« December 5, 2010 - December 11, 2010 | Main | December 19, 2010 - December 25, 2010 »

December 14, 2010

The interesting issues raised by Tapia, the new SCOTUS federal sentencing case

A helpful reader this afternoon reminded me that I have not yet given enough attention to the really interesting federal sentencing case that the Supreme Court took up late last friday (as first mentioned here).  The case is Tapia v. United States, and the SCOTUSblog folks right now have this bare-bones SCOTUS case-page which provides a link to the bare-bones Ninth Circuit summary disposition and also to the effective cert petition filed by the defendant

In addition, the lawyer who filed the cert petition for the defendant sent me by e-mail the Government's brief in opposition, which can be downloaded below.  Of special interest, the final paragraph of the SG's Tapia BIO effectively highlights the precise issue raised by Tapia and how it relates to the seemingly similar issue raised in the recently argued Pepper case (emphasis in original):

Pepper presents two questions: first, whether a district court resentencing a defendant following a successful government appeal must apply the same percentage departure from the Guidelines range for substantial assistance as was applied in the initial sentencing; and second, whether a district court at such a resentencing may consider the defendant’s post-sentencing rehabilitation in deciding whether to vary downward from the advisory Guidelines range.  Gov’t Br. i, Pepper, supra.  Neither issue is presented in this case.  This was an initial sentencing, not a resentencing.  And the issue here was not, as in Pepper, whether a defendant’s actual past rehabilitation could be a factor in reducing a prison term (because, for example, the defendant no longer presents as much danger to the community), but instead whether the possibility of future rehabilitation could be a factor in lengthening a prison term. However the Court resolves the issue in Pepperconcerning consideration of post-sentencing rehabilitation at resentencing, the decision in Pepper will have no bearing on petitioner.

Download 10-5400 Tapia BIO

In a forthcoming post, I will make a pitch for why I should be appointed to represent the decision below before SCOTUS.  For now, I encourage commentary on whether any other folks think, as I do, that Tapia could be the sentencing sleeper of the current SCOTUS Term. 

UPDATE:  I just came across this newspaper story about the Tapia cert grant, which is headlined "Inmate wins long-shot appeal to U.S. Supreme Court" and gets started this way:

Alejandra Tapia smuggled aliens, abused drugs and jumped bail.  Now she's beaten the legal odds.

In an extreme long shot, the one-time California resident and her public defenders convinced the Supreme Court to hear a challenge to her prison sentence.  The decision, announced Friday, could resolve a big difference of judicial opinion and help shape sentencing nationwide.

Tapia argues that a judge erred when he increased her federal prison sentence so that she might be eligible for a rehabilitation program.  "Rehabilitation is not an appropriate consideration for deciding whether imprisonment should be imposed, or for deciding the length of the defendant's prison sentence," one of Tapia's former attorneys, Doug Keller, said in his brief.

The oral argument and a final decision in Tapia v. United States are months away.  Simply securing Supreme Court review, though, gives Tapia a rare thumbs-up in an otherwise exceedingly bleak life.

December 14, 2010 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

New issue of Pace Law Review on need for prison oversight in US

I received via e-mail a press release spotlighting this new issue of the Pace Law Review that all sentencing law and policy fans will want to check out.  Here is how the press release begins:

Latest issue of Pace Law Review offers blueprint for critically-needed U.S. prison oversight: Contains views from academics, human rights lawyers, national and international corrections experts

The United States has, by far, the highest incarceration rate of any developed country on the planet, yet its prisons remain largely hidden worlds.  Unlike many Western countries, which have systems for inspecting and reporting on prison conditions, the U.S. lacks formal and comprehensive external oversight mechanisms to regularly monitor prisons and jails.

Now, a newly released issue of the Pace Law Review, “Opening up a Closed World: A Sourcebook on Prison Oversight,” offers a comprehensive look at prison oversight, including articles from leading academics, national and international corrections experts, and prisoners’ rights and human rights lawyers.  Together, this diverse group calls for a national conversation on this important subject, and offers insights and practical ideas for how oversight could be accomplished in the American context.

December 14, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

One guess how this Seventh Circuit habeas state sentencing appeal gets resolved

The Seventh Circuit handed down a notable decision today in Promotor v. Pollard, No. 09-2292 (7th Cir. Dec. 14, 2010) (available here), a case in which a defendant claimed his due process rights were violated during his state sentencing.  The first three paragraphs of the opinion (and perhaps even the first two sentences) should make it pretty easy for readers to figure how the defendant's claims get resolved: 

On April 8, 2003, Rogelio Promotor got drunk, drove at speeds up to 86 miles per hour, tore through two red lights, and crashed into a passing car. He killed four people and severely injured two others. He pleaded no contest in Wisconsin state court to four counts of homicide by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle and two counts of causing injury by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle.

Before sentencing, Promotor cooperated in the creation of a defense pre-sentence investigation report which stated that Promotor consumed up to 23 beers in the hours preceding the crash.  The court mentioned the “23 beers” figure twice when it sentenced Promotor to 66 years of imprisonment and 28 years of supervised release.

Promotor filed post-conviction requests for relief with the Wisconsin state courts, which were denied.  He then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. He asserted that his due process rights were violated because he was sentenced based on inaccurate information — the 23 beers figure from the defense presentence report.  He also argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.  The district court denied the petition, finding that Promotor procedurally defaulted his due process claim by not objecting to the information in his pre-sentence report.  Promotor requested, and the district court granted, a Certificate of Appealability on this question, and on whether the Wisconsin state courts violated Promotor’s due process rights by sentencing him based on inaccurate information.

The Promotor ruling usefully noted that a defendant's due process rights are violated if a presentencing report includes "materially incorrect and the sentencing court relied on it in sentencing." But this important legal principle does not end up helping Rogelio Promotor.

December 14, 2010 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Another star going to NY prison for years for gun possession... and prompting more Second Amendment wondering

As detailed in this news report, "Ja Rule became the latest US rapper to face jail on a gun charge, after pleading guilty Monday in New York to attempted possession of a weapon, prosecutors said." Here are the basics:

Ja Rule, whose real name is Jeffrey Atkins, is expected to be sentenced to two years behind bars and 18 months of supervised release after pleading guilty to attempted criminal possession of a .40 caliber handgun.

Sentencing is on February 9, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney's office said. A more severe punishment could have been expected had Ja Rule gone to trial and been convicted.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said that the city, which has some of the strongest anti-gun laws in the nation, is still working to stem gun violence. "Gun crimes are serious offenses and today's guilty plea should send a serious message to anyone thinking of illegally bringing a gun into New York City," he said.

The rapper was caught with the pistol in his sports car after a 2007 concert in Manhattan. He had been performing alongside rapper Lil Wayne who was also charged with gun possession in a separate arrest and spent much of 2010 in prison.

Though I do not know all the details surrounding Ja Rule's gun possession and the plea deal his attorney's worked out here, I do know that I continue to be disappointed and somewhat surprised that high-profile celebrity defendants facing serious prison time for mere gun possession are not trying to actively litigate a Second Amendment defense to their prosecution.  Assuming all that the Ja Rule did wrong was to possess a handgun and that he could reasonably claim that he possessed this handgun for personal self-defense, I do not fully understand why Ja Rule and his lawyers (and his agents) would not want to try to litigate a Second Amendment claim based on Heller and McDonald through the New York state courts.

For low-profile and not-wealthy defendants, I can understand how the notoriety and economic costs of a Second Amendment challenge may make such a defense to gun possession charges not worth pursuing.  But for a rapper like Ja Rule, the notoriety could be a benefit to his career and the economic costs should not be a show-stopper.  (Indeed, I suspect some public interest lawyers might even take on a high-profile constitutional case like this at a discount.)   Moreover, Ja Rule would likely be able to stay out on bail while this kind of claim was litigated, and the prospects for a good plea deal would not seem to get much worse from the decision to litigate a constitutional challenge to the very law with which the defendant is charged.

If Ja Rule has a long criminal history of other offenses or if there are other factors preventing him from being a sympathetic Second Amendment litigator, then I guess I understand why he might accept two-years in prison for simple gun possession.  But lots of defendants get much less prison time for crimes that seem much worse and do not have even the patina of the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right.  Thus, I never quite understand why defendants like Ja Rule and Plaxico Burress and Lil Wayne accept deals that mean long stretches in prison for doing something that a majority of the Supreme Court might well say is constitutionally protected to do. 

December 14, 2010 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Nebraska lawmaker seeking to end LWOP for juveniles in state

As detailed in this local article, which is headlined "Seeking an end to teens doing life," at least one Nebraska state legislator is eager to get rid of LWOP for all juvenile offenders. Here are the details:

For State Sen. Brenda Council, it's common sense: Criminals under the age of 18 should not be sentenced to life in prison without a chance at parole. Her reasoning: While their crimes as teenagers were horrendous, people mature, changing dramatically from their teen years to mid-30s, 40s or 50s.

Studies have shown that a teen's brain is not fully developed. Youths face pressures from gangs and peers. Imprisoning a person for decades is costly.

The sentence amounts to “death by incarceration,” she said. Still, Council acknowledges, her view is unpopular in Nebraska, one of the states that allow young people to be sentenced to life without a chance for parole.

Even so, Council plans to submit a bill during the next legislative session that would change sentencing guidelines. Those convicted as teens — or younger — should at least get a parole hearing some years down the road, she said. Her proposed bill would not guarantee parole.

About 25 people joined the Omaha legislator Monday evening at a panel discusion on how to help the underdog proposal make it into state law. Those in attendance included another state senator, Bob Krist; Family members of some of the 27 people in Nebraska sentenced as juveniles to life; and even a mother who has become an advocate for the man who helped kill her son when both were teens....

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last spring that a life sentence without parole for juveniles who have committed crimes other than murder violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Readers who know American political science realize that Nebraska has a unicameral legislature with 49 members, so State Senator Brenda Council will only need to convince 29 of her colleagues to get her bill passed.  This is important not only in Nebraska, but if there is a continuing movements in many states to ban all LWOP sentences for all juvenile offenders, the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment doctrine could evolve to make such sentences ultimately unconstitutional. 

December 14, 2010 in Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Data and debate over a drop in death sentencing in Texas

As detailed in this new Houston Chronicle article, which is headlined "Death sentences plunge in Texas: Foes cite new law, DNA testing; backers blame judges, delays in executions," in the year 2010 Texas juries "sentenced only eight killers to die this year, the lowest number since 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court ended its ban on capital punishment."  Here is more about this interesting capital accounting:

The figures were released Monday in an end-of-year review of capital punishment by the Austin-based Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty...."It shows that Texas and the rest of the country are moving away from the death penalty, even in Harris County. It's an astonishing development," said coalition executive director Kristin Houlé.

Houlé attributed the drop to Texas' 2005 life without parole statute and to the high cost to counties of seeking the death sentence. Also eroding support for capital punishment is DNA testing, which has led to the exoneration of scores of inmates convicted of serious crimes...

Death penalty supporters, however, countered that fewer death sentences may reflect fewer killers and fewer killers who are eligible for execution. The Supreme Court shrank the pool of death-eligible killers by prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded offenders and those who were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes.

Dudley Sharp, an outspoken Houston death penalty advocate, argued that drops in rape, robbery and murder have reduced the number of death-eligible criminals going to trial. "Texas murder rates have dropped about 67 percent, murders about 50 percent in Texas between 1991 and 2009," he said.  "Nationally, I think that part of the reduction is due to state prosecutors knowing that judges in their state will not allow an execution to take place."

Prosecutors also cite long-term incarceration of violent criminals and programs to lower recidivism among released prisoners.  Just as important, they claim, is a high degree of frustration over death sentences that never are carried out.

"Twenty-five years later, mothers and sons and daughters of victims are still waiting," said Scott Burns, executive director of the National Association of District Attorneys. "It's the old cliche about justice delayed is denied. ... For a number of states, the death penalty means we'll talk to you in 25 years and see where we are."

Nationally during the last 20 years, death sentences have ranged from a high of 328 in 1994, to a low last year of little more than 100. Texas recorded an all-time high — 48 — in 1999. That total fluctuated in the ensuing decade....

Since Texas' resumption of executions in 1982, 464 killers — 115 of them from Harris County — have been put to death. Currently, 105 Harris County killers await execution. Three of 17 killers executed this year were from Harris County. The next execution is scheduled for Jan. 11.

The year-end report of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty is available at this link; lots of data and links to additional information about Texas capital justice can be found in this webpage on the TCADP site.   The full report spotlights three Texas capital cases in which Texas juries returned sentences of life, which seems to suggest that Texas prosecutors only sought the death penalty in 11 cases through 2010.

Though Texas justice has long be criticized by many, this latest data suggests the state is becoming far more measured in its application of the death penalty.  When one considers this reality in conjunction with the state's recent prohibition of LWOP for all juve offenders (even juve murderers) and also its effective and efficient sentencing reform and prison population reduction programs over the last decade, Texas is perhaps evolving into a model sentencing reform state instead of being the cruel tough-justice outlier that historically garnered so much criticism.

December 14, 2010 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 13, 2010

"Releasing elderly non-violent prisoners would reduce Ohio deficit"

The title of this post is the headline of this potent and effective letter to the editor in a local Ohio paper. Here are excerpts:

How do you eat an elephant? . . . One bite at a time

Ohio is $8 billion in the red.  A budget crisis the size of an elephant.  A recent report by the Kasich camp suggesting ways to balance the budget, asked Ohio agencies to look at operating at a 90 percent of their current budgets.  As expected, all said such a plan would reduce services, raise education costs and create havoc.  The scenario communicated by the Department of Corrections is particularly startling.  If the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction takes a 10 percent hit to their current $3.1 Billion budget, staff would be reduced by 20 percent and several prisons would have to close. Overcrowding would rise from 135% overcapacity to a startling 174 percent creating a dangerous and inhumane situation....

In September, Director Ernie Moore announced that the big WIG or “Wildly Important Goal” of the ODRC is to “reduce the prison population to 48,000 by July 1, 2013.”  This trickle of proposed reductions over 2½ years is uninspired. We need a fiscally and morally arguable plan to reduce the absurd amount of resources wasted to warehouse humans in the name of public safety now.  Don’t be fooled by the fear mongering by those who benefit by the ever-growing prison industrial complex.  The ODRC employs nearly 14,000. Make no mistake there are vested interests in keeping prisons open, full and growing. When the rhetoric of releasing prisoners is used to create fear, panic and more irresponsible spending, remember over 95% of those incarcerated are eventually released regardless of pedantic tactics used to manipulate the public....

It is said that character of a society can be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable and marginalized.  There is no group of citizens more vulnerable or more marginalized, forgotten and forlorn than the elderly incarcerated.  According to the US Department of Justice, elderly inmates represent the most vulnerable of the entire population.  They are subject to systemic abuse and neglect, violated in ways that would make you sick.  They suffer exponentially and in degrading and disgusting circumstances that were never intended, even by the most ardent supporters of tough on crime legislation.... Yet, they are unquestionably proven to be the least risk to society and of recidivism.

Ohio has nearly 7,000 inmates over the age of 50, the age, generally accepted as elderly by the National Institute of Corrections and the State of Ohio.  Based on documented “accelerated aging” studies showing the actual age of an older inmate to be 10 years older than their biological age.

To incarcerate the most vulnerable, lowest risk and most expensive inmates, is costing Ohio $500,000,000 a year; a half billion dollars, money that could go to schools, job training and positive, productive uses.  Resources that should be an investment in the future of Ohio not spent on satisfying the public and political appetite for the last morsel of vengeance.

If Ohio and the ODRC was to release just 3,000 of the eldest, non violent offenders that alone would save over $225 million, stave off the dangerous overcrowding and put Ohio on the cutting edge and moral high ground of the travesty of geriatric incarceration.  The immediate, early release of the elderly non-violent prisoners is both pragmatic and humane.  Simply, it is just the right thing to do.  This is one big bite of the elephant that should be palatable to all.

Some recent related posts:

December 13, 2010 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Supreme Court Justices are now doing reading on iPads and Kindles, when will law students?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new video from a portion of a C-SPAN interview with new Justice Elena Kagan. The video is titled "Justice Kagan on Using a Kindle to Read Briefs," and in the segment Justice Kagan reports on how she uses the Kindle to read all the SCOTUS briefs, and also discusses that Justice Scalia has his briefs on an iPad. (Hat tip: How Appealing.)

In a series of posts about technology and legal education over at the blog Law School Innovation (where I am cross-posting this post), I have suggested that the advancement of new reading technologies will at some point transform legal education. I articulated the point this way in this post after first seeing the iPad in action earlier this year:

[A] casebook-friendly e-tablet is only the tip of the new media iceberg that could be facilitated by an iPad or some other tablet that becomes to casebooks what the iPod became to vinyl records.  Of course, just as record companies (and some artists) resisted music being packaged and distributed via new media, casebook publishers (and some authors) may resist legal materials being packaged distributed via new media.  But, as the iPod and the DVR and other digital innovations have demonstrated, a better means to distribute content digitally will eventually prevail over analog precursors.  The iPad may not prove to be the casebook tipping-point technology, but it seems to me to be only a question of when, not whether, the traditional casebook will go the way of vinyl records and VCR tapes.

When traveling to speak at various conferences, I have noticed more and more lawyers with iPads and other e-readers. I expect that buzz about the Justices reading briefs on e-readers might add even more juice to the on-going digital revolution in the collection and distribution of legal materials. And if law schools do not get with the program soon, I fear we will be doing even worse than usual in training the next generation of lawyers.

Though this post fits better at my Law School Innovation blog, I have cross-posted it here because I am eager to hear from practitioners about their use of technology (and whether there are any particular technologies that a criminal law professor ought to make the focus of more student instruction). In addition, I have to assume that it is only a matter of time before we have a federal sentencing guidelines app.

December 13, 2010 in On blogging, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

New issue of The Nation magazine say “Dare to End the War on Drugs”


I just learned that the new December 27, 2010 issue of The Nation is focused on the modern realities and dynamics of the drug war. The introduction from the editors to the issue, which is available now at this link, is headlined "Rebalancing Drug Policy," while the cover uses the D.A.R.E logo to urge our nation to "Dare to End the War on Drugs."   Here is how the editors' introduction sets up what follows in a single paragraph:

Nearly forty years after President Nixon declared a "war on drugs," it is painfully clear that the nation's approach to drug policy is counterproductive and cruel.  Shifting our priorities toward a more sensible approach — one that offers treatment rather than punishment for addicts, and that recognizes the deep injustice of mass incarceration — seems like a daunting task.  But as the writers in this forum suggest, we have all the answers and resources we need.  If ever there was a time to say enough is enough, it's now.   — The Editors

There appears to be a whole lot that sentencing fans should find worth checking out in this special issue of The Nation, including these pieces:

I have not provided a link to the last two articles because they are listed as for "Subscribers Only" and because you can find them via the links to all the free pieces if you are a subscriber.

I am looking forward to consuming all aspects of this special issue of The Nation, which I will likely make a special effort to purchase in hard copy when I see it on the newsstands. I have, however, already printed out the pieces on marijuana politics and practices because they provide an important window into some of the most important recent dynamics in the long-running drug war debate.

December 13, 2010 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Justice Scalia (joined by two other Justices) dissents for cert denial in capital habeas case

The only opinion of note coming from the Supreme Court this dissent from denial of certiorari in Allen v. Lawhorn.  Here is how the seven-page opinion authored by Justice Scalia, which was joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, starts and ends:

Respondent James Lawhorn was sentenced to death by an Alabama court in 1989.  Nearly two decades later, the United States Court of Appealsfor the Eleventh Circuit granted him habeas relief on the ground that his counsel had rendered ineffective assistance at the sentencing hearing by failing to make a closing argument.  In my view that decision was patently wrong: The court had no basis in law for setting aside the state courts’ judgment that respondent had failed to establish a probable effect of that failure upon the outcome.  I dissent from the Court’s decision not to grant certiorari and summarily reverse the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment....

It has been over 21 years since Lawhorn was sentenced to death.  Alabama should be not barred from carrying out its judgment based on a federal court’s lawless speculation.  I would not dissent from denial of certiorari if what happened here were an isolated judicial error.  It is not.  With distressing frequency, especially in capital cases such as this, federal judges refuse to be governed by Congress’s command that state criminal judgments must not be revised by federal courts unless they are “contrary to, or involv[e] an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1) (emphasis added).  We invite continued lawlessness when we permit a patently improper interference with state justice such as that which occurred in this case to stand.  We should grant Alabama’s petition for certiorari and summarily reverse the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment.

December 13, 2010 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

"Don't return Jason Pepper to prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new editorial in today's Des Moines Register in response to the Supreme Court oral argument last week in Pepper v. US (previously discussed here and here).  Here are excerpts:

Jason Pepper's life changed dramatically when he was arrested in 2003 for possession and sale of methamphetamine.  The change might have been for the better, except that he has been entangled in the federal judicial bureaucracy for the past seven years.  His best hope now is that the U.S. Supreme Court will end his legal nightmare.

Pepper, 31, formerly of Akron, Ia., served a two-year sentence in federal prison, where he successfully completed drug treatment, and upon release went back to school, married his high school sweetheart, got a job and today is living a productive life in St. Joseph, Ill.  His debt to the government may not be not over, however: He faces the prospect of returning to federal prison where he could serve an additional sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in Pepper's appeal Monday, has the opportunity to limit that sentence to time served.  That is what it should do....

Pepper's life is on hold because federal judges disagree on whether his original sentence was too short.  He completed that sentence, but appeals judges later ruled it was too lenient, and he was subsequently resentenced to another 40 months in prison.  The question before the Supreme Court: Should he get credit for straightening out his life since his release from prison while his case was on appeal?

The answer would be obvious to those who believe the purpose of prison is not just retribution but reform, and it appears to have worked in this case.  What possible interest would be served by sending him back for more time in federal prison now?

Also troubling is why a federal case was made of a small-time drug offender such as Pepper in the first place.  Had his case been prosecuted in Iowa state court, he would not be facing the federal sentencing equivalent of double jeopardy.  Instead, based on his successful rehabilitation, he would have been eligible for early release from prison on parole and allowed to rebuild his life.

There is no equivalent parole system in the federal courts, and prison sentences measured in decades for minor drug offenders are common.  Meanwhile, defendants can be caught up for years in battles between trial courts and appeals courts over the proper length of sentences.  Congress tried to eliminate disparity in criminal sentencing, but in the process it created a rule-laden bureaucracy that does not fully acknowledge real life stories of individuals like Jason Pepper.

The Supreme Court should help change that by giving federal judges the discretion to weigh evidence of actual life experience in criminal sentences.

December 13, 2010 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 12, 2010

Supremacy Claus puts money where his comments are to support reentry film

In this post from a few days ago, I reprinted an e-mail I received from Attila Adam, a writer and director working on a new drama called June Gloom. In his words, the "film is centered around a man's release from prison, into a world that doesn't want him. It's an example of how difficult restarting your life can be when you walk into that 'gloom' without a strong support system."

I linked to this special intro video to the project, which is on a webpage seeking pledges to help the project get completed, and I noted that $500 pledge would result in executive producer credit on this film. And I (half-jokingly) suggested that some of the frequent commentors on this blog consider supporting this effort

Ever the interesting fellow, (in)famous regular commentor Supremacy Claus wrote to me to report that he was going to make a $500 pledge and was going to do so in my name so that I would get executive producer credit.  For this kind gesture (which is now reflected on this June Gloom blog), I am awed and grateful.  And I have now added another $100 pledge (and provided that the goodies that come with this pledge go to SC).

Though I know not everyone is a huge fan of how Supremacy Claus sometimes seeks to take over the comment threads, I think everyone should be a huge fan of his efforts in this context. And if merely 1/10 of all the readers who dislike SC's comments would simply make a pledge of 1/10 of what SC put up on my behalf, the June Gloom film would have extra resources for final production and promotion. (As I noted before, the minimum pledge to support this project is a mere $10, and I hope a lot of readers might consider themselves able to pledge at least 2% of what Supremacy Claus put up.)

December 12, 2010 in Film, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Final execution of 2010 scheduled for this week in Oklahoma

As detailed in this local news piece, "Oklahoma State Penitentiary death row inmate John David Duty, 58, is scheduled to be executed on Dec. 16."  This pending execution is notable not only because it appears to be the last one slated for 2010, but also because "the Oklahoma Department of Corrections ran out of sodium thiopental, a key component in the three-drug cocktail that causes unconsciousness ... [and so it has] decided to use pentobarbital instead, a similar drug and powerful sedative that is commonly used to euthanize animals."  As the story further explains, it appears that this defendant is eager to be executed:

Duty was sentenced to death for the Dec. 19, 2001 murder of Curtis Wise, Duty’s 22-year-old OSP cellmate. At the time of the murder, Duty was serving three life sentences for his 1978 convictions of rape, robbery and shooting with intent to kill.

In a 2002 letter submitted into court records, Duty wrote: “I talked my cellpartner Curtis Wise into letting me tie him up as a hostage so I could be moved from Disciplinary Unit to Administrative Segregation. I then strangled him to death. When I convinced Curtis Wise to let me tie him up it was with the intention of killing him. If it hadn’t been him it would have been somebody else.”

District Attorney Jim Bob Miller, in a report filed with the Pittsburg County Court in August 2002, stated that the murder of Curtis Wise was “especially heinous” because Duty talked his cellmate into acting like he was the defendant’s hostage ... [and later wrote] a letter to the mother of Curtis Wise bragging about how Curtis Wise struggled for his life throughout the conscious torture...

Duty also, subsequent to the murder of Curtis Wise, “threatened to kill prison staff at the Department of Corrections both in writing and orally,” Miller reported.  In a letter to Pittsburg County Assistant District Attorney, Richard Hall, Duty wrote: “You can’t say I don’t deserve the death penalty.  I’ve killed another inmate, taken hostages 3 times, and assaulted a guard. Plus other various things to numerous to mention.”

During the 2002 court proceedings, Duty pleaded guilty to the murder, waived the presentation of mitigating evidence during his sentencing and said he wanted the death sentence.

Meanwhile, in this new New York Times editorial headlined "Justice Stevens and the Death Penalty," the Gray Lady reiterates points recently made by former SCOTUS Justice John Paul Stevens against capital punishment and concludes that "Justice Stevens is right that [political and cultural forces provide] "woefully inadequate justifications" for a penalty that is a brutal anachronism.

December 12, 2010 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Prisoners in Georgia coordinate (unprecedented?) strike

Though it may not be unprecedented, this news via the New York Times about a prisoner strike in Georgia is certainly remarkable.  Here are the basics:

In a protest apparently assembled largely through a network of banned cellphones, inmates across at least six prisons in Georgia have been on strike since Thursday, calling for better conditions and compensation, several inmates and an outside advocate said.

Inmates have refused to leave their cells or perform their jobs, in a demonstration that seems to transcend racial and gang factions that do not often cooperate.  “Their general rage found a home among them — common ground — and they set aside their differences to make an incredible statement,” said Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther leader who has taken up the inmates’ cause.  She said that different factions’ leaders recruited members to participate, but the movement lacks a definitive torchbearer.

Ms. Brown said thousands of inmates were participating in the strike. The Georgia Department of Corrections could not be reached for comment Saturday night.

“We’re not coming out until something is done.  We’re not going to work until something is done,” said one inmate at Rogers State Prison in Reidsville.  He refused to give his name because he was speaking on a banned cellphone.  Several inmates, who used cellphones to call The Times from their cells, said they found out about the protest from text messages and did not know whether specific individuals were behind it....

Ms. Brown, who lives in Oakland, Calif., said she planned to gather legal and advocacy groups on Monday to help coordinate a strategy for the inmates.

Chief among the prisoners’ demands is that they be compensated for jailhouse labor. They are also demanding better educational opportunities, nutrition, and access to their families.

December 12, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Local California judge and former prosecutor supporting three-strike offender's appeal

As detailed in this interesting new AP article, which is headlined "Stanford law students appeal three-strike cases," a defendant appealing his three-strikes sentence in California is getting some notable help from some notable folks.  Here are the specifics:

Nearly 15 years after sentencing, an inmate is getting an unexpected chance at freedom — and the judge a shot at redemption.  Students at Stanford Law School's novel Three Strikes Project, which has successfully overturned 14 life prison terms handed down for non-violent crimes under California's unforgiving sentencing law, are joined by an unusual coalition in their latest bid.  The county judge and prosecutor who sent Shane Taylor behind bars for 25-years-to-life in 1996 now want to help set him free....

Taylor's offenses: two burglary convictions when he was 19, and a third conviction for possessing about $10 worth of methamphetamine.   Under California's three-strikes law, any third felony can earn a repeat offender a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison.  It's a law 26 states and the federal government have some variation of, but none is more punitive than California's.

In response to the law, renowned defense attorney Michael Romano co-founded the Three Strikes clinic at Stanford in 2006.  He said he believes that too often the law fails to distinguish the violent career criminal from bumbling, drug addicted defendants who are sent away for at least 25 years for a nonviolent felony conviction....

On Nov. 15, the Stanford clinic asked the California Court of Appeal in Fresno to toss out Taylor's sentence.  Taylor was drinking beer, listening to music with two friends at a vista point above a Tulare County lake in the wee hours when the police rolled up and found about $10 worth of methamphetamine in his wallet.  That would become strike three.

The judge, Howard Broadman, became haunted by memories of the case, believing he had rendered a bad decision in invoking the harsh law. He regretted that in calculating the prison sentence he hadn't ignored one or both of Taylor's previous felony convictions: Attempted burglary and burglary that netted a homeless and methamphetamine-addicted Taylor a pizza paid for with a forged check.

Broadman called the law school last year after reading about the Three Strikes Project's remarkable success in freeing convicts like Taylor who "struck out" and received identical sentences for nonviolent crimes....

Rather than argue innocence, the Stanford crew contends its clients' prison sentences are illegally harsh and wrongly calculated.  "They have the innocence projects," said third-year law student Susannah Karlsson, who is helping present Taylor. "We have the guilty project."...

The prosecutor is joining Boardman, who is now a mediator in Visalia, in supporting a reduced prison sentence.  The appeal contends that Taylor's public defender at trial failed to tell Broadman about Taylor's horrific upbringing that included sexual abuse, a prostitute mother and early drug use. And Broadman says that, had he known of Taylor's past, he would have doled out a more lenient sentence.

Taylor's trial lawyer has filed a declaration saying he failed to properly represent his client, especially at sentencing when he filed legal papers mistakenly labeling Taylor's last offense as a burglary rather than drug possession.

December 12, 2010 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Incoming Ohio Governor Kasich having to face over-crowded prisons and tight budgets

The Columbus Dispatch this morning has an above-the-fold, front-page article on Ohio's prison problems.  Here are lengthy excerpts from this effective article, which is headlined "Prison reform awaits Kasich; Changing overcrowded system won't be easy":

[Ohio] prison administrators have been pushing for years to stem the tide of incoming inmates to save money and reduce crowding.  Ohio prisons house 50,976 offenders (33 percent over capacity), have a staff of more than 13,300 employees and a two-year, $3.54 billion budget.

That makes prisons one of the largest single categories in the state budget, accounting for roughly 7 percent of general fund spending, and a top target for cutbacks as state officials struggle to deal with an impending $8 billion shortfall.

Gov.-elect John Kasich has made it clear that changes in prisons, including privatization and sentencing reform, will be in his sights when he takes office Jan. 10.  "Everything is on the table. Is it possible to have private companies run prisons, build prisons?  Of course it is; we're looking at it," Kasich told The Dispatch last week.  "But corrections reform is critical.  It's one of the big cost sinks that we have.  We've got some states that are releasing people because they can't control their costs. We have to think intelligently about how we're going to do this."

Kasich, who beat incumbent Democrat Gov. Ted Strickland last month, said locking up offenders who have committed "relatively minor crimes" in costly state prisons "doesn't make sense to me.  "You want to put your prisoners in an environment where the public is safe, but where it's the least costly," he said.

One of the complaints Kasich has voiced frequently since the Nov. 2 election is that Ohio locks up "check-kiters and people who don't pay child support" when they could be punished at lower cost outside prison.  However, the state prison census shows there were 51 offenders behind bars for writing bad checks and 372 for failure to pay child support. Those categories, combined, account for less than 1 percent of the total prison population.

Cutting costs sounds reasonable but isn't easy in an overcrowded system with high security needs and court-ordered mandates for medical and mental-health care of inmates.

New Department of Rehabilitation and Correction budget estimates reveal the consequences of even a 10 percent cut, including the closing of prisons and the layoff of more than 2,500 employees.  It also could mean eliminating funding for 972 halfway-house beds, 1,547 community-diversion offenders and 2,200 offenders in city and county jail programs funded by the state.

As for privatizing, the state already contracts for the operation of two private prisons: North Coast Correctional Treatment Facility, a 552-bed, minimum-security facility for alcohol and drug offenders in Grafton in Lorain County, and the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, a 1,380-bed, minimum- and medium-security prison in Conneaut in Ashtabula County.  Both are operated by Management & Training Corp. of Centerville, Utah....

State lawmakers vigorously resisted a sentencing-reform proposal that had bipartisan support from the Strickland administration and state Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati.

Included in Strickland's proposed two-year budget in 2009 -- but stripped out by fellow Democrats -- was a proposal to reduce the prison population by more than 6,400 inmates, saving $29.1 million annually. It would have granted "earned credit" to release 2,644 prisoners, diverted 2,644 nonviolent offenders to community programs, sentenced 527 child-support violators to community sanctions and reduced re-sentences for parole violations by 591.

Seitz introduced a version of the proposal, but it also died under withering criticism from prosecutors and conservative Republican legislators.  More recently, prisons chief Ernie Moore said he wants to reduce the prison population to 48,000 by 2013.  He plans to divert more inmates to transitional control, work with judges to reduce the number of offenders returned to prison for technical violations and boost community programs for higher-risk offenders.

I am very pleased to hear my new Governor say that "everything is on the table" for dealing with these prison crowding and expense issues in Ohio.  I wonder if that really include drug offense and structured sentencing reform as well as back-end sentencing policy changes like more earned-time credit. 

Among many interesting aspects of the Ohio sentencing and corrections story is the fact that, as detailed in this recent report, prison terms have gone up since the Ohio Supreme Court responded to the Blakely SCOTUS decision by giving Ohio sentencing judges greater sentencing discretion.  Unlike in the federal system, where the guidelines tend to drive up prison terms, in Ohio structured sentencing reforms tended to keep prison sentences down.  But since that structure became just advisory in Ohio, sentence lengths have crept up.

December 12, 2010 in Blakely in the States, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Is it fair (or of any use) to describe Mark Madoff's suicide as part of his dad Bernie's "punishment"?

As detailed in this ABC News piece, which is headlined "Madoff Son Found Dead On 2nd Anniversary of Dad's Arrest," one of the sons of Bernie Madoff took his own life last night.  Here are the basic details:

Two years to the day, and almost the precise hour and minute, of his father's arrest by the FBI, Mark Madoff, son of the disgraced Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, was found hanged inside his Manhattan apartment, an apparent suicide according to police.

Madoff had reportedly learned in the last week that he faced possible criminal charges in both London and New York.

Madoff left behind several emails, including one to his wife, Stephanie, telling her that he loved her, but no explanation of why he chose to take his life.  "I love you," the email said. "... send someone to take care of Nick."

In a separate email to his lawyer Martin Flumenbaum, Mark Madoff wrote, "No one wants to hear the truth take care of my family," according to law enforcement sources.  He also sent one to his wife and to his father-in-law asking that someone come to get the couple's two-year-old child.

Upon receiving the emails, which were written in the early morning hours after 4 a.m., Stephanie, who reportedly was in Florida with at least one of the couple's other children, contacted her father.  He came to the apartment and found his son-in-law hanged in the living room around 7:30 a.m. Saturday, police said.  The two-year-old was sleeping peacefully in a bedroom nearby, police sources said.

Madoff had used a black dog leash to hang himself, police said.  His labradoodle, Grouper, was found nearby unharmed. 

"At about 7:30 this morning police responded to 158 Mercer Street," said New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly. "Mark Madoff was found hanging from a pipe in the living room of the apartment. Mr. Madoff apparently left some email notes. There was no note at the scene, but [he] communicated with members of the family."...

According to sources close to the family no one could have seen the suicide coming, although Madoff, 46, had been distraught, felt unemployable, and was sure that he would never be able to extricate himself from the thickets of notoriety....

Madoff and his children were being sued for all of their wealth and he faced the prospect of criminal prosecution in two countries.

I am never quite sure how to respond emotionally or intellectually to a high-profile suicide of someone I have never known.  But I am sure that this sad additional chapter of the saga surrounding Bernie Madoff's spectacular crimes prompts a number of questions for the sentencing scholar in me.

One theoretical question appears in the title of this post, and I especially mean for the question to prompt some reflection on the relationship between personal pain and the concept of punishment.  The connection between pain and punishment is getting lots of scholarly attention lately, and the fact that Bernie Madoff must be experiencing personal pain as a result of his son's suicide leads me to wonder if this event might be thought of as another part of his punishment.

A related practical question concerns whether Bernie Madoff now regrets having pleaded guilty.  At the time of his guilty plea, the only significant benefit Bernie seemed to garner was the chance to try to protect his family from some of the fall-out from his crime.  But the suicide of his son suggests that Bernie's efforts to shield his family were not especially successful.

Cross-posted at Prawfs

December 12, 2010 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack