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October 4, 2011

Split DC Circuit panel issues important Second Amendment ruling in via Heller II

The DC Circuit has another big Second Amendment ruling in the Heller case today in Heller v. DC, No. No. 10-703 (DC Cir. Oct. 4, 2011) (available here).   Here is how the majority opinion (per Judge Ginsburg) gets started: 

In June 2008 the Supreme Court held the District of Columbia laws restricting the possession of firearms in one’s home violated the Second Amendment right of individuals to keep and bear arms.   See District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570. In the wake of that decision, the District adopted the Firearms Registration Amendment Act of 2008 (FRA), D.C. Law 17-372, which amended the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, D.C. Law 1-85.  The plaintiffs in the present case challenge, both facially and as applied to them, the provisions of the District’s gun laws, new and old, requiring the registration of firearms and prohibiting both the registration of “assault weapons” and the possession of magazines with a capacity of more than ten rounds of ammunition. The plaintiffs argue those provisions (1) are not within the District’s congressionally delegated legislative authority or, if they are, then they (2) violate the Second Amendment.

The district court granted summary judgment for the District and the plaintiffs appealed. We hold the District had the authority under D.C. law to promulgate the challenged gun laws, and we uphold as constitutional the prohibitions of assault weapons and of large-capacity magazines and some of the registration requirements.   We remand the other registration requirements to the district court for further proceedings because the record is insufficient to inform our resolution of the important constitutional issues presented.

Here is part of the start of the very lengthy dissent by Judge Kavanaugh:

In this case, we are called upon to assess those provisions of D.C.’s law under Heller.  In so doing, we are of course aware of the longstanding problem of gun violence in the District of Columbia.  In part for that reason, Heller has engendered substantial controversy.  See, e.g., J. Harvie Wilkinson III, Of Guns, Abortions, and the Unraveling Rule of Law, 95 VA. L. REV. 253 (2009); Richard A. Posner, In Defense of Looseness, THE NEW REPUBLIC, Aug. 27, 2008, at 32.  As a lower court, however, it is not our role to re-litigate Heller or to bend it in any particular direction.  Our sole job is to faithfully apply Heller and the approach it set forth for analyzing gun bans and regulations.

In my judgment, both D.C.’s ban on semi-automatic rifles and its gun registration requirement are unconstitutional under Heller.

October 4, 2011 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

SCOTUS hearing three criminal procedure cases today

Lots of criminal procedure on the docket for the Supreme Court on this the first Tuesday in October.   Via SCOTUSblog, here are the basics:

10-63 Maples v. Thomas:  Whether the Eleventh Circuit properly held that there was no cause to excuse any procedural default where petitioner was blameless for the default, the state's own conduct contributed to the default, and petitioner's attorneys of record were no longer functioning as his agents at the time of any default.

10-680 Howes v. Fields:  Whether this Court's clearly established precedent under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 holds that a prisoner is always "in custody" for purposes of Miranda any time that prisoner is isolated from the general prison population and questioned about conduct occurring outside the prison regardless of the surrounding circumstances.

10-1001 Martinez v. Ryan:  Whether a defendant in a state criminal case who is prohibited by state law from raising on direct appeal any claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, but who has a state-law right to raise such a claim in a first post-conviction proceeding, has a federal constitutional right to effective assistance of first post-conviction counsel specifically with respect to his ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim.

The Maples case seems likely to generate the most media attention, in large part because it is a capital case.  But I think the Martinez case is the most important and potentially the most consequential of this trio.

UPDATE:  The folks at SCOTUSblog now provide links to all the oral argument transcripts in these three cases via this new post.

October 4, 2011 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Big new report assails juvenile incarceration as ineffective

NoPlaceForKids_cover_200x223 As detailed in this press release, a big new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation concludes that incarcerating "juvenile offenders in correctional facilities, which costs states a yearly average of $88,000 per youth, is not paying off from a public safety, rehabilitation or cost perspective." Here is more about this report (available here), which is titled "No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration," from the press release:

The report concludes that there is now overwhelming evidence that the wholesale incarceration of juvenile offenders is a failed strategy for combating youth crime because it:

Does not reduce future offending by confined youth: Within three years of release, roughly three-quarters of youth are rearrested; up to 72 percent, depending on individual state measures, are convicted of a new offense.

Does not enhance public safety: States which lowered juvenile confinement rates the most from 1997 to 2007 saw a greater decline in juvenile violent crime arrests than states which increased incarceration rates or reduced them more slowly.

Wastes taxpayer dollars: Nationwide, states continue to spend the bulk of their juvenile justice budgets – $5 billion in 2008 – to confine and house young offenders in incarceration facilities despite evidence showing that alternative in-home or community-based programs can deliver equal or better results for a fraction of the cost.

Exposes youth to violence and abuse: In nearly half of the states, persistent maltreatment has been documented since 2000 in at least one state-funded institution. One in eight confined youth reported being sexually abused by staff or other youth and 42 percent feared physical attack according to reports released in 2010.

The full 50-page report and a helpful four-page Issue Brief are available in pdf form here and here.

October 4, 2011 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"Montana objects to federal gun ban for medical marijuana users"

The title of this post is the headline of this local Montana article, which begins and ends this way:

Attorney General Steve Bullock voiced his objection Monday to the U.S. Justice Department over its recent memo banning the sale of guns or ammunition to licensed medical marijuana users and urged the agency not to prosecute anyone for now.

Bullock wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder about the Sept. 21 memo from the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to licensed gun dealers. The memo said it is illegal for medical marijuana cardholders to buy guns and ammunition, and illegal for dealers to sell these products to them.

The letter from Bullock followed criticism of the policy last week from all three members of Montana's congressional delegation, Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, and Rep. Denny Rehberg. A firearms advocacy group and a medical marijuana group had earlier blasted the memo....

Bullock said the federal letter raises Second and Fifth amendment constitutional issues over the right to bear arms, equal protection and due process. In addition, he said, hunting is a constitutionally protected activity in Montana.

The Montana attorney general said he certainly recognizes the supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution and the importance of maintaining a federal union, but added: "In our federal system of dual sovereignty, I respectfully suggest that the federal government should act in a careful manner when its laws and policies involve conflicts with those of the state."

Bullock conceded there had been abuses and problems with medical marijuana laws in various states, including Montana, but these states have sought to find workable solutions. "In doing so, however, we also face issues that are, candidly, created or exacerbated by federal actions and policies that do not always reflect the kind of careful approach and appropriate accommodation that should be accorded the state," said Bullock, a Democrat running for governor in 2012.

Medical marijuana industry officials have said that changing federal policies on the issue have created problems. Federal authorities raided more than two dozen Montana medical marijuana growing and dispensing operations earlier this year as the Legislature was considering medical marijuana bills.

Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, called Bullock's letter to Holder "a good first step." He said he looks forward to seeing "actual deeds" by state elected officials in following up on the issue.

A few related posts: 

October 4, 2011 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 3, 2011

Might "female Hannibal Lecter" have a shot at parole in California?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new piece in the Los Angeles Times, which is headlined "Gruesome details recounted in case of ex-model who ate husband."  Here are the specifics:

Gruesome details are expected to be recounted this week when a state parole board decides whether an ex-model who dismembered her husband then cooked and ate his body parts should be freed after nearly two decades behind bars.

At the time of the sensational Orange County case, detectives compared Omaima Nelson to the fictional cannibal killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter.  She is seeking early release from California Central Women’s Prison, where she is serving 27 years to life for the second-degree murder of William E. Nelson.

Orange County Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Randolph J. Pawloski is fighting her release, saying he will never forget the horror of visiting the couple's home.  “There were suitcases and plastic bags soaked with dark liquid from his body parts.  In the fry cooker there sat Mr. Nelson’s hands and when we opened the refrigerator there was Mr. Nelson’s head with stab wounds,” Palowski recalls.  “She had his entrails in his Corvette and she was trying to get an ex-boyfriend to yank out the dentures from the head so she could dump it in the Back Bay.”

The memory of those details is why the veteran prosecutor who sent her to prison will take the rare step of personally appearing at a parole hearing in Chowchilla on Wednesday to oppose her request for early release.  “It is certainly one of the most gruesome and notorious crimes ever committed in Orange County and sometime people need reminding of that,” he said.  “It is probably the most egregious mutilation murder we’ve had here.”

The way she defiled and mutilated her husband, he will tell the parole board, demonstrates an exceptionally callous disregard for human life, he said.  “Make no mistake -- she will tell you anything you wish to hear to get what she wants,” he said.

Jurors deliberated for six days before rejecting Nelson's defense that she was a battered woman who killed in self-defense after being repeatedly abused and raped the night before the killing.  Because of a lack of premeditation they deemed it a second-degree murder.

In court, a psychiatrist testified that Nelson put on red shoes, a red hat and red lipstick before spending hours chopping up her husband's body.  " 'I did his ribs just like in a restaurant,' " the psychiatrist quoted Nelson as saying.  She revealed she sat at the kitchen table with her husband’s cooked remains and said out loud: " 'It's so sweet, it's so delicious .... I like mine tender,' " the doctor recalled.

Yowsa!

October 3, 2011 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Our federal tax dollars keeping us safe from "illegally-imported sperm whale teeth"

Eagle-head2 For anyone who might worry that federal prosecutors may waste too much time and federal taxpayer monies pursuing local crimes that are best handled by local governments, I am pleased to be able to report on a new Justice Department press release that highlights that the feds do sometimes devote their limited time and precious federal taxpayer monies to pursuing big-time international criminals.  Specifically, as detailed in this new DOJ press release titled "Virginia Man Pleads Guilty to Trafficking in Illegally-Imported Sperm Whale Teeth," we can all sleep sounder knowing that the feds keep working hard to keep us all safe from evil persons who illegally traffic in the pearly whites of huge marine mammals:

Richard M. Ertel, of Spotsylvania, Va., pleaded guilty today in U.S. District Court in Richmond, Va., to the illegal importation and illegal trafficking of sperm whale teeth, the Department of Justice announced.

Ertel pleaded guilty to two felony violations of the Lacey Act for trading in endangered marine mammal parts.  Sperm whales are classified as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.  It is illegal to import parts of sperm whale teeth into the United States without the requisite permits and certifications, and without declaring the merchandise at the time of importation to U.S. Customs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sperm whale teeth are commonly used for scrimshaw and can fetch large sums of money from collectors and tourists.  Scrimshaw, as defined by the ESA, is any art form which involves the substantial etching or engraving of designs upon, or the substantial carving of figures, patterns or designs from, any bone or tooth of any whale, dolphin or porpoise.

As part of the plea, Ertel admitted that from April 2002 to June 2007, he was in the business of buying and selling sperm whale teeth that he purchased from sources in the Ukraine, and then sold to customers in Virginia and elsewhere in the United States.  He admitted to conducting much of his business via the Internet.

As a result of the felony conviction, Ertel could be sentenced up to five years in prison and fined up to $250,000 for each count. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 9, 2012.

Gosh knows that, after getting this new DOJ press release via e-mail, I will be sleeping much sounder tonight.  But I am now concerned that looming federal budget cuts might undermine the important progress obviously being made in the war on scrimshaw.  I sure hope that the sperm whale community can and will be actively lobbying members of Congress to try to preserve and expand the law enforcement funds needed to ensure that this small population of large victims no longer has to live in fear.

October 3, 2011 in Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

"Italy appeals court clears Knox of murder"

The title of this post is the headline of this new AP story coming from Italy.  Here are the basics:

An Italian appeals court has thrown out Amanda Knox's murder conviction and ordered the young American freed after nearly four years in prison for the death of her British roommate.

Knox collapsed in tears after the verdict was read out Monday. Her co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito, also was cleared of killing 21-year-old Meredith Kercher in 2007.

The Kercher family looked on grimly as the verdict was read out by the judge after 11 hours of deliberations by the eight-member jury.  Outside the courthouse, some of the hundreds of observers shouted "Shame, shame!"

For a host of reasons, I have mostly been disturbed by the extraordinary amount of media coverage that has been given to this Italian murder case.  Nevertheless, for a host of reasons, I doubt this latest legal development is likely to lower the case's profile anytime soon.  (Indeed, I am already speculating about how many forthcoming commentaries will have Amanda Knox and Troy Davis in the title.)

As always, I welcome reader comments on the Knox case itself, on any unique facets of the Italian criminal justice system, and also on what all the MSM attention tells us about our modern perspectives on American crime and punishment.

October 3, 2011 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Sex offender standing before SCOTUS this morning in Reynolds

As explained in this helpful SCOTUSblog post, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments this morning in a sex offender case to kick of the start of its new Term, but what is at issue seems quite narrow and of limited long-term consequences.  The case is Reynolds, and here are the essentials:

In Reynolds v. United States, the Court will consider a surprisingly narrow issue: standing. In particular, the case asks whether a sex offender who was convicted before SORNA’s enactment has standing to challenge the Attorney General’s rule that applies SORNA’s registration requirement to pre-enactment offenders.

SORNA requires every sex offender to register, and to keep the registration current, in each jurisdiction where the offender lives, works, or studies. It provides that a sex offender’s failure to register, or to keep registration current, itself constitutes a federal crime. Section 16913(d) delegates to the Attorney General the authority to say whether and how SORNA’s registration requirements apply to sex offenders who were convicted before SORNA’s enactment...

The petitioner in this case, Billy Joe Reynolds, was convicted of a sex crime in Missouri in 2001 and sentenced to imprisonment.   Upon his release in 2005, he registered under Missouri law and subsequently updated and verified his registration as required by Missouri law.

In November 2007, Reynolds was charged and indicted with violating SORNA’s registration requirements after he moved to Pennsylvania without updating his registration. He moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing — among other things — that the Attorney General’s rule violated the APA.   The district court denied the motion, and Reynolds entered a conditional plea, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his motion to dismiss.   The Third Circuit affirmed, ruling that SORNA’s registration requirements applied to pre-enactment offenders by their own force, even without the additional rule by the Attorney General.  The court concluded that Reynolds therefore had no stake in the rule and no standing to challenge it.  (It is not clear if this case involves formal Article III standing, or “standing" in its more colloquial sense.   But it doesn’t matter: either way, Reynolds has to show that he had some stake in the Attorney General’s rule.)  This appeal followed....

[T]his case is not framed to present the more interesting constitutional issues around SORNA. The Court will almost surely limit its ruling to the precise standing issue here. Given all this, we might wonder why the Court even agreed to hear the case. It’s likely that the Court just needed to resolve a circuit split — a simple explanation for a surprisingly narrow case.

I share the view that Reynolds is a "surprisingly narrow case" — I am even inclined to call it annoying narrow given all the broader constitutional and statutory issues that surround SORNA.  That said, I suspect today's oral argument and the ultimate ruling in Reynolds could provide some hints as to how various Justices view SORNA and its many notable "big federal government" elements.

October 3, 2011 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

SCOTUS back to work, with lots of crime (but not much punishment) on the docket

The buzz about the Supreme Court's new Term, which officially kicks off this morning, is that it could be one of the most consequential in recent memory.  For example, this commentary via the National Review by Jonathan Adler is headlined "Supremely Consequential: The High Court begins a term that could be its most significant in decades," and How Appealing has lots and lots links to SCOTUS preview articles with the same theme.

This preview piece from Adam Liptak at the New York Times carries the headlined "In New Term, Supreme Court Shifts Focus to Crime and First Amendment," and here are passages explaining the crime part of the focus:

The Supreme Court, which has been focused in recent terms on the rights of corporations and on curbing big lawsuits, returns to the bench on Monday with a different agenda.  Now, criminal justice is at the heart of the court’s docket, along with major cases on free speech and religious freedom....

[T]he justices will hear an extraordinary set of cases that together amount to a project that could overhaul almost every part of the criminal justice system.  The court will decide whether the police need a warrant to use advanced technology to track suspects, whether jails may strip-search people arrested for even the most minor offenses, whether defendants have a right to competent lawyers to help them decide whether to plead guilty, when eyewitness evidence may be used at trial, and what should happen when prosecutors withhold evidence.

“The Supreme Court has positioned itself to improve the quality of the criminal justice process from beginning to end,” said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University....

[T]he justices are focused on criminal cases, especially ones concerning the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a fair trial.

In United States v. Jones, No. 10-1259, the justices will consider whether the police need a warrant to attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car and track its movements for weeks at a time.  Some appeals court judges have said that such surveillance put them in mind of George Orwell’s novel “1984.”  Prosecutors say that electronic enhancement of the ability of the police to stake out and track suspects raises no constitutional concerns.  A second Fourth Amendment case, Florence v. Board of Freeholders, No. 10-945, asks whether people arrested and held for minor offenses may be routinely strip-searched.

The court will also consider, in Maples v. Thomas, No. 10-63, whether a mix-up in the mailroom of a big New York law firm should mean that a death row inmate in Alabama must lose an opportunity to appeal a decision against him.

In a pair of cases to be argued on Oct. 31 — Lafler v. Cooper, No. 10-209, and Missouri v. Frye, No. 10-444 — the justices will consider whether defendants who were not told of favorable plea deals or were advised to reject them may pursue claims for ineffective assistance of counsel.  A great majority of prosecutions are resolved with guilty pleas, and more vigorous judicial supervision of how the pleas are reached would have a broad practical impact.

The court will also consider the use of eyewitness evidence, in Perry v. New Hampshire, No. 10-8974.   Such evidence, as the New Jersey Supreme Court found in a major decision in August, is often unreliable and has been the cause of many wrongful convictions.  The justices will consider whether trial courts must be particularly wary of allowing such evidence to be presented when it has been tainted by suggestive circumstances not created by the authorities.

And the justices will return to a subject that sharply divided them in last term’s Connick v. Thompson case, which threw out a $14 million jury award to a former death row inmate who was cleared after prosecutorial withholding of evidence in New Orleans came to light. The new case, Smith v. Cain, No. 10-8145, also comes from New Orleans and concerns similar claims of prosecutorial misconduct.

For sentencing fans — who already know well that any new rulings about counsel and plea processes are far more important and consequential than any criminal trial doctrines — the Lafler and Frye cases are the big ones to watch going into this new Term.  

That said, compared to some other recent Terms which started with obvious blockbusters (e.g., Graham in OT 2009, Plata in OT 2010), I am yet to see too much on the docket for sentencing fans to get worked up about.  That could change, of course, with grants through the Term.  And, as is often the case, there may be some sentencing sleepers lurking.

October 3, 2011 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Why death is really LWOP in Connecticut: the "glacial pace" of state capital appeals

In the wake of a horrific murder of a family in their home, the Connecticut capital justice system has received attention as prosecutors have sought death sentences for the murderers.  This legnthy new AP article highlights why, even with one death sentence imposed and another possible in the Cheshire mass murder case, condemned Connecticut murderers are much more likely to die in prison than to ever get executed by the state.  The piece is headlined "Conn. Death Row Appeals Not Going Anywhere Soon," and here are excerpts:

As Connecticut prosecutors work to put Cheshire murder suspect Joshua Komisarjevsky on death row, the appeals of those already awaiting execution are moving at what legal experts say is a glacial pace.  Of the 10 men sentenced to death in the state, three have been awaiting execution for more than two decades and two others have been on death row for at least 12 years....

Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane recently told state lawmakers that death sentences "will not be carried out in the near future, given the current state of the legal proceedings. These oldest cases are not cases where the inmate will be exonerated through DNA technology. Guilt is not at issue; it is delay and delay solely for the sake of delay."

Judges, lawyers and victims' families blame foot-dragging by the courts and lawyers, the complexity of the appeal system and a six-year-old, still-pending lawsuit alleging racial and geographic bias in state death penalty cases.  While death penalty opponents continue to call for a repeal of capital punishment, supporters are urging lawmakers to reform the appeal process.

None of Connecticut's death-row appeals have made it into the federal system, where they will go after the state appeals have been exhausted.

Superior Court Judge Carl Schuman issued rare criticism of the process from the bench in June, when he denied the latest appeal of convicted cop killer Richard Reynolds, who was convicted 16 years ago.  He blamed prosecutors, defense attorneys and the courts for not moving the case forward and wrote that the "lethargic movement of this case is contrary to society's need for finality of convictions," adding that it "conflicts with all notions of sound judicial policy."...

Four death-row appeals are on hold because of the lawsuit alleging racial and geographic disparities, which is set to go to trial next June.  The case, which will impact all death-row appeals, has been delayed for years by changes in judges, two different studies commissioned by the inmates' lawyers and a response from prosecutors that included several revisions.

Michael Courtney, head of the public defender office's Capital Defense Unit, said there could be more delays as his office moves have the date updated to include those sentenced to death after 2006.  He said subsequent federal appeals could also be lengthy, as defense lawyers get their first chance to argue that Connecticut's death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution by pre-screening what issues a jury can consider as mitigating factors in a capital case.

"Until the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decides we're going to look at this or we're not going to look at it, or decides one way or another whether Connecticut is operating properly under the federal Constitution, there is not going to be another execution in Connecticut, barring another volunteer" Courtney said.  In 2005, serial killer Michael Ross was given a lethal injection after he pushed for his death sentence to be carried out, becoming the first person executed in New England since 1960.

The lack of executions can be attributed at least in part to a unique set of laws that allows for virtually unlimited numbers and types of appeals, prosecutors said.  The direct appeal of a death sentence takes at least four years to litigate, they said.  Defendants also can file what are known as habeas corpus appeals in state court alleging a variety of problems, such as the ineffective assistance of counsel, or improper testimony.  If they lose their first habeas corpus appeal, they can file another, claiming problems in their first habeas corpus case, and so on.

October 3, 2011 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 2, 2011

Los Angeles' DA predicting "doom" and huge "spike in crime" with prisoner transfer

The rhetoric surrounding the implementation of new prisoner rules in California is heating up, as evidenced by this local story headlined "As Prisoner Exchange Begins, LA County Officials Predict Doom." Here are excerpts:

Los Angeles County’s top prosecutor is predicting doom and gloom with a prospect of thousands of convicted felons being diverted to the county’s jail system rather than state prisons....

District Attorney Steve Cooley says with thousands of new, convicted felons coming into the jail system and 8,000 or more nonviolent felons being released early on parole; it’s a prescription for disaster. “I’m also predicting in connection with that population, we’re going to experience the greatest spike in crime of the last several decades,” Cooley said.

Only Deputy Chief Probation Officer Reaver Bingham, whose department will have to keep track of the thousands of new parolees, is hopeful that with increased funding and smaller caseloads, things might not turn out as bad as predicted. “If we do supervision correctly, we have seen the positive outcomes that we are projecting,” Bingham said.

On Saturday, the first group of 45 nonviolent felony inmates already serving time will gain early release and will be allowed to head home to LA. They’ll be the first of nearly 9,000 inmates who will also be released over the next nine months.

October 2, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

As criticisms of pot prohibition continues, new PBS documentary "Prohibition" is must-watch TV

S4791-lg I highly recommend everyone join me in setting the DVR to record the new PBS three-part documentary "Prohibition."   In my town, this terrific-looking program begins airing tonight (Sunday, Oct. 2); I am hopeful that even those without TVs can find ways to watch the whole series via this official website.  Here is a preview from that site:

PROHIBITION is a three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed.  The culmination of nearly a century of activism, Prohibition was intended to improve, even to ennoble, the lives of all Americans, to protect individuals, families, and society at large from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse.

But the enshrining of a faith-driven moral code in the Constitution paradoxically caused millions of Americans to rethink their definition of morality.  Thugs became celebrities, responsible authority was rendered impotent. Social mores in place for a century were obliterated.  Especially among the young, and most especially among young women, liquor consumption rocketed, propelling the rest of the culture with it: skirts shortened.  Music heated up.  America's Sweetheart morphed into The Vamp.

Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country.  With Prohibition in place, but ineffectively enforced, one observer noted, America had hardly freed itself from the scourge of alcohol abuse — instead, the "drys" had their law, while the "wets" had their liquor.

The story of Prohibition's rise and fall is a compelling saga that goes far beyond the oft-told tales of gangsters, rum runners, flappers, and speakeasies, to reveal a complicated and divided nation in the throes of momentous transformation.  The film raises vital questions that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago: about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, the proper role of government and finally, who is — and who is not — a real American.

I do not think one needs to be a committed critic of the modern war on drugs to be worried that, now in 2011, the enduring national prohibition on marijuana often "turn[s] law-abiding citizens into criminals, [makes] a mockery of the justice system, [causes] illicit [drug use] to seem [comical] and fun, encourage[s] neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permit[s] government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and foster[s] cynicism and hypocrisy."  

I am rooting not only for this documentary to be a stark reminder of the failures of alcohol prohibition, but also for it to encourage new persons ask hard questions "about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, the proper role of government" and American virtues and values in conjunction with modern federal pot prohibtion.

October 2, 2011 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

"Can jail time slash crime by homeless?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new front-page piece in The Tennessean, which begins this way:

A controversial police program aimed at reducing crimes by homeless people has saved taxpayers money since it was launched this year, but it also has drawn pointed criticism that it violates due process rights and does little to curb quality-of-life offenses in the downtown area.

The program focuses on people like Richard Stewart, who last week completed a 20-day jail sentence.  Stewart’s crime?  He was found seeking shelter under the loading dock behind the downtown Sheraton during a thunderstorm, and arrested on charges of criminal trespassing and littering.

Stewart’s sentence was inflated because he has been labeled a chronic offender under the initiative created by Deputy Chief Damian Huggins, one of the police department’s rising stars.

During his time as the central precinct commander, Huggins noticed that a small group required a disproportionate amount of police resources.  Huggins said he researched the issue and discovered that 46 individuals, virtually all of them homeless like Stewart, were responsible for 3 percent of all arrests in Davidson County last year.  Huggins’ solution was to push for stricter jail sentences for those who were arrested 17 times or more in 2010.

A review of the new policy by The Tennessean found it has succeeded in reducing misdemeanor crimes but drawn the ire of defense attorneys and advocates who say the homeless are being targeted unfairly and sentenced too harshly for minor crimes.

October 2, 2011 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Notable Ohio headlines on many modern crime and punishment fronts

A number of recent articles in my local Columbus Dispatch spotlight a number of modern issues of crime and punishment playing out in the bellwether Buckeye state.  Here are headlines and links:

UPDATE: Here is one more new story of note from Monday's Dispatch: "Crack convicts’ prison time cut; New federal guidelines might affect hundreds"

October 2, 2011 in Death Penalty Reforms, Gun policy and sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack