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October 26, 2010

George Soros makes pitch for legalizing marijuana

Today's Wall Street Journal includes this notable opinion piece by billionaire George Soros, which is headlined "Why I Support Legal Marijuana: We should invest in effective education rather than ineffective arrest and incarceration."  Here is how it starts and ends:

Our marijuana laws are clearly doing more harm than good. The criminalization of marijuana did not prevent marijuana from becoming the most widely used illegal substance in the United States and many other countries. But it did result in extensive costs and negative consequences.

Law enforcement agencies today spend many billions of taxpayer dollars annually trying to enforce this unenforceable prohibition. The roughly 750,000 arrests they make each year for possession of small amounts of marijuana represent more than 40% of all drug arrests.

Regulating and taxing marijuana would simultaneously save taxpayers billions of dollars in enforcement and incarceration costs, while providing many billions of dollars in revenue annually. It also would reduce the crime, violence and corruption associated with drug markets, and the violations of civil liberties and human rights that occur when large numbers of otherwise law-abiding citizens are subject to arrest. Police could focus on serious crime instead.... Like many parents and grandparents, I am worried about young people getting into trouble with marijuana and other drugs. The best solution, however, is honest and effective drug education. One survey after another indicates that teenagers have better access than most adults to marijuana—and often other drugs as well—and find it easier to buy marijuana than alcohol. Legalizing marijuana may make it easier for adults to buy marijuana, but it can hardly make it any more accessible to young people. I'd much rather invest in effective education than ineffective arrest and incarceration.

California's Proposition 19, which would legalize the recreational use and small-scale cultivation of marijuana, wouldn't solve all the problems connected with the drug. But it would represent a major step forward, and its deficiencies can be corrected on the basis of experience. Just as the process of repealing national alcohol prohibition began with individual states repealing their own prohibition laws, so individual states must now take the initiative with respect to repealing marijuana prohibition laws. And just as California provided national leadership in 1996 by becoming the first state to legalize the medical use of marijuana, so it has an opportunity once again to lead the nation.

In many respects, of course, Proposition 19 already is a winner no matter what happens on Election Day. The mere fact of its being on the ballot has elevated and legitimized public discourse about marijuana and marijuana policy in ways I could not have imagined a year ago.

These are the reasons I have decided to support Proposition 19 and invite others to do so.

Relatedly, this Los Angeles Times piece, which is headlined "Money bolsters both sides of Prop. 19 debate," details that Soros is putting money in to pro-Prop 19 ads, while the Chamber of Commerce is putting money into anti-Prop 19 ads.

October 26, 2010 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

October 25, 2010

Federal district judge blocks planned Arizona execution because of drug mystery

As detailed in this new piece from the Arizona Republic, a "federal judge today blocked Tuesday's planned execution of convicted killer Jeffrey Landrigan until Landrigan's attorneys and the court have the chance to evaluate the drugs that Arizona has obtained to carry out the execution by lethal injection."  Here are more the the particulars:

In a harshly worded ruling that refers to the state as "obstructive," U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn O. Silver issued a temporary restraining order stopping the execution until further notice.  Silver also ordered the Arizona Department of Corrections and the Arizona Attorney General's Office to immediately turn over information that she requested Saturday night about the drugs.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard told The Arizona Republic that he will appeal the restraining order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to try to carry out the execution as scheduled.  "These are very much last-minute scrambling appeals," he said.

At issue is the origin of one of the drugs used in the lethal injection procedure, sodium thiopental, a barbiturate that renders the condemned person unconscious so that he or she cannot feel the suffocation and pain induced by the second and third drugs.

Thiopental is in short supply nationwide, and executions in other states have been postponed because of its unavailability.

Landrigan's attorneys have been questioning the state on where it would obtain the drug since Landrigan's execution was scheduled in late September.  The state obtained the drug on Sept. 30, but has refused to say how or where, referring to a state law that protects the identities of executioners and all people having to do with executions.

When the state Supreme Court refused to stay the execution, Landrigan's attorneys took it to federal court.  Silver did not accept the state's argument, and ordered that all information about the drug be turned over immediately to Landrigan's attorneys.

UPDATE:  Early on Tuesday morning, a Ninth Circuit panel upheld the district court's stay via this opinion.  And this CNN article reports that Arizona has now brought this matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

October 25, 2010 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Remarkable opinion with postponement of resentencing in notorious Irey case

Regular readers will likely recall the Irey case, in which a split Eleventh Circuit panel initially affirmed, but thereafter decided en banc to reverse, a lengthy (but still well below-guideline) sentence given to a middle-aged man for what all agree was an "utterly gruesome" sex offense.  A helpful reader today sent me a copy of the latest Irey opinion and order entered on Friday by U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell.  This opinion, which represents just the latest remarkable chapter in a remarkable case, can be downloaded below.  Here is the opinion's introduction and conclusion:

This matter comes before the Court on the Unopposed Motion for Continuance of Resentencing Hearing Pending Review in United States Supreme Court (Doc. 80).  As the motion’s title suggests, the parties seek to have this Court delay its resentencing of the Defendant, William Irey (“Irey”), on the chance that the Supreme Court will grant his petition for writ of certiorari, due to be filed on October 27, 2010.  As things now stand, this Court is obligated by the July 29, 2010 decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (henceforth, the “July 29 Order”) to impose a 30-year sentence on Irey.  Given that Irey is in the early stages of serving the 17-and-a-half-year sentence originally imposed by this court, there is no pressing need to impose the longer sentence — a fact apparently recognized by the Government, which does not oppose the motion.  For these reasons, the motion will be granted, and the resentencing will be continued.

Under normal circumstances, that would be the end of the matter. But these are not normal circumstances.  The July 29 Order raises a host of important issues, a fact recognized both by the Defendant in the instant motion and by the appellate court in the order itself.  The pendency of the petition for a writ of certiorari provides the Court with a rare opportunity to respond to certain aspects of the appellate decision, prior to its possible review by the Supreme Court, with information that only the undersigned possesses.  In addition, the July 29 Order has certain implications that affect the courts that are tasked with the imposition of criminal sentences — implications that might not be apparent to the parties themselves. The Court believes that a discussion of these points may assist the Supreme Court in determining whether the petition ought to be granted.

It is for these reasons, and not out of any disrespect for the Circuit Court’s authority to reverse the sentence I imposed, that I will take this opportunity to respond to certain portions of the July 29 Order....

I normally conclude the sentencing process by coming back to a consideration of the need for the sentence imposed to promote respect for the law and to provide just punishment for the offense. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A).  These are subjective factors that overlay the other statutory considerations.  As I said at the sentencing, “I just do the best I can under the circumstances.  It comes down to my view of what promotes respect for the law and provides just punishment. And here, as indicated, I think that a thirty year sentence . . . is greater than necessary to accomplish the statutory objectives.” (Tr. at 61).

The Circuit Court acknowledged that I properly calculated the guideline score, committed no procedural error, and gave thorough and thoughtful consideration to the statutory sentencing factors.  Nevertheless, after demonizing Irey with over 100 references to uncharged conduct (child abuse), the Circuit Court either misconstrued or exaggerated my comments, or took them out of context, considered numerous facts and arguments never presented to me, and concluded that there were no mitigating circumstances to justify any sentence other than the 30-year guideline sentence.

This is an extraordinary and unprecedented result.  The Circuit Court has effectively usurped my sentencing discretion and raised serious questions regarding Irey’s right to due process.  I concede that the majority opinion has raised valid concerns about the reasonableness of the sentence I imposed.  Were this case remanded to me for re-sentencing, I would take these concerns into account and exercise my discretion accordingly.  But as it now stands, I will not be given that opportunity.  Nor, it appears, will Irey be given the opportunity to confront the facts and arguments raised for the first time on appeal, which resulted in a 12 and a half year increase in his sentence.

In his separate opinion, Judge Tjoflat states that the majority opinion’s approach — i.e., resentencing defendants on appeal — does “immense and immeasurable institutional damage.” Irey III at 1267. In my opinion, it also undermines the basic tenets of sentencing law developed over the past five years, and opens a Pandora’s box of new sentencing issues. I regret that my sentencing of this defendant — including any errors I made in doing so — appears to have led to this result.

Download Irey FINAL post-sentencing opinion with Apps

By my lights, this opinion stands as a de facto amicus brief in support of a cert petition that has not yet even been filled.  As such, this opinion is quite unusual, and I wonder if commentors think it should be lauded or lamented.

Related posts on Irey case:

October 25, 2010 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Will medical marijuana initiatives pass in Arizona, Oregon and South Dakota?

Though I have been paying closest attention to California's Proposition 19, which would legalize recreational marijuana use in that state, there are notable medical marijuana initiatives in three other states worth watching this election season.  As highlighted on this Just Say Now page, voters in Arizona, Oregon and South Dakota will all be considering medical marijuana initiatives.  Here are links to more information about these state initiatives, via the pro medical marijuana webpages supporting them:

California's Proposition 19 has been at the center the national marijuana prohibition debate in recent weeks and months, and I am not sure how that broader debate might impact voting in these other states.  My sense is that medical marijuana initiatives have been mostly successful in recent years, but 2010 is a unique election season for a host of reasons.  Nevertheless, I would make an educated guess that a majority (if not all) of these other marijuana initiatives win passage this year.

October 25, 2010 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

"Youngest Guantanamo detainee pleads guilty"

The title of this post is the headline of this CNN report, which raises a lot of interesting issues about plea and sentencing procedures and outcomes in a very high-profile setting.  Here is are excerpts:

Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr pleaded guilty to charges against him Monday, the Pentagon said, in the first military commission trial there since Barack Obama became president.   Khadr, 24, was accused of throwing a grenade during a 2002 firefight in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, a Special Forces medic.

Khadr, the youngest detainee at Guantanamo Bay, was 15 at the time.  He faced a maximum sentence of life in prison.  He pleaded guilty to murder in violation of the laws of war, attempted murder in violation of the laws of war, conspiracy, two counts of providing material support for terrorism and spying in the United States, a Canadian diplomat said.

Canada -- where Khadr was born -- has been closely involved in negotiations with the United States over his plea.  Discussions have included the possibility that he could serve part of his sentence in Canada, sources said last week.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said he expects the sentencing phase of Khadr's trial to start Tuesday, adding that it probably will finish this week.  Details of the plea agreement are not made public, Lapan said, because the seven military officers on the jury "get the case without any knowledge of the pretrial agreement.  They will issue a sentence for the record, and after that -- if the judge allows it -- the pretrial agreement can be revealed."

If the jury's sentence is different from the plea agreement, the shorter sentence will be imposed, Lapan said.

The military court in August viewed a 30-minute video that the government said shows Khadr helping assemble and plant roadside bombs targeting American troops in Afghanistan....  One of Khadr's Canadian attorneys indicated last week that he was open to a plea deal. "He is anxious to avoid a trial before that kangaroo court," Nate Whitling said in reference to the U.S. military commission at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility....

One source close to the negotiations said, "Khadr will have to decide" whether to sign onto a tentative deal negotiated by prosecution and defense lawyers. That arrangement calls for Khadr to be sentenced to eight years -- one year to be served in U.S. custody and seven years in Canadian custody.

October 25, 2010 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Maryland's gubernatorial candidates do criminal justice cross-overs

Today's Baltimore Sun has this interesting new articleheadlined "Candidates cross party lines on criminal justice: O'Malley, Ehrlich differ on death penalty, rehabilitation."  Here are excerpts:

In a state that consistently ranks among the nation's most dangerous, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Gov. Martin O'Malley defy partisan stereotypes in their approaches to crime.

O'Malley, the Democrat, describes public safety as "the foundation of everything," and his zero-tolerance arrest policy as mayor of Baltimore helped to position him as a law-and-order candidate for governor four years ago.

Ehrlich, the Republican, likes to remind voters of the controversial policy, which critics say resulted in the arrests of innocent people, and which was particularly unpopular with the African-American voters both campaigns covet.  His own views on criminal justice — particularly his focus on rehabilitation — might resonate among the Democrats he needs to attract to win in a state where Republicans are outnumbered 2-to-1. "If you assist in doing justice, you're doing the job as governor," Ehrlich said.

Both lawyers by trade with family ties to law enforcement, Ehrlich and O'Malley have championed many of the same ideas: improving the state's criminal DNA database, protecting witnesses to crime, strengthening laws targeting sexual predators and reforming juvenile justice.

In other areas, the governors have distinct differences.  Ehrlich supports the death penalty; O'Malley worked to eliminate it.  O'Malley has not granted parole to anyone with a life sentence; Ehrlich maintained a robust clemency program....

Ehrlich says he would reinstate the death penalty, which O'Malley has effectively halted. At the same time, Ehrlich says, he would restart a review process for lifetime prisoners whom the parole commission believes are deserving of parole.  He says he would return his focus to the juvenile justice system, which has struggled with high recidivism rates and security problems under both governors.

O'Malley, too, vows a renewed commitment to juvenile justice, a department reeling this year from the beating death of a teacher at the Cheltenham Youth Facility and a subsequent audit showing disarray throughout the department.  O'Malley says he wants to "set no limits" on how much the state can reduce crime.

Maryland's homicide rate reached a 35-year low last year as violent crime nationwide continued to decline.  A report published in April by CQ Press ranked the state the eighth most dangerous in the nation; it ranked second in murder and robbery....

O'Malley's wife is a Baltimore District Court judge; his father was a Montgomery County prosecutor.  O'Malley began his career as a city prosecutor and was elected mayor on a crime-fighting platform.  He says he became "obsessed" with crime as a city politician.

Ehrlich's wife was a public defender, and his grandfather was a city police officer.  Ehrlich himself was a congressman on Sept. 11, 2001, and was inaugurated governor in 2003, as state and national leaders responded to new homeland security concerns....

The candidates have taken some party-line-crossing positions on prison services.  Ehrlich refers frequently to "savables," and identifies RESTART, a program that provides inmates with education, counseling and reentry services from the moment they enter prison, as one of his greatest criminal justice accomplishments.  He acknowledges that his "focus on the treatment regime runs counter" to the priorities of many fellow Republicans.

O'Malley, meanwhile, has called RESTART a dangerous diversion of public safety dollars away from security.  He says he prefers to view prison, parole and probation and juvenile services primarily as law enforcers, rather than as service agencies.  He says he has sharpened the focus of parole and probation so that agents now devote the most time to the most dangerous people.

"We used to supervise so many people so little that we effectively supervised no one," he said.  "Now we supervise very intensely a smaller number of really high-risk offenders and are constantly improving our ability to send them back to jail as quickly as we can when they reoffend or violate the terms of their probation."

Regular readers can probably guess whom I am rooting for in the state in which I spent my first two decades. (For the record, no candidate has ever sought out an SL&P endorsement, which perhaps shows how savvy politicians truly are.)

October 25, 2010 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 24, 2010

Adding my two cents concerning application of the FSA to pending cases

As I noted in recent posts here and here, I think some courts have been a bit too quick to assert that defendants who committed crack offenses before the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act can get no benefit from the the FSA's provisions.  Spurred on by a helpful lawyer in NYC litigating this issue for a defendant awaiting initial sentencing in a multi-defendant case, I put together a letter with my thoughts about applying the FSA's provisions to cases in the pipeline that have not yet been sentenced. 

The letter, which can be downloaded below, sets forth my view that Congress intended the new sentencing terms of the FSA to apply to pending cases as soon as possible.  The letter gets started this way:

Counsel for some defendants in the above-captioned case have informed me that your Honor is currently considering motions to apply the terms of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (hereafter “FSA”), which amended the penalty provisions of 21 U.S.C. § 841, during the upcoming sentencing of pending cases in which the offense behavior took place before the FSA became law.  Taking on the role of a de facto amicus curae, I write to supplement some of the arguments set forth by counsel in this case.  Because I believe that principles of statutory construction support application of the provisions of FSA to all pending cases, I wanted to write to suggest a resolution to these motions that would enable this Court to avoid wading too deeply into the many complicated constitutional and policy issues that might arise if this Court were to refuse to apply the amended penalty provisions of 21 U.S.C. § 841 in a case of this nature.

As the motion papers already highlight, there are serious constitutional arguments and strong policy considerations supporting the application of the FSA to all criminal cases not yet final.  But, even more fundamentally, basic principles of statutory interpretation as well as venerated canons of construction suggest the FSA is to be applied to any and all cases such as this one in which an initial sentencing has not yet taken place.  As detailed below, I believe Congress revealed its intent for the FSA to apply to pending cases through key provisions of the statute itself and through comments by key legislators in the Congressional Record.  Moreover, even if this Court finds congressional intent to be unclear, both the rule of lenity and the constitutional doubt canon of statutory construction call for the FSA to be so applied.

Download FSA application letter from DAB

October 24, 2010 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

"Graham v. Florida: Justice Kennedy’s Vision of Childhood and the Role of Judges"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece authored by Professor Tamar Birckhead and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This short article examines Graham v. Florida, the United States Supreme Court decision holding that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime.  This article argues that Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion is grounded not only in Roper v. Simmons, which invalidated the death penalty for juvenile offenders on Eighth Amendment grounds, and Kennedy v. Louisiana, which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibited the death penalty for the offense of rape of a child, but in Establishment Clause cases set in the context of public schools and Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause cases upholding parental notification requirements for teenagers seeking abortions.

Whereas many journalists and scholars consider Justice Kennedy a “legal pragmatist” who lacks an overarching philosophy to guide his decision-making, in each of these opinions his view of childhood and the proper role of judges is consistent: children and adolescents are unformed works in progress, in the midst of both character and brain development, who are particularly susceptible to direct as well as indirect forms of coercion; as a result, when determining what liberty interests are protected by the United States Constitution, the role of judges and the courts is to ensure that youth mitigates rather than aggravates. Further, although juvenile justice advocates have heralded Graham as a clear victory, the opinion may raise as many questions as it seeks to answer.

October 24, 2010 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Should probation officers be giving federal judges secret sentencing recommendations?

The question in the title of this post is inspired by this effective Roanoke Times piece.  The piece spotlights a rarely discussed but important issue of federal sentencing practiceunder the headline "Federal sentences are not clear-cut; Quite often, a judge will weigh heavily what a probation officer suggests in a pre-sentence report."  Here are excerpts:

The mistakenly mailed court document offered a rare glimpse into the murky world of federal sentencing.  And veteran Roanoke defense lawyer Randy Cargill didn't like what he saw.

Cargill, a federal public defender, was perturbed by a rarely discussed U.S. court rule that critics say conflicts with the presumption of judicial openness.  In the Western District of Virginia, as in many other U.S. court districts, a probation officer makes a secret sentencing recommendation to the judge.  Cargill accidentally saw the probation officer's recommendation for his client.  The report was "misleading and inaccurate," Cargill wrote in a protest letter.

His client, a former Botetourt County restaurant operator now serving time for wire fraud and lying on loan documents, said the probation officer mischaracterized him, leading the judge to lengthen his prison term.  "I'm upset I got 33 months," said Eric Wooten, 35, before he reported to prison this month.  "But the guy that got 10 years, that's who's really affected by this."

Cargill's complaint sparked rounds of discussion among members of the federal probation office, U.S. attorney's office and federal judiciary.  In the end, nothing changed.  The private collaboration between probation officer and sentencing judge continues, just as it does in courts across the country.

After federal defendants are convicted, probation officers prepare a report to help judges decide punishment. The pre-sentence report discusses the convict's history, family, employment, ability to repay costs of the offense, and how the crime affected victims. The report includes a calculation of possible sentences under federal guidelines, based on scores for the offense and the defendant's criminal history.

This part of the pre-sentence report, while sealed from public view, is shared with the prosecution and the defense and often is vigorously debated in front of a judge in open court.  Another part of the report rarely sees the light of day in most of the nation's 94 judicial districts.  This is where the probation officer advises the judge what sentence to impose.  "By local rule or by order in a case, the court may direct the probation officer not to disclose to anyone other than the court the officer's recommendation on the sentence," says the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which governs the operation of U.S. courts.

No one who tracks how each of the nation's federal districts deals with the rule about sentencing recommendations, according to the national office of the federal defenders service and two longtime U.S. judges in Roanoke.  Most districts keep the recommendations secret, between the judge and probation officer, said Karen Edmonds, a Washington-based spokeswoman for the administrative office of the U.S. Courts.

"There is no justification for a lack of transparency in this critical aspect of the adversary process," University of Arizona law professor Marc Miller wrote in an e-mail response to questions. Miller, editor emeritus of the academic journal Federal Sentencing Reporter, is among scholars and lawyers who for years have called for the U.S. Sentencing Commission and Congress to change the federal rule.  Unless defense attorneys and prosecutors have a chance to challenge a probation officer's recommendation, a judge could impose a sentence based on wrong information, Miller said.

Paul Dull, a Roanoke defense lawyer not involved in Wooten's case, said basic fairness is at stake.  "We all have clients who for one reason or another" irritate a probation officer, said Dull, who has years of federal courtroom experience.  "And there's no way for us to know if the probation officer said to the judge, confidentially, 'Hey, this guy. ... He was uncooperative.' "...

Chief Judge Conrad called Wooten's case "an anomaly" in which a "breakdown of communication" created confusion about the adequacy of the financial documents Wooten submitted.  Nevertheless, the process worked as it should, Conrad said.

Conrad briefly worked as a probation officer early in his career and wrote sentencing reports himself.  As a judge, he said he finds the officers' sentencing recommendations helpful.  Probation officers spend time investigating cases and defendants, often interviewing lawbreakers' family and friends. "They may look at things ... that I would miss," Conrad said.

Probation officers work for the court, for judges -- not for the defense or the prosecution, Conrad said.  Any facts the probation officer turns up are supposed to be in the report shared with the defendant and the lawyers, Conrad said. The sentencing recommendation is supposed to be the probation officer's interpretation of the facts.

People accused of a crime have a constitutional right to face their accusers, but that's at trial, for a judgment of guilt or innocence, Conrad said.  Sentencing is a different process, he said.

October 24, 2010 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Taking stock of the costs of life and death (sentences) in Maryland

Today's Baltimore Sun has this interesting pieceheadlined "The steep price of 'life means life' in Maryland: Time for a commission on the cost of allowing governors to say no to parole for even senior lifers." Here are excerpts:

When the commission on capital punishment in Maryland, headed by former U.S. Attorney General Ben Civiletti, issued its final report last year, it concluded that the death penalty was not a cost-effective tool in the cause of public safety — in short, it was a waste of taxpayer money....  "There are other areas in the Maryland criminal justice system where such resources could be applied and significant results could be expected," the report concluded.

It's time for another independent commission to look at two more questions in this realm of cost-effective public safety:

1. Does the O'Malley administration's present policy of "life means life," or no parole for lifers, make sense for taxpayers, or does it merely exist for the benefit of politicians?

2. Should the governor be stripped of the power to reject recommendations of parole that come from the Maryland Parole Commission?

Those questions are connected, and allow me to introduce Hercules Williams as a way of explaining. Mr. Williams was charged, along with three other men, with the killing of a man named Alonzo Alston at his rowhouse in Baltimore in July 1972.  Mr. Williams was 29 years old at the time.  He pleaded not guilty, but a jury convicted him of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, and a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

The murder charge was later reversed, but the conspiracy count stood up.  Mr. Williams has been in prison since November 1972. He has always claimed innocence.  Many years after the trial, one of his co-conspirators came out and said Hercules Williams had had nothing to do with the Alston murder, but judges who heard Mr. Williams' appeals were not persuaded to alter his sentence.

Hercules Williams is now 67 years old.  I've looked through his file.  Everything indicates that Mr. Williams has progressed as a human being while in prison.  He's received all kinds of letters of commendation and certificates.  He was cited for rendering first aid to a correctional officer who was stabbed by another inmate at the old Maryland Penitentiary in 1978.

He was on work-release on the Eastern Shore for a time in the 1990s and earned an employee-of-the-month award from a chicken processor.  But the governor at the time, Parris Glendening, ended work-release for anyone sentenced to life, so Mr. Williams went back inside.

He earned a bachelor's degree from Coppin State University and was in the midst of studies toward a master's degree when Congress, informed by conservative talk-show hosts that a tiny percentage of the federal budget was going to college grants for inmates, withdrew the funding that had made Mr. Williams' education possible.

There have been several different chairmen of the Maryland Parole Commission during his time inside the walls, and the parole commission has recommended that Mr. Williams be released at least three times.  But it hasn't happened because of Parris Glendening and, now, Martin O'Malley.  Both governors, both Democrats, have adhered to the simple-minded "life means life" policy, meaning no parole for lifers, even the older ones who were sentenced with the possibility of being paroled....

And what is the cost of the Glendening-O'Malley "no-parole-cuz-we're-tough-guys" stridency?  For the last several years, I've been told that it costs the state about $25,000 to $27,000 annually to keep a man in prison.  The cost was certainly lower in 1972, when Hercules Williams went into the correctional system.  If, over the last 38 years, the average annual cost of keeping him locked up was about $17,000, then Mr. Williams has cost the state about $425,000 in cell and board.  Add in the cost of his original trials and subsequent appeals, and $500,000 sounds about right, even on the conservative side.

What's the purpose, at this point, of keeping this man — and others his age — inside any longer, and on the public tab?  Someone needs to take a look at what the politicians have done to the parole process, what it's costing us and whether it really serves public safety.

October 24, 2010 in Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack