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May 23, 2009

"Ex-Soldier Gets Life Sentence for Iraq Murders"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times article reporting the outcome of a high-profile capital prosecution with lots of international and domestic policy components.  Here are the basics:

A jury in Kentucky sentenced a 24-year-old former soldier to life in prison without parole on Thursday for raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and murdering her, her parents and a younger sister in Iraq.

The verdict spared the defendant, Steven D. Green, death for a crime that prompted Iraqi demands for retribution and raised questions about Army oversight of its combat-stressed forces.  After deliberating for just one day, the 12-member jury, sitting in Paducah, Ky., declared itself hung late Thursday afternoon, resulting in the lesser sentence, said Dawn Masden, a spokeswoman for the United States attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, based in Louisville.

The verdict seemed likely to anger Iraqis who had argued that Mr. Green and the other soldiers involved in the murders should have been tried by an Iraqi court and who had asserted that only a death penalty could satisfy the family and fellow villagers.

At least four other soldiers have pleaded guilty or were convicted in military courts for their roles in the rape and murders. While most received long prison terms, none are facing the death penalty, and all will be eligible for parole in 10 years or less.

Mr. Green’s trial was the first capital punishment case tried under a 2000 law allowing federal criminal courts to try crimes committed overseas by former members of the military, military dependents, contractors and other civilians, legal experts said. Mr. Green left the Army, with an honorable discharge on a diagnosis for a personality disorder, just weeks before he was arrested in 2006.

The March 2006 murders in Mahmudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, were so bloody that American and Iraqi authorities first thought they were the work of insurgents. The American soldiers were implicated after at least one acknowledged to fellow soldiers a role in the crimes....

On March 11, 2006, after drinking Iraqi whiskey, Private Green and other soldiers manning a checkpoint decided to rape an Iraqi girl who lived nearby, according to testimony. Wearing civilian clothing, the soldiers broke into a house and raped Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi. Soldiers in the group testified that Private Green killed the girl’s parents and a younger sister before raping and then shooting the girl in the head with the family’s own AK-47, which it had kept for self defense.

At his trial, Mr. Green’s lawyers built a case intended less to deny his role in the crime than to plant questions about whether he deserved the death penalty....  After the sentencing, Doug Green, 28, Mr. Green’s brother, told The Associated Press: “I do think it gives him a chance to have some semblance of a life. We’re grateful for that.” The team of defense lawyers, Scott Wendelsdorf, Darren Wolff and Patrick Bouldin, said in a statement: “The defense thanks the jury for their careful consideration and ultimate decision. There are no winners in a case like this that is tragic on so many levels.”

May 23, 2009 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Long weekend sentencing reading from SSRN

These two new piece on very different sentencing topics caught my eye on SSRN this morning:

Unexpected Consequences: The Constitutional Implications of Federal Prison Policy for Offenders Considering Abortion by Claire Bernice Deason

Abstract: As many as 6,000 women are pregnant in prison in the United States. The option of abortion is particularly suited for these women, who struggle with public assistance, drug addiction, or who are at risk of losing their child to the foster system.  The Bureau of Prisons policies governing abortion in prison effectively require potentially coercive religious counseling, empower prison administrators to “pass the buck” and control abortion access, and disregard the time constraints associated with pregnancy.  Although these federal prison policies are facially constitutional and therefore survive substantive challenges, they are unconstitutional as applied because they deny pregnant offenders the constitutionally protected procedures that should accompany the right to abortion.  A simple, albeit surprising, analogy to prison correspondence policies can provide a roadmap for establishing the basic protections of notice and a hearing.  These procedural safeguards ensure that incarcerated women have the information they need to make reproductive decisions behind prison walls.

An Overdose of Dangerousness: How 'Future Dangerousness' Captures the Least Culpable Capital Defendants and Undermines the Rationale for the Executions It Supports by Meghan Shapiro

Abstract: "Future dangerousness” is a very non-technical name for a particularly problematic capital sentencing factor used in nearly every capital jurisdiction in the United States, directly underlying at least half of all modern era executions and likely playing some role in the rest.  Despite its popularity, the American Psychiatric Association has maintained for over twenty years that such predictions of future threat are “wrong in at least two out of every three cases.”  Thus, while an inquiry into a defendant’s future dangerousness seems to align with a Supreme-Court-approved purpose of capital punishment (“the incapacitation of dangerous criminals and the consequent prevention of crimes that they may otherwise commit in the future”), in application the incapacitation rationale is severely undermined by alarmingly unreliable predictions of future threat.  Of even graver concern should be the effect of future dangerousness to obscure any culpability determination, resulting in a high number of death sentences for vulnerable defendants most people would never consider “deserving of execution,” and undercutting another common rationale for capital punishment: retribution.

This should cause us all to pause and, as Justice Stevens recently urged in Baze v. Rees, to question our retention of a system that is “the product of habit and inattention rather than an acceptable deliberative process that weighs the costs and risks of administering that penalty against its identifiable benefits[.]”  This article broadly examines future dangerousness’ flawed application and unique ability to distort the constitutional function of capital sentencing hearings, replacing a juror’s duty to consider individual culpability with a fear of responsibility for future violence.  It concludes that, while comprehensive reforms might minimize its unsettling and unconstitutional implications, current use of future dangerousness is leading to unnecessary and unconstitutional executions lacking both incapacitation and retributive rationales.

May 23, 2009 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

May 22, 2009

Notable new Alaska appellate decision on denying gun rights to non-violent felons

Thanks to this post at Volokh, I learned of an interesting new Alaska Court of Appeals decision in Wilson v. Alaska (available here) addressing whether nonviolent felons have any rights under the state's Constitution.  Here are basic parts of the opinion for the court:

The thrust of Wilson’s argument is that the statute prohibiting a felon from possessing a concealable firearm violates article I, section 19 of the Alaska Constitution because it does not differentiate between violent and non-violent felons, and thus is not narrowly tailored to achieve the State’s compelling interest in preventing violent crime. Wilson argues that article I, section 19 guarantees an individual’s right to keep and bear arms, and therefore any law that restricts that right must be narrowly tailored to protect a compelling government interest.

Wilson points out that he was convicted of a non-violent, class C felony — theft in the second degree — for fraudulently obtaining unemployment benefits. He states that he is a sixty-seven-year-old man who lives in a cabin on a homestead, lives a subsistence lifestyle, and needs a handgun for personal protection. He argues that the State cannot justify restricting his constitutional right to possess a concealable firearm....

[U]nder our prior cases, we have rejected the constitutional challenge that Wilson now brings. Furthermore, other states have consistently rejected similar constitutional challenges.  We accordingly conclude that Judge Wolverton did not err in denying Wilson’s motion to dismiss.

The separate opinions that accompany this somewhat analysis talk through this interesting issue in a lot more detail.

Some related Second Amendment posts:

May 22, 2009 in Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Connecticut Governor pledges to veto death penalty repeal bill

According to this AP story, the effort to repeal the death penalty in Connecticut is going to die on the desk of the state's governor:

Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell vowed Friday to veto a newly approved bill banning the death penalty as soon as she receives it, saying capital punishment is appropriate for certain heinous crimes.   The measure, approved early Friday by the state Senate and last week by the state House of Representatives, would replace capital punishment with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

At least two-thirds of the members of each chambers would have to vote to override a veto.  But achieving that margin is in doubt, given the tight 19-17 vote in the Democrat-led Senate. The bill passed 90-56 in the House, which also led by Democrats.

Rell, a Republican, said Friday that while she understands the "passionate beliefs of people on both sides" of the debate, she will veto the measure "as soon as it hits my desk." "I also fully understand the anguish and outrage of the families of victims who believe, as I do, that there are certain crimes so heinous, so fundamentally revolting to our humanity , that the death penalty is warranted," she said....

New Jersey and New Mexico are the only states that have abolished the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to reinstate capital punishment in 1976. Thirty-five states have death penalty laws, although some have not executed a prisoner in decades.

There are 10 men on Connecticut's death row, including three who committed their crimes in the 1980s. The legislation would not retroactively affect their cases.

Several murder victims' relatives gathered at the Capitol on Friday to support the ban, saying state-sanctioned executions of convicted murderers do not compensate for their losses.

May 22, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

"Is 500 serious crimes worth the freedom of 50,000 offenders? That's my question."

At the end of a lengthy debate in the comments to an earlier post, frequent commentor "federalist" tees up a great question that goes to the heart of the challenges facing all sentencing reform efforts.  The question federalist poses is the question in the title of this post, and I wanted to set it out in this new post so that it could be discussed and debated in a fresh setting. 

My students know that I say that the right answer to every good question is "it depends," and I think that this is the right answer to federalist's great question.  First, of course, we need some sense of what "serious" crimes are hypothetically being prevented by denying freedom 50,000 offenders.  I think most everyone would say that heroin dealing and downloading child porn and illegal dogfighting and mortgage fraud and perjury and domestic violence are all serious crimes, and yet I suspect few would endorse trading off freedom for 50,000 offenders to prevent 500 of these kinds of "serious" crimes.

To his credit, federalist provides a sketch of his vision of  "serious" crimes: "forcible rape, armed robbery, murder, drunk driving."  I suspect he added drunk driving to the list because I often complain that we do not seem to treat drunk driving as a serious crime unless and until the drunk driver kills or seriously hurts someone.  If we accept the idea that drunk driving is a serious crime, I wonder if federalist and others would seek to deny the freedom for Charles Barkley and Joba Chamberlain and Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie and 49,995 other recent drunk driving offenders in the hope of preventing 500 new cases of drunk driving.

Even leaving drunk driving out of the debate, we also have the fundamental question of whether this hypo sets up a false choice because of the other costs of denying freedom to 50,000 offenders.  Specifically, at current rates, it could cost well over $2,000,000,000 deny this freedom for just one year.  I would think spending that $2 billion on additional cops (or better health care and schooling) could prevent even more serious crimes.  Plus, of course, there is the (abstract?) cost to freedom and liberty for the 49,500 offenders (and all who know them) from being locked up to prevent others from committing crimes.

That all said, while we could seek to further refine or dispute federalist's basic great question, modern risk assessment tools and crime data create the need for all would-be sentencing policy-makers and reformers to confront some variation of this great question at some point in some way. 

So, dear readers, how do you respond to it?  Relatedly, how do you think Thomas Jefferson and the authors of the Federalist Papers and others who founded the US would respond?

May 22, 2009 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Connecticut legislature sends death penalty repeal bill to Governor Rell

This local article reports on interesting early-morning death penalty reform developments in Connecticut:

The Connecticut Senate voted to abolish the death penalty early Friday morning after a marathon debate, narrowly approving a bill that would make life imprisonment without possibility of release the state’s highest criminal punishment.

The Senate approved the death penalty bill, 19-17, shortly after 4 a.m., after nearly 11 hours of debate. The same measure had previously passed in the House of Representatives, and proceeds to Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who has appeared likely to veto the bill.

If signed into law, the bill would make Connecticut the 16th American state without an active death penalty statute....

After the vote, Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, the bill’s chief proponent and the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, sounded tired but jubilant.  “This was a historic day for our chamber and for our state,” McDonald said. “I would encourage the governor to take some time and reflect on the magnitude of what the people’s chambers have said today, and to consider anew the continued viability or utility of the death penalty in a civilized society.”

The bill, already passed with bipartisan support in the House of Representatives last week, faced a far stiffer challenge in the Senate, and now from Rell, a Republican who supports capital punishment.

May 22, 2009 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

USA Patrick Fitzgerald urges business leaders to hire felons

A helpful reader sent me this notable item from the Chicago papers, which is headlined " Fitzgerald: Fight crime by hiring felons: U.S. attorney says business could help cut murder rate, hire teens as interns."  Here are excerpts:

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald stood before a room packed with business officials Thursday and asked them to do something they probably have never considered: Hire felons.

Not exactly the kind of request you'd expect from the area's top federal law enforcement official, who's better known for locking up criminals. But Fitzgerald told the audience that while law enforcement targets the worst of the worst, the community needs to get more involved -- especially the business community -- to help drive down murder numbers and keep kids out of gangs.

Fitzgerald, speaking at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, said on any given day there are 4,000 Chicago Police officers on the streets and an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 gang-bangers in the city. "How in the world can we incarcerate our way out of the problem when we are outnumbered that much?" Fitzgerald said.

Part of the answer, he said, lies with corporations, who can help sponsor after-school programs or enlist teenagers from the projects to be summer interns -- or even hire felons. He urged business officials to reach out and invest in some of the most economically depressed areas of the city, such as Englewood, Back of the Yards or North Lawndale. They can do that, Fitzgerald said, by getting involved in Project Safe Neighborhoods, a program run through the U.S. attorney's office in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies....

Fitzgerald said research has shown that parolees who have attended a one-hour forum held by Project Safe Neighborhoods are 30 percent less likely to return to jail. The forum gives parolees job options and warns them that they'll be thrown back in prison if they cross the line.

May 22, 2009 in Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

May 21, 2009

West-coast swing for the US Sentencing Commission next week

As detailed in this official notice, the US Sentencing Commission has scheduled a public hearing for May 27-28, 2009, at Stanford Law School.  This link provides the agenda and the list of impressive persons scheduled to testify at the USSC hearing.  From the folks at Stanford, I received these additional details about the hearing:

This public hearing is the second in a series of regional hearings to mark the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 ("SRA").... The hearing will allow commissioners to hear directly from judges, practitioners, academics, and other individuals about their experiences with, and any suggestions regarding, federal sentencing policy.  In particular, the Commission is interested in the following topics:

1. How has the advisory nature of the federal sentencing guidelines after the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Booker, 543, U.S. 220 (2005) affected federal sentencing?

2. What should be the role of the federal sentencing guidelines in federal sentencing?  What, if any, changes should be made to the federal sentencing guidelines?

3. Does the federal sentencing system strike the appropriate balance between judicial discretion and uniformity and certainty in sentencing?

4. How should offense and offender characteristics be taken into account in federal sentencing?  What, if any, changes should be made with respect to accounting for offense and offender characteristics?

5. What type of analysis should courts use for imposing sentences within or outside the guideline sentencing range?

6. How have Booker and subsequent Supreme Court decisions affected appellate review of sentences?

7. What, if any, recommendations should the Commission make regarding the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure?

8. What, if any, recommendations should the Commission make to Congress with respect to statutory changes regarding federal sentencing?

The USSC is asking all the right questions, and I suspect the impressive folks testifying will have lots of good answers.

May 21, 2009 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

New sex offender rules and regulations become law in Iowa

As detailed in this local article, "revised restrictions on convicted sex offenders were signed into law today by Gov. Chet Culver, under a bill that several key law enforcement officials said will better protect Iowans."  Here are more details:

The main change in Senate file 340 sets up what is known as exclusion zones.  It gives schools, child care centers and public library officials the ability to grant or deny access to any convicted sex offender.

But the bill also no longer prohibits about 3,100 of the state's lower-risk offenders from living closer than 2,000 feet from a school or child care facility.  They could live as close as they like, but they would not be allowed inside the exclusion zone. Offenders with the most serious crimes on their records would still be required to abide by the 2,000-foot rule, however.

Law enforcement agency representatives have generally said the revised law would help them keep the most dangerous child predators away from key areas where children are located. Currently, a sex offender can spend time around places like schools but simply cannot live in that location. The changes would give law enforcement more authority to remove sex offenders from such areas and better protect the public, advocates for the bill said.

The bill, which some lawmakers have worked on for more than four years, easily passed both the House and the Senate with votes from both Democrats and Republicans.  About 70 law enforcement officials and lawmakers from both parties joined Culver at the Capitol today to sign the bill. “This was done to fix a loophole in the law, which although limiting where offenders could live, it did not address other dangers to public safety in terms of day-to-day behaviors of registered sex offenders,” Culver said.

As regular readers know, Iowa was a pioneer in the development of residency restrictions and also was the locale for the first complaints from law enforcement officials about administrative problems with these laws.  It will be interesting to see if other jurisdictions transition away from unduly broad residency restrictions and move toward this new "exclusion zones" model.

Some recent related posts:

May 21, 2009 in Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

The persistent and enduring challenges of cracking the crack disparity in Congress

As detailed on this official hearing page, this morning the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee has been holding a hearing on crack sentencing.  As I predicted in this prior post, it does appear from the written testimony (now linked from the hearing page) that everyone involved in the hearing is speaking out against the current 100:1 drug weight ratio that now exists in federal statutory sentencing provisions.  But while the status quo 100:1 ratio is being universally criticized, exactly what should take its place is subject to continuing debate.

Specifically, consider this passage from the written testimony of Joseph Cassilly, the President of the National District Attorneys Association:

I am testifying on behalf of the National District Attorneys Association, the oldest and largest organization representing State and local prosecutors. I have attached a resolution adopted by NDAA regarding the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. NDAA agrees that some adjustment is warranted, but just as the 100:1 disparity cannot be justified by empirical data we believe that the proposed 1:1 realignment of Federal penalties for crack versus powder cocaine also lacks any empirical or clinical evidence.  A random adjustment will have severe negative consequences on the efforts of this nation’s prosecutors to remove the destructive effects of crack and violence from our communities....

The nation’s prosecutors urge Congress to adopt a sentencing scheme with regard to the destruction caused by crack cocaine to our communities.  If there is a need to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine then perhaps the solution is to increase sentences for powder cocaine.

Similarly, consider this passage from the written testimony of Bob Bushman on behalf of the National Narcotics Officers Association Coalition:

We have been asked, repeatedly, over the past few years about our views on legislative proposals to reduce the crack-powder disparity.  While we believe that the existing law has been a valuable tool in reducing the impact of crack on communities, we realize that it has also had a negative impact on some people’s perception of law enforcement. So, while we agree that it is appropriate for Congress to review the law, we also believe that Congress should consider a solution to narrow the disparity between crack and powder cocaine that includes lowering the threshold quantity for powder cocaine. We do not believe the best approach is to dramatically increase the threshold amount of crack that triggers the minimum penalty.

In other words, even though it does not appear anyone will come out in full-throated support for the current 100:1 crack/powder statutory status quo, there are still strong voices calling for preserving some significant disparity in crack/powder sentencing provisions and/or advocating that the solution is to make powder cocaine sentences harsher instead of making crack sentences softer.

This persistent and enduring reality — namely the robust policy debate over exactly how the current 100:1 disparity should be addressed — accounts for why I remain, as expressed here, depressingly skeptical that major federal sentencing changes in this area (or others) is imminent.  One of the fascinating lessons of modern sentencing reforms over the last few decades (especially at the federal level) is that it is relatively easy to enact legislation to increase sentences and extremely hard to enact legislation to reduce sentences.  

So, while advocates for lower sentence can and should remain hopeful in light of recent development, they also must be realistic about the political challenges of achieving broad and significant sentencing reforms in the legislative arena.  That is why I have been saying since November that federal sentencing reformers should focus principally on the USSC and courts, because status quo biases and the challenges of legislative inertia do not as directly prevent them from engineering major reforms (as Blakely and Booker highlighted so dramatically).

Some related recent posts on crack sentencing debates:  

May 21, 2009 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

New Pew report with "evidence-based sentencing initiatives to control crime and reduce costs"

I just learned of a new policy brief from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project, which is titled "Arming the Courts with Research: 10 Evidence-Based Sentencing Initiatives to Control Crime and Reduce Costs."  The policy brief can be accessed at this link, where it is summarized this way:

For many years, conventional wisdom has been that “nothing works” to change offender behavior — that once an offender has turned to crime little can be done to help turn his or her life around. Today, however, there is a voluminous body of solid research showing that certain “evidence-based” sentencing and corrections practices do work and can reduce crime rates as effectively as prisons at much lower cost.

This policy brief outlines 10 strategies for evidence-based sentencing that would allow states to reduce their crime rates while conserving state resources to meet other important needs. The brief is adapted from a longer paper by Roger Warren, president emeritus of the National Center for State Courts, that was originally published in a special 2007 issue of the Indiana Law Journal.

May 21, 2009 in Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Are federal supermax prisons tough enough for terrorist detainees?

According to this new AP article, which is headlined "Obama says US prisons tough enough for detainees,"President Obama views federal supermax prisons to be tough enough for government work.  Here is part of an AP report on the President's security speech today:

President Barack Obama said Thursday some of the terror suspects held at Guantanamo would be brought to prisons in the United States despite fierce opposition in Congress. He promised to work with lawmakers to develop a system for imprisoning detainees who can't be tried and can't be turned loose.

"There are no neat or easy answers here," Obama said in a speech in which he pledged anew to "clean up the mess at Guantanamo" that he said the nation had inherited from the Bush administration. Obama conceded that some of the detainees would end up in U.S. prisons and insisted those facilities were tough enough to house even the most dangerous inmates....

Obama noted that roughly 500 detainees already have been released by the Bush administration. There are 240 at Guantanamo now.... "I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo," Obama said. "As president, I refuse to allow this problem to fester. Our security interests won't permit it. Our courts won't allow it. And neither should our conscience."

Obama said his administration was in the process of studying each of the remaining Guantanamo detainees "to determine the appropriate policies for dealing with them."

"Nobody has ever escaped from one of our `supermax' prisons which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists," Obama said....

He described this [detainee] group as those "who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people."

"I want to be honest: this is the toughest issue we will face," Obama said.  He said that the his administration would "exhaust every avenue that we have" to prosecute detainees but there would still be some left "who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes" yet remain a threat. Among these, he said, are prisoners who have expressed allegiance to Osama bin Laden "or otherwise made it clear they want to kill Americans."

"So going forward, my administration will work with Congress to develop an appropriate legal regime" to handle such detainees "so that our efforts are consistent with our values and our Constitution."

Though I have never actually served time either in a federal supermax facility or at Guantanamo, my sense is that inmate life at a federal supermax facility is actually tougher than inmate life at Guantanamo. But I am basing this statement on mostly third-hand reports.  Indeed, I would be grateful to hear from anyone representing persons in a federal supermax facility and/or at Guantanamo about their impressions about which locale is "tougher" for those held there.

May 21, 2009 in Celebrity sentencings | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Some notable death penalty headlines

Thanks to the always terrific How Appealing, I saw these interesting death penalty stories in today's newspapers:

Also, on my own, I found these additional execution protocol stories of note:

May 21, 2009 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 20, 2009

"Sex Offenders Forced To Live Under Miami Bridge"

The title of this post is the title of this segment from today's episode of All Things Considered on NPR. Here are excerpts:

In Miami, a causeway in the middle of Biscayne Bay has become home to one of the county's least desirable populations: sex offenders. What began a few years ago as a stopgap solution has become de facto public policy.  For sex offenders with few resources who want to stay in Miami, there's just one option: an encampment of tents and shacks on the Julia Tuttle Causeway.

The encampment got started a few years ago, when Miami-Dade County, like other communities across the country, adopted an ordinance banning sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of anywhere that children gather....

What once was a collection of tents has now become a small village. There are a half-dozen shacks, some with kitchens and working toilets.  A few of the men have built a dock for fishing where some small boats are tied up.  Right now, 67 people live here.  And nearly every week, probation officers drop off sex offenders, recently released, who have nowhere else to go....

So far, officials in Miami-Dade County say they see no reason to change the ordinance. Jose "Pepe" Diaz is one of the county commissioners who sponsored the law.  He concedes that the growing encampment presents health and safety problems but notes that it's the state, not the county, that's put the sex offenders there.  And that's a population for which he has little or no sympathy.

May 20, 2009 in Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Upcoming House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on crack sentencing

As detailed on this official hearing page, the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee has a hearing on crack sentencing scheduled for the morning of Thursday, May 21.  The title of the hearing is "Unfairness in Federal Cocaine Sentencing: Is it Time to Crack the 100 to 1 Disparity?" and the witness list suggests that everyone involved will be speaking out against the current 100:1 drug weight ratio that now exists in federal statutory sentencing provisions.

Even though this hearing suggests continuing momentum for change to the current crack/powder statutory status quo, I remain depressingly skeptical that major federal sentencing changes in this area (or others) is imminent.  The many political challenges of reducing sentences — as well as the many practical challenges of giving retroactive effect to any reduced sentences — has thwarted needed reforms in this area (and others) for more than a decade.  I continue to hope that key legislative players get past talking the talk in Congress and start walking in the walk with actual legal changes.  But, until then, I encourage expectations to remain low, even though hopes are justifiably now very high for federal sentencing change we can believe in.

Some related recent posts on crack sentencing debates:  

UPDATE:  Jeralyn at TalkLeft discusses this upcoming House hearing in this post.  More info can also be found at The Sentencing Project.

May 20, 2009 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Michael Vick now a free man... sort of

The latest news on the latest former federal prisoner can be found here at the top of the CNN's news feed:

Former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick left a federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, early Wednesday, according to his publicist and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He will serve the last two months of his 23-month sentence in home confinement in Virginia, his publicist Judy Smith said. He is a native of Newport News, Virginia....

He will return to professional football as soon as September if reinstated by the NFL, according to the sports agent who negotiated Vick's 10-year, $140 million contract with the Falcons. Meanwhile, Vick's attorneys have said he will work at a Newport News construction firm following his release, and he has also agreed to participate in a documentary for $600,000....

Vick plans to work with the Humane Society of the United States on anti-dogfighting campaigns, Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle told CNN on Tuesday. Vick will work on programs aimed at preventing youths from getting involved in dogfighting, and also on programs to assist young people who have already been involved in the blood sport.

Pacelle said the Humane Society was approached by Vick's representatives. He said he has traveled to Kansas twice to meet with the former quarterback, and during the second visit, the two discussed how Vick could use his sway over youths to discourage them from involvement in dogfighting, as well as help those who were apprehended in connection with it.

Some related recent posts:

May 20, 2009 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

"Longtime fugitive mom freed from prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this article that provides an update on a high-profile case that prompted interesting sentencing debates when it first made news.  Here are a few details:

Susan LeFevre's first prison stretch 33 years ago was so scary that she decided to escape. Now, more than a year after her capture, the woman who changed her life to become a suburban mom in California is free again — and this time her departure was legal.

"It's been very traumatic. I didn't think I'd make it at times," LeFevre, 54, said of her second term behind bars, describing prison as a "very tragic" place.

She was released Tuesday from the Huron Valley prison, south of Ann Arbor, and rode away in a car, a more comfortable departure than in 1976 when she climbed a fence at another prison to escape a 10-year sentence for a heroin deal....

A judge in September placed her on probation for the escape.  Separately, the Michigan Parole Board voted in January to release her from prison on the drug sentence, saying she had led a productive and crime-free life in California.  But the board made her wait until Tuesday because of misconduct in prison. Her record has been clean the past four months....

In prison, humor and conversation among inmates are a cover for a harsh reality, LeFevre said. "There is a real suffering from being detached from the world. I hope there's a lot more done for rehabilitation," she said....

In 1976, LeFevre had served about 14 months of a 10-year sentence for a heroin sale when she escaped.  She expressed regret to a Wayne County judge last fall and said it was a "terrible thing to do."  LeFevre said she was just 21 and frightened by other inmates.  When she returns to California, LeFevre will be on parole for the drug crime until May 2013. She can't drink alcohol, possess firearms or associate with felons.

One of many notable aspects of this story is that Susan LeFevre is often described a "fugitive mom" rather than a fugitive drug dealer or esacped prisoner.  And she only got to be a mom because she was a fugitive after her prison escape.  Though perhaps we should not be troubled by this high-profile example of gender bias, I think it unlikely that a man who acted just like LeFevre would now be viewed in such forgiving ways.

Prior posts on LeFevre case:

UPDATE:  This interesting commentary from the Detroit Free Press, headlined "So long, Susan, and don't forget a promise," suggests that LeFevre herself recognizes that her gender and class have played a role in her notoriety:

Last July, I was the first journalist to interview LeFevre, now 54, after she was brought back to a Michigan prison, after spending 32 years as an escaped prisoner in California.  There, she married, raised three children and lived a model life in suburban San Diego.

But I didn’t show up at Tuesday’s press conference outside Huron Valley Correctional Facility, where she was released and joined her husband, Alan Walsh, a waste industry executive.  As someone who spends more time in prisons talking to and writing about inmates than any journalist in Michigan, I’ve seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of injustices greater than hers.  Her case, however, generated more publicity than any I’ve reported in the last decade, including the 2006 death by heat and thirst of Timothy Joe Souders, a 21-year-old mentally ill inmate.

Still, I fully supported her bid for freedom.  She poses no risk to society.  Whatever the word “rehabilitation” means, she can claim it....

Whenever I talked to Susan, and whenever she wrote to me, she seemed very much aware that she was getting extra media play because she was an upper-middle-class white woman who lived in an affluent suburb.  But she wanted to use that attention, she told me, to raise awareness about problems in the prison and criminal justice system, especially for women.

The light of the cameras can both illuminate and blind. Now that she’s free, I hope Susan won’t forget the people she’s left behind.

May 20, 2009 in Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Executions go forward with apologies (and without a hitch?) in Missouri and Texas

As detailed in this AP story, two murderers "spent some of their last moments apologizing for their crimes before they were put to death six hours apart in Texas and Missouri, which executed its first convict in four years."  Here are some specific details:

In a lengthy, written final statement, Dennis Skillicorn expressed sorrow for the 1994 murder of a Richard Drummond, who stopped to offer help after a car carrying Skillicorn and two other men stalled along Interstate 70.... 

Early Wednesday, Skillicorn mouthed words to his wife and two spiritual advisers as the first drug was administered to him. Soon, he appeared unconscious.  He was pronounced dead at 12:34 a.m., 11 minutes after the procedure began....

In Huntsville, Texas, meanwhile, Michael Lynn Riley apologized repeatedly in the moments before he received lethal injection Tuesday evening and became the 15th condemned prisoner executed in the nation's busiest death penalty state....

Marcus Taylor, the now-retired Wood County district attorney who prosecuted Riley and sought the death penalty, witnessed the execution.  "For those people that may think death penalty cases don't get proper examination, this is certainly evidence that's not true," Taylor said. Riley had been locked up longer than his 23-year-old murder victim lived.

While he didn't volunteer for execution, Riley had asked friends to not pray that he receive a reprieve, and he repeated that sentiment to friends who witnessed his death.  "I told you years ago that I was ready," he said.  Eight minutes later, after urging his fellow death row inmates to "stay strong" and that "Fleetwood is out of here," using his death row nickname, Riley was pronounced dead.

I believe that these executions bring the US total for executions to 29 in the year 2009.  Also, I believe there has now been a total of 66 executions since the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of standard lethal injection protocols in Baze.

Though the Baze litigation did not ultimately seem to achieve too much, I cannot recall hearing a single report of a botched lethal injection protocol since the ruling.  These two recent executions, like all the others since the Baze execution moratorium ended, seemed to go off without a hitch. 

Thus, I suppose the defendants and defense attorneys behind all the lethal injection litigation should take pride in their success.  These folks often asserted that their goal was just to make sure executions were done without excessive pain or other problems.  And it would seem that every execution since Baze has gone forward without excessive pain or other problems.

May 20, 2009 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Will new US Attorneys have a big impact on federal sentencing law and policy?

The new Administration's approach to crack sentencing shows how new personnel in Main Justice is already impact some parts of federal sentencing law and policy.  But, on a case-by-case basis, who serves in local US Attorney offices may have an even bigger long-term impact on the shape and direction of the federal criminal justice system.  Thus, sentencing fans should be very interested in this new article from The National Law Journal, which is headlined the "U.S. Attorney Picks Are Under Way: Some Senate Republicans want a say in who gets selected."  Here are a few of the basics:

President Barack Obama began filling the nation's 93 U.S. Attorney positions on May 15, announcing his first wave of six nominees. The move touched off a closely guarded process freighted with symbolism in the wake of the Bush administration firings scandal.

President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton made their first U.S. Attorney nominations days before Congress' summer recess in August. Each nominated more than two dozen in the first round.

U.S. Attorney nominations pose a potential hurdle for Obama, as he reconciles the nature of these plum political posts with his pledge of bipartisanship and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.'s promise to rid the department of partisan meddling. Some Republicans have already signaled their intention to block candidates if they're left out of the process, including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, whose membership on the Senate Judiciary Committee gives him an outsized role in nominations....

On May 15, Obama said he intended to nominate Preet Bharara for the Southern District of New York, Tristram Coffin for Vermont, Jenny Durkan for the Western District of Washington, Paul Fishman for New Jersey, John Kacavas for New Hampshire and Joyce Vance for the Northern District of Alabama.

Though just six have been named so far, about 20 candidates have come to Washington for interviews at the Justice Department in the past two months, according to a source familiar with the process. The meetings are one of the final steps before nomination.

Obama is announcing his picks for U.S. Attorneys in waves, replacing holdover Bush prosecutors once his nominees are confirmed or appointed on an interim basis while awaiting confirmation, Justice Department officials said. That breaks sharply with the system adopted by President Bill Clinton, who sacked nearly all holdover U.S. Attorneys at the start of his first term. The move angered many career Justice Department lawyers who say the turnover disrupted their work and left some prosecutors out on the street.

Some related posts:

May 20, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 19, 2009

"Former FAMU student gets 22-month prison sentence in grade-changing case"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable federal sentencing story from Florida.  Here are a few more details:

Former Florida A&M student Lawrence Secrease was sentenced Monday to 22 months in prison and three years' supervised release in the case involving unauthorized grade changes at the university, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Secrease was the second defendant to be sentenced on charges of aggravated identity theft, unauthorized access of a protected computer, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and a substantive count of unauthorized access of a computer. He pleaded guilty on all charges....

The three co-defendants caused the grades of about 90 FAMU students to be changed, affecting 650 grades overall, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.  About 114 grade changes were failing "F" grades changed to "A" grades, said Karen Rhew, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office. The three men also caused residency status of certain students to be changed from out-of-state to in-state, reducing the amount of tuition owed by thousands of dollars.

May 19, 2009 in Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack