May 6, 2008
Cooperation discount leads to buzz about DOJ investigating Hill happenings
This item from Politico highlights how a massive criminal justice system that encourages cooperation can get a lot of persons nervous real fast, even on Capitol Hill:
The news was buried deep in a Page Two story in Saturday’s Washington Post, but it’s gotten the city’s lawyers chattering. The Department of Justice, according to a confidential source in the Post article, is investigating whether members of Congress have been improperly using staff and office resources.
The Justice Department declined to comment, but that hasn’t diminished the buzz on Capitol Hill. “Nobody’s heard anything,” said Andrew Herman, a congressional ethics attorney who by Monday morning had already fielded a number of calls from nervous lawyers. “There’s just concern that this could become another House banking investigation.” If Justice is, in fact, looking into the way that members of Congress use taxpayer dollars, Herman said the concern might be justified. “I’m sure that there are certainly times that staff is used inappropriately. How could there not be?” he said, though he added that he had no specific examples of irregularities.
It’s unclear how serious the investigation is or whether there actually is an investigation. In a story largely devoted to the sentencing of Laura I. Flores, a former staffer for Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), the Post reported that “prosecutors petitioned to reduce [Flores’] penalty in exchange for help with an inquiry into whether lawmakers used congressional staff members and resources to support their political campaigns, according to a source familiar with the case.” Flores was sentenced on Friday to six months in prison after pleading guilty in January to wire fraud.
May 5, 2008
Two potent new reports on race and the drug war
As detailed in this news article, "two studies published today conclude that the battle has been pitched largely in African American communities and that African Americans bear a disproportionate brunt of its collateral damage." The two new studies come from The Sentencing Project and from Human Rights Watch.
The Sentencing Project report, titled "Geography: The War on Drugs in America's Cities," is available at this link. The Human Rights Watch report, titled "Targeting Blacks Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States," is available at this link. These excerpts from the conclusion of the HRW report reminds me why I find it disappointing and shameful that these issues are overlooked in the media/political frenzy surrounding a presidential campaign that is supposedly all about race:
The racial disparities in incarceration generated by drug control strategies raise deeply troubling questions. Why are white drug users and sellers comparatively free of arrest and incarceration for their illegal activity? Why has the United States continued to address illicit drugs primarily with a punitive criminal justice approach, including harsh prison sentences? Why has the country been willing to impose the burden of incarceration for drug offenses primarily on those who by virtue of race and poverty are already among the most marginalized in society and the most politically powerless?
We cannot answer those questions. But we do know that the racial disparities we have documented in this report violate fundamental principles of justice and equal protection of the law. They undermine faith among all races and ethnic groups in the fairness and efficacy of the US criminal justice system. They are particularly intolerable because incarceration has such grave implications for the offenders' lives and those of their families and communities.
It is difficult to overstate the harshness of a prison sentence and its enduring consequences. Prisons are tense, overcrowded, dangerous, and barren places in which it may be difficult to maintain one’s emotional equilibrium and self-respect, much less turn a life around....
The United States can and must devise ways to make its drug control policies less destructive to black communities in general, and black males in particular. There is no justification for levying the burdens of incarceration and its aftermath disproportionately on black drug offenders. The statistics presented in this report reflect the persistent failure of the United States to ensure that its efforts to reduce illicit drug use and sales are conducted within a framework of respect for human rights.
Some related posts:
- Can and will Iowa's "Minority Impact Statement" legislation help with criminal justice disparities
- Politics and the war on drugs
Some execution news and notes
Two notable death penalty stories have developed this afternoon:
1. As this AP article details, a "Georgia board has denied condemned killer William Earl Lynd's clemency bid, paving the way for him to likely become the nation's first inmate put to death since the U.S. Supreme Court held that lethal injection is constitutional." The article notes that legal appeals are still in the works, so it is still possible a stay will come along before the planned lethal injection execution scheduled for Tuesday at 7 pm.
2. As this AP story details, a "Mexican-born Texas prisoner whose death sentence set off an international dispute and a U.S. Supreme Court rebuke of the White House received an execution date Monday." The article spotlights some of the legal issues that surely will be subject to further debate before Jose Medellin heads toward his now-scheduled the August 5 execution date.
Terrific analysis of Justices' wacka ACCA work
Writing over at CO, Anita Krishnakumar has this fantastic new post, titled "Dejá-Vu in Begay v. United States," examining the struggles that the Supreme Court has been having with application of the Armed Career Criminal Act. Here is the "upshot" of her analysis:
Justices Alito, Souter, and Thomas have proved the most committed to the statutory text in the context of this criminal sentencing enhancement, even when the resulting outcome is not-so-palatable to them. (Their Begay dissent openly expresses sympathy for the result produced by the majority, but laments the majority's construction as irreconcileable with the text). Justice Scalia has proved consistent, across cases, in applying the rather atextual, but Rule-of-Lenity-inspired, construction which he concocted to limit the reach of an ambiguous criminal statute. Justices Stevens and Ginsburg have proved somewhat mysterious, and arguably inconsistent, in their reasoning with respect to this particular sentencing enhancment. And Justices Breyer, Roberts, and Kennedy have proved rather common-law-judge-like in their willingness to tweak the applicable test for this sentencing enhancement (adding on a "similar in kind" requirement) in order to achieve their version of justice on a case-by-case, ad-hoc, basis.
The only think missing from Anita's analsyis is an assessment of what all this might mean for Rodriquez, the other notable ACCA case still pending before the Justices.
Will the 2008 Prez candidates ever seriously discuss modern incarceration realities?
I have largely given up my hope that the 2008 presidential campaign will even give sustained attention to crime and punishment issues. Nevertheless, this morning's front-page Washington Post article highlights how prison spending is not just a crime and punishment issue:
Between 1987 and last year, states increased their higher education spending by 21 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the Pew Center on the States. During the same period, spending on corrections jumped by 127 percent. In the Northeastern states, according to the Pew report, prison spending over the past 20 years has risen 61 percent, while higher education spending has declined by 5.5 percent....
Michigan has become one of the few states that actually spend more on prisons than on higher education -- about $2 billion for prisons, and $1.9 billion in state aid to its 15 public universities and 28 community colleges. "It's insane," said Barbara Levine of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending in Lansing. "The governor is always talking about how we need to be high tech. But these days, the best career opportunity is to get a job as a prison guard."...
"You've got two decades of failed policies," said Laura Sager a consultant in Michigan for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She said mandatory sentencing laws and tough penalties for drug offenses in the 1980s "bloated prisons and prison populations, and the taxpayer is paying a very high price." Now with states struggling with budget deficits, she said, "you have pressures that make it palatable to take a second look."
It is sad and telling that expensive mass incarceration realities, which have been building for years, are only now starting to get sustained major media attention. It is even sadder that the media and the pundits have consistently failed to ask the 2008 presidential candidates any serious (or even not-so-serious) questions about mass incarceration and whether anyone has a plan to cut taxes by effectively and strategically cutting prison populations.
Some related general posts on Campaign 2008:
Some related posts on specific candidates' positions and speeches:
Second Circuit rejects sundry challenges to CVRA
The Second Circuit this morning issues an intriguing little opinion in USA v. Eberhard, No. 05-3431 (2d Cir. May 5, 2008) (available here), which rejects a number of constitutional challenges to the Crime Victims Rights Act. Here is one sentence that highlights the to-the-point character of the opinion in Eberhard: "A law requiring that victims be reasonably heard (if they request) after the defendant has already been convicted does not implicate the Ex Post Facto clause."
"Fiscal Pressures Lead Some States to Free Inmates Early"
The title of this post is the title of this front-page Washington Post article in today's edition. Here is how the article starts:
Reversing decades of tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug offenders, many cash-strapped states are embracing a view once dismissed as dangerously naive: It costs far less to let some felons go free than to keep them locked up.
It is a theory that has long been pushed by criminal justice advocates and liberal politicians -- that some felons, particularly those convicted of minor drug offenses, would be better served by treatment, parole or early release for good behavior. But the states' conversion to that view has less to do with a change of heart on crime than with stark fiscal realities. At a time of shrinking resources, prisons are eating up an increasing share of many state budgets.
"It's the fiscal stuff that's driving it," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for more lenient sentencing. "Do you want to build prisons or do you want to build colleges? If you're a governor, it's kind of come to that choice right now." Mauer and other observers point to a number of recent actions, some from states facing huge budget shortfalls, some not, but still worried about exploding costs.
Victim rights amendments on Oregon ballot
This local AP article spotlights that criminal justice fans should be interested in the Oregon primary for reasons beyond the one that will be covered by most of the media:
Crime victims and their families could play a bigger role in trials and sentencing under two statewide measures on the May 20 ballot.
Measures 51 and 52 essentially make the same changes to two different sections of the Oregon Constitution, including the crime victims' right to be present at key stages in a case and to be consulted about plea negotiations in some cases and to be heard at sentencing. Many of those rights are already spelled out in Oregon law but lack enforcement provisions. The measures would also grant the right of appeal for victims who claim their rights are denied.
Some related posts:
May 4, 2008
Food for crime-fighting thought
These two recent notable article provide reasons to ponder the possibility that sentencing policies need not, and perhaps should not, be the primary way in which we try to fight crime:
- From The Economist, this piece describes success in the battle against meth by noting, inter alia, that "[w]hen Safe Streets, a community group, asked pupils to design their own anti-drug posters, many emphasised cosmetic hazards over chemical ones."
- From The New York Times Magazine, this piece describes efforts to deal with urban violent crime through a disease-treatment philosophy: "Zale Hoddenbach, who works for an organization called CeaseFire, is part of an unusual effort to apply the principles of public health to the brutality of the streets."