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December 29, 2012

Is there really a simple explanation for record-low homicide rate in NYC (or the increase in Chicago)?

CRIME-graphic-articleInlineThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this new piece in today's New York Times headlined "414 Homicides in ’12 Is a Record Low for New York City."  The article includes lots of interesting data and stories concerning homicides in NYC, and here are excerpts:

Murders in New York have dropped to their lowest level in over 40 years, city officials announced on Friday, even as overall crimes increased slightly because of a rise in thefts — a phenomenon based solely on robberies of iPhones and other Apple devices.

There were 414 recorded homicides so far in 2012, compared with 515 for the same period in 2011, city officials said.  That is a striking decline from murder totals in the low-2,000s that were common in the early 1990s, and is also below the record low: 471, set in 2009.  “The essence of civilization is that you can walk down the street without having to look over your shoulder,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said.

Mr. Bloomberg acclaimed the accomplishment during a graduation ceremony for more than 1,000 new police officers at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.  He attributed the low murder rate to the department’s controversial practice of “stop, question and frisk,” in which people are stopped on the street and questioned by officers, and aggressive hot-spot policing, in which officers are deployed to areas with crime spikes.  Shootings are also down for the year so far. The number of murders is the lowest since 1963, when improvements in the recording of data were made.

The Police Department said thefts of Apple products had risen by 3,890, which was more than the overall increase in “major crimes.”  In the last two decades, trumpeting declines in crime trends has become an annual end-of-the-year event, even when the numbers inched up.

But figures alone do not tell the whole story, and several homicides this year stood out as particularly disturbing, given the age of the victims and the manner of death.  Detectives described the stabbing deaths of two children at the hands of their nanny inside the bathroom of their Manhattan apartment in October as among the most horrific crimes they could recall. “I think those images get embedded in the minds of detectives more than other crime scenes,” said Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, the union that represents detectives, adding, “It certainly makes you rethink the things that you take for granted, which is the safety of children.”

So far this year, the police said, 20 children — ages 9 and younger — were murdered, up from 16 in 2011.  Among the victims was a 4-year-old boy, Lloyd Morgan Jr., who was shot in the head on a Bronx playground during a basketball tournament.  There were also several anomalies in the 2012 homicide tally, including a serial killer who murdered three shopkeepers in Brooklyn....

But overall killings have dropped to such a low level that more New Yorkers now commit suicide than are the victims of homicides. About 475 New Yorkers kill themselves each year, according to the city’s health department.

Mr. Bloomberg praised Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, saying the 19 percent drop in homicides compared with 2011 was achieved despite a shrinking police force and an increasing population.  Mr. Kelly said he believed that relatively new policing strategies, including adding more police officers dedicated to curbing domestic violence, and monitoring social media to thwart gang-related murders, were working. “We’re preventing crimes before someone is killed and before someone else has to go to prison,” the commissioner said.

Of the 414 murders, 14 deaths from previous years were counted as homicides for the first time...  Of the 400 murders in 2012, 223 were .gunshot victims, 84 victims were stabbed to death, 43 died of blunt trauma and 11 died of asphyxiation. 

The majority of the 400 homicides occurred on a Saturday, followed by early Sunday morning. Most occurred at 2 a.m.  People were more likely to be killed outside than in. Nearly 70 percent of the victims had prior criminal arrests, the police said.  Domestic-related homicides dropped to 68, from 94 in 2011.

The likelihood of being killed by a stranger was slight.  The vast majority of the homicides, Mr. Kelly said, grew out of “disputes” between a victim and killer who knew each other.

Though I am sure improved policing practices have played a significant role in the modern crime declines in New York City and elsewhere, I am not confident that this is the whole (or even most) of the story. Police practices in NYC surely did not get even 20% better in 2012 compared to 2011, and reductions in the police force must have diminished a bit the proactive policing potential of the NYC blue line. Consequently, some other (complex?) factors are likely part of the explanatory mix, though I suppose the record-low number may be just a statistical blip in the "usual" homicide numbers.

UPDATE:  Only hours after posting about the record-low number of of homicides in NYC in 2012, I came across this new Chicago Tribune article concerning the inverse homicide trend in Chicago.  The lengthy piece is headlined "In Chicago, killings and questions on the rise: As year's homicides hit 500, causes and solutions still being debated," and it starts this way:

73845493The rising homicide toll — 500 as of Friday, a 17 percent increase in slayings over last year — has been a looming shadow over Chicago, plaguing residents and the city's leadership for much of the year.

Although Chicago had almost twice as many homicides 20 years ago as it did this year, the increase in violent deaths represents a backslide for a city that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he wants to move forward. And with Chicago's homicide rate exceeding those in some other major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and New York, Emanuel, ever mindful of the city and his administration's image, has seen the city's violence attract unwanted national attention.

Since taking the helm last year, Emanuel and his hand-picked police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, have made safer streets a top priority, with McCarthy declaring "the murder rate in this city is way too high."

But a particularly bloody winter in early 2012 has kept both men on the defensive, and residents on edge. As homicides climbed, Emanuel and McCarthy repeatedly have had to defend themselves, making it a point to publicly note short periods when the city goes without a murder or to highlight successful violence-reduction efforts in certain neighborhoods. Meanwhile, neighborhood residents decried the gun and gang violence that claimed the vast majority of this year's homicide victims.

Experts warn not to put too fine a point on year-over-year increases in homicides, but Chicago's tally this year is the highest since 2008. Although everyone agrees the increase in violence is deplorable, what's more difficult to discern is exactly why Chicago's homicides have surged. But experts, police and community leaders have offered myriad possible factors [ranging from gang factions to policing patterns to the weather in early 2012].

December 29, 2012 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (36) | TrackBack

Fascinating federal "gun control" criminal charges in wake of NY ambush murder-suicide

This AP story, headlined "New York woman arrested in connection with murder of 2 firefighters," discusses the federal criminal law follow-up to the depressing ambush murder-suicide that took place in upstate New York earlier this week (discussed here).  Here are some details:

William Spengler raised no alarms in prison for 17 years and for more than a decade afterward.  Well-spoken, well-behaved and intelligent, his demeanor was praised by four straight parole boards that nevertheless denied him parole, worried that bludgeoning his 92-year-old grandmother with a hammer showed a violent streak that could explode again.

After his sentence was up in 1996, he stayed out of trouble until 2010, police said Friday. That's when Spengler went to a sporting goods store with a neighbor's daughter, picked out a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle and a shotgun and had her buy the guns that the convicted felon couldn't legally possess.  On Monday, he used the weapons to ambush firefighters lured to a blaze he set at his house in upstate Webster, killing two people and wounding three others before killing himself.

On Friday, state and federal authorities charged the woman who bought the guns, 24-year-old Dawn Nguyen, with lying on a form that said she would be the owner of the guns she bought for Spengler.  The charges involve the semiautomatic rifle and the 12-gauge shotgun that Spengler had with him Monday when volunteer firefighters Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka were gunned down.  Three other people, including two other firefighters, were wounded before the 62-year-old Spengler killed himself.  He also had a .38-caliber revolver, but Nguyen is not connected to that gun, police said....

U.S. Attorney William Hochul said Nguyen bought the two guns on June 6, 2010, on behalf of Spengler.  Police used the serial numbers on the guns to trace them to Nguyen.  "She told the seller of these guns, Gander Mountain in Henrietta, N.Y., that she was to be the true owner and buyer of the guns instead of William Spengler," Hochul said.  "It is absolutely against federal law to provide any materially false information related to the acquisition of firearms."

During an interview late on Christmas Eve, she told police she had bought the guns for personal protection and that they were stolen from her vehicle, though she never reported the guns stolen.  The day after the shootings, Nguyen texted an off-duty Monroe County Sheriff's deputy with references to the killings.  She later called the deputy and admitted she bought the guns for Spengler, police said Friday....

As police announced the charges against Nguyen, a clearer portrait of Spengler began to emerge, in the words of wary parole commissioners who kept him locked up until the law said they had to let him go.  At his final parole hearing in 1995, the then-45-year-old Spengler repeated his desire to get out of prison while he still had time to rebuild his life. He also took issue with a previous decision not to release him because the board believed he remained a danger to society....

During four hearings between 1989 and 1995, Spengler quarreled with parole board members over details of his grandmother's killing, insisting each time he'd only hit her three times on the head with a hammer while evidence pointed to 13 blows, and initially saying he couldn't explain why the attack happened....

The transcripts reveal a well-spoken man, proud to be staying out of trouble in prison and earning positions of trust and responsibility, even time out of prison with a work crew that did renovation work in places including a century-old chapel.  The board members mention Spengler testing high for intelligence and noted he came to prison with no other crimes on his record, had only dabbled in drug use and had a spotty work history, mostly as a house painter....

"So why do you think you killed her?" Spengler was asked in 1989.  "I still haven't figured that out. It was matter of just wanting to get out. She was between me and the door," he replied.

"She was just a little, bitty old lady," a board member commented.  "I realize that. That's why I still can't explain it," Spengler said.

This gun-buying back-story and the federal criminal charges facing Dawn Nguyen raise so many issues concerning not only the challenges of gun control, but ultimately sentencing purposes, policies and practices. Federal law imposes serious penalties on any felons possessing any guns — a prohibition which itself seems suspect if the Second Amendment's protection of self-defense rights is to be viewed as a serious natural/constitutional right for all persons — but this case highlights how easily even this widely accepted form of gun control can be evaded.  Sophisticated "smart gun" technology (recently discussed here and here) might help on this front by ensuring only legal/registered buyers can operate the gun, but even a "Lojack-style" gun operation technology would have difficulty prevent "neighborly friends" like Dawn Nguyen from aiding prohibited persons like William Spengler from getting access to firearms.

Speaking of Spengler and Nguyen, I continue to focus on the reality that Spengler apparently served over 17 years as a seemingly changed person in prison and was successful on parole for another decade thereafter.  It seems possible that Dawn Nguyen did not know Spengler was a convicted killer when he asked for help getting firearms; even if she did, Spengler likely convinced her that his criminal past was way in the past.  Moreover, Spengler apparently possessed the guns bought by Nguyen for him for over two years without incident (and another gun, for that matter) before Spengler snapped and turned (back?) into a homicidal evil killer.

Given that it appears Nguyen is ready to admit commiting a federal "gun control" crime, her involvement in this tragic event is now full of challenging federal sentencing issues.  I seriously doubt that Nguyen even considered the prospect of Spengler would commit a serious crime with the guns she bought for him, let alone multiple murders.  Should she still be held criminally responsible at sentencing for the horrific harms caused by the guns she bought based on a lie?  Should the many victims of Spengler's crimes get to be involved in her prosecution and eventual sentencing?  Especially if and when a plea deal is considered by the involved attorneys, is there a particular sentence or sentencing range that is obviously too lenient or too harsh for Nguyen "gun control" crime?  (Bill Otis spotlights some of these issues in this new post at Crime & Consequences titled "Should We Criminally Punish Non-Violent, Regulatory Offenses?".)

A few recent related posts:

December 29, 2012 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (76) | TrackBack

"Incarceration's Incapacitative Shortcomings"

The title of this post is the title of this thoughtful essay by Kevin Bennardo, which is available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Incapacitation is the removal of an offender’s ability to commit further crime. This essay identifies two distinct types of incapacitative effects: offense-specific incapacitation and victim-specific incapacitation.  The former focuses on limitations on the offender’s range of conduct.  The latter focuses on limitations on the offender’s access to particular populations.

As a punishment, incarceration incapacitates quite incompletely.  Because imprisonment does not render inmates totally unable to commit crime, it fails to achieve complete offense-specific incapacitation.  And, because it merely substitutes one set of potential victims for another, imprisonment fails on the total victim-specific incapacitation front as well.  Instead, imprisonment achieves partial offense-specific and partial victim-specific incapacitation by inhibiting prisoners from committing certain offenses and separating inmates from certain populations.  When the incapacitative benefit of incarceration is discussed, however, it is not usually described in such a circumscribed way.  Rather, commentators often state that imprisonment fully incapacitates by removing offenders from “society.”  Such statements, which implicitly discount prison crime and its victims to zero, are factually inaccurate and dehumanizing.  To avoid such inaccuracy and inadvertent discounting, this essay endeavors to accurately describe the offense-specific and victim-specific incapacitative benefits and limitations of incarceration.

December 29, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 28, 2012

Noting one of many echo effects of California's new sentencing law

The Los Angeles Times has this notable new story headlined "Some county judges change sentencing patterns," which gets started this way:

California's new felon imprisonment law, which requires low-level offenders to serve their time in county jail rather than state prison, is beginning to reshape how some county judges hand down those sentences.

A study by the Chief Probation Officers of California finds an increasing number of judges using split sentences, requiring offenders to spend part of their time in jail and the other part in a community program or under probation.  Without a split sentence, the entire term is spent in jail and when offenders are released, there is no followup.

From the time the new prison law took effect in October 2011 to June 2012, the probation officers group reports, 23% of all local prison sentences were split.  That means an increase in the responsibilities of county probation offices, but a lighter load on jails.

However, the organization says there is an inconsistent use of the sentencing tool among the state's 58 counties.  Judges in 18 counties deliver split sentences to more than half their felons, including Contra Costa and San Joaquin.  On the other hand, only 5% of Los Angeles County felons, for example, are given split sentences.

December 28, 2012 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Is Florida becoming, in place of Texas, the new capital for capital punishment in the US?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent local article, which is headlined "Report: Florida leads nation in new death penalty case."  Here are excerpts:

As capital punishment declines in use and support nationwide, Florida leads the country in the number of death sentences handed down this year, according to a report by a group that advocates against the death penalty.

Florida judges sentenced 21 killers to death in 2012, followed by California with death sentences for 14 murderers, Texas with 9 and Pennsylvania with seven, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.  The four states accounted for 65 percent of the death sentences handed out in the United States....

Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober said seeking capital punishment is a scrupulous process. "We understand the consequences of these decisions," Ober said....

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, in a written statement to The Tampa Tribune, defended the state's use of the death penalty.  "As attorney general and a former prosecutor, I firmly believe the death penalty is the appropriate sentence for those convicted of the most heinous murders," Bondi said.  "Thanks to Florida's dedicated prosecutors, the most atrocious murderers are on death row, where they belong, for violently taking innocent lives."...

Ober's office, like most state attorney's offices in Florida, has a committee that measures cases against specific legal criteria in determining whether a death sentence should be pursued in court.

But in West Palm Beach, State Attorney Peter Antonacci, appointed to the post in March, seeks the death penalty in all first-degree murder cases, according to a report in the Palm Beach Post. The process has doubled the number of death penalty cases there and outraged defense attorneys.

Florida executed three killers this year, well behind Texas, which led the nation in that category with 15 executions.  Florida has the second highest population of death-row inmates, with 406, behind California's death row with 724 inmates, according to the report.  Texas has 308 inmates on death row, the report says.

According to information from the Florida Department of Corrections, the average stay on death row is 13.22 years prior to execution, with a little more than 14 years between the date of offense and execution. The average age of executed inmates is 44.4 years old.

With so many more death sentences now being handed out in Florida as compared to Texas, and with a death row in Florida now 25% bigger than in Texas, Florida perhaps should now be viewed as an even tougher state than Texas when it comes to application of capital punishment. That said, Texas remains far ahead of all other states in total and yearly numbers of executions, which is perhaps a more critical metric for assessing a state's affinity for and pursuit of the death penalty for certain murders.

December 28, 2012 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

December 27, 2012

New wing in Virginia prison just for veterans

The intersection for veterans' issues and criminal justices systems is finally starting to get more of the attention it has long needed, and this local story concerning a Virginia prison reports on a recent innovation in this arena concerning corrections programming.  The piece is headlined "Chesapeake prison opens wing for military veterans, and here are excerpts:

The white tile floors, cinder-block walls and rows of steel bunks remind Raymond Riddick of the barracks he stayed in during boot camp in the mid-1980s. "Only, the beds weren't bolted to the floor," the former sailor said while giving a tour of his dormitory at Indian Creek Correctional Center in southern Chesapeake.

Riddick, who's locked up following a string of car thefts, is one of about 60 former service members serving out criminal sentences in a new veterans dorm at the medium-security prison. State corrections officials christened the wing during a ceremony last month, saying they hoped the program would change lives and prevent war vets from returning to prison.

Virginia is the latest in a series of states with large military populations, including Florida and Georgia, that have established veterans-only prison facilities to house and assist the growing numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who find themselves in trouble with the law.

The Indian Creek dorm, open since spring, is one of two veterans wings started this year by the Virginia Department of Corrections. The other is in Haynesville. About 2,000 of the state's 30,000 inmates identify themselves as veterans, though officials suspect the true number is larger. Many of them struggle with drug addiction and mental disorders. "This dorm allows our veteran offenders a place where they can share ideas and have that camaraderie and that fellowship that comes with their shared experiences," said Jerry Mullen, a clinical supervisor who oversees the veterans program at Indian Creek. "We've developed a curriculum specifically to address post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and other common issues faced by veterans."...

The voluntary program is open to veterans who have been honorably discharged, have shown good behavior and have fewer than two years left to serve.

Beyond the military-themed murals painted on the walls and the neatly made beds, signs that this isn't a typical prison facility can be heard in the nighttime screams of former soldiers struggling with PTSD, and seen in the bullet scars hidden underneath light-blue uniforms.

Counselors who are also former service members help the inmates work through mental health problems and encourage them to take responsibility for their crimes.

December 27, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 26, 2012

"Putting Desert in Its Place"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper by Christopher Slobogin and Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein now available via SSRN.  Here is the aabstract:

Based on an impressive array of studies, Paul Robinson and his coauthors have developed a new theory of criminal justice, which they call “empirical desert.”  The theory asserts that, because people are more likely to be compliant with a legal regime that is perceived to be morally credible, a criminal justice system that tracks empirically derived lay views about how much punishment is deserved is the most efficient way of achieving utilitarian goals, or at least is as efficient at crime prevention as a system that focuses solely on deterrence and incapacitation.

This Article describes seven original studies that test the most important hypotheses underlying empirical desert theory.  The authors’ conclusions, which throw doubt on much of empirical desert theory, include the following: (1) while consensus on the ordinal ranking of traditional crimes is relatively strong, agreement about appropriate punishments — which arguably is the type of agreement empirical desert requires in order to work — is weak; (2) the relationship between people’s willingness to abide by the law and the law’s congruence with their beliefs about appropriate punishment is complex and not necessarily positive; further, any noncompliance that results from the law’s failure to reflect lay views about desert is probably no greater than the noncompliance triggered by a failure to follow lay views about the role utilitarian goals should play in fashioning criminal dispositions; (3) while the relative crime control benefits of a desert-based system and a prevention-based system are hard to evaluate (and are not directly examined here), people are willing to depart from desert in cases that do not involve the most serious crimes if they believe that preventive goals can be achieved in some other way.  The Article ends by discussing the implications of these findings for criminal justice policy, especially with respect to determinate and indeterminate sentencing.

December 26, 2012 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Still more stories of wrongful federal gun convictions and sentences from North Carolina

USA Today has this new piece, headlined "Hundreds of federal prisoners could be freed," which provides further follow-up on the story  first blogged here and well covered by USA Today concerning many persons serving federal time for gun possession crimes that are no longer crimes in the wake of an important Fourth Circuit ruling.  Here are are excerpts (including some links from the story):
A U.S. Justice Department review has identified at least 175 federal prisoners who must be released or resentenced because they have been locked up improperly.  The review, which followed a USA TODAY investigation, found that some of those prisoners shouldn't have been imprisoned because they hadn't committed a federal crime. Others received sentences vastly longer than the law allows.

The problems stem from a misunderstanding about which North Carolina state convictions were serious enough to outlaw gun possession or require extended prison sentences under federal law.  The number of prisoners ultimately freed or given shorter sentences is likely to be higher than 175 because the examination by federal prosecutors was confined to the smallest of North Carolina's three U.S. court districts.  Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said "many more" cases could be upended when all are reviewed....

"That's a huge number," said University of San Francisco law professor Richard Leo.  He said it is uncommon for any federal convictions to be overturned, let alone for so many involving a single issue.

The Justice Department's examination, completed in September but never made public, is the first estimate of just how big that number could be.  Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, N.C., whose office conducted the review, said up to a third of gun cases his office prosecuted in recent years could be thrown out.  So many prisoners have filed legal cases challenging their convictions that he has assigned three prosecutors to them full time.

Prosecutors in the state's two other districts did not conduct a similar case-by-case review, and don't yet know how many of their own cases are in jeopardy.  Instead, officials said they are working with defense lawyers to identify cases that should be overturned.

One such prisoner is Travis Dixon, convicted in 2006 of illegally possessing a .44-caliber revolver.  Court records show none of his prior state convictions was serious enough to make firearm possession a federal crime. In September, the Justice Department asked a U.S. court to overturn his conviction and let Dixon go.  But Dixon is still in federal prison in South Carolina while he waits for a judge to act on the request. "I'm just not understanding why they're taking this long," he said in an e-mail.

Another prisoner, Marion Howard, was freed only after he wrote a letter to the judge asking her to "please rule on my case before the holidays" so he could get home to see his family. The judge freed him on Dec. 5.

Federal law bans people from having a gun if they have previously been convicted of a crime that could have put them in prison for more than a year.  In North Carolina, however, state law set the maximum punishment for a crime based in part on the criminal record of whoever committed it, meaning some people who committed crimes such as possessing cocaine faced sentences of more than a year, while those with shorter records face only a few months.

For years, federal courts there said that didn't matter.  If someone with a long record could have gone to prison for more than a year, then all who had committed that crime are felons and cannot legally have a gun, the courts maintained.  But last year, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said judges had been getting the law wrong, ruling that only people who could have faced more than a year in prison for their crimes qualify as felons.

The decision meant that low-level state convictions should not have been enough to outlaw gun possession or to justify extra-long prison sentences for people who went on to be convicted of federal crimes. 

It will take at least a year to untangle all the cases like those, Rand said.  His office's 20 criminal lawyers have been swamped by so many prisoners challenging their sentences that they have been forced to delay some other criminal prosecutions. "It's definitely been a huge burden," he said.

Related prior posts:

December 26, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

December 25, 2012

Appreciating blessings — and the limits of laws — this (too violent) holiday season

In the wake of the Newtown massacre, and especially now as I am reading about another tragic shooting involving the violent deaths of innocents in upstate New York (headlines and links below), I have two gut reactions: I am hugging and appreciating my loved ones even that much more (if that is possible), and I am becoming even less sanguine (if that is possible) about the ability of our justice system to reduce dramatically the chances of a mad-man inflicting violence upon others if that is his core intent.  Here are links to various reports on the latest sad story of needless killing by a suicidal kook:

At the heart of this latest sad story seems to be (a lot) more family drama and killing before a mad-man kills innocents and then himself.  In this case, the William Spengler had a notable criminal past involving the beating death of his elderly grandmother, which led to a plea to manslaughter over 30 years ago (old newspaper accounts here).  But Spengler served over 17 years in prison on this charge and then apparently was successful on parole for another decade.   Perhaps aided by his mother's love (and despite apparently hating his sister), Spengler seemed to have left his criminal past in the past.  And, of course, as a violent ex-con with a felony record, he was criminally prohibited by both New York law and federal law from ever possessing any kind of gun or any kind of ammunition.

But, perhaps as a result of his mother's death a couple months ago, Spengler this week apparently just snapped: after writing a long note which said that he liked killing people, Spengler apparently killed his sister, torched his neighborhood, gunned down firefighters responding to the blaze, and then finally killed himself.  And this all took place despite "the law" seeming to do all it could: Spengler served a lengthy prison term for (accidentally?) killing his grandmother and was watched on parole for long time thereafter; both state and federal law made is a serious crime for him to possess any weapons.  And yet, despite the law's reasonable efforts, three more innocent persons and the mad-man are dead this holiday week.  A sad (and perhaps just legally unpreventable) human tragedy.

December 25, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

December 24, 2012

Latest USSC data on retroactivity of crack guidelines reduced by FSA

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this new data report on "Fair Sentencing Act Amendment Retroactivity."  The report is described this way: "This report provides data concerning the retroactive application of the 2011 amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines implementing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010."

Based on the information reflected in Table 8 of this data report and elsewhere, it appears that nearly 6600 defendants received, on average, a 29-month reduction in their crack sentences thanks to the new FSA crack guidelines being made retroactive.  That adds up to nearly 16,000 cumulative years of federal imprisonment eliminated and an economic saving to federal taxpayers of approximately a half-billion dollars (based on a conservative estimate of a taxpayer cost of roughly $30,000 per prisoner for each year of federal incarceration). 

Notably, according to Table 5 of this data report, more than 85% of those benefiting from reduced crack sentences are black prisons.  The historically racialized reality of federal crack prosecutions is thus again on display as one reviews this data. 

Here is to hoping, especially during the holiday season, that all the persons who benefited from the new reduced FSA crack sentences will turn their lives around.  If these defendants who received reduced sentences find ways to become productive (and tax-paying) citizens, the benefits to society will profoundly transcend the saved incarceration costs.

December 24, 2012 in Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Implementing retroactively new USSC crack guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Any "halftime" assessment of Obama judges' impact on sentencing jurisprudence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Post article headlined "Obama’s impact on federal judiciary." The piece is most about partisan battles over appointments, though it starts and ends with these judicial branch basics:

It takes a calculator and perhaps the rigor of Sherlock Holmes to cut through the partisan rhetoric about President Obama’s first-term record on judicial nominations.  But the bottom line is clear enough.

There are more vacancies on the federal courts now than when Obama took office nearly four years ago.  And he is the first president in generations to fail to put a nominee on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the second most influential court in the land and traditionally a training ground for Supreme Court justices.

Obama has, of course, left his mark on the high court by nominating Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.  Their confirmations leave those two seats for decades in liberal hands, and marked a historic diversification of the court.

But, depending on what the Senate does in these final days,Obama’s record on the rest of the federal judiciary will show one more opening on the nation’s powerful 13 courts of appeal than when he took office, and more than a dozen additional vacant district court judgeships....

But as [scholar Russell] Wheeler points out, a two-term president almost always has a major impact on the makeup of the federal judiciary.  “Democratic appointees, who in 2009 constituted about a third of active circuit judges, might constitute about two-thirds in 2017,” Wheeler wrote.

In any answer to the question in the title of this post, it is especially easy to focus on notable sentencing votes and opinions authored by Prez Obama's Supreme Court nominees (e.g., Kagan wrote Miller; Sotomayor wrote Pepper; both were key fourth and/or fifth votes on lots of the 5-4 rulings in favor of criminal defendants). But I would be eager to hear from anyone laboring the the federal district and circuit courts concerning any Obama appointments to the lower courts who have already had a distinctive impact on sentencing law and policy.

Some older and more recent posts on Prez Obama's judicial appointments:

December 24, 2012 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 23, 2012

Some holiday-themed sentencing headlines for Festivus celebrants

FestivusI am not sure if there is any enduring importance to the stories linked below, but they all caught my eye today as I was making my usual review of sentencing headlines via Google news. 

Especially if one is celebrating Festivus today and is eager to have a special criminal-justice-portion of the traditional "Airing of Grievances", I suspect the stories below might make for helpful holiday dinner table conversations.  Indeed, though there are a number of serious (and not-quite-so-serious) stories lurking behind the various headlines below, I think we could have an amusing Festivus contest involving Feats of (intellectual) Strength by seeing who can come up with the most clever "Onion-type" story to accompany one or more of these headlines:

Happy Festivus one and all.

December 23, 2012 in On blogging, Television | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"The Presumption of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking new piece by Shima Baradaran which is now up on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The presumption of innocence undergirds the American criminal justice system.  It is so fundamental that it is derived from the concepts of due process and the importance of a fair trial.  An informed historical understanding of the interaction between the presumption of innocence and key tenets of due process can help clarify the meaning and application of the presumption of innocence in the modern day.

Due Process, as developed throughout English and U.S. Colonial history leading up to the formation of the U.S. Constitution, has two important implications.  First, due process provides a general guarantee of liberty against punishment or imprisonment without a fair trial.  Second, due process requires that a jury, as opposed to a judge, determine the factual guilt of a defendant at trial.  These two key tenets were historically fundamental to due process and should guide how the presumption of innocence impacts various stages of trial, including pretrial detention decisions and sentencing.  Returning to a historical understanding of due process requires that judges not determine facts or punish individuals before a trial has occurred.

December 23, 2012 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack