Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Oklahoma commission recommends continued moratorium on executions due to "volume and seriousness of the flaws" in state's capital punishment system
As reported in this local article, "two years after the state of Oklahoma last carried out an execution, a commission spearheaded by former Gov. Brad Henry has recommended extending a current moratorium on the death penalty in Oklahoma." Here is more:
"Due to the volume and seriousness of the flaws in Oklahoma's capital punishment system, Commission members recommend that the moratorium on executions be extended until significant reforms are accomplished," Henry said in a news release.
Executions in Oklahoma have been on hold since Oct. 1, 2015, the day after Richard Glossip received his third stay of execution because the Oklahoma Department of Corrections did not have the right drugs as specified in the DOC’s lethal injection protocol. A multicounty grand jury issued a highly critical report nearly a year ago related to multiple agencies’ handling of Glossip’s case and the January 2015 execution of Charles Warner, and it doesn’t appear as though anyone involved is any closer to being able to resume the use of capital punishment.
The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission had 10 full-day meetings, held numerous conference calls, commissioned independent studies and conducted interviews with people from all sides of the issue, including with family members of people who were wrongfully convicted. "Many of the findings of the Commission's investigation were disturbing and led members to question whether the death penalty can be administered in a way that ensures no innocent person is put to death," Henry said in the release.
The commission is making 40 recommendations to address systemic problems in forensics, innocence protection, the execution process, and the roles of the prosecution, defense, jury and judiciary, according to the news release.
The full report from the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission runs nearly 300 pages and is available at this link. Here is a passages from the report's executive summary:
In light of the extensive information gathered from this year-long, in-depth study, the Commission members unanimously recommend that the current moratorium on the death penalty be extended.
The Commission did not come to this decision lightly. While some Commission members had disagreements with some of the recommendations contained in this report, there was consensus on each of the recommendations. Due to the volume and seriousness of the flaws in Oklahoma’s capital punishment system, Commission members recommend that the moratorium on executions be extended until significant reforms are accomplished.
Many of the findings of the Commission’s year-long investigation were disturbing and led Commission members to question whether the death penalty can be administered in a way that ensures no innocent person is put to death. Commission members agreed that, at a minimum, those who are sentenced to death should receive this sentence only after a fair and impartial process that ensures they deserve the ultimate penalty of death. To be sure, the United States Supreme Court has emphasized that the death penalty should be applied only to “the worst of the worst.” Unfortunately, a review of the evidence demonstrates that the death penalty, even in Oklahoma, has not always been imposed and carried out fairly, consistently, and humanely, as required by the federal and state constitutions. These shortcomings have severe consequences for the accused and their families, for victims and their families, and for all citizens of Oklahoma.
"Designed to Break You: Human Rights Violations on Texas' Death Rows"
The title of this post is the title of this new report released yesterday by the Human Rights Clinic of the University of Texas School of Law. Here is part of its executive summary:
This report demonstrates that the mandatory conditions implemented for death row inmates by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) are harsh and inhumane. Particular conditions of relevance include mandatory solitary confinement, a total ban on contact visits with both attorneys and friends and family, substandard physical and psychological health care, and a lack of access to sufficient religious services. Investigation into these conditions reveals that current TDCJ policy violates international human rights norms and standards for confinement. Conditions on death row at TDCJ’s Polunsky Unit must be remedied posthaste.
In 1999, Texas reintroduced the practice of mandatory solitary confinement for every individual convicted of capital murder. Solitary confinement involves total segregation of individuals who are confined to their cells for twenty-two to twenty-four hours per day, with a complete prohibition on recreating or eating with other inmates. An average cell is no bigger than 8 feet by 12 feet, and contains only a sink, a toilet, and a thirty-inch-wide steel bunk with a thin plastic mattress. Inmates are rarely provided with adequate blankets and often suffer from ongoing physical pain due to the mattress provided. The majority of cells include a small window, but inmates are only able to see out by rolling up their mattress and standing on it. This fact paired with the lack of adequate outdoor recreation time means that daily exposure to natural light is rare. Every individual on Texas’ death row thus spends approximately 23 hours a day in complete isolation for the entire duration of their sentence, which, on average, lasts more than a decade. This prolonged solitary confinement has overwhelmingly negative effects on inmates’ mental health, exacerbating existing mental health conditions and causing many prisoners to develop mental illness for the first time. In addition to the detrimental effects of isolation, the practice of setting multiple execution dates means that many prisoners are subjected to the psychological stress of preparing to die several times during their sentence.
Inmates on death row experience severe barriers to accessing medical care, in part due to being housed in solitary confinement and being less able to effectively self-advocate. Inmates are not offered regular physical or psychological check-ups, and must rely on the guards to communicate and facilitate any healthcare appointments. Such requests for care are, at best, responded to within a few days, but can go several weeks without a response and are often ignored or forgotten about. In terms of psychological healthcare -- an issue of great importance given that a large majority of inmates on death row suffer from some form of psychological illness -- only inmates who were already taking psychiatric medication are able to meet regularly with psychiatrists. Of those inmates who are eventually given access to psychological care, they are generally only prescribed some form of psychiatric medication, thus exacerbating the unmet need for some form of counseling or non-pharmaceutical therapy. Inmates with mental illness who do not necessarily want or need prescription drugs are essentially provided with only two options: take unwanted medication, or forgo psychological healthcare entirely.
Another major issue of concern is the lack of access to religious services on death row. The extent to which inmates are able to access religious text is limited, as Christian bibles are the only material available from the prison chaplain. Although Christian inmates can request such materials, they are rarely given access to ministers until the holiday season. For inmates of different faiths, such as Islam or Judaism, the situation is more difficult as they must solely rely on outside sources for their religious materials. They are provided with no access to practice their chosen faith, and are often met with contempt when seeking such access. This has created a harsh environment for inmates who do not adhere to Christianity, and has enabled a discriminatory system on the basis of religion on Texas’ death row.
This report, prepared by the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, concludes that current conditions in TDCJ facilities constitute a violation of Texas’s duty to guarantee the rights to health, life, physical integrity, and dignity of detainees, as well as its duty to prevent cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of its inmates. These duties are recognized by human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and other human rights bodies have repeatedly issued opinions decrying the inhumane conditions present at the Polunsky Unit. Particularly, international human rights bodies had considered that the prolonged and mandatory use of solitary confinement is “disproportionate, illegitimate, and unnecessary”.
"An Indigent Criminal Defendant is Entitled to 'An Expert of His Own'"
The title of this post is the title of this short and timely new piece authored by Fredrick Vars now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Supreme Court yesterday (April 24, 2017) heard the case of an Alabama death row inmate, James McWilliams. A thus far overlooked argument could save his life and help level the playing field in other capital cases. The Court in 1985 promised independent expertise. Now is its chance to make good on that promise.
For more on the issue presented and SCOTUS oral argument in McWilliams v. Dunn, folks can check out this recent SCOTUSblog posting by Amy Howe titled "Argument analysis: Nine justices, with five votes for death row inmate?" and/or this new Slate commentary by Dahlia Lithwick titled "Back at the Supreme Court, After Garland: It’s strange being back in this place, and stranger still to hear them debate lunacy."
Monday, April 24, 2017
Arkansas successfully completes two execution in one night
As reported in this AP article, Arkansas has completed the nation's first double execution in nearly two decades. Here are the basic details:
Arkansas has put to death inmate Marcel Williams, marking the first double execution in the United States since 2000.
Williams was pronounced dead at 10:33 p.m. Monday, 17 minutes after the procedure began at the Cummins Unit in southeast Arkansas. Inmate Jack Jones was executed earlier in the evening.
Williams was sent to death row for the 1994 rape and killing of 22-year-old Stacy Errickson, whom he'd kidnapped from a gas station in central Arkansas....
Attorneys for Marcel Williams had questioned whether the night's first execution of Jack Jones went properly. U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued the stay for Williams, then, lifted it about an hour later — at 9:22 p.m....
Jones was pronounced dead at 7:20 p.m. Monday at the state's Cummins Unit in southeast Arkansas.... Jones was sent to death row for the 1995 rape and killing of Mary Phillips. He was also convicted of attempting to kill Phillips' 11-year-old daughter and was convicted in another rape and killing in Florida.
UPDATE: Bill Otis over at Crime & Consequences has this extended new post contending that the double execution in Arkansas "may be remembered as the moment the movement to abolish the death penalty started back downhill after many years of gaining ground."
Marshall Project highlights tens of thousands imprisoned for minor parole violations
The Marshall Project has this interesting new report on technical parole violations and their consequences headlined "At Least 61,000 Nationwide Are in Prison for Minor Parole Violations." Here is how it starts:
Among the millions of people incarcerated in the United States, a significant portion have long been thought to be parole violators, those who were returned to prison not for committing a crime but for failing to follow rules: missing an appointment with a parole officer, failing a urine test, or staying out past curfew.
But their actual number has been elusive, in part because they are held for relatively short stints, from a few months to a year, not long enough for record keepers to get a good count. To help fill the statistical gap, The Marshall Project conducted a three-month survey of state corrections departments, finding more than 61,250 technical parole violators in 42 state prison systems as of early 2017.
These are the inmates who are currently locked up for breaking a rule of parole, rather than parolees who have been convicted of a new crime; the number does not include those in county and local jails, where thousands more are likely held. (The eight remaining states — Alabama, Connecticut, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia — said either they did not keep current state-level data or it would be too costly to generate.)
The total, 61,250, seems small, given the 2.3 million people behind bars in this country. Imprisoning fewer technical violators would make only a dent in the effort to reduce mass incarceration. “But still,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, “the numbers aren’t trivial.”
To Mauer and other experts on what drives prison and jail populations, the fact that tens of thousands of people are incarcerated for infractions such as traveling without permission or frequenting a bar that serves alcohol is significant in itself. That may be all the more true in seven states — Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, New York, and Pennsylvania — which, according to the Marshall Project data, have more technical parole violators in their prisons than the other 35 states combined.
An empirical dive into federal "Health Care Fraud Sentencing"
The quoted title of this post is the title of this notable new Note authored by Kyle Crawford. Here is the abstract:
Health care fraud convictions are on the rise, but little is known about how health fraud offenders are sentenced. This Note offers the first comprehensive empirical account of sentencing decisions in health fraud cases based on a new dataset constructed from United States Sentencing Commission data. This analysis shows that there is a large disparity in how health fraud offenders are sentenced compared to other white collar offenders and general crimes offenders. Between 2006 and 2014, health fraud offenders received fewer Guidelines-range sentences and more below-Guidelines sentences than other offenders. This is because: (1) health fraud offenders are older, whiter, more educated, and less likely to have a criminal record than other offenders, which are demographic characteristics associated with lighter sentences; (2) judges are dissatisfied with the loss table, which is used to sentence most health fraud offenders; and (3) judges view the collateral consequences of sentencing health fraud offenders — many of whom are health professionals — as a mitigating factor.
This analysis also shows a stark difference in the number of health fraud cases brought in districts across the country. The ten districts with the highest proportion of health fraud convictions account for nearly a quarter of all health fraud convictions. In addition, health fraud offenders go to trial more often than other offenders. This results from the threat of severe collateral consequences — exclusion from Medicare and Medicaid and possible loss of a medical license. These offenders have a larger incentive to go to trial than other offenders, especially because pleading guilty does not allow health fraud offenders to avoid these collateral consequences.
April 24, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Capital procedure day at SCOTUS .... perhaps from early morning until late at night thanks to Arkansas
The Supreme Court this morning is hearing oral argument in two capital cases. Here are the basics and previews via SCOTUSblog:
Issue: Whether, when this court held in Ake v. Oklahoma that an indigent defendant is entitled to meaningful expert assistance for the “evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense,” it clearly established that the expert should be independent of the prosecution.
Issue: Issue: Whether the rule established in Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler, that ineffective state habeas counsel can be seen as cause to overcome the procedural default of a substantial ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim, also applies to procedurally defaulted, but substantial, ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claims.
Meanwhile, as detailed in this AP report, two condemned inmates scheduled to be executed tonight in Arkansas have been pressing unsuccessfully a variety of claims in an effort to halt their executions. Here are the basics on two cases now all but certain to be before the Justices of the Supreme Court in some posture before the night is over:
Two Arkansas inmates scheduled to be put to death Monday in what could be the nation's first double execution in more than 16 years asked an appeals court on Sunday to halt their lethal injections because of poor health that could cause complications. Lawyers for Jack Jones and Marcel Williams asked the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on Sunday to grant them stays of execution.
Jones' lawyers say he suffers from diabetes and is on insulin, has high blood pressure, neuropathy and had one leg amputated below the knee. He is on heavy doses of methadone and gabapentin. They say he may be resistant to the lethal injection drug midazolam because of the drugs he is taking for his maladies and could suffer a "tortuous death." Lawyers for Williams say he weighs 400 pounds and it will be difficult to find a vein for lethal injunction, so the drugs are unlikely to work as intended.
The state said the appeals are just delaying tactics and should be denied. It was not clear when the appeals court will rule....
Also on Sunday, two lower court federal judges ruled against inmates in separate cases. Judge Kristine Baker denied a request from several inmates, including Jones and Williams, that the rules for witnesses to view the executions be changed. Judge J. Leon Holmes denied a stay of execution for Williams saying that the matter should be dealt with by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, because the inmate had already been appealed to the higher court.
Jones and Marcel Williams are scheduled to die on Monday and another inmate, Kenneth Williams, is set for execution Thursday. Both Jones and Williams have admitted they are guilty. Williams was sent to death row in 1994 for the rape and murder of Stacy Errickson. Jones was given the death penalty for the 1995 rape and murder of Mary Phillips.
Interesting final phrase in Justice Breyer's latest pitch for SCOTUS to consider whether whether capital punishment is now unconstitutional
Via a dissent in Glossip v. Gross back in 2015, Justice Breyer explained at great length why he thought "it is now time to reopen the question" of "whether the death penalty violates the Constitution." Since that time, Justice Breyer has made a fairly regular habit of dissenting or commenting on the denial of certiorari in capital cases with administrative problems along the lines he stressed in his Glossip dissent. Today's SCOTUS order list includes another such statement by Justice Breyer in Smith v. Ryan, a case that involves a prisoner who has been on death row in Arizona for more than 40 years. Here is a paragraph from the heart of Justice Breyer's statement that captures the essence of many of his capital statements since Glossip:
What legitimate purpose does it serve to hold any human being in solitary confinement for 40 years awaiting execution? What does this case tell us about a capital punishment system that, in my view, works in random, virtually arbitrary ways? I have previously explored these matters more systematically, coming to the conclusion that this Court should hear argument as to whether capital punishment as currently practiced is consistent with the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Amdt. 8. See Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (BREYER, J., dissenting). The facts and circumstances of Smith’s case reinforce that conclusion.
Because statements by Justice Breyer like this one have become fairly common, I would not have blogged about this latest effort save for one little phrase in Justice Breyer's final sentence that struck me as new and unusual. Here is the final sentence with my emphasis added on the phrase that caught my attention:
Smith’s confinement reinforces the need for this Court, or other courts, to consider in an appropriate case the underlying constitutional question.
I took a quick look at some other capital case statements from this Term by Justice Breyer and did not see this "other courts" phrase anywhere in his prior calls for the Supreme Court to take up the constitutionality of capital punishment. I suspect that Justice Breyer has now come fully to realize, perhaps due in part to the new addition of Justice Gorsuch, that he is not going to be able to cajole his colleagues into taking up the constitutionality of capital punishment on their own and now the issue will likely get before SCOTUS only if a lower court takes up the issue in a bold, high-profile way.
I suspect I am reading way too much into three words in a little single Justice statement concerning the denial of cert. Still, especially with talk of a new SCOTUS vacancy this summer, I do not think I am wrong to view the next few months and years as a potential turning point in the history of capital punishment in the US. Justice Breyer has demonstrated his interest in playing a central role in defining the future of the death penalty, and this latest little statement perhaps reflects a realization that his window of opportunity to do so may be closing.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Six months after voting to speed executions, is California really getting any closer to carrying out death sentences?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article headlined "California moves — slowly — toward resuming executions." Here are excerpts:
California has long been what one expert calls a “symbolic death penalty state,” one of 12 that has capital punishment on the books but has not executed anyone in more than a decade.
Prodded by voters and lawsuits, the nation’s most populous state may now be easing back toward allowing executions, though observers are split on how quickly they will resume, if at all.
Corrections officials expect to meet a Wednesday deadline to submit revised lethal injection rules to state regulators, trying again with technical changes after the first attempt was rejected in December.
The California Supreme Court, meanwhile, is expected to rule by August on challenges to a ballot initiative narrowly approved by voters in November that would speed up executions by reducing the time allowed for appeals....
California could come close to resuming executions in the next year, said law professor Robert Weisberg, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, though others say too many variables and challenges remain to make a prediction.... The state’s proposed lethal injection regulations are patterned after a single-drug process that already passed muster with the U.S. Supreme Court, Weisberg said.
Corrections officials submitted the regulations only after they were forced to act by a judge’s ruling on behalf of crime victims angered at the state’s three-year delay. But the regulations replacing California’s old three-drug method are likely to be approved at some point, Weisberg said.
Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham University School of Law and an expert on lethal injections, was among those who said recent revisions to the state’s proposed regulations still don’t cure underlying problems that can lead to botched executions....
California voters have eased penalties for many crimes in recent years but have repeatedly rejected efforts to end the death penalty. They did so again in November, when 51 percent approved Proposition 66, designed to speed up death penalty cases. Fifty-three percent of voters defeated a competing measure that would have abolished the death penalty. The state Supreme Court quickly blocked Proposition 66 while it considers challenges.
Appellate lawyer Kirk Jenkins, who studies the court, expects the justices will reject the proposition’s five-year deadline for deciding death row appeals because it violates the separation of powers. Death penalty appeals average at least a decade from the time a condemned inmate is assigned a post-trial lawyer to a final decision by the state’s high court, he said, and the justices already have a backlog of about 300 capital cases. “There is no possible way that the court could meet the deadlines in Prop. 66” without putting aside virtually all other decisions, Jenkins said.
The initiative also makes it easier for corrections officials to adopt new lethal injection procedures. But even a complete rejection of Proposition 66 would not derail the executions of inmates whose appeals are exhausted, Weisberg said. Those executions could proceed once the state has an approved lethal injection process.
Experts said the delays may give opponents time to mount another campaign next year asking voters again if they want to abolish the death penalty. “In California, it’s become a symbolic death penalty state,” Denno said. “Whether that is going to change or not is unpredictable.”
Making the case that older punishments may not be so much crueler than current ones
Columnist Ross Douthat has this notable new New York Times commentary headlined "Crime and Different Punishments." Here are excerpts:
The tendency in modern criminal justice has been to remove two specific elements from the state’s justice: spectacle and pain. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, pillories and stocks and whipping posts became museum pieces, the hangman and the firing squad were supplanted by more technical methods, and punishment became something that happened elsewhere — in distant prisons and execution chambers, under professional supervision, far from the baying crowd.
All of this made a certain moral sense. But the civilizing process did not do away with cruelty and in some ways it could exacerbate it. With executions, the science was often inexact and the application difficult, and when it went wrong the electric chair or the gas chamber could easily become a distinctive kind of torture. During the last century lethal injection, now the execution method of choice, had a higher “botch rate” by far than every other means of killing the condemned. Meanwhile, the lowest rate of failure (albeit out of a small sample size) belonged to that old standby: the firing squad.
Few prisoners face execution, and anti-death penalty activists may yet reduce that number to zero. But botched injections are not the only ways in which we pile cruelties on the condemned. Our prison system, which officially only punishes by restraint, actually subjects millions of Americans to waves of informal physical abuse — mistreatment by guards, violence from inmates, the tortures of solitary confinement, the trauma of rape — on top of their formal years-long sentences.
It is not clear that this method of dealing with crime succeeds at avoiding cruel and unusual punishment so much as it avoids making anyone outside the prison system see it. Nor is it clear that a different system, with a sometimes more old-fashioned set of penalties, would necessarily be more inhumane....
I would rather face the firing squad than be strapped down and injected into eternity, and I would choose a strong dose of pain and shame over years under the thumb of guards and inmates and the state.
We tell ourselves that we have prisoners’ good in mind, and the higher standards of our civilization, because we do not offer them this choice. But those standards may be less about preventing ourselves from becoming like our sinful ancestors, and more about maintaining the illusion of clean hands — while harsh punishment is still imposed, but out of sight, on souls and bodies not our own.
Notable recent work from the Prison Policy Initiative on prison wages and medical co-pays in prisons
A helpful reader made sure I did not miss some recent pieces from the Prison Policy Initiative on prison wages and medical co-pays in prisons that ought to be of interest to readers.
The piece on wages, "How much do incarcerated people earn in each state?," provides a 50-state survey of wages paid to incarcerated people. Here is a snippet:
One major surprise: prisons appear to be paying incarcerated people less today than they were in 2001. The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 87 cents, down from 93 cents reported in 2001. The average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs has declined more significantly, from $4.73 in 2001 to $3.39 today. What changed? At least seven states appear to have lowered their maximum wages, and South Carolina no longer pays wages for most regular prison jobs -- assignments that paid up to $4.80 per day in 2001. With a few rare exceptions, regular prison jobs are still unpaid in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.
The piece on medical co-pays, "The steep cost of medical co-pays in prison puts health at risk," highlights the hours it would take a low-paid incarcerated worker to earn enough for one co-pay. Here is an excerpt:
The excessive burden of medical fees and co-pays is most obvious in states where many or all incarcerated people are paid nothing for their work: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. Texas is the most extreme example, with a flat $100 yearly health services fee, which some officials are actually trying to double to $200. People incarcerated in these states must rely on deposits into their personal accounts -- typically from family -- to pay medical fees. In most places, funds are automatically withdrawn from these accounts until the balance is paid, creating a debt that can follow them even after release.
Co-pays that take a large portion of prison wages make seeking medical attention a costly choice. Co-pays in the hundreds of dollars would be unthinkable for non-incarcerated minimum wage earners. So why do states think it’s acceptable to charge people making pennies per hour such a large portion of their earnings? Some might argue that incarcerated people have nothing better to spend wages on than medical care. But wages allow incarcerated people to buy things they need that the prison does not provide: toiletries, over-the-counter medicine, additional clothes and shoes, as well as phone cards, stamps, and paper to help them maintain contact with loved ones. Co-pays that take a large portion of prison wages make seeking medical attention a costly choice.
"I used to support legalizing all drugs. Then the opioid epidemic happened."
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Vox commentary authored by German Lopez. I recommend the piece in full even though I take issue with some of its particulars. Here are some extended excerpts:
In terms of overdoses, the opioid epidemic is deadlier than any other drug crisis in US history — more than crack, meth, and any other heroin epidemic. In total, more than 560,000 people in the US died to drug overdoses between 1999 and 2015 (the latest year of data available) — a death toll larger than the entire population of Atlanta. And while many of these deaths are now linked to illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl, the source of the epidemic — what got people started on a chain to harder drugs — was opioid painkillers, and legal painkillers are still linked to most opioid overdose deaths.
This was exactly what anti-legalization activists have warned about: Companies got a hold of a dangerous, addictive product, marketed it irresponsibly, and lobbied for lax rules. The government’s regulatory response floundered. The government even worked with the drug companies in some cases — under the influence of lobbying, campaign donations, and drugmaker-funded advocacy groups. And people got addicted and died.
Looking at this crisis, it slowly but surely dawned on me: Maybe full legalization isn’t the right answer to the war on drugs. Maybe the US just can’t handle regulating these potentially deadly substances in a legal environment. Maybe some form of prohibition — albeit a less stringent kind than what we have today — is the way to go.
I should be clear: I am talking about the legalization of harder drugs, so none of this applies to marijuana legalization. While there are real concerns with pot dependence and people doing stupid things on weed, my perspective is that it’s such a relatively harmless drug, according to the best scientific evidence, that the government can afford to screw it up. Especially since the alternative is a prohibition regime that leads to hundreds of thousands of needless arrests in the US each year and fosters violence as traffickers fight over turf or settle other beefs related to the drug trade.
But with the harder drugs, there’s a lot of room to mess up — as the opioid epidemic demonstrates....
Consider the US statistics: In 2015, drug overdoses killed more than 52,000 people, and more than 33,000 of those deaths were linked to opioids. That’s much more than the number of people who died to homicides: nearly 18,000 in 2015, only some of which were linked to violence in the war on drugs. Based on these figures, the legal drug led to a crisis that is killing way more people than black market–related violence possibly could.
while it is true that there are other metrics for suffering under prohibition (such as arrests), the same also applies for the opioid epidemic: There are a lot of people suffering from addiction, along with their friends, family, and broader community, yet haven’t overdosed and may never die of an overdose.
So while it’s hard to draw a perfect comparison in terms of overall suffering, the opioid epidemic, at the very least, seems to be much deadlier than violence related to drug prohibition is in the US.
Still, it’s hard to deny that the current model of prohibition has serious costs. Just like lenient regulation through legalization is dangerous, so too is excessive regulation — via punishment — through prohibition. There’s really little argument that America has been excessive in its punishment: the harsh mandatory minimum sentences, the three-strikes laws that can get someone life for drugs, and the ridiculous probation and parole rules that can get someone thrown back into prison for little more than possession. Not only can these measures cause a lot of human misery, but they also seem to be totally ineffective for actually deterring drug use.
The research is clear on this point: Severity of punishment does little to nothing to deter crime. In particular, a 2014 study from Peter Reuter at the University of Maryland and Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago found there’s no good evidence that tougher punishments or harsher supply-elimination efforts do a better job of driving down access to drugs and substance abuse than lighter penalties. So increasing the severity of the punishment doesn’t do much, if anything, to slow the flow of drugs.
As drug policy experts emphasized in a piece I reported out in 2016, there’s a lot of room for the US to relax its severity of punishment before legalization. One possibility is essentially the Portuguese model: Drugs are decriminalized for personal use, so you can’t be punished with prison time merely for possessing or using illegal substances like cocaine and heroin. But the drugs remain illegal for big companies to produce and sell for profit — effectively stopping the kind of commercialization that’s spurred the tobacco, alcohol, and opioid epidemics....
This milder form of prohibition isn’t a perfect solution. I don’t think there is a perfect solution. As with many policy debates, this is really about picking between a bunch of unsatisfactory options. Faced with an excessively harsh criminal justice system and a legal industry that carelessly causes drug epidemics, I have come down somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
As Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, once told me, “There's always choices. There is no framework available in which there's not harm somehow. We’ve got freedom, pleasure, health, crime, and public safety. You can push on one and two of those — maybe even three with different drugs — but you can’t get rid of all of them. You have to pay the piper somewhere.” After witnessing the opioid epidemic firsthand, I have learned this lesson all too well — and I am genuinely scared of how America would pay for full legalization.;
Friday, April 21, 2017
Heading out to speak at 2017 World Medical Cannabis Conference & Expo
Blogging in this space will be light over the next few days because I am about to travel to Pittsburgh to attend and participate in the 2017 World Medical Cannabis Conference & Expo. As this schedule details, I am speaking tomorrow afternoon (Saturday) on a panel titled "Higher Education & Its Role in the Industry." Here is how the panel is previewed:
The cannabis industry is set to create more jobs than established industries like manufacturing by 2020. However, there is still no clear path to getting involved in the industry or clear educational path. Students need more courses and curriculum that teaches the fundamentals of the industry. These include all areas of the industry including business, agriculture, research, etc. This panel will talk about what courses are currently available for students and what still needs to be offered as well as how higher education can translate their findings into commercial services and products the industry can use to advance itself.
This preview post for this even proves a useful and timely excuse to highlight some recent posts from my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog. Here is just a sample of some April postings from that space:
Arkansas finally navigates litigation to complete one execution
As reported in this new Washington Post piece, "Arkansas late Thursday night carried out the state’s first execution in more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a last-minute series of orders, rejected requests by a death-row inmate to stay his lethal injection." Here is more:
The execution followed a wave of criticism and tumult in Arkansas, which had set an unprecedented scheduled of executions, plans that were imperiled by a series of court orders halting at least some of the eight lethal injections originally set for April.
As part of its aggressive scheduling, which the state attributed to expiring lethal-injection drugs, Arkansas had planned to carry out back-to-back executions on Thursday night at a state prison southeast of Little Rock. But that was abandoned when a state court blocked one of those lethal injections, and officials instead focused solely on plans to execute Ledell Lee, 51, by lethal injection.
Lee was sentenced to death in 1995 for the killing of Debra Reese, who was beaten to death in her home two years earlier. According to court petitions and his attorneys, Lee has long denied involvement in Reese’s death, and he was seeking DNA testing to try and prove his innocence.
Lee’s execution was confirmed by state officials. His time of death was 11:56 p.m. local time, according to the Associated Press, which had a reporter serve as a media witness. He is the seventh person executed in the United States so far this year....
Appeals filed ... for Lee hoping to delay his execution were rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit after that court briefly stayed the lethal injection. Lee’s attorneys also petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, not long after justices on Thursday night denied other stay requests filed by several Arkansas death-row inmates. The attorneys filed a volley of appeals at the high court seeking a stay of execution, saying that technology exists now that could verify his innocence and arguing that he has an intellectual disability that should prevent his execution.
The Supreme Court ultimately denied his stay requests in orders released by the court just before 11:30 p.m. at the Arkansas prison, following an hours-long delay imposed by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. so the high court could review the inmate’s appeals. Alito, who is assigned cases from the federal circuit covering Arkansas, then issued an order delaying Lee’s lethal injection “pending further order of the undersigned or of the Court.” He vacated his order after the justices declined all of the requests.
According to the orders, Alito referred the stay requests to the court, which denied them all without explanation. No justices logged dissents, though some had earlier Thursday said they would have granted stay requests from Lee and other inmates. Lee was pronounced dead about 30 minutes later....
Several death-row inmates in Arkansas, including Lee, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the executions, but the justices earlier Thursday night released orders denying these requests. This marked the first time Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who joined the court earlier this month, voted to create a conservative majority. In one of the orders, the court was split 5-4, with Gorsuch joining the majority in denying the stay and the court’s four liberal members saying they would have granted it.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who has previously questioned the “arbitrary” nature of the death penalty’s implementation, authored a critical dissent of Arkansas’ stated desire to carry out executions before its drugs expire. “I have previously noted the arbitrariness with which executions are carried out in this country,” he wrote. “And I have pointed out how the arbitrary nature of the death penalty system, as presently administered, runs contrary to the very purpose of a ‘rule of law.’ The cases now before us reinforce that point.”
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Virginia Gov commutes death sentence of defendant who has claimed innocence in murder-for-hire crime
As reported in this new Washington Post piece, "Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz, a 38-year-old man who was set to be executed Tuesday in the murder-for-hire of his former girlfriend." Here is more:
Teleguz has maintained his innocence in the 2001 slaying of 20-year-old Stephanie Yvonne Sipe in Harrisonburg. His lawyers have argued that two key witnesses have recanted their testimony, calling his guilt into question. Multiple courts have deemed those recantations unreliable, and the man who killed Sipe has never wavered in saying that Teleguz paid him to commit the murder.
McAuliffe said Thursday that while he believes Teleguz is guilty, the sentencing phase of his trial was “terribly flawed and unfair.” Teleguz will now serve life in prison without a chance of parole.
In their clemency petition, attorneys for Teleguz stressed that jurors were falsely told that Teleguz also was involved in a Pennsylvania murder — but that purported killing never occurred. Prosecutors pointed to testimony of that supposed crime as evidence that Teleguz “solves problems” with murder. “The jury acted on false information,” McAuliffe said.
In making his decision, McAuliffe said he reviewed over 6,000 pages of documents, including letters from Sipe’s family. He called her relatives before his news conference Thursday afternoon. “My heart aches for the family of Stephanie Sipe,” he said, “but the Virginia Constitution and our sacred values of due process under law require me to act.”
McAuliffe personally opposes the death penalty, citing his Catholic faith. But this marks the first time he has commuted a death sentence. As governor, he has presided over three executions, and at the behest of correctional officials he has pushed for more secrecy in the lethal injection process....
Teleguz’s plea for a commutation attracted high-profile support, including from billionaire Richard Branson and former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr.
Investigators and Sipe’s family, however, are confident of Teleguz’s guilt. “There's no doubt in my mind that he hired these people to kill my sister,” Sipe's sister, Jennifer Tilley, told the Harrisonburg television station WHSV last week. “And it blows my mind, it really does, that he is still trying to fight and plead for his life.”...
The last time a Virginia governor commuted a death sentence was in 2008, when then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) stopped the execution of triple murderer Percy L. Walton. Kaine commuted Walton’s sentence to life in prison without parole, saying that Walton was mentally incompetent and that putting him to death would be unconstitutional.
Prior related post:
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new article authored by Russell Gold now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Class counsel and prosecutors have a lot more in common than scholars realize. Because these lawyers have to make decisions on their client’s behalf that clients would make in other contexts, they prompt substantial concerns about lawyers’ accountability to their clients. Accordingly, there is a lot that each context can learn from the other about how to hold these lawyers accountable. This article considers what criminal law can learn from class action law. Its central insights are first that diffuse entities comprised largely of apathetic individuals cannot be expected to hold their lawyers accountable. And second, to combat that accountability deficit, just as judges play an important role in holding class counsel accountable, so too should judges play an important role holding prosecutors accountable — both to their public-clients and their constitutional obligations.
In more concrete terms, this article contends that once a plea agreement has been reached, courts should substantively review the sentence that the parties recommend with an eye to the process that yielded the agreement, much as courts review class action settlements. As with class members in class actions, courts should afford opportunities to be heard to those who wish to contest the deal to inform the court’s review. If courts are hamstrung at sentencing by prosecutors’ charging decisions that they think inappropriate, judges should articulate their concerns and ask prosecutors to justify those decisions on the record in open court to facilitate accountability by the electorate and within prosecutor offices.
Brennan Center releases report on "Criminal Justice in President Trump's First 100 Days"
In his Inaugural Address, President Donald Trump pledged to address the rising specter of “American carnage” — “the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” The last time a president addressed rising crime in his inaugural address was 1997. Then, with crime near historic peaks (at 4,891 offenses per 100,000 people), President Bill Clinton spoke of the need to “help reclaim our streets from drugs and gangs and crime” so that “our streets will echo again with the laughter of our children, because no one will try to shoot them or sell them drugs anymore.”
Trump’s dark portrait of America, however, comes at a time when the national crime rate is near historic lows — 42 percent below what it was in 1997. As his first 100 days near an end, what has the president done to address crime and criminal justice? And what can the country expect in the weeks and months ahead?
So far, many of the administration’s actions are symbolic. But they evidence a clear return to the discredited “tough on crime” rhetoric of the 1990s, and suggest a significant departure from the Obama administration’s approach to criminal justice. Trump’s turn also directly contradicts the emerging consensus among conservatives, progressives, law enforcement, and researchers that the country’s incarceration rate is too high, and that our over-reliance on prison is not the best way to address crime. As crime remains near historic lows — despite local, isolated increases — these proposed changes are, ultimately, solutions in search of a problem. Taken to an extreme, they would set back the national trans-partisan movement to end mass incarceration.
This analysis documents the following key shifts in federal policy since January 20th:
Misguided Fears of a New Crime Wave....
A New War on Drugs?...
Increased Immigration Enforcement and Detention....
Decreased Oversight of Local Police....
Increased Use of Private Prisons....
Possible Federal Sentencing or Reentry Legislation....
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Highlighting books that suggest how the "age of mass incarceration may actually be abating"
The quoted portion of the title of this post from the headline of this new piece by Chuck Lane in the Washington Post. The piece serves as a kind of mini-review of the two most important recent books on mass incarceration, John Pfaff's "Locked In" and James Forman's "Locking Up Our Own". Here are excerpts:
“Locking Up Our Own,” a remarkable new book by Yale Law School professor and former D.C. public defender James Forman Jr., tells the poignant but neglected story of how newly enfranchised black communities coped with this dilemma as a crime wave swept through urban America in the 1980s and 1990s, driving the murder victimization rate among blacks to an astonishing high of 39.4 per 100,000 population in 1991.
African American mayors, police and prosecutors responded to the pleas of beleaguered constituents with rhetoric, and policy, that were no less “tough on crime” than that of their white counterparts. Black leaders often framed crime-fighting as an issue of salvaging the civil rights revolution. “What would Dr. King say?” about the violence plaguing predominantly black cities, they would ask rhetorically — and then crack down on mostly youthful offenders, which inevitably involved “locking up our own.”...
This was an era, Forman reminds us, during which activist-attorney Johnnie Cochran regularly attended rallies against drug dealing in Los Angeles, calling for PCP dealers to be punished “harshly,” and Eric Holder, then the District’s top prosecutor, supported aggressive, often pretextual police stops and searches of cars in predominantly black sections of the city, in a desperate effort to get guns off the street....
He adds historical nuance to the story of “mass incarceration” told in Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander’s influential 2010 book “The New Jim Crow.” This makes Forman’s book the second important corrective this year to Alexander’s. The first, “Locked In” by Fordham University law professor John Pfaff, deployed statistical evidence to show that the United States’ highest-in-the-industrialized world incarceration rate did not result from the war on drugs, contrary to a theme of Alexander’s book that has been repeated so often Pfaff dubs it “the Standard Story.”
Even if everyone in state and federal prison on a drug conviction were released tomorrow, the U.S. incarceration rate would still be about quadruple what it was in 1970. That is because, Pfaff demonstrates, most people in prison are there for violent crimes such as homicide or aggravated assault.
Punishment for these offenses drove incarceration rates higher, Pfaff shows, but not, as is often supposed, because of laws imposing harsh mandatory- minimum sentences. The key factor was discretionary prosecutorial decisions; at least from the early 1990s on, prosecutors in the nation’s 3,000-plus counties charged arrestees with felonies at a higher rate even as the crime rate itself declined. Ultimately, more punitive exercise of prosecutorial discretion fed a steady net influx of convicts to state prisons....
The most recent evidence indicates that the age of mass incarceration is abating; it has been, oddly enough, since just prior to the publication of “The New Jim Crow.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts has reported, based on Justice Department data, that the U.S. incarceration rate declined from a peak of 1 in 100 adults in 2007 to 1 in 115 in 2015. Keith Humphreys, of Stanford University, has shown that racial disparities, though still large, may be diminishing. The incarceration rate for blacks fell steadily between 2000 and 2014, while that of whites rose slightly.
The challenge now is to accelerate the de-incarceration trend while sustaining low levels of crime. A troubling uptick in urban homicide last year may have helped elect President Donald “American Carnage” Trump. Certainly his harshest, most racially tinged anti-crime rhetoric both stimulated fear and exploited it. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has called emphasized punishing crime rather than consent decrees against allegedly abusive local police.
Under the circumstances, Forman and Pfaff’s emphasis on local politics, and county- and state-level prosecutorial discretion, is paradoxically hopeful. Federal policy makes headlines, but in the vast majority of cases, criminal justice takes place at the grass roots. And in recent years, that is the level at which the most promising reform efforts have occurred. Those efforts can and should continue, whatever might happen next in Washington.
I really like this commentary's use of the term "abating" to describe what the current decade has wrought with respect to incarceration levels. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines abate as "to decrease in force or intensity," and that is what we are experiencing with incarceration in modern years in the United States. Incarceration continues on a mass scale in the US, but the force and intensity of our commitment to using ever more incarceration in response to social disorder has decreased.
After Monday stays, Arkansas officials seemingly on path to complete next pair of scheduled executions... OR NOT, as updated below....
As reported in this new AP piece, "two Arkansas inmates set to die this week in a double execution filed more legal challenges Wednesday, but so far the pair is hitting roadblocks as a judge weighs a new attempt to prevent the state from using one of its lethal injection drugs in what would be the state's first executions in nearly a dozen years." Here is more about the continuing litigation as the next set of execution dates approach:
Unless a court steps in, Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson are set for execution Thursday night, and state prison officials have already moved them from death row to the nearby prison that houses the death chamber. It's the second time this week that Arkansas has moved forward with what originally had been a plan to execute eight men before April 30, when its supply of the drug midazolam expires.
On Monday, the Arkansas Supreme Court blocked the executions of two men set to die that night. A third man has received a stay from a federal judge over issues with his clemency schedule. Five inmates still face execution over the next two weeks, and they've filed a series of court challenges in hopes of stopping that.
The latest request, filed Wednesday, asks the U.S. Supreme Court to take the inmates' case that challenges the use of midazolam, a sedative used in flawed executions in other states. It's one of three drugs Arkansas plans to use in its executions. In 2015, justices upheld Oklahoma's execution protocol that used the same drug. "As pharmaceutical companies become increasingly resistant to allowing their products to be used in executions, states are likely to continue experimenting with new drugs and drug combinations, and death-row prisoners may challenge these new protocols as violating their constitutional rights," the filing before the U.S. Supreme Court said.
The Arkansas attorney general's office countered in a court filing Wednesday that the inmates' request was a last-minute effort to "manipulate the judicial process."...
Another case that could trip up Arkansas' plan was filed Tuesday by the medical supplier McKesson Corp., which says it sold the drug vecuronium bromide to the Arkansas Department of Correction for inmate medical care, not executions. The company sued to stop Arkansas from using the drug in the planned lethal injections, and a hearing over that issue was underway in Little Rock on Wednesday afternoon.
A state prison official testified that he deliberately ordered the drug last year in a way that there wouldn't be a paper trail, relying on phone calls and text messages. Arkansas Department of Correction Deputy Director Rory Griffin said he didn't keep records of the texts, but McKesson salesman Tim Jenkins did. In text messages from Jenkins' phone, which came up at Wednesday's court hearing, there is no mention that the drug would be used in executions.
Lee and Johnson both faced setbacks Tuesday in their quest to get more DNA tests on evidence in hopes of proving their innocence. Lee claims tests of blood and hair evidence that could prove he didn't beat 26-year-old Debra Reese to death during a 1993 robbery in Jacksonville. Johnson claims that advanced DNA techniques could show that he didn't kill Carol Heath, a 25-year-old mother of two, in 1993 at her southwest Arkansas apartment....
"It is understandable that the inmates are taking every step possible to avoid the sentence of the jury; however, it is the court's responsibility to administer justice and bring conclusion to litigation," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday in an emailed statement. "It is that process that we are seeing played out day by day, and we expect it to continue."
UPDATE: This new Washington Post article, headlined "Arkansas courts stay execution, block state from using lethal injection drug," reports on why I reported too soon on the latest execution plans in Arkansas. Here are the latest details:
Arkansas courts on Wednesday dealt another pair of blows to the state’s plans to resume executions Thursday night, the latest in a series of legal rulings imperiling the scheduled flurry of lethal injections.
In one case, a state court halted an execution scheduled for Thursday night, while a state judge separately barred the use of a lethal injection drug, potentially blocking all of the planned executions.
The rulings come as Arkansas, seeking to carry out its first executions since 2005, has become the epicenter of capital punishment in the United States because of its frantic schedule. Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) originally scheduled eight executions in 11 days, an unprecedented pace, which drew national scrutiny and criticism....
After the first planned executions were halted, Arkansas officials pointed to legal victories they won the same day and vowed to press on with them, beginning with two scheduled for Thursday night. “There are five scheduled executions remaining with nothing preventing them from occurring, but I will continue to respond to any and all legal challenges brought by the prisoners,” Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R) said in a statement after the U.S. Supreme Court denied her request to allow one execution to proceed Monday. “The families have waited far too long to see justice, and I will continue to make that a priority.”
Challenges to the executions are not only being brought by the inmates. McKesson, the country’s largest drug distributor, said a court on Wednesday granted its request for a temporary restraining order keeping Arkansas from using a drug the company says was obtained under false pretenses. The judge issued a verbal order from the bench, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; no injunction was filed in court records by early Wednesday night. A spokesman for Rutledge did not immediately have a comment on this order, but it is expected that she would appeal to the state Supreme Court....
The Arkansas Supreme Court also stopped one specific execution set for Thursday, saying just over 24 hours before it was scheduled to occur that it was staying it without explanation. In its order, the state Supreme Court narrowly blocked the execution of Stacey E. Johnson, 47, who has been on death row since 1994. The court said Johnson should be allowed to press on with his motion for post-conviction DNA testing. Johnson was sentenced to death for the murder of Carol Jean Heath, a woman brutally killed in her home.
Three justices dissented from the decision, with all three joining in a dissent saying the stay in this case “gives uncertainty to any case ever truly being final in the Arkansas Supreme Court.”...
Johnson is one of two inmates facing execution Thursday night. The other, Ledell Lee, has appealed his execution, arguing that he has an intellectual disability and seeking to prove his innocence. Both men are also among a group of death-row inmates who have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the executions, one of several legal battles being waged between the state and the inmates.
Is it really a big deal and a big problem that there are for now so many DOJ vacancies?
Because I have never worked in the Justice Department, I am really unsure whether much should be made of the facts highlighted in this recent Washington Post article about the slow pace of filling all the transition vacancies at DOJ. The article is headlined "A month after dismissing federal prosecutors, Justice Department does not have any U.S. attorneys in place," and here are excerpts:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is making aggressive law enforcement a top priority, directing his federal prosecutors across the country to crack down on illegal immigrants and “use every tool” they have to go after violent criminals and drug traffickers.
But the attorney general does not have a single U.S. attorney in place to lead his tough-on-crime efforts across the country. Last month, Sessions abruptly told the dozens of remaining Obama administration U.S. attorneys to submit their resignations immediately — and none of them, or the 47 who had already left, have been replaced.
“We really need to work hard at that,” Sessions said when asked Tuesday about the vacancies as he opened a meeting with federal law enforcement officials. The 93 unfilled U.S. attorney positions are among the hundreds of critical Trump administration jobs that remain open.
Sessions is also without the heads of his top units, including the civil rights, criminal and national security divisions, as he tries to reshape the Justice Department.... Sessions said that until he has his replacements, career acting U.S. attorneys “respond pretty well to presidential leadership.”
But former Justice Department officials say that acting U.S. attorneys do not operate with the same authority when interacting with police chiefs and other law enforcement executives. “It’s like trying to win a baseball game without your first-string players on the field,” said former assistant attorney general Ronald Weich, who ran the Justice Department’s legislative affairs division during Obama’s first term.
“There are human beings occupying each of those seats,” Weich, now dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, said of the interim officials. “But that’s not the same as having appointed and confirmed officials who represent the priorities of the administration. And the administration is clearly way behind in achieving that goal.”
Filling the vacancies has also been complicated by Sessions not having his second-highest-ranking official in place. Rod J. Rosenstein, nominated for deputy attorney general — the person who runs the Justice Department day-to-day — is still not on board, although he is expected to be confirmed by the Senate this month. Traditionally, the deputy attorney general helps to select the U.S. attorneys.... Rachel Brand has been nominated for the department’s third-highest position as associate attorney general. She has also not been confirmed.
This week, the attorney general flies to Texas and California to meet with law enforcement officials about his priorities. But, until he gets his U.S. attorneys on board, Sessions will be hampered in moving forward with new policies, former Justice Department officials say. “An acting U.S. attorney doesn’t speak with the same authority to a police chief or to a local prosecutor as a Senate-confirmed U.S. attorney does,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman in the Obama administration. “If you’re a Democrat, you’re probably happy to have these positions filled by career officials because they’re less likely to pursue some of the policies that Jeff Sessions supports. But if you’re a supporter of the president, you probably want them to move on those positions.”
I am inclined to look at this article as largely "much ado about nothing," but perhaps folks with DOJ experience will help me better understand if and how DOJ vacancies may actually be a big deal and a big problem.