Our favorite criminal justice research from 2016

2016's most useful and under-exposed research that contributed to our movement's understanding of key issues in criminal justice.

by Wendy Sawyer, December 29, 2016

As 2016 comes to a close, the Prison Policy Initiative wanted to highlight some of our colleagues’ research that we thought was the most useful and the most under-exposed and contributed to our movement’s understanding of key issues in criminal justice:

  • Growing Up Locked Down
    ACLU of Nebraska
    January 2016
    The psychological and physical harms of solitary confinement are so much worse for children who are still developing. The ACLU of Nebraska finds that the state overuses “the most inhumane correctional practices” of solitary confinement in every one of its juvenile justice facilities. Children there were placed alone in cells as punishment for minor offenses, like talking back or having too many books. The report calls attention to the “serious mental health impacts of solitary confinement for vulnerable youth” and the pressing need for policy reform.
  • The Gavel Gap: Who Sits in Judgment on State Courts?
    by Tracey E. George and Albert H. Yoon for the American Constitution Society
    June 2016
    In a democratic society, the courts should reflect the communities they serve. This report is the first to give a crystal clear picture of just how un-representative state court judges are by gender, race and ethnicity. To support further research and advocacy, it provides a new dataset of biographical information about state court judges. The report makes the case that if courts’ want to increase both their understanding of the communities they serve and public confidence in their decisions, courts must close these wide gender and racial “gavel gaps.”
  • America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty
    Fair Punishment Project
    How is it possible that five prosecutors were responsible for 440 death sentences? The Fair Punishment Project details the bloodlust, racism and willful misconduct that made it possible for each of these notorious prosecutors to win scores of death penalty sentences. This report shows that the death penalty is an unusual punishment sought by a small number of zealots in just a few parts of the country.
  • Paying the Price: Failure to Deliver HIV Services in Louisiana Parish Jails
    Human Rights Watch
    March 29, 2016
    Recognizing that the populations at risk of HIV and the incarcerated populations overlap, this report illustrates the urgent need for reform in Louisiana, which it describes as “‘ground zero’ for the dual epidemics of HIV and incarceration.” An accompanying video on the website gives voice to stakeholders by including interviews with formerly incarcerated people, HIV and health services providers, and representatives of the criminal justice system.
  • Punishment Rate Measures Prison Use Relative to Crime
    Pew Charitable Trusts
    March 23, 2016
    This report looks beyond imprisonment to offer a new metric, “the punishment rate,” with which to gauge punitiveness. By comparing the size of prison populations to the frequency and severity of crime reported, rather than to the number of residents, Pew shows that the U.S. has become more punitive than traditional analysis suggests. Extending this analysis to individual states, Pew finds that Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming are all significantly more punitive than their imprisonment rates suggest.
  • Race, Wealth and Incarceration: Results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Race and Social Problems
    Originally published in Race and Social Problems, Vol. 8, Issue 1, 2016. The final publication is available at Springer Link
    By Khaing Zaw, Darrick Hamilton, and William Darity, Jr.
    March 2016
    The authors of this study examine the wealth disparity between young men who experience prison and those who never do, using a survey that follows a group of young men for 27 years. They find that the men who are incarcerated have less wealth to begin with and, over time, accumulate only a small fraction of the wealth accumulated by their peers who are never incarcerated. (This is consistent with our findings that pre-incarceration incomes of incarcerated people are 41% lower than their peers.) We blogged about this report and produced two graphics based on it: The Crippling Effect of Incarceration on Wealth.
  • Get To Work or Go To Jail
    By Noah Zatz, Tia Koonse, Theresa Zhen, Lucero Herrera, Han Lu, Steven Shafer, and Black Valenta at UCLA Labor Center
    March 2016
    Work at a terrible job, or go to jail. Those are the two choices for many people on probation and parole, as outlined by this research brief. Probation and parole conditions, as well as court orders to find work to pay court debts or child support, can force people to choose between bad (or unpaid) jobs and jail time. The threat of jail depresses labor standards and legal protections, which create cascading effects on all workers. The report provides estimates of incarceration for “failure to work” and links this threat to the practice of incarcerating people who fail to pay court fines and fees – something we discussed in our report on probation fees.
  • Roadblocks to reform: District Attorneys, Elections, and the Criminal Justice Status Quo
    ACLU of Oregon
    April 2016
    District Attorneys have the power to make the justice system more progressive. But this report concludes that uncontested elections and appointments in Oregon lead DAs to block progressive criminal justice reform and maintain the status quo for their own self-interest. The ACLU makes a powerful case for why the national movement needs to pay more attention to DA races.
  • Unlicensed & Untapped: Removing Barriers to State Occupational Licenses for People with Records
    by Michelle Natividad Rodriguez and Beth Avery with the National Employment Law Project
    April 2016
    Not only do people with criminal records face discrimination from employers, they also often face barriers in obtaining occupational licenses to work as a barber, hairdresser, health care worker, or teacher – even decades after their sentence ends. This report evaluates the effectiveness of state laws intended to ensure fairness for applicants with records and it provides recommendations for states, including a model law.
  • Louisiana Death Sentence Cases and Their Reversals, 1976-2015
    Originally published in The Southern University Law Center Journal of Race, Gender, and Poverty, Vol. 7, 2016.
    by Frank R. Baumgartner and Tim Lyman
    April 26, 2016
    An analysis of 241 death sentence cases in Louisiana since Gregg v. Georgia reinstated the death penalty in 1976 finds that the death penalty is still applied in discriminatory ways, and the frequency of reversals suggests the death penalty process is rife with errors and ultimately arbitrary in application.
  • Correcting Food Policy in Washington Prisons: How the DOC Makes Healthy Food Choices Impossible for Incarcerated People & What Can Be Done
    Prison Voice Washington
    From Washington state, a troubling example of how incarcerated people suffer when states try to cut costs. By eliminating all fresh, natural food in favor of processed products from a single prison food factory, the state has created “food deserts” in its prisons, failing to provide food that meet minimum standards for nutrition and increasing healthcare expenditures. This report shows how a nation that recognizes nutrition as a public health issue continues to neglect its incarcerated population.
  • Incarceration Trends
    Vera Institute of Justice
    December 2015
    Vera’s Incarceration Trends project was technically launched in 2015, but it came out after we wrote last year’s list of best reports and it is too useful to ignore. A combination of two written reports and an interactive data tool, Vera’s research involved aggregating county-level data from 1970 to the present so that local incarceration rates can be compared over time and across jurisdictions. While also calling attention to racial and gender disparities, Vera’s Trends project is an incomparable resource that sheds historical light on the local face of mass incarceration.

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