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March 16, 2013

"Sentencing Policy Adjudication and Empiricism" with a focus on federal child porn sentencing

The title of this post is drawn from the basic title of this notable new and timely article by Melissa Hamilton now on SSRN and just titled "Sentencing Policy Adjudication and Empiricism."  Here is the abstract, which highlights why this piece is especially a must-read for anyone working on federal child porn cases:

Federal sentencing is in disarray with a raging debate pitting Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission, and the federal judiciary against each other.  Ever since the Supreme Court rendered the federal guidelines as merely advisory in United States v. Booker, the rate of variances from guidelines’ recommendations has increased.  After the Supreme Court in Kimbrough v. United States ruled that a sentencing judge could reject the crack cocaine guideline for a policy dispute with a Commission guideline, the variance rate has risen further still.  While Booker/Kimbrough permits the judiciary some discretionary authority, it is threatening to the Commission and the legitimacy of its guidelines.

The downward variance rate is at its most extreme with a very controversial crime: child pornography offending.  The courts are in disagreement as to whether, as a matter of law, a sentencing judge has the authority to use a Kimbrough-type categorical rejection of the child pornography guideline. Through a comprehensive review of federal sentencing opinions, common policy objections to the child pornography guideline are identified. The guideline is viewed as not representing empirical study, being influenced by Congressional directives, recommending overly severe sentences, and resulting in both unwarranted similarities and unwarranted disparities. The issue has resulted in a circuit split. This article posits a three-way split with four circuit courts of appeal expressly approving a policy rejection to the child pornography guideline, four circuits explicitly repudiating a policy rejection, and three circuits opting for a more neutral position.  A comprehensive review of case law indicates that the circuit split is related to unwarranted disparities in sentencing child pornography offenders nationwide. This assessment was then corroborated by empirical study.

The Sentencing Commission’s dataset of fiscal year 2011 child pornography sentences were analyzed to explore what impacts policy rejections and the circuit split may have on actual sentences issued.  Bivariate measures showed statistically significant correlations among relevant measures.  The average mean sentence in pro-policy rejection circuits, for example, was significantly lower than in anti-policy rejection circuits.  A multivariate logistic regression analysis was employed using downward variances as the dependent variable.  Results showed that that several circuit differences existed after controlling for other relevant factors, and they were relatively consistent with the direction the circuit split might suggest.

The article concludes that the child pornography guideline suffers from a multitude of substantial flaws and deserves no deference.  It also concludes that there are no constitutional impediments to preventing a district judge from categorically rejecting the child pornography guideline.  Booker and its progeny stand for the proposition that there are no mandatory guidelines, even if a guideline is the result of Congressional directive.

Some recent related posts:

March 16, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Thoughtful response to Judge Rakoff's call to scrap fraud guidelines

Wes Porter, who is now a law professor but was before a senior trial attorney for the fraud section of DOJ's Criminal Division, has this lengthy new commentary headlined "Sentencing Guidelines Needn't Be Scrapped."  The piece provides a point-by-point response to Judge Jed Rakoff's recent suggestion (blogged here) for the fraud guidelines to be "scrapped in their entirety" in favor of a "non-arithmetic, multi-factor test."  Here are excerpts:

U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York has offered an important voice on a wide range of issues in federal practice, typically from the bench.... Rakoff recently sounded off from the podium on the current state of federal sentencing. On March 7, as the keynote speaker at the 27th Annual National Institute on White Collar Crime in Las Vegas, Rakoff railed against the numerical calculations and formulaic approach that still drives criminal sentencing in federal court: the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.

Rakoff said the guidelines represent a set of numbers "drawn from nowhere" that continue to steer most federal judges imposing criminal sentences.  He's right.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission, the congressionally created entity responsible for the guidelines, has never articulated on what basis they equate another $50,000 in loss, the next 40 victims of a scheme, or an additional 20 grams of heroin (each carries a two-level increase in "offense level points" under the guidelines).  Rakoff concluded, "Basically, my modest proposal is that they should be scrapped in their entirety."

I, like other academics and (former) federal practitioners, agree in part.... Rakoff, like many of us, seeks federal sentences that are fair, well-reasoned and consistent throughout the country....

As opposed to "scrapped" completely, the federal government should phase out the numbers and calculations in the guidelines and convert them into factors the court may consider.  District judges could consult the guidelines as specific factors to consider in individual cases.  The numbers and calculations, however, have no sustainable utility. Modern district judges do not consider available sentencing data from the decades of federal sentences preceding the guidelines (pre-1998), right?  That's because sentencing numbers from the past are not helpful to judges imposing sentence tomorrow....

Rakoff states that many in the federal judiciary blindly follow the arbitrary numbers in the guidelines.  That's true.  But removing the guidelines "in their entirety" will not necessarily result in better justified sentences.  Courts would parrot the broad sentencing platitudes and similarly arrive at arbitrary numbers.  And the additional downside would be that federal sentences would become less fair and uniform.

In contrast, rather than throw out the guidelines, if district judges were required only to consult the guidelines' numbers and calculations when they are helpful in a specific case, then judges would deviate from the guidelines more and would be more likely to better justify their sentences.  Also, the U.S. Probation Office, the arm of the federal court that prepares a pre-sentence report, could provide more numeric information to the district judge before sentencing, such as regional sentencing statistics (since 2005), state statistics of comparable offense conduct, and a digest of comparable sentences. The guidelines need not be the only numbers before the sentencing judge. The courts could weigh the additional information and incorporate it into its own reasoning.

If the goal is to make better and more robust judicial reasoning for federal sentences, then rather than forcing judges to calculate and consider unhelpful numbers, make it optional or incentivize the U.S. Probation Office, and others, to provide more numeric information to the courts to supplement those in the guidelines. ...

If we phase out the numbers and calculations of the guidelines, then the existing appellate court review and the "reasonableness" standard will become more robust and meaningful.

I hope Judge Rakoff's voice is heard by leaders in the federal government with the power to change our federal sentencing system, and that a robust discussion follows to reach the most optimal solution for the government and criminally accused.

Recent related post:

March 16, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 15, 2013

"Bills take aim at federal marijuana ban"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new article in today's USA Today.  Here are excerpts:

A few House members have begun a broad effort to overturn a 43-year-old federal ban on marijuana and say they're prepared to keep up the pressure even if it takes years.  About 10 lawmakers, mostly liberal Democrats, are writing bills that will serve as legislative guideposts for the future if the GOP-controlled House, as expected, ignores their proposals during this Congress.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said it's time to end the federal ban because 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana and many other states are exploring that option in response to growing public pressure.  "Maybe next year, maybe next Congress, but this is going to change.  And the federal government will get out of the way," he said. "I'm very patient.  I've been working on this one way or another for 40 years, and I think the likelihood of something happening in the next four or five years is greater than ever."

Peter Bensinger, a former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, urged lawmakers to keep the ban despite the pressure to legalize pot.  Advocacy groups, which have spent a lot of money over the years to push legalization, gloss over the negative effects of marijuana though studies show people do get hooked and smoking pot impairs judgment and could cause cancer like cigarettes, he said. "Legalizing it is going to cost lives, money, addiction, dependency," Bensinger warned in an interview Wednesday.

A number of lawmakers share that view, which is why previous congressional attempts to decriminalize marijuana went nowhere.  Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., acknowledged that getting any marijuana bill through a bitterly divided Congress — which is consumed by debates over spending, gun regulations and other matters — won't be easy.

"It will take more states moving in the direction Washington and Colorado have before there's a sufficient pressure on (Congress) to change the law," he said. "It's harder to get the attention of members of Congress from states where the legal status has not been changed because it's simply not a relevant issue for their constituents."...

Though legalization advocates argue pot has proven benefits such as relieving chronic pain and is not addictive, the federal government cites other studies showing pot has no medical benefits and acts as a "gateway," leading users to try even more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

According to a 2011 federal survey, about 18 million people over the age of 12 have used marijuana at some point in their lives, making pot the country's most-popular illegal drug under federal law.  That means 7% of the nation's 12-and-over population has used pot at some point.

The legalization push in the House has very little bipartisan support.  The 10 lawmakers co-sponsoring Polis' bill include California Democrat Barbara Lee, who represents San Francisco, New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes Manhattan, and one Republican, Californian Dana Rohrabacher, a Tea Party libertarian from conservative Orange County.  Blumenauer's bill has six co-sponsors, including Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, but no Republicans....

California became the first state to allow the use of pot for medical purposes in 1996. Seventeen other states — Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Michigan and Vermont — and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Almost all of these states have set up patient registries to keep track of medical marijuana users. Eleven states allow marijuana dispensaries.

In November, voters in Colorado and Washington took the unprecedented step of legalizing recreational use as well. Nowhere in the world is it legal to grow and distribute pot, but that will be legal in those two states once authorities work out the regulatory details, according to Beau Kilmer, co-director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

Recreational-use ballot measures are likely in California and Oregon in the next few years, though Californians rejected similar language in 2010 and Oregonians said no in 2012.

According to the Marijuana Policy Project, lawmakers filed medical marijuana bills in 17 states this year: West Virginia, Texas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, North Carolina, New York, New Hampshire, Missouri, Mississippi, Minnesota, Maryland, Kentucky, Kansas, Illinois, Iowa, Florida and Alabama.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said if the federal ban is overturned in this Congress, liberal states are likely to adopt legalization laws within a decade. "Anywhere the saltwater touches the West Coast, there will be legalization. All of New England will move in this direction reasonably quickly," St. Pierre said.

Legalization will take years to become reality in conservative America, just as it took states such as Oklahoma a long time to allow alcohol sales after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, St. Pierre said. Unless the federal ban is lifted, all current and future state laws will violate the Controlled Substances Act, a 1970 U.S. statute that classifies marijuana as a dangerous, addictive drug with no medicinal value.

The broad push in the House comes as the Obama administration grapples with how to respond to the state pot laws.  Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to announce the administration's plan soon.

March 15, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Lots of notable death penalty news and notes from both coasts

The biggest death penalty news to close out this week would appear to be the repeal news out of Maryland,  highlighted by this new AP article headlined, "Md. Poised to Be 18th State to Ban Death Penalty."  But, thanks to links of lots of coverage from How Appealing, here are some other notable capital stories coming from the other end of the country:

March 15, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 14, 2013

Third Circuit panel discusses at length all the problems with SORNA

The start of the Third Circuit panel's lengthy opinion today in US v. Reynolds, No. 08-4747 (3d Cir. Mar. 14, 2013) (available here), explains the current mess that is certain federal sex offender registration laws better than I could. Here goes (with footnotes removed):

This case returns to us after the Supreme Court’s review in Reynolds v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 975 (2012). Remand requires that we reach the merits of Reynolds’s claim that the regulatory rule upon which his indictment was based was promulgated in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”).  This claim gives rise to three questions: (1) What is the appropriate standard of review of an agency’s assertion of good cause in waiving the APA’s notice and comment requirements?  (2) Did the Attorney General have good cause to waive these requirements in promulgating a rule governing the retroactivity of the Sex Offender and Registration Notification Act’s (“SORNA”) registration requirements?  (3) If the Attorney General lacked good cause to waive the requirements, was Reynolds prejudiced by the failure to comply with the APA’s notice and comment requirements?

The courts of appeals are divided on each of these questions.  On the first question, the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits have determined that the arbitrary and capricious standard is the appropriate standard for reviewing the Attorney General’s actions, the Fourth and Sixth Circuits have not stated a standard but appear to use de novo review, and the Ninth Circuit has explicitly avoided the question.  On the second question, the Fourth and Eleventh Circuits have held that the Attorney General had good cause to waive notice and comment, while the Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Circuits have held that he did not.  On the final question, the Fifth Circuit has held that the Attorney General’s lack of good cause does not prejudice defendants, while the Sixth Circuit has held that it is prejudicial.

We conclude that we need not decide the appropriate standard of review today because the Attorney General’s assertion of good cause cannot withstand review even under the most deferential standard available.  We also conclude that the Attorney General’s lack of good cause is prejudicial to Reynolds.  Accordingly, we will vacate Reynolds’ conviction.

March 14, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

"Rethinking the Use of Community Supervision"

The title of this post is the title of this important new paper now available on SSRN and authored by Cecelia Klingele.  As practitioners and policy-makers know, the back-end of the criminal justice system and the use of alternatives to incarceration are critically important "real world" sentencing issues that only rarely get sustained attention from the legal academy.  I am so pleased that Cecelia Klingele is a leading voice help ensuring these important legal and policy issues get the scholarly attention they need and deserve.  Here is the abstract of her latest work in this regard:

Community supervision, whether in the form of probation or post-release supervision, is ordinarily framed as an alternative to incarceration.  For this reason, legal reformers intent on reducing America's disproportionately high incarceration rates often urge lawmakers to expand the use of community supervision, confident that diverting offenders to the community will significantly reduce over-reliance on incarceration.  Yet, on any given day, a significant percentage of new prisoners arrive at the prison gates not as a result of sentencing for a new crime, but because they have been revoked from probation or parole.  It is therefore fair to say that in many cases community supervision is not an alternative to imprisonment, but only a delayed form of it.

This Article examines the reasons why community supervision so often fails, and challenges popular assumptions about the role community supervision should play in efforts to reduce over-reliance on imprisonment.  While probation and post-release supervision serve important purposes in many cases, they are often imposed on the wrong people, and executed in ways that predictably lead to revocation.  To decrease the overuse of imprisonment, sentencing and correctional practices should therefore limit, rather than expand, the use of community supervision in three important ways.

First, terms of community supervision should be imposed in fewer cases, with alternatives ranging from fines to unconditional discharge to short jail terms imposed instead. Second, conditions of probation and post-release supervision should be imposed sparingly, and only when they directly correspond to a risk of re-offense.  Finally, terms of community supervision should be limited in duration, extending only long enough to facilitate a period of structured re-integration after sentencing or following a term of incarceration.

March 14, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

As Maryland takes another step toward capital repeal, limbo looms for five on state's death row

03_13a_DeathPenaltyFullVizAs reported in this AP article, the Maryland House "on Wednesday night advanced legislation to repeal the death penalty in Maryland after delegates rejected nearly 20 amendments, mostly from Republicans, aimed at keeping capital punishment for heinous crime." Here is more:

The Senate approved the measure earlier this month. A final House vote on the legislation, a top legislative priority of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, could come as soon as Friday.

Amendments defeated on the House floor would have maintained the death penalty in some cases, including acts of terrorism, for mass murderers, lawbreakers who kill police officers or firemen in the line of duty and for kidnappers who kill.   “We can’t get into the business of this crime is worse than another,” said Delegate Samuel Rosenberg, a Baltimore City Democrat who supports the measure.  “These are terrible cases, but the death penalty is not the way to go.”

With the repeal of the death penalty now nearly a done deal, the next interesting legal and policy question concerns what should become of the five murderers current on Maryland's death row.  That issue is the subject of this lengthy new Stateline article, headlined "Death Row Inmates In Limbo As Maryland Moves to Repeal Death Penalty." Here are excerpts:

After a years-long fight, Maryland is about to become the sixth state in as many years to repeal its death penalty. Gov. Martin O’Malley, who championed the repeal, says he will sign it into law. But the Democrat still faces a tough choice — what to do about the five remaining Maryland inmates on death row? The repeal bill makes no provision for the five men sentenced to death, which even after a repeal of the death penalty could legally still be executed, should they exhaust all of their appeals.

In 2011, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, commuted the sentences of all 15 death row inmates before signing a bill repealing the death penalty in his state. New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, also a Democrat, did the same for eight death row inmates before signing a death penalty repeal bill in 2007. But governors in Connecticut and New Mexico left their states’ death row inmates subject to the death penalty when they signed their states’ repeal bills.

In Maryland, the governor has virtually unlimited power to pardon or commute sentences, and many death penalty opponents have encouraged O’Malley to simply clear death row if he is morally opposed to the death penalty. The Maryland Senate added an amendment to the repeal bill expressing its will that all death row inmates have their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole. The executive clemency decision, however, is solely up to O’Malley.

O’Malley has three clemency options, says spokesperson Raquel Guillory: He can immediately commute all five death sentences, commute each sentence on a case by case basis, or do nothing. He is not expected to make a decision until after the legislative session ends in April.

O’Malley has been notably reluctant to commute any sentences or grant pardons during his seven-year tenure. He’s only granted 50 pardons out of 690 requests as of last December, according to The Washington Post. And he’s only commuted two sentences, one where an accomplice served three times as long as the shooter, and another where a witness recanted testimony that sent a man to prison for nearly 30 years.

O’Malley’s clemency record is in line with his overall stance of being tough on crime, stemming from his background as a Baltimore prosecutor. The majority of governors have broad, nearly unrestricted clemency power to pardon or commute sentences as they see fit. But few exercise that power regularly.

As Stateline has previously reported, governors contemplating higher office—and O’Malley is contemplating a presidential bid in 2016—have been wary of using their executive clemency powers. Well-publicized missteps by Govs. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota allowed their opponents to paint them as soft on crime.

Even though O’Malley’s clemency record is less than generous, his support for the repeal of the death penalty has brought him national attention. He’s not the only governor who’s opposed the death penalty, but he’s made it a central part of his political agenda and sold it as a public safety issue, says Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA, which advocates for the abolition of the death penalty.

“I think his actions are symbolic of changing national conversation surrounding the death penalty,” says Silberstein. “It’s not the third rail of politics anymore, and politicians aren’t going to have to ask themselves if they should take the risk (to oppose the death penalty) because it’s not a risk anymore. Politicians are finding that they’re not being hurt in polls.”...

Legislators in Colorado, Oregon, Kansas and Delaware are currently debating repealing the death penalty, and legislators in Montana gave a hearing to a death penalty repeal bill earlier this session. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is facing pressure to commute the sentences of two death row inmates nearing execution, and his commitment to the death penalty is wavering....

If O’Malley does not commute the sentences of Maryland’s death row inmates, he’ll be following the examples of Connecticut and New Mexico. But in those states, the remaining death row inmates have filed multiple appeals based on the legislature’s decision that death is no longer an acceptable sentence. The litigation stemming from the confusion could last years and there has been no ruling concerning all remaining death row inmates in either state.

March 14, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

March 13, 2013

"Deporting the Pardoned"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper by Jason Alexis Cade.  As the paper's abstract reveals, this work touches on various issues that ought to be of interest to a various sentencing fans:

Federal immigration laws make noncitizens deportable on the basis of state criminal convictions.  Historically, Congress implemented this scheme in ways that respected the states’ sovereignty over their criminal laws.  As more recent federal laws have been interpreted, however, a state’s decision to pardon, expunge, or otherwise set-aside a conviction under state law will often have no effect on the federal government’s determination to use that conviction as a basis for deportation.  While scholars have shown significant interest in state and local laws regulating immigrants, few have considered the federalism implications of federal rules that ignore a state’s authority to determine the continuing validity of its own convictions.

This Article contends that limitations on the preclusive effect of pardons, expungements, appeals, and similar post-conviction processes undermine sovereign interests in maintaining the integrity of the criminal justice system, calibrating justice, fostering rehabilitation, and deciding where to allocate resources.  In light of the interests at stake, Congress should be required to clearly express its intent to override pardons and related state post-conviction procedures.  A federalism-based clear statement rule for statutory provisions that restrict generally applicable criminal processes would not constrain Congress’s power to set immigration policy, because Congress remains free to make its intent clear in the statute. But the rule would ensure that Congress, rather than an administrative agency, has made the deliberative choice to upset the usual constitutional balance of federal and state power.

March 13, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Federal judge decides "self-torture" not quite sufficient punishment for corrupt NJ mayor

The headline of this post is a slightly-tongue-in-check reaction to the lead paragraph in this new local story about today's federal sentencing of a corrupt politician in New Jersey.  Here is how the article begins and some more notable sentencing details:

The former mayor of New Jersey’s largest suburb was sentenced Wednesday to more than three years in prison for corruption after telling a judge he lives with “self-torture” every day over the crimes.  Former Hamilton Township Mayor John Bencivengo also was ordered to participate in a mental health program in prison.  A forensic psychologist testified at the sentencing that Bencivengo has suffered from major depression since 2008.

Bencivengo also must pay back at least $7,400 in money he accepted as part of a bribery sting.  In addition to his 38-month federal prison sentence, he will also face three years of probation when he is released and must pay thousands of dollars in fines.

Bencivengo, 58, took responsibility for his actions and cried in court as he spoke about the impact the case had on his 90-year-old-mother. “I have great remorse, anxiety and emotional self-torture on a daily basis over these uncharacteristic circumstances,” Bencivengo said....

Bencivengo had faced up to five to six years in prison.  U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson said she considered 60 letters written on the former official’s behalf in lowering the sentence, but had to consider he knowingly accepted money he shouldn’t have.  “He has thrown away so much for $12,400,” Thompson said.

Bencivengo was convicted in November on extortion, money laundering and bribery-related counts.  He resigned as mayor of the Mercer County community the day after he was convicted. Federal prosecutors said Bencivengo took the bribes from a health insurance broker in 2011....

Bencivengo’s lawyer argued the money was a loan.  But U.S. Attorney Harvey Bartle said Bencivengo knew exactly what he was doing when he accepted the first $5,000 in the form of a check made out to a former employee’s wife.  Bartle said Bencivengo also acted with official misconduct for accepting cash payments during a weekend trip to Atlantic City. “Government does not take place in Atlantic City hotel rooms,” Bartle said.

All self-punishment jokes aside, I continue to wonder if anyone has assembled a database with federal sentencing outcomes in notable local and state political corruption cases.  My rough sense is that the range of federal sentences in these notable settings are all over map --- in part because there are so many highly debatable aggravating offense facts and mitigating offender circumstances which might be stressed in different ways by different lawyers and judges in these cases, and in part because it seems to me quite difficult to figure out just what amount of imprisonment is "sufficient but not greater than necessary" given that the defendants in these cases seem very unlikely to pose any real risk to public safety and also may be functionally unable to again commit political fraud.

March 13, 2013 in Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Does new Eighth Amendment limits on juve sentencing redefine requirements of juve transfer proceedings?

The question in the title of this post, to which I know many folks involved with juvenile justice reform have given thought, is prompted today by some interesting dicta at the end of an interesting Sixth Circuit concurring opinion rejecting an interesting habeas claim of ineffective assistance concerning a lawyers's failure to contest a Tennessee juve's transfer to adult court for a murder prosecution. The ruling in Howell v. Hodge, No. 10-5493 (6th Cir. Mar. 13, 2013) (available here), is mostly focused on habeas realities and Tennessee transfer laws, but these paragraphs at the end of Judge Stranch's concurring opinion out to be of broader interest:
I have recounted the evidence supporting the decision of the juvenile court at length because I believe it is important to clarify what I find problematic about the analysis of the expert reports and testimony.  Clarification is especially important due to the significance of transferring a juvenile to adult court for trial and sentencing, even where a terrible crime such as this one is at issue. The United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2468 (2012), reviewed the considerations that it found must separate sentencing of adults from that of children, including: a juvenile’s impetuosity and lack of appreciation of risks and consequences; her inability to escape brutal and dysfunctional social or home situations; her incompetencies in dealing with the criminal justice system; and other factors relating to the diminished moral culpability of children.  The differences that make juveniles more susceptible to influence also result in a heightened capacity for change and, therefore, a greater prospect for reform. Id. at 2464-65, 2469.  Thus, in reviewing a decision to transfer a juvenile to adult court — especially one that results, as here, in a sentence of life without parole — Miller teaches that we must always be cognizant of “the great difficulty . . . of distinguishing at this early age between ‘the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.’” Id. at 2469 (quoting Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 573 (2005)).  These considerations and concerns are highlighted by the specific holding in Miller — that the Eighth Amendment prohibits states from imposing sentences of “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes.” Id. at 2460.
Miller’s holding does not categorically foreclose the sentence of life without the possibility of parole imposed on Howell.   Language in the Court’s opinion, however, highlights my concerns about the analysis necessary when making and reviewing decisions to transfer juveniles to adult court and raises questions regarding the propriety of the sentence of life without the possibility of parole in this case.   The Miller majority observed that the reasoning of Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010), upon which it relied and which prohibits the imposition of life without the possibility of parole sentences on juvenile offenders for nonhomicide crimes, “implicates any life-without-parole sentence imposed on a juvenile, even as its categorical bar relates only to nonhomicide offenses.” Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2465.  The majority also observed that “appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to [life without the possibility of parole] will be uncommon.” Id. at 2469. Moreover, in his concurring opinion, Justice Breyer argued that, based on Graham, “the kinds of homicide that can subject a juvenile offender to life without parole must exclude instances where the juvenile himself neither kills nor intends to kill the victim.” Id. at 2475-76.  As here, one of the defendants in Miller was found guilty of felony murder and was not responsible for the killing, and no evidence indicated that he had any intent to kill.  Id. at 2477.  In Justice Breyer’s view, before the State could continue to impose a sentence of life without parole for this defendant, it would first need to determine whether he “kill[ed] or intend[ed] to kill” because, “without such a finding, the Eighth Amendment as interpreted in Graham forbids sentencing [the defendant] to such a sentence, regardless of whether its application is mandatory or discretionary under state law.” Id. at 2475 (internal quotation marks omitted).  Though the scenario posited has parallels to Howell’s situation, Miller is not necessarily dispositive and these issues are not before us today

March 13, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

An effective primer on the federal tax issues facing state marijuana businesses

This notable new Forbes commentary by attorney Robert Wood, headlined "Dude, Can Marijuana Beat The Tax Man?," provides an effective overview of notable new issues raised by the intersection of modern marijuana reform and not-so-modern federal tax laws.   Here are excerpts from this latest piece (with links to some key resources in this area):

Aren’t marijuana growers, dealers and dispensaries just trying to pay their taxes and make a profit like everybody else?  In the staid world of tax law, it can seem downright strange to be worried whether someone has “trafficking” tax problems.  Such is the odd symbiosis between conflicting federal and state laws.

Federal law still outlaws marijuana even in states that legalize it.  Reminiscent of Al Capone, that makes taxes a big problem.... [L]egal dispensaries are still drug traffickers to the feds, so Section 280E of the tax code denies their tax deductions. Intended to prevent tax deductions by drug dealers, it covers medical marijuana too.  The IRS says it must enforce Section 280E no matter what state law says.

Indeed, of all the federal enforcement efforts, taxes hurt most.  “The federal tax situation is the biggest threat to businesses and could push the entire industry underground,” the leading trade publication for the marijuana industry reports.  One answer is for dispensaries to deduct other expenses distinct from dispensing marijuana. See Californians Helping to Alleviate Medical Problems Inc. v. Commissioner.

If a dispensary sells marijuana and is in the separate business of care-giving, the care-giving expenses are deductible.  If only 10% of the premises are used to dispense marijuana, most of the rent is deductible.  Good record-keeping is essential.  See Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Persist Despite Tax Obstacles.

Another idea is that Marijuana sellers might operate as nonprofit social welfare organizations.  See Growing the Business: How Legal Marijuana Sellers Can Beat a Draconian Tax.  That way Section 280E shouldn’t apply.  A social welfare organization must promote the common good and general welfare of people in its neighborhood or community.  Operating businesses in distressed neighborhoods to provide jobs and job-training for residents?  That could fit a dispensary nicely.

Meanwhile, Congressmen Jared Polis (D-CO) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill to end the federal prohibition on marijuana and allow it to be taxed.  This legislation would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.  That way growers, sellers and users could no longer fear violating federal law.  Their Marijuana Tax Equity Act would also impose an excise tax on cannabis sales and an annual occupational tax on workers dealing in the growing field of legal marijuana.

March 13, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 12, 2013

"'The Judge, He Cast His Robe Aside': Mental Health Courts, Dignity and Due Process"

Bob-dylan-drifters-escape-1968Hard-core Bob Dylan fans will should appreciate the title of this new Michael Perlin article available via SSRN, and all criminal justice fans should appreciate the importance of the substance of this new piece. Here is the abstract:

One of the most important developments in the past two decades in the way that criminal defendants with mental disabilities are treated in the criminal process has been the creation and the expansion of mental health courts, one kind of “problem-solving court.” There are now over 300 such courts in operation in the United States, some dealing solely with misdemeanors, some solely with non-violent offenders, and some with no such restrictions. There is a wide range of dispositional alternatives available to judges in these cases, and an even wider range of judicial attitudes. And the entire concept of “mental health courts” is certainly not without controversy.

These courts offer a new approach – perhaps a radically new approach – to the problems at hand. They become even more significant because of their articulated focus on dignity, as well as their embrace of therapeutic jurisprudence, their focus on procedural justice, and their use of the principles of restorative justice. It is time to restructure the dialogue about mental health courts and to begin to take seriously the potential ameliorative impact of such courts on the ultimate disposition of all cases involving criminal defendants with mental disabilities.

There has been much written about these courts, but little attention has been paid to two issues that must be considered seriously: the quality of counsel available to persons in mental health courts, and the question of whether the individual is competent to engage in mental health court proceedings. These are both discussed extensively in this paper.

Much of the recent debate on mental health courts has focused either on empirical studies of recidivism or on theorization. This entire discussion, while important and helpful, bypasses the critical issue that is at the heart of this paper: do such courts provide additional dignity to the criminal justice process or do they detract from that? Until we re-focus our sights on this issue, much of the discourse on this topic remains wholly irrelevant.

In Part I of this paper, I will first discuss the underpinnings of therapeutic jurisprudence. I will next, in Part II, look at the structure of mental health courts, and will then raise the two concerns about such courts that are, I believe, of particular relevance to which I just alluded: questions of adequacy of counsel and the competency of defendants to voluntarily participate in such court proceedings. In Part III, I will then consider the role of dignity in this process, and look to ways that therapeutic jurisprudence can promote dignity in this context.

March 12, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

In Eighth Circuit, US Attorney says Miller is "substantive" and so should be applied retroactively

A helpful reader sent me this week a copy of a notable filing from a federal 2255 action in Johnson v. US, No. 12-3744, involving a federal defendant seeking resentencing based on the Supreme Court's Miller decision concerning the unconstitutionality of mandatory LWOP for juvenile offenders. The filing is notable because the feds concede that Miller can and should be given retroactive effect because, in the government's view, Miller announced a new rule that is "substantive."  Here is how the lengthy filing, which can be downloaded below, gets started:

The United States of America, by and through its attorneys, B. Todd Jones, United States Attorney for the District of Minnesota, and Jeffrey S. Paulsen, Assistant United States Attorney, submits this memorandum in response to petitioner Kamil Hakeem Johnson’s November 16, 2012, Motion Pursuant to Title 28 U.S.C. § 2244, Requesting Authorization To File a Second or Successive 28 U.S.C. § 2255 To The District Court (“Application”).

Johnson, who was a juvenile at the time of his 1996 offense, seeks authorization to file a second motion under Section 2255 to challenge the constitutionality of his mandatory life-without-parole sentence.  In Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2460 (2012), the Supreme Court held that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”  Although the Court had earlier held that a lifewithout- parole sentence for a non-homicide offense committed by a juvenile is always unconstitutional, see Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010), Miller did not bar such a sentence for a homicide committed before the age of 18.  132 S. Ct. at 2469. But under Miller, the sentencer for such a juvenile offense must have “discretion to impose a different punishment.” Id. at 2460.

Johnson’s mandatory life sentence is therefore constitutionally flawed.  This Court may certify a second or successive Section 2255 motion where, as relevant here, the application makes a prima facie showing that it relies on “a new rule of constitutional law, made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court,” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h)(2).  Because the United States agrees that Johnson’s reliance on Miller makes such a prima facie showing, his motion should be granted and the case certified for filing in the district court.

Download USA Miller 2255 Response

March 12, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Irizarry SCOTUS case, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Notable debate in Wisconsin over new state child porn sentencing law

Regular readers are quite familiar with (and perhaps even tired of) the long-running debates over federal child pornography sentencing laws. But, as detailed in this local article from Wisconsin, headlined "New law limits judges' power in child pornography cases," similar issues and debates arise in states sentencing systems, too.  Here are excerpts from the article, which strikes all the usual themes concerning the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions:

A new law intended to toughen punishment for those convicted of viewing child pornography is drawing criticism from court officials. 

In April 2012, state lawmakers passed into law a mandatory, minimum three-year prison sentence for the felony offense.  Under a clause in the old law, judges had the discretion to order lesser penalties depending on the circumstances of the case.

Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, who sponsored the mandatory penalty, testified that judges were letting too many offenders stay out of prison. “Sentences of less than 3 years were meant to be issued sparingly but became the standard,” Honadel said.

State Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, said the law was conceived as a way to provide consistent sentences for all offenders who commit the same crime.  “Prior to this, sentences were all over the map. In a judicial sense, this probably wasn’t the best way to operate,” Thiesfeldt said. “Anytime you can establish standards of fairness, that’s a good thing.”...

Fond du Lac County Circuit Court Judge Peter Grimm, who has worn the hat of a public defender and district attorney before his election to the bench 22 years ago, says judges need discretion in sentencing to ensure the punishment fits the circumstances of the crime and the criminal.  “These mandatory minimum sentences fly in the face of current judicial training in which judges are trained to use evidence-based sentences designed to let judges make the best decision based on the facts of the case,” said Grimm. “Judges should not be locked into a minimum sentence because the legislature wants to be tough on crime.”

Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg has mixed feelings concerning the new law. “The law does take discretion away from the judges.  The judge is no longer able to go below the minimum (sentence) even in the face of strong mitigating evidence,” Klomberg said.  “The prosecutor now has greater power in the sentencing process as the decision on the charge will be a decision on the minimum allowable sentence after conviction.”

Klomberg also recognizes that the new law could impact settlement in cases involving child pornography.   “The defendants in these cases are often willing to plead to the charges in hopes of convincing the judge to go below the minimum,” Klomberg said.  “Under the new law, there is no possibility, and it may result in more trials.”

Defense attorney and former Fond du Lac County District Attorney Michael O’Rourke disagrees with a one-size-fits-all approach.   “Each case and each defendant are different and judges should have the ability to fashion a sentence that is good for both the community and aids defendants in rehabilitation,” O’Rourke said

The former prosecutor says judges need discretion in sentencing to ensure the penalty doesn’t outweigh the crime.   “The retired 63-year-old with no previous record who went to an adult porn site and was browsing and clicked onto a site that includes child pornography and then looks at a couple of pictures is different than the person who may already have a record, or who is actively seeking child porn,” O’Rourke said.  “Some peer-to-peer sites will download thousands of images in seconds onto a computer and the individual has seen none of them.  A judge should have the discretion to consider that.”

Wisconsin’s new child pornography law offers one exception to the minimum sentence, Thiesfeldt said.  Several cases involving teens trading inappropriate pictures by cell phone prompted lawmakers to include a clause in which a judge can issue lesser penalties if the offender is no more than four years older than the child depicted.

March 12, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

March 11, 2013

"How the Sequester Threatens the U.S. Legal System"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new piece authored by Andrew Cohen for The Atlantic.  Here is how it starts and ends:

When the chief justice of the United States and the chief judges of each of the federal circuits gavel down the semi-annual meeting of the Judicial Conference of the United States on Tuesday, they will have on their agenda an unusual item: the alarming impact of the funding "sequester" on the nation's federal court system.  The world won't end if students are denied the chance to tour the White House.  It will not end if our National Parks open days late this spring.  But citizens everywhere will see vital legal rights denied or delayed by the forced budget cuts.

All of the constituencies of the judiciary agree on this issue.  Federal trial judges are quietly seething at the inability of the legislative and executive branches to avoid sequester.  Federal public defenders, whose budgets have been cut twice in two months, are furloughing and laying off staff.  The attorney general of the United States has expressed grave concern on behalf of prosecutors and federal law enforcement officials. And court administrators are expressing alarm over the effect of the cuts upon federal judicial services.

At the core of the problem is the fact that the judicial branch is financially beholden to the other two branches of government.  This separation of powers was designed by our nation's founders to limit the judiciary's independence, and it has, and nowhere is this dynamic more visible than when a chief justice like John Roberts has to grovel for funding or otherwise justify the judiciary's minuscule portion of the budget.  If the sequester isn't unconstitutional per se, it is causing an unconstitutional effect upon the swift, fair and equal administration of justice....

Beyond a reasonable doubt, the sequester is having a profound and pernicious effect on the government's ability to observe its constitutional commands -- and to provide justice to its citizens.  That's why the members of the Judicial Conference have a difficult and delicate task this week.  The judges and administrators must adequately express the scope of their concern, and effectively explain the impact the sequester will have on the judiciary, without offending the very politicians who control the federal judiciary's budget. It's not right.  It's not fair.  It's a terrible testament to judicial independence.  But sadly it's the way the politics of law works in America today.

Recent related posts:

March 11, 2013 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Will Maryland voters even get a chance to reconsider repeal of state's death penalty?

One reason I have been following closely the march in Maryland toward repeal of the state's death penalty has been because Maryland has a well-established process for voter referendum as a means to create a populist veto of any law passed by the state's legislature.  If Maryland's legislature repeals its death penalty and then there is a subsequent referendum on that repeal, the state-wide campaign for such ballot initiative would likely be quite interesting and the the vote outcome would likely be quite uncertain.  But this new local article, headlined "Death penalty repeal may not be petitioned onto ballot," suggests that Maryland voters might not even get a chance to vote in a referendum after death penalty repeal in the state. Here is why:

Del. Neil C. Parrott, chairman of petition website MDPetitions.com, said petitioning Gov. Martin O’Malley’s death penalty repeal to the 2014 general election ballot isn’t a foregone conclusion. That’s even though some opponents of the repeal, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, have said they think a referendum vote likely.

But “there’s no talk about” such a petition drive at the grass-roots, Parrott said. “It’s probably not going to be petitioned.” Parrott indicated he’s more interested in leading a petition drive against House Bill 493, the Referendum Integrity Act — a measure he believes could choke off future referendums if it passes.

The Washington County Republican led petition drives that placed on the 2012 ballot three measures passed by the General Assembly: legalizing same-sex marriage, in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants, and the state’s congressional redistricting plan. All three challenges failed.

Parrott said a drive to overturn the death penalty repeal would involve a long, difficult campaign all the way up to the 2014 election. And such efforts take money — something MDPetitions.com is “not very flush with,” Parrott said. “There’s going to be serious consideration whether we do one or not, because it is so difficult,” he said....

Parrott’s MDPetitions.com website makes it easier for people to generate signatures that match the way their names are rendered on the state’s voter rolls, so that they can’t be invalidated by elections officials. Before the website, only one referendum to overturn a state law made it onto the ballot in 20 years, a 1992 attempt to overturn Maryland’s abortion law. That attempt failed....

Parrott said O’Malley has introduced several “radical” measures — one of which, he said, is the death penalty repeal, Senate Bill 276. That bill has passed in the Senate. On Friday, the bill made it through a House committee. It is expected to pass in the full chamber. “Honestly, I hope (death penalty repeal) stops in the House,” Parrott said. “At this point, we’re just looking to see what happens.”

O’Malley said that even if the death penalty repeal goes to referendum, the voters will ultimately uphold it. “The people of our state want us to do the things that work and that actually reduce crime,” he said.

Recent related posts:

March 11, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Judge Rakoff calls for fraud guidelines to be "scrapped in their entirety" in favor of a "non-arithmetic, multi-factor test"

As reported in new press accounts here and here, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff gave a speech late last week at a white-collar offense conference which should warm the heart of critics of the existing federal sentencing guidelines. The start of this Reuters piece provides these highlights:

A prominent Manhattan judge has called for federal sentencing guidelines to be revamped, saying their current emphasis on losses in white-collar crimes has led to irrational results.

U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, a longtime critic of the sentencing guidelines, told attendees of a Las Vegas legal conference Thursday that the United States should move away from its current system of distilling offenses into numbers for calculating a sentence to one that was more flexible.  "My modest proposal is that they should be scrapped in their entirety and in their place there should be a non-arithmetic, multi-factor test," he said.

Rakoff made the remarks during a lunchtime keynote address at the National Institute on White Collar Crime conference sponsored by the American Bar Association.  The ABA's white-collar group has recently created a committee that includes Rakoff as a member to focus on how white-collar sentencing guidelines should be changed.

The guidelines came into place following the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which gave birth to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.  The goal at the time was to reduce discrepancies in sentences.

Rakoff argued that the "fundamental flaw" of the guidelines is they assume every situation can be distilled into a number for the purpose of then calculating a sentence.  He called the numbers assigned to various situations "arbitrary."

"The Sentencing Commission to this day has never been able to articulate why it has two points for this, or four points for that," he said.  "These are just numbers.  And yet once they are placed the whole thing is blessed and said to be rational."

March 11, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Split Eighth Circuit panel weighs in on child porn restitutution issues

A few weeks ago, as reported in this post, the Sixth Circuit in US v. Gamble ended any betting on how that court was going to sort through the circuit-splitting issues concerning awards of restitution in child porn downloading cases.  Today, the majority of an Eighth Circuit panel in US v. Fast, No. 12-2752 (8th Cir. Mar. 11, 2103) (available here), was quick to adopt the majority approach to these issues (hat tip to How Appealing), via an opinion that gets started this way:

Robert M. Fast pled guilty to one count of receiving and distributing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(2). The district court ordered him to pay $3,333 restitution to Vicky — the pseudonym for the child-pornography victim whose images were on Fast’s computer — under 18 U.S.C. § 2259. Vicky challenges the restitution award by direct appeal and in a petition for mandamus.  She argues that Fast need not proximately cause the losses defined in subsections 2259(b)(3)(A) through (E) to be liable for them, and that the district court misinterpreted the “full amount of [her] losses” under section 2259(b)(1).  Because she lacks standing as a nonparty to bring a direct appeal, this court grants the motions to dismiss by Fast and the government.  Having jurisdiction over her mandamus petition under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3771(d)(3), this court denies her petition.  

Judge Shepherd authors an extended dissent, which gets started this way:

I concur with respect to sections I, II, and III of the majority’s opinion. I dissent with respect to sections IV and V, and with respect to the judgment, because I would follow the Fifth Circuit’s approach and hold that only damages awarded under 18 U.S.C. § 2259(b)(3)(F) are subject to a proximate cause requirement. See In re Amy Unknown, 701 F.3d 749, 752 (5th Cir. 2012) (en banc).  Consequently, I would grant Vicky’s petition for mandamus relief and remand for the district court to recalculate her losses.

As I have noted before (and likely will have an opportunity to mention again in the future), it seems only a matter of time before the Supreme Court will feel it has to take up these issues in some manner.

A few more recent and some older related federal child porn restitution posts:

March 11, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"The Right to Counsel: Badly Battered at 50" (at a great moment for hope and change)

10EDITORIALSUB-articleLargeThe title of this post is drawn in part from the headline of this notable commentary by Lincoln Caplan, which appeared in yesterday's New York Times.  Here are excerpts (with a final key point stressed by me below):

A half-century ago, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone too poor to hire a lawyer must be provided one free in any criminal case involving a felony charge.  The holding in Gideon v. Wainwright enlarged the Constitution’s safeguards of liberty and equality, finding the right to counsel “fundamental.”  The goal was “fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law.”

This principle has been expanded to cover other circumstances as well: misdemeanor cases where the defendant could be jailed, a defendant’s first appeal from a conviction and proceedings against a juvenile for delinquency.

While the constitutional commitment is generally met in federal courts, it is a different story in state courts, which handle about 95 percent of America’s criminal cases.  This matters because, by well-informed estimates, at least 80 percent of state criminal defendants cannot afford to pay for lawyers and have to depend on court-appointed counsel.

Even the best-run state programs lack enough money to provide competent lawyers for all indigent defendants who need them.  Florida set up public defender offices when Gideon was decided, and the Miami office was a standout.  But as demand has outpaced financing, caseloads for Miami defenders have grown to 500 felonies a year, though the American Bar Association guidelines say caseloads should not exceed 150 felonies.

Only 24 states have statewide public defender systems. Others flout their constitutional obligations by pushing the problem onto cash-strapped counties or local judicial districts.

Lack of financing isn’t the only problem, either. Contempt for poor defendants is too often the norm.  In Kentucky, 68 percent of poor people accused of misdemeanors appear in court hearings without lawyers.  In 21 counties in Florida in 2010, 70 percent of misdemeanor defendants pleaded guilty or no contest — at arraignments that averaged less than three minutes....

The powerlessness of poor defendants is becoming even more evident under harsh sentencing schemes created in the past few decades.  They give prosecutors, who have huge discretion, a strong threat to use, and have led to almost 94 percent of all state criminal cases being settled in plea bargains — often because of weak defense lawyers who fail to push back....

After 50 years, the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright is mocked more often than fulfilled. In a forthcoming issue of the Yale Law Journal, Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Georgia, and Sia Sanneh, a lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, recommend [in an article available here] that all states have statewide public defender systems that train and supervise their lawyers, limit their workloads and have specialized teams in, for example, death-penalty cases. 

There is no shortage of lawyers to do this work.  What stands in the way is an undemocratic, deep-seated lack of political will.

I have stressed the penultimate sentence in this commentary because readers with any connection to law schools and on-going debates over legal education reform know well the modern concerns and problems caused by the graduation of so many lawyers with large debt load while there are, apparently, not enough viable jobs in the marketplace to employ all the debt-saddled new lawyers.  This commentary provides a ready reminder that there are ample legal needs going unaddressed and unresolved even while there are ample new lawyers looking for jobs and struggling to deal with their education debt. 

Leaders involved with legal-eduction reform and involved with right-to-counsel reform need to get together ASAP to try to fix two big problems with one solution.  Problematically, if the private marketplace could readily engineer a solution to the problems of inadequate counsel for indigent defendants, these matters would likely not even be a modern concern.  But, because of market failings and limitations, these problems need a government solution; the federal government would seem to be the right source for a solution given that the federal government has been giving out the guaranteed student loans that helped produce a glut of debt-saddled new lawyers (which the private legal marketplace now does not want). 

In another setting a few years ago, I talked up here the notion of a "Lawyer Peace Corps" or "Lawyering for America" to do good while helping new law grads to better. The 50th Anniversary of the Gideon decision would seem to be an ideal moment to get such programming off the ground.

Cross-posted at PrawfsBlawg (where I will be guest blogging a bit the next few weeks).

March 11, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

March 10, 2013

Fascinating fight over death penalty realities and clemency rights gets to Oregon Supreme Court

As reported in this new local article, headlined "Oregon Supreme Court to hear Haugen death penalty case," this top court in Oregon is due to hear arguments this week in a very interesting case concerning both clemency rights and application of the death penalty. Here are the basics:

The next step in Gary Haugen’s request to be executed is up to the Oregon Supreme Court. When the seven justices hear oral arguments Thursday, they will consider only whether the twice-convicted murderer can legally reject an unconditional reprieve issued by Gov. John Kitzhaber on Nov. 22, 2011. Kitzhaber’s action blocked the execution two weeks before it was scheduled to take place.

Haugen won the first round Aug. 3 in Marion County Circuit Court, where visiting Judge Timothy Alexander ruled that Haugen could refuse the reprieve. The Supreme Court accepted Kitzhaber’s appeal directly.

In written arguments filed with the court, Kitzhaber said Haugen has no legal right to reject a reprieve based on three main reasons: the text of the Oregon Constitution; the historical circumstances of clemency; and previous court decisions about the governor’s clemency powers.

Haugen argued through his lawyer that Kitzhaber’s action was not a true reprieve, previous court decisions support his right to refuse it, and a reprieve deprives him of federal constitutional rights such as a ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The newspaper account of this upcoming argument provides a brief review of the parties' arguments, as well as links to some brief. Included therein is a brief with a link to a filing by the ACLU. Upon seeing the link, I was unsure which side the ACLU should and would support, given my understanding that the ACLU opposes the death penalty but also supports a person's right to die. I will leave it to readers to guess (or figure out) which commitment proved more important to the ACLU in this notable setting.

March 10, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack