April 2, 2011
"State budget crises push sentencing reforms"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new AP story that provides an effective overview of how, as a result of bills for mass incarceration coming due, sentencing reforms are part of many states' efforts to deal with budget issues. Here are a few excerpts:
As costs to house state inmates have soared in recent years, many conservatives are reconsidering a tough-on-crime era that has led to stiffer sentences, overcrowded prisons and bloated corrections budgets. Ongoing budget deficits and steep drops in tax revenue in most states are forcing the issue, with law-and-order Republican governors and state legislators beginning to overhaul years of policies that were designed to lock up more criminals and put them away for longer periods of time....
Republican governors and lawmakers pushed for many of the policies that put low-level drug offenders and nonviolent felons behind bars and extended sentences for many convicted criminals. But with the GOP in control of more financially strapped state governments, a growing number of Republican elected officials favor a review of the sentencing laws that contributed to a fourfold increase in prison costs over two decades.
The total cost of incarcerating state inmates swelled from $12 billion in 1988 to more than $50 billion by 2008.... Fall election gains put Republicans in control of 25 state legislatures and 29 governor's offices, and many have pledged not to raise taxes even as they face budget shortfalls. Reforming laws to send fewer low-level offenders to state prison or reduce their sentences is a more politically palatable way to save money than cutting spending for schools or health care programs....
The proposals vary by state, but the hallmarks include ways to reduce sentences for lower-level offenders, direct some offenders to alternative sentencing programs, give judges more sentencing discretion and smooth the transition for released prisoners. In many states, the Republican measures parallel Democratic efforts that stalled long ago. The push to reform sentencing laws has forged uneasy alliances between law-and-order politicians and activists who have long argued that many laws went too far....
Backers of the state measures almost always refer to Texas, which began implementing sentencing changes six years ago. Faced with the prospect of housing 17,000 more inmates by 2012, the state poured money into drug treatment, while putting more drug abusers and petty thieves on probation. The overhaul slowed the growth of the state's incarceration rate and led to a 12.8 percent drop in the state's serious crime rate since 2003, according to a January 2010 state report. The state also saved more than $2 billion it would have spent on building new prisons to house the inmates, advocates say....
While most states are examining sentencing reforms that would target only future convicts, Oklahoma and Texas are examining changes that would release some inmates early to save money. In Oklahoma, some offenders could be eligible for electronic-monitoring. Texas, facing a $15 billion budget deficit, is considering whether to transition some elderly prisoners to nursing homes, house arrest or hospices.
Many prosecutors are skeptical of changes to criminal-sentencing guidelines, saying tough policies have led to reduced crime. Jim Reams, a prosecutor in New Hampshire's Rockingham County, said an early release program in that state has been a disaster because probation and parole officers are overwhelmed by the number of newly released prisoners flooding the system. "The budget crises are being converted into a public safety crisis," said Reams, who is president of the National District Attorneys Association. He worries that releasing more prisoners might have negative consequences.
The AP also has this companion piece headlined "Sentencing changes in some states at a glance."
Regular readers likely know of these stories and others involving state-level reform effort, and should also recognize that these latest sentencing reform discussions are largely the culmination of political, economic and social forces that have been developing for years. What makes all of this so fresh and interesting is the ways in which the political tides of 2010, with so many budget-oriented Republicans taking over state offices with budgets so tight, has sped up the processes of reform.
Some recent related posts with reports from a few states and the modern politics of reform:
- "Budget Crunch Forces A New Approach To Prisons"
- Prison practicalities in lean budget times
- Budget issues prompt big talk of big prisoner release in Alabama
- "Florida Senators Look to Texas for Prison System Cuts"
- "Gov. Beshear signs bill aimed at lowering Kentucky prison population"
- Incoming Ohio Governor Kasich having to face over-crowded prisons and tight budgets
- Pennsylvania auditor urging state sentencing reform to reduce prison costs
- "Conservatives latch onto prison reform"
- Newt Gingrich says "criminal justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it"
- "Right on Crime: The Conservative Case for Reform" officially launches
- When and how will state GOP leaders start cutting expensive criminal justice programming?
- Examining the politics of crime and punishment in modern gubernatorial settings
- What does the tea party movement have to say about taxing and spending on the death penalty, the drug war and mass incarceration?
Execution drug issues continue to generate litigation and headlines
As detailed by the headlines and stories linked below, there continue to be daily developments in many states concerning lethal injection protocols and the litigation they can generate:
From the Houston Chronicle here, "Judge refuses to block lethal injection drug switch": "A Texas judge on Friday refused to block Texas' switch to a new lethal injection drug, denying a condemned man's efforts to delay his execution, which is scheduled for next week."
From Reuters here, "Appeals court clears way for Arizona execution": "An Arizona death row inmate on Friday lost an attempt to block his execution, when a U.S. appeals court ruled authorities can use a controversial drug next week for his lethal injection. The decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Daniel Wayne Cook failed to show he is likely to face "needless suffering" when given sodium thiopental."
From the New York Times here, "2 More States Turn Over a Drug Used in Executions": "Kentucky and Tennessee turned over their supplies of a drug used in executions to the federal authorities on Friday, weeks after Georgia’s supply was seized because of questions about how it had been imported."
"Isolation Units within U.S. Prisons: A Panel Discussion"
The title of this post is the name of an event sponsored by the Center for Constitutional Rights taking place in San Francisco early next week. The details can be found in a flier available for download below, and here is how the event is being described:
A diverse group of leading experts will discuss the ramifications of solitary confinement and experimental isolation units in the prison system. Panelists will also examine critical issues affecting theprison population, including prisoners’ rights, racial and religious profiling, and government misconduct.
April 1, 2011
"More Black Men Now in Prison System than Were Enslaved"
The title of this post is the headline of this piece from the LA Progressive reporting on a presentation by my Ohio State colleague Michelle Alexander concerning her book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." Here is how the piece starts:
“More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” Michelle Alexander told a standing room only house at the Pasadena Main Library this past Wednesday, the first of many jarring points she made in a riveting presentation.
Alexander, currently a law professor at Ohio State, had been brought in to discuss her year-old bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Interest ran so high beforehand that the organizers had to move the event to a location that could accommodate the eager attendees. That evening, more than 200 people braved the pouring rain and inevitable traffic jams to crowd into the library’s main room, with dozens more shuffled into an overflow room, and even more latecomers turned away altogether. Alexander and her topic had struck a nerve.
Another extraordinary sentencing opinion from Judge Jack Weinstein in multi-defendant crack case
A number of helpful readers have made sure that I did not miss yet another extraordinary sentencing opinion from the desk of US District Judge Jack Weinstein. The opinion in United States v. Bannister, No. 10-CR-0053 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 24, 2011) (available for download below), runs over 125 pages and here are excerpts from the conclusion (with cites omitted):
Several of the sentences in this case, imposed only because of statutory minima, are disproportionate to the crimes committed and the backgrounds of the defendants. Their excess causes particular concern when applied to youthful defendants. That concern is multiplied by their imposition upon young defendants subject to abuse, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, unemployment, illiteracy, and learning disability, largely attributable to their backgrounds.
Had the defendants been raised by cohesive, adequate families, most of the difficulties they encountered would probably never have come to pass. Well-resourced, attentive parents would have had the knowledge, ability, and insight to protect their children from many of the difficulties that befell these defendants in their youth, to obtain assistance to deal with their psychological and physical problems, and to obtain crucial opportunities for education, work, and personal growth. Even those with learning disabilities would likely have been provided available resources to overcome their impairments at public expense. That the defendants were born into circumstances without such support is at the center of this tragedy.
As part of defendants‘ sentences, it has been ordered that every reasonable effort be made to provide counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, gambling rehabilitation, anger management therapy, education, and job training while defendants are incarcerated and during supervised release.
Considering the limited resources devoted to such rehabilitative measures, however, it is by no means clear that these aids will be effectively provided. When the defendants are released from prison, they will probably have to return to all of the problems that led them to engage in crime. Whatever tenuous connection they retain to the lawful, supportive world will likely be diminished after years of forced separation in prison. Incarceration will make entry into the job market more difficult. Remaining will be the root problems that have largely brought them to this pass: poverty; dysfunctional families; mental and physical problems; legal and de facto housing segregation; segregated and inferior schools; and an economy that appears to have little need or concern for low- and semi-skilled workers. Such individuals constitute a permanent underclass with almost no opportunity to achieve economic stability, let alone the American dream of upward mobility.
These problems are concentrated among low-income African Americans, but they affect the country as a whole. Our rates of imprisonment, income inequality, and unemployment are either the highest or among the highest of the world's advanced economies, while our rates of food security and life expectancy are among the lowest.
Significant reforms are needed in our sentencing regime. The Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the dubious 100:1 powder/crack ratio to a 17.8:1 ratio. It did nothing to remove the sentencing regime's dependence on arbitrary drug quantities — not just with regard to crack cocaine but other drugs as well — that bear little relationship to the harm a defendant has done to society or to the danger of his inflicting further harm. Harsh, disproportionate mandatory sentences impose grave costs not only on the punished but on the moral credibility upon which our system of criminal justice depends.
Judges approach the grave responsibility of sentencing criminals with all the thoughtfulness and limited insight that their knowledge and wisdom can muster.... Mandatory minimum sentencing provisions, leaving no alternative but lengthy incarceration, prevent the exercise of this fundamental judicial duty. Such laws are ― overly blunt instruments, bringing undue focus upon factors (such as drug quantities) to the exclusion of other important considerations, including role in the offense, use of guns and violence, criminal history, risk of recidivism, and many personal characteristics of an individual defendant. It is difficult to conceive of a system of mandatory minimum sentences that could effectively anticipate and provide for such factors.
For nonviolent, low-level drug crimes, the goals of incarceration — general and specific deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, and rehabilitation — could in most cases be achieved with limited incarceration, through a system of intense supervised release utilizing home visits; meetings with parole officers; a combination of counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, education, job training, and job placement; and electronic monitoring to prevent flight, promote positive choices, and deter and detect incipient crime. Such a regime would likely be more effective in reducing crime and much less costly than imprisonment. Given discouraging economic, social, and psychological conditions, it seems doubtful that the long sentences of incarceration imposed will appreciably reduce crime.
Pragmatism and a sense of fairness suggest reconsideration of our overreliance on incarceration. Though defendants are hemmed in by circumstances, the law must believe that free will offers an escape. Otherwise, its vaunted belief in redemption and deterrence — both specific and general — is a euphemism for cruelty. These defendants are not merely criminals, but human beings and fellow American citizens, deserving of an opportunity for rehabilitation. Even now, they are capable of useful lives, lived lawfully.
"Controversy Follows New Execution Drug"
The title of this post is the headline of this new piece in the New York Times reporting on a new lawsuit filed following the decision by Texas authorities to utilize a new drug in the state's lethal injection protocol. Here are excerpts:
A decision to change one of the drugs Texas uses for lethal injections in its busy execution chamber has sparked anew the controversy over the state’s death penalty. Two inmates filed suit this week against the state corrections department over its closed-door decision-making process. Lawyers for the inmates also called for a federal investigation into whether the state had illegally obtained death penalty drugs used in nearly all of the state’s previous 466 executions since 1982. And the sole American manufacturer of the drug that Texas plans to use urged state officials not to use it in executions.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced on March 16 that it would use pentobarbital in its three-drug cocktail to carry out lethal injections. Texas and other states with the death penalty were forced to find a substitute for the anesthetic sodium thiopental when its only American producer, Hospira Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill., announced in January that it would stop selling the drug....
Documents made public in the lawsuit show that Rick Thaler, director of the Correctional Institutions Division at the department, did not consult doctors, pharmacists or any medical professionals before he made the decision to switch drugs.... “Based upon the information available to me and reported by my staff, I made the decision to change the execution protocol,” Mr. Thaler wrote [in an affidavit]. He signed off on the new procedure on March 15.
In the lawsuit filed this week in Travis County District Court, the inmates’ lawyers argue that department officials should have abided by the Texas Administrative Procedure Act, which requires agencies to seek public input on rules changes. “The hallmark of the process has been its lack of transparency,” said Maurie A. Levin, one of the lawyers....
A day after filing the lawsuit, lawyers for the Texas death row inmates delivered letters to the United States Department of Justice and the Texas Department of Public Safety seeking an investigation into whether the state illegally obtained death penalty drugs. Purchase orders from the Department of Criminal Justice show that the agency uses a federal Drug Enforcement Agency registration number issued to the Huntsville Unit Hospital, which has been closed since 1983. If an investigation shows that the drugs were obtained illegally, Ms. Levin said, the D.E.A. could revoke or suspend the state’s registration and make the state forfeit its supply of drugs.
Jason Clark, a spokesman for the criminal justice agency, said, “We are still reviewing the allegations, but are confident that we have not violated any state or federal law.”
Lundbeck Inc., the only producer of pentobarbital in the United States, urged state officials in a letter this week not to use the drug. Lundbeck — based in Denmark, which opposes the death penalty — has also sent letters to other states using or planning to use pentobarbital in lethal injections. “We’re dedicated to saving lives,” said Matt Flesch, a spokesman for Lundbeck. “To use our products to end lives contradicts everything we’re in business to do.”
Interesting report on federal reentry court program in Kansas City
A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting local article, headlined "Ex-cons get help keeping out of crime and on the job," discussing an innovative program developed in federal court in Kansas City. Here are some details:
Under the direction of U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith, a team of probation officers, lawyers and service providers intensely focus on a group of 20 or so probationers, doing everything within reason to keep them sober, employed and crime-free. In exchange, the participants can have years shaved off of their probation.
The work is difficult, said Kim Grace, a senior federal probation officer. Probationers have tested positive for drugs, missed counseling sessions and failed to find employment. The larger consequences couldn’t be more serious: Be part of the two-thirds of all federal probationers who successfully manage their lives and do not return to prison or join the 33 percent who do....
Not everybody gets excited about attending federal re-entry court, which meets twice a month in a huge, wood-paneled courtroom. Stern oil paintings of retired judges stare down at more than a dozen former offenders seated in the jury box.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Smith sent his first re-entry court participant away in handcuffs for testing positive for marijuana use. Another man narrowly missed the same fate — a couple of days in jail — for the same transgression. However, he had attended job counseling as ordered. “The very foundation of a relationship with me is trust,” Smith said. “There are other responses to stress rather than going back to the habits you had before.”
March 31, 2011
Houston judge gets ACLU heat for offering bible study as alternative sentence
This local alternative sentencing story from Houston, which is headlined "Judge's sentence involving Christian book causes controversy," became a focal point for some national media buzz today. Here are the details:
A new judge is trying to find a new way to punish criminals, but one of his ideas, involving a book report, is drawing fire. Judge John Clinton took the bench in January. The retired Houston Police Department sergeant presides over Harris County Criminal Court No. 4.
“I felt it as a calling,” said Clinton. “I’m just trying to think outside the box. Trying to mold the punishment to help these individuals, instead of set them up to fail.”
That’s what Clinton says he was doing last week when he offered nine defendants a unique opportunity in place of community service. He asked them to read the book “The Heart of the Problem” and then come back in a few months and talk with him about the book. “The Heart of the Problem” is a Bible study that touts itself as a workbook that provides insights for victorious Christian living. The suggestion didn’t sit well with some attorneys who say the judge is violating the constitution.
“That is illegal, unconstitutional and unfair,” said Houston criminal defense attorney Dan Gerson. “We are offended, as far as preaching from the bench, especially by requiring people, or asking people that they perform religious study in lieu of serving their sentence.”
The topic was debated at a Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association meeting Monday morning. “I do not think he had any malicious intent, what trouble me ultimately is his apparent misunderstanding of the first amendment,” said Houston criminal defense attorney Brett Podolsky.
But Clinton says forcing beliefs on defendants is not something he set out to do. “All I was trying to do was help,” he said. “I was told about the book. I received the book. I read the book. I thought, ‘Hey this is a great book.’ Again, me thinking based on my faith, not thinking in general.”
Now, realizing it was a mistake, the judge has stopped offering the option. “Yes, it stopped. I’m just trying to regroup and find the right thing to try and fit what I’m trying to do,” he said.
The judge says he’s looking for alternative ways to try to get defendants on the right track. He’s having some write essays based on their experience in the criminal justice system. In other cases, he’s making community service specific to the defendant.
“I think this is a man that we really need to get behind,” said Houston criminal defense attorney Stanley Schneider. “Anyone who wants to take the innovative, and trying to do something to help people in his courtroom to succeed in life, he’s someone we need to applaud.”
Monday evening, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas released a statement regarding the controversy: “The idea that a judge would use the power of the bench to coerce individuals appearing before him into accepting his religious beliefs offends the Constitution and should offend all Houstonians,” said Dottie Griffith of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “If true, Judge Clinton’s actions are patently illegal.”
Clinton said if any of the defendants who were sentenced to reading the book would like to choose something else, they are welcome to do so.
Seond Circuit discusses (and defends) illegal reentry guideline
The Second Circuit has interesting little federal sentencing opinion today in US v. Perez-Frias, No. 10-1401 (2d Cir. March 31, 2011) (available here), which engages and largely rejects a number of broadside attacks on the illegal reetry guideline. Here is how the opinion starts and a key passage:
Defendant Pedro Ruben Perez-Frias (“Perez-Frias”) pleaded guilty to one count of illegally reentering the United States without permission after having been deported following a conviction for the commission of an aggravated felony, in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326(a) and (b)(2). The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Chin, J.) sentenced Perez-Frias principally to 42 months’ imprisonment. Perez-Frias challenges only the substantive reasonableness of his sentence, arguing  that the district court’s sentence was unduly harsh in view of the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors and  that the 16-level enhancement applicable to reentrants with certain prior convictions (a) is not based on review of past sentencing practices and empirical studies, (b) is overly harsh compared to Guidelines applicable to more serious crimes, and (c) is greater than necessary in view of districts that have “fast track” programs. We affirm....
Perez-Frias argues that the 16-level Guideline enhancement for reentry is deficient because the Commission arrived at it without reference to specific empirical data. In support, Perez-Frias cites the Supreme Court’s decision in Kimbrough, 552 U.S. at 109, holding that district judges are entitled to conclude that the crack cocaine Guideline was greater than necessary to meet the standards of § 3553(a) if they believe the Guideline “do[es] not exemplify the Commission’s exercise of its characteristic institutional role”; and our recent decision in United States v. Dorvee, 616 F.3d 174, 184 (2d Cir. 2010), holding that “the Commission did not use [an] empirical approach in formulating the Guidelines for child pornography” and instead amended the Guidelines at the direction of Congress.
However, the absence of empirical support is not the relevant flaw we identified in Dorvee. We criticized the child pornography Guideline in Dorvee because Congress ignored the Commission and directly amended the Guideline, which had the effect of “eviscerat[ing] the fundamental statutory requirement in § 3553(a) that district courts consider ‘the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant.’” See 616 F.3d at 184-86, 187. There is no such flaw in the reentry Guideline. Congress did not bypass the usual procedure for amending the Guidelines with respect to illegal reentry cases. To the contrary, the 16-level enhancement in § 2L1.2 was based on the Commission’s own “determin[ation] that 20 these increased offense levels are appropriate to reflect the serious nature of these offenses.” U.S.S.G. Appx. C (amend. 375, Reason for Amendment”).
Budget issues prompt big talk of big prisoner release in Alabama
As detailed in this local article, headlined "3,000 Alabama inmates may be released," budget realities may mean that a tide of prisoners may soon be rolling out of cells in Alabama. Here is how the article starts:
The state finance director said Wednesday that 3,000 Alabama prison inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes will have to be released if the Legislature adopts the General Fund budget proposed by Gov. Robert Bentley.
State Finance Director David Perry, who was appointed by Bentley, told a joint meeting of the House and Senate judiciary committees that the cuts required in the governor's budget will force a reduction in the number of prison inmates.
Perry made the dramatic announcement as members of the two judiciary committees were discussing a package of more than 20 bills supported by Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb that are aimed at reforming Alabama's sentencing procedures and reducing the number of prison inmates.
The overall message of the day: Through budget cuts, sentencing reform or both, the state's prison census needs to come down. "The governor's budget assumes there will be a lower inmate count. One way to do that is to apply some of these reforms," Perry said. He told committee members that releasing prisoners because of sentencing reform would be "more responsible" than letting them go because of budget cuts.
Perry said the governor's office has examined the prison rolls and found about 4,000 prison inmates who committed nonviolent crimes and are not sex offenders, who are within 12 months of their release date. The Alabama Department of Corrections had charge of 31,911 inmates altogether in November 2010, the most recent statistical report on the department's website.
New ACLU report assails racial skew in drug sentencing in Mississippi
As detailed in this AP article, the "American Civil Liberties Union has released a report calling on Mississippi to revamp sentencing laws the group says disproportionately impose harsher penalties on drug offenders who are black, and fuel a high incarceration rate." Here is more:
The report, “Numbers Game: The Vicious Cycle of Incarceration in Mississippi’s Criminal Justice System,” focused on the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the use of informants and the use of federal crime-fighting funding.
Nsombi Lambright, ACLU Mississippi executive director, left copies of the report with key lawmakers Monday in hopes of inspiring future legislation. “We’d also like to see a state funded indigent defense system established. Most of those serving long prison sentences were represented by public defenders who were not prepared for their cases and that leads to more racial disparity,” Lambright said.
The report said the state’s criminal code has a rigid and excessive schedule of mandatory minimum prison terms for drug possession that vary according to the weight of the drugs involved. For example, an individual possessing less than one-tenth of a gram of cocaine — about a tenth of what’s in the size of a sugar packet — can be charged with a felony, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison.
This ACLU press release details some other aspects of this new report:
The report reveals that while the use of confidential informants is a cornerstone of the state’s regional drug task force operations, the practice is shrouded in secrecy. As part of the investigation that led to the creation of the report, the ACLU of Mississippi spent nearly two years seeking basic information about the nature and extent of the practice by requesting access to documents that state officials acknowledged should be publicly available under the Mississippi Public Records Act. Yet no access was ever given.
Law enforcement justifies the practice of using confidential informants – especially in drug cases – as an essential means for identifying those who commit crimes and for securing their convictions. But the many perverse incentives embedded in the practice invite abuse and disparity, undermining the fundamental legitimacy of the criminal justice system.
The report offers a number of solutions for improving the effectiveness and fairness of the state’s criminal justice system, including replacing mandatory minimum sentences with a flexible set of sentencing standards and guidelines, requiring corroboration of testimony by all informants and making information regarding the reporting requirements and evaluations of drug task forces publicly available.
The full report can be accessed at this link.
March 30, 2011
"Danish company won't stop US execution drug"
The title of this post is the headline of this new AP piece. Here are the details:
A Danish company that unwittingly has become a key supplier of an execution drug in the U.S. says it's not going to withdraw or restrict it, even though it objects to the chemical being "misused" for capital punishment.
CEO Ulf Wiinberg told AP on Wednesday that Lundbeck A/S is doing "all we can" to dissuade U.S. states from using pentobarbital for lethal injections, but won't pull it from the U.S. market. He said Lundbeck also decided against rewriting U.S. distribution contracts to prevent the drug from being sold to prisons. Wiinberg says "we don't believe it will work and we will not do it."
Are we really "at a critical moment for public safety in the United States"?
The question in the title of this post is inspired by a phrase used by Laurie Robinson, the Assistant Attorney General for DOJ's Office of Justice Programs, in her testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (available here). Here is the context:
Mr. Chairman, I believe we’re at a critical moment for public safety in the United States. Crime rates, as you know, have fallen in recent years thanks to innovative criminal justice approaches and visionary police leadership. At the same time, state, local and tribal public safety agencies across the country are facing significant budget-related challenges that threaten their ability to do their jobs. I think we have a responsibility at the federal level to see that they have the tools and knowledge they need to fight crime in the most effective way possible.
OJP’s mission is to help reduce crime and improve the administration of justice by promoting innovation, supporting research, and providing strategically targeted assistance. The President’s FY 2012 request reflects three central themes: enhancing partnerships; strengthening science and evidence-based programming; and ensuring effective stewardship of federal funds.
Because I am not a budget maven and do not follow federal justice expenditures that closely, I do not know if President Obama's budget proposals for DOJ in general or for OJP in particular are ideal or even sound. But I do know that political rhetoric in recent election cycles has given precious little attention to crime and punishment issues. But perhaps it is only politicians and the voters they are trying to influence who do not realize that we are at a critical moment for public safety in the United States.
Tenth Circuit rejects interesting attack on BOP policy concerning RDAP early release
The Tenth Circuit has an interesting opinion today in Licon v. Ledesma, No. 10-6166 (10th Cir. March 30, 2011) (available here), on a federal prison topic that (too?) rarely gets litigated. Here is how the opinion starts:
Ortino Licon challenges a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) policy and regulation that denies him eligibility for an early release program because he was convicted of felon in possession charges. The BOP has authority to reduce a nonviolent offender’s term of imprisonment upon successful completion of a drug rehabilitation program. The challenged BOP policy categorically denies prisoners convicted of felon in possession charges eligibility for the early release benefit. Licon contends the policy arbitrarily categorizes every inmate convicted of firearm possession charges as violent offenders. We conclude the BOP’s policy is not arbitrary, and therefore the BOP acted within its discretion by excluding inmates convicted of felon in possession charges.
"Current Directions in Violence Risk Assessment"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Jennifer Skeem and John Monahan, which is now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
A variety of instruments have been published over recent years that improve clinicians’ ability to forecast the likelihood that an individual will behave violently. Increasingly, these instruments are being applied in response to laws that require specialized risk assessments. In this article, we present a framework that goes beyond the "clinical" and "actuarial" dichotomy to describe a continuum of structured approaches to risk assessment. Despite differences among them, there is little evidence that one validated instrument predicts violence better than another. We believe that these group-based instruments are useful for assessing an individual’s risk, and that an instrument should be chosen based on an evaluation’s purpose (i.e., risk assessment vs. risk reduction). The time is ripe to shift attention from predicting violence to understanding its causes and preventing its (re)occurrence.
March 29, 2011
"Willie Nelson Could Sing for His Freedom in Texas Pot Case"
A helpful reader altered me to this amusing story from Fox News sharing the headline of this post. Here are the details:
The prosecutor in Willie Nelson's marijuana possession case said the country music legend could get off with just a fine if he agrees to sing one of his songs in court, TMZ reported Monday.
Nelson, 77, was busted at a border patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, Texas, en route to Austin on November 25 last year. He was arrested but released when he posted $2,500 bond at Hudspeth County Jail.
The prosecutor in the case said he was willing to let Nelson off with a $100 fine if Nelson performed his song "Blue Eyes Smiling in the Rain" in the courtroom, TMZ said. The prosecutor reportedly said the song would count as Nelson's community service.
If Nelson chooses not to accept the prosecutor's offer, he could face a maximum of 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine if convicted when he appears in court, at a date yet to be decided.
Any and all comments with appropriate jokes/puns involving Texas justice, marijuana, Willie Nelson and/or singing as a sentence will be greatly appreciated.
UPDATE: Thanks to another helpful reader, I have now learned about breaking news here from the AP on this landmark case-in-the-making:
A Texas judge says Willie Nelson won't have to sing in court to resolve marijuana possession charges -- and a suggestion that he do so was a joke....
Judge Becky Dean-Walker demanded Nelson appear in court, not plead by mail [and] Dean-Walker told The Associated Press she thinks the prosecutor was trying to be funny, "and it got out of hand." She said Tuesday that Nelson can plead guilty without coming to court and singing.
You make the call: what sentence should Detroit's Granny Valjean get for Social Security fraud?
Here is a fitting challenge not only for all sentencing practitioners, but for anyone else who likes to imagine wearing a black robe and dispensing sentencing justice. This Friday in Detroit, as detailed in this local article, a notable and sad federal prosecution reaches sentencing:
Her mentally ill son was in prison. Her daughter was battling drug addiction. And her five grandchildren were in danger of being sent to foster care. So Mary Alice Austin of Detroit, who said she needed money to raise the grandkids, paid someone to pose as her son so she could continue receiving his disability benefits, court records show.
During the 20 years her son was in prison, Austin, 67, received nearly $120,000 in Social Security benefits, records show. Now, she may be headed to prison after pleading guilty to the fraud. She is to be sentenced Friday....
Austin's lawyer and grandchildren are pleading for mercy. "My grandmother has been in my life since I was born. If she hadn't (been), no telling what would of happened to me or my siblings," one grandson wrote to the judge....
On Friday, Mary Alice Austin will be sentenced for unlawfully accepting her son's Social Security checks, pretending to care for him even though he was in prison for 20 years for armed robbery and drug offenses. Under a plea deal, she faces 10 to 16 months in prison.
Court documents show Austin paid someone to pose as her mentally disabled son to get his government checks. Austin, who was raising her five grandchildren, stole nearly $120,000 during two decades -- about $6,000 a year.
Austin's family members and attorney say she was just trying to survive. The government maintains she broke the law, using deception and trickery....
"Although Ms. Austin regrettably continued to accept her son's Social Security checks unlawfully, she did not use the money to live beyond her means or to live a lavish lifestyle," Austin's lawyer, Natasha Webster, wrote in court documents. Webster is pleading for leniency on behalf of her client. She has asked U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts to sentence Austin to home confinement rather than prison. "Significantly, she has accepted responsibility for her actions," Webster wrote.
Austin's two grandsons also have written the judge letters. One, age 12, writes: "We didn't have much but what we did have she made it work ... I'm just asking you don't take my grandmom away from us."
But Austin must pay a price for her crimes, including "some period of incarceration," Assistant U.S. Attorney Blondell Morey argued in court documents. "There is little need in this case to deter or protect the public from a 67-year-old grandmother," Morey wrote in a March 23 filing. "However, defendant must be punished for a crime that earned her over $100,000 and took place over 20 years."
Morey also pointed out that Austin has a criminal record, including a conviction for welfare fraud, which happened during the Social Security scheme. "This was not a crime of opportunity, but one committed over two decades," Morey wrote. "Her most egregious acts were hiring, on three separate occasions, someone to impersonate her son to the Social Security Administration."
So dear readers, if you were in the position of US District Judge Victoria Roberts and thus had to impose later this week a sentence upon Mary Alice Austin that is be "sufficient but not greater than necessary" to achieve federal sentencing purposes, what sentence would you select?
Prescription forger seeks sentencing delay with forged doctor's note
From the "you can't make this stuff up" file come this local sentencing story from California, headlined "Woman in court for sentencing allegedly presents forged doctor's note, then collapses." Here are the particulars:
A 41-year-old woman who was in court this morning to be sentenced for prescription drug forgery allegedly presented a forged doctor’s note in an attempt to delay the proceedings, and then collapsed when the judge ordered her back into custody, according to a prosecutor.
Michelle Elaine Astumian, who had been out of jail after posting $45,000 bail, was scheduled to be sentenced today by Judge Barry LaBarbera to four years and eight months in state prison. She had pleaded no contest in January to two counts of forging a drug prescription and one count of using a fraudulent check. Each count is a felony.
But before the sentencing Deputy District Attorney Dave Pomeroy said that Astumian presented a doctor’s note stating that her sentencing should be postponed. Pomeroy called the doctor whose name was signed on the note, and the doctor told him that the note was forged.
Pomeroy said that he reported the alleged forgery to LaBarbera, who ordered Astumian into custody. She then fell to the floor, prompting the judge to clear the courtroom for about 30 minutes. An ambulance arrived and took Astumian to a local hospital.
It’s very unusual for a defendant to react in the manner that Astumian did, Pomeroy said. “I’m trying to approach her reaction with understandable skepticism,” Pomeroy said. Pomeroy said that Astumian will need to be brought back to court to be sentenced, but he wasn’t sure exactly when that might happen.
Third Circuit finds procedurally(?!?) unreasonable two below-guideline white-collar sentences
The Third Circuit has an interesting ruling today in US v. Negroni, No. 10-1050 (3d Cir. March 29, 2011) (available here), in which two white-collar defendants have their below-guideline sentences vacated. Here are a few snippets from the Negroni opinion that provides an incomplete summary :
The United States appeals orders of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania sentencing Appellee James Hall to fifteen months' imprisonment and Appellee Paul Negroni to five years' probation, including nine months' in-home detention. Because the District Court committed procedural error in reaching both of those sentences, we will vacate the orders and remand for resentencing....
These consolidated cases spring from a massive fraud scheme organized and conducted by a man named Kevin Waltzer. Between the years 2000 and 2008, Waltzer fraudulently obtained more than $40 million in payments from settlement funds in three class action lawsuits...In 2007, the scheme was uncovered by the IRS, and, in cooperation with the IRS investigation, Waltzer began to provide information regarding the other individuals involved, including Hall and Negroni....
Hall's calculated ... Guidelines range called for 46 to 57 months' imprisonment.... For Negroni, the District Court calculated ... a Guidelines range of 70 to 87 months' imprisonment. [Hall was sentenced to fifteen months' imprisonment; Negroni got five years' probation, including nine months' in-home detention.]...
[O]ur review is frustrated because, while the District Court individually identified each § 3553(a) factor, it did not discuss some of them and, as to those it did discuss, it did not explain how they justified the frankly dramatic downward variance it gave. The insufficiency of the explanation prevents us from judging whether the Court “gave meaningful consideration” to the relevant factors and is itself procedural error.
I have placed "(?!?)" as a suffix to the the term procedurally is the title to this post because I sense that it is the substantive outcome much more than the procedures used below that really bothers the Third Circuit in these cases. Nevertheless, as has been the case in lots and lots of post-Booker reasonableness appeals, it seems that the circuit judges ultimately felt me comfortable declaring the outcome only procedurally unreasonable and thereby giving the district court a second opportunity to consider both the sentencing process and result once more, this time with some added wisdom from this circuit ruling.
Split 5-4 SCOTUS ruling brings deliberate indifference standard to 1983 action against prosecutors
The Supreme Court finally handed down this morning an opinion in Connick v. Thompson concerning potential liability for prosecutorial injustices. The decision is 5-4 with Justice Thomas delivering the opinion of the Court, Justice Scalia issuing a concurring opinion joined by Justice Alito, and Justice Ginsburg issuing a dissenting opinion joined Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.
The opinion is available here (with the dissent taking up more pages than both the majority and concurring opinions) , and here is an early description of the action from the SCOTUSblog folks:
The decision clarifies the burden of proof under Section 1983 against local governments. It holds that there must be proof that the injury was caused by official action or policy. A local government decision not to train some employees about duties under [Brady] may rise to a policy, but the failure to train must be a deliberate indifference to the rights of persons.... The Court holds that a pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is ordinarily necessary to demonstrate deliberate indifference....
The separate Scalia opinion is a response to the dissent, [and] Justice Ginsburg is dissenting from the bench, which the Justices use to signal their broad and serious objection to a majority opinion.