3 New Reports: Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime; A “HOLOCAUST IN SLOW MOTION?”; Race and Punishment

Some really interesting studies have just been released!

Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States
The Sentencing Project, July 2014, 11 pages

“Although the pace of criminal justice reform has accelerated at both the federal  and state levels in the past decade, current initiatives have had only a modest effect on the size of the prison population. But over this period, three states – New York, New Jersey, and California – have achieved prison population reductions in the range of 25%. They have also seen their crime rates generally decline at a faster pace than the national average.”


  • New York and New Jersey led the nation by reducing  their prison populations by 26% between 1999 and 2012, while the nationwide state prison population increased by 10%.
  • California downsized its prison population by 23% between 2006 and 2012. During this period, the nationwide state prison population decreased by just 1%.
  • During their periods of decarceration, violent crime rates fell at a greater rate in these three states than they did nationwide. Between 1999-2012, New York and New Jersey’s violent crime rate fell by 31% and 30%, respectively, while the national rate decreased by 26%. Between 2006-2012, California’s violent crime rate drop of 21% exceeded the national decline of 19%.
  • Property crime rates also decreased in New York and New Jersey more than they did nationwide, while California’s reduction was slightly lower than the national average. Between 1999-2012, New York’s property crime rate fell by 29% and New Jersey’s by 31%, compared to the national decline of 24%. Between 2006-2012, California’s property crime drop of 13% was slightly lower than the national reduction of 15%.

These prison population reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay. The experiences of these states reinforce that criminal justice policies, and not crime rates, are the prime drivers of changes in prison populations. They also demonstrate that it is possible to substantially reduce prison populations without harming public safety.


At least in three states we now know that the prison population can be reduced by about 25% with little or no adverse effect on public safety. Individual circumstances vary by state, but policymakers should explore the reforms in New York, New Jersey, and California as a guide for other states.

There is also no reason why a reduction of 25% should be considered the maximum that might be achieved. Even if every  state and the federal government were able to produce such reductions, that would still leave the United States with an incarceration rate of more than 500 per 100,000 population – a level 3-6 times that of most industrialized nations.

In recent years a broader range of proposals has emerged for how to reduce the prison population and by various scales of decarceration. In a recent right/left commentary Newt Gingrich and Van Jones describe how they will “be working together to explore ways to reduce the prison population substantially in the next decade.”31 The experiences of New York, New Jersey, and California demonstrate that it is possible to achieve substantial reductions in mass incarceration without compromising public safety.

While many jurisdictions are reforming their policies, Hawai`i passed a mandatory bill last session (HB 2205) that the Governor signed (even though he says he is opposed to mandatory sentencing). We managed to get an option for probation in the bill, but to think that Hawai`i would even consider mandatory sentences is really disheartening. And now the no-contact visits and the striped uniforms at Halawa and the lack of action on the promise of Justice Reinvestment mandate that WE PUMP UP THE VOLUME SO THAT OUR LEGISLATURE UNDERSTANDS THAT WE ARE HEADED IN THE WRONG DIRECTION.  Look at the 3 states in this report – reduced prison population and reduced crime.


A “HOLOCAUST IN SLOW MOTION?” America’s Mass Incarceration and the Role of Discretion
Mark William Osler, University of St. Thomas – School of Law (Minnesota)
Mark W. Bennett, U.S. District Court (Northern District of Iowa)
7 DePaul Journal for Social Justice 117 (2014)U of St. Thomas (Minnesota) Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-30, 62 pages

Numbers don’t lie: America has suffered an explosion in imprisonment that has been fundamentally unrelated to actual crime levels. In this article, a federal District Court Judge and a former federal prosecutor examine the roots of this explosion with a focus on the discretion of Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission, federal prosecutors, and judges. This dark period may be in its twilight, though, and the authors conclude by describing specific actions each of these four groups could take to dismantle the cruel machinery of mass incarceration.


If there is an arc to history, we are perched upon it at a cresting point as the gravity of reason pulls us toward justice. It has been a long and painful trip for our nation, with prisons filled, families divided and destroyed, urban communities devastated, narcotics proliferated and all of these tragedies abetted by the inaction of those with the power to change things—Congress, the DOJ, the Sentencing Commission, and federal judges.

That inaction, however, seems to have ended. This last year has seen conscience move judges to reject harsh sentences and speak more publicly about what they see, the Sentencing Commission consider backing down from the too-strict measures of the narcotics guidelines, Congress ponder major and retroactive changes and even the DOJ, the most intractable of all, become a powerful force for change.

For reformers, there is a bit of irony and a lot of joy in the fact that the boldest call for reform has come not from an academic or an activist, but from the Attorney General himself. In his August 12, 2013, speech to the American Bar Association, he made no secret of the fact that a realignment of policy is in the process, one that is aimed squarely at the problem of overincarceration:

It’s time — in fact, it’s well past time — to address. . . unwarranted disparities by considering a fundamentally new approach . . . we must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken. The course we are on is far from sustainable. And it is our time — and our duty —to identify those areas we can improve in order to better advance the cause of justice for all Americans.

As the so-called “war on drugs” enters its fifth decade, we need . . . to usher in a new approach. And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate — not merely to warehouse and forget.

Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.

It’s clear — as we come together today — that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law enforcement reason. . .

The bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.

Today — together — we must declare that we will no longer settle for such an unjust and unsustainable status quo . . . And we must resolve — as a people — to take a firm stand . . . for justice.

This is our chance — to bring America’s criminal justice system in line with our most sacred values.This is our opportunity — to define this time, our time, as one of progress and innovation.

This is our promise — to forge a more just society.

When it is the leader of the nation’s federal prosecutors who makes the most eloquent statement towards justice and proportionality, we are living in interesting and very hopeful times. Left to be seen, of course, is whether or not this vision will become a reality. For that to happen, there are many of us — on the bench, in the academy, in Congress and within the bar —who must accept responsibility for the mess we have made and humbly move forward to a better solution. As Martin Luther King, Jr., so often reminded us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, as the history of the rise of mass incarceration in America has taught us — the arc does not bend on its own.

Judge Mark Bennett (Not Hawai`i’s former AG) has been writing and speaking about reforming sentencing. He was at the Law School last year. We need more brave jurists and attorneys to speak out for justice and sentencing reform.


RACE AND PUNISHMENT: Racial Perceptions Of Crime And Support For Punitive Policies
The Sentencing Project, September 3, 2014

This report examines how racial perceptions of crime are a key cause of the severity of punishment in the United States. Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies, authored by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., research analyst at The Sentencing Project, synthesizes two decades of research revealing that white Americans’ strong associations of crime with blacks and Latinos are related to their support for punitive policies that disproportionately impact people of color.

Coming on the heels of the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, the report demonstrates that the consequences of white Americans’ strong associations of crime with blacks and Latinos extend far beyond policing.

Key findings of the report include:

  • White Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color, and associate people of color with criminality. For example, white respondents in a 2010 survey overestimated the actual share of burglaries, illegal drug sales, and juvenile crime committed by African Americans by 20-30%.
  • Studies have shown that whites who associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies – including capital punishment and mandatory minimum sentencing – than whites with weaker racial associations of crime.
  • These patterns help to explain why whites are more punitive than blacks and Latinos even though they are less likely to be victims of crime. In 2013, a majority of whites supported the death penalty for someone convicted of murder, while half of Hispanics and a majority of blacks opposed this punishment.
  • Racial perceptions of crime not only influence public opinion about criminal justice policies, they also directly influence the work of criminal justice practitioners and policymakers who operate with their own often-unintentional biases.

The report recommends proven interventions for the media, policymakers, and criminal justice professionals to reduce racial perceptions of crime and mitigate their effects on the justice system. These include addressing disparities in crime reporting, reducing the severity and disparate impact of criminal sentencing, and tackling racial bias in the formal policies and discretionary decisions of criminal justice practitioners.

Isn’t it great that all these reports are coming out supporting CAP’s decades long positions to improve the quality of justice?  We are definitely on the right side of history!

 Mahalo for caring about all of our people serving sentences near and far and for their families, as well. They are the invisibly incarcerated and we love and support them all!



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