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 25, 2014
"Parolable Lifers in Michigan: Paying the price of unchecked discretion"
The title of this post is the title of this February 2014 report by the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending concerning the sentencing policies and practices in a state that, as this article notes, "abolished the death penalty on March 1, 1847, making it the first U.S. state and possibly the first in a democratic country in the world to do so."
I thought it useful to spotlight this new report as we begin our transition from capital to non-capital sentencing as a reminder that (1) not all US states and localities are impacted by modern capital punishment debates and doctrines, that (2) all US states and localities are impacted by modern non-capital sentencing debates and doctrines, especially with respect to the impact and import of "unchecked discretion," and that (3) there might be a variety of dynamic and complicated relationships between how states with and without the death penalty approach modern non-capital sentencing debates and doctrines.
September 16, 2011
On the current state (and possible future) of Ohio's modern capital punishment experiences
One (of many) interesting and valuable components of Ohio's modern death penalty system is the fact that the Ohio General Assembly has, by statute, required the Ohio Attorney General to produce an annual report on capital punishment regarding individuals who have been sentenced to death since Oct. 19, 1981. The last four such annual reports are all available on-line via this webpage, and I highly encourage students to at least review quickly the most recent of these reports report (which is the 2010 Capital Crimes Report released in April 2011 available at this link).
The latest annual report will not only help you figure out how Ted Kaczynski might fare under Ohio's laws (see pp. 4-7 in the 2010 report), but also highlights the many fora for review of Ohio death sentences (see pp. 8-12 in the 2010 report, where the chart reprinted here appears at the end). The 2010 report also has an extended discussion of DNA testing procedures and results for those sentenced to death at pp. 15-22. The report also provides this (now slightly dated) statistics about the application of the modern Ohio death penalty:
Since 1981, Ohio has issued a total of 310 death sentences....
As of [the end of 2010], a total of 41 inmates have been executed under Ohio’s current law....
[And] a total of 14 inmates received a commutation of his death sentence to a sentence less than the death penalty....
[And] a total of 20 inmates died prior to imposition of the death penalty. This includes inmates who died of natural death and suicide....
[And] a total of 8 inmates were found ineligible for the death penalty dueto mental retardation (aka “Atkins” claims)....
[And] a total of 7 death sentences were vacated and remanded to trial courts for re-sentencing, which could result in imposition of the death penalty again ... [and] there was 1 case pending retrial....
[And] 64 death sentences were removed as a result of some form of judicial action beyond the cases already mentioned....
[And] a total of 155 death sentences remained active, including those currently pending in state and federal court [including] seven individuals [who] received a death sentence and were added to death row [in 2010].
As was true following my prior national data dump on executions in this post, I welcome and encourage comments on what lessons we might take away from this Ohio modern death penalty data and history. Also, I encourage early thoughts about whether these data should suggest a particular agenda for the Ohio Chief Justice's newly form Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty (discussed in this press release and constuting a partnership between the Supreme Court of Ohio and the Ohio State Bar Association “to ensure that Ohio’s death penalty is administered in the most fair, efficient, and judicious manner possible.”)
September 02, 2011
Am I right that conclusive deterrence evidence would "solve" death penalty debate?
I mentioned in class my belief that if we had truly conclusive and indisputable empirical evidence that using the death penalty to sentence/execute guilty murderers indisputably saves innocent lives, then there would be very little political and social debate concerning using the modern death penalty to sentence/execute guilty murderers. Does anyone want to take issue with this claim? Specifically, does anyone wish to argue that, even in the face of truly conclusive and indisputable that abolishing the modern death penalty would cost some innocent lives, that we still should get rid of the death penalty?
Critically, as revealed by reports at this pro-death penalty website and responses at this anti-death penalty website, there plainly is not clear empirical evidence that using the death penalty to sentence/execute guilty murderers saves innocent lives. Thus, one might reasonably accept my contention and still categorically oppose the death penalty given the current (and perhaps inevitable) absence of conclusive empirical evidence. Still, I want to have a discussion — here on the blog and/or in class — concerning my basic assertion that conclusive empirical evidence here could end what is often cast as a purely moral debate.
UPDATE: Inspired in part by the many thoughtful and effective responses to my initial inquiry, I am going to sharpen the hypothetical and see if the responses stay the same.
Let's suppose that we now have truly conclusive and indisputable evidence that the summary execution of Osama Bin Laden served to very significantly reduce the number and scope of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and around the world (including attacks being planned for the US), whereas the capture and continued confinement of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has served to very significantly increase the number and scope of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and around the world (including attacks being planned for the US).
If we did have truly conclusive and indisputable evidence that OBL's quick execution saved many innocent lives in the US and around the world while KSM's capture and likely life imprisonment has cost many innocent lives in the US and around the world, do you think persons with moral opposition to the death penalty would still want all major terrorist suspects handled like KSM rather than like OBL? (Ignore, for purposes of this hypo, that KSM was waterboarded, though maybe that makes it easier to accept my supposition that how the US has dealt with KSM has cost more lives than how the US dealt with OBL.)
Steve D. gets to the heart of my inquiries here when he states that "only someone who bases their morality on pure utilitarianism would be swayed by such evidence," but he then claims that "most people are not utilitarians." I have the contrasting belief that everyone is a utilitarian if and when — and perhaps only if and when — the stakes get high enough and the empirical evidence is conclusive. And I think this is a critical issue to explore at the outset of any death penalty discussions becausemany people on all sides of the DP debate are often (1) quick to assert that nothing is more valuable/important than innocent lives, and (2) eager to claim that they have strong (but not conclusive) empirical evidence to support their DP position(s).
April 11, 2009
Some local specifics for the application of federal sentencing guidelines
As documented here, the US Sentencing Commission has recently released its "District, State, and Circuit Statistical Packets." In the USSC's words, "Each packet contains a set of figures, tables, and charts comparing selected national sentencing data to data from cases sentenced in each judicial district. Data is also aggregated by circuit and by state (for states in which more than one judicial district is located)."
Here are the links to local packets:
Students will get extra super bonus class participation points for noting in the comments any special or interesting data they can mine from all these materials