US federal prisons are overcrowded and are housing more than 40% of inmates than they were designed to hold. The number of inmates held in federal custody has increased by 500% and continuously increasing. The majority of inmates are serving sentences for drug-related offenses. Attorney General Eric Holder has proposed his ideas on how the criminal justice system should change and would reduce the number of sentences served because of a non-violent crime committed. Holder devised a plan that would free up prisons and limit the number of non-violent offenders in jail. Rather, prosecution will avoid using the “mandatory minimum” as a form of punishment, but direct offenders to drug treatment and community service programs. Attorney Holder gave a speech back in August speaking on his views of the vicious cycle of the criminal justice system that is weakening communities. He believes that the criminal justice system is doing nothing in its power to alleviate the problem. Read More.
New York City has agreed to make a large payment to settle a lawsuit claiming violence against a city inmate. Learn more here.
A number of groups are devoted to reforming youth sentencing. But in the realm of criminal justice activism, life sentences have not been a focus (indeed, many opponents of the death penalty have pushed life without parole as the best alternative to executions). “A good deal of [advocacy] focuses on removing low-level, nonviolent offenders from jails and prisons because they comprise such a large proportion of the incarcerated population,” says Ashley Nellis, an analyst with the Sentencing Project. Whereas the obvious excesses of the drug war have met resistance, when it comes to violent crimes, even young defendants have comparatively few advocates in their corner.
From The Nation’s recent article on juvenile life without parole. Read here.
Just as New York’s highest court holds that expert testimony regarding false confessions may be presented in criminal cases, Cambridge’s own Brattle Theater is presenting Scenes of a Crime this Monday. The documentary looks to be a compelling real-life exploration of “a nearly 10-hour interrogation that culminates in a disputed confession, and an intense, high-profile murder trial in New York state.” Learn more, including showtimes, here.
This week, the U.S. Sentencing Commission held a hearing in Washington, D.C. on federal sentencing after U.S. v. Booker, the Supreme Court decision that made the sentencing guidelines advisory instead of mandatory. Families Against Mandatory Minimum’s VP Mary Price testified that judges are using their discretion wisely and need to be able to continue to give individualized sentences. You can read her testimony here.
FAMM released this statement on President Obama’s new budget proposal, which endorsed the idea of expanding good time credit and compassionate release.
HLS professor and former judge of the U.S. District Court for Mass. Nancy Gertner was counsel of record in an amicus brief (PDF) submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in Dorsey v. U.S. and Corey Hill v. U.S. These decisions will determine whether the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 applies to defendants sentenced after the law was enacted, but whose crimes were committed beforehand. Gertner co-wrote the brief, which argues that denying such application will further “damage the legitimacy of the sentencing process,” with another former federal judge, Paul Cassell. Both authors sentenced defendants under the mandatory-minimum provisions of the 1986 Act, and have written previously to express their deep concerns about the damaging effects and racism of mandatory-minimum penalties for non-violent drug offenders.
Finally, FAMM President Julie Stewart recently published this op-ed in the Huffington Post last week. At a time when some Congress members argue that more prosecutorial discretion will reduce racial disparity, it calls attention to a powerful new study that suggests that much responsibility lies with prosecutors, not judges, for the disparity in sentences between black and white offenders.
Last week, with the ruling that the law to have prisoners in state facilities be counted at their last known address prior to incarceration is constitutionally legal, New York Supreme Court Judge Eugene Devine brought an effective end to the practice of prison-based gerrymandering in the state. This ruling will stop inflation of the political influence of districts containing prisons and the dilution of the votes of minority communities, and can be “considered a major civil rights achievement for New York State.”
To learn more, please check out these couple of articles with links to the decision from The Empire and Prisoners of the Census.
Realignment of the California prison system begins today under AB 109, following the Supreme Court’s mandate in Brown v. Plata, and constitutes “the most radical change in the prison system in decades.” The plan, which will transfer the state’s responsibility for lower-level drug offenders, thieves and other convicts to county jurisdictions, is designed to reduce the state’s corrections costs while also reducing its prison population. The stakes of the implementation of this plan could not be higher, as it represents the first radical shift in prison policy in decades towards prison population reduction, but comes clouded by predictable fears about public safety and variously grounded uncertainties about whether or not California is prepared for this systemic change. Read more here.
In other California news, on Friday, the Pelican Bay hunger strikers’ lawyers requested a meeting with Governor Jerry Brown to discuss their obstructed access to prison facilities resulting from actions by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. The L.A. Times reports here.
On May 23, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of California’s 140,000 prison inmates. As Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority,
For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result….
As a consequence of their own actions, prisoners may be deprived of rights that are fundamental to liberty. Yet the law and the Constitution demand recognition of certain other rights. Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man….
The decision is significant, if overdue (the initial briefs were filed in 2006). Here are a few resources to understand the case and its meaning:
California’s Prison Law Office provides links to resources explaining the history and context of the ruling, as well as what to expect from the CA state government moving forward.
Doug Berman of Sentencing Law and Policy offers up a plethora of commentary.
And The Onion chimes in as well, snarkily as always.