Thursday, October 8, 2015

What major federal criminal justice reform now gets 90% support in key swing states?

In this post and others at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis rightly notes that relatively little objective polling has focused on the array of federal sentencing and correction reforms that are being actively proposed and promoted now by many leaders in the US Senate and House.  Like Bill, I would like to see the media and other independent groups conduct polling on some key aspects of federal drug sentencing and broader rehabilitation-oriented prison reform proposals now being considered on Capitol Hill.

Critically, though, thanks largely to voter-initiated, state-level reforms over the last few years, we are starting to see a lot more media and other independent groups conduct polling on one particular aspect of the federal criminal justice system: blanket marijuana prohibition and criminalization.  The latest polling numbers in this space come from the independent Quinnipiac University Poll, and it finds remarkably high public support for ending marijuana prohibition in swing states in order to allow adults "to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it."  This Quinnipiac press release about its poll places emphasis on closely-divided (and gender/age-distinctive) views on recreational marijuana reform, but I find the medical marijuana poll numbers most remarkable and important. Here are excerpts from the press release (with my emphasis added):

"If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then the Red Planet might be the more spacey place. That's because men are more likely than women to support legalization of marijuana for recreational use," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. "Not surprisingly support for the change is linked to age, with younger voters more likely to see personal use of pot as a good thing."

"But despite the support for legalization, a majority of voters in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania say they would not use the drug if it were legal," Brown added. "Only about one in 10 voters opposes legalizing marijuana for medical purposes." ...

Florida voters support legalizing personal marijuana use 51 - 45 percent.... Voters support legalizing medical marijuana 87 - 12 percent....

Ohio voters support legalizing personal marijuana use 53 - 44 percent.... Voters support legalized medical marijuana use 90 - 9 percent.

Pennsylvania voters are divided on legalizing personal marijuana use, with 47 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed.... Voters support legalizing medical marijuana 90 - 9 percent.

Among other stories, these latest poll numbers reinforce my concern that federal laws and our federal political leaders (including, it seems, most of the candidates running to be our next President) are badly out of touch with public views on marijuana reform. Even in these purple swing states, roughly 90% (!) of those polled say, in essence, that they do not support blanket marijuana prohibition and criminalization, and yet blanket marijuana prohibition persists in federal law and precious few elected federal office holders (or those seeking to be elected office holders) are willing even to talk about seeking to change these laws in the short term.

That all said, I am getting a growing sense that, over time, more and more promiment establishment politicians are coming to understand just how talking seriously (and modestly) about marijuana reform can be a winning political issue (especially among younger voters).  Still, as evidenced by some recent posts at my Marijuana blog, the politics, policies and practicalities of marijuana reform are so dynamic, I find myself unwilling ever to make bold predictions about what might happen next in this reform space.

Some recent posts from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform:

October 8, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Mass Incarceration: An Annotated Bibliography"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new document prepared by Nicole Dyszlewski, Lucinda Harrison-Cox and Raquel Ortiz now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This annotated bibliography is a scholarly supplement to the 2015 Roger Williams University School of Law Symposium "Sounding the Alarm on Mass Incarceration: Moving Beyond the Problem and Toward Solutions." It contains texts selected to facilitate further study by symposium attendees, researchers, lawyers, policy analysts, law librarians, public officials, law students, criminologists, casual readers, undergraduate professors and activists. The selected monographs have been briefly summarized and critiqued by the authors.

A quick scan of this scholarly supplement reveals it to be an extraordinary resource that I am likely to use on a regular basis.  I highly recommend this document (and I hope it will get updated and re-posted periodically).

October 8, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Highligthing that states, despite Glossip ruling, continue to struggle with lethal injections

This lengthy new New York Times article, headlined "Death Penalty States Face Hurdles in Carrying Out Executions," reports on the (surprising?) reality that the Supreme Court's recent Glossip ruling has not made it significantly easier for states to complete scheduled lethal injections. Here are excerpts:

Despite a Supreme Court ruling allowing a controversial drug to be used for lethal injections in Oklahoma, death­penalty states are finding it harder to carry out executions as they struggle to obtain and properly use limited supplies of ever­changing combinations of lethal injection drugs.

Prison officials in Texas and Virginia have improvised a short­-term solution by trading drugs for lethal injections.  Both Ohio and Nebraska have sought to buy a drug no longer available in the United States from overseas only to be told by the federal Food and Drug Administration that importing the drug is illegal.

Executions in Mississippi have been postponed for months over a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s three-­drug protocol. The delay will stretch into next year, with a trial scheduled in July 2016.  And in Montana on Tuesday, a judge blocked the state from carrying out executions, ruling that one of the two drugs it planned to use did not comply with the state law governing lethal injections.  The only way Montana can resume executions with that drug, the judge said, is by having the State Legislature modify the law.

“Over time lethal injection has become only more problematic and chaotic,” said Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School and an expert on lethal injections.

Oklahoma last week halted the execution of Richard E. Glossip, who was part of the challenge the Supreme Court had turned down, after officials realized two hours before it was to take place that the state’s supplier had sent prison officials the wrong drug.  The error led to a court-­ordered stay of the three executions scheduled in October and November while officials conduct an investigation....

The scramble for drugs has caused some states to embrace or consider more unusual or more antiquated ways of putting inmates to death.  In 2014, Tennessee authorized prison officials to use the electric chair if lethal-­injection drugs were unavailable.  Gov. Gary R. Herbert of Utah signed a bill into law in March approving firing squads when drugs cannot be obtained.

In April, Oklahoma made nitrogen gas its new backup method.  In Louisiana, where executions have been postponed following a federal lawsuit over its lethal-­injection system, prison officials recommended in a report in February that nitrogen gas be adopted as an alternative method, through the use of a mask or other device but not a gas chamber.

October 8, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (4)

House Judiciary leaders set to introduce (distinct?) big bipartisan sentencing reform bill

As detailed in this press release from the House Judiciary Committee, this morning Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) are going to release the detail of the House Judiciary Committee’s bipartisan criminal justice reform initiative.  Here is the statement from the pair:

For the past several months, the House Judiciary Committee has been working on a bipartisan basis on several bills to ensure our federal criminal laws and regulations appropriately punish wrongdoers, are effectively and appropriately enforced, operate with fairness and compassion, protect individual freedom, safeguard civil liberties, work as efficiently as possible, do not impede state efforts, and do not waste taxpayer dollars.

As a result of this work, we are pleased to announce that we, along with Crime Subcommittee Ranking Member Sheila Jackson Lee and a bipartisan group of leaders on this issue, will introduce companion legislation to the sentencing reform portion of the Senate bill unveiled last week by Senators Grassley, Durbin, Cornyn, Leahy, Booker and others.

We are also continuing our work on additional bills that address other aspects of our criminal justice system, including over-criminalization, prison and reentry reform, including youth and juvenile justice issues, improved criminal procedures and policing strategies, and civil asset forfeiture reform and we expect to roll out more bills addressing these topics over the coming weeks.

I am very excited to learn that the House is going to have its own version of the Senate's SRCA 2015 making the rounds. This news makes me a bit more optimistic that Congress could get a sentencing reform bill passed at to the desk of the President before the end of 2015.

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 8, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Astute review of (too-often neglected and really critical) back-end criminal justice developments

The October issue of Governing magazine has this lengthy new article that effectively spotlights aspects of criminal justice punishment systems that have too often been ignored or overlooked. The article merits a read in full, and its extended headline highlights why everyone should be interested in the stories within: "The Changing Relationship Between Ex-Criminals and Their Parole Officers: Rather than acting as former offenders' enemies, parole and probation officers are now working to be their mentors. Can it reduce recidivism?". Here are excerpts:

Oftentimes, parole and probation officers are the only positive role models offenders have. About a decade ago, criminologists began asking if parole and probation visits were a missed opportunity for law enforcement.  What if officers developed a more supportive relationship with offenders?  What if they demonstrated to clients that they weren’t just checking boxes and delivering sanctions?  The working theory was that given some personal attention, offenders might be more receptive to advice about resolving conflicts and avoiding crime.
Amid a flurry of academic journal articles and pilot projects, researchers from the University of Cincinnati developed EPICS, short for Effective Practices in Community Supervision, a new model for structured face-to-face meetings between officers and their clients.  While universities in Australia and Canada produced similar approaches based on the same underlying theory, EPICS has become the go-to model for parole and probation in much of the United States.  Since 2006, more than 80 state and county criminal justice departments have adopted EPICS....
By focusing on behavioral change, rather than just threats of being thrown back in jail, EPICS and similar efforts may help break the cycle of incarceration. “I don’t think the majority of people on supervision like being criminals,” says Scott Taylor, who runs the department of parole and probation in Multnomah County. “They just can’t figure how to get out of it.”

Law enforcement agencies in this country have been engaged in community supervision for more than 150 years, basing their practice on the idea that some convicted criminals can reintegrate into society, so long as they meet with assigned officers on a regular basis.  Community supervision takes two primary forms: probation and parole.  Generally speaking, probation is an alternative to incarceration, and parole is early release from prison.  People on probation tend to be convicted of less serious offenses than people on parole....

EPICS is part of a larger change that is developing within the nation’s parole and probation systems.  Parole boards are under scrutiny for keeping people in prison without explaining why they don’t qualify for supervised release in the community.  Many states have changed sentencing requirements so that nonviolent offenders are increasingly the responsibility of local jails and community supervision agencies, not state prisons.  Parole and probation officers are using risk assessment tools to concentrate services on the people who are most likely to reoffend.

Since 2000, anywhere from 4.5 million to 5 million adults have been under community supervision in a given year, but as prisons come under increasing pressure to lower their inmate populations, the number of offenders on parole and probation is certain to grow. In the past, parole and probation agencies have generally ignored research that suggests ways to reduce recidivism; the field has been stuck in a mode of monitoring and enforced compliance.  As more offenders are released to community supervision, however, agencies are showing an interest in ideas designed to cut down on criminal behavior.  EPICS is one of those ideas.

October 7, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Why 21 year-old offenders should be tried in family court"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable Washington Post commentary authored by Vincent Schiraldi and Bruce Western. Here are excerpts:

Just over 100 years ago, there was no separate court for juveniles anywhere in the world. Adolescents were viewed as smaller versions of adults, were prosecuted under the same laws and often sent to the same prisons.

But in 1899, a pioneering group of women — Jane Addams, Lucy Flower and Julia Lathrop — persuaded the state of Illinois to create a separate court to handle juveniles’ cases individually, be more rehabilitative and less punitive and ensure that youthful mistakes wouldn’t haunt youngsters throughout their lives.  The family court was a smashing success, spreading to 46 states and 16 countries by 1925 and decidedly reducing recidivism compared with trying children as adults.

But while family court’s founding mothers got a lot right, the setting of 18 as the court’s maximum age was an arbitrary choice based on the mores of the time rather than hard evidence. It’s time we expanded the protections and rehabilitative benefits of the family court to young adults.

Research in neurobiology and developmental psychology has shown that the brain doesn’t finish developing until the mid-20s, far later than was previously thought. Young adults are more similar to adolescents than fully mature adults in important ways. They are more susceptible to peer pressure, less future-oriented and more volatile in emotionally charged settings.

Furthermore, adolescence itself has become elongated compared with that of previous generations. Today’s young people finish college, find jobs, get married and leave home much later than their parents did. Just 9 percent of young adults were married in 2010, compared with 45 percent in 1960.

Non-criminal law and practice frequently recognize these developmental differences. States prohibit young adults from smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol, possessing firearms, gambling and adopting children. You can’t serve in the House of Representatives until age 25, it costs more to rent a car as a young adult and you can stay on your parents’ health insurance until 26. However, despite the developmental differences between young and fully mature adults, criminal law draws a stark, scientifically indefensible line at 18. This has disastrous public safety outcomes. For example, 78 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds released from prison are rearrested and about half return to prison within three years, the highest recidivism rate of any age cohort.

Fortunately, there has been growing innovation overseas along with some noteworthy U.S. experiments designed to address the challenges and opportunities this transition-aged population presents. The age of family court jurisdiction in Germany and the Netherlands is 21 and 23, respectively. Many European countries have separate correctional facilities for young adults. In Finland, young people can earn accelerated release from prison by participating in educational and professional training programs....

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch recently convened an expert panel to explore developmentally appropriate responses to young adults caught up in the justice system. “Research indicates that . . . we may have a significant opportunity, even after the teenage years, to exert a positive influence and reduce future criminality through appropriate interventions,” she said. This “offers a chance to consider new and innovative ways to augment our criminal justice approach.”

Such thinking will undoubtedly face political head winds in some places, but improved outcomes can be used to build support with the public. Frequently, U.S. juvenile justice practice moves adolescents in the opposite direction — from family court into adult court and, too often, adult prisons. An estimated 247,000 people under 18 were tried as adults in 2007, and more than 5,000 adolescents are incarcerated in jails and prisons. There, they are at greater risk of sexual assault and experience higher rearrest rates vs. youth retained in the juvenile justice system. Any reforms for young adults need to also reduce this destructive practice of transferring young people into the maw of the adult system.

Given advances in research and successful innovation here and abroad, now is the time for practice to catch up with science — whether it is raising the family court’s age to 21 or 25 or otherwise creating a separate approach to young adults that reflects their developmental needs and furthers public safety.

October 7, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

Previewing Kansas capital case day for SCOTUS argument

The Supreme Court will be spending the morning today talking a lot about how Kansas administers its death penalty.  (The official nickname for Kansas is the Sunflower State, but perhaps the Justices will be thinking of the state's unofficial nickname of Bleeding Kansas.) Helpfully, SCOTUSblog and Crime & Consequences provides previews. Here are links and leads from their efforts:

Argument preview: Justices to tackle Eighth Amendment — again:

The Justices closed out last Term with a high-profile death penalty case, holding that Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedures do not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  The decision in that case may be best known for Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in which he suggested that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional.  The Eighth Amendment is back before the Court again tomorrow, albeit with lower stakes, this time in a set of challenges to the procedures used to sentence three Kansas inmates to death.  The oral arguments and the Court’s eventual decision may tell us more about whether some of the Justices’ discomfort with the death penalty will translate into additional protections for defendants in capital cases or whether the Justices will instead remain — as they were in the Oklahoma case —  sharply divided. 

SCOTUS Considers the Wichita Massacre:

Even among people who deal with violent crime all the time, there are some crimes of such revolting depravity, such pure evil, that they knock us back in our chairs just reading about them.  The United States Supreme Court considers such a case tomorrow.  It is the notorious case of brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr, whose crime spree culminated in a case called the Wichita Massacre.

UPDATEThis short post-argument Reuters piece reports that the "U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared poised to rule against two brothers challenging their death sentences for a 2000 crime spree in Kansas that included the execution-style murders of four people on a snowy soccer field."

Folks can surmise the basis for this media view by checking out the transcripts in Kansas v. Gleason, Kansas v. Carr, and Kansas v. Carr now available here and here.

October 7, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

"Unsophisticated Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper about a notable federal sentencing provision authored by Miriam Baer and now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This essay, written for the Wayne Law Review’s 2014 Symposium on white collar crime and sentencing, examines the rising popularity of the “sophisticated means” enhancement under Section 2B1.1 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Over the past decade, the rate at which federal courts apply the enhancement in criminal fraud cases has more than tripled.

This Essay considers several possible explanations for the enhancement’s increasing prevalence, including the possibilities that: (i) fraud offenders as a whole have become more sophisticated; (ii) federal prosecutors are investigating and charging more sophisticated frauds; and (iii) the enhancement’s meaning has, over time, gradually expanded to include additional conduct, a phenomenon I refer to as “sentencing creep.” With this final explanation in mind, the Essay concludes with some practical advice for reinvigorating the enhancement as a useful sorting device.

October 6, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Texas completes lethal injection not long after Montana judge finds state's lethal drugs problematic

Two notable lethal injection developments in two states on late Tuesday.  Here are the headlines and parts of the stories:

"Texas Executes Juan Garcia, 11th Inmate of Year"

Texas on Tuesday executed its 11th inmate of this year — a man who killed a former missionary during an $8 robbery when he was a teenager.  Juan Garcia, 35, received a lethal injection and was was pronounced dead at 6:26 p.m. (7:26 p.m. ET).  He was executed for the 1998 murder of Hugh Solano, who had just moved to Houston from Mexico to give his children a better education.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected Garcia's clemency bid in a 5-2 vote last week. Garcia in the past fought execution with claims of mental impairment, but had no appeals pending Tuesday morning.

Garcia apologized to Solano's relatives in Spanish ahead of the execution, and Solano's wife and daughter sobbed and told the inmate they loved him.  "The harm that I did to your dad and husband — I hope this brings you closure," Garcia said.  "I never wanted to hurt any of you all."

As the dose of pentobarbital began, he winced, raised his head and then shook it. He gurgled once and snored once before his movement stopped.  He was pronounced dead 12 minutes later.

"Montana Judge Blocks State from Using Execution Drug"

A Helena district judge on Tuesday ruled that Montana’s method of lethal injection does not comply with state law, effectively staying all executions in the state indefinitely.  District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock wrote that the state’s current protocol for executing inmates by lethal injection relies on a drug that is not an “ultra-fast-acting barbiturate,” as required by state law.

The challenge to Montana’s execution methods went to trial last month, when attorneys for prisoners Ronald Allen Smith and William Gollehon — Montana’s only two death row inmates — argued that the drug, pentobarbital, does not adhere to a state law requiring that an “ultra-fast acting” barbiturate must be used during execution.

The state’s revised protocol indicates it will use pentobarbital as a substitute barbiturate, despite the fact that pentobarbital is an intermediate-acting barbiturate, which isn’t allowed under the state’s lethal injection protocol. In his order, Sherlock wrote that by using the term “ultra” in its statute, the Legislature limited the state to using only drugs in the fastest category of barbiturates.  Sherlock ruled that “while pentobarbital may operate in a fast nature, it is not ultra-fast as is required to comply with Montana’s execution protocol.”

October 6, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Man 'too high' on marijuana calls Austintown police for help"

The title of this post is the headline of this (amusing?) article from a local Ohio paper that almost reads like a story from The Onion.  Here are the details:

Township police were called to a home Friday night by a man who complained he was “too high” after smoking marijuana. According to a police report, authorities were called to the 100 block of Westminister Avenue at about 5:20 p.m. Friday by a 22-year old male who had smoked the drug.

The officer who responded to the home could hear the man groaning from a room.The officer then found the man lying “on the floor in the fetal position” and “was surrounded by a plethora of Doritos, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and Chips Ahoy cookies,” the report said. The man also told police he couldn’t feel his hands.

A glass pipe with marijuana residue, two packs of rolling papers, two roaches and a glass jar of marijuana were recovered from the man’s car after he gave the keys to police.

The man declined medical treatment at the home Friday night.  Austintown police have not charged the man in the incident as of late Monday morning.

I am tempted to react to this story by wondering aloud if the cop-calling, worried-weed consumer has twice enjoyed (white?) privilege by (1) thinking he could seek help from the police for his pot problem, and (2) for not yet getting arrested or charged for his various crimes. But rather than turn this story serious, I will instead just request that readers help me imagine funnier headlines for this tale of foolishness.

October 6, 2015 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (5)

Early prisoner release following reduced drug guideline retroactivity about to be reality

It seems like a real long time ago that the US Sentencing Commission suggested it might reduced the severity of its drug sentencing guidelines across the board. (In fact, it was way back in early January 2014, as reported in this post.)  That USSC proposal a few month later became a formal guideline amendment known as drugs -2 (as reported here in April 2014); some months after that, the USSC formally voted to make this reduced guideline fully retroactive to those already serving long federal drug prison sentences (as reported here in July 2014).  

But when making its reduced drug guidelines retroactive, the USSC also provided that no federal drug prisoner should be released until fall 2015 in order to give courts and prisons time to process all thousands of folks who would not be eligible to seek early release.  Now, as this new Washington Post piece reports, all this USSC reform is finally going to mean thousands of prisoners actually securing early releases:

The Justice Department is set to release about 6,000 inmates early from prison — the largest one-time release of federal prisoners — in an effort to reduce overcrowding and provide relief to drug offenders who received harsh sentences over the past three decades.

The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the department’s Bureau of Prisons between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. Most of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release.

The early release follows action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes — which reduced the potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and then made that change retroactive....

The panel estimated that its change in sentencing guidelines eventually could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early release. The 6,000 figure, which has not been reported previously, is the first tranche in that process.

“The number of people who will be affected is quite exceptional,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports sentencing reform. The Sentencing Commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates would be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016....

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously for the reduction last year after holding two public hearings in which members heard testimony from former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., federal judges, federal public defenders, state and local law enforcement officials, and sentencing advocates. The panel also received more than 80,000 public comment letters, with the overwhelming majority favoring the change.

Congress did not act to disapprove the change to the sentencing guidelines, so it became effective on Nov. 1, 2014. The commission then gave the Justice Department a year to prepare for the huge release of inmates.

The policy change is referred to as “Drugs Minus Two.” Federal sentencing guidelines rely on a numeric system based on different factors, including the defendant’s criminal history, the type of crime, whether a gun was involved and whether the defendant was a leader in a drug group. The sentencing panel’s change decreased the value attached to most drug-trafficking offenses by two levels, regardless of the type of drug or the amount.

An average of about two years is being shaved off eligible prisoners’ sentences under the change. Although some of the inmates who will be released have served decades, on average they will have served 8 1/2 years instead of 10 1/2 , according to a Justice Department official.

“Even with the Sentencing Commission’s reductions, drug offenders will have served substantial prison sentences,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said. “Moreover, these reductions are not automatic. Under the commission’s directive, federal judges are required to carefully consider public safety in deciding whether to reduce an inmate’s sentence.”

In each case, inmates must petition a judge, who decides whether to grant the sentencing reduction. Judges nationwide are granting about 70 sentence reductions per week, Justice officials said. Some of the inmates already have been sent to halfway houses.

In some cases, federal judges have denied inmates’ requests for early release. For example, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth recently denied requests from two top associates of Rayful Edmond III, one of the District’s most notorious drug kingpins. Federal prosecutors did not oppose a request by defense lawyers to have the associates, Melvin D. Butler and James Antonio Jones, released early in November.  But last month Lamberth denied the request, which would have cut about two years from each man’s projected 28 1/2 -year sentence....

Critics, including some federal prosecutors, judges and police officials, have raised concerns that allowing so many inmates to be released at the same time could cause crime to increase.

But Justice officials said that about one-third of the inmates who will be released in a few weeks are foreign citizens who will be quickly deported.  They also pointed to a study last year that found that the recidivism rate for offenders who were released early after changes in crack-cocaine sentencing guidelines in 2007 was not significantly different from the rate for offenders who completed their sentences.

October 6, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Montgomery wards: certain victims' family members voicing support for juve murderers getting a chance at resentencing

As noted in this prior post, I am doing a series of posts in preparation for the US Supreme Court hearing oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana, and I have a terrific research assistant drafting summaries of various amicus briefs submitted in Montgomery (all of which can be found via this SCOTUSblog page).  Here is how he summarized some portions of this Brief of Amici Curiae of Certain Family Members of Victims Killed by Youths in Support of Petitioner:

A collection of people who have lost loved ones, including friends and family, to violent murders submitted an amicus brief in support of the petitioner in Montgomery v. Louisiana. Their argument is both emotional and sensible; it does not appeal to the formalisms of legal argument or precedent.

At its heart, this brief addresses the emotional and personal impact of locking away a person away forever for a crime they committed as a child. This brief pleads the Court to acknowledge the merits of leniency, compassion, and the rehabilitative potential of children. All of the stories contained in this brief are moving and important. Here are a few summarized excerpts.

Jeanne Bishop

“Jeanne Bishop lost her younger sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, brother-in-law Richard Langert, and their unborn child on April 7, 1990.” Brief for Amici Curiae of Certain Family Members of Victims Killed by Youths in Support of Petitioner, Montgomery v. Louisiana, (No. 14-280), at 4. Sixteen year-old David Biro shot and killed the couple in their home after breaking into their home while they were out and lying in wait for their return. After a two-week trial, David was convicted of the murders and sentenced to mandatory life without parole—the only possible punishment for a double-murder committed by a child in Illinois. Neither Jeanne nor anyone else in her family was not allowed to make a victim impact statement during sentencing.

Due to her religious beliefs, Jeanne forgave David, but she was happy that he “would be locked up forever.” Id. at 5. However, over time, Jeanne’s belief that David was a remorseless killer came under question and she decided to write to him. In response, David sent Jeanne a 15-page letter confessing to the crime for the first time and expressing “deep regret.” Id. Jeanne began to visit David in prison after this initial correspondence and has developed a “strong, honest, and respectful” relationship with him. Id. at 6.

“Jeanne knows that many want to write off people like David because, in their mind, people like him can never change. But, she wonders ‘whether what we are truly afraid of is not that they will never get better, but that they might.’” Id.

Linda White

On November 18, 1986, Linda White’s 26 year-old daughter Cathy was murdered by two teenage boys. Id. at 10. The boys asked Cathy for a ride out of town to avoid abusive parents. After Cathy had agreed and driven the boys a distance, the boys brandished guns and ordered Cathy to pull over. After stopping the car, the boys raped Cathy and shot her four times.

After being arrested, one of the boys — Gary — pled guilty to the murder. Gary, who was 15 years old at the time of the murder, was sentenced to 54 years in prison.

Many years after he was incarcerated, Gary agreed to let Linda, his victim’s mother, visit him. “When Linda and Gary finally met, Linda found that he was no longer the child who had callously raped and killed her daughter. Gary was a different person – a remorseful grown man who was desperately seeking both forgiveness and a chance to start making up for all of the hurt that he had inflicted.” Id. at 12.

As of 2015, “Gary has been out of prison for nearly six years. In that time, he has immersed himself in a new community, found and held a job, and begun working with drug and alcohol addicts at his church in a role in which his minister says he has made an incredible difference. Gary has kept himself out of trouble. He and Linda remain in contact, and he never stops apologizing for the pain that he caused. To Linda, Gary is a perfect example for why life sentences are so unjust, especially for children.” Id.

Prior posts in series:

October 6, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Federalism, Federal Courts, and Victims’ Rights"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Michael Solimine and Kathryn Elvey available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A striking development in American criminal justice in the past forty years is the widespread adoption and acceptance of the rights of victims, at both the federal and state levels.  A notable exception to this innovation has been the repeated, unsuccessful attempts, continuing to the present day, to pass a Victims’ Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The considerable scholarly literature on the VRA has not rigorously examined the putative need for the VRA from a federalism perspective, a task this article undertakes.

The article examines the history of the victims’ rights movement, and of the repeated attempts to pass the VRA.  We argue that both supporters and critics of the VRA have not convincingly addressed federalism issues raised by the potential adoption of the VRA.  In contrast, we argue that functional principles of federalism suggest that the VRA and nationalization of victims’ rights is unnecessary.  On the other hand, we argue that there is one way that the federal government can recognize state development of victims’ rights. In habeas corpus actions in federal court, challenging state court convictions, we argue that victims of state crimes should be permitted and encouraged to participate in those proceedings, in ways not generally permitted to date.

October 6, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Leading distinct GOP Senators make the case for federal sentencing reform via SRCA 2015

I am quite pleased to see that, in the wake of introducting in the US Senate the remarkable Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (basics of SRCA here), two prominent GOP Senators (one old guard, one new guard) have taken to the op-ed pages to explain what they are doing.   Politics_Grassley_620Here are links to these op-eds:

From (old guard) Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley in the Des Moines Register here, "I'm working for criminal justice reform."  Excerpts:

For the last several months, I’ve listened, worked, negotiated and built consensus with my colleagues on an important public policy that governs crime and punishment and has a sweeping effect on the citizenry.  The nation’s criminal justice system serves the accused and the aggrieved in our society. And the taxpaying public foots the bill for our courts, law enforcement and prisons that protect public safety and serve justice....

Notwithstanding the merits of mandatory minimums that are designed to promote the public good and public safety, federal sentencing has come under increased scrutiny for locking up low-level offenders and incarceration rates that are running up an unsustainable tab to American taxpayers, roughly $80 billion annually. There’s no doubt that drug and human trafficking and gang-related crimes continue to persist and poison the well of civic life, endangering public safety daily.  And yet, there’s room for sensible reforms that improve the criminal justice system so that it’s fair and just to victims, the accused and taxpayers.  The right policy mix of reforms can give low-level offenders who have paid their debts to society a second chance to rejoin their families and find employment in their communities.

This week I introduced the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. It reflects carefully crafted sentencing reforms to achieve fairness, justice and fidelity to the rule of law.

Our proposed reforms give the courts more flexibility in federal sentencing laws for non-violent, low-level drug offenders, including the elimination of the three strikes mandatory life provision.  We also expand the existing safety valve and add a second safety valve that provide relief from the 10-year mandatory minimum for certain low-level offenders.  It would retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 that reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine criminal drug offenses.

We also target and expand some of the existing mandatory minimums so that law enforcement can continue to pursue violent repeat offenders and gun criminals.  And we create new mandatory minimums for crimes involving interstate domestic violence and the export of weapons and other defense articles to prohibited countries and terrorists.

The scales of justice require equal rights under the law for the accused and for victims of crime.  Fairness in a criminal justice system also must consider the opportunity for reintegration.  Our bill would require the Department of Justice to classify all federal inmates and assign qualifying prisoners to a recidivism reduction program.  This may include job training, drug recovery, faith-based and work and education programs that provide eligible inmates an opportunity to earn early release.

There’s a fine line between leniency and levelheadedness.  That’s why I’m working for balanced reforms that do not compromise public safety and national security.

From (new guard) Senator Mike Lee in the Washington Examiner here, "The conservative case for criminal justice reform."  Excerpts:

The problem today is not simply that penalties are too harsh or sentences too long — though in many cases they are.  The problem is that, over the past several decades, we have industrialized and bureaucratized our criminal, judicial and penal systems.

Which is to say, we've turned them into unaccountable, short-sighted, input-oriented, self-interested institutions — immune to common sense — that treat offenders as statistical cases rather than human beings.

For conservatives, criminal justice reform is not a venue for the airing of ideological grievances or the testing of fashionable theories.  It's about helping our communities stay as safe and secure as possible, while infringing as little as possible on the God-given, equal rights of all Americans and their pursuit of happiness.

It's about designing our laws, our court procedures and our prison systems on the basis of a clear-eyed and time-tested understanding of human nature — of man's predilection toward sin and his capacity for redemption — as well as an uncompromising respect for the fundamental dignity of the human person.  Criminal justice reform, properly understood, is an invitation for principled conservatism at its best.  Our bill expands judicial discretion, so judges can treat offenders like human beings, not statistics, and punish them according to their particular circumstances, instead of indiscriminate bureaucratic guidelines.

It broadens the federal "safety valve" — a provision that allows federal judges to sentence a limited number of offenders below the mandatory minimum sentence.

The bill also improves the quality of our federal prison system, so that we have fewer first-time offenders turning into career criminals. It will expand inmates' access to vocational training, therapeutic counseling and reentry services that help offenders who have fulfilled their sentences return to their families, their communities, and lawful, steady jobs.

Reforming our federal criminal justice system doesn't require us to avert our eyes from a person's crimes, or make excuses that blame someone, or something, else for the choices he made.  No, it requires looking squarely at the facts of the case, no matter how ugly or wicked; holding offenders directly and personally accountable for their crimes; and devising a punishment that fits both the crime and the criminal.

We do this all the time in our daily lives when we recognize the humanity of hating the sin, not the sinner.  It's called forgiveness.  Forgiving is not the same thing as excusing. Nor is it incompatible with punishment.

Forgiveness requires assigning blame and, when necessary, imposing punishments — which is to say forgiveness requires treating offenders as morally responsible individuals — as human beings who, like the rest of us, have the propensity for vice and for virtue, and who must be held accountable for their choice of one or the other.

We know that no man is without sin.  Now, we must remember — in our hearts and in our laws — that no man is without hope.  This is why I'm involved — and invite you to join me — in the conservative movement for criminal justice reform.

The two lines I will remember from the pieces are sure to be "There’s a fine line between leniency and levelheadedness," and "we must remember — in our hearts and in our laws — that no man is without hope."

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

October 5, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Previewing the early criminal law cases on the SCOTUS docket

In this post at the Federalist Society blog, Kent Scheidegger provide an effective preview of the handful of Supreme Court cases dealing with criminal law issues that are to be heard by the Supreme Court in the first few weeks of its new Term. As regular readers know and as Kent notes, a number of the early cases involve the death penalty, and this recent Wall Street Journal article highlights the capital case concentration in an article headlined "Supreme Court Docket Loaded With Death-Penalty Cases."

But before the capital case kvetching gets started in earnest, the first criminal justice case to be heard by the Justices comes on Tuesday with Ocasio v. United States.  At SCOTUSblog here, Rory Little has this lengthy preview of Ocasio, which gets started this way:

The Court’s first criminal case of the Term presents a real brain teaser: may a defendant be convicted of conspiracy to commit an offense, when he has the intent necessary to commit the offense but his co-conspirator does not?  The case arises in the specific context of the unusual federal Hobbs Act extortion statute, and getting to the specific question initially requires some complex explanation.  But unless I misunderstand it, the general question is as old as the common law.

October 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Via summary reversal, SCOTUS rejects state court determination of ineffective defense

At the end of this long SCOTUS order list (which kind of marks the official start of a new Supreme Court term, OT15) is a short per curiam opinion in Maryland v. Kulbicki, No. 14-848 (S. Ct. Oct. 5, 2015). The opinion provides a notable win for prosecuors, starting and ending this way:

A criminal defendant “shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” U. S. Const., Amdt. 6.  We have held that this right requires effective counsel in both state and federal prosecutions, even if the defendant is unable to afford counsel. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U. S. 335, 344 (1963).  Counsel is unconstitutionally ineffective if his performance is both deficient, meaning his errors are “so serious” that he no longer functions as “counsel,” and prejudicial, meaning his errors deprive the defendant of a fair trial.  Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).  Applying this standard in name only, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that James Kulbicki’s defense attorneys were unconstitutionally ineffective. We summarily reverse....

Given the uncontroversial nature of [Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis] CBLA at the time of Kulbicki’s trial, the effect of the judgment below is to demand that lawyers go “looking for a needle in a haystack,” even when they have “reason to doubt there is any needle there.”  Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 389 (2005).  The Court of Appeals demanded something close to “perfect advocacy” — far more than the “reasonable, or CBLA competence” the right to counsel guarantees.  Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 8 (2003) (per curiam).  

Kulbicki’s trial counsel did not provide deficient performance when they failed to uncover the 1991 report and to use the report’s so-called methodological flaw against Peele on cross-examination.  (We need not, and so do not, decide whether the supposed error prejudiced Kulbicki.)  The petition for writ of certiorari is granted, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals for Maryland is reversed.

October 5, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Missouri Gov commutes death sentence at last minute because...............??

The quirky question in the title of this post is my reaction to this notable capital clemency news out of the Show Me state that leaves me wishing the chief executive of the state had showed all of us more about his reasons for communiting a death sentence only days before a scheduled execution.  Here are the (somewhat mysterious) details via this local article headlined "Nixon commutes death sentence for convicted murderer Kimber Edwards":

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon commuted on Friday the death sentence for Kimber Edwards, who was convicted in the 2000 murder-for-hire of his ex-wife, to a life sentence without parole. Edwards had been scheduled to be executed by injection at 6 p.m. Tuesday. His attorneys had recently asked the Missouri Supreme Court to throw out his conviction and death sentence because of doubts raised about his guilt.

Nixon did not explain his surprise decision, other than to say it came after a “thorough review of the facts” and was “not taken lightly.” He said the evidence supported the jury’s decision to convict Edwards of first-degree murder.

“After a thorough review of the facts surrounding the murder of Kimberly Cantrell, I am convinced the evidence supports the jury’s decision to convict Kimber Edwards of first-degree murder. At the same time, however, I am using my authority under the Missouri Constitution to commute Edwards’ sentence to life without the possibility of parole. This is a step not taken lightly, and only after significant consideration of the totality of the circumstances. With this decision, Kimber Edwards will remain in prison for the remainder of his life for this murder.”

Reached later Friday, a spokesman for Nixon said he would not elaborate.

Kimberly Cantrell, 35, was shot twice in the head in her apartment in the 1100 block of Midland Avenue in University City on Aug. 22, 2000. Authorities said Edwards had hired Orthell Wilson to kill Cantrell, Edwards’ ex-wife, to prevent her from testifying in a child-support hearing.

One of Cantrell’s siblings, Chuck Cantrell of San Jose, Calif., said that his family was informed of the decision less than five minutes before it was made public. Cantrell spoke to a legal adviser for the governor but wanted to speak to Nixon himself. “I would think that the governor would certainly understand that his action of this magnitude certainly has impact on the survivors of the victim,” he said. “I just can’t imagine that his office could be so callous. I would hate to think this would be some sort of political maneuver. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

He said family members had had no plans to witness the execution, but that didn’t mean they didn’t care about the case. He said he and his family had no doubt about Edwards’ guilt and that they knew how Edwards could manipulate a situation to his advantage. Edwards’ attorneys had recently tried to cast doubt on his guilt. They focused on two statements that were central to his case. One was a statement by Wilson, who said Edwards had hired him to kill Cantrell in 2000. The other was a confession from Edwards.

Wilson, who is serving a life sentence without parole, has recanted his statement, telling a Post-Dispatch reporter in April that he had acted alone and had lied about being hired by Edwards. He then signed an affidavit saying so. Edwards claimed at his trial — and ever since — that he was innocent. In new appeals, his attorneys pointed to the possibility that police had coerced his confession. They claimed Edwards has a form of autism that could have made him vulnerable to aggressive interrogation techniques, leading him to make a false confession.

Edwards’ attorney, Kent Gipson of Kansas City, petitioned the state Supreme Court to throw out the conviction for murder and armed criminal action, and the death sentence, and appoint a special master to review Edwards’ innocence claim. The court denied in July a similar request to study Edwards’ claim of innocence. The court has not yet ruled on Gipson’s petition. But he said he made the same case to lawyers from Nixon’s office this week.

“We’re all very happy because (days leading up to an execution are) always a very stressful and difficult time for everyone, the clients, the lawyers and the family,” Gipson said. “It’s a load off everyone’s shoulders, particularly the client, because he’s going to live.”... Gipson said the commutation of the death sentence would give him and Edwards more time to potentially seek a new trial.

In recent days, Gipson had been pressing a claim with Nixon’s office that during the penalty phase after Edwards’ conviction, the prosecutor in the case had inquired whether Edwards would be willing to waive appeals in the case in exchange for life in prison. But his supervisors refused.

According to notes in the attorney’s file from 13 years ago, Judge Mark D. Seigel expressed in chambers that he was unhappy about the lack of a deal to spare Edwards. Reached Friday, Seigel said that he did not remember the conversation and that it “does not sound like something I would have said in chambers or anywhere else.”

I presume that lingering concerns about guilt prompted the Governor's actions here, but it would be helpful if the commutation statement spoke to that possibility or whatever else might have motivated the Governor to act in this way.   I think it is entirely appropriate and readily justifiable for a clemency board or a governor to commute a death sentence based on concerns about residual guilt.  But I do not consider it appropriate or justifiable for a decision made on this basis (or others) to be hidden behind the kind of cursory statement offered by Gov Nixon in this case.

October 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 4, 2015

"Toward Saner, More Effective Prison Sentences"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times editorial discussing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA 2015) introduced by US Senate leadership late last week. Here are excerpts:

The sentencing reform bill introduced in the Senate on Thursday falls far short of what is needed, but it is a crucial first step on the long path toward unwinding the federal government’s decades­long reliance on prisons as the answer to every ill....

Among the most significant are those that would reduce mandatoryminimum sentences for many drug crimes.  These sentences are jaw-droppingly long — from five years for a first offense up to life without parole for a third.  The new bill would cut the life sentence to a 25­year minimum, and would cut the 20­year sentence for a second offense to 15 years.

These may seem like minor tweaks to pointlessly long sentences, and for the most part they are.  But when half of all federal inmates are in for drug crimes, even small changes can make a real difference.

In addition, the bill would give federal judges more power to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum in certain cases, rather than being forced to apply a strict formula. This would shift some power away from prosecutors, who coax plea deals in more than 97 percent of cases, often by threatening defendants with outrageously long punishments.

Other provisions would give more inmates the chance to earn early release by participating in educational and other rehabilitative programming; seal or expunge juvenile records, so people are not burdened for life because of crimes they committed when they were young; and make it easier for older inmates to seek early release — a smart idea because they are by far the costliest to keep imprisoned and the least likely to commit new crimes.

Finally, and critically, many parts of the bill are retroactive, which means thousands of current federal inmates could benefit immediately.  In particular, 6,500 prisoners are still serving time under an old law that punished crackcocaine offenses far more severely than powder­cocaine offenses.  When the law was altered to reduce the disparity in 2010, the change applied only to new cases, leaving thousands of inmates serving unjustly long sentences for no good reason....

So much of American sentencing policy has been driven by irrational, fact­free scare­mongering.  This new bill would, at the very least, provide volumes of data that could show — as other legislative efforts have already shown — that it’s possible to reduce both prison populations and crime at the same time.

Recent prior related posts:

October 4, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Three of Kettle Falls Five get sentenced to real federal time for marijuana grow in Washington state

As reported in this AP article, headlined "Marijuana growers sentenced to federal prison," a high-profile federal marijuana prosecution, in a state in which marijuana slaes are now legal, culminated in sentencing late last week. Here are the details:

The three remaining defendants in the case of the so-called Kettle Falls Five were sentenced to federal prison on Friday for growing marijuana in a state where both the medical and recreational use of marijuana are legal under Washington laws.

The defendants are known as the Kettle Falls Five because of their original number. They were convicted earlier this year of growing marijuana on their rural property near Kettle Falls, in violation of federal law.

Rolland Gregg was sentenced Friday to 33 months in prison, followed by three years of probation. His wife Michelle Gregg, 36, was sentenced to one year in prison and three years of probation. Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 56, who is Rolland Gregg's mother, was also sentenced to one year in prison and three years of probation.

All three remain free pending the outcome of appeals.... The case had been closely watched nationally by marijuana activists, who criticized the federal government for prosecuting marijuana growers in a state where cannabis is legal.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Hicks rejected the notion that the defendants were growing the pot for their own medical use. "This is a for-profit marijuana grow," Hicks said. "It has nothing to do with medical marijuana."

Prosecutors contended the defendants grew more than 100 pounds of marijuana in 2011 and 2012, far in excess of their personal needs. Defense attorneys argued for sentences of probation only. "This was not a for-profit marijuana grow," said attorney Phil Tefleyan, who represented Rolland Gregg.

Larry Harvey was excused from the case when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year and has since died. Family friend Jason Zucker accepted a plea deal from federal prosecutors and testified for the government at trial in exchange for a 16-month penalty.

The remaining three were convicted in March by a federal jury of growing between 50 and 100 marijuana plants on their rural property, which was searched by investigators in 2012. Since then, Washington has also legalized the recreational use of marijuana. But growing and possessing marijuana remains a crime under federal laws.

The defendants did not dispute that they grew marijuana, but contended they grew less than the government alleged. The jury exonerated them of more serious charges of distributing marijuana, conspiracy to distribute and firearms charges that carried long prison sentences.

October 4, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Strong crime and punishment coverage of drugs, guns and more via Vox

I remain a bit unsure of what Vox is and who is behind all of Vox Media, but I am sure that Vox has recently done a lot of good and important work on a lot of topics that should be of great interest to criminal justice fans.  Here are headlines and links:

October 4, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (1)