Saturday, March 8, 2014
"The New Normal? Prosecutorial Charging in California after Public Safety Realignment"
The title of this post is the title of this massive new article reflecting massively important research by W. David Ball and Robert Weisberg about the ways in which new sentencing/corrections reform in California may be impacting prosecutorial practices. Here is the article's massive abstract:
California’s Public Safety Realignment Act (“Realignment” or “AB 109”) shifts the responsibility of supervising, tracking and imprisoning specified non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual (“triple-nons” or “N3 felonies” or “non-non-nons”) offenders previously bound for state prison to county jails and probation. The implementation of Realignment in California is the largest correctional experiment of its kind. The advent of Realignment has, of course, affected the decisionmaking of all the official actors in the criminal justice system. But the prosecutor’s role is unique in one clear sense: Prosecutors have, in formal legal terms, virtually unreviewable autonomy in the choice to charge or not charge (so long as any charge matches provable facts with statutory elements).
How does this power operate in the wake of AB 109? Our hypothesis was that many aspects of AB 109 were likely to affect prosecutors’ charging and sentence recommendation choices. The most salient aspects were the change in site and de facto length of incarceration, as well as the secondary effects of new county responsibilities for post-release supervision of many prison parolees. In particular, in exercising discretion, prosecutors might be influenced by their views on the differences in the severity of experience of incarceration in jail as opposed to prison, or by their concerns about jail crowding or the extra costs that county jails and other county agencies might have to absorb under AB 109.
We explored this hypothesis through three study components. First, we established a rough charging baseline through an empirical study. With obtained data from the Attorney General’s office, we examined arrest-to-charging ratios by year and by crime category before and after Realignment. We found very few and small differences, including insignificant differences across counties, and very few differences across crimes.
Second, we exhaustively analyzed the statutory elements of certain very common crimes that fall within AB 109, especially drug and property crimes, and we consulted in great depth with two distinguished California prosecutors, both involved in AB 109 training. Our aim was to find parts of the penal code that applied to similar fact patterns that, nevertheless, would result in significantly different sentencing outcomes. These parts of the code isolate various fault lines in AB 109, which both served as a foundation for the third part of our study and served as a significant roadmap to AB 109 itself.
Third, we surveyed District Attorneys themselves, using a factorial approach that isolates various statutory and extralegal factors. Our questions focused on whether the new sentencing structure might alter prosecutorial decisionmaking in terms of tilting borderline charges towards prison-eligible crimes or recommending especially long jail sentences. We again found no significant differences, although, for reasons we explain in the paper, these conclusions must be read as tentative.
In sum, most charging or recommendation preferences remain consistent with traditional severity factors and do not manifest major alterations in light of AB 109. However, there remains a great deal of uncertainty and variation in the responses we received. This phenomenon manifested itself particularly when prosecutors had to choose from the menu of straight, split, and probation sentences. Recommended terms for split sentences — those involving a combination of jail terms and community supervision — were all over the map, ranging from short terms of both jail and supervision, to short jail and a long tail, to long jail and a short tail. At the same time, jail sentences, obviously available before Realignment but now extended to formerly prison-eligible sentences, were also wildly divergent on the same facts, ranging from a year or less to 20 years or more. Our conjecture is that the new regime of Realignment, introduced alongside the existing sentencing regime, might invite wide variation in sentencing recommendations (with possible attendant unjustified disparities).
Notable federal capital case about to begin in the Aloha State
As reported in this AP article, a "Honolulu courtroom is set to become the scene of a death penalty trial even though Hawaii abolished capital punishment in 1957." Here is more about how and why:
Opening statements are scheduled for Tuesday in the trial of a former Hawaii-based Army soldier accused of beating his 5-year-old daughter to death in 2005. But because the crime allegedly took place on military property, Naeem Williams is being tried in federal court — a system that does have the death penalty.
It's rare for the government to seek the death penalty in a state that doesn't allow it. Only seven of 59 inmates currently on federal death row are from states that didn't have the death penalty at the time the sentence was imposed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
While the Williams case hasn't received much publicity, the death penalty circumstance gives it something in common with a more high profile case for federal prosecutors: the Boston Marathon bombing. "You have a population in Massachusetts and in the city where they're not used to having the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, the Death Penalty Information Center's executive director. "It just makes it a little harder to get these kinds of death sentences."...
Talia Emoni Williams died in July 2005 after she was brought to a hospital unresponsive, vomiting and covered in bruises. A criminal complaint by federal investigators accuses her then-25-year-old father of beating the child to discipline her for urinating on herself. Federal investigators wrote that military law enforcement agents found blood splatters in the walls of the family's home at Wheeler Army Airfield from Talia being whipped with Williams' belt.
Delilah Williams, Talia's stepmother, was also charged with murder but pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors. She's expected to be sentenced to 20 years in prison after she testifies against Williams at his trial, said her federal public defender, Alexander Silvert. The Army agreed the case should be prosecuted in the civilian justice system so that the father and stepmother could appear in the same court....
Talia's biological mother, Tarshia Williams, is expected to testify for the prosecution, her attorneys said. She filed a civil lawsuit against the government over Talia's death. It has been put on hold until after the criminal trial. The mother's lawsuit claims the military didn't report to the proper authorities that Talia's father and stepmother "abused and tortured" her throughout the seven months she lived in Hawaii before she died.
Alberto Gonzales, the U.S. attorney general during President George W. Bush's administration, made the decision to seek the death penalty against Naeem Williams. "Under Bush's administration, the philosophy was the federal death penalty should be spread out among all the states," Dieter said....
The last time the federal death penalty was approved for a Hawaii case was against Richard "China" Chong. But before he went to trial in 2000, he agreed to plead guilty to a 1997 drug-related murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He died of an apparent suicide about three months later.
Hawaii's history with capital punishment goes back long before statehood. There were 49 executions dating in Hawaii dating to 1856, with the last one recorded in 1944, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The final execution of Ardiano Domingo — a Filipino who was hanged for killing a woman with scissors in a Kauai pineapple field — helped prompt Hawaii's territorial lawmakers to abolish the death penalty in the state, said Williamson Chang, a University of Hawaii law school professor who teaches a course on the history of law in Hawaii.
Chang said before the law changed, Hawaii disproportionally executed people of color, mostly Filipinos, Japanese and Native Hawaiians. Because of that history, Chang said he believes Hawaii jurors will struggle with the Williams case. "We're used to a society which does not put people to death," he said. "It's a slap in the face to the values of Hawaii."
Friday, March 7, 2014
"Criminal Records, Race and Redemption"
The title of this post is the title of this notable paper I just noticed via SSRN authored by Michael Pinard. Here is the abstract:
Poor individuals of color disproportionately carry the weight of a criminal record. They confront an array of legal and non-legal barriers, the most prominent of which are housing and employment. Federal, State and local governments are implementing measures aimed at easing the everlasting impact of a criminal record. However, these measures, while laudable, fail to address the disconnection between individuals who believe they have moved past their interactions with the criminal justice system and the ways in which decision makers continue to judge them in the years and decades following those interactions. These issues are particularly pronounced for poor individuals of color, who are uniquely stigmatized by their criminal records.
To address these issues, this article proposes a redemption-focused approach to criminal records. This approach recognizes that individuals ultimately move past their interactions with the criminal justice system and, therefore, they should no longer be saddled by their criminal records. Thus, the article calls for greatly expanding laws that allow individuals to remove their criminal records from public access and, in the end, allow them to reach redemption.
Florida Supreme Court hears arguments on Miller retroactivity and application
As effectively reported in this lengty local article, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments on whether a teenage murderer given mandatory LWOP over a decade ago can now secure a resentencing because of the US Supreme Court's Miller ruling. Here are the basics:
Rebecca Lee Falcon, now 32, represents a group of more than 200 Florida prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole for murders committed while they were under the age of 18.
The issue before the state's highest court is whether a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — which held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional — should apply since Falcon and the other prisoners' sentences were final before the nation's highest court ruled.
The immediate matter is whether the ruling in Miller vs. Alabama is retroactive. But it also represents a broader issue at play in the Florida courts and state Legislature as judges and lawmakers struggle with conforming the state's laws with a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have determined juveniles need to be treated differently than adults in the justice system....
Karen Gottlieb, a lawyer representing Falcon, argued that the Miller ruling should be retroactive since it represented a change in Florida law of "fundamental significance," when the federal court held mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual and should be uncommon. "Post-conviction relief must be afforded to avoid obvious injustice," Gottlieb said.
Gottlieb noted that unlike adult prisoners who face the death penalty and receive extensive sentencing reviews, where many factors are weighed, the 200 juveniles — with mandatory life sentences after 1994 — received no review. "We have every child sentenced to life without parole in these cases with no review of any factor about their youth and the attendant circumstances, their lack of judgment and impetuousness, their maturity, the prospect for rehabilitation and reform, the outside influences, peer influences," Gottlieb said. "None of that has been considered."
Trisha Meggs Pate, an appellate lawyer representing the state, argued against retroactivity, saying the federal ruling did not abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder but only rejected mandatory sentencing. "It is not a substantive change in law that forbids the state from imposing a new sentence," Pate said. "It's not a categorical ban against life without parole sentencing. She may go back to the trial court and face the exact same punishment."
Pate also raised the issue of the burden on the state courts if the more than 200 prisoners had to return to court for resentencing hearings. "You're going to have to have witnesses. We're going to have to have facts about the crime scene, how the crime occurred, what happened, medical examiners," Pate said. "And some of these cases are 20 years old. They have been final for a long time."...
[Certain] justices seemed troubled by the prospect of letting the Miller ruling apply to cases that were under appeal at the time of the ruling and for future cases but not being applied to the 200 older cases. "So we just turn our backs on the fact that there are 200, even if you say 500, young people who are sitting in jail forever, and we just turn (our) backs on that when the Supreme Court has said clearly that that is not an appropriate sentence if they have not had an opportunity to have their situation looked at individually?" Justice Peggy Quince asked.
The justices seemed to move past the issue of retroactivity and were asking questions of both sides on what procedures Florida should use in sentencing juveniles under the Miller rulings.... The issue has been complicated by the fact that the state abolished parole in 1994, although the system is still used for prisoners who were incarcerated before that time. And the Florida Legislature has been unable to pass a new law taking into account Miller and other court rulings that impact the sentencing of juveniles. Bills are now pending in the 2014 session on those issues.
As noted in this recent post, the Michigan Supreme Court also heard arguments yesterday on Miller retroactivity issues. This coincidence sets up an interesting natural experiment concerning which state supreme court has reach a ruling on this importand and challenging issue first.
Importantly, the Michigan Supreme Court has the benefit of not having to sort completely through how Miller resentencings can and should be done because the Michigan legislature has already enacted a Miller fix statute. In contrast, the failure to date of Florida's legislature to formally respond to Miller essentially forces the Florida Supreme Court to have to make even more hard decisions about how Miller can and should get implemented.
Senate Judiciary Committee approves Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act
Yesterday the US Senate Judiciary Committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. This press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, headlined "FAMM Hails Continued Bipartisan Support for Criminal Justice Reforms," provides this information about the bill contents and context:
The bipartisan bill, a compromise negotiated by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and John Cornyn (R-TX), is anticipated to help alleviate overcrowding in federal prisons — now at 138 percent of their capacity — and may help reduce federal prison costs, which consume a full quarter of the Department of Justice’s budget and threaten funding for other law enforcement programs. Among other things, the legislation passed today:
requires the federal Bureau of Prisons to classify all federal prisoners as being at high, moderate, or low risk of reoffending;
permits many prisoners to earn time credits for completing recidivism-reducing programs or “productive activities” like maintaining a prison job; and
allows low and moderate risk prisoners who earn a certain number of time credits to be released from prison early to serve the remainders of their sentences on prerelease custody in a halfway house, on home confinement, or under community supervision.
This article from Main Justice, headlined "DOJ Spends Too Much on Prisons, Leahy Says," reports than 15 Senators voted in support of this bill and that the only GOP member to vote against the bill was Senator Jeff Sessions.
For a variety of reasons, I expect bills to reform severe sentencing laws like the Justice Safety Valve Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act will continue to get a lot more attention than this Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. But, for a variety of reasons, I think this bill, which may have the broadest support among the most important political players in Congress, could end up being the most important and consequential for helping to transform the nature and future of the federal sentencing system.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Fascinating split Ninth Circuit ruling on prisoner 1983 suits
Because I obsess much more over sentencing matters rather than corrections, I am not likely to muster all the time and energy needed to fully consume and assess what an en banc Ninth Circuit panel did today in the prisoner rights case of Peralta v. Dilliard, No. 09-55907 (9th Cir. March 6, 2014) (available here). But I know enough to know the ruling is fascinating for various reasons, as this unofficial court-staff summary highlights:
The en banc court affirmed the district court’s judgment following a jury verdict in favor of a prison dentist and affirmed the district court’s judgment as a matter of law in favor of prison administrators in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging deliberate indifference to medical needs in connection with a prisoner’s dental care.
The court held that a prison official sued for money damages under § 1983 may raise a lack of available resources as a defense. The court held that the district court’s challenged jury instruction in this case properly advised the jury to consider the resources that the prison dentist had available when determining if he was deliberately indifferent. The court held that to the extent the court’s prior decisions in Jones v. Johnson, 781 F.2d 769 (9th Cir. 1986), and Snow v. McDaniel, 681 F.3d 978 (9th Cir. 2012), could be read to apply to monetary damages against an official who lacks authority over budgeting decisions, they were overruled.
The court held that the jury had sufficient evidence on which to base a finding that a lack of resources caused any delay in providing care. The court further held that the district court did not err by granting judgment as a matter of law in favor of Dr. Fitter, the prison’s Chief Medical Officer and Dr. Dillard, the Chief Dental Officer.
The court held that the district court’s prior decision refusing to grant Fitter and Dillard summary judgment did not, under law of the case, preclude the district court from reconsidering its pretrial ruling.
Dissenting in part and concurring in part, Judge Christen, joined by Judges Rawlinson, M. Smith, and Hurwitz and Judge Bybee as to parts I, II, and III, stated that the decision overturned more than thirty years of circuit precedent by holding that lack of resources is a defense to providing constitutionally inadequate care for prisoners. She joined the majority in affirming the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims against Dr. Fitter, but she disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that a directed verdict was appropriate on plaintiff’s claims against Dr. Dillard.
Dissenting in part and concurring in part, Judge Hurwitz, joined by Judges Rawlinson, M. Smith and Christen, and Judge Bybee as to parts I and II, stated that the majority effectively held that a state can first choose to underfund the medical treatment of its wards, and then excuse the Eighth Amendment violations caused by the underfunding. Judge Hurwitz stated that as to Dr. Fitter, the majority correctly held that he was entitled to qualified immunity as he had relied on his staff’s medical judgment.
I would be especially eager to know from people in the know if they think this case seems likely to end up before the Justices on the merits.
Florida conservatives now talking up nuanced positions on marijuana reform
As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Conservative committee opens door to medical marijuana for Florida," a notable swing/southern state now has a number of notable legislators talking in notable ways about marijuana reform. Here are excerpts:
One conservative Republican who has suffered from brain cancer talked about the deceit of the federal government in hiding the health benefits of marijuana for his cancer. Another legislator reluctantly met with a South Florida family, only to be persuaded to support legalizing the drug.
Then there was Rep. Charles Van Zant, the surly Republican from Palatka who is considered the most conservative in the House. He not only voted with his colleagues Wednesday to pass out the bill to legalize a strain of marijuana for medical purposes, he filed the amendment to raise the amount of psychoactive ingredients allowed by law — to make it more likely the drug will be effective.
The 11-1 vote by the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, was a historic moment for the conservatives in the GOP-dominated House. It was the first time in modern history that the Florida Legislature voted to approve any marijuana-related product. “That’s because people here in Tallahassee have realized that we can’t just have a bumper-sticker approach to marijuana where you’re either for it or against it,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the committee chairman and sponsor of the bill after the emotional hearing. “Not all marijuana is created equally.”
The committee embraced the proposal, HB 843, by Gaetz and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, after hearing heart-wrenching testimony from families whose children suffer from chronic epilepsy. A similar bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate, where Senate president Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and Matt’s father, has said he has heard the testimony from the families and he wants the bill to pass as a first step. “Here I am, a conservative Republican but I have to try to be humble about my dogma,” Senate President Don Gaetz told the Herald/Times....
For a committee known for its dense, often tedious scrutiny of legal text, the debate was remarkable. Rep. Dave Hood, a Republican trial lawyer from Daytona Beach who has been diagnosed with brain cancer, talked about how the federal government knew in 1975 of the health benefits of cannabis in stopping the growth of “brain cancer, of lung cancer, glaucoma and 17 diseases including Lou Gehrig’s disease” but continued to ban the substance. “Frankly, we need to be a state where guys like me, who are cancer victims, aren’t criminals in seeking treatment I’m entitled too,” Hood said.
Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said he had his mind made up in opposition to the bill, then changed his mind after meeting the Hyman family of Weston. Their daughter, Rebecca, suffers from Dravet’s Syndrome. “We’ve got a plant here on God’s green earth that’s got a stigma to it — but it’s got a medical value,” Eagle said, “I don’t want to look into their eyes and say I’m sorry we can’t help you,” he said. “We need to put the politics aside today and help these families in need.”
The Florida Sheriff’s Association, which adamantly opposes a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for medical use in Florida, surprised many when it chose not to speak up. Its lobbyist simply announced the group was “in support.” The bi-partisan support for the bill was summed up by Rep. Dave Kerner, a Democrat and lawyer from Lake Worth. “We sit here, we put words on a piece of paper and they become law,” he said. “It’s very rare as a legislator that we have an opportunity with our words to save a life.”
The only opposing vote came from Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, an advocate for the Florida Medical Association. Her husband is a doctor. She looked at the families in the audience and, as tears welled in her eyes, she told them: “I can’t imagine how desperate you must be and I want to solve this problem for you.” But, she said the bill had “serious problems.” It allowed for a drug to be dispensed without clinical trials and absent the kind of research that is needed to protect patients from harm. “I really think we need to address this using science,” Harrell said, suggesting legislators should launch a pilot program to study and test the effectiveness of the marijuana strain. “This bill takes a step in the right direction … but it’s not quite there.”
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
"How to Lie with Rape Statistics: America's Hidden Rape Crisis"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper on SSRN authored by Corey Rayburn Yung. Here is the abstract:
During the last two decades, many police departments substantially undercounted reported rapes creating "paper" reductions in crime. Media investigations in Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and St. Louis found that police eliminated rape complaints from official counts because of cultural hostility to rape complaints and to create the illusion of success in fighting violent crime. The undercounting cities used three difficult-to-detect methods to remove rape complaints from official records: designating a complaint as "unfounded" with little or no investigation; classifying an incident as a lesser offense; and, failing to create a written report that a victim made a rape complaint.
This study addresses how widespread the practice of undercounting rape is in police departments across the country. Because identifying fraudulent and incorrect data is essentially the task of distinguishing highly unusual data patterns, I apply a statistical outlier detection technique to determine which jurisdictions have substantial anomalies in their data. Using this novel method to determine if other municipalities likely failed to report the true number of rape complaints made, I find significant undercounting of rape incidents by police departments across the country. The results indicate that approximately 22% of the 210 studied police departments responsible for populations of at least 100,000 persons have substantial statistical irregularities in their rape data indicating considerable undercounting from 1995 to 2012. Notably, the number of undercounting jurisdictions has increased by over 61% during the eighteen years studied.
Correcting the data to remove police undercounting by imputing data from highly correlated murder rates, the study conservatively estimates that 796,213 to 1,145,309 complaints of forcible vaginal rapes of female victims nationwide disappeared from the official records from 1995 to 2012. Further, the corrected data reveal that the study period includes fifteen to eighteen of the highest rates of rape since tracking of the data began in 1930. Instead of experiencing the widely reported "great decline" in rape, America is in the midst of a hidden rape crisis. Further, the techniques that conceal rape complaints deprioritize those cases so that police conduct little or no investigation. Consequently, police leave serial rapists, who constitute the overwhelming majority of rapists, free to attack more victims. Based upon the findings of this study, governments at all levels must revitalize efforts to combat the cloaked rise in sexual violence and the federal government must exercise greater oversight of the crime reporting process to ensure accuracy of the data provided.
March 6, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Kentucky GOP representative sets out "conservative arguments in favor of repeal" of the death penalty
I just cam across this recent op-ed by David Floyd, a Republican member of Kentucky's General Assembly, explaining why he has introduced a bill to repeal his state's death penalty. Here are some excerpts from the op-ed:
My initial opposition formed through a spiritual lens, so in 2007 I joined others in cosponsoring legislation to repeal the death penalty. But I was the only conservative legislator in a group of liberals. Over these last few years, “liberal” and spiritual arguments have failed to persuade other legislators to take up these bills.
How, then, might we bring other conservatives with us, and at last vote to abolish our death penalty? This can be done by exploring together conservative arguments in favor of repeal.
• Conservatives value innocent life and should not support a state government program that can kill innocent people....
• Conservatives are mindful of the potential to abuse power that has been granted by the people, and should not trust the government with the power to execute a person who is safely behind bars....
• Conservatives are the first to call out government programs that fail to meet intended goals and cost exorbitant amounts of money....
• Conservatives want a government that will balance budgets, cut waste and eliminate programs that do not make fiscal sense.
Kentucky’s death penalty is a program that costs a lot while accomplishing little. We’ve spent well more than $100 million on the death penalty since 1976 — and executed three people. Having a death penalty is clearly wasting taxpayer dollars, while a penalty of life without the possibility of parole makes much better economic sense....
Capital punishment in Kentucky is a broken government program that risks killing the wrongly convicted, risks abuse of power, wastes resources, is arbitrary and unjust. We’ve tried to make the death penalty work, but we have been unable to fix its many problems and reconcile it with our conservative principles. We should repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without parole. It’s the only way to ensure that no innocent people are killed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and that those impacted by the process get finality much sooner.
Michigan enacts Miller fix for current and future cases, just as its Justices are to consider past cases
As reported in this local article, headlined "Gov. Rick Snyder signs 'juvenile lifer' update as old cases head to Michigan Supreme Court," the Great Lakes State is busy this week working through all the fall-out from the U.S. Supreme Court's Miller Eighth Amendment ruling. Here are some of the details:
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday signed legislation updating state sentencing guidelines in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed mandatory life terms without the possibility of parole for minors....
Senate Bill 319, sponsored by state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), changes Michigan law for all pending and future cases involving juvenile defendants convicted of first-degree murder, felony murder or certain repeat sexual assault offenses. Instead of handing down mandatory life sentences in those cases, judges can also consider a term of between 25 and 60 years. Prosecutors may still file a request for a natural life sentence, but judges now have new authority to consider other options....
Michigan is home to some 360 juvenile lifers -- more than all but one other state -- but the new law will not have an immediate impact on most inmates already behind bars. The U.S. Supreme Court, in banning mandatory life sentences for minors, did not indicate whether the ruling should apply retroactively. The new law contains a "trigger" for resentencing hearings in case of a future court ruling.
The Michigan Supreme Court is set to consider the "retroactivity" question on Thursday, when justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments in three juvenile lifer cases. Two of the offenders, Raymond Carp and Cortez Davis, have exhausted the traditional appeals process but are seeking resentencing.
The third, Dakotah Eliason, is entitled to resentencing because his case is still on appeal, but his attorneys disputed the limited relief offered by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which told a sentencing judge to consider only two options: life with or without the possibility of parole. Michigan's new law, which also allows for a term of years less than life, makes that particular issue moot. The Eliason case asks the Michigan Supreme Court to consider other issues as well, however, so it's unclear how oral arguments will proceed.
It may be just coincidence that the Michigan legislature got a Miller fix enacted into law just before the Michigan Supreme Court considers retroactive application of Miller to past cases. But I have to think the Michigan Supreme Court might feel (consciously or unconsciously) at least a bit more comfortable concluding that Miller applies retroactively now that the state has a new sentencing scheme for juve murderers on the books.
Michigan media has been covering the Miller application/litigation story quite effectively in the run up to the state's Supreme Court hearing, and here are the headline links to some of the coverage in the last few weeks:
March 5, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)
Just what is Ohio doing so right with respect to reentry and recidivism? Can it be replicated nationwide?
The question in the title of this post is my reaction to this wonderful new AP news from my own state, which carries the headline "State reports record-low Ohio prisoner return rate." Here are the details:
Fewer Ohio prisoners than ever are going back to prison after they’ve been released, the state announced Wednesday, attributing the drop to community programs that work with newly released prisoners, and new prison units that prepare people for life outside bars. The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction says the current inmate return rate of 27.1 percent, down from 28.7 percent a year ago, is far below the national rate of 40 to 44 percent.
The rate affects not just the prison system’s bottom line but the bigger goal of reducing crime in Ohio, prisons director Gary Mohr said. “If our people being released from prison are committing less offenses, then we have less crime victims,” Mohr told The Associated Press. “I think that’s the most important piece.” Saving money on prison operations also means more state dollars can be spent earlier in people’s lives on things like education, he added.
Going forward, the expansion of Medicaid is expected to help connect incarcerated people to needed resources as they come home. The state projects that roughly 366,000 residents will be newly eligible for coverage by the end of June 2015 by increasing the state-federal health care program for poor children and families. Mohr says a lower return rate will also help the state reduce its prisoner population, currently about 50,500.
A 2011 sentencing law meant to lower the number hasn’t had the desired impact, leading to fears that the state may need to spend millions to build a new prison after 2017, while pushing judges to rethink sentences and placing a greater emphasis on rehabilitation. The current prison population hasn’t changed much since 2011, despite projections that it would drop to 47,000 by 2015 and continue to decline.... Ohio’s prisoner population could grow to 52,000 in two years and top 53,000 in six years, Mohr warned last year....
It’s not that the 2011 law is failing. Challenges, including a recent increase in violent crime and an uptick in cases filed by prosecutors, are holding back promises that the law would lower the prisoner population. Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has said the courts are also part of the problem and called on judges to be more diligent about reducing the number of offenders behind bars.
The rate announced Wednesday is based on a three-year study of inmates released in 2010.
The report/study on which this article is based is available at this link under the simple title "DRC Recidivism Rates." I would be grateful for any and all help figuring out if there are other big important conclusions or lessons (good or bad) to be drawn from this report beyond the one discussed above.
March 5, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
Intriguing SCOTUS mens rea ruling in Rosemond applying 924(c) gun charge
The Supreme Court handed down one criminal justice ruling this morning in Rosemond v. US, No. 12–895 (S. Ct. March 5, 2014) (available here). Here is the intriguing composition of the Court in this 7-2 ruling:
KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined, and in which SCALIA, J., joined in all but footnotes 7 and 8. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which THOMAS, J., joined.
Here is how Justice Kagan's opinion for the Court gets started:
A federal criminal statute, § 924(c) of Title 18, prohibits “us[ing] or carr[ying]” a firearm “during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime.” In this case, we consider what the Government must show when it accuses a defendant of aiding or abetting that offense. We hold that the Government makes its case by proving that the defendant actively participated in the underlying drug trafficking or violent crime with advance knowledge that a confederate would use or carry a gun during the crime’s commission. We also conclude that the jury instructions given below were erroneous because they failed to require that the defendant knew in advance that one of his cohorts would be armed.
Here is how Justice Alito's partial dissent gets going:
I largely agree with the analysis in the first 12 pages of the opinion of the Court, but I strongly disagree with the discussion that comes after that point. Specifically, I reject the Court’s conclusion that a conviction for aiding and abetting a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) demands proof that the alleged aider and abettor had what the Court terms “a realistic opportunity” to refrain from engaging in the conduct at issue. Ante, at 13. This rule represents an important and, as far as I am aware, unprecedented alteration of the law of aiding and abetting and of the law of intentionality generally.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Might Obamacare end up reducing prison populations "more than any reform in a generation"?
The question in the title of this post is drawn from the headline of this new Newsweek article that purports to explain "How Obamacare May Lower the Prison Population More Than Any Reform in a Generation." Here are a few highlights:
[The] the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) ... may be the biggest piece of prison reform the U.S. will see in this generation.
On the face of it, there’s no direct connection between the ACA and what experts refer to as the “justice-involved population.” There’s no mention of prisons or jails or even crime in the language of the law. However, in what proponents of the act are considering a happy public policy accident, the ACA may inadvertently change the makeup of the U.S. prison population by getting early help to those with mental health and drug abuse issues, ultimately reducing recidivism rates and saving states millions, if not billions, of dollars annually....
The last major study on mental health in prisons, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that 64 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons met the criteria for mental illness at the time of their booking or during the twelve months leading up to their arrest. For comparison, the rate of mental disorders among U.S. citizens stands at around 25 percent, according to the NIH. Sixty-nine percent of the country’s prison population was addicted to drugs or alcohol prior to incarceration....
Health and crime have become inextricable in the U.S. Health issues such as drug addiction and severe mental health disorders directly lead to illegal activities and eventual imprisonment. A high percentage of those incarcerated are guilty of crimes directly related to medical issues, such as illegal drug use or theft to support an addiction.
This population — the poor, homeless, addicted, and mentally ill — has never had any health safety net. With no jobs or income, they are highly unlikely to have private insurance, and Medicaid — the federally-funded health coverage option meant to protect the poorest Americans — is actually only available to a select group of individuals. Though it varies state by state, eligibility is always categorical, which means besides having a low income, Medicaid is only available to five types of people: pregnant women, children below a certain age, parents of Medicaid-eligible children, the disabled, and seniors.
Essentially, Medicaid left out poor, single, male adults without dependant children – the same demographic most likely to end up arrested and incarcerated. Starting in January 2014, however, the categories have been eliminated (at least in the states that have chosen to take the medicaid expansion — it is an optional aspect of the ACA). “That means that a lot of people who are going to jail for mental illness or substance abuse related crimes could potentially avoid jail,” says Marsha Regenstein, a professor of health policy at George Washington University.
Of course, these people are hard to reach, and eligibility doesn’t ensure coverage or healthier behavior. That’s why the bigger opportunity, according to many health and justice policy experts, is to reach and help this population at the points where they do become involved with the justice system....
[T]he right to health care only applies to the length of a person’s sentence.... [A] 2013 report in California, for example, found that 90 percent of prisoners had no health care upon release. Once released, prisoners are likely to discontinue their meds, delay seeing primary care doctors (out of concern for costs), and, as a result, end up in emergency rooms — where high treatment costs are passed on to everyone else via insurance premiums.
This is not just a public health issue; it’s a public safety concern. Lack of care for chronic conditions creates additional long-term problems, like being physically or mentally unfit for employment. In conjunction with a lack of appropriate care for their drug problems and an inability to effectively medicate their mental health disorders, the formerly incarcerated are likely to return to a life of crime.
Many hope and believe that change is on its way. The Justice Department estimates suggest that with the expansion of Medicaid, 5.4 million ex-offenders currently on parole or probation could get the health care they need. (It’s important to note that 25 states plus Washington, D.C. have implemented the Medicaid expansion as of 2014. However, many policy experts expect the remaining states to fall in line, citing the historical example of how CHIP was initially rejected by many states when it rolled out in 1997, but is now utilized in every state in the country.)
Even with coverage, those ex-offenders will still need to actually utilize those health, and the key will be making the connection at the time of release. The biggest challenge will be getting state justice systems and health systems — not exactly happy bedfellows in past years — to work together to create coordinated discharge planning between jails and community healthcare....
The cost savings associated with keeping former prisoners out of the ER and out of prisons will likely lead leadership at the highest levels — state governors, for example — to push for the types of collaboration that will keep ex-offenders healthy and out of trouble....
Ultimately, because there is no precise directive in the ACA, the choice on how to handle these issues will be made independently in every state, and in every county. In some cases, reform will be swift; in others, life may go on as though Obamacare never happened.
"15 Years In Environment Of Constant Fear Somehow Fails To Rehabilitate Prisoner"
The title of this post is the headline of this amusing new item in The Onion sent my way by one of my terrific students. Here are highlights from this all-too-biting satire:
Reportedly left dumbfounded by the news that recent parolee Terry Raney had been reincarcerated on charges of assault and battery, officials at Woodbourne Correctional Facility struggled Tuesday to make sense of how the prisoner had not been rehabilitated by 15 years of constant threats, physical abuse, and periodic isolation.
“It just doesn’t seem possible that an inmate could live for a decade and a half in a completely dehumanizing environment in which violent felons were constantly on the verge of attacking or even killing him and not emerge an emotionally stable, productive member of society,” said chief warden Albert Gunderson, who noted that, as hard as it was to believe, Raney’s recidivism proved that his criminal impulses had not in fact been corrected by the sense of grave distrust he felt toward every other person in the facility, including both fellow inmates and prison authorities, every day since 1999....
Gunderson [also] noted his additional confusion at how the man’s criminal record and the social stigma of his prison sentence had somehow failed to land him a steady job immediately upon his release.
Why the #@$%! are IQ tests, but not burdens of proof, the key issue in Hall?
The question in the title of this post is my basic reaction to what struck me as a very annoying SCOTUS oral argument yesterday in Hall v. Florida concerning how states must deal with the Atkins categroical Eighth Amendment constitutional bar on executing defendants who are mentlly retarded. The transcript of the argument is available at this link, and Lyle Denniston has this SCOTUSblog summary of what transpired. Here is the start of Lyle's recap:
If a state, trying to make it simple to decide who can be given a death sentence, opts for a choice that looks arbitrary, it is likely to have a difficult time in a Supreme Court that worries about the chances of error. That was demonstrated anew on Monday, when Florida found itself in deep Eighth Amendment trouble with a rule that anyone with an IQ above 70 can be executed if convicted of murder.
A quite definite majority of the Justices — perhaps, notably, including Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — left little doubt that Florida and six other states will not be allowed to maintain an automatic test-score-based cutoff for those who could qualify as mentally retarded and thus can escape the death penalty.
Kennedy’s role is central because he has most often led the Court in narrowing the category of those eligible to be executed, to take account of reduced capacity to be held responsible for their criminal behavior. He was among the most active in questioning Florida’s approach to mental retardation among those on death row. And, on Monday, he added in some strongly implied criticism of a system that allows some inmates to remain on death row for decades — an issue that is not directly involved in the new case of Hall v. Florida.
Justice Antonin Scalia expended considerable effort to buttress Florida’s basic argument that the scientific community cannot be trusted to make the rules for eligibility for capital punishment, but except for some supportive hints from Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., this seemed to be a largely forlorn endeavor.
Most of the other Justices joined in the pursuit of an Eighth Amendment rule that would assure that the mental retardation inquiry was sophisticated and nuanced, so that the risk of error was taken fully into account. While such a rule might not definitely hand over the details to the judgment of scientists and doctors, it apparently would not tolerate an approach designed simply to assure that fewer death-row inmates get off with a claim of mental disability. That appeared to be Florida’s main objective.
This account of the tenor of the Hall oral argument seems right, and yesterday's SCOTUS discussion reinforces the all-too-usual modern death penalty dynamic of Justice Kennedy seemingly being the swing vote so that whatever he may think about hard capital issues becomes Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. But beyond my standard annoyance with modern constitutional death penalty law now being all about what Justice Kennedy thinks, the Hall oral argument has me extra annoyed because the Court seems intent on focusing application of Atkins on the narrow medical issue of how exactly IQ tests can be used when assessing mental disability rather than on the critical legal/constitutional issue of how burdens of proof can be allocated when deciding who is exempt from the death penalty.
I suppose I should not be too surprised, based both on the cert grant and the approach taken by the advocates in Hall, that Florida's IQ line-drawing approach to Atkins took center stage during yesterday's SCOTUS argument. But as Kent highlights in this effective post at Crime & Consequences, the discussion of statistics and IQ measurement error among the Justices was garbled at best, and really more an example of junk science on display rather than a serious exploration of whether and when an inexact measurement device (an IQ test) can itself establish at the margins placement of a defendant in an inexact medical category (mentally retarded/disabled) which SCOTUS has given legal significance via its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.
That IQ is, at best, an inexact measurement device is amply proved by the Brief of petitioner Freddie Lee Hall: that brief indicates that IQ measurements for Hall have ranged from 60 to 80 and that various doctors at various times have scored his IQ at 71, 72, 73, 74, 76, and 79. This reality suggests that IQ tests can only provide a general fuzzy picture of a person's mental abilities and that it would be foolish and misguided for anyone to use IQ scores alone as dispostive "scientific" or "objective" evidence of whether a murderer is or is not mentally retarded/disabled. In this sense, I suppose, Florida does look bad having a bright-line IQ line for administering Atkins. But given that IQ tests will always scatter in these kinds of cases, I think the legal issue of who bears the burden of proof and at what level as to Atkins claims is what ultimately determines the reach of Atkins in any state.
If SCOTUS strikes down the current Florida approach to Atkins without speaking to burdens of proof, Florida could then just employ Gerogia's approach to "assure that fewer death-row inmates get off with a claim of mental disability" by requiring defendants to prove they have MR beyond a reasonable doubt (or perhaps even say beyond all doubt). Already, Florida requires a defendant to prove his disability by clear and convincing evidence, and that standard (with or without an IQ requirement) necessarily entails that Florida will be able to execute murderers whom judges reasonably think, but are not clearly convinced, are mentally retarded/disabled. The experience in since Atkins makes clear that states eager to limit who gets off death row can do so using legal standards like proof burdens rather than relying just on IQ numbers. Thus if (and when?) SCOTUS only addresses how IQ tests are used in Hall and dodges any discussion of burdens of proof, Atkins application issues (and interstate Atkins disparity) will persist.
I suppose I am frustrated here in large part because SCOTUS has long been eager to avoid, in all sorts of settings, establishing any clear and predicatble constitutional rules for burdens of proof concerning facts or factors that impact only sentencing determinations and not guilt. These burden-of-proof issues, which may be viewed as a Fifth Amendment due process concern and/or an Eighth Amendment concern depending on the setting, can be found lurking in the Apprendi-Blakely Sixth Amendment line of cases, but they have never gotten the independent treatment that I think they merit and needs I have long been hoping Hall might finally lead to some useful burden-of-proof constitutional jurisprudence, but after the oral argument I am no longer hopeful on this front.
"The Pedagogical Prosecutor"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article by Nirej Sekhon now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Scholarship on prosecutorial discretion is almost entirely preoccupied with crafting regulations that promote prosecutorial accountability. Accountability, however, is a two-way street. Existing scholarship does not recognize prosecutors' unique capacity to hold legislators and citizens accountable for their preferences, biases, and blind spots. Drawing on political theory, this essay proposes a novel framework for conceptualizing the prosecutor's role in a pluralist, democratic society.
The choice to prosecute or decline a case can produce significant social and political meaning: e.g., affirming the value of a victim's life, validating a community's sense of loss, or highlighting an offender's depravity. Hate-crime and "stand-your-ground" laws illustrate prosecutors' broad discretionary power to generate social and political meaning. These laws were often controversial when enacted. Enactment, however, did not exhaust the basis for controversy. Rather, vague statutory language simply left it to prosecutors to decide when and how the laws should apply.
The furor that erupted after George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin reveals how fraught those choices can be. While Zimmerman's acquittal might appear to vindicate prosecutors' initial choice to decline the case, that view is incorrect. I argue that prosecutors should use their expressive power towards pedagogical ends; prosecuting Zimmerman was consistent with that ideal, the acquittal notwithstanding. Behaving pedagogically means actively promoting political dialogue amongst legislators and citizens. This ideal values public airing over conviction maximization. I conclude by identifying some of the obligations that attend the pedagogical ideal and steps that might encourage prosecutors to embrace it. Doing so will not just promote better criminal justice, but a healthier democracy.
Monday, March 3, 2014
"Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times article, which includes these excerpts:
Shortly after Senator Rand Paul filed suit last month against the Obama administration to stop its electronic dragnet of American phone records, he sat down for lunch with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in his private dining room at the Justice Department.
Mr. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, is one of the Obama administration’s most vocal critics. But their discussion focused on an issue on which they have found common cause: eliminating mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
The Democratic attorney general and the possible Republican presidential candidate are unlikely allies. But their partnership is crucial to an alliance between the nation’s first African-American attorney general, who sees his legacy in a renewed focus on civil rights, and some of Congress’s most prominent libertarians, who have accused the Obama administration of trampling on personal freedom with drones, wiretaps, tracking devices and too much government.
Together, they could help bring about the most significant liberalization of sentencing laws since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on drugs. In 2010, Congress unanimously voted to abolish the 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine offenses and those for powdered cocaine, a vestige of the crack epidemic. Now, the Obama administration and its allies in Congress are pushing to go even further. Mr. Holder wants to make prisoners eligible for early release if they were sentenced under the now-abolished crack guidelines. And he wants judges to have more discretion when it comes to sentencing nonviolent drug offenders....
Libertarian-minded Republicans see long prison sentences as an ineffective and expensive way to address crime. “This is the definition of how you get bipartisan agreement,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “It’s not splitting the difference. It’s finding areas of common interest.”
Mr. Paul is backing a sentencing overhaul bill, also supported by Mr. Holder and the Obama administration, that he predicts will pass the Senate with support from up to half of its Republicans. The bill’s sponsors include Democratic stalwarts such as Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman, as well as Republicans with strong Tea Party credentials like Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas
Similar legislation is pending in the House, where libertarians and Tea Party conservatives will be crucial to determining its fate if it comes up for a vote. That is the same group that bucked the Obama administration and nearly succeeded in passing legislation prohibiting the National Security Agency from seizing the phone records of millions of Americans.
Some Republicans say that they are the ones being consistent on matters of protecting liberties, and that Mr. Holder’s push for changes to the sentencing laws is a step in their direction, not the other way around. “I would say Eric Holder supports me and my civil liberties bill,” said one of the House bill’s sponsors, Representative Raúl R. Labrador, an Idaho Republican who once demanded Mr. Holder’s resignation over the botched gun-trafficking case called Operation Fast and Furious....
Mr. Holder noted that a third of the Justice Department’s budget is spent running prisons. That resonates with fiscal conservatives like Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah. Mr. Chaffetz once suggested that Republicans might have Mr. Holder arrested for contempt. But Mr. Holder recently had him for breakfast at the Justice Department....
Mr. Chaffetz said his conversations with Mr. Holder represented “one of the few instances I can point to where we’re starting to make some kid steps forward” toward bipartisan collaboration.... “I think there’s a realization that we’re not actually solving the problem with some of these drug crimes,” Mr. Chaffetz added. “But on the other side of the coin, there’s no trust with the Obama administration. None.”...
Representative Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and a former federal prosecutor, joined Mr. Chaffetz for breakfast at the Justice Department and described Mr. Holder as a gracious host. “The fact that he’s taking the time to talk to two backbenchers, he certainly didn’t have to do that,” Mr. Gowdy said.
Mr. Gowdy said he was convinced that mandatory sentences made little sense for minor offenses. But he doubts that a sentencing bill can pass the House, in part because voters in Republican districts oppose so many of the Obama administration’s policies. Mr. Holder’s push for same-sex marriage does not make it easier, he said.
Mr. Paul was more optimistic. He said conservatives and liberals would join in support of changing sentencing laws, just as they have joined in opposition of the N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance programs.... As the meeting concluded, they agreed to work together and said their goodbyes. Then Mr. Paul wryly added, “I’ll see you in court.”
Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:
- "With Holder In The Lead, Sentencing Reform Gains Momentum"
- Lots of (mostly positive) reactions to AG Holder's big sentencing speech
- Notable inside-the-Beltway discussion of modern sentencing politics
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform
- Conservative group ALEC joins the growing calls for sentencing refom
- Smarter Sentencing Act passes Senate Judiciary Committee by 13-5 vote
- Will Tea Party players (and new MMs) be able to get the Smarter Sentencing Act through the House?
- Are "hundreds of career prosecutors" (or mainly just Bill Otis) now in "open revolt" over AG Holder's support for the Smarter Sentencing Act?
- Very eager to provide very thorough and fair coverage of prosecutors' views on Smarter Sentencing Act
- Effective Heritage analysis of federal MMs and statutory reform proposals
March 3, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack (0)
SCOTUS grants cert in (small?) cases involving jury dishonestly and religious freedom in prison
As reported here at SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court this morning granted cert in five cases. Two of these cases ought to interest criminal justice fans, as described by Lyle Denniston:
The Supreme Court, beginning to shape its docket for the next Term starting in October, agreed on Monday to hear five new cases, including a constitutional challenge to a state prison system’s policy barring inmates from wearing beards....
The Court has already rounded out the list of cases it will hear and decide during the current Term, so all new granted cases will go over to October or later.
Here, in brief, are the issues in the granted cases:...
Warger v. Shauers — scope of a right to new trial in federal court because of alleged dishonesty by a juror during the jury selection process....
Holt v. Hobbs — religiously based challenge, under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, to the Arkansas prison system’s ban on the wearing of beards by inmates. (This is a case filed directly by an inmate, in a hand-written petition.)
These grants, combined with the relatively limited number of major criminal justice cases on the SCOTUS docket in the current Term, reinforce my sense that the Justices are right now largely content to play "small ball" on a range of issues as they continue to be stalked by any number of big lurking criminal justice issues relating to the Second (right to carry), Fourth (GPS tracking), Sixth (applications of Apprendi and Booker) and Eighth Amendments (applications of Graham and Miller).
Detailing the impact and import of Burrage on the federal drug war
The Supreme Court a few weeks ago in Burrage v. United States, No. 12-7515 (S. Ct. Jan. 27, 2014) (available here), rejected federal prosecutors' arguments to expand the reach and application of a mandatory minimum sentencing provision for a drug defendant. Now, via this notable ABC News report headlined "U.S. Drug Cases Getting Rehabbed After Supreme Court Decision," we learn about some of the early impact of this ruling:
A week before actor Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed on a mix of heroin, cocaine and other drugs, the Supreme Court restrained what one top prosecutor called "the strongest tool" federal authorities have to go after dealers in such cases, and now some U.S. drug prosecutions are getting sent to rehab. "We may not be able to meet the standard of proof in those cases," the U.S. Attorney in Vermont, Tris Coffin, said of overdose cases involving a cocktail of drugs. "It will have some impact."
In fact, a federal judge in Kentucky has already vacated the most severe charge against 53-year-old Harold Salyers, a father who was certain to spend decades in prison after being convicted last year of selling heroin to a man who then died. In Alaska and Ohio, defense attorneys are separately hoping their clients can similarly benefit from the high court's recent decision.
On average, drug traffickers in federal cases are sentenced to less than seven years behind bars. But "when death or serious bodily injury results," the dealer can face a mandatory minimum of 20 years and as long as life in prison, according to federal law. Federal authorities have long sought the stiffer charge when a dealer's drugs contributed in some way to an overdose.
In January, though, the Supreme Court ruled the dealer's drugs need to do more than just contribute, they need to be "the straw that broke the camel's back," as one Justice Department official put it. That's "problematic," especially in overdose cases where an accused dealer's drugs are not the only drugs involved, according to the official. Nearly half of all overdoses involve multiple drugs, federal statistics indicate. "Now we need to [prove] not that just drugs killed them, but which drugs killed them," said the Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity....
The Supreme Court decision in Burrage v. United States initially received scant news coverage and only moderate notice since actor Hoffman's overdose -- a case being handled by local authorities in New York that highlights some of the obstacles to bringing federal charges. Still, top federal prosecutors said they don't believe the high court's decision is "a significant setback" or "a real game-changer for us."
Medical experts will just have to dig deeper to determine a drug's exact role in death, and federal prosecutors rarely seek the stiffer charge anyway, even when an overdose occurs, according to both Coffin and Harvey, the U.S. attorneys. "We're going to be fine" and will bring "most of the cases we want to bring," Harvey said.
But the Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said finding medical experts who can determine a drug's exact role is not so easy and "is a big burden on the government." Plus, the official said, the Supreme Court decision could be "a blow" to investigative efforts. "The 20-year mandatory minimum has been tremendously efficient in scaring the dickens out of people so they cooperate up the chain," the official said. "It's been a really good negotiating tool."
There are so many interesting aspects to this Burrage follow-up story, and it highlights for me that it might be very interesting and very valuable for some researchers to assemble and analyze data on how the mandatory minimum sentencing provision at issue in Burrage has been applied in the years before this SCOTUS ruling and how it gets applied in the coming years.
But I especially like and find helpful the candid and astute quotes from the unnamed Justice Department official reprinted at the end of this excerpt. The quote so efficiently and effectively captures the real work and importance of all modern mandatory minimum sentencing terms in the federal system: they mostly exist to reduce "a big burden on the government" by providing a ready and "tremendously efficient" to scare "the dickens out of people so they cooperate up the chain" and thus serve as a "really good negotiating tool."
As I have said before and will say again, for those who favor a big federal criminal justice system having lots of power with limited burdens on a "tremendously efficient" means scare "the dickens out of people so they cooperate" with government officials, the current operating structure and modern application of federal mandatory minimums are still working pretty well despite the setback that Burrage may represent for one of these potent prosecutorial weapons in the drug war. But for those who are suspicious of a big federal criminal justice system having lots of power concentrated in executive branch official not subject to the rule of law or really any regulation or review of how its power gets used (persons that include Senator Rand Paul and yours truly), reform of all federal mandatory minimums seems to be essential to restore fully the vision of limited federal government power and individual rights that inform and infuse the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
SCOTUS finally to grapple with how states are applying Atkins
I helped represent a Texas death-row defendant with a very low IQ in habeas appeals years before the 2002 SCOTUS ruling in Atkins v. Virginia decided the Eighth Amendment precludes execution of murderers who are mental retarded. As a result of that work two decades ago, I have long been interested in the question the Supreme Court will this morning finally confront at oral argument in Hall v. Florida: how can (or must) states define and apply mental retardation for purposes of determining who is excluded from execution due to Atkins.
For a variety of reasons, Hall could end up being a huge case about constitutionally required sentencing procedures that could impact lots of cases outside the context of the death penalty. I suspect, however, that some Justices will be eager to ensure the Court's work in Hall ends up modest and limited. For this reason, I think today's oral argument may provide an interesting window into how certain Justices are approaching Hall and this broader issues of procedure and federalism that it raises.
I expect to post on the substance of the Hall oral argument later this week. But for more pre-game analysis, here are a few media reports and commentaries on Hall:
From the ABA Journal here, "Chemerinsky: Who is mentally disabled when it comes to the death penalty?"
From NPR here, "With Death Penalty, How Should States Define Mental Disability?"
- From SCOTUSblog here, "Argument preview: Measuring mental handicap"