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How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?

December 9, 2016

While mass incarceration has emerged as an urgent national issue to be addressed, the reforms currently offered are dwarfed by the scale of the problem. The country needs bolder solutions.How can we significantly cut the prison population while still keeping the country safe? This report puts forth one answer to that question. Our path forward is not offered as the only answer or as an absolute. Rather, it is meant to provide a starting point for a broader discussion about how the country can rethink and revamp the outdated sentencing edifice of the last four decades. This report is the product of three years of research conducted by one of the nation's leading criminologists, experienced criminal justice lawyers, and statistical researchers. First, we conducted an in-depth examination of the federal and state criminal codes, as well as the convictions and sentences of the nationwide prison population (1.46 million prisoners serving time for 370 different crime categories) to estimate how many people are currently incarcerated without a sufficient public safety rationale. We find that alternatives to incarceration are more effective and just penalties for many lower-level crimes. We also find that prison sentences can safely be shortened for a discrete set of more serious crimes. Second, based on these findings, we propose a new, alternative framework for sentencing grounded in the science of public safety and rehabilitation.Many have argued that regimented sentencing laws should be eliminated and replaced with broad judicial discretion. Others counter that this would reinstate a system wherein judges are free to deliver vastly divergent sentences for the same crime, potentially exacerbating racial disparities and perpetuating the tradition of harsh sentences.This report proposes a new solution, building on these past proposals. We advocate that today's sentencing laws should change to provide default sentences that are proportional to the specific crime committed and in line with social science research, instead of based on conjecture. These defaults should mandate sentences of alternatives to incarceration for lower-level crimes. For some other crimes that warrant incarceration, they should mandate shorter sentences. Judges should have discretion to depart from these defaults in special circumstances, such as a defendant's criminal history, mental health or addiction issues, or specifics of the crime committed. This approach is grounded in the premise that the first principle of 21st century sentencing should be to protect public safety, and that sentences should levy the most effective, proportional, and cost-efficient sanction to achieve that goal. It aims to create more uniform sentences and reduce disparities, while preserving judicial discretion when needed. Our proposed sentencing defaults for each crime weigh four factors:Seriousness: Murder, for instance, should be treated as a far graver crime than writing a bad check.Victim Impact: If a person has been harmed in the commission of a crime, especially physically, weight toward a more serious sentence.Intent: If the actor knowingly and deliberately violated the law, a more severe sanction may be appropriate.Recidivism: Those more likely to reoffend may need more intervention. Our findings and recommendations, determined by applying the four factors above to the prison population, are detailed below. (The rationale for these factors and our full methodology is described in Appendix A.)

Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States

June 24, 2014

The American economy could face significant and widespread disruptions from climate change unless U.S. businesses and policymakers take immediate action to reduce climate risk. This report summarizes findings of an independent assessment of the impact of climate change at the county, state, and regional level, and shows that communities, industries, and properties across the U.S. face profound risks from climate change. The findings also show that the most severe risks can still be avoided through early investments in resilience, and through immediate action to reduce the pollution that causes global warming. The Risky Business report shows that two of the primary impacts of climate change -- extreme heat and sea level rise -- will disproportionately affect certain regions of the U.S., and pose highly variable risks across the nation. In the U.S. Gulf Coast, Northeast, and Southeast, for example, sea level rise and increased damage from storm surge are likely to lead to an additional $2 to $3.5 billion in property losses each year by 2030, with escalating costs in future decades. In interior states in the Midwest and Southwest, extreme heat will threaten human health, reduce labor productivity and strain electricity grids. Conversely in northern latitudes such as North Dakota and Montana, winter temperatures will likely rise, reducing frost events and cold-related deaths, and lengthening the growing season for some crops. The report is a product of The Risky Business Project a joint, non-partisan initiative of former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr., Mayor of New York City from 2002-2013 Michael R. Bloomberg, and Thomas P. Steyer, former Senior Managing Member of Farallon Capital Management. They were joined by members of a high-level "Risk Committee" who helped scope the research and reviewed the research findings.

Capturing Energy Waste in Ohio: Using Combined Heat and Power to Upgrade Our Electric System

March 8, 2012

Assesses the state's potential for capturing heat generated during electricity production or industrial processes to meet thermal needs, cut fossil fuel use, and reduce emissions. Recommends ways to remove barriers to combined heat and power adoption.

Voting Law Changes in 2012

October 3, 2011

Analyzes trends in state legislation that make voter registration and voting difficult, including requiring proof of citizenship, eliminating same-day registration, restricting early and absentee voting, and stricter rules for restoring voting rights.

From Risk to Opportunity: Insurer Responses to Climate Change

April 4, 2009

Based on a survey of insurers, examines business models adapted to climate change risks and opportunities. Explores trends in promoting loss prevention, green-building products and services, and other offerings and investments and in advancing solutions.

Better Ballots

July 20, 2008

Literacy tests to gain access to the polls were banned in the United States in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.99 But in November 2008, eight years after an election debacle of historic proportions, millions of voters across the United States will face a literacy test of a different sort after they've stepped into the voting booth. Their intended choices may be recorded only if they can understand instructions written at a high reading level, often using legal and election terminology. And they will only be counted if they successfully navigate ballot designs that are needlessly complicated, where candidates for the same offi ce may be listed on multiple columns or pages, or different contests are inconsistently formatted. As we have tried to demonstrate in this report, ballot design and instructions can have a huge impact on election results. We sampled some of the more "high profi le" ballot design disasters over the last several years; this is not a comprehensive analysis of the cost of poor ballot design on elections and votes counted. But, the examples illustrate how dramatically poor ballot design can affect vote totals -- particularly when a number of design fl aws appear on the same ballot. Not surprisingly, when these mistakes affected many ballots (by appearing on a signifi cant percentage of the ballots in large counties like Los Angeles or Palm Beach, or on most of the ballots in a particular state), tens of thousands -- and sometimes hundreds of thousands -- of votes in a single federal or statewide race have been lost. This does not even include the voters who may have been so confused by a ballot design that they cast their ballot for a candidate for whom they did not intend to vote (for obvious reasons, it is far more diffi cult to determine this than to know when a voter failed to successfully cast a vote at all). Better ballot design will make it far more likely that the preferred candidates of all voters will be declared winners of their contests. Palm Beach County 2000 should have been a wake-up call to legislators, election offi cials, and watchdog groups that ensuring good ballot design is a critical election administration issue that needs to be systematically addressed. Unfortunately, for the last eight years, it has continued to be largely ignored. The predictable result has disproportionately affected low-income and elderly voters, and thrown several important elections into turmoil. The good news is that there is still time before November 2008 to ensure that ballot design fl aws do not throw the results of another closely contested race into doubt, as has happened in several federal and state races in the last decade. And unlike changes to equipment (which, there is no question, could make systems more secure, accessible and usable), improving ballot design and instructions is possible for little or no cost, and a relatively small-scale investment of time.

Post-Election Audits: Restoring Trust in Elections

August 1, 2007

With the intention of assisting legislators, election officials and the public to make sense of recent literature on post-election audits and convert it into realistic audit practices, the Brennan Center and the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at Boalt Hall School of Law (University of California Berkeley) convened a blue ribbon panel (the "Audit Panel") of statisticians, voting experts, computer scientists and several of the nation's leading election officials. Following a review of the literature and extensive consultation with the Audit Panel, the Brennan Center and the Samuelson Clinic make several practical recommendations for improving post-election audits, regardless of the audit method that a jurisdiction ultimately decides to adopt.

The Machinery of Democracy: Voting System Security, Accessibility, Usability, and Cost

October 10, 2006

This report is the final product of the first comprehensive, empirical analysis of electronic voting systems in the United States. It comes after nearly two years of study with many of the nations leading academics, election officials, economists, and security, usability and accessibility experts.Up until this point, there has been surprisingly little empirical study of voting systems in the areas of security, accessibility, usability, and cost. The result is that jurisdictions make purchasing decisions and adopt laws and procedures that have little to do with their overall goals.The Brennan Center analysis finds that there is not yet any perfect voting system or set of procedures. One system might be more affordable, but less accessible to members of the disabled community; certain election procedures might make the systems easier to use, but they compromise security. Election officials and community members should be aware of the trade-offs when choosing one voting system or set of procedures over another, and they should know how to improve the system they choose.Included in this full report is an executive summary of the Brennan Centers analysis of voting system security, voting system usability, as well as voting system accessibility and cost.The Brennan Center analysis of cost is in part based upon a review of voting system contracts provided by jurisdictions around the country and a cost calculator [no longer available]. The cost calculator and contracts should assist jurisdictions in determining the initial on ongoing costs of various voting systems.

The Machinery of Democracy: Voting System Accessibility

October 10, 2006

Traditionally, many voters with disabilities have been unable to cast their ballots without assistance from personal aides or poll workers. Those voters do not possess the range of visual, motor, and cognitive facilities typically required to operate common voting systems. For example, some are not be able to hold a pen or stylus to mark a ballot that they must see and read. Thus, the voting experience for citizens who cannot perform certain tasks reading a ballot, holding a pointer or pencil has not been equal to that of their peers without disabilities.The Help America Vote Act of 2002 took a step forward in addressing this longstanding inequity. According to HAVA, new voting systems must allow voters with disabilities to complete and cast their ballots in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters.1 In other words, as jurisdictions purchase new technologies designed to facilitate voting in a range of areas, they must ensure that new systems provide people with disabilities with an experience that mirrors the experience of other voters.This report is designed to help state and local jurisdictions improve the accessibility of their voting systems. We have not conducted any direct accessibility testing of existent technologies. Rather, we set forth a set of critical questions for election officials and voters to use when assessing available voting systems, indicate whether vendors have provided any standard or custom features designed to answer these accessibility concerns, and offer an evaluation of each architectures limitations in providing an accessible voting experience to all voters.The report thus provides a foundation of knowledge from which election officials can begin to assess a voting systems accessibility. The conclusions of this report are not presented as a substitute for the evaluation and testing of a specific manufacturers voting system to determine how accessible a system is in conjunction with a particular jurisdictions election procedures and system configuration. We urge election officials to include usability and accessibility testing in their product evaluation process.