December 26, 2006
Another crazy person of the year
Many have lampooned Time Magazine's seemingly crazy choice for person of the year. Today, in this commentary, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen suggests a different person of the year:
My person of the year is Gregory Thompson. I choose him to call attention to the madness of the death penalty.... He is a cold-blooded killer, plain and simple. He is also out of his mind.
Thompson, 45, is delusional. He is also paranoid, schizophrenic and depressed. For these ailments, he receives daily doses of drugs and, twice a month, anti-psychotic injections. The state of Tennessee wants very much to put him to death for the horrendous 1985 murder of Brenda Blanton Lane, of which there is no doubt about his guilt. There is grave doubt, though, about the constitutionality, not to mention the decency, of executing an insane man. Thus the 12 pills Thompson takes every day. The idea, according to a recent account of his case in the Wall Street Journal, is to make him sane enough to be put to death....
[Thompson] was probably insane when he murdered Brenda Blanton Lane but will be deemed sane if and when he's executed. He's my person of the year -- a fleetingly sane man in the maw of a thoroughly insane system.
A personal sentencing year in review
In a future post, I will review the major sentencing highlights of 2006. Here I start my reflective blogging by reviewing my sentencing scholarship and related activities for the year (roughly in chronological order with links to posts with more information).
- Conceptualizing Booker
- Tweaking Booker: Advisory Guidelines in the Federal System
- Finding Bickel Gold in a Hill of Beans
- Making Sentencing Sensible (with Stephanos Bibas)
- Reasoning Through Reasonableness
- Perspectives on Booker's Potential
- Now What? The Post-Booker Challenge for Congress and the Sentencing Commission
- The Real (Sentencing) World: State Sentencing in the Post-Blakely Era (with Steve Chanenson)
Major Amicus Efforts
- Crack sentencing in many circuits
- Reasonableness review in the Ninth Circuit
- Reasonableness review of veteran's variance
- Claiborne and Rita: Reasonableness review in the Supreme Court
- FSR Issue 18.2: Defense Perspectives on the Post-Booker World
- FSR Issue 18.3: Taking Stock a Year after Booker
- FSR Issue 18.4: Sentencing at the Supreme Court
- FSR Issue 18.5: Toward Real Reform: Model Federal Sentencing Guidelines
- FSR Issue 19.1: Victims and Sentencing I
Of course, I have also done more posts than I can count on this blog and also started a new group blog, Law School Innovation. And, speaking of blogs, I also wrote this article, "Scholarship in Action: The Power, Possibilities, and Pitfalls for Law Professor Blogs," as part of this year's Harvard Law School symposium, "Bloggership: How Blogs are Transforming Legal Scholarship Conference."
Examining crack sentencing in the new Congress
Today's Wall Street Journal has this extended article discussing how the new Congress might impact federal sentencing rules. The article focuses particularly on the long-running crack-cocaine sentencing debate, and it suggests that the US Sentencing Commission has an amendment to the crack guidelines in the works. Here is how the article begins:
With Democrats poised to take control of Congress, law-enforcement officials are preparing to defend two decades of federal sentencing policies that mandated harsh prison terms on a variety of crimes and led to a boom in the prison population.
Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Robert Scott (D., Va.) have already said they plan hearings early in the term to look at how nonviolent drug offenders are punished under mandatory minimum laws. An early target will be the prison terms mandated by Congress for crack-cocaine convictions.
Under current law, someone caught with five grams of crack gets a five-year sentence, while it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same sentence, even though there is no physiological difference. Critics have long maintained that the law unfairly targets African-American communities, where crack is more prevalent. In contrast, suburban white users tend to prefer cocaine in its powder form. Mr. Conyers has called the crack-cocaine sentences the "most outrageous example of the unfairness of mandatory minimums."
Democrats are buoyed by recent signals from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for judges to use in an advisory capacity when they hand down sentences. Members of the commission are likely to recommend a change in the crack-cocaine penalties next year, according to commission members. The commission has tried since 1995 to bring the penalties for crack crimes more in line with powder cocaine but the Republican-controlled Congress has ignored past attempts.
Some recent related posts:
- How could and will this election impact federal sentencing policy?
- Figuring out election results for sentencing fans
- The big other branch questions after the election
- FAMM's view of the new political landscape
- More speculations about Congress and sentencing
December 25, 2006
The right's prison conversion
In a fitting piece for the holiday season, the New York Times Magazine ran this extended article entitled "The Right Has a Jailhouse Conversion." The piece effectively explores the Second Chance Act and modern changes in the politics of crime. Here is an introductory snippet:
[A] decline in the exploitation of crime coincides with an odd and surprising change in the politics of crime. The G.O.P., the party of Richard Nixon’s 1968 law-and-order campaign and the Willie Horton commercial, is beginning to embrace the idea that prisoners have not only souls that need saving but also flesh that needs caring for in this world. Increasingly, Republicans are talking about helping ex-prisoners find housing, drug treatment, mental-health counseling, job training and education. They're also reconsidering some of the more punitive sentencing laws for drug possession....
Perhaps most remarkably, the outgoing Republican-controlled Congress came tantalizingly close to passing the Second Chance Act, a bill that focuses not on how to “lock them up” but on how to let them out. The bill may become law soon, if Democrats continue to welcome the new conservative interest in rehabilitation.
As detailed in posts below, I have long been spotlighting the importance of recent evolutions in the politics of crime:
- Is there a "new right" on criminal sentencing issues?
- More evidence of a new sentencing reform politics
- Religion, sentencing and corrections
- Meth, mandatories and moral values
- Sentencing and Religion
- Miers, religion, and criminal justice issues
- Crime, sentencing and politics
- Having faith in prisons
December 24, 2006
Ohio sentencing stories at the heart of it all
For two decades, the Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism has used the slogan, "Ohio, The Heart of It All" to promote the state. Two articles today on Buckeye state sentencing developments shows how true this slogan is:
- This article from the Cleveland Plain Dealer provides an effective overview of the recent chaotic rulings in the lawsuit challenging Ohio's lethal-injection protocol.
- This article from the Columbus Dispatch provides an effective overview of recently passed legislation through which the "Ohio legislature dropped the hammer on sex offenders."
Lethal injection litigation and new "get-tougher" sex legislation essentially defines the major sentencing developments of 2006. At least in the arena of sentencing, Ohio truly is at the heart of it all.
Thoughtful reflections on the death penalty
Writing for The Nation, Bruce Shapiro has this thoughtful examination of the current state of the death penalty. Entitled "Questioning Capital Punishment," the piece explores various aspect of current capital debates. I was especially drawn to this passage:
For the last decade, the issue that has driven the death penalty debate — galvanizing the attention of courts and press alike — has been innocence: a capital representation system so criminally negligent that 123 wrongfully convicted death-row inmates have been released, and public confidence in death sentences eroded.
Yet innocence cases, in their own way, have evaded a fundamental question: What about the grievously guilty? What about what one pro-death-penalty legal scholar calls "the worst of the worst"? Are executions of the truly guilty consistent with America's evolving constitutional standards, with national ideals and worldwide human rights norms?
UPDATE: Along the same lines, the Washington Post today has this article spotlighting the how the death penalty crossroads in Maryland might impact the incoming Governor-elect. Here is how it begin:
The emotionally charged, polarizing issue of the death penalty was barely mentioned during the campaign for Maryland governor. And it hardly seemed something that Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley would be eager to wade into during his first months in office, when he plans to focus on "the things we agree on."
Yet the confluence of national currents and a Maryland court ruling last week halting executions on a technicality could make the death penalty a defining issue of O'Malley's tenure. In effect, Maryland suddenly has a moratorium on executions, and the new governor, who is personally opposed to capital punishment, could play a pivotal role in determining when — and whether — it resumes.
A gendered perspective on the war on drugs
This article from the North County Times (CA), entited "Women are silent casualties of war on drugs," provides an interesting and thoughtful perspective on how tough sentencing laws have particularly impacted women. Here is one data highlight from the article:
America's 25-year war on drugs has taken an exorbitant toll, both human and economic. Drug arrests have tripled since 1980; as a result, the number of jailed drug offenders in 2000 equaled the total number of inmates in U.S. prisons and jails 25 years ago, according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.
By most estimates, women have paid the highest price. Between 1977 and 2001, figures from the Women's Prison Association show a 592 percent increase in the number of women jailed, from 12,279 to 85,031. According to the WPA, the growth "corresponds directly to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws in effect since the early 1970s. Since more women are convicted for nonviolent, drug-related crimes than for any other, these sentencing policies have had a particularly profound effect on women."