimums imposed on low-level drug offenders, but there are other interesting aspects to the new policy, including expanded compassionate release for federal prisoners and a new focus on reentry and collateral consequences.

It seems to me that just about everything here could have been said, and should have been said, two decades ago by AG Reno.  Still, better late than never . . . .

Ironic that this federal backing away from mandatory minimums occurs the very same week we see a push in Wisconsin for new mandatory minimums at the state level.

Print Friendly

Earned Release From Prison: Judges Not Necessarily the Best Deciders

Monday, August 12th, 2013

In 2009, Wisconsin expanded release opportunities for prisoners and established a new Earned Release Review Commission to handle the petitions.  But, just two years later, the legislature reversed course, largely repealing the 2009 reforms and abolishing the ERRC. The 2011 revisions effectively returned authority over “early” release to judges. Critics of the ERRC, an appointed body, maintained that it was more appropriate to give release authority to elected judges.

However, last month’s Marquette Law School Poll indicates that Wisconsin voters would actually prefer to put early release into the hands of a statewide commission of experts rather than the original sentencing judge.

Among the 713 randomly selected Wisconsin voters who participated, a 52% majority stated that release decisions should be made by a commission of experts, as opposed to only about 31% who favored judges. An additional 13% stated that both options were equally good. The Poll’s margin of error was 3.7%.

We asked several questions to try to identify more specifically the perceived strengths and weaknesses of both options.   (more…)

Print Friendly

Truth in Sentencing: We Like the Symbolism, But Have Mixed Feelings About the Practical Policy

Friday, July 26th, 2013

Two-thirds of Wisconsin voters support truth in sentencing, the 1998 law that abolished parole in the state and required prisoners to serve the full term of their sentences.  At the same time, a majority of Wisconsin voters (54.5 percent) agreed that once a prisoner serves half of his term, he should be released and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to society.  These seemingly inconsistent opinions point to complex, mixed feelings about sentencing policy in the state.

The numbers come from the Marquette Law School Poll, which earlier this week released the results of its latest survey of Wisconsin voters regarding politics and public policy.  This edition of the poll included a rich array of questions relating to truth in sentencing.  (Full disclosure: I collaborated in the design of these questions with Poll Director Charles Franklin and Professor Darren Wheelock of the Marquette Social and Cultural Sciences Department.)

The poll results this year were remarkably consistent with results from a year ago, when some of the same questions were posed.  Last July, 63% supported truth in sentencing, while 55% supported release opportunities at the half-way mark.  An even more decisive two-thirds majority supported awarding credits toward early release to recognize prisoners’ rehabilitative accomplishments, which also violates truth in sentencing (at least in the particularly hard-line way in which it was adopted in Wisconsin).

What gives?

(more…)

Print Friendly

If You Build It . . . .

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

The paths followed by crime and incarceration in the United States have been mirror images of one another over the past two decades.  This can be clearly seen in the graph below, which I prepared for an upcoming conference presentation.

crime and imprisonment

The graph depicts year-by-year rates of imprisonment, homicide, and violent crime (the latter based on results from the National Crime Victimization Survey), indexed to 1992 rates. The mirroring effect is most pronounced if you compare imprisonment (green line) with homicide (red): between 1993 and 1999, imprisonment goes up at almost precisely the same rate that homicide goes down; in 2000, there is an abrupt leveling off in both areas; and neither has seen a lot of change since.  The violent victimization line (blue) mostly tracks the homicide line, save for an additional three years of rapid decline (1999-2002) and a notable uptick between 2009 and 2011.

The mirror-image paths might seem counterintuitive.  Shouldn’t less crime translate into less imprisonment?  Let me suggest three theories to account for what has happened.   (more…)

Print Friendly

Riding the Punitive Roller Coaster

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Public support for punitive criminal-justice policies has risen and fallen repeatedly since 1951, Mark Ramirez demonstrates in an extensive new analysis of historical polling data.  Although some commentators characterize the punitive attitudes of Americans as a constant, Ramirez shows that the strength of these attitudes has varied over time.

Measuring public punitiveness has proven difficult.  Simply asking people whether they are punitive seems unlikely to produce helpful results, given the uncertainty and abstraction of the term.  On the other hand, asking about support for any specific criminal-justice policy might or might nor produce answers that are reflective of more general attitudes.  Intuitively, for instance, support for the death penalty would seem a good indicator that a person would also support a range of other policies that are typically characterized as punitive, such as three-strikes laws, but it is hard to rule out the possibility that the death penalty is a unique issue in the minds of many Americans; support may be due, say, to religious beliefs or particular feelings regarding the crime of murder, rather than more general attitudes toward crime and criminals.

Ramirez attempted to overcome this difficulty by aggregating survey responses to several different criminal-justice policy questions.  He identified 24 different survey questions that were asked by national pollsters at least twice between 1951 and 2006.  Many of the questions related to the death penalty, but others touched on three-strikes laws, drug enforcement, law-enforcement spending, imprisonment, and sentencing more generally.  Although the levels of support for different punitive policies varied, they tended to move in unison over time, suggesting that there really is some shifting, underlying attitude that drives support for all of the different policies.

Based on the survey data, Ramirez compiled a year-by-year punitiveness index.

(more…)

Print Friendly

Overcoming the Pathologies of Hypermasculinity in Prison

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Sharon Dolovich is one of my favorite writers on prisons.  I’ve especially appreciated her work on the K6G unit of the L.A. County Jail.  This is a segregated unit reserved for gay men and transgender women.  Her latest article on K6G explores the relatively positive experience of inmates in the unit so as to illuminate the core pathologies of life elsewhere in the Jail, and by extension in most male penal institutions across the country.

As Dolovich sees things, hypermasculinity is the defining characteristic of life in the general inmate population.  Here’s how she describes life in the GP units:   (more…)

Print Friendly

Posner on Stephen: Punishment, Hatred, Struggle, and Power

Monday, March 18th, 2013

I’ve never read the work of the Victorian judge and legal scholar James Fitzjames Stephen, but I am familiar with his famous statement that “it is morally right to hate criminals.”  Richard Posner contextualizes this statement with some interesting commentary about Stephen in a new essay in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law.

As Posner reads Stephen’s work (principally, his three-volume history of English criminal law), Stephen was not really a moralist, but a utilitarian who saw practical value (for him, the same thing as moral rightness) in harnessing the public thirst for vengeance against wrongdoers.  Posner puts it this way:   (more…)

Print Friendly