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October 29, 2012

"The End of Laughing at Marijuana Reformers"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece at The Atlantic, which gets started this way:

Voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington will decide on election day whether to legalize marijuana in their states. All three initiatives have a chance of passing, and two are ahead in polls. In Massachusetts and Arkansas, voters may legalize medical marijuana. And last year, a Gallup poll found that a majority of American voters supported legalizing marijuana for the first time.

The political taboo against marijuana has been fading for awhile. When Bill Clinton admitted he'd smoked weed as a college student, he felt the need to add that he hadn't inhaled, and observers still wondered if it would cost him votes. Barack Obama admitted that he did inhale as a college student. Yet his personal history with narcotics hasn't stopped him from presiding over a draconian War on Drugs and responding to several questions about drug reform with jokes.

It's hard to believe dismissiveness of that sort can last much longer. A state measure legalizing marijuana would signal a huge shift in public opinion and force the federal government to react. And whatever happens at the ballot box this November, a clever nonprofit is highlighting the fact that more and more prominent people of diverse ideological backgrounds say reform is needed.

October 29, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

October 28, 2012

Nebraska working on various "Miller fix" sentencing proposals

The local story from Nebraska, headlined "Changes likely for sentencing of juvenile murderers," discusses the developing work of the state's (unicameral) legislature in response to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment Miller ruling earlier this year. Here are the details:

Nebraska lawmakers likely will be forced by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to change how Nebraska sentences people convicted of committing murder while they are juveniles. Meanwhile, defense lawyers will argue the issue before the Nebraska Supreme Court next month. "We've already got some language drafted" for a propoed bill, said Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.

The court ruled in the cases from Arkansas and Alabama of two 14-year-old boys who were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison with a chance for parole.  Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the majority opinion that mandatory life without parole for those younger than 18 when they committed their crime violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments....

The Nebraska Supreme Court will hear arguments Nov. 6 in a Douglas County case involving Eric A. Ramirez, who was sentenced to two terms of life in prison without parole for his part in a 2008 robbery spree that left two people dead.  Ramirez, then 17, was the shooter.  After the June U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the Nebraska high court ordered additional briefs in his appeal.

The June ruling does not prevent states from imposing life sentences without the possibility of parole for homicide, but it says that a defendant’s age must be considered when passing sentence.  In 2011, state lawmakers passed a bill which removed the words "without parole" from state statutes....

In Nebraska, 26 people convicted of committing murder while juveniles are serving life without the possibility of parole, according to the Nebraska Commission of Public Advocacy.

In 2011, several bills from Omaha Sen. Brenda Council dealing with the issue of sentencing juveniles convicted of murder failed to get enough traction in the Legislature:

* LB251 would have permitted youths convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole to petition for resentencing after 20 years in prison.

* LB202 would have allowed youths sentenced to life without parole to petition for resentencing after 15 years. The bill would have created an intense, three-part review process that would result in the possibility of a lesser sentence for an offender who has matured and proved him or herself to have changed.

* LB203 would have removed life imprisonment as a possible penalty for youths convicted of murder. It would have allowed the court to take into consideration the maturity, age, physical and mental condition of offenders younger than 18. Those 16 to 18 at the time the crime was committed could have been sentenced to 50 years. Those younger than 16 could have been sentenced to 40 years.

October 28, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Post-modern sentencing reforms: restricting judicial discretion to be harsh

The story of "modern" sentencing reforms in the 1980s and 1990s was mostly about legislatures enacting sentencing statutes and guidelines that greatly limited judicial discretion to be lenient in response to relatively serious offenses.  But, as this local story from California highlights, what I will call "post-modern" sentencing reforms now involve legislatures enacting sentencing statutes and guidelines that greatly limit judicial discretion at sentencing to be harsh in response to relatively less serious offenses.  The story from California is headlined "State's prison overhaul changes sentencing structures but leaves judges with little discretion," and it starts this way:

Since the overhaul of California's state prisons in October 2011, nearly 90 people convicted of felony crimes were sent to Santa Cruz County Jail instead of prison under the new sentencing guidelines established by AB 109.

With prison realignment, state officials have carved out a number of types of felony crimes that no longer carry the option of a prison sentence. Instead, offenders convicted of these crimes serve their time locally, be it in county jails or through alternative programs such as drug treatment programs and electronic monitoring.  It's also meant more people are getting placed on probation.

The new structure gives judges limited discretion when it comes to sentencing, said Judge John Salazar, presiding judge of Santa Cruz County Superior Court.  When it comes to sentencing for crimes designated as jail-eligible, judges have the discretion to impose two types of sentences to County Jail.  Previously, felony offenders were more likely sent to prison.

Judges may commit the offender to County Jail, or they can impose what's called a split sentence, with a portion served in jail and the rest on mandatory supervision.  Eighty-eight people who would have been sentenced to prison before realignment now have been given County Jail sentences, said Jim Hart, the county's chief deputy of corrections.

Crimes that now carry potential jail, not prison sentences, are typically those considered "triple nons" -- nonviolent, nonserious and nonregisterable sex offenses.  These include many drug offenses and property crimes.  Before AB 109, these offenders would have been sent to prison.

How the actual jail portion of a sentence is served is left up to the jail staff to decide. Although judges can recommend or authorize certain types of alternative incarceration programs, Salazar said.  Once a person is handed a jail sentence, it is the jail staff that determines if and whether that individual can serve it in a way other than being locked up in jail 24 hours a day.

As noted in prior posts here and here, the latest sentencing reforms in Ohio have also restricted judicial discretion to send certain offenders to prison (and, not surprisingly, it is now prosecutors rather than defense attorneys complaining about these new restrictions on judicial sentencing discretion).  Similarly, a number of other states also dealing with overcrowded and costly prisons have likewise created new sentencing structures to urge or require sentencing judges to look at alternatives to prison.

This new story from California highlights one especially notable (and not always recognized) aspect of these post-modern reforms: in addition to restricting judicial discretion, these reforms have often shifted on-the-ground discretion from both judges and prosecutors now to corrections officials and thsoe who create and operate prison alternatives.  Whether this kind of shift will be good for justice and public safety in the long run will be important to watch in the years and decades to come.

October 28, 2012 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack