The Sentencing Project publishes a report on the declining prospects for parole on life sentences

The Sentencing Project recently released Delaying a Second Chance: The Declining Prospects for Parole on Life Sentences. The Report’s findings came from a national survey to which 31 states and the federal government responded to with available date since 1980. (Full report available here). Some of the highlights are below:

  1. Prisoners serving a life sentence have seen marked increase over the last two decades and represent a significant portion of the incarcerated population.

    As of 2012 one in nine people in state and federal prisoners were there for life sentences (approx. 160,000). The number of people serving life sentences has quadrupled since 1984.

  2. More frequent impositions of life sentences and reluctance to grant parole to those serving life sentences has driven the growth in this population.

  3. Sixty-four percent of lifers were convicted of homicide. But, there were more than 10,000 people serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses in 2012.

  4. An examination of lifers released in California found a recidivism rate of less than 1%

    Among a group of 860 individuals convicted of murder who were paroled between 1995 and 2011, less than 1% were sentenced to jail or prison for new felonies, and none recidivated for life-term crimes.

The Report concluded with the following recommendations:

  1. Expedite parole eligibility: Reduce the minimum number of years that lifers must serve before their first parole hearing and shorten wait times for subsequent hearings.
  2. Depoliticize and professionalize parole boards: Distance governors from paroling authorities to enable parole decisions to be based on meaningful assessments of public safety risk.
  3. Establish a presumption of release: Parole boards should assume that parole candidates are potentially suited for release at the initial, and especially subsequent, parole hearings unless an individual is deemed to pose an unreasonable public safety risk.
  4. Improve the integrity of parole hearings: Expand the procedural rights of parole applicants, enable parole applicants to review the evidence used to evaluate their eligibility for parole, and allow the public to review decision-making criteria and outcomes.

President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform by President Obama

In the latest Harvard Law Review, President Obama authors an article discussing his past with criminal justice reform, the current criminal justice landscape, the criminal justice reform measures his administration achieved, and reforms that the President can continue to work towards. The full article can be found here.

The article contains four parts. The final part on unfinished work highlights areas I hope will be addressed in the future, including sentencing reform legislation, strengthening forensic science in the criminal justice system, and improving criminal justice data collection. Criminal justice data collection in particular could be a tool that helps to develop the best policies going forward. An overview of the points President Obama makes in the article’s four parts are below.

1. The Current Criminal Justice Landscape & Need for Reform

“With just 5% of the world’s population, the United States incarcerates nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners.”

President Obama goes on to detail the fiscal and human costs of our system. The cost to house federal prisoners is $7 billion, but incarceration costs soar to $81 billion when combined with state and local operations.  More than eleven million Americans are cycled in and out of jails annually, and  the system’s failings are disproportionately felt by communities of color. Lately, however, there has been bipartisan support and state level reforms in red states that suggests hope for reforms.

2. How the President Can Drive Significant Reform At The Federal Level

“[T]here is still much that Presidents can do to make the justice system better serve the public…my Administration has used the tools at its disposal to effect change at the federal level: from the legislative reforms we’ve advanced, to the policies we’ve changed in the executive branch, to the second chances we’ve given to those who received clemency, we have brought our system more in line with the values that define us.”

President Obama goes on to identify: (a) achieving reforms to federal charging and sentencing practices, (b) sentencing reform legislation, (c) advancing federal prison reforms, (d) focusing on reentry, and (e) reinvigorating clemency.

3. Steps the President Can Take to Achieve State & Local Level Reform

“[S]tates and localities oversee most policing, as well as 90% of the prison population. That is why I’ve been so committed to finding ways to encourage continued state and local government ingenuity and to highlight those state reforms that should be models for others to follow.”

President Obama goes on to identify: (a) advancing policing reforms, (b) eliminating the criminalization of poverty, (c) spurring state sentencing reform and justice reinvestment, (d) keeping the focus on reform, (e) promoting data driven solutions, (f) highlighting ways the  juvenile justice system falls short, and (g) creating opportunities through the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative and the Council on Women and Girls.

4. Unfinished Work

“Even as I am proud of what we accomplished, I am aware of how much work is left unfinished. Our criminal justice system took a long time to build and will take a long time to change.”

President Obama identifies the following commonsense steps that he’shopeful can be accomplished in the future, including: (a) passing sentencing reform legislation, (b) taking steps to reduce gun violence, (c) addressing opioid misuse and addiction as a public health issue, (d) strengthening forensic science and identifying wrongful convictions, (e) improving criminal justice data collection, (f) restoring the right to vote for those who have paid their debt to society, and (g) making better use of technology to promote trust in law enforcement.