October 17, 2016
Lies, damn lies and federal prison and commutations statistics
As I mentioned in class, as we turn our attention more to the history and modern realities of non-capital sentencing and especially to the history and modern realities of incarceration, having a basic understanding of a lot of number becomes important. The title of this post is designed to make sure, before you dive too much into these data, that you keep in mind perhaps the most famous quote about statistics. Once you have that quote in mind, consider some of the data and their sources.
The latest detailed breakdown of the federal prison population comes from this terrific "Quick Facts" document released this month by the US Sentencing Commission titled "Federal Offenders in Prison – March 2016." Here are just some of the data therein that caught my eye:
• A large majority of offenders in the federal prison population are male (93.3%).
• Hispanic offenders make up the largest group of the federal prison population(35.2%), followed by Black offenders (34.4%), White offenders (27.0%), and Other Races (3.5%).
• More than three-quarters (77.9%) of these offenders are United States citizens.
• The majority of offenders pleaded guilty (88.5%).
• Nearly one-quarter (23.9%) of all offenders serving a sentence for a federal conviction possessed a firearm or other weapon in connection with their offenses.
• Half of all offenders (50.2%) in the federal prison population were sentenced to more than ten years in prison, while 5.2% were sentenced to 30 years or longer, and 2.7% were sentenced to life in prison.
• Approximately 17,000 offenders (9.9% of all incarcerated offenders) have served more than 10 years in prison.
• More than half (56.8%) of offenders in the federal prison population were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.
The data in the USSC report is already significantly dated because it analyzed a federal prison population of 195,676 "offenders in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons on March 27, 2016." But, just a little more than six months later according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons latest inmate population report, it is now only in charge of 191,322 total federal inmates. In other words, in just the last 6 months alone, there has been more than a 2% decline in the overall federal prison population!
Speaking of changes over time in the population levels in the Federal Bureau of Prison, check out this BOP year-by-year report of the past federal prison population in modern times, which includes these numbers:
Fiscal Year BOP Population
In other words, in just the last 20 years up to 2013 (12 of which had a Democrat in charge in the Oval Office and his appointees running the US Department of justice), there was 250% increase in the overall federal prison population!
As you may now realize, the number of federal prisoners for fiscal year 2013 was the year with the highest ever federal prison population (it was also, of course, the first year of Prez Obama's second term in office and the fifth year of the US Department of Justice being run by former US Attorney General Eric Holder).
Also, as of the end of Fiscal Year 2013, this webpage from the Office of the Pardon Attorney reports that Prez Obama had received well over 8,000 federal commutation petitions and had granted a grand total of 1 commutation. (If you are running the numbers, this means that as of the end of 2013, Prez Obama had granted only about .01% of commutation petitions received from federal prisoners.)
Of course, Prez Obama has picked up the pace on commutation grants: as this White House website highlights, by having now granted a total of 774 commutations, Prez Obama "has granted commutations to more prisoners than the past 11 presidents combined." But his actions here ought to be put in some other statistical context, as does this webpage from the Office of Pardon Attorney, which reports that Prez Obama has received 29,078 commutation petitions during his time an office. So, by having now granted 774 commutations from among the 29,078 commutation petitions received, Prez Obama has now upped his granted rate to about 2.5% of all commutation petitions received from federal prisoners.
As always, a great way for students to earn extra credit for the class would be to mine these numbers for further insights and data points worthy of highlighting in the comments to the blog (or in class). And any student who can find good data on the race/gender of the 774 persons to have received commutations from Prez Obama and compares them to the general federal prison population will be sure to receive extra, extra, extra credit.
February 21, 2015
Some notable gubenatorial capital developments
Though I am eager to start migrating our class discussions away from capital sentencing and punishment to non-capital sentencing and punishments, the notable death penalty news keeps coming. Specifically, check out these two recent posts from my main blog:
- New Oregon Gov pledges to continue curious capital moratorium created by her corrupt predecessor
As always, I am eager to hear student reactions to these developments and others in the comments or elsewhere.
February 13, 2015
Speaking of "who" and the death penalty...
check out what new Pennsylvania Gov Tom Wolf did on Friday the 13th. Turns out it was a lucky day for those on death row in the state.
Thoughts? The Marshall Hypothesis as applied by a Governor?
April 21, 2014
Helping President Obama use his constitutional clemency powers
In our last few classes, I want to wrap up our discussions of modern federal drug sentencing by turning attention to the work of the most powerful of sentencing "whos": the President of the United States. There are lots of ways the President can and does make sentencing decisions, but the most historic means is through the exercise of his (constitutionally enshrined) power to grant clemency.
There are lots of stories to discuss and debate relating to the President's clemency power and its use throughout American history, but I will want us to focus on how it might still be used (and/or should be used) by President Obama as he heads into his final few years in office. This new Reason.com piece by Jacob Sullum provides some useful background and context for our discussions:
President Obama made appropriate use of his clemency powers this week, shortening the prison term of a drug offender who received a sentence that everyone agreed was too long but for which there was no other legal remedy. In 2006 Ceasar Huerta Cantu was sentenced to 17.5 years in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and money laundering charges related to shipping marijuana from Mexico to Virginia. That term was three-and-a-half years longer than it should have been under federal sentencing guidelines because of a mistake in Cantu's presentence report, which erroneously listed his "base offense level" as 36 instead of 34. Cantu's lawyer never noticed the mistake, which Cantu himself discovered in 2012 after his family mailed him a copy of the report. By then he had missed the deadline for asking the courts to shorten his sentence....
"It's hard to imagine that someone in the federal criminal justice system could serve an extra three-plus years in prison because of a typographical error," said White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler in a speech at NYU Law School on Tuesday....
Obama should [not] be so stingy with commutations, which he so far has issued at a slower rate than all but three other modern presidents: George W. Bush (11 commutations in 96 months), George H.W. Bush (three in 48 months), and Ronald Reagan (13 in 96 months). Obama has now issued 10 commutations in 64 months, which by that measure makes him about 26 percent more merciful than Bush II, 46 percent more merciful than Bush I, and 14 percent more merciful than Reagan. (Obama still lags all three on pardons, which clear people's records, typically after they have completed their sentences.) But surely a man who has repeatedly criticized excessively long prison sentences should aspire to do more than surpass these truly awful commutation records. Obama is still a long way from Nixonian levels of mercy, since Tricky Dick shortened 60 sentences...
A few months ago, Deputy Attorney General James Cole indicated that Obama planned to pick up the pace, which was encouraging. Not so encouraging: Cole, whose department had at that point received about 9,000 commutation petitions since Obama took office, asked for help in finding worthy applicants, which suggested the government's lawyers are either lazy or extremely picky. Cantu's case seems to fit the latter theory....
By the president's own account, there are thousands of other clear injustices that he has the power to remedy. He could start with all of the crack offenders sentenced under pre-2010 rules that almost everyone now agrees were unreasonably harsh. The Smarter Sentencing Act would make the shorter crack sentences enacted in 2010 retroactive. But if Congress fails to approve that bill, Obama still has the authority to act on his own, which would be consistent with the statements he and his underlings have made regarding our excessively punitive criminal justice system.
"The president believes that one important purpose [of clemency] can be to help correct the effects of outdated and overly harsh sentences that Congress and the American people have since recognized are no longer in the best interests of justice," Ruemmler said in her NYU speech. "This effort also reflects the reality that our overburdened federal prison population includes many low-level, nonviolent offenders without significant criminal histories." Probably more than 10. The president's pitiful performance so far falls far short of these aspirations.
UPDATE: This brand new post at my main blog provides more explanation for how timely our discussion on clemency now is as a result this notable new and lengthy Yahoo News article headlined "Obama plans clemency for hundreds of drug offenders: Barbara Scrivner's long quest for mercy tests a president's will — and her own faith." I highly recommend reading the full Yahoo piece.
February 06, 2009
Breaking Ohio death penalty news (allowing more "who" analysis)
While we were starting to work through some "who" issues in class today, an Ohio agency made a notable decision in a notable death penalty case. Here are the basics from this Columbus Dispatch article:
A Hamilton County man who stabbed his 62-year-old mother to death while he was on a crack-cocaine binge should not be executed and should be released in as little as seven years, the Ohio Parole Board recommended to Gov. Ted Strickland.
Jeffrey Hill, 44, is scheduled to be lethally injected March 3 at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville unless Strickland or a court intervenes. Parole board members were clearly impressed with what a report released today called the "compelling and unanimous opinion" of the family of victim Emma Hill that her son and killer should not be executed. "They have suffered tremendous loss, and execution would add further to their suffering," the board said.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph T. Deters, a strong capital punishment supporter, opposed clemency. But he said today he will no longer pursue it given the parole board recommendation and strong support from the family. "I would have preferred he stayed in jail the rest of his life," Deters said. "We've done our job. Part of the law says this is something the governor can do."
The board recommended to Strickland that Hill's death sentence be commuted to life in prison with parole eligibility after 25 years, meaning he could be released in as little as seven years.
Hill was high on crack cocaine on March 23, 1991, when he stabbed his mother 10 times in the back and chest, stole $100 and made two trips to buy cocaine. In a letter to the editor last month [available here], Hill's uncle, Eddie Sanders of Mount Healthy, urged public support for clemency....
All county, state and federal courts have upheld Hills conviction and death sentence.
Though everyone is encourage to comment on any aspect of this story, I would be especially interested in whether anyone might be able to develop a viable argument suggesting that Governor Strickland ought not follow the parole board's recommendation.
UPDATE: I just found this link to the Ohio Parole Board's full order in this case.
January 31, 2007
Should former Illinois Governor George Ryan get the Nobel Peace Prize?
Soon we will discuss the role of executive clemency, focused in part on the speech (which is at the end of our reading packet) delivered by former Illinois Governor George Ryan to support the "mass clemency" at the end of his term of given to everyone then on Illinois' death row. In light of that reading and our coming discussion, I thought everyone might find this press release interesting:
University of Illinois College of Law Professor Francis A. Boyle has nominated former Illinois Governor George Ryan for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize because of his courageous and heroic opposition to the death penalty system in America.
Despite tremendous opposition and criticism, Ryan single-handedly started what he calls a "rational discussion" on capital punishment in 2000 when he declared the Illinois death penalty moratorium. To this day, despite paying a heavy personal price for his courage, integrity, and principles, Ryan remains committed to the principle of seeking justice for the poor and oppressed. Ryan now takes his message globally, recently speaking before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Switzerland, continuing to initiate dialogue against the barbaric use of capital punishment around the world....
As Governor Ryan exposed to the country in 2000, the burden of capital punishment consistently falls upon the poor, the ignorant and the forgotten underpriviledged members of society, and is often used as a racist institution against people of color. The United States' attitude towards capital punishment is undeniably changing, and as a direct result of Ryan’s historical acts as former Governor of Illinois.
Ryan exposed capital punishment to be a distorted means of justice rife with flaws and defects, and he began the dialogue that will one day abolish capital punishment in America. Professor Francis A. Boyle has stated that, "George Ryan is the beginning of the end of the death penalty in America," and it is for this reason that he richly deserves to win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
This press release seems notable not only for what it says, but also for what it does not say. There is no discussion of wrongful convictions or innocence issues, even though it was innocence concerns that first drew Ryan's attention to the death penalty. Also, the press release also does not mention that Ryan is now a convicted felon recently sentenced to more than six years in federal prison.