My new book, Prisons and Punishment in America: Examining the Facts, is now available. Structured as a series of questions and answers, the book synthesizes the law and social science on sentencing, corrections, and prisoner reentry. Individual chapters cover:
- Sentencing law and practice
- Alternatives to incarceration
- Experience and consequences of incarceration
- Release and life after prison
- Women, juveniles, and other special offender populations
- Causes and significance of mass incarceration in the United States
- Race, ethnicity, and punishment
- Public opinion, politics, and reform
The book is intended to be accessible to readers who do not have training in law or social science, but I also hope that there are some aspects of the book that will be of interest even to those who are already quite familiar with the workings of the criminal justice system.
In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court barred the sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for crimes committed by anyone under eighteen years of age. Grounded in the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment, the Court’s holding recognized only one exception: juvenile LWOP might be permissible in cases involving homicide.
Despite its seemingly straightforward character, the Graham holding has spawned considerable litigation in the lower courts over its scope and application. Two interesting appellate decisions from last month highlight some of the difficulties.
In the first, U.S. v. Mathurin, the Eleventh Circuit had to consider whether a 685-month prison term should be treated as the functional equivalent of an LWOP sentence for Eighth Amendment purposes. Continue reading “New Cases on the Constitutionality of Long Sentences for Juveniles: The Graham Saga Continues”
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that juveniles given a life sentence for nonhomicide crimes must be given “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” But what makes a release opportunity “meaningful”? The Court’s decision earlier today in Virginia v. LeBlanc suggests that the threshold may not be as high as some hoped.
LeBlanc was convicted of committing a rape when he was 16 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of conventional parole. On the face of it, this would seem a clear violation of Graham. However, in federal habeas proceedings, the state argued that LeBlanc would have his “meaningful opportunity” through a geriatric release program, which permits the release of some inmates who are age sixty or older.
Since many other states also have geriatric release programs, the issue presented by LeBlanc has important, national ramifications for the strength of the Eighth Amendment right recognized in Graham.
A district judge and then a panel of the Fourth Circuit held in LeBlanc’s favor. The Fourth Circuit noted the highly discretionary nature of the geriatric release decision under Virginia law, which effectively permitted the releasing authority to disregard an applicant’s “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” contrary to Graham. 841 F.3d 256, 269 (4th Cir. 2016).
A unanimous Supreme Court reversed today in a brief per curiam opinion. Continue reading “Dark Clouds on the Horizon for Graham v. Florida?”
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”
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. Continue reading “Thoughts on the Holder Address: Two Cheers for the New Paradigm”
I’m looking forward to the upcoming conference here, “The Death Penalty Versus Life Without Parole: Comparing the Healing Impact on Victims’ Families and the Community.” The conference was inspired by a fascinating empirical study comparing the long-run experiences of family members of homicide victims in Texas, which has the death penalty, and Minnesota, which does not. Authored by Marilyn Peterson Armour and Mark S. Umbreit and forthcoming in the Marquette Law Review, the article concludes that the Minnesota family members achieved a higher level of physical, psychological, and behavioral health.
The conference kicks off with a keynote address by Armour herself at 4:30 on February 21. The following day will include several panels providing a diverse set of first-hand perspectives on the impact of homicide, capital punishment, and the criminal process on family members, lawyers, judges, and many others. Additional information about the conference is available here.
As I discussed in a recent post, the United States Supreme Court left many questions unanswered in its two recent decisions on life without parole for juveniles. In the first case, Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court banned LWOP for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses. Then, in Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Court banned mandatory LWOP even for juveniles convicted of homicide. These were important Eighth Amendment decisions, but the lower courts have been left to implement them without much guidance.
Yesterday, the California Supreme Court began to address some of the unanswered questions in People v. Caballero. I think Caballero got things right, as far as it went, but the case left much open for future litigation. Continue reading “California Answers Some of the Graham/Miller Questions, Sort Of”
The Sentencing Project has a new report on prisoners sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed while they were under the age of 18. Entitled “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers,” the report presents the results from a national survey of more than 1,500 JLWOP inmates. The report is very timely in light of the Supreme Court’s two pending JLWOP cases — perhaps the new information will help to convince the justices that JLWOP does indeed constitute cruel and unusual punishment, even for homicide crimes. In any event, here are some of the highlights.
Continue reading “Who Are the Juvenile Lifers? New Report Paints a (Mostly) Grim Picture”
The New York Times has a nice editorial today criticizing overuse of life without parole. The editorial endorses the ALI’s position that LWOP should be restricted to cases in which it is the sole alternative to the death penalty. The Times also supports the ALI’s view that life sentences should be revisited after 15 years (which is what is done already in Germany).
There are parallels to this reasoning in an article that I am working on right now that presents a new argument for good time (credits toward early release earned by virtue of good conduct in prison). I contend that good conduct in prison can be thought of as a way that an offender atones for his crimes, and that atonement ought to be recognized and rewarded by the criminal-justice system:
A failure to recognize atonement would itself communicate unsuitable messages about the offender and the community. Communicative punishment is premised on the moral agency of the offender—the offender’s capacity to listen to and be swayed by the community’s censure. But to discount indications that the offender has already recognized the need for atonement seems contrary to this premise. As Radzik puts it, “Not to recognize and nurture moral progress is to deny moral agency.” She worries, moreover, that an inability to respond favorably to atonement reflects a view about the indestructability of wrongdoing that is corrosive of social trust and cooperation. Carried to an extreme, an unrelenting severity in punishment may produce even more anxiety and prove even more socially immobilizing than a persistent and unwarranted lenience in punishment.
The American penal system is plagued by a lack of coherent purposes and clear institutional accountability. If we were interested in a model for how to do things better, Germany might be a good candidate. I’m no expert on the German system, but I’ve just read with great interest a new paper on the way that Germany manages its life sentences. The paper, authored by Dirk van Zyl Smit and entitled “Release From Life Imprisonment: A Comparative Note on the Role of Pre-Release Decision Making in England and Germany,” appears as a chapter in Fervet Opus: Liber Amicorum Anton van Kalmthout (Marc Groenhuijsen et al. eds., 2010).
Although the paper particularly focuses on a fascinating 2009 decision by the Federal Constitutional Court, it also provides some useful background information on the the legal framework for life sentences in Germany. Here are some features that stand out for me. Continue reading “Life Sentences in Germany”