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February 21, 2009

Tennessee legislators talking reform of death penalty administration

As detailed in this local article, headlined "Tennessee's death penalty laws need major reform, legislative group says," legislators in the volunteer state are talking about how to improve the state's administration of capital punishment. Here are details from the start of the article:

Tennessee's death penalty needs major reform to ensure that people facing execution get fair trials, said members of a legislative study committee which just ended 16 months of analyzing how capital crimes are prosecuted in this state.

The study committee, which included people for and against the death penalty, was asked to look for ways to make capital punishment more fairly and accurately applied across the state.

Four bills related to the recommendations have been introduced and are sponsored by the committee's chairmen, Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, and Rep. Kent Coleman, D-Murfreesboro. The committee wants the state legislature to: 

  • Require defense attorneys in capital cases to be highly qualified;
  • Mandate that defense attorneys have uniform access to evidence against their clients;
  • Require police officers to record all interrogations related to a homicide case;
  • Force the state to set realistic timetables for litigating capital cases so families are not revictimized by decades of appeals.

Needless to say, these reforms necessarily come with a significant price tag.  In these lean times, I would be very surprised if Tennessee find the resources necessary to make these sensible recommendations a reality.  Notably, this article includes some discussion of these cost issues:

"I think my biggest surprise, though I had an idea, is that the death penalty is a very expensive process," said Rep. Bill Dunn, R–Knoxville. "It has to be in order to get the right verdict, but I don't think the average taxpayer knows what it costs to seek this penalty."  Neither does the state, according to the report. The comptroller's office testified that no effective way exists to track the costs of capital punishment cases to the state....

Two members of the committee voted against the final draft of the report on Thursday, citing opposition to the costly recommendation of creating an independent authority to oversee the representation of suspects facing the death penalty, starting with their trials.

Some recent related posts:

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

Weekend reading on international sentencing

Because I can barely keep up with major national sentencing trends, I am always grateful to see others keeping an eye on important international sentencing stories.  Thus, I was excited to see this new piece on SSRN by Shahram Dana, titled "Advancing International Law: Rethinking Nulla Poena Sine Lege in International Criminal Justice." Here is the abstract:

Although ranking among the most fundamental principles of criminal law, nulla poena sine lege has received surprisingly little attention in international criminal justice.  Indeed, it may be considered the 'poor cousin' of nullum crimen sine lege, which in comparison has been the subject of numerous articles, books, and judgments.  Given that they work in tandem as principles of legality, the limited scholarship on nulla poena sine lege is difficult to justify, although not without explanation.  It has not, for example, escaped attention that nulla poena 'affects only proven criminals' while nullum crimen sine lege 'protects the mass of respectable citizens'.  While most criminal justice systems have made considerable efforts over the years to close this gap, international criminal law has not. 

The potential contribution of nulla poena sine lege has been largely overlooked in the context of international prosecutions by policy makers, drafters, and judges.  Likewise, there exists a lacuna in academic scholarship on this subject. Under-theorization of nulla poena in international criminal justice stalls the maturation in international law of this long standing criminal law principle, keeps dormant its contribution to justice, and challenges the legitimacy of international punishment.

This article aims to redress this imbalance by developing the normative content of nulla poena sine lege under international law.  The study's methodology deconstructs the nulla poena sine lege maxim into its underlying legal principles, investigates sources of international law pertaining to each principle and, reconstructs an international nulla poena sine lege maxim.  The article hypothesizes that a fuller appreciation of the function and purpose of nulla poena sine lege, gained through an elucidation of its underlying legal principles, can facilitate a more penetrating analysis of its normative development in international law.  Measured against the international standard for nulla poena, the article critically evaluates the statutes of international criminal courts and the emerging international sentencing jurisprudence for mass atrocities, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

February 21, 2009 in Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 20, 2009

More evidence Obama's DOJ is just not that into change in the criminal justice arena

Tony Mauro has this interesting new post at The Blog of Legal Times, titled "SG Won't Disavow Bush Position in Controversial DNA Case."  Here is how the post starts:

The solicitor general's office has turned down a request by the Innocence Project to disavow a Bush Administration stance on prisoners' access to DNA evidence in postconviction proceedings. As a result, on March 2, Neal Katyal will make his debut as deputy solicitor general by arguing before the Supreme Court in support of the state of Alaska's view that prisoners have no constitutional right to obtain DNA evidence that might help them prove their innocence -- even if the prisoners pay for the DNA testing themselves. The case is District Attorney's Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne.

The decision to maintain the same position as the Bush Administration in the case has caused deep disappointment among innocence advocates, especially in light of President Barack Obama's strong support of access to DNA evidence while a state senator in Illinois, where many of the early successes in exonerating innocent inmates through DNA evidence took place.

The episode also highlights the tension between a new administration's eagerness to change direction, and the institutional reluctance in the solicitor general's office to shift gears too suddenly, for fear of losing credibility with the high court.

As I have indicated in a number of prior posts, the Obama Administration has given very few signals that it is seriously interested in changing course on an array of lower-profile (but very consequential) criminal justice issues.  I am pleased to see the Innocence Project urging a new direction, and I hope lots of other public policy groups will formally advocate for the Obama Administration's litigation realities to match up with the new President's soaring rhetoric.  But, as this Osborne example spotlights, I fear that "change" may not amount to much more than a slogan in many federal criminal justice settings.

Some recent related posts:

February 20, 2009 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Assessing the reality of modern prison growth

A helpful reader alerted me to this new Slate article by Professor John Pfaff, titled "Reform School: Five myths about prison growth dispelled." The piece builds off John's terrific and terrifically important article on "The Myths and Realities of Correctional Severity" (discussed here).  Here is how this Slate piece starts:

The United States has a prison population like nowhere else.  With one out of every 100 adults behind bars, our incarceration rate is the highest in the entire world. Our inmates — 1.5 million in prison, with another 800,000 in jail — comprise one-third of the world's total.  This is a surprisingly recent development. A fter barely budging for 50 years, our incarceration rate increased sevenfold (to 738 per 100,000 people) between 1978 and 2008.

The system is now at its breaking point.  Federal judges in California just issued a tentative order demanding that the state release nearly 60,000 inmates over the next three years to alleviate intolerable overcrowding.  New York state's sentencing commission released a 326-page report calling on the Legislature to cut back on severe drug sentences.  And with budgets growing ever-tighter in a collapsing economy, states are beginning to realize that large prison populations are boom-time luxuries they can no longer afford.

Reform is inevitable.  But if we are going to rein in our prison populations, we should do so based on facts, not on unfounded perceptions or shocking anecdotes.  So let's start by dispelling some of the myths that surround the breathtaking prison growth of the past three decades.

February 20, 2009 in Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Pastor gets jail time for violating Oakland abortion clinic buffer-zone law

Because I am always intrigued by the intersection of sentencing issues and religious issues, this local sentencing story out of California caught my eye:

A pastor found guilty of violating a city law created to provide an 8-foot buffer between anti-abortion protesters and women entering clinics was sentenced to 30 days in jail and ordered to stay 100 yards away from the clinic at which he was arrested for the next three years.

The Rev. Walter Hoye, the first person charged and found guilty of the city's two-year-old law must also pay $1,130 in fines and remain on probation for three years after either serving his 30 days in county jail or entering an alternative program run by the sheriff's department.

The ruling, which was made by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Stuart Hing, came amid a charged atmosphere in the courtroom packed with both abortion-rights and anti-abortion advocates....

Hoye's case, a misdemeanor charge, has garnered national attention from anti-abortion supporters, many of whom traveled from as far as Dallas to speak in support of the pastor, who they said was having his First Amendment rights taken away....

But Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Robert Graff, who successfully tried the case, argued that Hoye was not an innocent man standing on a sidewalk with a sign but someone who violated a city law.  "To suggest that he was merely holding a sign on the sidewalk does not speak to the totality of what is going on here," Graff said.  "This is a balancing of rights here. These people's rights have to be balanced as well."

Hoye was arrested last May after he approached two women and their escorts who were trying to enter the Family Planning Specialists Medical Group in Jack London Square.  Hoye was originally charged with four counts of violating the city law but was found guilty last month of two counts. Hoye's defense attorneys, paid for by the Life Legal Defense Foundation, argued, at times with tears in their eyes, that the law was unconstitutional and that a punishment of jail was cruel and unusual.

While Graff agreed Hoye should not be placed in jail, he asked Hing to place the pastor on three years probation with an order to stay 100 yards away from the clinic.  If Hoye did not agree to that, Graff said he should be sent to county jail for two years.

Hing asked Hoye if he would abide by the ruling during court Thursday.  The pastor refused, saying he could not follow a law he found to be unjust.  As a result, Hing sentenced Hoye to 30 days in jail with the option of entering a sheriff work-release program that allows him to do sheriff-sponsored community service in exchange for jail time.

The idea that the "punishment of jail was cruel and unusual" under these circumstances provides a little window into an Eighth Amendment idea that's been kicking around my head a lot since the Heller ruling.  Specifically, I have been giving thought to the idea that there may be constitutional limits under the Eighth Amendment concerning how and/or how severely the state can punish conduct that comes within the penumbra of, but may not be fully constitutionally protected by, a particular Bill of Rights amendment.

February 20, 2009 in Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Will AG Holder really lead a "new birth of freedom" in prison nation?

In addition to all the interesting advocacy for frank conversations about racial issues (details here), Attorney General Eric Holder articulated this potent commitment to freedom in his first major speech:

Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must — and will — lead the nation to the "new birth of freedom" so long ago promised by our greatest President. This is our duty and our solemn obligation.

I am pleased to hear the new AG talking the talk of freedom.  But, especially with United States as the world's leader in incarceration, the big question with whether he will really walk the walk.  There are many ways that AG Holder could and should fulfill this duty and solemn obligation to usher in a new birth of freedom in prison nation, and I hope he will start trying to make criminal justice realities live up to his rhetoric.

Some recent related posts:

February 20, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Noticing that a death sentence is often practically a life sentence in Florida

The Orlando Sentinel has this long article documenting the reality that defendants sentenced to death in Florida are just as likely to die while awaiting execution as being executed. The piece is headlined, "Justice denied? On Florida's death row, many lives end -- but not by execution," and here are snippets:

Between March 1998 and November 2008, the Department of Corrections executed 26 prisoners. During that same period, another 26 death-row inmates died of other causes, the Orlando Sentinel found.

Such figures don't surprise experts, since death-penalty cases can take years -- even decades -- to work through the legal system. While the condemned wait, they can fall victim to ailments traceable to years of unhealthy living before their convictions, including drugs and alcohol abuse.

Of the 26 inmates who died from other causes, more than half passed away from cancer or heart disease.  Prison officials wouldn't comment on the health of those currently on death row.  But two inmates were recently in a prison infirmary, and another at a treatment center, according to DOC.

Prisoners spend an average of 14 years on death row.  The rate of execution in Florida fluctuates each year -- six in 2000, for example, but two last year.

February 20, 2009 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 19, 2009

Wisconsin Governor proposing early prison releases in state budget

Add Wisconsin to the ever-growing list of states considering sentencing reforms in the hope of saving money through a reduced prison population.  This local story provides the basic details: 

Wisconsin's estimated 22,000 inmate population could be seeing a significant reduction in coming years. Governor Jim Doyle wants nonviolent offenders to be able to get out of jail sooner by earning days off their sentences with good behavior. He also wants to eliminate probation for nonviolent offenders convicted of misdemeanors.

"You go and behave yourself in prison and you do what you are supposed to do, there is actually some incentive for you to do well," Doyle said.

The plan, which is part of the governor's budget proposal, would save the state considerable money and alleviate crowding in prisons. Wisconsin is facing an estimated $5.7 billion shortfall by mid-2011. Doyle has said nothing is off limits in terms of making cuts.

Wisconsin's Department of Corrections Secretary, Rick Raemisch, estimates about 3,000 inmates would be eligible for early release. "They truly do have to earn their way out, whether it be through programming, behavior adjustment, or positive changes behind bars. It's being smart on crime instead of tough on crime," Raemisch said. He did not have an exact savings estimate, however.

State Republican leaders are criticizing the plan, saying it would sacrifice public safety just to save some money.

Some recent related posts:

February 19, 2009 in Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

The latest news is the saga of "Sex, Lies and Variances"

I reported in this post yesterday on the fascinating federal sentencing case that could provide the basis for screenplay titled "Sex, Lies and Variances."  The latest news in the case comes from this Boston Globe article:

Federal prosecutors today defended their controversial recommendation that a suspected prostitute receive only six months in jail for allegedly extorting $280,000 from a prominent businessman, saying a longer sentence might prompt her to go to trial, which the businessman wanted to avoid to keep his identity secret.

"Here, the victim's interest in avoiding a trial in which his identity would in all likelihood be revealed is a factor which the government has weighed heavily in calculating its recommended sentence," Assistant US Attorney James P. Dowden said in a 13-page filing.... Keeping the businessman's name a secret, he added, would encourage victims of similar blackmail threats to come forward "even in circumstances where the extortion victim himself has engaged in inappropriate (and even illegal) behavior."

Dowden filed the explanation today in response to an order by US Chief District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf, who wanted to know why prosecutors and the lawyer for Michelle Robinson were recommending a sentence that would likely result in her immediate release.... Federal sentencing guidelines ordinarily would recommend that Robinson, who intends to plead guilty Friday to wire fraud and threats in interstate communication, serve 33 to 41 months in prison, Wolf wrote.

UPDATE:  As detailed in this follow-up article,

US District Court Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf accepted [the] controversial plea agreement yesterday that will give Michelle Robinson, 29, much less time behind bars than the approximately two to three years that federal sentencing guidelines recommend and forbids her from revealing the identity of the man she extorted with threats of public disclosure....

Wolf, a former high-ranking federal prosecutor, sided with prosecutors who have taken pains to keep the man's identity a secret even though the businessman repeatedly committed a crime by paying Robinson for sex from about January 2007 to June 2008.  "While that businessperson created his own vulnerability, he is nevertheless a victim," said Wolf. He said the man deserves the protections of the Crime Victims' Rights Act of 2004, which says victims have the right "to be treated with fairness and respect for [their] dignity and privacy."

February 19, 2009 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Another public and potent call to reinvigorate the pardon power

Just appearing at The National Law Journal is former US pardon attorney Margaret Colgate Love's latest call to get the presidential pardon power working properly again.  This latest piece, which is co-authored with another former pardon attorney, John Stanish, is titled simply "Reinvigorate the Power."  Here are excerpts:

Pardons are granted only at the end of a president's term, so goes the conventional wisdom. In reality, most presidents have hit the ground running where pardoning is concerned.  The best of them have made strategic use of this most personal power from the very beginning to advance their policy goals.

For example, in his first year in office, Abraham Lincoln issued 80 grants of pardon to ordinary citizens, in addition to his more famous grants to soldiers. By his second term he had pardoned 365 civilians. Lincoln encouraged a high degree of public participation in his clemency decision-making process, even disclosing the reasons for each grant.  A pardon scholar notes that Lincoln "thrived on the hope that each request he granted further educated a portion of the public to the necessity of a clemency power in the justice system."

Other exemplary occupants of the Oval Office were similarly forgiving early on. In their first year, Theodore Roosevelt issued 128 grants, Franklin Roosevelt 167 and Truman 107....

The disappointing trickle of grants at the end of Bush's term, like the torrent of irregular grants at the end of Clinton's, was the product of a chronically dysfunctional pardon advisory system in the Justice Department, a system now dominated by prosecutors that produces few favorable recommendations.... [N]either president was well-served by a Justice Department whose pardon office has become a place where petitions for presidential mercy go to die....

It is unfortunate that the pardon power has become essentially unusable, for it has never been more critical to the fair and efficient operation of the criminal justice system.  Harsh no-parole sentences mean that many people remain in prison long after any just purpose is served by their continued incarceration, and all leave prison permanently burdened with disabling collateral consequences that almost guarantee their return to crime.  Pardon, once the justice system's fail-safe, has not served that function for many years....

During the campaign, Obama expressed concern about the number of African-American men in prison, and declared his intention to eliminate the disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine.  This policy goal, recommended for many years by the U.S. Sentencing Commission but stubbornly resisted by Congress, could be advanced by a few judicious grants of clemency to crack defendants who have served many years in prison and have been recommended for release by the prosecutor or the sentencing judge....

In a perfectly just system of laws there is no need for pardon. Ours falls far short of that.  Justice Anthony M. Kennedy has observed that "a people confident in its laws and institutions should not be ashamed of mercy."  We hope that Obama is of like mind, and that he will take steps to reinvigorate the pardon power by shoring up the system for administering it.

Regular readers know that I have been beating the drum for President Obama to start making use of his pardon power within hours of his taking the oath.  As the second month of the Obama presidency begins, we have already seen no shortage of bold action by the new President to address perceived injustices (closing GTMO) and to help those in need due to imperfect decisions (various bailouts).  I sincerely hope that just a little dusting of hope and change will come to the federal criminal justice system sooner rather than later.  As Love and Stanish suggest, just a few strategic clemencies could go a very long way in this regard.

Some recent related posts:

February 19, 2009 in Clemency and Pardons | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Latest, greatest federal sentencing data run from USSC

The US Sentencing Commission has some new post-Kimbrough/Gall sentencing data now up on its website. The USSC's updated data report, which can be accessed here, is described this way:

Fiscal Year 2008 Post-Kimbrough/Gall Data Report: An updated set of tables presenting final data on fiscal year 2008 cases sentenced on or after December 10, 2007 through September 30, 2008. This report was prepared using data received, coded, and edited by the Commission by February 10, 2009.

Notably, the new data continue to show that ust under 60% of all post-Gall sentences are now within the calculated guidelines range, though this fact is mostly a product of prosecutors requesting a below-range sentence in more than 25% of all cases.  And, as has always been the reality in the federal sentencing system, one can identify a number of large inter-circuit and inter-district variations in how many sentences fall within or outside calculated guideline ranges.

February 19, 2009 in Data on sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Long and thoughtful ACCA analysis by Eleventh Circuit

The Supreme Court in a series of recent opinions has provided new wisdom on what sorts of prior offenses qualify as a "violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Today, the Eleventh Circuit has a long and thoughtful discussion of all the new ACCA jurisprudence via a decision in US v. Harrison, No. 08-12636 (11th Cir. Feb. 19, 2009) (available here).  Harrison addresses the "question of whether a prior state conviction for violating subsection 2 of Florida’s willful fleeing statute" qualifies as a violent felony under ACCA.  Here is one of many statute observations from the Eleventh Circuit's analysis:

A closer examination of James and Begay demonstrates that Chambersis simply the latest in a line of Supreme Court cases that have used hard data to assist in making risk assessments under the ACCA’s residual clause.  Although calculating risk “does not require metaphysical certainty,” James, 127 S. Ct. at 1597, it appears that statistical evidence now plays a role in assessing risk for non-enumerated crimes under the residual clause [used in ACCA to define what qualifies as a "violent felony"].

February 19, 2009 in Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Will AG Holder urge the criminal justice system to "examine its racial soul"?

As detailed in this CNN article, Attorney General Eric Holder gave his first major speech yesterday, and it was a barn-burner about race relations and race discussions in the United States.  Here is how the CNN piece describes the speech:

In a blunt assessment of race relations in the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder Wednesday called the American people "essentially a nation of cowards" in failing to openly discuss the issue of race.  Eric Holder spoke to an overflowing crowd for Black History Month at the Justice Department Wednesday.

In his first major speech since being confirmed, the nation's first black attorney general told an overflow crowd celebrating Black History Month at the Justice Department the nation remains "voluntarily socially segregated."

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," Holder declared.

Holder urged Americans of all races to use Black History Month as a time to have a forthright national conversation between blacks and whites to discuss aspects of race which are ignored because they are uncomfortable.

The full text of this interesting speech can be accessed at this link. Notably, crime (but not punishment) is mentioned briefly toward the end of the speech in this somewhat peculiar paragraph:

And today the link between the black experience and this country is still evident.  While the problems that continue to afflict the black community may be more severe, they are an indication of where the rest of the nation may be if corrective measures are not taken.  Our inner cities are still too conversant with crime but the level of fear generated by that crime, now found in once quiet, and now electronically padlocked suburbs is alarming and further demonstrates that our past, present and future are linked. It is not safe for this nation to assume that the unaddressed social problems in the poorest parts of our country can be isolated and will not ultimately affect the larger society.

I find it is telling and disappointing that racial disparities in state and federal criminal justice systems (and the related problem of mass incarceration for young black men) do not get mentioned by the nation's top law enforcement officer when calling upon the county to "examine its racial soul."  As everyone who works in criminal justice systems know, that racial soul is on full display in criminal courts and in prisons and jails every day.  As I have been saying for years (examples here and here), the reality of racial disparities in modern crime and punishment demands that criminal justice reforms should and must be at the heart of any serious modern civil rights movement.

I am encouraged that the new AG wants Americans to have frank discussions about race in the United States.  I hope he will show he is willing to stimulate hard conversations talking bluntly in future speeches about the racial realities of modern crime and punishment.

Some related posts:

February 19, 2009 in Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Report documents new demographics of federal criminal justice system

As detailed in this Los Angeles Times article, a new study details that Latinos now comprise the largest group of offenders prosecuted in federal court:

Driven by a crackdown on illegal immigration, Latinos now make up by far the largest percentage of offenders sentenced in federal courts, according to a study released Wednesday.

Latinos accounted for 40% of all people sentenced to federal crimes in 2007, even though they made up only 13% of the U.S. adult population, according to the study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. In 1991, Latinos made up 24% of all sentenced offenders.

The study's authors, Mark Hugo Lopez and Michael T. Light, attribute the change in part to the increase in the undocumented immigrant population and to federal enforcement programs such as Operation Gatekeeper, which targeted illegal crossers along the Southwest border.

In 2007, nearly half of Latino offenders were sentenced for an immigration offense, up from 1 in 5 in 1991. Immigration offenses represented nearly a quarter of all federal convictions in 2007, up from 7% in 1991. "There was a very sharp rise of immigration offenses as a share of all offenses," said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center.

The full report, which is titled "A Rising Share: Hispanics and Federal Crime," is available at this link

February 19, 2009 in Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 18, 2009

District judge asks questions about apparent "don't tell" sentence reduction

SLV The Boston Globe has this new report on a fascinating federal sentencing case that could perhaps provide the basis for a hot new screenplay that could be titled "Sex, Lies and Variances."  Here are some of the juicy details:

The chief judge of the US District Court in Boston today ordered federal prosecutors to justify why they are recommending that an alleged Canton prostitute receive a sentence of only six months in jail for extorting $280,000 in cash from a prominent Boston-area businessman in exchange for keeping their liaisons secret.

Chief District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf said today that neither US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan's office nor lawyers for the alleged prostitute have explained why the woman, Michelle Robinson, 29, should receive a sentence that would likely result in her being immediately freed....

That sentence "represents a significant downward departure" from the 33 to 41 months that probation officials have calculated would ordinarily be recommended for the defendant under federal sentencing guidelines, Wolf said.  The judge said that since neither prosecutors nor Robinson's lawyers have responded to an earlier court order to explain the sentence, "it is now uncertain whether the court is likely to accept the plea agreement."  He gave prosecutors until noon Thursday to file papers justifying the proposed six-month sentence.  Robinson's lawyer can also file an explanation....

The criminal case against Robinson was the subject of a Globe story Tuesday in which several legal specialists criticized prosecutors' efforts to keep the businessman's name a secret.  Among the terms of the tentative plea agreement is an extraordinary provision: Robinson would be forbidden from disclosing the businessman's name for the three years that she is on supervised release.

February 18, 2009 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

House Republicans file brief in support of 30-year mandatory minimum sentence in Farley

Regular readers may recall a notable district court opinion from last September (discussed in this post), which found unconstitutional a mandatory minimum term of 30 years imprisonment for a defendant who travelled across state lines in an effort to engage in sexual activity with a fictious ten-year old.  The case, US v. Farley, is now on appeal before the Eleventh Circuit, and this new post from the CQ Legal Beat reports on a notable new filing in this case:

A group of House Republicans filed a brief Wednesday challenging a federal District Court's ruling that a 30-year mandatory minimum prison sentence was a cruel and unusual punishment for a man convicted of crossing state lines to have sex with a minor.

That automatic mandatory minimum prison sentence was included in the Adam Walsh Act passed by Congress to combat child sex abuse. But in September 2008, Judge Beverly B. Martin of the Northern District of Georgia ruled that penalty was unconstitutional as applied to Kelly Farley, a 39-year-old Texas man convicted of making plans to molest a 10-year-old girl.

In the brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, the GOP lawmakers say they "are particularly concerned with the lack of respect and improper deference afforded to Congress by the district court in the case" and suggest the lower court's ruling "threatens to abridge Congress' authority to impose punishment that it deems appropriate to the corresponding offense."

Thanks to the folks at CQ, the full brief can be accessed at this link.  Fascinating stuff. 

February 18, 2009 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Seventh Circuit gives short shrift to drug dealer's Heller claim

Though the result is not at all surprising, the Seventh Circuit's decision today discussing Heller is still notable for how (and how quickly) it disposes of a drug dealer's effort to claim that his home gun possession was constitutionally protected.  Here is the Heller discussion in the ruling (per Judge Easterbrook) in US v. Jackson, No. 07-3849 (7th Cir. Feb. 18, 2009) (available here):

The Court said in Heller that the Constitution entitles citizens to keep and bear arms for the purpose of lawful self-protection, not for all self-protection.  Jackson was distributing illegal drugs (cocaine and unlicensed dextromethorphan hydrobromide tablets) out of his home.  The Constitution does not give anyone the right to be armed while committing a felony, or even to have guns in the next room for emergency use should suppliers, customers, or the police threaten a dealer’s stash.  Jackson says that he lived in a dangerous neighborhood and wanted to protect himself from burglars and other marauders.  That may be so, but his decision to operate an illegal home business also matters.  Suppose a federal statute said: “Anyone who chooses to possess a firearm in the home for self-protection is forbidden to keep or distribute illegal drugs there.” Such a statute would be valid, as Jackson’s lawyer conceded. And if Congress may forbid people who possess guns to deal drugs, it may forbid people who deal drugs to possess guns. The statements “if you have a gun, you can’t sell cocaine” and “if you sell cocaine, you can’t have a gun” are identical.

Some related Second Amendment posts:

UPDATE:  Eugene Volokh astutely discusses this Seventh Circuit opinion in this post.

February 18, 2009 in Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

The US Department of Justice's take of ARRA stimulus

This new press release from the US Department of Justice details the monies that will be going to crime-fighting programs as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Here is how the press release starts:

Today President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (H.R.1), which includes $4 billion in Department of Justice grant funding to enhance state, local, and tribal law enforcement efforts, including the hiring of new police officers, to combat violence against women, and to fight internet crimes against children, the Department of Justice announced.

“This funding is vital to keeping our communities strong,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “As governors, mayors, and local law enforcement professionals struggle with the current economic crisis, we can’t afford to decrease our commitment to fighting crime and keeping our communities safe. These grants will help ensure states and localities can make the concerted efforts necessary to protect our most vulnerable communities and populations.”

Some recent related posts:

February 18, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Federal sentencing fall-out from juve sentencing corruption

Regular readers will recall last week's remarkable story of two Pennsylvania state judges who to plead guilty to taking millions in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers.  This new local story reports on a fascinating federal sentencing echo from that case:

The fallout from disgraced Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr.’s handling of juvenile court cases has now spread to the federal court system.  On Tuesday, a lawyer for Justin Plesh, a Hazleton man awaiting sentencing in a marijuana trafficking case in U.S. District Court, asked that a marijuana possession case handled by Ciavarella in 2003 not be considered in determining Plesh’s sentence under federal guidelines.

Plesh was 16 in May 2003 when Ciavarella sent him to a juvenile detention center, according to a motion filed by his federal public defender.... If the juvenile court case is counted against Plesh in the federal case, the low end of sentence would increase by 13 months, the motion says. Plesh faces a maximum of five years in prison.

The motion argues that the federal court should nullify Ciavarella’s rulings due to his recent guilty plea to accepting $2.6 million in kickbacks in connection with juvenile-detention contracts and a review of all his juvenile court cases ordered by the state Supreme Court.  Ciavarella failed to inform hundreds of juvenile defendants of their rights to an attorney, according to a lawsuit filed by the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia advocacy group.... “It is respectfully requested that this Honorable Court issue a ruling that unequivocally states that none of the actions of Mark A. Ciavarella while he was masquerading as an honest juvenile judge be given any recognition, force or effect,” the motion says.

February 18, 2009 in Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

States considering laying off the death penalty during tough economic times

This new AFP story, headlined "US states may axe executions to cut costs," effectively reviews the growing talk of abolishing the death penalty in a few states:

In an unexpected twist to the economic crisis, several US states are weighing whether to abolish the death penalty as the execution process proves too great a drain on dwindling resources.

Death penalty laws remain on the books of 36 of the 50 US states, and capital punishment is supported by some two-thirds of the American public. But across the nation, states as diverse and far-flung as Montana, Kansas, New Mexico and Maryland are among those actively considering abolishing capital punishment in a bid to overcome ballooning budget shortfalls....

Most of the states involved in the move are those which have only executed a few people — five or less — in the past 30 years since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

The irony here, of course, is that thos states seriously considering death penalty repeals really do not spend that much money on their capital punishment systems.  With few on death row and fewer executions, the costs savings from a repeal are not like huge (though I suppose every penny counts these days).

Of particular note here is that the state with the biggest current budget problems, California, is also the state that wastes the most resources on a bloated capital punishment system.  As detailed in DPIC data here and here, California has over 650 persons on its death row, but has only executed 13 persons in the modern capital punishment era.  And yet I have seen no talk of laying off the death penalty in California, even as the state's Governor prepares to lay off 20,000 state employees.

February 18, 2009 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack