Tuesday, May 26, 2015
SCOTUS grants cert on a federal sentencing case and state capital case
This morning's Supreme Court order list, available here, includes two grants of certiorari. Both cases are criminal cases, Lockhart v. US and Foster v. Humphrey, and here are the links to casepages and the issues via SCOTUSblog:
Lockhart v. US: Whether the mandatory minimum sentence of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2) is triggered by a prior conviction under a state law relating to "aggravated sexual abuse" or "sexual abuse," even though the conviction did not "involv[e] a minor or ward," an issue that divides the federal courts of appeals.
Foster v. Humphrey: Whether the Georgia courts erred in failing to recognize race discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky in the extraordinary circumstances of this death penalty case.
Monday, May 25, 2015
Swish or brick as basketball great calls upon US to "Abolish the Death Penalty"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable recent Time commentary authored by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (We learned in the classic movie Airplane! that Abdul-Jabbar could fly a commercial jet, so I suppose I am not too surprised he also is an effective sentencing advocate.) Here are excerpts from a commentary which suggests to me that Abdul-Jabbar could take over my professional responsibilities much better than I could ever have done his professional work:
The death penalty is suddenly trending again. On Wednesday, Nebraska lawmakers voted to repeal the state’s death penalty. Last week, the jury in the Boston Marathon bombing case decided that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be executed. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing the constitutionality of lethal injection in the death-penalty case Glossip v. Gross. Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Justice Department admitted that almost every examiner in the FBI microscopic hair forensic unit overstated matches in favor of the prosecution in 95% of the cases in which they testified over the past 20 years. (This included 32 defendants sentenced to death, 14 of which have been executed or died in prison.) Norman Fletcher, the former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court who during his tenure upheld numerous death sentences, announced last week that the death penalty is “morally indefensible,” makes no business sense, and is inconsistent and applied unfairly....
Traditional reasons to support the death penalty are going the same way as conventional wisdom for denying same-sex marriage and gender equality. Some will talk about how justice demands the death penalty, and some will say that the only way to enforce the sanctity of human life is by executing those who recklessly and arrogantly take it away. Some will argue that it protects innocent lives, others that it brings closure to victims’ families. Some will offer personal tales of loss. These are all heartfelt points, but ultimately they are simply wrong in terms of doing what is best for society.
The primary purpose of the death penalty is to protect the innocent. Theoretically, if someone deliberately murders someone else, executing that person protects the rest of us by removing him from society, never again to be a threat. But, as always, there’s a big difference between theory and practice. While it’s true that the death penalty may protect us from the few individuals it does execute, it does not come without a significant financial and social price tag that may put us all at an even greater risk....
In the states that have abolished the death penalty in the last decade, politicians from both parties have cited cost as the main reason. This isn’t a matter of morality versus dollars. It’s about the morality of saving the most lives with what we have to spend. Money instead could be going to trauma centers, hospital personnel, police, and firefighters, and education.
Some will ask, “How can you put a price on justice?” and “What if it were your mother or son who’d been murdered?” Fair enough. But given the current cost of the death penalty, my family is much more at risk from not having enough police on the street, firefighters in their stations, and staff in hospitals. The question every concerned taxpayer needs to ask is whether or not we should be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on executing prisoners when life without parole keeps the public just as safe but at a fraction of the cost. The money saved won’t solve all our financial woes, but it will solve some — and could save lives doing so....
The second major problem with the death penalty is that there’s a high probability that we execute innocent people. The traditional test of a person’s philosophy about justice is a simple question: If you had 10 people sentenced to death but you knew one was innocent, would you keep them all in prison for life with the hopes that the innocent person will be discovered and released? Or would you execute all of them with the idea that the occasional innocent person is an acceptable loss for a greater good? If you answer that you’d keep them in prison, you’re against the death penalty....
The third problem with the death penalty is that the system is biased based on race and economic standing. Minorities have Favorite Son status when it comes to being executed. According to a study by law professor David Baldus and statistician George Woodworth, a black defendant is four times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant for a similar crime. Part of the reason for this may be that those most responsible for determining which cases to pursue are white. Nearly 98% of chief district attorneys in counties using the death penalty are white; about 1% are African American....
Another unfair application is the lack of adequate representation received by poor defendants. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg addressed this issue: “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.” Although poor defendants are guaranteed representation, they aren’t guaranteed the best representation. This is evident when we examine the records of some these court-appointed attorneys: Nearly 1 in 4 death row inmates were represented by court-appointed attorneys who were disciplined for professional misconduct during their careers. A report by the Texas Defender Service concluded that death row inmates have a 1 in 3 chance of being executed “without having the case properly investigated by a competent attorney and without having any claims of innocence or unfairness presented or heard.” The attorneys for one-fifth of the death row inmates in Washington state over the last 20 years were disbarred, suspended, or arrested. This list of incompetent representation goes on....
Supporters of the death penalty may say it deters other would-be murderers, but 2009 study in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology states that “the consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.” Some argue that it brings closure for families of victims. In some cases it does; in others it doesn’t. That’s why there are various organizations—California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights—made up of family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty....
Some people deserve to die. They commit acts so brutal that they cannot ever be a part of society. But we can’t let our passion for revenge override our communities’ best interest. The death penalty is an elaborate Rube Goldberg device with a thousand moving parts, each one expensive and in serious disrepair, to achieve a dubious end. With something as irrevocable as death, we can’t have one system of justice for the privileged few and another for the rest of the country. That, more than anything, diminishes the sanctity of human life.
Yes, there are many ways the death penalty system might someday be improved so that it will cost less, not risk innocent lives, and be fairly applied to all. Until that day, life without parole will bring us justice and allow us the opportunity to correct our mistakes before it’s too late.
Providing a script for "How To Lock Up Fewer People" in the United States
Given that there has been plenty of talk, but still relatively little action. on proposals for significant federal sentencing reform, perhaps it is especially timely for Marc Mauer and David Cole to have this New York Times commentary providing someting of a how-to guide for dealing with modern mass incarceration. The piece is headlined "How To Lock Up Fewer People," and here are excerpts:
Today, nearly everyone acknowledges that our criminal justice system needs fixing, and politicians across the spectrum call for reducing prison sentences for low-level drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses. But this consensus glosses over the real challenges to ending mass incarceration. Even if we released everyone imprisoned for drugs tomorrow, the United States would still have 1.7 million people behind bars, and an incarceration rate four times that of many Western European nations. Mass incarceration can be ended. But that won’t happen unless we confront the true scale of the problem.
A hardnosed skeptic would tell you that fully half the people in state prisons are serving time for violent offenses. And most drug offenders behind bars are not kids caught smoking a joint, but dealers, many with multiple prior convictions. We already have about 3,000 drug courts diverting those who need it to treatment rather than prison. Recidivism remains astonishingly high for those we release from prison, so releasing more poses real risks....
It’s true that half the people in state prisons are there for a violent crime, but not all individuals convicted of violent crimes are alike. They range from serial killers to minor players in a robbery and battered spouses who struck back at their abusers. If we are going to end mass incarceration, we need to recognize that the excessively long sentences we impose for most violent crimes are not necessary, cost-effective or just.
We could cut sentences for violent crimes by half in most instances without significantly undermining deterrence or increasing the threat of repeat offending. Studies have found that longer sentences do not have appreciably greater deterrent effects; many serious crimes are committed by people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, who are not necessarily thinking of the consequences of their actions, and certainly are not affected by the difference between a 15-year and a 30-year sentence....
Offenders “age out” of crime — so the 25-year-old who commits an armed robbery generally poses much less risk to public safety by the age of 35 or 40. Yet nearly 250,000 inmates today are over 50. Every year we keep older offenders in prison produces diminishing returns for public safety. For years, states have been radically restricting parole; we need to make it more readily available. And by eliminating unnecessary parole conditions for low-risk offenders, we can conserve resources to provide appropriate communitybased programming and supervision to higher-risk parolees.
It’s true that most individuals incarcerated for a drug offense were sellers, not just users. But as a result of mandatory sentencing laws, judges often cannot make reasonable distinctions between drug kingpins and streetcorner pawns. We ought to empower judges to recognize the difference, and to reduce punishment for run-of-the-mill offenders, who are often pursuing one of the few economic opportunities available to them in destitute communities....
Recidivism is also a serious obstacle to reform. Two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years, and half are reincarcerated. But many of the returns to prison are for conduct that violates technical parole requirements, but does not harm others. And much of the problem is that the scale and cost of prison construction have left limited resources for rehabilitation, making it difficult for offenders to find the employment that is necessary to staying straight. So we need to lock up fewer people on the front end as well as enhance reintegration and reduce collateral consequences that impede rehabilitation on the back end.
Criminal justice is administered largely at the state level; 90 percent of those incarcerated are in state and local facilities. This means mass incarceration needs to be dismantled one state at a time. Some states are already making substantial progress. New Jersey, California and New York have all reduced their prison populations by about 25 percent in recent years, with no increase in crime. That should be good news for other states, which would reap substantial savings — in budgetary and human terms — if they followed suit. While the federal government cannot solve this problem alone, it can lead both by example and by providing financial incentives that encourage reform....
Today, at long last, a consensus for reform is emerging. The facts that no other Western European nation even comes close to our incarceration rates, and that all have lower homicide rates, show that there are better ways to address crime. The marked disparities in whom we choose to lock up pose one of the nation’s most urgent civil rights challenges. But we will not begin to make real progress until we face up to the full dimensions of the task.
Sunday, May 24, 2015
"Before sentencing, Ulbricht begs for leniency: 'please leave me my old age'"
This new ars technica posting provides the title of this post and it provides background and links to a high-energy effort by a high-profile defendant to get a lower sentence for his high-tech drug dealing crimes for which he will be sentenced in the coming week. Here are excerpts:
Convicted Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht and no less than 97 of his friends and family members have written to a judge just days prior to sentencing, asking her to impose the most lenient sentence possible. (Ars has posted the letters online along with the court filing of photos of Ulbricht and many family and friends.)
Under federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, Ulbricht faces at least 20 years in prison and possibly as long as life behind bars. “Silk Road turned out to be a very naive and costly idea that I deeply regret,” he wrote in his own 1.5 page letter to United States District Judge Katherine Forrest filed on Friday.
Ulbricht’s own letter marks the first time he has shown any public remorse during the entire saga, during which he did not testify. His attorney, Joshua Dratel, spun unsubstantiated theories that while Ulbricht created Silk Road, unnamed mysterious others took over the site and should be the ones prosecuted for the crime. Dratel previously vowed to appeal the verdict.
In February 2015, Ulbricht was convicted of seven charges including three drug counts: distributing or aiding and abetting the distribution of narcotics, distributing narcotics or aiding and abetting distribution over the Internet, and conspiracy to violate narcotics laws. He was also convicted on a fourth count of conspiracy to run a "continuing criminal enterprise," which involves supervising at least five other people in an organization. In addition, Ulbricht was convicted on conspiracy charges for computer hacking, distributing false identification, and money laundering.
Prior related posts:
- You be the judge: what federal sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht?
- Notable developments in prelude to federal sentencing for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht
- Debate over harms of online drug market now at center of upcoming sentencing of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht
Effective review of effective(?) use of sentencing mitigation videos ... and concerns about equity
Today's New York Times has this lengthy discussion of a digital development in modern sentencing proceedings. The piece is headlined "Defendants Using Biographical Videos to Show Judges Another Side at Sentencing," and here are excerpts:
Lawyers are beginning to submit biographical videos at sentencings, and proponents say they could transform the process. Defendants and their lawyers already are able to address the court before a sentence is imposed, but the videos are adding a new dimension to the punishment phase of a prosecution. Judges “never knew the totality of the defendant” before seeing these videos, said Raj Jayadev, one of the people making the[se videos].... “All they knew was the case file.”
Yet as videos gain ground, there is concern that a divide between rich and poor defendants will widen — that camera crews and film editors will become part of the best defense money can buy, unavailable to most people facing charges. Videos, especially wellproduced ones, can be powerful. In December, lawyers for Sant Singh Chatwal, a millionaire hotelier who pleaded guilty in Federal District Court in Brooklyn to illegal campaign donations, submitted a 14minute video as part of his sentencing. Elegantly produced, it showed workers, family members and beneficiaries of Mr. Chatwal describing his generosity.
As he prepared to sentence Mr. Chatwal, Judge I. Leo Glasser said he had watched the video twice, including once the night before. The judge, echoing some of the themes in the video, recounted Mr. Chatwal’s good works. Judge Glasser then sentenced Mr. Chatwal to probation, much less than the approximately four to five years in prison that prosecutors had requested.
Yet efforts like those on behalf of Mr. Chatwal are hardly standard. While every criminal defendant is entitled to a lawyer, a day in any court makes it clear that many poor people do not receive a rack-up-the-hours, fight-tooth-and-nail defense like Mr. Chatwal did.
Even in cities with robust public defense programs, like New York City, lawyers may be carrying as many as 100 cases at once, and they say there is little room to add shooting and editing videos to their schedules. “It’s hard for me to imagine that public defenders could possibly spare the time to do that,” said Josh Saunders, who until recently was a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, adding that lawyers there are often physically in court for the entire workday. He sees the humanizing potential of videos, he said, but “I would also be concerned that defendants with means would be able to put together a really nice package that my clients generally would not be able to.”
Mr. Jayadev’s nonprofit, Silicon Valley DeBug, a criminal justice group and community center in San Jose, Calif., believes that videos are a new frontier in helping poor defendants, and is not only making videos but encouraging defense attorneys nationwide to do the same. The group has made about 20 biographical videos for defendants, one featuring footage of the parking lot where a homeless teenage defendant grew up. With a $30,000 grant from the Open Society Foundation, DeBug is now training public defenders around the country....
LaDoris H. Cordell, a former state court judge in Santa Clara County who is now the independent police auditor in San Jose and who has seen some of Mr. Jayadev’s videos, said she would like them to be used more widely at sentencings.
“I’m very wary, and I was as a judge, of the double standard,” where wealthy defendants can afford resources that poorer defendants cannot, she said. “It is a problem, and what Raj is doing, these videos, is something that should be available to anyone who needs to have it done.” A prosecution, she said, is “usually is a onesided process, and now it’s like the scales are being balanced out.
Saturday, May 23, 2015
You be the prosecutor: what sentence will you recommend for convicted "sex on beach" couple?
Regular readers may recall this post from earlier this month, titled "Imprisonment for 15 years for sex on the beach?!?! Really?!?!," which covered the possibility of one member of an indecent couple in Florida facing a mandatory 15-year prison sentence for shoreline dirty dancing with his girlfriend. But this follow-up post reported that State Attorney Ed Brodsky indicated that "he will not seek the maximum possible punishment — 15 years in prison — for the couple convicted of having sex in public on Bradenton Beach." Now this news update on the notable case indicates that sentencing is likely to be scheduled in the coming weeks and includes this partial preview:
Jose Caballero, 40, and Elissa Alvarez, 20, were convicted May 4 on two counts each of lewd and lascivious behavior for having sex on Cortez Beach on July 20, 2014. The convictions carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and require both to register as sex offenders....
The State Attorney's Office has said it will not seek the maximum penalty for either defendant, but is looking into jail time for both of them. [Assistant state attorney prosecutor Anthony] Dafonseca said they'd seek a harsher punishment against Caballero, who has served prison time for cocaine trafficking.
The defendants were represented by attorney Ronald Kurpiers, but Alvarez will be represented at sentencing by Greg Hagopian, according to Dafonseca. Hagopian said he didn't want to discuss the reason for Alvarez's switch. She had no criminal record before her conviction.
A few people filed letters on behalf of the defendants, saying the judge should take it easy on Alvarez and Caballero and not make them register as sex offenders. "You are likening these two individuals to deplorable people who have actually taken advantage of or violated children," read a letter signed by Femi Olukoya. "This state needs to grow up and that can start with you," read another letter.
The jury found the couple guilty after a 1 1/2 day trial and only 15 minutes deliberation. One of the witnesses took video of the two in July, showing Alvarez moving on Caballero in a sexual manner in broad daylight.
Unsuprisingly, prior posts about this case generated a lot of notable commentary, and now I am eager to focus discussion on how folks think the state prosecutors here ought to exercise their sentencing discretion. Specifically, I would really like folks to put themselves in the shoes of the Florida prosecutors and state, with some specificity, exactly what sentence they think should be recommended to the sentencing judge in this unusual criminal case.
Prior related post:
- Imprisonment for 15 years for sex on the beach?!?! Really?!?!
- Florida prosecutor says he will not seek 15-year prison terms for sex-on-beach convictions
Friday, May 22, 2015
"Who Are Woman Sex Offenders and Why Are They Treated Like Men?"
The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing piece posted at Dissident Voice written by Sonia Van den Broek, who admits at the start of the piece how she became a female charged with a sex offense:
For the first quarter of my life, I didn’t think much about sex offenders. Call it thoughtlessness or a naïve little bubble; it was probably both. This thoughtlessness might not be unique. But I began thinking about sex offenders when, at age 25, I was charged with a sex crime.
I had had sexual contact with my 17-year-old neighbor. I’m not proud of this and, if given the chance, would absolutely reverse that decision. But I slept with him once and joined the burgeoning ranks of women charged with sex offenses.
Here is some of what she goes on to say about this very interesting topic:
While women sex offenders are a low portion of the population, they do exist and in higher numbers than before 1994 (when the Jacob Wetterling Improvements Act was established). There is a trend toward sexual contact with teenage males. Often, the women are motivated by a desire for companionship or have a sense that their current adult-age relationships are unfulfilling.
In other instances, the women are prison guards or case managers who have had sex with inmates. In the state of Colorado, any incarcerated person is legally incapable of consenting to sex, so that any sexual contact he or she does have is considered a crime. Once in a while, a woman will have sexual contact with an intellectually disabled person, sometimes without realizing that this person’s consent is not actually legal.
Women very rarely have sexual contact with children younger than 13. I’ve known only two women in this category and both were motivated by other factors: anger, a history of abuse in their own childhoods, resentment, and a feeling of being trapped. Most female sex offenders aren’t motivated by power and control, which, among male offenders, is the leading motivation for sexual contact with someone before the age of puberty. Actually, regardless of the victim’s age, power and control are a much more compelling motivator for men than for women.
Of course, I don’t condone this behavior in the least. I’m not saying that women who sleep with 17-year-olds should be given a free pass or skip blithely past the consequences. But I do believe we need to rethink the way that we treat and rehabilitate these women. We need to focus less on the scintillating sexual details and more on the emotions and needs that motivated them.
Here lies perhaps the greatest injustice: in the sex offender system, women are treated exactly like men. Treatment providers aren’t given special instruction in dealing with women. The treatment programs are written for men, using statistics about male offenders and past treatment models of men. Imagine! Although women’s motivations and victims are diabolically different, they receive the same treatment model as men who rape women, prey on young children, and commit serial crimes.
At the moment, the justice system hides behind the fact that there isn’t enough research into female offenders. This is partly true: women offend at a much lower rate than men, and so studying their motivations takes a little more work. But as the sex offender laws expand to include more and more actions, there are an increasing number of women caught in sex crimes.
A lack of evidence should never be the reason for poor rehabilitation. It should be the impetus, in fact, for working harder to understand why some women commit sex crimes and how to prevent it in the future. When I asked a treatment provider for data about the effects on teenage males of sex crimes committed by women, she had one study. It was a tiny example, too: 13 males from the Midwest. Only that. In a nation that routinely penalizes women for sexual contact with teenage males, only one study existed that documented this phenomenon. By contrast, decades of research and hundreds of studies have informed the treatment material and methods for men who commit sex crimes.
Research about recidivism rates is also based primarily on male populations and varies drastically. Estimates about recidivism rates for sex offenders range from 2.5% for another sex crime to to 43% for any crime at all. But since the law doesn’t differentiate among sex offenders, these studies are nearly useless. A woman who has sex with a teenager is in the same category with a developmentally disabled person who is an exhibitionist, and those two are in the same category with a man who raped and murdered a child. The lumping-together of sex offenses creates confusion even while it feeds public hysteria....
Treating sex offenders, especially women offenders, has become drastically un-therapeutic. “Treatment” revolves around complex rules, low self-esteem, and the constant fear of punishment. It does nothing to address the complex emotional choices that led people to their crimes. Rather, the justice system beats down already hurting women.
May 22, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)
"Federal Sentencing Error as Loss of Chance"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece available via SSRN authored by Kate Huddleston. Here is the abstract:
Federal courts have taken the wrong approach to discussing sentencing error. Circuit court opinions in career offender cases have framed the debate over collateral review of federal sentencing error as a conflict between finality and fairness. This Comment contends that disagreement over the cognizability of such claims is actually a dispute about the nature of the harm in sentencing error. What federal courts are actually asking, in effect, is whether the lost probability of a lower sentence is itself a cognizable injury.
The Comment draws on an analogy to tort law to argue that sentencing debates are, at their core, about loss of chance. Part I highlights the role that probability plays in recent sentencing opinions. It argues that, as an empirical matter, loss of chance is an accurate way to describe sentencing error given the anchoring effect of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines on sentencing practices. Part II makes the structural case for conceptualizing Guidelines sentencing error as a problem of probability, arguing that failure to recognize the probability dispute has obscured an underlying debate about the continued vitality of the Guidelines system. After United States v. Booker, the Sentencing Guidelines are advisory in principle and influential in practice. Part II argues that treating Guidelines error as loss of chance — and a loss that may constitute a fundamental miscarriage of justice — is necessary in order to enforce a Guidelines regime that is neither too rigid nor wholly indeterminate.
Two notable voices from the (far?) right calling again for drug war and sentencing reform
The two recent stories about recent comments by notable advocates reinforce my sense that more and more traditional (and not-so-traditional) conservative voices are feeling more and more confortable vocally criticizing the federal drug war and severe drug sentencing:
Money Quotes: If you told me a year ago that I [Grover Norquist] would be speaking out in favor of one of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's top priorities, I would have said you were crazy. The governor is a tax-and-spend liberal and I have spent my entire career fighting high taxes and wasteful government spending. Yet, just as a broken clock gets it right once in a while, Gov. Malloy is right about the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Contrary to their original intent, mandatory minimum laws have done little to reduce crime. They have, however, been significant drivers of prison overcrowding and skyrocketing corrections budgets. That's why conservatives and liberals in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses all across the country are coming together to repeal and reform these one-size-fits-all laws. Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Florida are just a handful of the states where conservatives have not simply supported, but led, the efforts to scale back mandatory minimum sentences.
Conservatives in Connecticut should support the governor's mandatory minimum proposals for two reasons. First, the reforms are very modest — addressing only drug possession. In some states, such as Connecticut's neighbor, Rhode Island, and Delaware, lawmakers have repealed mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses. Still more states have enacted significant reform to their drug mandatory minimum laws so that judges have discretion to impose individualized sentences that fit the crime. In all of these states, crime rates have dropped.
Conservatives in Connecticut also should embrace sentencing reform because of the state's awful budget mess. For too long, fiscal hawks have turned a blind eye to wasteful law enforcement spending. Not wanting to appear "soft on crime," they have supported every program and policy to increase the prison population without subjecting those ideas to cost-benefit analysis.
Those days are over. After watching state spending on prisons skyrocket more than 300 percent over the last two decades, state leaders across the country seem to understand that they can no longer afford to warehouse nonviolent offenders in prison.
Money Quotes: Today on Glenn Beck's radio (and TV) show, I [Jacob Sullum] debated marijuana prohibition with Robert White, co-author (with Bill Bennett) of Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America. The conversation turned to the war on drugs in general and also touched on federalism, the Commerce Clause, the nature of addiction, and the moral justification for paternalistic interference with individual freedom. Reading from my recent Forbes column, Beck said he is strongly attracted to the Millian principle that "the individual is sovereign" over "his own body and mind," which rules out government intervention aimed at protecting people from their own bad decisions. "I'm a libertarian in transit," he said. "I'm moving deeper into the libertarian realm.... Inconsistencies bother me." By the end of the show, Beck was declaring that the federal government should call off its war on drugs and let states decide how to deal with marijuana and other psychoactive substances.
Addendum: Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell notes that Beck indicated he favored marijuana legalization back in 2009, saying, "I think it's about time we legalize marijuana... We either put people who are smoking marijuana behind bars or we legalize it, but this little game we are playing in the middle is not helping us, it is not helping Mexico and it is causing massive violence on our southern border... Fifty percent of the money going to these cartels is coming just from marijuana coming across our border." As far as I know, however, this is the first time Beck has explicitly called for an end to federal prohibition of all the other currently banned drugs.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Examining what qualifies as an LWOP sentence for purposes of Graham and Miller
This new piece at The Marshall Project, headlined "Life Expectancy: How many years make a life sentence for a teenager?," spotlights an Eighth Amendment issue that has been engaging lower courts in the five years since SCOTUS in Graham began putting limits of LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders. Eventually the Supreme Court will have to resolve the issue of just what qualifies as an LWOP sentence, and here is an account of issue (with some links to notable rulings):
James Comer was 17 when he, an older cousin, and their friend made a series of violent and irreversible decisions: One night in April 2000, they robbed four people at gunpoint. They followed one of their victims for miles as she drove home from her night shift as a postal worker, then pointed a gun at her head outside her house. Comer’s friend, 17-year-old Ibn Ali Adams, killed their second victim when he discovered the man had no money.
Comer’s youth, his lawyers argue, was at least partly responsible for his poor judgment and impulsive behavior. And it is his youth that may save him from dying in prison. Earlier this month, an Essex County, New Jersey, judge ordered a new sentencing hearing for Comer in light of Miller v. Alabama. ...
But Comer isn’t serving life without parole, at least not technically. For felony murder and multiple counts of armed robbery, he was sentenced to 75 years. He will be eligible for parole, but not until his 86th birthday — more than 20 years past his life expectancy, according to actuarial data his lawyers cited. This sentence “amounts to de facto life without parole and should be characterized as such,” the judge wrote.
Miller v. Alabama was the third in what’s come to be known as the “Roper/Graham/Miller trilogy” of cases in which the Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that kids are different. Teenagers’ still-developing brains make them more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure, and less able to understand the consequences of their actions. This makes them less culpable than adults and more amenable to rehabilitation as they mature, the court said.
With Roper, the court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. With Graham, it struck down life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide crimes. With Miller, the justices forbid mandatory life-without-parole sentences, even for murder. Life sentences for juveniles are allowed only if the judge first has the chance to consider how youth and immaturity may have contributed to the crime....
Now a growing number of courts are interpreting the trilogy even more broadly, applying their principles to cases, like Comer’s, that aren’t explicitly covered by the court’s rulings.
“When read in light of Roper and Graham,” Miller v. Alabama “reaches beyond its core holding,” the Connecticut Supreme Court held last month in State v. Riley. In that case, 17-year-old Ackeem Riley was sentenced to 100 years in prison after he shot into a crowd in a gang-related incident, killing one teenager and wounding two children. The court ordered a new sentencing hearing, finding that the sentencing judge had not adequately considered Riley’s youth. Though Miller specifically targeted mandatory life without parole sentences — technically, Riley’s sentence was neither mandatory nor life without parole — the Supreme Court’s reasoning “counsels against viewing these cases through an unduly myopic lens,” the Connecticut court said.
In Brown v. Indiana, the state supreme court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Martez Brown, who was 16 when he and two friends killed a couple in a botched robbery. Quoting Miller, the court ruled that “similar to a life without parole sentence, Brown’s 150 year sentence ‘forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal.’” Although Brown’s sentence was not formally a life-without-parole sentence, they wrote, “we focus on the forest — the aggregate sentence — rather than the trees — consecutive or concurrent, number of counts, or length of the sentence on any individual count.”
May 21, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
"How America Overdosed on Drug Courts"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and critical analysis of the modern drug courts movement appearing in the Pacific Standard magazine. The subheadling highlights its main themes: "Hailed as the most compassionate way for the criminal justice system to deal with addicts, drug courts were designed to balance punishment with rehabilitation. But after 25 years, the verdict is in: Drug courts embolden judges to practice medicine without a license—and they put lives in danger." I consider this piece a must-read for all those interested in drug sentencing reform, and here are excerpts:
The first drug court opened in Florida’s Miami-Dade County in 1989, near the height of the hysteria in this country over drugs, particularly crack cocaine. Both conservatives and liberals found something to love: Conservatives liked the potential for reduced prison spending, and liberals liked the emphasis on therapy. From the start, however, critics voiced concerns about “cherry picking,” because the courts only allowed into the program defendants who seemed likely to succeed whether or not they received help. This sort of selectivity was built into the system: The federal laws that determine eligibility for grants to create new drug courts (ongoing funding is primarily state and local) require that the courts exclude people with a history of violent crime. Many drug courts also bar people with long non-violent criminal histories. Predictably, this eliminates many of those who have the most serious addictions — the very people the courts, at least in spirit, are supposed to help.
Proponents of drug courts celebrate the fact that those who participate do better than similar defendants who are simply incarcerated or given standard probation. This is unquestionably true. “The average effect is to reduce new crimes by 10 to 15 percent,” says Douglas Marlowe, the chief of science, policy, and law for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. (Those crimes include not only drug sales and possession but also crimes committed to pay for drugs, such as burglary and robbery.) “The vast majority of evaluations show that they work,” says Ojmarrh Mitchell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, “and the effect size is larger than any other large-scale criminal justice intervention.”
These improvements are seen mainly in people who graduate, however, which is only roughly half of those who participate — a fact that the NADCP and other advocates tend to play down. Worse, defendants who start but do not complete drug court often serve longer sentences, meted out by judges as punishment, than they would have had they simply taken a plea and not tried to solve their drug problem. That strikes many critics as a manifest injustice. “This is intensifying the drug war on half of the people,” says Kerwin Kaye, an assistant professor of sociology at Wesleyan University. “It’s not stopping the drug war, it’s continuing it by other means.” Not only that, many people who fail to graduate drug court often go on to become worse offenders, compared to both graduates and to similar defendants who do not participate in drug courts. According to a 2013 study of New York’s drug courts conducted by the Urban Institute and the Center for Court Innovation, which included data on more than 15,000 defendants, 64 percent of non-graduates were rearrested within three years, whereas only 36 percent of graduates were. Among comparable defendants who did not participate in drug courts, just 44 percent were re-arrested in that period, suggesting that those who tried but flunked drug court did worse than those who served their time.
May 21, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
After Boston bomber's condemnation in liberal Massachusetts, is the death penalty really "withering away"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new commentary by George Will carrying the headline "Capital punishment’s slow death." Here is the full commentary, which claims to be making a "conservative case against capital punishment":
Without a definitive judicial ruling or other galvanizing event, a perennial American argument is ending. Capital punishment is withering away.
It is difficult to imagine moral reasoning that would support the conclusion that an injustice will be done when, years hence, the death penalty finally is administered to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon terrorist who placed a bomb in a crowd and then strolled to safety. Sentencing to death those who commit heinous crimes satisfies a sense of moral proportionality. This is, however, purchased with disproportionate social costs, as Nebraska seems to be concluding.
Nebraska is not a nest of liberals. Yet on Wednesday its 49-member unicameral legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty 32 to 15. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, vows to veto it.
This comes at a time when, nationwide, exonerations of condemned prisoners and botched executions are dismayingly frequent. Nebraska’s death penalty opponents, including a majority of Nebraskans, say it is expensive without demonstrably enhancing public safety or being a solace to families of murder victims. Some Nebraska families have testified that the extended legal processes surrounding the death penalty prolong their suffering. That sentiment is shared by Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son was killed by Tsarnaev.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether one component of a three-drug mixture used in lethal injection executions — and recently used in some grotesquely protracted ones — is unreliable in preventing suffering that violates the Eighth Amendment proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” States use the drug in question because more effective drugs are hard to acquire, partly because death penalty opponents are pressuring drug companies not to supply them.
For this, Justice Antonin Scalia blamed a death penalty “abolitionist movement.” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked, “Is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerrilla war against the death penalty, which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment with little, if any, pain?” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wondered, “What bearing, if any, should be put on the fact that there is a method, but that it’s not available because of opposition to the death penalty? What relevance does that have?”
The answers are: Public agitation against capital punishment is not relevant to judicial reasoning. And it is not the judiciary’s business to worry that a ruling might seem to “countenance” this or that social advocacy.
The conservative case against capital punishment, which 32 states have, is threefold. First, the power to inflict death cloaks government with a majesty and pretense of infallibility discordant with conservatism. Second, when capital punishment is inflicted, it cannot later be corrected because of new evidence, so a capital punishment regime must be administered with extraordinary competence. It is, however, a government program. Since 1973, more than 140 people sentenced to death have been acquitted of their crimes (sometimes by DNA evidence), had the charges against them dismissed by prosecutors or have been pardoned based on evidence of innocence. For an unsparing immersion in the workings of the governmental machinery of death, read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Third, administration of death sentences is so sporadic and protracted that their power to deter is attenuated. And the expensive, because labyrinthine, legal protocols with which the judiciary has enveloped capital punishment are here to stay. Granted, capital punishment could deter: If overdue library books were punishable by death, none would be overdue. But many crimes for which death is reserved, including Tsarnaev’s crime of ideological premeditation, are especially difficult to deter.
Those who favor capital punishment because of its supposed deterrent effect do not favor strengthening that effect by restoring the practice of public executions. There has not been one in America since 1937 (a hanging in Galena, Mo.) because society has decided that state-inflicted deaths, far from being wholesomely didactic spectacles, are coarsening and revolting.
Revulsion is not an argument, but it is evidence of what former chief justice Earl Warren called society’s “evolving standards of decency.” In the essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Albert Camus wrote, “The man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail.” Capital punishment, say proponents, serves social catharsis. But administering it behind prison walls indicates a healthy squeamishness that should herald abolition.
New Vera Institute of Justice report highlights the true, high "Price of Jails"
The Vera Institute of Justice has just published this important new report titled, "The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration." I received a press release about the report which provides this summary of its coverage and findings:
Hidden costs make jails far more expensive than previously understood, according to a new report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice, The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration. Because other government agencies, whose expenditures are not reflected in jail budgets, bear a large share of costs, the report finds that Americans significantly underestimate how much of their tax dollars are being spent on incarceration.
While the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that local communities spent $22.2 billion on jails in 2011, that figure fails to take into account significant costs such as employee benefits and inmate medical care that may not be included in jail budgets. For example, in addition to the $1.1 billion spent by the City of New York Department of Corrections in 2014, other agencies spent $1.3 billion on jail employee benefits, health care and education programs for incarcerated people, and administration, bringing the total cost to $2.4 billion—more than double the official jail budget....
Despite growing national attention to the large number of Americans confined in state and federal prisons, significantly less attention has been paid to local criminal justice systems, where over-incarceration begins. There are nearly 12 million local jail admissions every year — almost 20 times the number of prison admissions, and equivalent to the populations of Los Angeles and New York City combined. The report found that the high cost of jails is most directly tied to inmate population and associated personnel costs, rather than to misspent funds in any one particular budget area.
The report’s findings are based on surveys of 35 jail systems, representing small, medium, and large jails in 18 states from every region of the country, and representing 9% of the total jail population. The survey results confirm that determining the total cost of a jail is not a simple task, even for the agency that runs it. In documenting jail expenses—which in every case surveyed extended beyond the reported corrections budget—and who pays for them, the report finds that, by and large, local taxpayers foot the bill for jails, and the costs are much higher than most people realize.
“Jails are a tremendous public cost,” said Julia Stasch, President of the MacArthur Foundation, which supported the report. “This new report proves those costs are even higher than previously thought, adding urgency to the need for reform that addresses their overuse and misuse in fiscally strapped jurisdictions nationwide.”
In addition to developing a first-of-its-kind survey for jurisdictions to use that accurately measures all of the costs of running a jail, the report reveals:
Hidden jail costs typically fall into six categories: employee benefits, inmate health care, capital costs, administrative costs, legal costs, and inmate services.
The largest jail costs are those associated with personnel. Because these expenses are driven by jail population, jurisdictions that wish to lower their costs must take steps to reduce the number of people in jail.
Cuts to inmate programs and administrative costs have a relatively small impact on jail spending, because they don’t affect personnel.
Fees charged to inmates for phone calls, purchases, and medical services can be considerable for incarcerated people and often leave them in debt, but this inmate-generated revenue only recoups an average of 3% of jail spending.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Nebraska legislature votes by large margin to repeal state's death penalty
As reported in this new AP article, " Nebraska lawmakers gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill abolishing the death penalty with enough votes to override a promised veto from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts." Here is more:
The vote was 32 to 15 in Nebraska's unicameral Legislature. If that vote holds in a veto override, Nebraska would become the first conservative state to repeal the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973. The Nebraska vote is notable in the national debate over capital punishment because it was bolstered by conservatives who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons and say it is a waste of taxpayer money.
Nebraska hasn't executed a prisoner since 1997, and some lawmakers have argued that constant legal challenges will prevent the state from doing so again.
Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, a death penalty supporter, has vowed to veto the bill. Ricketts announced last week that the state has bought new lethal injection drugs to resume executions. Ricketts, who is serving his first year in office, argued in his weekly column Tuesday that the state's inability to carry out executions was a "management problem" that he is committed to fixing.
Maryland was the last state to end capital punishment, in 2013. Three other moderate to liberal states have done so in recent years: New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, Connecticut in 2012. The death penalty is legal in 32 states, including Nebraska.
Spotlighting who profits from "Piling on Criminal Fees"
Professors Ronald Wright and Wayne Logan have this important new Huffington Post article summarizing the important themes from their important article titled "Mercenary Criminal Justice." Here are excerpts:
Criminal courts sometime function as fee-generating machines.... The problem here is not any single criminal fee; the problem is how they stack up to create injustice. That's why we are calling for a statewide Commission on Criminal Fees.
In a recent law review article, "Mercenary Criminal Justice," we chronicled the historically central role of fee-generation in U.S. criminal justice systems, a tendency that became even more pronounced as a result of the recent fiscal crisis. We call this system "mercenary" because the revenues affect the enforcement decisions of actors in the justice system, who start to depend on that revenue, and put their own job security above the job of doing individual justice. As the Justice Department's report on Ferguson noted, city officials there asked the police and courts to increase ticket collection, explicitly to increase their revenue, basically treating minor criminal offenders as ATM machines. This mistreatment is all the more troubling when the fees and fines land most heavily on racial minorities and the poor, as they routinely do...
The beneficiaries of the revenue hail from diverse and powerful institutions. Courts, crime labs, prosecutors, and even public defenders all see the dollar signs and make their requests. What's the harm, after all, in asking for another $100 from an arrestee, convict, or probationer?
And it is not only government employees who have their hands out: private sector actors (with profit motives) have increasingly gotten a piece of the action. Courts, for instance, ask private contractors to collect fees and fines, allowing them to add their own service charges to the total bill. Private companies, moreover, have been active in probation services. More recently, the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC) started promoting a variation on this theme -- called "post-conviction bail" -- that empowers private bail bond dealers to monitor defendant compliance with post-release conditions. If the released inmate does not comply, the dealer tracks him down and collects a new financial penalty.
Any one of these fees or fines might be a reasonable part of a non-prison punishment, promoting public safety and the interests of defendants alike. The trouble comes when nobody minds the total effects of all these fees on individuals. Taken together, even the most modest and well-justified fees can trap the indigent in the control of criminal courts, always paying but never paying their debt down to zero. We believe that a statewide Commission on Criminal Fees can see the big picture and prevent this piling-on effect. Before authorizing a new fee to support the state crime lab, for instance, the Commission would ask how that fee interacts with the public defender's application fee, the probation supervision fee, and all the other fees currently imposed on individuals ensnared in the justice system.
May 20, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Has death penalty administration now become a "testing ground for toxic drugs"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by the subheadline of this lengthy new New Republic piece: "Lethal Entanglements: Lethal injection was supposed to be a cleaner, more humane version of capital punishement. Over the past five years, it has become a messy, largely unmonitored testing ground for toxic drugs." Here are is a passage from the center of the lengthy article:
Lethal injection was first adopted in Oklahoma in 1977 as a less violent alternative to the gas chamber and the electric chair. Over the next 25 years, almost every death-penalty state copied Oklahoma’s three-drug formula: first the barbiturate sodium thiopental to knock the prisoner out, then the paralytic pancuronium bromide to immobilize him, and finally potassium chloride to stop his heart. The second and third drugs would cause intense suffering on their own, but the Supreme Court ruled that the method was constitutional in Baze: As long as the thiopental rendered the prisoner unconscious, he would be insensate to the agonizing effects of the next two drugs. Just one year after the Baze decision, though, in late 2009, the pharmaceutical company that sold thiopental to every death-penalty state, Hospira, reported a shortage.
As a consequence, the death penalty has undergone in the past five years its biggest transformation since states began switching to lethal injection decades ago. As thiopental disappeared, states began executing prisoners with experimental one-, two-, or three-drug cocktails. States have essentially been improvising what is supposed to be one of their gravest and most deliberate duties, venturing deep into the shadows to carry out executions. They have turned to mail-order pharmaceutical suppliers and used untested drugs. They have sidestepped federal drug laws, minimized public disclosure, and, on multiple occasions, announced changes to execution protocols just hours before prisoners were set to die. The machinery of death in the United States has become a kluge.
In April, the Supreme Court acknowledged this when it heard oral arguments in Glossip v. Gross. A group of prisoners from Oklahoma — including Richard Glossip, a convicted murderer — challenged the state’s use of a drug called midazolam because they feared it would not anesthetize them. The court had hoped Baze would obviate future lethal injection lawsuits, but the thiopental shortage had stripped the decision of any practical relevance almost as soon as it was issued. Now, just seven years later, the justices were considering whether they should invalidate a specific method of execution for the first time in U.S. history. The court’s decision won’t overturn the death penalty, but it will define the way we practice it for years to come.
Though the challenge comes from Oklahoma, it is Arizona that provides the best case study of the rapid, slipshod evolution of lethal injection since Baze. The desert state hasn’t executed the most prisoners since the thiopental shortage began — that distinction belongs, as always, to Texas — but it has used more methods than any other state, killing prisoners with four different drug combinations. No other state has been quite so dogged in its determination to carry out executions. And no other state has left so detailed a paper trail. Judges, lawyers, and journalists (most notably Michael Kiefer at The Arizona Republic) have brought much of the abuses to light over the years, but the story has been told in disparate pieces: a deposition here, an uncovered email there. The complete narrative is more troubling than any one of its components.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
"NY Senate votes to create registry of violent felons"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new AP article sent my way by a helpful reader. Here are excerpts:
The New York state Senate has voted to create a public list of those convicted of violent felonies similar to the existing sex offender registry. The proposal is intended to prevent future crimes, and in particular domestic violence, by allowing people to check if a new acquaintance has a violent past.
The legislation is named Brittany's Law after Brittany Passalacqua, a 12-year-old from Geneva who was murdered in 2009 along with her mother by her mother's then boyfriend. The boyfriend had a prior conviction for a violent felony.
Brittany’s grandmother, Dale Driscoll, remarked: “Words cannot express the gratitude my family and I have for Senator Nozzolio and his dedication and commitment to seeing ‘Brittany’s Law’ adopted into law. The murder of my daughter and granddaughter devastated our family. If this legislation prevents another family from suffering the loss we have experienced, then my daughter and granddaughter will not have died in vain. People should have the right to know if a person is a violent felon and I will continue to do everything I can to push this measure in the State Assembly.”...
The Senate passed the bill Monday. Similar legislation is pending in the Assembly but no vote has been scheduled.
Critics argue a registry could stigmatize ex-offenders and make it harder for them to secure jobs and housing after they are released.
Notable sentencing and clemency comments from newly-confirmed Deputy Attorney General
I just came across this recent Washington Post profile of Sally Quillian Yates, the new number two at the Department of Justice. The piece is headlined "New deputy attorney general: ‘We’re not the Department of Prosecutions’," and here are some notable excerpts:
The odds were stacked against lawyer Sally Quillian in her first trial in rural Barrow County, Ga. Before an all-white jury, she was representing the county’s first African American landowning family against a developer over a disputed title to six acres of land. The family was so distrustful of the court system back in the 1930s that they hadn’t recorded their deed. Instead, the family’s matriarch kept the deed, written on cloth, folded inside her dress every day while she worked the fields. Now, a developer was trying to take their property, and Quillian was arguing the case using an arcane legal theory.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Quillian — now Sally Quillian Yates — recalled. “I had never tried a case before.” But the jury came back with a verdict in favor of her client. “These 12 white jurors, who knew and went to church with and socialized with everybody on the other side, did the right thing,” said Yates, who was then at a private firm. “This court system that my client’s family had mistrusted so much that they wouldn’t even file their deed had worked for them as it’s supposed to and had given them back the property that had been so important to their family all of these years.”
That case some 30 years ago had a deep impact on Yates, who went on to become a prosecutor in Atlanta for 20 years. In 2010, President Obama nominated Yates to be the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. Last week, she was confirmed to be deputy attorney general , the second-highest-ranking position at the Justice Department. A bottle of champagne still sits in her fourth-floor corner office, which overlooks Constitution Avenue and where senior officials celebrated her 84-to-12 Senate vote....
One of Yates’s priorities will be to follow through with the criminal justice reform efforts begun by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., including the push to give clemency to “nonviolent drug offenders” who meet certain criteria set out by the department last year, she said in her first interview since taking the job.
Yates and other prosecutors enforced the harsh sentencing policies from the 1980s and ’90s. “Those policies were enacted at a time of an exploding violent-crime rate and serious crack problems,” Yates said. “They were based on the environment we were in. But things have changed now, and violent crime rates have dropped dramatically.”
More than 35,000 inmates are seeking clemency, but a complicated review process has slowed the Obama administration’s initiative. In February, Obama commuted the sentences of 22 drug offenders, the largest batch of prisoners to be granted early release under his administration and the first group of inmates who applied after the new criteria were set.
“Certainly, there’s some growing pains at the beginning,” Yates said. “There’s start-up time involved in this. I think all of us are frustrated that it’s taken longer than we would like for this to be operating as efficiently as possible. But I think we are headed down that road now. There are going to be more recommendations from the department, and I would expect more commutations that the president will be issuing.”...
Yates commutes every other weekend to Atlanta to be with her husband, who is the director of a school for children with learning disabilities, and to plan the wedding of her 24-year-old daughter, the older of two children. She said the back-and-forth is worth the opportunity to influence criminal justice issues, including civil rights and sentencing reform, at the highest level.
She plans to urge lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass legislation to change sentencing policies. “Certainly, I don’t think I can ever be accused of being soft on crime,” Yates said. “But we need to be using the limited resources we have to ensure that we are truly doing justice and that the sentences we’re meting out are just and proportional to the crimes that we’re charging.”
“We’re not the Department of Prosecutions or even the Department of Public Safety,” Yates said. “We are the Department of Justice.”
Debate over harms of online drug market now at center of upcoming sentencing of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht
As reported in this Wired piece, headlined "Ahead of Sentencing, Ulbricht Defense Argues Silk Road Made Drug Use Safer," the defense in a notable drug sentencing case is making a notable new claim about the nature and consequences of the defendant's drug dealing methods. Here are the details:
When a jury convicted Ross Ulbricht three months ago of running the Silk Road, it closed the legal question of whether he was guilty of masterminding that billion-dollar online black market for drugs. But as Ulbricht’s sentencing approaches, his defense is opening another ethical question that may be far more societally important: Did the Silk Road’s newly invented method of narcotics e-commerce actually reduce the risks of drug use?
In a memo to judge Katherine Forrest filed Friday afternoon, Ulbricht’s defense has asked her to consider the Silk Road’s potential for “harm reduction” when she determines Ulbricht’s sentence in less than two weeks. The memo argues that the Silk Road’s community provided drug users a more reliable way to buy untainted drugs, that Ulbricht had expressly tried to encourage “safer” drug use on his black market site, and that the digital nature of the site’s commerce may have protected users from physical interactions that in the traditional drug trade often lead to violence.
“In contrast to the government’s portrayal of the Silk Road web site as a more dangerous version of a traditional drug marketplace, in fact the Silk Road web site was in many respects the most responsible such marketplace in history, and consciously and deliberately included recognized harm reduction measures, including access to physician counseling,” writes Ulbricht’s lead defense attorney Joshua Dratel in the filing. “In addition, transactions on the Silk Road web site were significantly safer than traditional illegal drug purchases, and included quality control and accountability features that made purchasers substantially safer than they were when purchasing drugs in a conventional manner.”
The memo argues that the Silk Road’s community provided drug users a more reliable way to buy untainted drugs. One of the Silk Road’s innovations, after all, was to bring an eBay-like system of ratings and reviews for online drug sales. That system gave buyers a way to quickly weed out dealers selling lower quality or less pure substances. The site maintained a section of its user forum devoted to safer drug use, where users could ask each other for advice and help with health problems. And Ulbricht’s defense points to archived messages showing that Ulbricht even offered at one point to pay $500 a week to a Spanish doctor, Fernando Caudevilla, who frequented the forum and answered users’ questions. Ulbricht also asked Caudevilla if he’d be willing to chemically test drugs on the site for quality, though it’s not clear if that testing scheme was ever put into practice.
Regardless, Ulbricht isn’t likely to receive a light sentence. The 31-year-old Texan was convicted of seven felony charges in February that include conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and money laundering, as well as a “kingpin” statute reserved for the leaders of organized criminal operations, which could add another decade to his prison time. In all, he faces a minimum of 30 years in prison and a maximum of life. Ulbricht’s defense team has already said it plans to appeal the case.
The prosecution in Ulbricht’s case has revealed that it plans to present at Ulbricht’s sentencing hearing six cases of individuals who died from overdoses of drugs bought on the Silk Road. But in its Friday filing, the defense addressed and rebutted each of those examples. In a grisly section of a separate memo, it goes through the details of those six deaths, in each case arguing that the deceased suffered from earlier health conditions and questioning whether the death-inducing drugs had actually been bought from vendors on the Silk Road. “It is simply impossible for the government to prove that drugs obtained from Silk Road ‘caused’ death, and in certain cases, the government cannot even establish to any degree of certainty that any of the drugs ingested came from Silk Road,” Dratel writes....
To bolster its argument about the societal benefits of the Silk Road, the defense includes in its filing sworn statements from a series of experts, including Tim Bingham, the administrator of an addiction-focused non-profit known as the Irish Needle Exchange Forum, and Meghan Ralston, the former director of harm reduction for the Drug Policy Alliance. Bingham, for instance, published three studies in the International Journal of Drug Policy about the Silk Road based on surveys of users. He writes in his statement that he “concluded that Silk Road forums…appeared to act as an information mechanism for the promotion of safer and more acceptable or responsible forms of recreational drug use.”
The full text of this Ulbricht Sentencing Defense Letter can be accessed at this link.
Prior related posts:
- You be the judge: what federal sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht?
- Notable developments in prelude to federal sentencing for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht
Some recent posts of note from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
I have not recently done in this space a round-up of posts of note from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform in a few weeks. Here is an abridged listing of MLP&R posts that might be of special interest to sentencing fans: