Thursday, June 22, 2017

Today's SCOTUS CJ scorecard: government wins in two procedural cases, defendant wins in one substantive case

The Supreme Court this morning handed down opinions in three cases, all three of which involve intricate criminal law and procedure issues. I am going to copy and tweak here the summary of all the action from How Appealing for ease of exposition: 

1. Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court in Maslenjak v. United States, No. 16-309. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch issued an opinion, in which Justice Clarence Thomas joined, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. And Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. issued an opinion concurring in the judgment. 

2. Justice Stephen G. Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court in Turner v. United States, No. 15-1503. Justice Kagan issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined. 

3. And Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court in Weaver v. Massachusetts, No. 16-240.  Justice Thomas issued a concurring opinion, in which Justice Gorsuch joined.  Justice Alito issued an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Gorsuch also joined.  And Justice Breyer issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Kagan joined. 

As the title of this post indicates, and as the pattern of votes suggests, the defendant prevailed in first of these listed cases, Maslenjak, which concerned the substantive reach of a federal criminal statute.  The government prevailed in the other two cases, one of which concerned the application of Brady (Turner) and the other of which concerned what types of errors can be found harmless in Strickland ineffective assistance analysis (Weaver).

For a variety of reasons, the procedural rulings on behalf of the government in Turner and Weaver seem like a much bigger deal than the Maslenjak ruling, perhaps especially because the government had won below in Turner and Weaver and so it could have been reasonably assumed that the Supreme Court took up the cases in order to reverse the outcome.  Also, of course, issues related to the application of Brady and Strickland impact so many cases, especially on collateral appeal.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has this helpful summary post on all these cases simply and appropriately titled "Materiality."

June 22, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Evangelical leaders push for criminal justice reform"

Images (1)The title of this post is the headline of this new article in the National Catholic Reporter.  Here are excerpts:

Evangelical Christian leaders are spearheading a campaign for criminal justice reform, calling for equitable punishment, alternatives to incarceration and a different take on the "tough on crime" language of the Trump administration.

"Our country's overreliance on incarceration fails to make us safer or to restore people and communities who have been harmed," said James Ackerman, CEO of Prison Fellowship Ministries, at a June 20 news conference at the National Press Club.

Joined by black, white and Hispanic officials of evangelical organizations, he introduced the "Justice Declaration" that has been signed by close to 100 religious leaders from a wide range of Christian denominations. "The Church has both the unique ability and unparalleled capacity to confront the staggering crisis of crime and incarceration in America," the declaration reads, "and to respond with restorative solutions for communities, victims, and individuals responsible for crime."

The leaders later presented their declaration to Republican leaders, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, in hopes of gaining bipartisan support for changes in federal law....

Ackerman said Prison Fellowship supports sentencing guidelines but thinks mandatory sentences are "a big mistake." He was joined at the news conference by leaders with testimonies of how churches helped formerly incarcerated people rehabilitate themselves and become productive citizens.

Dimas Salaberrios, president of the Concerts of Prayer Greater New York, told of how church members once vouched to a judge about his transformation after he escaped from authorities when he was a drug dealer. The judge pardoned him. "I'm living proof that when you grab somebody out of the pits of hell and you turn their life around that they can be great contributors to society," he said.

National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson challenged churches to do more than sign the declaration but also take action steps to address racial inequities and work for alternatives such as drug courts and mental health courts to keep people out of prison. Thirteen percent of Americans are African-American but close to 40 percent of U.S. prisoners are black. "What if all of our churches were to adopt one incarcerated person?" he asked. "What if all of our churches would service one family where a family member is incarcerated? What if all of our churches would care for one victim?"

The declaration, and a related 11-page paper on how the church can respond to crime and incarceration, were spearheaded by evangelical organizations: Prison Fellowship, the NAE, the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

But signatories on the declaration include a wider range of Christian leaders, such as Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Bread for the World President David Beckmann and Bishop Frank Dewane, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

This Justice Declaration webpage hosted by Prison Fellowship provides more details on this latest notable advocacy effort, and that page also provides a link to this interesting 11-page white paper titled "Responding to Crime & Incarcertation: A Call to the Church."

June 21, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Henry Montgomery (of Montgomery v. Louisiana) re-sentenced to life with parole

As reported in this lengthy local article, a defendant whose surname means a lot to a lot of juvenile offenders long ago sentenced to life without parole was resentenced today in Louisiana. Here are just some of the details of the latest chapter of a truly a remarkable case:

A Baton Rouge judge Wednesday gave a 71-year-old man convicted of killing a sheriff's deputy when he was 17 a chance to leave prison before he dies.

Henry Montgomery has been locked up for 54 years in the killing of East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputy Charles Hurt. But Judge Richard Anderson on Wednesday re-sentenced Montgomery to a life sentence with the possibility of parole, following a pair of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings — including Montgomery's own case — that say defendants convicted of murder for killings committed as juveniles cannot automatically be sent away to serve life without parole.

"This is not an easy thing for me to do … because one man is dead and the family is still living through the consequences. But the law is the law," said Anderson, referencing the higher court decisions that said sentences of life without parole for young killers must be "rare and uncommon" and reserved only for those who display "irretrievable depravity."

Anderson's decision during the brief hearing came nearly two months after defense attorneys presented the judge with extensive testimony about Montgomery's conduct in prison and the rough circumstances of his childhood.  Officials from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where Montgomery has spent nearly all of the last half-century, described him as a trustworthy inmate and reliable worker who accumulated a remarkably low number of infractions during his time at the once-notorious prison.

Lindsay Jarrell Blouin, an East Baton Rouge Parish public defender who represents Montgomery, also detailed rough circumstances of Montgomery's childhood, which she wrote included neglect, physical abuse and a lack of education. Court filings also detailed Montgomery's mental limitations, including an IQ estimated by psychologists during his 1969 trial as somewhere in the 70s....

"He's been a model prisoner for 54 years, he's been a mentor and, by all appearances, he's been rehabilitated," Anderson said. "It does not appear (Montgomery) is someone the Supreme Court would consider 'irreparably corrupt.'"

Montgomery was walking near Scotlandville High School on Nov. 13, 1963, when he ran from Hurt and other deputies who'd arrived to investigate a theft complaint called in by the school.  Hurt tried to detain Montgomery, according to trial transcripts, and Montgomery killed him with a single shot from a .22-caliber pistol.  Hurt's partner that day wrote in an initial report that Hurt had his hands up and was backing away when Montgomery shot him.  But the officer testified at trial that he was some 350 yards away and couldn't see Hurt or Montgomery at the moment of the shooting, according to recent filings by Montgomery's attorneys.  The deputy was wearing plain clothes, Montgomery's attorneys wrote, and the teenager told investigators following his arrest that he thought Hurt was reaching for a gun when he fired. "This was a terrible, split-second decision made by a scared 17-year-old boy who thought he was going to be killed."

Hurt's family did not attend Wednesday's hearing.  But in April, as Anderson considered evidence in the case, Hurt's two daughters took the stand to testify to how that single gunshot upended their family, snapped previously happy childhoods and continues to reverberate in painful ways decades later.  Becky Wilson and Linda Woods both told Anderson through tears that they'd come to forgive and pray for Montgomery.  The deputy's daughters met privately with Montgomery at Angola earlier this year.

But the sisters, as well as Jean-Paul deGravelles, Hurt's grandson who's now a Lafourche Parish sheriff's deputy, all said they felt Montgomery received a just sentence when a jury in 1969 found him guilty of murder "without capital punishment" — a verdict that spared Montgomery the death penalty but sent him away for the remainder of his life.

Anderson echoed that view, noting from the bench that he felt Montgomery's life-without-parole sentence was fair. But the law has changed, Anderson said, regardless of whether the judge agrees with the Supreme Court rulings.

Prosecutors didn't argue for either life with or without parole for Montgomery but noted the gravity of the crime and its impact on the victim's family.  Lawyers with the Attorney General's Office who represented the state at the hearing declined to comment Wednesday.  East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said Anderson's "difficult but well-reasoned decision" acknowledged the suffering caused by Montgomery but was bound by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.

Wilson, who was 9 years old when her father was killed, said Wednesday she believes Anderson reached "the only decision he could" under current law in offering Montgomery a chance at parole and said she appreciates the judge's careful consideration of the case.  "As for Mr. Montgomery, I just pray for God’s perfect will to be done in his life and hope and pray he is blessed wherever he might be, today and in his future," Wilson said by email. "If he should be paroled, I hope, if given the opportunity, he will use his life experience to help keep young men and women from going down the same path he went down. Also, I pray that he will truly be thankful and humbled by the gift of freedom."

Montgomery's 1969 conviction came after the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned an earlier verdict, ruling that widespread and often racially tinged attention to the case "permeated the atmosphere" in Baton Rouge during his first trial.  The court ruled that "no one could reasonably say that the verdict and the sentence were lawfully obtained." Anderson on Wednesday noted the jury in Montgomery's second trial in 1969 chose not to impose a death sentence even though the law allowed it.  Montgomery's attorneys argued earlier that the jury's decision for a lesser sentence suggested they didn't see Montgomery as among the worst killers.

Anderson also admonished Montgomery, who stood before the judge stooped with his hands closely shackled to a belly chain, to take advantage of his opportunity at freedom.  Montgomery didn't speak during the hearing and was quickly led away after the judge read out his new sentence.  Blouin, his attorney, said after the hearing that Montgomery was pleased with the decision but "still grieves for the victim's family and the impact this has had on them."

The next step for Montgomery will be a request for a parole board hearing.  He's already served more than twice as many years as required before parole consideration and has met other requirements to apply for release. Keith Nordyke, an attorney with the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit firm representing Montgomery in the parole process, said a hearing could come before the end of the year.

June 21, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

A misdirected attack on two notable sentences in Justice Alito's Packingham concurrence

There is a lot worth discussing concerning the Supreme Court's decision in Packingham earlier this week (basics here), and this new Washington Post "Fact Checker" piece decides to give particular attention to two lines from Justice Alito's concurrence in a piece headlined "Justice Alito’s misleading claim about sex offender rearrests."  I find the WaPo piece itself somewhat misleading (or really misdirected) because it is focused too much on the second of these two sentences in Justices Alito's opinion rather than the first:

“Repeat sex offenders pose an especially grave risk to children. ‘When convicted sex offenders reenter society, they are much more likely than any other type of offender to be rearrested for a new rape or sexual assault.’”

After reviewing a bunch of statistics, this WaPo piece comes to this conclusion:

The reference to sex offender rearrest trends in Alito’s opinion is quite misleading.  It measures the likelihood of sex offenders to be arrested for sex crimes after release from prison, and compares it to the likelihood of non-sex offenders to be arrested for sex crimes after release.  This makes it seem like recidivism among sex offenders to be a uniquely bad problem, but it is an apples-to-oranges comparison.

This opinion cites previous opinions that use outdated data going back to the 1980s — more than 30 years ago.  Moreover, it obscures the fact according to 2005 data, the percentage of sex offenders getting rearrested for the same crime is low compared to non-sex offenders, with the exception of people convicted of homicide.   It does the public no service when the Supreme Court justices make a misleading characterization like this.  We award Three Pinocchios.

I find disconcerting that what this WaPo piece is calling " quite misleading" is a sentence (the second one above) that is factually accurate.  The piece strikes me as especially problematic because it fails to stress that what might make the second sentence about "sex offender rearrest trends" potentially misleading is that it follows the forceful assertion that "repeat sex offenders pose an especially grave risk to children."  In my reading, it is the phrase "especially grave risk to children" that contributes to the impression that "recidivism among sex offenders [is] a uniquely bad problem."

That all said, the ever bigger problem with the law at issue in Packingham and lots of other similar laws and the WaPo commentary itself is use of the always-way-too-broad offender category of "sex offender."  This board label necessarily lumps together some relatively minor adult offenders and some relatively very serious offenders who consistently victimize children.  There are certainly some serious sex offender who do pose an "especially grave risk to children," but many folks on sex offender registries may pose less of a risk to children than do the average person.

Ultimately, these are challenging issues to discuss with precision both conceptually and statistically.  And though I am always pleased to see detailed discussion of crime data in the Washington Post, I am troubled by its decision to "award Three Pinocchios" to a statement that is factually true. 

UPDATE: I just noticed that Ed Whelan over at Bench Memos has this more thorough review of this WaPo piece under the titled "Fact-checking the fact Checker."

June 21, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Close examination of some JLWOP girls who should benefit from Graham and Miller

The latest issue of The Nation has two lengthy articles examining the application and implementation of the Supreme Court's modern juvenile offender Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  Both are good reads, but the second one listed below covers especially interesting ground I have not seen covered extensively before.  Here are their full headlines, with links, followed by an excerpt from the second of the pieces: 

"The Troubled Resentencing of America’s Juvenile Lifers: When SCOTUS outlawed mandatory juvenile life without parole, advocates celebrated — but the outcome has been anything but fair" by Jessica Pishko

"Lisa, Laquanda, Machelle, and Kenya Were Sentenced as Children to Die in Prison: Decades later, a Supreme Court ruling could give them their freedom" by Danielle Wolffe

The country’s approximately 50 female JLWOP inmates represent a small fraction of the juvenile-lifer population, but the number of women serving life sentences overall is growing more quickly than that of men, according to a study by Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project. The women interviewed for this article also told me that they felt less informed about what was going on with their cases legally than their male counterparts.

The culpability of girls in their commission of crimes is often entwined with their role as caretakers for younger siblings. They’re also more likely to suffer sexual abuse during childhood. A 2012 study found that 77 percent of JLWOP girls, but only 21 percent of juvenile lifers overall, experienced sexual abuse. Internalized shame made them easier targets for violence by male correctional officers. From my own conversations with these women, many were teenage mothers who were separated from their babies shortly after giving birth. Others were incarcerated throughout their viable childbearing years.

I have been traveling the country to interview female juvenile lifers. Every time I visited one of these women in prison, I was haunted by the things we had in common. We were all approaching middle age. As a young adult, I too had gone off the rails and done dangerous things—the sort of things that could easily have gotten me arrested, even killed. Yet unlike the women I was interviewing, I had the option of leaving those aspects of my past behind.

The women I spoke with represent a distinct minority among juvenile lifers. They do not fit a narrative that is often centered around young men. Their stories are rarely told, even when the law demands it. The Miller and Montgomery decisions call for consideration of a teenager’s upbringing and maturation in prison, but as these women describe it, their experiences are rarely explored in depth in the courtroom. Instead, women’s resentencing is all too often shaped by ignorance and sexism. By interviewing these women, I hoped to share their unheard stories with the public. I hoped, too, that their unconventional stories might help us to reconsider our attitudes toward juvenile crime and rehabilitation—attitudes that still pervade the resentencing process.

June 21, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable look at notably tough sentencing patterns in one rural county in Minnesota

Sentencing, like politics, is ultimately always a local story, and this lengthy new MinnPost article takes a deep dive into the notable local sentencing stories of Polk County, Minnesota.  The lengthy article is headlined "Why tiny Polk County sends so many people to prison," and here are excerpts:

If you’re planning to commit a crime in Minnesota, you might want to steer clear of Polk County. This county of 32,000, which hugs the Red River on the North Dakota border, is sparsely populated and largely agricultural, save for East Grand Forks, Crookston and a handful of other small cities set between soybean, wheat and sugar beet fields.

Yet in 2014 it sent more people to prison, per capita, than any other county in Minnesota, a county-by-county analysis of National Corrections Reporting Program data by the New York Times and Fordham University found. That year, the most recent for which data are available, prison admission rates in northwestern Minnesota’s Polk County stick out across the upper Midwest, more closely resembling some of the counties that form a prison belt across the U.S., from Indiana to Kentucky, Missouri Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas, than it does most of its neighbors.

For every 10,000 Polk County residents, 50 people were admitted to prison in 2014, an increase from 22 per 10,000 residents in 2006 and 39 per 10,000 residents in 2013, among the highest in Minnesota both years. The high prison admissions rate in Polk stands in sharp contrast to lower rates in nearby counties and the Twin Cities: In 2014, 12 per 10,000 residents in Hennepin County went to prison and 19 per 10,000 residents in Ramsey did. Neither rate increased by more than 3 per 10,000 people from 2006.

Why is Polk County sending so many people to prison? Ask Polk County officials what’s behind the high rate of imprisonment, and they’ll likely have an answer for you: drugs.

To some extent, the data bear that out. While for the most part crime and arrest rates were stable between 2006 and 2014 in Polk County, drug crimes are a big exception. Drug crimes went from a rate of 38.6 per 10,000 residents in 2006 to 61.9 per 10,000 residents in 2014. Drug-related arrest rates, likewise, more than doubled, from 25 per 10,000 residents in 2006 to 55 per 10,000 people in 2014....

In Minnesota, how felony offenders are punished depends on where they fall on the Sentencing Guideline Commission’s grid.... In theory, the sentencing guidelines bring uniformity to criminal sentencing in Minnesota’s 87 counties and 10 judicial districts. But there’s some room for discretion on the part of prosecutors and judges built into the system, too. While sentencing guidelines are followed in the vast majority of cases, courts are allowed to impose a softer or harsher sentences “when substantial and compelling aggravating or mitigating factors are present.” In some counties, departures are used more frequently than others.

In Polk County, 14 percent of felony drug offenders between 2006 and 2015 received “aggravated dispositional departures” — usually prison instead of the probation called for in the sentencing guidelines. In Beltrami County and Clay counties, 6 percent and 8 percent did, respectively. Statewide, less than 9 percent of felony drug offenders for whom the sentencing guidelines prescribe probation receive prison....

Kip Fontaine, assistant public defender ... noticed what seems to be a disproportionate number of third-degree charges for drug possession in a school zone or park. A person, say, found to be driving through one of these areas with drugs on them would, in most counties, be charged with this crime in the fifth-degree, a lesser charge, Fontaine said. Not necessarily in Polk. According to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, of 83 people with criminal history scores of zero through three sentenced with third-degree possession in a school zone or park in Minnesota between 2011 and 2015, 36 — nearly half — were in Polk County....

Andrew Larson, the executive director of Tri-County Community Corrections, the government agency that provides probation and detention services in Polk, Red Lake and Norman counties, said he senses a difference in philosophy in Polk County, too. “The Polk County Attorney’s Office is just more aggressive in their prosecution than perhaps what the other counties are, and it’s literally that simple. It’s not a matter of one being right or the other being wrong, it’s just a difference,” he said.

UPDATE: In the comments, federalist astutely suggests noting a similar article about case-processing toughness in a rural mid-west county.  So: New York Times highlights modern rural incarceration realities 

June 21, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Fascinating new OIG report examines implementation of former AG Holder's "Smart on Crime" initiative

I just came across this fascinating new report from the US Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General. The title of the lengthy report itself spotlights why the report is both fascinating and timely: "Review of the Department’s Implementation of Prosecution and Sentencing Reform Principles under the Smart on Crime Initiative." The full report runs 70 dense pages and even the executive summary is too lengthy and detailed to reproduce fully here. But these excerpts should whet the appetite of all sentencing nerds:

In August 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice (Department) and then Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., announced the Smart on Crime initiative, which highlighted five principles to reform the federal criminal justice system. Smart on Crime encouraged federal prosecutors to focus on the most serious cases that implicate clear, substantial federal interests. In the first principle, the Department required, for the first time, the development of district-specific prosecution guidelines for determining when federal prosecutions should be brought, with the intent of focusing resources on fewer but the most significant cases. The second principle of Smart on Crime announced a change in Department charging policies so that certain defendants who prosecutors determined had committed low-level, non-violent drug offenses, and who had no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels, generally would not be charged with offenses that imposed a mandatory minimum prison sentence.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) initiated this review to evaluate the Department’s implementation of the first two principles of Smart on Crime, as well as the impact of those changes to federal charging policies and practices. We assessed the 94 U.S. Attorney’s Office districts’ implementation and the impact of the Smart on Crime policy on not charging drug quantities implicating mandatory minimum sentences in circumstances where the defendants were low-level, non-violent offenders with limited criminal histories. We also assessed the implementation and impact of the policy that required prosecutors to consider certain factors before filing a recidivist enhancement that would increase the sentence of a drug defendant with a felony record pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851.

On May 10, 2017, the Attorney General issued a new charging and sentencing policy to all federal prosecutors that effectively rescinds the specific charging policies and practices outlined by Smart on Crime. We did not review this new policy as part of this review, which examined the implementation of the prosecution and sentencing reform principles under the Smart on Crime initiative....

We found that the Department made progress implementing the first two Smart on Crime principles, but we also identified several shortcomings in its efforts, including some failures to update national and local policies and guidelines and a lack of communication with local law enforcement partners regarding changes to these polices and guidelines in some instances.

We found that, while the Department issued policy memoranda and guidance to reflect its Smart on Crime policies, the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual (USAM), a primary guidance document for federal prosecutors, was not revised until January 2017, more than 3 years after Smart on Crime was launched, even though Department officials established a deadline of the end of 2014 to do so. Further, we determined that 74 of 94 districts had developed or updated their local policies to reflect the Smart on Crime policy changes regarding mandatory minimum charging decisions. Of the remaining 20 districts, some provided incomplete information to the OIG as to whether they had updated their prosecution guidelines or policy memoranda to reflect the Smart on Crime policy changes regarding mandatory minimum charging decisions in drug cases; in others, the district policies provided appeared to be inconsistent with the Smart on Crime policies in whole or in part; and some told us that they relied on the Holder memoranda for direction but did not develop or update any of their district policies or guidance documents to reflect the Smart on Crime policy changes.

We also found that 70 of 94 districts had incorporated Smart on Crime recidivist enhancement policy changes into their districts’ prosecution guidelines or policy memoranda. However, of the remaining 24 districts, 20 provided information to the OIG with respect to recidivist enhancements that appeared to be inconsistent with the 2013 Holder memoranda in whole or in part, or reported to the OIG that they followed the Holder memorandum but did not specifically revise their district policies to reflect Smart on Crime policy changes. The four remaining districts provided information that did not reflect the Smart on Crime policy changes on filing recidivist enhancements. Finally, we found that 10 districts failed to update their policies to reflect Smart on Crime policy changes with regard to both mandatory minimum charging decisions and recidivist enhancements....

We further found that the Department’s ability to measure the impact of the first two Smart on Crime principles is limited because it does not consistently collect data on charging decisions. For example, while the Legal Information Office Network System (LIONS), the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices’ case management system, allows federal prosecutors generally to track information about their cases, data fields relevant to Smart on Crime were not always present or updated.

Due to these limitations, the Department has relied on U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) data to assess the impact of the first two Smart on Crime principles. However, using USSC data to measure the impact of Smart on Crime’s charging policies is challenging because the USSC collects data from courts on sentencing decisions by judges and does not receive data from prosecutors about their charging decisions. In that regard, the USSC data does not allow assessments regarding charges that prosecutors could have brought but chose not to bring.

Nevertheless, based on our own analysis of USSC sentencing data over the period from 2010 through 2015, we found that sentencing outcomes in drug cases had shifted in a manner that was consistent with the first two principles of Smart on Crime. This was reflected by significantly fewer mandatory minimum sentences being imposed in drug cases nationwide, as well as a decrease in mandatory minimum sentences for those defendants who might otherwise have received such a sentence in the absence of the 2013 Holder memoranda....

We also found that some regions in the country diverged from these overall national trends. For example, while drug convictions decreased nationally by 19 percent, the decrease was far larger in the Southwest Border region. Further, the West, Pacific Northwest, and Hawaii and Island Territories regions actually showed increases in the number of drug convictions. As a result, we determined that national trends should not be interpreted in such a way as to conclude that Smart on Crime had a uniform impact across all the nation’s districts.

June 20, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seventh Circuit panel again finds below-guideline sentence for abusive police officer unreasonable

Especially because it can sometimes seem that post-Booker reasonableness review of sentences has little bite, it still seems blogworthy whenever a circuit court finds a federal sentence unreasonable.  The work of a Seventh Circuit panel yesterday in US v. Smith, No. 16-2035 (7th Cir. June 19, 2017) (available  here), struck me as doubly blogworthy because it represents the second time the same sentence has been reversed and because the defendant here is an abusive local police officer.  Here is how the opinion gets started:

A jury convicted Terry Joe Smith, a police officer, of violating 18 U.S.C. § 242, by subjecting two men to the intentional use of unreasonable and excessive force, and violating their civil right to be free of such abuse.  The district court sentenced Smith to fourteen months’ imprisonment, less than half the low end of the applicable guidelines range. In the first appeal of the case, we affirmed Smith’s conviction but vacated the sentence and remanded for full resentencing, concluding that the court had failed to justify the below-guidelines sentence. United States v. Smith, 811 F.3d 907 (7th Cir. 2016).  On remand, the court again sentenced Smith to fourteen months’ imprisonment and once more failed to adequately explain or justify the below-guidelines sentence. We again vacate and remand for a complete re-sentencing.

Here are the essential basics from the opinion of the defendant's crime and recommended guideline punishment:

Smith was a police officer employed by the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department.  In two separate incidents, Smith violently assaulted arrestees who were already under control and not actively resisting arrest. At trial, Smith’s fellow police officers testified against him, describing the unwarranted [and brutal] attacks....

Smith’s guidelines range was thirty-three to forty-one months’ imprisonment. Smith was in Criminal History Category I, based on one prior conviction for misdemeanor battery of a three-year-old child and the child’s mother, who was then Smith’s wife.

The lengthy Smith opinion follows with lots of notable and interesting discussion about how the sentencing court justified a sentence of 14 months and why the circuit panel believe this below-guideline sentence was unreasonable even at a second sentencing with additional evidence.  And, as sometimes happens in the post-Booker world, the circuit panel officially ruled the sentence procedurally unreasonable, but it seems pretty clear that the panel was troubled by what it perceived to be a substantively light sentence under these circumstances.

June 20, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Intricate disputation of AG Sessions' recent defense of his new tougher federal charging/sentencing policy

As noted in this weekend post, the US Attorney General today took the the editorial pages of the Washington Post to make the case for his new tough charging and sentencing guidance for federal prosecutors via this opinion piece.  Today, the Washington Post has this new opinion piece by Radley Balko under the the headline "Here are all the ways Jeff Sessions is wrong about drug sentencing."  

The headline of the Balko piece serves as something of a summary of its contents, which involves an intricate "a line-by-line review" of all the key points made by AG Sessions in his piece.  Rather than try to capture all the particulars of the Balko piece here, I will just quote some of his closing commentary: 

Certainly, drug trafficking lowers the quality of life in a community.  Turf wars between drug gangs can make those communities more dangerous.  But again, Sessions himself concedes that prohibition itself creates these problems.  It’s pretty rare that liquor store employees erupt in gun fights over turf.  And if prohibition begets violence, the only way the solution to an increase in violence can be more prohibition is if the new prohibition wipes out drug trafficking entirely.  Otherwise, more prohibition usually just means more violence.  Knock out one major dealer, and new dealers will emerge and go to war to take his place.

We all know that rescinding the Holder memo isn’t going to end drug trafficking.  It isn’t going to affect the opioid crisis.  It isn’t going to move the needle either way on the violence in Chicago or Baltimore.  The most likely outcome is that a few hundred more nonviolent offenders spend a lot more time in federal prison than they otherwise would have.  I suppose it will also give Sessions the satisfaction of having rolled back one of the few substantive criminal-justice reforms of the Obama administration.  But the crime rate and the violence in America’s cities will rise or fall independent of the Holder memo.

The one thing we can all depend on — the one sure thing: Illicit drugs will continue to be available to pretty much anyone who wants to use them.

Prior recent related post:

AG Jeff Sessions makes the case for his new tougher federal charging/sentencing policy

June 20, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wondering about judicial "wild-ass guesses" when considering child-porn restitution since Paroline

Long-time readers may recall a period about five year back when I was regularly blogging about notable federal district and circuit opinions struggling in various ways to figure out whether and how federal courts could impose restitution awards/punishments on federal offenders convicted only of downloading illegal images.  (As blogged here, a New York Times Magazine cover story in January 2013 nicely covered the legal and social issues involved in what was ultimately a sentencing question.)   Because the issue produced various splits in the lower courts, the Supreme Court took up and resolved the question in Paroline v. US, No. 12-8561 (Apr. 23, 2014) (available here).  

But while Paroline resolved some measure of legal uncertainty surrounding this child-porn restitution issue, it did so in a way that largely punted a host of factual challenges back to district courts at the time of sentencing.  This new local article in my local paper, headlined "Judge doesn’t want to guess on child-porn restitution," reminds me that Paroline did not really end the messy questions surrounding child-porn restitution determinations, it just made the litigation here much lower profile.  Here are excerpts from the local article:

U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson doesn’t like “wild-ass guesses,” according to federal courts Reporter Earl Rinehart.

Watson presided over a restitution hearing last week during which a civil attorney representing a child pornography victim called “Andy” had petitioned Watson for $58,415 in damages.  The attorney’s client wasn’t the underage teen the defendant had photographed nude and was convicted for, but Andy’s picture was on the defendant’s computer.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that child-pornography defendants could be liable to pay victims an amount proximate to the harm caused by having and/or distributing the image. Watson has said Congress needs to set standards to help judges calculate how much restitution to approve.  A bill that would set those minimum amounts was passed by the U.S. Senate but has languished in the House Judiciary Committee since February 2015.

Although he commended Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Hill for her “valiant effort” in arguing for restitution, he agreed with Assistant Federal Public Defender Rasheeda Khan, who argued there was no evidence the defendant had shared Andy’s image and there was no way to accurately figure how much he owed now and for the victim’s future therapy costs. Another 158 defendants have either agreed to pay restitution to Andy or were ordered to do so.

Watson said the petition was based on a 2014 report that’s “not subject to cross examination” and “would not be admissible in a civil litigation.”

“There is no evidence Andy is a victim of this offense,” the judge said. He called again on Congress “to give us some direction.”

“It’s essentially a wild-ass guess for me to figure the appropriate restitution,” Watson said before denying any to Andy.

A few (of many) prior posts on Paroline and child porn restitution issues from years ago:

June 20, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Pew analysis finds no relationship between drug imprisonment and drug problems

The Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts has this notable new posting concerning a notable new letter and analysis it completed. The posting is headlined "Pew Analysis Finds No Relationship Between Drug Imprisonment and Drug Problems: Letter provides new 50-state data to the federal opioid commission," and here is what it has to say:

On June 19, 2017, The Pew Charitable Trusts submitted a letter to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, outlining an analysis of whether state drug imprisonment rates are linked to the nature and extent of state drug problems—a key question as the nation faces an escalating opioid epidemic. Pew compared publicly available data from law enforcement, corrections, and health agencies from all 50 states.

Pew’s analysis found no statistically significant relationship between states’ drug offender imprisonment rates and three measures of drug problems: rates of illicit use, overdose deaths, and arrests. The findings reinforce previous research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug use and related crime.

Although the federal courts receive the lion’s share of public attention, most of the nation’s criminal justice system is administered by states. State laws determine criminal penalties for most drug offenses, and the states have made different policy choices regarding those punishments, resulting in widely varied imprisonment rates.

For example, Louisiana had the country’s highest drug-offender imprisonment rate in 2014, with 226.4 drug offenders in prison per 100,000 residents. In contrast, Massachusetts’s rate was the lowest, 30.2 per 100,000 residents, less than one-seventh Louisiana’s rate.

As Pew’s letter explained, higher rates of drug imprisonment do not translate into lower rates of drug use, fewer drug arrests, or fewer overdose deaths. And the findings hold even when controlling for standard demographic variables, such as education level, employment, race, and median household income.

The full 13-page Pew letter is available at this link.

June 20, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

AG Sessions announces notable new DOJ crime-fighting plans to be rolled out in a dozen cities

NPSP200Today marks the start of the Justice Department's National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, and this summit is already producing some interesting news.  This Washington Examiner article, headlined "Jeff Sessions announces plan to help 12 cities find ways to fight crime," provides these basics:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday announced a new initiative to combat violence and bolster public safety by promising federal resources to help 12 cities strategize on the best ways to fight crime.  The new federal effort came ahead of Sessions' speech at the opening of the National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety outside of Washington.

"Turning back the recent troubling increase of violent crime in our country is a top priority of the Department of Justice and the Trump Administration, as we work to fulfill the president's promise to make America safe again," Sessions said in a statement.

The initiative will start with 12 cities joining the Justice Department's newly formed National Public Safety Partnership, dubbed "PSP."  The new PSP program comes on the heels of President Trump's February executive order on public safety.  According to the Justice Department, the initial 12 cities are that ones need "significant assistance" in combating "gun crime, drug trafficking and gang violence."

The Department of Justice will work with American cities suffering from serious violent crime problems.  Our new National Public Safety Partnership program will help these communities build up their own capacity to fight crime, by making use of data-driven, evidence-based strategies tailored to specific local concerns, and by drawing upon the expertise and resources of our department," Sessions said.

The 12 cities are:

  • Birmingham, Ala.
  • Indianapolis, Ind.
  • Memphis, Tenn.
  • Toledo, Ohio
  • Baton Rouge, La.
  • Buffalo, N.Y.
  • Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Houston, Texas
  • Jackson, Tenn.
  • Kansas City, Mo.
  • Lansing, Mich.
  • Springfield, Ill.

More cities are expected to be announced in the coming months, the Justice Department said.

Notably missing from the list are Chicago and Baltimore, two cities that have been rocked by gun violence and homicides this year.

AG Sessions also gave this lengthy speech to open the National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, and that speech included both a short discussion of his recent charging/sentencing memo and this new initiative:

[L]ast month I issued a memo to all federal prosecutors establishing a new charging policy. This policy makes clear that Department prosecutors generally will charge the most serious, readily provable offenses supported by the facts of the case. Instead of barring prosecutors from faithfully enforcing the law, this charging policy empowers these trusted professionals to apply the law fairly — and allows them to use discretion where a strict application of the law would result in an injustice.

That is how good law enforcement has always worked. This policy ensures that we uphold our constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws, our ethical duty of candor to the courts, and our obligation to the American people to ensure that justice is done.

And today, the Justice Department is taking another important step, by launching a new program called the National Public Safety Partnership, or PSP.  This program will help communities suffering from serious violent crime problems to build up their capacity to fight crime.  The PSP program will use data-driven, evidence-based strategies, and draw upon the expertise of people in the Department of Justice, as well as others.

Our Department’s components will also support the PSP, working in collaboration with our local partners.  This program will enhance our support of state, local, and tribal law enforcement, so we can more effectively investigate and prosecute violent criminals — especially those involved in gun crimes, drug trafficking, and gang violence.

Based on local needs, the PSP program will provide two complementary but separate tiers of help — Diagnostics Teams and Operations Teams.  Diagnostic Teams will assess the local factors driving increased violent crime, and will help local leaders develop strategies to address those factors, over a period of up to 18 months.  Operations Teams will provide rigorous training and coaching over a three-year period.  They will help communities form a lasting coordination structure among federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.  Among other things, Operations Teams will provide enhanced crime trend analysis and comprehensive gun-crime intelligence programs.

We have selected 12 initial cities to take part in the Public Safety Partnership program, along with the 10 cities who took part in a pilot concept known as the Violence Reduction Network.  We anticipate announcing more PSP sites later this year.

And the new National Public Safety Partnership has this slick new website.

June 20, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 19, 2017

History examining at length "America’s War on Drugs"

The-history-channel-History is in the midst of running a four-part documentary titled simply "America’s War on Drugs."  Here is how the channel describes the lengthy doc:

“America’s War on Drugs” is an immersive trip through the last five decades, uncovering how the CIA, obsessed with keeping America safe in the fight against communism, allied itself with the mafia and foreign drug traffickers.  In exchange for support against foreign enemies, the groups were allowed to grow their drug trade in the United States. The series explores the unintended consequences of when gangsters, war lords, spies, outlaw entrepreneurs, street gangs and politicians vie for power and control of the global black market for narcotics -- all told through the firsthand accounts of former CIA and DEA officers, major drug traffickers, gang members, noted experts and insiders.

Night one of “America’s War on Drugs” divulges covert Cold War operations that empowered a generation of drug traffickers and reveals the peculiar details of secret CIA LSD experiments which helped fuel the counter-culture movement, leading to President Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of a war on drugs.  The documentary series then delves into the rise of the cocaine cowboys, a secret island “cocaine base,” the CIA’s connection to the crack epidemic, the history of the cartels and their murderous tactics, the era of “Just Say No,” the negative effect of NAFTA, and the unlikely career of an almost famous Midwest meth queen.

The final chapter of the series examines how the attacks on September 11th intertwined the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, transforming Afghanistan into a narco-state teeming with corruption.  It also explores how American intervention in Mexico helped give rise to El Chapo and the Super Cartels, bringing unprecedented levels of violence and sending even more drugs across America’s borders.  Five decades into the War on Drugs, a move to legalize marijuana gains momentum, mega-corporations have become richer and more powerful than any nation’s drug cartel, and continuing to rise is the demand for heroin and other illegal drugs.

June 19, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS declares unconstitutional North Carolina criminal law restricting sex offender access to social media

Today was a big day for the First Amendment in the US Supreme Court.  In addition to a notable First Amendment trademark ruling, the Court handed down a widely anticipated ruling in Packingham v. North Carolina, No. 15–1194 (S. Ct. June 19. 2017) (available here), dealing with a state law restricting internet access for sex offenders.  Here is how the Court's majority opinion in Packingham, authored by Justice Kennedy, gets started and a key closing paragraph:

In 2008, North Carolina enacted a statute making it a felony for a registered sex offender to gain access to a number of websites, including commonplace social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.  The question presented is whether that law is permissible under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, applicable to the States under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment....

In sum, to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights. It is unsettling to suggest that only a limited set of websites can be used even by persons who have completed their sentences.  Even convicted criminals — and in some instances especially convicted criminals — might receive legitimate benefits from these means for access to the world of ideas, in particular if they seek to reform and to pursue lawful and rewarding lives.

The majority opinion in Packingham is quite short, but that does not mean it does not pack a punch.  In fact, Justice Alito authored an extended concurrence which was joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas in order to lament some of the "undisciplined dicta" in Justice Kennedy's short majority opinion.  Here is how the concurrence begins:

The North Carolina statute at issue in this case was enacted to serve an interest of “surpassing importance.” New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 757 (1982) — but it has a staggering reach.  It makes it a felony for a registered sex offender simply to visit a vast array of websites, including many that appear to provide no realistic opportunity for communications that could facilitate the abuse of children.  Because of the law’s extraordinary breadth, I agree with the Court that it violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

I cannot join the opinion of the Court, however, because of its undisciplined dicta.  The Court is unable to resist musings that seem to equate the entirety of the internet with public streets and parks.  Ante, at 4–5.  And this language is bound to be interpreted by some to mean that the States are largely powerless to restrict even the most dangerous sexual predators from visiting any internet sites, including, for example, teenage dating sites and sites designed to permit minors to discuss personal problems with their peers.  I am troubled by the implications of the Court’s unnecessary rhetoric.

(Though the issues in Packingham are no laughing matter, I am getting a giggle thinking about whether the phrase "undisciplined dicta" would better serve as my stage name if I was part of a nerdy rap band or just ought to be made into a rubber-stamp to help all my students add that commentary to course evaluations.)

June 19, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

By a 5-4 vote, SCOTUS decides failure of Alabama courts to provide expert mental health assistance to capital defendant was unreasonable

The Supreme Court handed down a notable split decision in a capital case this morning in McWilliams v. Dunn, No. 16-5294 (S. Ct. June 19, 2017)(available here). Justice Breyer authored the opinion for the Court for the usual coalition of Justices most skeptical of application of the death penalty, and that opinion starts this way:

Thirty-one years ago, petitioner James Edmond McWilliams, Jr., was convicted of capital murder by an Alabama jury and sentenced to death.  McWilliams challenged his sentence on appeal, arguing that the State had failed to provide him with the expert mental health assistance the Constitution requires, but the Alabama courts refused to grant relief. We now consider, in this habeas corpus case, whether the Alabama courts’ refusal was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). We hold that it was.  Our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985), clearly established that, when certain threshold criteria are met, the State must provide an indigent defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” Id., at 83.  Petitioner in this case did not receive that assistance.

A sharp dissent in McWilliams, which runs longer than the majority opinion, is authored by Justice Alito (and joined by the newest Justice), and it starts this way:

We granted review in this case to decide a straightforward legal question on which the lower courts are divided: whether our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985), clearly established that an indigent defendant whose mental health will be a significant factor at trial is entitled to the assistance of a psychiatric expert who is a member of the defense team instead of a neutral expert who is available to assist both the prosecution and the defense.

The answer to that question is plain: Ake did not clearly establish that a defendant is entitled to an expert who is a member of the defense team.  Indeed, “Ake appears to have been written so as to be deliberately ambiguous on this point, thus leaving the issue open for future consideration.” W. LaFave, Criminal Law § 8.2(d), p. 449 (5th ed. 2010) (LaFave).  Accordingly, the proper disposition of this case is to affirm the judgment below.

The Court avoids that outcome by means of a most unseemly maneuver.  The Court declines to decide the question on which we granted review and thus leaves in place conflicting lower court decisions regarding the meaning of a 32-year-old precedent.  That is bad enough.  But to make matters worse, the Court achieves this unfortunate result by deciding a separate question on which we expressly declined review.  And the Court decides that factbound question without giving Alabama a fair opportunity to brief the issue.

June 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

SCOTUS summarily reverses Sixth Circuit reversal of Ohio death sentence

The US Supreme Court this morning issued this order list that did not include any grants of certiorari, but did include a summary reversal in the Ohio capital habeas case of Jenkins v. Hutton, No. 16-1116 (S. Ct. June 19, 2017) (available here).  Here are some key passages from this brief per curiam opinion: 

According to Hutton, the court gave the jurors insufficient guidance [when deciding on whether to recommend a death sentence] because it failed to tell them that, when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, they could consider only the two aggravating factors they had found during the guilt phase.  Hutton, however, had not objected to the trial court’s instruction or raised this argument on direct appeal, and the District Court on federal habeas concluded that his due process claim was procedurally defaulted....

Nonetheless, the Sixth Circuit held that the [miscarriage of justice] exception justified reviewing his claim. The court gave two reasons: First, Hutton was not eligible to receive a death sentence because “the jury had not made the necessary finding of the existence of aggravating circumstances.” 839 F.3d, at 498–499.  And second, since the trial court “gave the jury no guidance as to what to consider as aggravating circumstances” when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, the record did not show that the jury’s death recommendation “was actually based on a review of any valid aggravating circumstances.” Id., at 500....

The Sixth Circuit was wrong to reach the merits of Hutton’s claim.... Hutton has not argued that the trial court improperly instructed the jury about aggravating circumstances at the guilt phase.  Nor did the Sixth Circuit identify any such error. Instead, the instruction that Hutton contends is incorrect, and that the Sixth Circuit analyzed, was given at the penalty phase of trial.  That penalty phase instruction plainly had no effect on the jury’s decision — delivered after the guilt phase and pursuant to an unchallenged instruction — that aggravating circumstances were present when Hutton murdered Mitchell.

The Sixth Circuit’s second reason for reaching the merits rests on a legal error.  Under Sawyer, a court may review a procedurally defaulted claim if, “but for a constitutional error, no reasonable jury would have found the petitioner eligible for the death penalty.”  505 U.S., at 336 (emphasis added).  Here, the alleged error was the trial court’s failure to specify that, when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, the jury could consider only the aggravating circumstances it found at the guilt phase.   Assuming such an error can provide a basis for excusing default, the Sixth Circuit should have considered the following: Whether, given proper instructions about the two aggravating circumstances, a reasonable jury could have decided that those aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances.

June 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

"Days of Future Past: A Plea for More Useful and More Local Legal Scholarship"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available on SSRN and authored Frank Bowman.  Though not directly about sentencing, Frank's history as a fantastic sentencing scholar and reform advocate surely helped shape his perspective on the issues he discusses (and also surely helped me and this blog get a shout-out in footnote 81).  Here is article's abstract:

Legal scholarship is at an inflection point because the legal education industry, to which legal scholarship is merely an internally overvalued appendage, is passing from a period of affluent abundance to a period of relative austerity. Scarcity stimulates self-examination.

This essay describes how the population explosion in American law schools during the 1990s and the simultaneous rise of the U.S. News rankings mania created a kind of tulip bubble in legal scholarship - a bubble that is rapidly, and properly, deflating. I make several concededly retrograde recommendations for dealing with a post-bubble world, including changing law school hiring practices to favor professors with more legal experience than has long been the fashion, assessing scholarship more by effect and less by placement, and devoting more of our scholarly attention to questions of state law and practice.

These suggestions all flow from the basic premise that we should more consciously encourage, even if we do not limit ourselves to, producing legal scholarship that has practical value to legal and business professionals and to policy makers at every level of American government. That premise, in turn, is based on the conviction that a modestly more pragmatic approach to the scholarly project is good for society and is, in any case, a sensible response to the parlous state of the legal education industry.

I even go so far as to suggest that increased pragmatism and localism in legal scholarship will assist law schools in the U.S. News rankings wars.

June 18, 2017 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (1)

Could jail be "the answer" for drug addicts?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this New York Times opinion piece headlined "Addicts Need Help. Jails Could Have the Answer." This piece is authored by Sam Quinones, the journalist and author of the widely praised "Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic." Here is how the lengthy piece gets started and its final line:

Not long ago, I visited a Narcotics Anonymous meeting where men with tattoos and short-cropped hair sat in a circle and talked out their errors. One had lived under an overpass, pimping his girlfriend’s daughter for cash to buy heroin. As the thought brought him to tears, his neighbor patted his shoulder. Others owned to stealing from grandparents, to losing jobs and children. Soon, most in the room — men with years of street addiction behind them — were wiping their eyes.

What made the meeting remarkable, however, was not the stories, but where it was taking place. Unit 104 is a 70-man pod in Kenton County Detention Center in northern Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. The unit, and an equivalent one for women, is part of a new approach to jail made necessary by our nationwide epidemic of opiate addiction. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50.

As the country has awakened to that epidemic, a new mantra has emerged: “We can’t arrest our way out of this,” accompanied by calls for more drug-addiction treatment. Yet the opiate epidemic has swamped our treatment-center infrastructure. Only one in 10 addicts get the treatment they need, according to a 2016 surgeon general’s report. New centers are costly to build, politically difficult to find real estate for and beyond the means of most uninsured street addicts, anyway.

So where can we quickly find cheap new capacity for drug treatment accessible to the street addict? Jail is one place few have thought to look.

Jails typically house inmates awaiting trial or serving up to a year for a misdemeanor crime. Many inmates are drug addicts. They vegetate for months, trading crime stories in an atmosphere of boredom and brutality. Any attempt at treatment is usually limited to a weekly visit by a pastor or an Alcoholics Anonymous volunteer. When inmates are released, they’re in the clothes they came in with, regardless of the weather, and have no assistance to re-enter the real world. This kind of jail has always been accepted as an unavoidable fixed cost of government.

But the sheer dimensions of the opiate-addiction epidemic are forcing new ideas. One of them, now being tried in Kentucky, is jail not as a cost but as an investment in recovery. Jails as full-time rehab centers — from lights on to lights out. Jailing addicts is anathema to treatment advocates. However, as as any parent of an addict can tell you, opiates are mind-controlling beasts. A kid who complained about the least little household chore while sober will, as an addict, walk through five miles of snow, endure any hardship or humiliation, to get his dope.

Waiting for an addict to reach rock bottom and make a rational choice to seek treatment sounds nice in theory. But it ignores the nature of the drugs in question, while also assuming a private treatment bed is miraculously available at the moment the addict, who is usually without insurance, is willing and financially able to occupy it. The reality is that, unlike with other drugs, with opiates rock bottom is often death. (Drug overdose deaths last year most likely exceeded 59,000, the most ever in the United States, The Times found in an analysis of preliminary data this month, up about 19 percent over 2015.)

Jail can be a necessary, maybe the only, lever with which to encourage or force an addict who has been locked up to seek treatment before it’s too late. “People don’t go to treatment because they see the light,” said Kevin Pangburn, director of Substance Abuse Services for the Kentucky Department of Corrections. “They go to treatment because they feel the heat.”

Jail may in fact be the best place to initiate addict recovery. It’s in jail where addicts first come face-to-face with the criminal-justice system, long before they commit crimes that warrant a prison sentence. Once in custody and detoxed of the dope that has controlled their decisions, it’s in jail where addicts more clearly behold the wreckage of their lives. And it is at that moment of clarity and contrition when they are typically plunged into a jailhouse of extortion, violence and tedium....

Amid this national epidemic of opiate addiction, rethinking jail, as Kentucky has, as a place of sanctuary and recovery for a population that has lost hope, might not just be advisable; it may be indispensable.

June 18, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

AG Jeff Sessions makes the case for his new tougher federal charging/sentencing policy

The US Attorney General today took the the editorial pages of the Washington Post to make the case for his new tough charging and sentencing guidance for federal prosecutors.  This opinion piece carries this headline: "Jeff Sessions: Being soft on sentencing means more violent crime. It’s time to get tough again."  And here are excerpts (with on particular line emphasized by me):

[I]n 2013, subject to limited exceptions, the Justice Department ordered federal prosecutors not to include in charging documents the amount of drugs being dealt when the actual amount was large enough to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. Prosecutors were required to leave out objective facts in order to achieve sentences lighter than required by law. This was billed as an effort to curb mass incarceration of low-level offenders, but in reality it covered offenders apprehended with large quantities of dangerous drugs.  The result was that federal drug prosecutions went down dramatically — from 2011 to 2016, federal prosecutions fell by 23 percent.  Meanwhile, the average sentence length for a convicted federal drug offender decreased 18 percent from 2009 to 2016.

Before that policy change, the violent crime rate in the United States had fallen steadily for two decades, reaching half of what it was in 1991.  Within one year after the Justice Department softened its approach to drug offenders, the trend of decreasing violent crime reversed. In 2015, the United States suffered the largest single-year increase in the overall violent crime rate since 1991.

And while defenders of the 2013 policy change point out that crime rates remain low compared with where they were 30 years ago, they neglect to recognize a disturbing trend that could reverse decades of progress: Violent crime is rising across the country. According to data from the FBI, there were more than 15,000 murders in the United States in 2015, representing a single-year increase of nearly 11 percent across the country. That was the largest increase since 1971. The increase in murders continued in 2016. Preliminary data from the first half of 2016 shows that large cities in the United States suffered an average increase in murders of nearly 22 percent compared with the same period from a year earlier.

As U.S. attorney general, I have a duty to protect all Americans and fulfill the president’s promise to make America safe again. Last month, after weeks of study and discussion with a host of criminal-justice participants, I issued a memorandum to all federal prosecutors regarding charging and sentencing policy that once again authorizes prosecutors to charge offenses as Congress intended. This two-page guidance instructs prosecutors to apply the laws on the books to the facts of the case in most cases, and allows them to exercise discretion where a strict application of the law would result in an injustice. Instead of barring prosecutors from faithfully enforcing the law, this policy empowers trusted professionals to apply the law fairly and exercise discretion when appropriate. That is the way good law enforcement has always worked.

Defenders of the status quo perpetuate the false story that federal prisons are filled with low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. The truth is less than 3 percent of federal offenders sentenced to imprisonment in 2016 were convicted of simple possession, and in most of those cases the defendants were drug dealers who accepted plea bargains in return for reduced sentences. Federal drug offenders include major drug traffickers, gang members, importers, manufacturers and international drug cartel members. To be subject to a five-year mandatory sentence, a criminal would have to be arrested with 100 grams or more of heroin with the intent to distribute it — that is 1,000 doses of heroin.

The truth is that while the federal government softened its approach to drug enforcement, drug abuse and violent crime surged. The availability of dangerous drugs is up, the price has dropped and the purity is at dangerously high levels. Overdose deaths from opioids have nearly tripled since 2002. Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids rose an astonishing 73 percent in 2015. My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not a “blip,” but the start of a dangerous new trend — one that puts at risk the hard-won gains that have made our country a safer place.

Some skeptics prefer to sit on the sidelines and criticize federal efforts to combat crime. But it’s not our privileged communities that suffer the most from crime and violence. Minority communities are disproportionately impacted by violent drug trafficking. Poor neighborhoods are too often ignored in these conversations. Regardless of wealth or race, every American has the right to demand a safe neighborhood.  Those of us who are responsible for promoting public safety cannot sit back while any American communities are ravaged by crime and violence.

There are those who are concerned about the fate of drug traffickers, but the law demands I protect the lives of victims that are ruined by drug trafficking and violent crime infecting their communities. Our new, time-tested policy empowers police and prosecutors to save lives.

There are lots of reasons and lots of ways to question any efforts to directly link the recent uptick in violent crime over the last few years to changes in federal prosecutorial policies.  But I have emphasized one particular line in the opinion piece in order to help enhance understanding of the thinking behind the new Sessions Memo. The Attorney General reasonably thinks he must  "do something" in response to recent increases in violent crime, and the most obvious and easy thing for him to do is to rescind Holder-era policy guidance and return to the federal prosecutorial policies of earlier era. (Of course, the prosecutorial policies of earlier era helped swell the federal prison population dramatically and, as noted here, the Department of Justice is already predicting that federal prison populations will start growing again after notable recent declines.)  

Prior recent related posts: 

June 17, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, June 16, 2017

You be the juvenile sentencing judge: what sentence for teen guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging suicide?

A high-profile state (bench) trial culminated this morning in a notable involuntary manslaughter conviction in the so-called in texting suicide case.  This Boston Globe article provides the basic details to set up the question in the title of this post:

Michelle Carter, who repeatedly urged her boyfriend to kill himself, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter Friday by a juvenile court judge, ending an extraordinary trial that explored a virtual relationship between teenagers that ended in a suicide.

Judge Lawrence Moniz delivered his verdict after deliberating for two days in the jury-waived trial in Bristol Juvenile Court where Carter [who was 17 at the time of the offense] was being tried as a youthful offender.  The trial riveted lawyers and the public alike as it delved into the painful interior lives of two teenagers who called themselves boyfriend and girlfriend though they had met in person only a few times....

Bristol prosecutors alleged Carter should still be held accountable for the death of Conrad Roy III even though she was not present when the 18-year-old with prior suicide attempts filled his truck with carbon monoxide on July 12, 2014.  Carter and Roy spoke for 47 minutes as he parked in the parking lot of a Kmart in Fairhaven.  When he told he was too scared and had left the truck, she ordered him to return, according to testimony at her trial. “Get back in,” she allegedly said.

Roy left a suicide note addressed to Carter that was made public during her trial.

Speaking from the bench, Moniz said that he concluded Carter was guilty of involuntary manslaughter, in part, for ordering Roy back into the truck in what she knew was a toxic environment where it would take him 15 minutes to die — and failed to notify anyone as required under Massachusetts law.  “Miss Carter had reason to know that Mr. Roy had followed her instruction and placed himself in the toxic environment of that truck,” Moniz said.  “Knowing that Mr. Roy is in the truck, knowing the condition of the truck. Knowing, or at least having the state of mind that 15 minutes must pass, Miss Carter took no actions … She called no one.  She did not issue a simple additional instruction: Get out of the truck.”

Moniz also said the case was not legally novel since 200 years ago, a state prison inmate was prosecuted for convincing a man facing the death sentence to hang himself in his cell six hours before he was to be executed.  Moniz also noted that Roy had a long and troubled psychiatric history that included multiple suicide attempts — but each time he stopped and sought out help from his family and friends.

Moniz set sentencing for Aug. 3.  She faces up to 20 years in prison if given the maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

I would be shocking if the judge here decided to impose a sentence anywhere near the applicable 20-year max. I am inclined to guess a prison sentence in the range of a year or two will be what the juvenile judge here will be considering. But I have not followed this case and the evidence closely, so I am really judge guessing here based on the nature of the crime and the offender. And I am interested to hear if others have more informed (or uninformed) views on what a fair and effective sentences in this case would look like.

June 16, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (19)