LA Sheriff Complains About Release of ‘Good’ Inmates

Caddo Parish, La., Sheriff Steve Prator is angry about the new Louisiana sentencing and parole laws going into effect on Nov. 1. Prator appears worried about their effect on the bottom line of his office. “In addition to the bad ones … they are releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change the oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchen — to do all that where we save money,” he said.

Caddo Parish, La., Sheriff Steve Prator is angry about the new Louisiana sentencing and parole laws going into effect on November 1. The sheriff complained loudly that the new laws pose a threat to public safety and weren’t well vetted before the Louisiana legislature approved them last fall, reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Prator isn’t just concerned about the impact on public safety. He also appears worried about their effect on the bottom line of his office. During a press conference last week, the sheriff complained about the so-called “bad” prisoners he thought might commit other crimes once free. He also objected to the release of the “good ones” from prison as well.

“In addition to the bad ones — they are releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change the oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchen — to do all that where we save money,” Prator said. He described these good prisoners as “the ones you can work.” That’s the one that you can have pick up trash or work the police programs. But guess what? Those are the ones that they are releasing.” Criminal justice advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana were appalled by the sheriff’s remarks. “Jails are not supposed to incarcerate people just because they need work done – that is slavery,” said the ACLU’s Marjorie Esman. Many of the state’s 64 sheriffs help pay for their regular law enforcement staff and operations by housing and working state prisoners originally from other parts of the state. They directly benefit from Louisiana’s highest-in-the-world incarceration rate. Some sheriffs have grown so dependent on the revenue that the state prisoners produce, they would have budget troubles without them. Some sheriffs have even borrowed money to build larger jails so they could house more state inmates.


Grassley, Durbin Reintroduce Sentencing Reform

Senators reintroduce proposal to “recalibrate” prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and target violent and career criminals.  The legislation would allow more judicial discretion at sentencing for offenders with minimal criminal histories and help inmates successfully reenter society, while tightening penalties for violent criminals and preserving key prosecutorial tools.

A bipartisan group of senators has reintroduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 to “recalibrate” prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and target violent and career criminals.  The legislation would allow  more judicial discretion at sentencing for offenders with minimal criminal histories and help inmates successfully reenter society, while tightening penalties for violent criminals and preserving key prosecutorial tools. Key sponsors include Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Il.)

The proposal, a similar version of which failed to pass Congress last year, narrows the scope of mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals, while broadening and establishing new outlets for individuals with minimal non-violent criminal histories that may trigger mandatory minimum sentences under current law, says the sponsors. It also reduces certain mandatory minimums and provides judges with greater discretion when determining appropriate sentences.  Under the bill, courts must review eligible inmates’ cases, including criminal histories and conduct while incarcerated, before determining whether a sentence reduction is appropriate. The bill preserves cooperation incentives to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins and stiffens penalties for individuals convicted of serious violent felonies. It also establishes recidivism reduction programs to help prepare low-risk inmates to successfully re-enter society.


MD Inmates Seeking Sentence Cuts Under New Law

With the end of mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug dealers in Maryland on Sunday, hundreds of prisoners may ask judges to shorten their terms. Nearly 500 people incarcerated around the state may seek sentence reductions under the Justice Reinvestment Act,

With the end of mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug dealers in Maryland on Sunday, hundreds of prisoners may now ask judges to shorten their terms, the Baltimore Sun reports. Nearly 500 people incarcerated around the state may seek sentence reductions under the Justice Reinvestment Act, a sweeping package of criminal justice reforms approved by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly and signed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Now public defenders are preparing to file motions on behalf of inmates as early as Monday. Prosecutors are reviewing cases, and identifying those to object to early release.

The busiest jurisdiction is likely to be Baltimore County, responsible for more than a third of the prisoners at issue. “We believe drug dealers are very dangerous and we always pursue a mandatory minimum,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said. “I believe that with many, many drug dealers, violence comes with it.” The repeal of mandatory minimum sentences reflects growing bipartisan concern that they pressure defendants into taking plea deals, take discretion away from judges, and have a disproportionate impact on minorities. Eighty-one percent of those sentenced in Maryland to a mandatory minimum between 2013 and 2014 were black, said the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, a state panel that studied options for criminal justice reform. “The concept that the system can jail its way out of a drug scourge has been shown to be a massive failure,” Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe said. About 80 percent of those now eligible for reconsideration are serving 10-year sentences. Legislators around the U.S. are rethinking mandatory sentences for drug crimes. More than a third of the states have changed penalties for drug crimes in the past five years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.


Hard Time for Sexting Weiner: 21 Months in Prison

The disgraced former U.S. representative from New York City will serve prison time for sending sexual messages to a 15-year-old girl. He had pleaded guilty to transmitting obscene material to a minor and was hoping for probation to deal with a self-described “sickness.”

Anthony Weiner, a U.S. representative from New York City whose uncontrollable sexting habits prompted an ignominious tumble from national prominence, was sentenced Monday to 21 months of hard time, reports the New York Daily News. Appearing gaunt and grim, the disgraced politician was sentenced by Judge Denise Cote for sending sexual messages to a 15-year-old girl. He wore a navy suit and pale green tie – and still sported his wedding band, though he is in the midst of a divorce from Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton. Abedin did not appear in court.

The sentence was an exclamation point on Weiner’s stunning personal and political fall from grace — from a rising-star congressman to a registered sex offender. Prosecutors had sought a sentence of  two years behind bars. Weiner, 53, asked for probation, with his lawyers arguing he is sick and needs therapy, not incarceration. Weiner pleaded guilty on May 19 to transmitting obscene material to a minor, tearfully telling the judge, “I have a sickness, but I do not have an excuse.” That same day, Abedin filed for divorce.


Senators To Try Again on Sentencing Reform

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) will reintroduce the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The two-year-old proposal failed to make it through Congress last year, and the Trump administration may oppose it.

Some U.S. senators are planning to take a second stab at passing a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill after it stalled amid GOP infighting, The Hill reports.

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said Tuesday that they will reintroduce the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. They didn’t specify a timeline. The bill, originally introduced in 2015, would cut mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses and armed career criminals while increasing mandatory minimums for other offenses such as domestic violence.

“While the political landscape in Washington has changed, the same problems presented by the current sentencing regime remain,” Grassley said. Durbin, noting senators have been working on the issue for five years, called it the “best chance in a generation to right the wrongs of a badly broken system.”

The bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2015, with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), a co-sponsor, predicting it could get floor time last year. The legislation hit a legislative wall amid pushback from a small yet vocal wing of Senate conservatives. House Republicans raised questions about whether they would be willing to take up the Senate bill.

See also: Will Sessions Views Continue to Block Sentencing Reform?

 The push to pass the bill could set up a potential fight with the Trump Justice Department, after the president ran as a “law and order” candidate. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was one of the leading opponents against the legislation when he was a member of the Senate.

Sessions, then a senator from Alabama, introduced legislation with GOP Sens. David Perdue (GA), Tom Cotton (AR) and Orrin Hatch (UT) that would require the administration to disclose recidivism rates for federal inmates released because of reduced sentences. The senators called the sentencing bill “dangerous for America.”


MD Governor Vows to Revive ‘Truth in Sentencing’

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, says he will propose tough-on-crime legislation–including longer sentences for repeat offenders–to address the acute problem of violence in Baltimore.

After a closed-door meeting about “out of control” violent crime in Baltimore, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday he plans to propose a major crime package during next year’s General Assembly session that includes truth-in-sentencing legislation, reports the Baltimore Sun. The Republican governor met for about an hour in Baltimore with elected state and local elected officials, all of them Democrats, as well as Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and acting U.S. Attorney for Maryland Stephen Schenning. Afterward, Hogan said he was frustrated that violent repeat offenders are not receiving long prison sentences. “We keep putting the same exact violent people on the streets,” Hogan said.

In other states, truth-in-sentencing legislation has often meant eliminating parole and good-time credits that reduce the sentences of prison inmates. Hogan did not provide details about the bill he will propose. Attendees at the meeting included Mayor Catherine Pugh, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. Hogan invited Baltimore judges to attend the meeting, but they declined, saying it would be inappropriate.


Sessions Backs Henry Hudson for Sentencing Commission

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked President Trump to nominate Henry Hudson, a federal judge and tough-on-crime ex-prosecutor once nicknamed “Hang ’Um High,” for a slot on the seven-member U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is backing Henry Hudson, a federal judge and tough-on-crime ex-prosecutor once nicknamed “Hang ’Um High,” for a slot on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, reports the Wall Street Journal. The recommendation to the White House reflects the Justice Department’s crackdown on violent crime, including the reversal of several Obama-era policies. DOJ is urging the commission to toughen sentences for certain violent criminals, drug offenders, illegal immigrant smugglers and so-called career offenders.

The department has asked the panel to preserve long, mandatory-minimum sentences, which supporters say help fight crime but critics say inflate prison costs and disproportionately hurt minority communities without improving public safety. President Trump has the authority but is under no requirement to fill two Republican vacancies and one Democratic spot on the seven-seat commission. Hudson was a candidate for FBI director this year. “I’m excited about the opportunity to serve on the commission,”Hudson, who serves in the U.S. District Court in Richmond, Va., told the Journal. “I’d like to make sure the guidelines are fair and consider every possible factor in a case.”


The ‘Lies’ Behind the Selling of California’s Prop 47

A recent California Supreme Court ruling ensured that the state’s prisoner realignment policies will keep the most violent offenders behind bars. The president of the LA Deputy DA’s association argues that was a needed “common-sense” corrective to reforms in the state’s Three-Strikes law.

Politics will never exist without spin doctors. Yet, as cynical as our political system has become, recent California ballot measures sold to the public as “public safety” measures have gone beyond the pale.

Nearly every soft-on-crime law enacted in the last half decade included the words “safe” or “safety” in the description. No two better examples exist than Propositions 47 and 57.

In California, Prop 47 advocates called it the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.” Prop 47 did nothing for neighborhoods except to dramatically increase property crime. It did nothing for schools except for making undelivered promises to increase funding.

Editor’s Note: Proposition 57 (2016)  increased parole and good behavior opportunities for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes and allowing judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to try certain juveniles as adults in court.

Last month, the California Supreme Court delivered some common sense reality to Prop 47 in People v. Valencia.

At issue were “third strikers” — criminals who have two or more prior convictions for serious or violent crimes. Under the “three strikes” law, a criminal who had two or more prior “strike” convictions and who then committed any new felony offense would receive a sentence of 25 years to life.

As originally written and implemented, that sentence was mandatory unless a judge used her discretion to “strike” one or more of the prior convictions at sentencing. But the public became disillusioned with a sentencing scheme that was, at times, perceived as inflexibly harsh.

In 2012, with the passage of Proposition 36, the 25-years-to life sentence was limited to cases where the new felony offense was also a serious or violent crime. It also allowed inmates sentenced under the old rules to petition for resentencing.

Crucially, however, a judge could deny a petition to reduce the sentence if the court, in its discretion, determined that the inmate “would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public.”

Enter Prop 47. It reduced certain drug and theft felonies to misdemeanors. Prop 47 also had a resentencing provision which allowed inmates to petition for a reduction in their felony sentence if that crime had since been reduced to a misdemeanor.

Michele Hanisee

Like Prop 36, Prop 47 gave the court discretion to deny a reduction if resentencing “would result in an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety. But the discretion granted was so limited as to be illusory.

Under Prop 47, a judge could only refuse to reduce the sentence if he or she found an unreasonable risk that the inmate would commit one of eight specific types of violent crime: homicide, attempted homicide, murder, solicitation to commit murder, sexual assault on a child under age 14, assault with a machine gun on a police officer or firefighter, possession of a weapon of mass destruction, or any offense normally punishable by life or death.

Based on the overlap in these different provisions, two third-strike inmates petitioned for resentencing, arguing that the language contained in Prop 47 should apply to them.

The California Supreme Court observed that if the petitioners’ argument was correct, it would make it easier “for recidivist serious or violent offenders to have their life sentences vacated, and render them more likely to be released.”

The California Supreme Court wisely rejected the inmate’s appeal, holding that there was nothing in Prop 47 that suggested it was intended to apply to serious and violent third strikers seeking resentencing. “[N]either the initiative’s text nor its supporting materials describe any intention to amend the criteria for the resentencing of recidivist or violent felons….”

Nor, said the court, was such a result predicted by the Attorney General or the Legislative Analyst in their summary of the measure—or discernible to the voting public.

Most illuminating, however, was the dissent of Justice Liu, who in blasting the majority for the decision wrote: “The court today concludes that the drafters of Proposition 47 pulled a fast one on an uninformed public.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

With their deliberately misleading title referencing “safe schools” and platitudes about public safety, the drafters of Prop 47 fooled the public to accomplish their goal of decriminalizing property crimes and releasing convicted criminals from custody.

Those behind Prop 57 took their cues from Prop 47, selling the public with assurances that its early parole provision only applied to “non-violent” offenders. That’s news to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, whose published regulations on early parole explicitly include inmates sentenced to prison for violent offenses.

Recently, we saw an example of that regulation in effect, with the Fresno DA’s office highlighting an inmate who attempted to stab two people being paroled two years into an eleven-year sentence thanks to Prop 57.

Lawyers can pore over the Valencia opinion for its lessons on the intricacies of statutory construction.

The big takeaway from Valencia was contained in the dissent, which inadvertently highlighted a truth worthy of repeating: “The court today concludes that the drafters of Proposition 47 pulled a fast one on an uninformed public.”

Editors’ Note: For another view, see TCR story, “California Officials Say Prison Realignment Puts State on Right Track.”

Michele Hanisee is President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys (LADD), the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles. An earlier version of this essay was published in the LADD website. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Mass Incarceration: Prisoners of Time

Under get-tough anticrime laws from the 1980s and 1990s, prisoners’ average length of stay has grown in every state since 2000, a report by the Urban Institute finds.

Despite the enactment of justice reforms in many states, the nation’s prison and jail population has dropped only slightly in recent years. Well over two million people remain behind bars, and there has been little dent in the “mass incarceration” that that has been criticized by many on both the left and the right.

A new report from the Urban Institute tells much of the reason why: Prisoners sentenced to long terms under laws passed in previous decades still are locked up, and there is little hope for many of them to get out soon.

The key phrase used by those who follow the criminal justice system is “length of stay,” or the amount of time that a convicted person ends up spending in prison despite the stated sentence.

In “A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons,” the institute said that “more people have been going to prison and staying there longer, mostly because of “tough-on-crime” policies that swept the country in the 1980s and ’90s. The prison population boomed as sentences got longer and release policies got more restrictive.”

In the past, many convicts were released by parole boards or by other policies well before the maximum time they could have served. Reacting to criticism of these so-called early releases, many states enacted laws requiring all prisoners to stay through at least 85 percent of their sentences.

The Urban Institute report found that the average length of stay has grown in every state since 2000. In almost half of states, the top 10 percent of prison terms increased in length by more than 5 years between 2000 and 2014.

States that have data going back further reported numbers that the institute called even more dramatic. In Michigan, the average time served among the 10 percent longest- serving prisoners was 10 years in 1989 and 26 years in 2013. In California, it was 9.7 years in 1992 and 24.9 years in 2014.

The report took a look at “stark racial disparities” that it said grow as people serve longer terms in prison, judging from figures in the 35 of 44 states with complete data. In Pennsylvania, black people make up 49 percent of the state prison population but 60 percent of those serving long prison terms.

One in five people in prison for 10 years or more is a black man who was incarcerated before age 25.

In fact, nearly 40 percent of those serving the longest prison terms went to prison before 25, despite research showing that brain development is not complete at younger ages.

Advocacy groups in recent years have touted reforms states have adopted to reduce their prison populations. Yet those changes have focused mainly on low-level crimes. Some new laws have reduced prison time for minor offenses, but the “the narrow focus of these reforms has intentionally excluded those who stay in prison the longest,” says the new report. “These changes have an outsized effect on the prison population, because people convicted of violent offenses make up more than half the people in state prisons and the majority of people with long prison terms.”

One effect of the longer terms is that states are spending millions of dollars caring for an aging prison population although many inmates could be safely released, the institute says. Also, people serving long terms leave their families behind, a problem confronted disproportionately by minorities. Many who finally are released are unprepared to live in a different world, and recidivism rates are high.

To get a realistic view of the impact of long terms, authors of the study interviewed several people who have served long terms.

One of them was Stanley Mitchell, who spent 35 years in a Maryland prison. Sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, he was released in 2013 at 63. “Does prison, long-term incarceration, change people?,” he said. “Sure it does. Does it change them for the better? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. More times than not, it doesn’t. It makes a person more bitter, more hateful, especially when…the rules are not applied fairly.”

Another ex-inmate, Elvin Garcia, said, “I’ve seen individuals do long sentences…[and] by the time they’re released, both parents died. They have no immediate family left. No one.”

Advocates of the tough-on-crime policies that resulted in today’s long sentences argued that they would improve public safety and bring healing to crime victims. Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s Attorney General, is a proponent of longer prison terms.

The institute’s report argues that “decades of experience have revealed long prison terms to be a weak antidote to the problems that cause violence and a painfully inadequate answer to victims’ calls for resolution and healing.”

The report notes that long-term inmates often are among the last in line to get educational programming behind the walls and may have little incentive to take part if they don’t see release coming any time soon.

The institute suggested a series of principles for reform, including that sentences should be proportionate to the offense and the circumstances surrounding it, that punishments should be no more severe than necessary, that victims be offered a variety of ways to support justice, that everyone deserves a meaningful chance of release, and that “reforms must seek to dismantle systemic disparities” along racial and ethnic lines.

A series of specific recommendations to implement changes includes: assessing candidates for parole based on who they are now, not on their original offense; and establishing a standard of “presumptive parole,” releasing prisoners when they are first eligible “unless there is clear evidence that their release poses a significant threat to public safety.”

Several reform advocates have proposed significant shortening of prison terms. For example, Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project maintains that most prison terms should be no longer than 20 years. And a group called “#cut50” contends that “we can smartly and safely reduce the number of people in our prisons and jails by 50 percent and keep communities safe while doing it.”

No states have enacted such a plan, and most have not even seriously considered it.

In Louisiana, the state with one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, the legislature approved changes this year that would reduce penalties for low-level offenders, but elected sheriffs and district attorneys blocked more sweeping bills that would have affected violent criminals.

The Urban Institute’s report aims at convincing policymakers to “dismantle the disastrous policies that have inflicted so much damage while doing little to address the real problems of crime.”

The report was funded by the Open Society Foundations, which did not determine the research findings. The authors are Leigh Courtney, Sarah Eppler-Epstein, Elizabeth Pelletier, Ryan King, and Serena Lei.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


The State of Mandatory Minimums: Federal Report

The use of federal criminal charges that carry a mandatory minimum prison term has dropped since 2011, reports the U.S. Sentencing Commission. That is likely to change under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The use of criminal charges that carry a mandatory minimum prison term has dropped since 2011,  according to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC).

However, in a multi-year study evaluating the use and impact of mandatory minimums for federal offenses, the commission also found that white offenders convicted of crimes carrying a mandatory minimum are now serving the highest average sentences.

As of September 2016, over 55 percent of inmates in federal custody had been charged with a crime that carries, or triggers, a mandatory minimum prison term. The average sentence was 110 months, or 9.1 years– over four times the average sentence for other crimes.

Among inmates who had received sentencing relief in court, the average sentence was still twice as long as for other federal crimes.

The commission notes that impact from policy changes during the later years of the Obama administration is unlikely to have influenced the data in its report.

The USSC issued its last analysis of federal mandatory minimums in 2011, and made several key recommendations to Congress– including that it “reassess the severity and scope” of enhanced sentences triggered by drug crime recidivism. While several bipartisan bills on sentencing reform have been introduced, none has passed.

Policy directives and practice changed between 2010 and 2017, though. Former Attorney General Eric Holder loosened the mandate to charge offenders with the “most serious offense” supported by the facts, requiring individualized assessment of the charges. He later issued a memorandum instructing prosecutors not to seek maximum charges under certain specific circumstances.

Since then, the Supreme Court has modified directives issued in the Holder memo, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has instructed prosecutors to once again seek the harshest possible charges.

The full Sentencing Commission report can be found here: Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System.