SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: Should the Court Care How Effective a Statute Is?

In my previous post, I noted a number of the considerations that the Supreme Court emphasized in its criminal statutory interpretation cases from the past term.  In this post, I will highlight one recurring point of controversy, that is, whether the Court should try to maximize the effectiveness of statutes in achieving their overarching purposes.

Abramski, the firearms purchase case, provides a good illustration.   (more…)

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SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: Causation Cases

Author’s Note: With this, I begin a series of posts that will review the Supreme Court’s criminal cases from the now-concluding term.

The Court’s docket this term included two interesting causation cases that came to somewhat different conclusions. The cases were Burrage v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 881, which dealt with criminal responsibility for a drug-related death, and Paroline v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 1710, which dealt with restitution for a child pornography victim. In both cases, the Court had to grapple with tensions between traditional, narrow understandings of causal responsibility in the law and a natural human desire to hold bad actors accountable for tragic harms with which they seem to have some connection, even if that connection is a tenuous or uncertain one.

Burrage nicely illustrates the tension.   (more…)

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SCOTUS Interprets Criminal Statute Narrowly to Preserve Federal-State Balance

In an opinion sure to be cited by many federal criminal defendants for years to come, the Supreme Court yesterday overturned the conviction of Carol Anne Bond under the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act.  Although few defendants are prosecuted under this statute, the Court’s decision in Bond is noteworthy for its approach to the interpretation of federal criminal statutes.  The Court adopted a narrow interpretation of the Implementation Act in order to preserve what it called the “usual constitutional balance of federal and state power.”  (12)  This interpretive principle is not a new one, but the Court applied it in an unusually aggressive fashion in Bond.  The opinion is sure to be a favorite of defendants who find themselves prosecuted in federal court for offenses traditionally and routinely handled in state courts.

The underlying facts in Bond were a mix of the mundane and the bizarre.   (more…)

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SCOTUS Strengthens 8th Amendment Protections for Intellectually Disabled

In 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court prohibited capital punishment for defendants who suffered from what the Court then called “mental retardation.” However, the Court did not prescribe any particular process or standards for determining which defendants qualify.  Florida adopted a particularly restrictive approach, refusing even to consider the full spectrum of evidence of intellectual limitations if a defendant’s IQ had not been scored 70 or lower.  Earlier this week, in Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court rejected this test for failing to take into account the standard error of measurement (SEM) of IQ tests.  “This rigid rule,” Justice Kennedy wrote for a narrow 5-4 majority, “creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional.”  (Along the way, the Court expressly changed its preferred terminology from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability.”)

Kennedy’s reference to “unacceptable risk” goes to the heart of the disagreement between the majority and the dissenters.   (more…)

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“Mass Incarceration in Three Midwestern States”–Final Version

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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Which States Have Reduced Their Prison Populations in the Past Decade?

By 2002, in the wake of a recession that caused major fiscal challenges in many states, there was an increasingly widespread recognition that the American imprisonment boom of the 1980s and 1990s was not economically sustainable.  Dozens of states adopted new sentencing and corrections policies that were intended to restrain further growth in imprisonment.  These reforms seem to have had some success, as imprisonment rates finally stabilized after so many years of explosive growth.  However, very little progress has been made toward bringing U.S. imprisonment rates back down to our historical norms.  The “if you build it, they will come” principle seems in evidence — after so much prison capacity was built in the boom years, we’ve found ways to keep using it even as crime rates have tumbled down.

A few states have had success, however, in downsizing their prison populations.  Here are the ten states whose prison populations dropped between December 2002 and December 2012:

New York             -19%
New Jersey           -17%
California             -16%
Connecticut          -15%
Michigan              -14%
Maryland              -9%
South Carolina     -5%
Wisconsin             -5%
Rhode Island        -2%
Hawaii                  -1%

Even the largest decreases on the list are rather small compared with the size of the pre-2002 increases.  Nonetheless, some might wonder whether reduced imprisonment has resulted in more crime.  With that concern in mind, I gathered data on violent crime in the five states that experienced double-digit drops in imprisonment.   (more…)

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Oh, Those Woeful Recidivism Numbers

Every decade or so, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics releases a big national study of prisoner recidivism. The latest BJS research came out last week, and the numbers were no less depressing than they were in 2002. Here’s the report’s lead:

Overall, 67.8% of the 404,638 state prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states were arrested within 3 years of release, and 76.6% were arrested within 5 years of release.

Simply put, failure is the norm, not the exception, for individuals released from U.S. prisons.

High recidivism rates constitute the most difficult and important challenge for those of us who would like to see fewer long sentences and more generous opportunities for inmates to earn early release. If most prisoners are rearrested shortly after they get out, doesn’t that lead inexorably to the conclusion that we should err on the side of more, not less, time behind bars?

Certainly, the woeful recidivism numbers should take indiscriminate, mass releases off the table. On the other hand, I think it is possible to overstate the significance of national rearrest rates for sentencing and corrections policy. These numbers should be the start, not the end, of the conversation.

(more…)

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Violence in the Heartland, Part VI: Cities Within the City

My most recent posts in this series have compared violent crime data from different cities.  However, focusing on a single crime-rate number from a city may mask wide neighborhood-to-neighborhood variations within the city.

Consider Milwaukee.  A helpful on-line data tool permits interesting comparisons among the city’s seven police districts.  The data reveal that rates of violent crime vary within the city by about as much as they do across cities.  Here, for instance, are the homicides per 100,000 district residents since 2010:

District 5, encompassing the north-central portion of the city, has easily had the highest homicide rate each year, while Districts 1 (downtown and northeast) and 6 (far south) have easily had the lowest.  (District boundaries are described in more detail here.)

Robbery rates reflect a similar pattern:  (more…)

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Violence in the Heartland, Part V: Wisconsin’s Cities

Since 1985, Wisconsin’s seven largest cities have followed markedly different paths in their rates of reported violent crime.  Two, Waukesha and Appleton, have consistently had lower rates than the state as a whole, while two others, Milwaukee and Racine, have typically had rates that are two to three times higher than the state as a whole.  Kenosha and Racine have significantly reduced their rates of violence since the 1980s, while the other five cities have experienced sizable net increases.

Here are the overall trends, in the form of reported violent crimes per 100,000 city residents:

Cities year by year

In recent years, as you can see, Waukesha has easily had the lowest rates and Milwaukee the highest.  Earlier, Appleton used to compete with some success for lowest and Racine for highest.

Here are the net changes in the cities’ crime rates from 1985-1987 to 2010-2012:   (more…)

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