Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Senator Tom Cotton forcefully (and somewhat thoughtfully) makes his case against the current version of SRCA 2015

23992166449_9ff10a5a94As reported previously in this post and now again via this new piece from The Hill, a number of Senators are in the midst of a robust conversation about the merits of and concerns about the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (which I have called SRCA 2015 since its introduction last fall).  Of particular note and importance (and as noted in this prior post), Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton seems to be taking a leading role raising concerns about the current version of the SRCA, and I am now pleased and impressed that Senator Cotton has provide a thorough articulation of his concerns through this new Medium commentary titled "The Current Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is Dangerous for America," and also through this extended speech delivered yesterday on the Senate Floor.

The Medium commentary, which is relatively short, does not do much more than emphasizethe anti-federal-sentencing-reform points already forcefully and repeatedly expressed by the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys and Bill Otis and others who have been consistent opponents of any changes to the current federal sentencing status quo.  But the Senate floor speech is much, much longer and, in my view, in spots much, much more thoughtful in discussing the SRCA and his own perspectives about federal sentencing reform.  I highly recommend all persons following federal sentencing reform to read Senator Cotton's lengthy floor speech in full, and here are some of the (many) passages that has led me to describe it as forceful (and somewhat thoughtful):

Today, I want to discuss the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act that has been voted out of the Judiciary Committee. There is much debate about the wisdom of this bill.  That is, like most bills we discuss in this chamber, a judgment call. But there cannot be debate over the facts of this bill. We have to be very clear on what this bill, by its own text, is designed to do....

By its text, the bill will not just apply to so-called "non-violent offenders," but to thousands of violent felons and armed career criminals who have used firearms in the course of their drug felonies or crimes of violence.

By its text, the bill will reduce sentences not for those convicted of simple possession, but for major drug traffickers, ones who deal in hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of heroin or thousands of pounds of marijuana.  And let's be clear: drug trafficking is not "non-violent," as the bill's proponents often claim.  It's an industry that's built on an entire edifice of violence, stretching from the narcoterrorists of South America to the drug-deal enforcers on our city streets. If you think dealing drugs on a street corner while armed with a gun is a "non-violent" offense, you probably live in a rich suburb or a gated community....

It's been reported that the bill's sponsors are preparing to release a revised bill, one that would address some of these many shortcomings.  Regarding this news, I first want to thank the sponsors for acknowledging that the bill as passed by committee does in fact apply to serious drug traffickers and other violent felons.  I look forward to evaluating the new legislative text, and I hope it addresses these problems....

The [US Sentencing] Commission first reduced sentencing guidelines in 2007.  It did so again in 2010. And again in 2014. That is three major systemic sentencing reductions in the span of seven years. The result?  46,000 federal convicts will walk from jail early.  Wendell Callahan was one among that 46,000.  There will be many more like him. And while we pray — against all odds — that none of them go on to commit a triple-murder like Wendell Callahan did, or any other heinous crime, I'm afraid our prayers will go unanswered, at least in part.

The Sentencing Commission is an independent judicial agency that provides uniform sentencing guidance to judges. Congress didn't have a hand in those sentencing reductions.  But with the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act, the Senate would impose a fourth major sentencing reduction within eight years — one that is deeper and broader than the reductions imposed by the Sentencing Commission.

This is badly misguided.  The Senate would be launching a massive social experiment in criminal leniency without knowing the full consequences of the first three reductions imposed by the Sentencing Commissions.  This experiment threatens to undo the historic drops in crime we have seen over the past 25 years....

The Senate, and the American people, need to consider any change to our sentencing laws with full information.  We need to know if this sentencing-leniency bill will return us closer to the days of the `70s and `80s when our cities were besieged by the drug trade, and whole communities were being rotted out as a result.  We need to debate sentencing changes with all the data available to us.  We need to do this with eyes wide open.

That is why today — together with Senators Hatch, Sessions, and Perdue — I am introducing the Criminal Consequences of Early Release Act.  This is a simple, but very needed bill.  It will require the federal government to report on the recidivism rates of the 46,000 federal inmates to be released early under the Sentencing Commission's reductions.  And it will require the same reporting for any prisoners released early under any future reductions passed by Congress.

The report required by this bill will make clear how many crimes are being committed by released felons.  It will make clear what types of crimes — from drug trafficking to assault to robbery to murder — are being committed by these felons. And it will make clear in which states these crimes are occurring.

Currently, this type of data is extremely hard to compile.  It is not reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and any information we do have comes through anecdotes and sporadic media reports.  Full information on the criminal consequences of early release must be published in detail.  Before voting on any bill to reduce sentences, the members of this chamber need to understand fully the criminal consequences of prior sentence reductions....

I want to be clear.  To those who support the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act, we are not in full disagreement. Like you, I oppose jail for first-time drug users with no prior record.  It's vanishingly rare for such offenders to be prosecuted and jailed in the federal system.  But it remains true that the better option for them — particularly if they are addicts — would be drug treatment.  Like you, I believe that our prisons should not be an anarchic jungle that is a danger to both prisoners and corrections officers.  Like you, I believe that those prisoners who will someday complete their sentences and re-enter society should be given the chance to rehabilitate and redeem themselves while in prison so that they do not recommit crimes once they are released.  Like you, I do believe that there exists the possibility of an unjust sentence, one that is so out of proportion that it shocks the conscience.

So I suggest, let's work on that bill.  Let's work on a bill that identifies and addresses all first-time drug possession inmates in the federal system, but keeps drug traffickers and other violent offenders in prison to finish their sentences.  Let's improve prison conditions and give prisoners a shot at redemption and a better life.  And, if you wish, let's work on a bill to speed the consideration of commutation applications.

If we want to undo unjust sentences, we can help the president use his constitutional power of pardon and commutation as a precise scalpel to identify and remedy those rare cases of manifestly unjust sentences.  But what we should not do is use the blunt instrument of releasing thousands of violent felons and major drug traffickers.  The president has the constitutional power to remedy unjust sentences.  But you know what power he doesn't have?  The power to bring back to life the victims murdered by prisoners who are released early or sentenced inadequately.

There are a number of statements in the parts of this speech quoted above with which I could take serious issue. In particular, Congress always has authority to block any and every formal decision by the US Sentencing Commission, and the crack-guideline reductions of 2010 were essentially mandated by Congress in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Consequenlty, it is not accurate for Senator Cotton to assert that "Congress didn't have a hand in those sentencing reductions" to drug sentences promulgated by the USSC in recent years. More generally, to assert in blanket terms that "drug trafficking is not 'non-violent'," is no better than asserting in blanket terms that "drug trafficking is non-violent." Some federal drug-traffickers in some settings are extremely violent in doing business. But I have not heard of much violence taking place in all the stores now selling a whole lot of marijuana in Colorado and other states, and I surmise that the ability to purchase this drug in a safe environment is one reason marijuana sales seem to keep going up and up in a number of states.

But, critically, even though Senator Cotton sometimes favors rhetoric over reality in this speech, the basic themes and many particulars he stresses are an important and valuable contribution to the broader debate over federal sentencing reforms. In particular, Senator Cotton is 100% right that our national data on the recidivism rates and realities of federal offenders — not only with respect to those who get sentence reductions, but also for the entire released offender population — leave a lot to be desired and raise more questions than answers. (Indeed, as some readers likely know well, the very term "recidivism" is subject to various definitions in various settings.) I could not agree more with Senator Cotton's statement that the "Senate, and the American people, need to consider any change to our sentencing laws with full information." Indeed, I have long thought that many of our worst federal sentencing laws enacted in prior decades — e.g., the 100-1 crack/powder disparity, some of our most severe gun possession mandatory minimums — were passed largely based on misinformation about their reach and likely impact.

In addition, I think Senator Cotton merits praise for urging his colleagues to "improve prison conditions and give prisoners a shot at redemption and a better life," and especially for suggesting "work on a bill to speed the consideration of commutation applications" in order to "help the president use his constitutional power of pardon and commutation as a precise scalpel to identify and remedy those rare cases of manifestly unjust sentences." As long-time readers know, many sentencing reform advocates (myself included) have been advocating for Presidents of both parties to make much broader and more constitent use of the "constitutional power of pardon and commutation." I think it is both quite heartening and significant that now the Senate's most vocal opponent of proposed sentencing reforms is sincerely calling for President Obama (and future presidents) to use the clemency power to remedy any and all federal sentences that appear to the President to be "manifestly unjust."

February 10, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"'In the Wasteland of Your Mind': Criminology, Scientific Discoveries and the Criminal Process"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article available via SSRN authored by Michael Perlin and Alison Lynch. Here is the abstract:

This paper addresses a remarkably-underconsidered topic: the potential impact of scientific discoveries and an increased understanding of the biology of human behavior on sentencing decisions in the criminal justice system, specifically, the way that sentencing has the capacity to rely on scientific evidence (such as brain imaging) as a mitigating factor (or perhaps, in the mind of some, as an aggravating factor) in determining punishment.

Such a new method of evaluating criminality, we argue, can be beneficial not only for the defendant, but also for the attorneys and judge involved in the case.  If used properly, it may help to provide a more truly objective set of factors that contribute to an individual’s particular offending patterns, rather than continuing reliance on sentencing schemes that are swayed by societal bias and prejudice.  However, it can become problematic if a legal system relies too heavily on untested theories, and even more problematic in cases in which science does not support legal conclusions. Scientific discovery moves faster than the law, and it is critical to make sure that the legal system is given an opportunity to catch up, rather than risk allowing “junk science” to influence how a defendant is treated.

In this paper, we first examine criminal sentencing procedures, and discuss how a criminological view of a defendant’s offending behavior can work to mitigate harshly inappropriate sentences; in this context, we consider how Federal Sentencing Guidelines cases consider the significance of mental disability in sentencing decisions, especially in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Booker.  Then we review recent work on the biological bases of certain criminal behaviors and how it can be captured through brain imaging.  Next, we consider how the use of such evidence continues to expand in the criminal trial process.  Following this, we look at how the school of therapeutic jurisprudence can better inform how the legal system incorporates such evidence.  Finally, we offer our recommendations for ensuring that scientific evidence is introduced appropriately in the legal system.

February 10, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Post-Hurst hydra heads emerging in Alabama

Download (1)As regularly readers may recall, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to become multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases.  Now, as reported in this local article, headlined "Capital murder suspects across Alabama seek to bar death penalty," some post-Hurst hydra heads are emerging in the Yellowhammer State.  Here are the basic details:  

Attorneys for 25-year-old Antonio McCary Jones, a Birmingham man charged with killing a fellow drug dealer by shooting him 14 times, last week told a judge that if Jones is found guilty the death penalty should not be an option. Alabama's sentencing scheme in death penalty cases is the same as Florida's, which was ruled unconstitutional last month by the U.S. Supreme Court, Jones' lawyers argued Friday.

In both Alabama and Florida, judges are allowed to override jury recommendations for either life without parole or death.  "The dilemma we're trying to resolve is do we want 12 people deciding death or life, or one person," Joe Basgier, one of Jones' lawyers, said after the hearing.  Basgier and Jones' other attorney, Hube Dodd, are not alone in making the argument.

The ink was hardly dry on the U.S. Supreme Court's Jan. 12 ruling in Hurst v. Florida before lawyers around Alabama began filing motions seeking to bar the death penalty for their clients facing capital murder charges because of the similarities between the two states' capital punishment sentencing laws.

That has had local district attorneys scrambling to defend Alabama's capital sentencing law and putting circuit judges in the position of having to hold hearings and rule on the issue.  Several judges have already denied the motions, at least one has taken it under advisement, and a few are awaiting further guidance.

District attorneys and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange say Alabama's law is not the same as Florida's and has already been declared constitutional.  "The U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding the Florida death penalty does not affect Alabama's law. The U.S. Supreme Court specifically upheld Alabama's current system as constitutional in the case of Harris v. Alabama in 1995," according to a statement from the Attorney General's Office.

"In the Florida case (Hurst), the holding is that a jury must find the aggravating factor in order to make someone eligible for the death penalty.  Alabama's system already requires the jury to do just that," according to the Attorney General's statement. "The jury must unanimously find an aggravating factor at either the guilt or sentencing phase — such as when the murder was committed during a robbery, a rape, or a kidnapping."...

Defense attorneys argue that that ultimate decision to sentence a defendant to death is made by a judge and not a Jury, just as in Florida.  "The jury does make its own sentencing recommendation after a comparable weighing process, but that recommendation 'is not binding upon the court,'" according to Basgier and Dodd's motion.

Rarely, if at all, has a judge in Alabama overridden a jury recommendation for death and sentenced a suspect to life without parole.  But there are a number of cases in which a judge has overridden a life without parole recommendation and imposed a death sentence.

According to several motions filed by defense attorneys around Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court in its ruling in the Hurst case also overruled two previous case — Hildwin v. Florida in 1989 and Spaziano v. Florida in 1984.  Both those cases had been used by the court in upholding Alabama's death sentencing scheme in 1995, according to the motions. "As a result, the cases that upheld Alabama's death penalty scheme are no longer valid," according to Basgier and Dodd's motion, which mirrors other defense lawyer's "Hurst" motions.  The Alabama Attorney General's Office had filed a brief in the Hurst case asking that the U.S. Supreme Court not overrule Spaziano because that case "had provided the legal foundation for Alabama's death penalty scheme," according to Basgier and Dodd's motion.

February 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

A few notable sentencing stories from the campaign trail

As we all today await official results from the first-in-the-nation Presidential primary, I thought it might be useful to assemble here a few of the news and commentary pieces concerning some of the candidates I have seen recently:

February 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Prez Obama signs into law the "International Megan's Law," and group immediately files suit against passport scarlet letter requirement

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Sex offenders challenge new federal passports law," over the last 24 hours President Obama signed a somewhat controversial federal sex offender law and a group has filed suit to block part of its mandates. Here are the basics:

A civil rights group has filed a lawsuit challenging a law that will require sex offenders to be identified on their passports.

President Obama signed the International Megan's Law bill into law on Monday following Congress passing the bill last week. The California Reform Sex Offender Laws filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, challenging the laws, which requires the Secretary of State to add "unique identifiers" to the passports of all registered sex offenders.

Passports today are used as a primary form of identification as well for entry into a foreign country. A passport symbol that identifies an individual as a registered sex offender could place at significant risk that person as well as others traveling with them, including family members and business colleagues, the lawsuit says.

This page on the site of the California Reform Sex Offender Laws organization provides these additional details about the suit:

The lawsuit will be filed in U.S. District Court, San Francisco, on behalf of four registered citizens. The lawsuit alleges that International Megan’s Law violates several provisions in the U.S. Constitution including the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment, as well as the equal protection and ex facto clauses. Subsequent to filing of the lawsuit, an application for a Preliminary Injunction will be filed which, if granted, would stop the law from being implemented. 

A helpful reader emailed me a copy of the 27-page complaint in this case, and I have provided it for downloading here:  Download Complaint filed against IML Feb 2016

February 9, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Is California conducting an "unprecedented experiment in mass forgiveness"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the headline of this lengthy new Washington Post article, which suggests the Golden State has become a unique criminal justice laboratory.  Here are excerpts:

[Jose] Gonzalez is among thousands of felons benefiting from a grand experiment, an act of mass forgiveness unprecedented in U.S. history.  In California, once a national innovator in draconian policies to get tough on crime, voters and lawmakers are now innovating in the opposite direction, adopting laws that have released tens of thousands of inmates and are preventing even more from going to prison in the first place.

The most famous is a landmark ballot measure called Proposition 47, which in 2014 made California the first state in the nation to make possession of any drug — including cocaine and heroin — a misdemeanor.  More astonishing is the state’s decision to show leniency toward violent offenders, including murderers like Gonzalez.

For example, the state has ordered parole hearings for longtime inmates convicted of committing violent crimes before they turned 23, requiring authorities to consider anew whether immaturity at the time of the inmates’ offense argues for their release.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has approved parole for roughly 2,300 lifers convicted of murder and about 450 lifers sentenced for lesser offenses — a revolution in a state that released only two lifers during former governor Gray Davis’s entire four-year term.  And more reforms could be in store. Last month, Brown unveiled a ballot measure that, if approved by voters in November, would grant early release to nonviolent felons who complete rehab programs and demonstrate good behavior.

Progressives across the nation have applauded California’s U-turn. “There is a gathering sense that the public is considerably less punitive than people had thought,” said Joe Margulies, a professor of law and government at Cornell University.

But with crime in some of California’s largest cities ticking up after years of sustained decline, many law enforcement leaders and victims’ advocates say the state has gone too far. “Our hope was folks getting out of prisons are going to come out and be model citizens,” said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance. “Unfortunately, we’re not seeing that.”...

So far, 250 inmates have been released under the Youth Offender Parole law, most of them violent offenders.  As many as 16,000 more remain eligible.  Meanwhile, a study by Stanford Law School found that Proposition 47 had unlocked the cell doors of nearly 4,500 prisoners since taking effect in late 2014.

Sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors speculate that Prop 47 has contributed to a recent rise in crime and homelessness in major California cities, arguing that the law eliminated a useful billy club: the threat of a felony conviction to steer addicts into treatment.  “It’s a vicious cycle,” said Kirk Albanese, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.  “You’ve got an addiction, we are not holding you accountable, and you’re back into the cycle of using. How do you support that habit?  Stealing.  Our burglaries are up, car theft is up, break-ins are up — they are all up.”

Hilary Chittick, a veteran judge for the Superior Court of Fresno County, said Prop 47 has “decimated” her ability to force addicts into treatment. “The public had a house with a leaky roof and bad pipes,” she said. “So they blew up the house.”

Prop 47 supporters acknowledge the problem and say efforts are underway to address it.  More drug courts, for instance, are opening their doors to misdemeanants as well as felons, said Prop 47 co-author Lenore Anderson, executive director of the advocacy group Californians for Safety and Justice. “If you think that you need a stick in order to mandate treatment, that option is available with a misdemeanor,” Anderson said.  But Prop 47 supporters reject the notion that the ballot measure contributed to localized spikes in crime.  Early reports indicate that recidivism among inmates released under the full range of reforms has been low....

In general, more than half of inmates released from California prisons — 54 percent — return to prison within three years. Among lifers paroled under Brown, the Los Angeles Times found, fewer than 2 percent have committed new crimes.  Among the 2,100 inmates released after the softening of the state’s three-strikes law, only about 6 percent have returned to prison. Michael Romano, director and co-founder of the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project, attributes the success of this cohort in part to extensive rehab, but also to a kind of forgiveness psychology.

Because I do not live in California, it is hard for me to judge whether the state is genuinely engaged in "mass forgiveness" when passing laws designed to reduce its prison population and the severity of its sentncing laws. But there is little doubt that all sorts of significant criminal justice reforms are now playing out in California, and it will be quite valuable and important for criminal justice advoates and researchers to watch and study crime and punishment developments in the state in the months and years to come.

February 9, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Mark you calendar for ASKS, a big alternative sentencing summit next month in DC

Logohome99I am pleased to be able to promote an exciting event taking place next month: the Alternative Sentencing Key-Stakeholder Summit (ASKS), at Georgetown University Law Center, DC on March 7-8, 2016. Here is a link for registration, and here is the ASKS gameplan and a Q&A via its website:

Summit Overview: Alternative sentencing has been at the heart of improving public safety and includes successful sentencing, reentry and other fiscally responsible criminal justice policies and programs both in the U.S. and around the globe. As the U.S. starts 2016 with commitments from the President and Congress to pass meaningful federal criminal justice reform legislation, the time is right to evaluate the role alternative sentencing can play in furthering the key objectives of public safety and fiscal responsibility.

More Info: Who will participate in the ASKS Summit? The summit will bring together an unprecedented number of current and former leaders and senior government officials who have served on the front lines of day-to-day operations in the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, government, judiciary, defense, forensic social workers and psychologists, and nonprofits, as well as formerly incarcerated people, victims and advocacy groups.

What are the ASKS Summit objectives? Beyond education, ASKS will use plenary, breakout and interactive sessions to generate substantive dialogue between all delegates and identify key priorities for:

  • Expanding the use of effective alternative sentencing programs while enhancing public safety, including the mechanisms of discretion (police, prosecutorial and judicial) and legislative reforms;
  • Addressing public safety concerns over its broadened use and practical barriers to expansion and launching effective new programs in new jurisdictions, including operational limitations, program evaluation and public education;
  • NGOs that can help to support broader application of effective alternative sentencing, eg. ubiquity of access and other measures and peripheral programs to help ensure successful reentry.

February 9, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 8, 2016

Politico reporting that (minor?) changes are being made to Senate's SRCA bill to appease GOP critics

This notable new Politico article, headlined "Criminal justice bill will be changed after conservative objections," reports on changes being made to certain provisions of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (which I have called SCRA 2015 since its introduction last fall).  Here are all the important details:

Senators who authored a criminal justice overhaul are preparing several key changes to their bill aimed at mollifying conservative critics.  In recent weeks, a handful of Senate Republicans — led primarily by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas — have argued that the criminal justice reform bill would allow thousands of felons convicted of violent crimes to be released early from prison.  Supporters say that’s an unfair characterization, but now they are making changes meant to eliminate any chance that those criticisms could become reality.

One change involves Section 105 of the bill, which reduced enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for so-called “armed career criminals.”  Under the original proposal, certain felons who already had three violent felony or serious drug offense convictions, and were found guilty of possessing a firearm would face a 10-year enhanced mandatory minimum — lowered from the current 15-year minimum sentence. But the bill’s authors are planning to get rid of this section altogether so that the higher, 15-year sentence remains intact, a senior GOP aide said Monday.  The aide added that this section was the subject of the most complaints from conservatives.

The second major change is to Section 104 of the bill.  That section reduces enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for felons convicted of possessing a firearm while committing a drug crime or a violent offense, such as robbery.  Those changes could be applied retroactively for current inmates.  Now, the new version would specifically bar people convicted of firearm possession alongside a violent crime from being able to retroactively seek a reduced sentence.  Those changes would “substantively" lower the number of current prisoners who could be released early, the aide said.  “We have changed the bill to directly address those concerns and ensure that violent offenders will not benefit from relief under any of the provisions in the retroactive provisions,” the senior Republican aide said.

The changes are expected to be rolled out later this week with the support of all initial GOP and Democratic backers of the criminal justice reform measure — a bill that’s been eyed as one of the few bipartisan accomplishments that could get done in Washington during a polarized election year.  The legislation was introduced last fall with the backing of a diverse Senate coalition that includes Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Republican and Democrat on the Judiciary Committee; the two chief vote-counters of each party, GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Dick Durbin of Illinois; conservatives such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and liberals including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), aware of the divisions in his conference on the criminal justice measure, has so far declined to say whether he’ll put the bill on the floor this year.

I suspect many eager to see sweeping federal sentencing reforms will be disappointed to hear that SCRA 2015, which many reform advocates already believe does not go nearly far enough, is now being modified to restrict further the reach of reforms to certain mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.  But I am actually quite excited to hear this news because it reveals there are on-going efforts to address the stated concerns of current opponents of the bill.  If those concerns can be adequately addressed by what would appear, from the description above, only relatively small changes to a big bill, then I will become more optimistic again about the prospects of some significant statutory reform coming to Prez Obama's desk before he leaves the Oval Office.

Prior to hearing this news, I had been persistently pessimistic about SCRA 2015 ever even coming up for a full Senate vote given that prominent conservative Senators like Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz were voicing significant opposition.  But maybe these reported changes will be sufficient for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to be now willing to bring SCRA 2015 up for a vote.   Of course, this story does not mention the still heated debate over whether mens rea reform will become an integral part of the Senate's statutory reform activities, and thus this Politico news is anything but a guarantee that federal statutory sentencing reform is sure to become a reality.  Still, this Politico piece does encouragingly suggest the sausage factory that is federal lawmaking is continuing to grind its way forward on federal statutory sentencing reform.

Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:

February 8, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Notable battles in Texas over local sex offender residency restrictions in small towns

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting new AP article headlined "More Than 20 Texas Town Repeal Sex Offender Residency Law," which reports that a "broad legal challenge has led more than 20 towns in Texas to ease restrictions over the last few months on where sex offenders can live instead of fight a costly battle in court." Here is more:

While other states, including neighboring Oklahoma, continue to push offenders away from some neighborhoods, about 45 Texas towns received letters in November from the group Texas Voices for Reason and Justice demanding they repeal residency restrictions. The nonprofit, which is critical of sex offender laws it considers ineffective, also has sued 14 towns and has a powerful ally — the state attorney general's office. "We advocate an individual assessment on a case-by-case basis to determine if someone is a threat to the community," said Richard Gladden, an attorney for the group. "The myth that people who commit sex offenses just generally are unable to control their sexual conduct is just that, a myth."

At issue is how Texas' small towns are differentiated from larger ones. Communities with fewer than 5,000 people are "general law" towns, which can't adopt an ordinance that the Legislature hasn't permitted. Dozens of these smaller communities have restricted where sex offenders can live — usually with the purpose of keeping them away from schools and other places children gather — but only later learned they've run afoul of state rules. "Unless the Legislature expressly authorizes it, a general-law municipality may not adopt an ordinance restricting where a registered sex offender may live," according to a 2007 opinion signed by then-AG Greg Abbott, who's now Texas governor. Larger cities fall under "home rule," which means they have "a constitutional right of self-government," Abbott wrote.

But the Texas Municipal League, which provides support services and lobbies on behalf of cities, is pushing for legislative action that reverses Abbott's decision. "It's new where a general-law city has had its authority taken away by an attorney general's opinion," executive director Bennett Sandlin said.

The state allows leaders in general law towns to fashion municipal rules for "the good government, peace or order of the municipality," Sandlin said, such as zoning and noise control laws. But state officials can step in when local laws overreach....

Krum Mayor Ronald Harris Jr. said litigation prevents him from talking about whether his town will repeal its law, but he criticized the Legislature for not acting on behalf of small-town Texas. "They're saying that we as a small town don't have a right to have an ordinance to protect our children and our residents, but larger towns do," Harris said.

The city manager of Alvarado, which is south of Fort Worth, has told WFAA-TV in Dallas that although residents expressed concern about repealing the law, they know valuable town money could evaporate under the weight of a lawsuit. "They're disappointed that we're not able to regulate our own town," said Clint Davis, who did not respond to a message left by The Associated Press for comment....

Gladden argues myriad laws aren't necessarily benefiting public safety. In many cases, he said, an innocent "Romeo and Juliet relationship" can result in a young man being prosecuted for having sex with a minor and labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life.  Meanwhile, federal statistics show the overwhelming number of sex abuse cases involving children are perpetrated by a family member or friend of the family, and not an anonymous stranger, he said.  "Obviously, people are concerned about their kids and sometimes people are so overwhelmed by their natural instinct to protect their children that they don't necessarily use their heads and see what works and doesn't work," Gladden said.

But Sandlin argues the residency restrictions are common-sense measures to protect children and don't amount to an unwarranted hardship, as some would claim, because Census data shows more than 90 percent of land in Texas is outside incorporated cities. "Cities are dense urban areas where it makes sense to regulate where sex offenders live," Sandlin said.

I have long considered political and legal disputes over local sex offender residency restrictions to be among the most interesting and dynamic criminal justice arenas for debating what might be called "local federalism."  But I am not aware of any other state in which certain localities were allowed to enact sex offender residency restrictions and others were not, and I suppose this story is just still further proof that Texas often has its own unique approach to justice.

February 8, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Their 'compassion' is seriously flawed: Politicians care about white addicts — but still love the racist drug war"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Salon article authored by Daniel Denvir.  Here are excerpts:

It’s a new day for American drug policy, at least as far as drug users are concerned. In New Hampshire, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie are speaking to the wrenching pain of losing loved ones to opioid addiction and death, and making the case that drug abuse should be treated by health professionals and not jails....

Republicans on the campaign trail are opening their hearts to addicts and their families, and policymakers from both major parties are backing harm reduction measures like increasing access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.  The shift in tone and policy is important, and it has understandably caught reporters’ attention. “In speaking about their own experiences, Republican candidates are not only allowing themselves to be vulnerable in front of voters, they’re also straying from the just-say-no message of Ronald Reagan, whose legacy includes a tough legislative stance on drugs and drug sentencing,” writes the New York Times’ Emma Roller.

The seeming about-face, however, also reveals a troubling problem: Heroin user demographics have changed dramatically in recent years, from heavily black to overwhelmingly white; and it seems that for politicians, it is the opioid crisis’ newly white face that has lent it a relatable quality as far as drug users are concerned.  This has not so much been the case for drug dealers....

And therein lies the rub: While many have noted the racial double standard at work, little attention has been paid to its ongoing and pernicious consequence — policy makers are often still approaching drug dealers with ruthlessly punitive measures, and those drug dealers are likely to be black and Hispanic.  At least, that is, those for drug dealers who are serving prison time: studies have found that in reality whites are more likely to sell drugs than blacks.

It turns out that Bush and company are not straying as far from drug war orthodoxy as it might seem at first blush. “For dealers, they ought to be put away forever as far as I’m concerned,” said Bush, summarizing the new compassionate consensus’s harsh edge. “But users — I think we have to be a second-chance country.”

While the face of drug users is becoming white, the image of drug dealers often remains black or Hispanic, as blunt-speaking Maine Gov. Ron LePage recently made clear. “These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty – these types of guys – they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home,” said LePage. “Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”

LePage’s comments prompted outrage and ridicule because they were racist. But the policy implications go beyond rhetorical offense, because the growing empathy toward white heroin users could actually reinforce or even increase hostility toward drug dealers, especially if they are perceived as being black and Hispanic. Ted Cruz, for one, blamed drug problems on borders left open for “undocumented Democrats.” The upshot is that growing compassion toward drug users won’t necessarily lead to a major reduction in the number of drug offenders behind bars. Drug dealers already made up the bulk of people serving time for drug crimes, and so the only way to sharply reduce the number of drug offenders in prison is to stop imprisoning so many drug dealers.

Instead, some officials appear to be heading in the opposite direction. Around the country, federal and local prosecutors are pointing to the opioid epidemic as a pretext to charge drug dealers with murder-type offenses in fatal overdoses. In reality, the sort of dealers who Bush and others want to put away for life include both small-time operators and drug users who appear to have shared a small amount of drugs with a friend. One man was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for selling two-tenths of a gram of heroin, $30 worth, to a man who later overdosed. Many dealers, major and minor, are still subject to sentences harsher that what many countries reserve for murderers....

It’s not just a problem for Republicans, either. Democratic candidates for president Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have yet to put forward a plan that would actually end the mass incarceration of drug offenders (let alone mass incarceration more generally, which is driven in significant part by the imprisonment of violent offenders). Both have bigger plans than Republicans, however, and Sanders has outdone Clinton by calling for an end to the federal prohibition of marijuana and supporting the reinstatement of federal parole. Both pledge to do something about harsh mandatory minimum sentences. But neither candidate has argued that most drug dealers should not be imprisoned, or suggested more radical but useful alternatives like broad-based legalization and regulation....

There is some movement to relax harsh punishments for nonviolent drug dealers and create programs to divert low-level dealers from prison. In Congress, bipartisan legislation would modestly reform some of the harshest mandatory minimums for drug dealers, President Obama has commuted the sentences of some drug offenders serving incredibly long federal sentences, and the racist discrepancy between federal crack and powder cocaine sentences have been narrowed (but not at all eliminated). But until politicians’ rethinking of the drug war extends to drug dealers, hundreds of thousands of people, disproportionately people of color, will be remain bars in the name of a drug war that by all honest accounts has failed to stop people from using drugs.

February 8, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Notable report on another EDNY federal judge objecting to harsh provisions of federal child porn laws

A helpful reader alerted me to this notable new New York Daily News report about another notable effort by a notable federal district judge in the Eastern District of New York expressing his disinclination to punish a child porn downloader as severely as federal prosecutors seem to want.  The article is headlined "Queens man charged with receiving 50,000 kiddie porn images can have unsupervised contact with his children," and here are excerpts:

A federal judge pooh-poohed the concerns of law enforcement officials, ruling that a Queens man charged with receiving nearly 50,000 kiddie porn images on the “dark Web” can have unsupervised contact with his two young children, the Daily News has learned.

“It comes down to money,” Judge Frederic Block explained in Brooklyn Federal Court last week. “It’s a financial burden on the family if they have to hire people to sit there and watch them.  I don’t see his children at risk.”

Both the Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office and the pretrial services office of the Eastern District of New York disagreed, arguing that Naray Palaniappan, a computer consultant, should not be alone in his Jackson Heights home with his children, ages 2 and 4.  The federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act routinely requires, as a condition of bail, that defendants in Palaniappan’s situation be accompanied by a monitor in the presence of children.

Palaniappan, 39, was nabbed last year in a nationwide FBI investigation of online pervs who troll a hidden region of the Internet, known as the dark Web, which is not accessible through conventional search engines.  Palaniappan, who investigators linked with the user name “JiminyCracket,” allegedly received a massive trove of child pornography that included videos of young girls being raped by adult men.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gopstein advised the judge that Palaniappan failed a lie detector test, administered by the FBI, in which he was asked if he had sexual contact with minors.  He has yet to complete a voluntary parenting program administered by the city, which could have bolstered his case that he isn’t a danger.  “There are troubling issues and we are talking about children,” Gopstein argued.

But Block, unmoved, lifted the restriction two weeks ago. On Thursday, Block brought Palaniappan and his wife into court for an update. “I assume he hasn’t molested his children since we last left,” Block said.  Palaniappan’s wife told the judge she didn’t object to leaving their kids alone with him.

The judge also blew up when a prosecutor told him that Palaniappan had been offered a plea deal that calls for a mandatory five-year sentence. “You think this man should be in jail for five years?” Block asked three times.... Block threatened to have Palaniappan’s case transferred to Federal Judge Jack Weinstein, who has openly challenged mandatory tough sentences in some child pornography cases.  It was unclear whether he was serious.

Defense lawyer Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma told The News that Block’s decision is well-reasoned and based on several reports, all positive, by the family service agencies overseeing Palaniappan’s case.

The way in which Judge Block handled this pre-trial issue of supervision leads me to think, ironically, that federal prosecutors are now almost certain to demand that this defendant plead guilty to a child porn receipt charge which carries a five-year mandatory minimum rather than to allow him only to plead to a CP possession charge which carries no mandatory minimum. Clearly, Judge Block does not view this defendant as a threat in the same way federal prosecutors do, and that suggests to me federal prosecutors will use the tools they have at their disposal to try to legally preclude Judge Block or others from showing leniency to this defendant.

Especially in the wake of Judge Jack Weinstein's recent notable sentencing ruling in US v. RV (discussed here), I am starting to sense there may be something of a sentencing turf war starting to emerge in Eastern District in these kinds of child porn cases.  For that reason and others, I would now not be surprised if the EDNY federal prosecutors are going to be even less inclined to cut any child porn defendants any kind of breaks in the plea process in all current and future cases.

February 8, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

"Restitution and the Excessive Fines Clause"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Kevin Bennardo now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Restitution is a component of many criminal sentences.  There is little agreement, however, upon whether and how the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution limits restitution orders in criminal cases.  Courts have long been divided over whether the Excessive Fines Clause applies to restitution orders at all, whether to apply the “grossly disproportional” test to restitution orders or some other causation-based test, and how to measure gross disproportionality in the restitution context.

First, the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment should be read as a limit on restitution orders in criminal cases.  The Eighth Amendment applies because these monetary payments are partially punitive.  And, although restitution payments are not made to the sovereign, the concept of “fines” for purposes of the Excessive Fines Clause is properly understood to encompass payments to third parties that result from government-initiated action.

Second, the same “grossly disproportional” test that has been applied to criminal fines and forfeitures should apply to restitution orders as well.  Indeed, all monetary sanctions should be pooled together for purposes of a single Excessive Fines Clause proportionality analysis.  The constitutionally-relevant question should be whether an offender’s total monetary sanction is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense.  Although causation between the offense conduct and the victim’s loss is generally a statutory requirement of restitution orders, it is not a constitutional one. The causation requirement furthers restitution’s remedial purpose; it is not relevant to the Eighth Amendment’s excessiveness inquiry, which functions to limit the punitive severity of monetary sanctions.

Lastly, the question of gross disproportionality is largely an exercise of judgment that should be left to the judiciary. Some courts have inappropriately wholly relied on analyzing whether the monetary sanction was authorized by the legislature in assessing the constitutionality of the penalty.  This approach inappropriately collapses the constitutional inquiry into the statutory one. Although the statutory restitution or fine range may be a useful input in the constitutional analysis, it cannot be the sole component.  In the end, the judiciary's independent judgment must be trusted to weigh proportionality and detect unconstitutionally excessive monetary sanctions.

February 7, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

FSR accounting of state of federal sentencing reform efforts at end of 2015

1.cover-sourceAs I try to provide here a "real-time" account of certain ups-and-downs with various federal statutory sentencing reform bills, I too rarely find the time to provide a more reflective accounting of what is afoot in this important criminal justice reform space.  Helpfully, my Federal Sentencing Reporter co-editor, Frank Bowman, has spent time recently assembling in FSR's pages some primary documents and cutting-edge commentary on this front.  Here is part of an email Franl authored providing a description of what he has put together for FSR:

For anyone interested in the details of the various pending pieces of legislation and analysis of the practical impact of the bills that have made it through the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, I commend you to the latest issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter (Vol 28, No. 2), which contains the text or summaries of the various bills, as well as commentaries. 

In particular, for an overview and impact analysis, see my article, Good Enough to Be Getting on With? The State of Federal Sentencing Reform Legislation, December 2015.  The FSR issue also contains excellent work by Nora Demleitner of Washington & Lee and Paul Hofer, formerly of the Sentencing Commission and now with the Federal Defenders sentencing project, which can be found at this link. Here is the abstract of Frank's article linked above:

This Article addresses the current status of the push for federal sentencing and corrections reform, and describes and analyzes all of the major pieces of sentencing and corrections reform legislation pending in the United States Congress at the close of 2015.  In particular, it considers the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015, the SAFE Justice Act of 2015, and the most likely candidate for passage -- the Senate's Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRACA) and its counterpart in the House.  The Article discusses the merits and deficiencies of each bill, and estimates the likely effect of each on the population of current and future federal defendants and inmates.

The Article notes that the legislative proposals have become less expansive as the session has progressed, with each succeeding bill more cautious than the last.  The final section of the Article considers whether the result of Congress's efforts will be worthy of support by those who favor significant federal sentencing and corrections reform.  It concludes that, on balance, the front-end sentencing provisions of the legislation most likely to pass (SRACA) are "good enough to be getting on with," but that the back-end corrections measures with the most current legislative backing ought to be reconsidered and improved.

February 7, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

A useful reminder that, even after Montgomery, SCOTUS will continue to be asked to address juve LWOP

BuzzFeed News reporter Chris Geidner has this effective new piece discussing the reality that SCOTUS is sure to be presented in the years ahead with Eighth Amendment challenges to any and every LWOP sentence given to a juvenile offender.  The piece is headlined "An Uncertain Path Ahead For Juvenile Sentencing Cases Still Before The Supreme Court," and here are excerpts:

Cortez Davis is serving life in prison under Michigan’s felony murder statute for a killing that occurred when he was 16 years old.  Davis was not the gunman, the trial judge in his case found, but was a participant in a robbery when the fatal shooting took place.  Nonetheless, under the Michigan law, because he was a key participant in the underlying felony, he was charged with felony murder. Davis was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole — the mandatory sentence in the mid-1990s.

More than a year ago, lawyers for Davis asked the Supreme Court to take up their client’s challenge to a lower court decision that upheld that sentence.  Now, following a recent Supreme Court decision, his challenge and several others are likely to be sent back to lower courts — a move that could, depending on what state courts do next, put off even further the chance people like Davis have to reduce or end sentences the court has repeatedly thrown into question in recent years.

The petitions ask the justices to address how and under what circumstances states can sentence juveniles to life without parole, including in a handful of cases in which the convictions are for felony murder.  Over the past decade, the court has taken up several cases addressing juvenile justice issues.  The court ended the eligibility of juveniles for the death penalty in 2005, and has since, in a series of rulings, narrowed the eligibility of juveniles for life sentences.

Last week, the court handed down yet another significant ruling on juvenile sentencing — this one in the case of Henry Montgomery — that deals with complicated legal issues, but has major consequences.  The court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that the 2012 ban on sentences of mandatory juvenile life in prison without the possibility of parole applied not just going forward, but also to those sentenced in the past like Montgomery. Montgomery is in jail for a killing he committed at 17 in 1963....

Far from a narrow procedural ruling, Kennedy explained that the 2012 ruling — Miller v. Alabama — was a substantive one, and, in its wake, “it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence.”  While Montgomery’s case was pending, however, the court left several related cases like Davis’s one — all of which ask the court to go further down this path — waiting for action from the justices.

Most expect the justices now to send those cases back to lower courts to consider how the Montgomery decision affects their respective cases.  During that period, how state courts interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling could vary widely. How rare is the “rare juvenile” that Kennedy writes about whose crime reflects “irreparable corruption”? How do states make that determination?...

On Jan. 25, Kennedy detailed the court’s decision that Louisiana had to give retroactive effect to the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in the Miller.  In the wake of that decision, it’s likely that the justices will send Davis’s case back to the Michigan Supreme Court to reconsider it.  As Kennedy suggested in the Montgomery decision, Michigan either could re-sentence Davis — considering whether his crime reflects “permanent incorrigibility” — or make him eligible for parole consideration.

If Davis is re-sentenced instead of being granted a chance at parole, however, and if he is sentenced to life again, then he likely would go back to the U.S. Supreme Court — asking the court, again, to hear his case on the felony murder question.  (As is already being seen in Montgomery’s case, state officials in Louisiana have told the state’s supreme court that their aim is to re-sentence those with mandatory life without parole sentences, rather than give them the possibility of parole.)

February 7, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

"Was there a Ferguson Effect on crime rates in large U.S. cities?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new research paper authored by a quartet of sociologists and criminologists and available now via ResearchGate. Here is the abstract:

Purpose There has been widespread speculation that the events surrounding the shooting death of an unarmed young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri — and a string of similar incidents across the country — have led to increases in crime in the United States.  This study tested for the “Ferguson Effect” on crime rates in large U.S. cities.

Methods:  Aggregate and disaggregate monthly Part I criminal offense data were gathered 12 months before and after August 2014 from police department data requests and websites in 81 large U.S. cities.  The exogenous shock of Ferguson was examined using a discontinuous growth model to determine if there was a redirection in seasonality-adjusted crime trends in the months following the Ferguson shooting.

Results:  No evidence was found to support a systematic post-Ferguson change in overall, violent, and property crime trends; however, the disaggregated analyses revealed that robbery rates, declining before Ferguson, increased in the months after Ferguson.  Also, there was much greater variation in crime trends in the post-Ferguson era, and select cities did experience increases in homicide.  Overall, any Ferguson Effect is constrained largely to cities with historically high levels of violence, a large composition of black residents, and socioeconomic disadvantages.

Conclusions:  The national discourse surrounding the “Ferguson Effect” is long on anecdotes and short on data, leaving criminologists largely on the sidelines of a conversation concerning one of the most prominent contemporary issues in criminal justice.  Our findings are largely consistent with longstanding criminological knowledge that changes in crime trends are slow and rarely a product of random shocks.

February 6, 2016 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Instead of building 'super prisons,' let's build super schools"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary by an Alabama state rep in response to a recent proposal by the state's Governor.  Here is how the commentary begins:

During his State of the State Address Tuesday night, Gov. Bentley laid out his four-year plan, which included spending up to $800 million to build four new super prisons.  The next day, the governor announced that he wants to transfer $181 million out of the education budget and put it in the general fund budget, which also pays for prisons.

Don't get me wrong.  There are some very serious problems with our state prisons. What's happening at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women is unacceptable!  Changes need to be made, and more prison reform is absolutely needed.

But how can the governor — or any legislators, for that matter — justify spending almost a billion dollars on new accommodations for prisoners while thousands of our children are going to school in run-down facilities that have broken windows and no air conditioning?

Instead of building "super prisons" like what the governor is talking about, how about we build "super schools" instead? Why is the governor willing to invest hundreds-of-millions of dollars in our prison population's future, but wants to cut hundreds-of-millions from our children's future?

Among other points, this commentary highlights the reality that, for states with fixed and limited budgets, any and all extra taxpayer investments in cells can often require a reduction in taxpayer investment in classrooms.

February 6, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, February 5, 2016

Lots of end-of-the-week notable capital punishment stories

A busy day of teaching and other work activies has prevented me from posting about a number of interesting death penalty stories and commentaries I noticed in the media recently. Here are headlines and links to serve as a kind of end-of-week round-up:

February 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Obey All Laws and Be Good: Probation and the Meaning of Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article authored by Fiona Doherty and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Probation is the most commonly imposed criminal sentence in the United States, with nearly four million adults currently under supervision.  Yet the law of probation has not been the focus of sustained research or analysis.  This Article examines the standard conditions of probation in the sixteen jurisdictions that use probation most expansively.  A detailed analysis of these conditions is important, because the extent of the state’s authority to control and punish probationers depends on the substance of the conditions imposed.

Based on the results of my analysis, I argue that the standard conditions of probation, which make a wide variety of noncriminal conduct punishable with criminal sanctions, construct a definition of recidivism that contributes to overcriminalization.  At the same time, probationary systems concentrate adjudicative and legislative power in probation officers, often to the detriment of the socially disadvantaged.  Although probation is frequently invoked as a potential solution to the problem of overincarceration, I argue that it instead should be analyzed as part of the continuum of excessive penal control.

February 4, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Detailing shrinking number of states still denying federal benefits to former drug felons

The Marshall Project has this intriguing new piece on the modern reality and reform of collateral consequences headlined "Six States Where Felons Can’t Get Food Stamps: Few holdouts remain, as drug-war-era bans on benefits are lifted."  Here are the details:

For almost two decades, Alabama residents convicted of a drug-related felony were barred for life from receiving food stamps or welfare payments.  Starting this month, the ban will officially be lifted.

Alabama is not the only state that is backing away from the ban, which was established in 1996 under President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform law and blocks only drug offenders from receiving assistance, not any other felons.

Eighteen states have completely abandoned the federal prohibition on drug offenders receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or food stamps.  Twenty-six other states have partly eased those restrictions, often by providing the benefits only if the recipient complies with parole, does not commit a second offense, enrolls in treatment, etc.  At least three more states — Georgia, Nebraska, and Indiana — are now considering similar reforms. Only six states continue to fully enforce the War on Drugs-era ban. ...

States have been somewhat less willing to lift the ban on drug offenders receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), otherwise known as welfare.  Thirteen states continue to fully prohibit anyone with a drug-related conviction from getting welfare benefits, and 23 others maintain a partial ban.

Unlike food stamps, which are paid for in full by the federal government, welfare is partly funded by the states.  That means it is significantly more expensive for states to expand access to welfare, which may be part of the reason this ban has been slower to fall.

February 4, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

DOJ announces appointment of new Acting Pardon Attorney

This DOJ press release reports that the "Justice Department announced today that Robert A. Zauzmer will become the new Acting Pardon Attorney effective immediately."  Here is more about this important new person in an important new DOJ position:

Zauzmer, the Chief of Appeals in the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, has been a key player in the department’s implementation of both the 2013 Smart on Crime initiative and the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s retroactive sentence reductions.

“Bob’s long-standing commitment to criminal justice reform and his knack for devising and implementing the department’s sentencing reduction policies made him a natural choice to serve as Pardon Attorney,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. “Bob also shares my unwavering dedication to the president’s clemency initiative. Given his experience and dedication, I am confident that Bob will hit the ground running.”

“As someone who has been part of the criminal justice system for more than 25 years, I have long been troubled by the imposition of disproportionately lengthy sentences, even as long as life imprisonment, that were imposed on low-level drug offenders on the basis of laws and policies that have since been changed,” said Zauzmer. “I have dedicated much of the past decade to assisting in the efforts to right some of those unfairly long sentences, and it is my profound honor to aid the president in using his clemency power to continue to restore the sense of proportionality and fairness that is at the heart of our justice system.”

As part of his efforts on behalf of the department, Zauzmer has testified multiple times before the U.S. Sentencing Commission on sentencing guideline issues, including the retroactive application of reductions in drug sentences. He also trained federal prosecutors nationwide on how to apply retroactivity in a way that provides relief to all eligible inmates in the most efficient manner possible. From 2012 to 2014, Zauzmer served as a member of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee (AGAC), working closely with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Yates at a time that they served as chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the AGAC....

In December 2013, President Obama directed the department to prioritize applications for clemency from inmates who were sentenced under outdated policies and would have received a lesser sentence under current policies and laws. Since the clemency initiative was announced in April 2014, the president has granted 187 commutations, more than the last five presidents combined.

UPDATE: This new NPR piece, headlined "New Pardon Chief In Obama Justice Department Inherits A Huge Backlog," has some interesting quotes from the new Acting Pardon Attorney:

Robert Zauzmer, 55, has worked since 1990 at the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Justice Department leaders said Zauzmer represented a "natural choice" for the pardon job, in part because of his experience training prosecutors all over the country in how to evaluate prisoners' requests for early release.  "There were many occasions over the years where I saw these sentences of 20, 30 years, life imprisonment imposed on low-level offenders based on mandatory sentencing laws that troubled me," Zauzmer told NPR in an interview this week.

"Prosecutors are very knowledgeable about these cases and about the laws and about the need to do justice," he added.  "They are passionate about this, and they are dedicated to doing the right thing and correcting any erroneous sentences that need to be corrected, and I am equally passionate about it."

His first task?  Making sure that thousands of prisoner petitions are reviewed and worthy candidates are forwarded to the White House for action before the end of the Obama presidency, whether the applications come from trained lawyers or from inmates themselves.  "We're going to consider every petition," he said.  Zauzmer declined to offer a deadline but said stacks of petitions are "not going to be left on my table."

"I need to make sure that every system is in place that's necessary to review every case and make sure everybody gets a fair shake," Zauzmer said.  "There's a lot to do, but we have an excellent staff there, and I'm going to give it everything I have."...

But in the interview, the new acting pardon attorney cast some doubt on the idea of a mass clemency. "So I don't think we will ever get to a point where we will say, let's just take this basket of people and do mass clemency," Zauzmer said.  "We will look at these cases individually to make sure that we're not creating an undue risk to public safety, and that requires an individual assessment."

And Zauzmer pointed out that he is quite familiar with those case-by-case looks. He said the White House had already shortened the prison terms of six inmates from his district in Pennsylvania, including the case of David Padilla, who had been serving life behind bars.  "He was a classic example of someone who committed crimes, did bad things, admits it, has served almost 20 years in prison and should not be serving a life sentence," he said. "A life sentence does not possibly match the kind of criminal conduct that he was involved in."

February 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)