The American Way of Punishment

A new statistical tool shows states have become 165 percent more punitive in the past three decades, even though crime has declined.

‘Sentencing the Crime, Not the Person’

Families Against Mandatory Minimums celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. Julie Stewart, FAMM’s founder, tells TCR we still have a long way to go in changing America’s approach to punishment.

Corrections Reform Isn't Just About Cutting Prison Populations

Population data just released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) show a continued modest decline in the number of people supervised in U.S. correctional systems, averaging a 1 percent decrease annually from 2007 to 2014. This reduction is somewhat greater than the decline in the prison population for this period, and in large part it reflects changes in the number of people under probation supervision. While in recent years there has been an increasing focus on challenging mass incarceration, less attention has been devoted to examining corrections populations overall. The new BJS report underscores the importance of adding this dimension to a reform strategy. The overall decline in corrections populations is encouraging but, as with the prison population figures, it's clear that the national trends remain quite modest.

San Francisco Called a Model for Ending Mass Incarceration

San Francisco has rapidly reduced its jail and prison populations with a series of “best practices” innovations that have built on California's well-publicized legislative reforms enacted since 2009, according to a research study released today. The study adds its success could serve as a model for the rest of the United States. In the study, entitled “Eliminating Mass Incarceration: How San Francisco Did It,” James Austin of the JFA Institute reports that the combined jail and prison rate of incarceration in San Francisco City and County in 2014 (the latest year for which data are available) was 279 per 100,000­–less than one-half the rate for California, and less than one-third the national rate. At the same time, notes Austin, the crime rate has also declined to “historic low levels,” with juvenile arrests dropping by over 60 per cent during the time period he studied. “If the rest of the country could match San Francisco's rates, the number of individuals under correctional supervision would plummet from 7 million to 2 million,” Austin writes.

U.S.: Home to 30% of the World's Incarcerated Women

Although the U.S. has just 5% of the world’s female population, it accounts for nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated women, according to a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. Using 2010 U.S. Census data, the report calculated incarceration rates for women in each state and placed them in a global context, comparing the rates of U.S. states with those of countries around the world. Twenty-five U.S. states held the top positions in the data. Incarceration data for each country was based on information from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research and the United Nations, among other sources. West Virginia leads the world, incarcerating women at a rate of 273 for every 100,000 individuals, the study found.

When Prisoners Go Home, Punishment Isn’t Over

Last month marked the release of more than 6,000 people from federal prison as a result of the Sentencing Commission's 2014 Reduction of Drug Sentences Act. Thanks to this legislation, tens of thousands more people who are incarcerated could benefit from reductions in their terms over the next few years, and new drug-related sentences will be less than in recent decades. And it came not a moment too soon: we are currently saddled with an outdated, unfair, and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources and disrupts communities. While much of the media coverage will continue to traffic in the most damaging stereotypes and tropes imaginable about the formerly incarcerated, it's important to note that they'll be at odds with the vast majority of public opinion. The documented truth is that most Americans support reducing the scope of our nation's carceral system and reforming drug policy.

Sentencing Reform: A Page From the Old Playbook?

It has been a busy month so far for federal criminal justice reform. On October 1, the Senate unveiled the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. On October 8, the House Sentencing Reform Act was introduced. The bills share much in common and have been portrayed as “comprehensive,” “extensive,” “landmark legislation,” a “game-changer,” and “the most important federal criminal justice overhaul in a generation.” But there are many questions about the mechanics of this legislation, as well as questions about the longer-term consequences—such as their impact on federal incarceration levels, racial disparities in sentencing and, importantly, recidivism.

Faith, Crime and the Pope

Pope Francis' historic five-day visit to the U.S. ended nearly two weeks ago, but his thought-provoking challenges to Americans still linger. Perhaps none were more provocative than his comments on criminal justice. On September 24, in an address to a joint session of Congress, he called for global abolition of the death penalty. Three days later, he met with prisoners at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia to expand his message of rehabilitation for those convicted of even the most heinous crimes. “Every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity,” he said in his address to Congress.

Incarceration: An Invisible Tax On The Poor?

Adding a heavy financial burden to people living in poverty, the states and the federal government exact large sums from the families and friends of incarcerated individuals through fees on prison services, such as money transfers and telephone calls, according to an article in the journal Perspectives on Politics, published by the American Political Science Association. In “Taxing the Poor: Incarceration, Poverty Governance, and the Seizure of Family Resources,” authors Mary Fainsod Katzenstein and Maureen R. Waller argue that the justice system effectively is withdrawing resources from poor families to fund its own operations—particularly prisons. “Incarcerated individuals often turn to families for co-pay charges for medical services, commissary purchases, and telephone calls,” the authors write. “After prison, the costs of these financial obligations carry over and new costs are imposed for parole and probation that are rarely affordable without family financial intervention. Absent family financial support, the debt-owing individual is subject to a string of punishments—from further interest levies, loss of motor vehicle or other licenses, garnishment to (re)incarceration, itself.”