An increasing number of people, up to and including the Attorney General of the United States, have condemned mass incarceration in the United States. The effects of having 5 percent of the world's population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners housed within our borders are profound.
In the two weeks since Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would no longer charge low-level drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences—and would consider releasing some elderly, nonviolent prisoners early—something remarkable has happened. There’s been no major outcry from the right. While the attorney general certainly has no shortage of outspoken detractors in the Republican ranks, the initiative hasn’t prompted any major voices to decry him as “soft on crime.” In fact, in plenty of conservative circles, he’s earned praise—or something close to it. “Eric Holder gets something marginally right,” wrote the Daily Caller.
When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would be issuing instructions to federal prosecutors that could result in fewer mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, it wasn't the risky policy change it would have been only a few years ago. With crime on a two-decade-long downward arc, politicians and policymakers don't have to worry as much as they used to about being tagged as "soft on crime." In fact, there's so much toughness already built into our criminal-justice system that unless we start lopping off thieves' hands, it couldn't get much tougher. Though the change Holder announced would affect only those convicted of federal crimes, it has brought renewed attention to our enormous prison population.
And just how enormous is it? What follows are the details.
Monday evening, the state of Florida executed John Errol Ferguson. This was not an act of injustice because Ferguson was innocent—he brutally killed eight people. It was an act of injustice because Ferguson was mentally ill. The Eighth Amendment forbids his execution.
Nearly 30,000 California prisoners are on hunger strike to protest various abuses, including the extensive use of solitary confinement. This strike is the latest reflection of just how broken the state's prison system is. In turn, the problems in California showcase the myriad messes that increasingly define American crime-control policy.
Criminal justice reform activists have long argued that the “school-to-prison” pipeline—the process that places children in the criminal-justice system for misbehavior in school—has a destructive effect on future outcomes. A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research gives a sense of just how destructive. According to economists Anna Aizer and Joseph Doyle Jr., juvenile incarceration—one result of getting caught in the pipeline—drastically reduces the probability of completing high school, and substantially increases the odds of adult incarceration. From the paper:
Warren Hill has an IQ below 70. Despite this, barring an unlikely intervention by the Supreme Court, he will be executed by the state of Georgia tonight. The likelihood of this outcome is a lesson in how Supreme Court decisions can't always be taken at face value.
When he was running for president in 2000, George W. Bush was often asked about the fact that as governor of Texas, he executed 152 people, more than any other governor in modern history at the time (though his successor Rick Perry has since surpassed him). Bush always responded that he believed the death penalty saves lives. In other words, his primary justification was a practical argument, not a moral argument. But the empirical evidence on the question of whether the death penalty was always fuzzy at best.
Like most death penalty opponents, I was always very skeptical of claims like Bush's (isn't that odd, how our beliefs about what is always seem to line up so neatly with our beliefs about what ought to be)...
Connecticut may become the fifth state in the last five years to end the death penalty. The state Senate will likely vote today on a measure that would end capital punishment in all future cases. However, it would not have a direct impact on any of the 11 people currently on death row. If the Senate approves the measure, it will probably have an easy path forward; both the House and the governor support the repeal. But the vote will almost certainly be very close.
In Florida, a coalition of Democrats and a few moderate Republicans killed what could have been a major expansion of private prisons. The measure would have privatized 27 prisons and displaced more than 3,500 corrections officers. In the Florida Senate, nine Republicans voted against the measure, along with all 12 Democratic state senators. It was a rare victory for both Democrats and the labor unions that fought the bill.
One of the little joys of teaching a presidency class in the fall is that my session on presidential pardons falls around Thanksgiving so I can lead off with video of the leader of the free world pardoning a turkey. However, one of the interesting things about the pardoning power is that, with the exception of impeachment charges, “the President’s authority to grant pardons [for federal offenses] is essentially unfettered” as this CRS report explains. Presidents can pardon individuals or classes of people, with or without conditions.
Mansfield Frazier (via Sara Mayeux) reports that recidivism rates in Florida are lower for offenders who get back their right to vote post-incarceration.
According to a recent report by The Florida Parole Commission, “the overall three-year recidivism rate based on all released inmates” was 33..1, while the recidivism rate for released prisoners who were given their civil rights back and were allowed to vote stood at 11 percent.