Archive for the ‘Politics of Crime and Punishment’ Category

Obama Clemency Grants Pick Up Steam

Monday, September 12th, 2016

Somewhat lost in the run-up to Labor Day weekend and wall-to-wall media coverage of the Clinton and Trump campaigns, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 111 federal prisoners on August 30. This builds on what has quietly become one of Obama’s most significant end-of-term domestic policy initiatives. He has now commuted 673 sentences, more than the previous ten presidents combined.

Commutation (that is, a reduction in the severity of a criminal sentence) is a form of executive clemency. The Constitution expressly grants clemency powers, and presidents since George Washington have used these powers in a variety of different ways. In recent decades, though, there has been a certain whiff of disrepute surrounding clemency. Bill Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich and George W. Bush’s commutation of the sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, among other scandals, contributed to a perception that clemency was unfairly used to benefit wealthy, powerful defendants.

Despite these negative perceptions of clemency, the Obama Administration announced in 2014 that it would welcome commutation applications from certain nonviolent federal offenders. In particular, the initiative focuses on offenders who were convicted many years ago of crimes that would result in a shorter sentence today. Federal sentencing law has undergone several important changes in the past decade, especially in relation to the sentencing of crack cocaine offenses. Federal crack sentences were notoriously severe for many years, with greatly disproportionate effects on black defendants. As a result of the recent changes, thousands of federal prisoners are now serving terms that would be shorter if they were imposed for the same offenses today.

In comparison to the secretive, ad hoc decisionmaking of previous presidents, President Obama’s initiative represents an admirably transparent, principled approach to clemency.  (more…)

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Strong Support for Marijuana Legalization in Law School Poll, But Results for Other Drugs Harder to Interpret

Saturday, July 16th, 2016

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.

(more…)

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Public Attitudes Toward Truth in Sentencing

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

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.

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Marquette Poll Reveals Support for Rehabilitation of Prisoners

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

For the past four years, Darren Wheelock and I have collaborated with Charles Franklin and the Marquette Law School Poll on a series of surveys of public attitudes toward sentencing and corrections policy in Wisconsin.  Our 2015 results, released last week, seem to show remarkably high levels of support for prisoner rehabilitation.  Of those who were asked, more than 80% expressed support for each of the following:

  • Expanding counseling programs for prisoners
  • Expanding job training programs for prisoners
  • Expanding educational programs for prisoners
  • Helping released offenders find jobs

At the same time, there are also indications of substantial, if somewhat lower, levels of support for various punitive policies:

(more…)

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Prisoner Enfranchisement in Ireland

Friday, February 20th, 2015

I was surprised to learn recently from an Irish law professor that Ireland gave its prisoners the right to vote in 2006.  Felon disenfranchisement is such a pervasive fact of life in the United States that many Americans might assume, as I did, that this is the accepted practice everywhere.  This turns out not to be the case.  Ireland is hardly alone, even among the common-law countries, in giving prisoners the right to vote, although the case of Ireland may be unusual in that its legislature acted in the absence of a court directive.  Canada and South Africa, by contrast, required court rulings before their prisoners were enfranchised.  The Irish story is nicely recounted in an article by Cormac Behan and Ian O’Donnell: “Prisoners, Politics and the Polls: Enfranchisement and the Burden of Responsibility,” 48 Brit. J. Criminology 319 (2008).

Before proceeding with the Irish story, a little on the American situation:  (more…)

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Two-Thirds of Wisconsinites Support More Flexibility for Prisoner Releases

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

In 1998, Wisconsin adopted what may have been the nation’s most rigid truth-in-sentencing law, eliminating parole across the board and declining to put into place any alternative system of back-end release flexibility, such as credits for good behavior in prison.  Subsequent reforms to this system have been either short-lived or very modest in scope.  However, new results from the Marquette Law School Poll confirm and strengthen findings from other recent surveys that Wisconsin residents would actually welcome a more flexible system.

As I noted in an earlier post, the Law School Poll has asked Wisconsinites their views about criminal-justice policies in each of the past three summers.  Although the Poll has revealed significant support for truth in sentencing, it has also revealed comparable or even greater support for enhanced flexibility.

In 2012, Poll results included the following:  

  • 85% of respondents agreed that “criminals who have genuinely turned their lives around deserve a second chance.”
  • 67% agreed that “Wisconsin should recognize prisoners’ rehabilitative accomplishments by awarding credits toward early release.”
  • 55% agreed that “once a prisoner has served at least half of his term, he should be released from prison and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to society.”

(more…)

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Wisconsinites Give Criminal Justice System Poor Marks, Especially for Offender Rehabilitation

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

We expect a lot from our criminal-justice system, and we don’t seem very impressed with the results we are getting.  These are two of the notable lessons that emerge from the most recent Marquette Law School Poll of Wisconsin residents, the results of which were released earlier today.

In one part of the survey, respondents were asked to assess the importance of five competing priorities for the criminal-justice system.  As to each of the five, a majority indicated that the priority was either “very important” or “absolutely essential.”  The five priorities were:

  • Making Wisconsin a safer place to live (91.6% said either very important or absolutely essential)
  • Ensuring that people who commit crimes receive the punishment they deserve (88.1%)
  • Keeping crime victims informed about their cases and helping them to understand how the system works (81.0%)
  • Rehabilitating offenders and helping them to become contributing members of society (74.1%)
  • Reducing the amount of money we spend on imprisoning criminals (51.2%)

The especially high level of support for “making Wisconsin a safer place to live” was notable in light of the much smaller number of respondents (21.4%) who said that they or an immediate family member had ever been the victim of a serious crime.  This is line with results from last July’s Poll, which indicated that more than 85% of Wisconsinites feel safe walking alone in their neighborhoods at night.  Still, making the state safer remains a high priority for more than 90% of Wisconsin residents.

Respondents were separately asked how well the system was performing along five separate dimensions.   (more…)

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“Mass Incarceration in Three Midwestern States”–Final Version

Sunday, May 4th, 2014

The Valparaiso University Law Review has now posted the final version of my article “Mass Incarceration in Three Midwestern States: Origins and Trends.”  Here’s the abstract:

This Article considers how the mass incarceration story has played out over the past forty years in three medium-sized, Midwestern states, Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The three stories are similar in many respects, but notable differences are also apparent. For instance, Minnesota’s imprisonment rate is less than half that of the other two states, while Indiana imprisons more than twice as many drug offenders as either of its peers. The Article seeks to unpack these and other imprisonment trends and to relate them to crime and arrest data over time, focusing particularly on the relative importance of violent crime and drug enforcement as drivers of imprisonment growth.

This paper was part of an interesting symposium issue on mass incarceration and the drug war.

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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.

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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…)

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