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August 19, 2013

Effective press review of some state responses to SCOTUS Miller ruling

The AP has this notable new article on the wire discussing at lengthy some of the response at the state level to the Supreme Court's Miller ruling last year prohibiting madatory LWOP sentences for juvenile murderers.  Here is an excerpt:

[There are] an estimated 2,100 so-called juvenile lifers across the country — inmates sentenced to lengthy prison terms without parole — who hope for a reprieve in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Miller v. Alabama. The decision determined such sentences are cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. The court ruled, 5-4, that the proportionality of the sentence must take into account "the mitigating qualities of youth," such as immaturity and the failure of young people to understand the ramifications of their actions.

In part to head off an avalanche of expected appeals, at least 10 states have changed laws to comply with the ruling. In June, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed a bill eliminating mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile killers, who are also ineligible for the death penalty. The new law requires juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to serve at least 25 years in prison while still allowing judges the discretion to impose a sentence of life without parole. Juvenile offenders convicted of first-degree murder are also allowed to petition for a sentence modification after serving 30 years.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed a bill in February specifying that juveniles convicted of murder would be eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison. Last fall, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation giving judges options other than life in prison when sentencing juveniles in murder cases. Other states with new juvenile sentencing laws include Arkansas, California, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Dakota and Utah, according to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures this summer.

In Connecticut, [there are] about 200 inmates who could be affected by the high court's ruling, a proposal that would have allowed parole hearings for teen offenders who've served at least 12 years or 60 percent of their sentence died this year. There are plans to resurrect the bill next year.

But the prospect of possibly shortening sentences has been met with mixed reaction from relatives of crime victims. "If you can't believe a judge's final decision in a courtroom, who can you believe?" asked John Cluny, whose wife and teenage son were shot to death in 1993 by his son's 15-year-old friend, Michael Bernier. Bernier was sentenced to 60 years for the murders. Cluny calls him "a cold-blooded killer."

Despite good behavior in prison and years of reflection and maturity, Cluny questions giving such killers another chance at freedom. "You're in prison for what you did, not for what you've become," he said.

August 19, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

August 18, 2013

Lawyers for Aurora shooter James Holmes attacking Colorado's death penalty again

As reported in this AP piece, the attorneys representing "theater shooting suspect James Holmes launched another legal assault on Colorado's death penalty laws Friday, arguing they don't set clear standards and that they make it too hard for jurors to weigh mitigating factors." Here is more on the latest developments in a high-profile state capital case:

They also complained that Arapahoe County District Judge Carlos A. Samour is ruling on defense motions too quickly and asked him to allow them to argue their points "fully and fairly."

Holmes is accused of opening fire in a theater full of people watching a Batman movie in suburban Denver in July 2012, killing 12 and wounding 70. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to multiple charges of murder and attempted murder. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

In two motions totaling 32 pages of arguments, defense lawyers argued the death penalty law is unconstitutional and asked Samour to rule out execution for Holmes. In addition to questioning the standards of the laws, the defense said the statutes allow fewer options for defendants to appeal the death penalty if they choose trial by jury than if they choose trial before a judge, without a jury....

Prosecutors are sure to file strenuous arguments that the laws are constitutional. Samour's decision is likely weeks away. Samour rejected the defense's previous attack on the death penalty law in May. Before Holmes entered his insanity plea, his lawyers argued the death penalty law could unfairly cripple their ability to mount an insanity defense.

With Holmes' life literally at risk, his lawyers are pursuing multiple lines of defense as well as questioning some of Samour's actions, to the judge's obvious displeasure. Samour has kept the case moving at a steady if not brisk pace, and one defense motion released Friday told Samour he has ruled too quickly on some defense motions — without a hearing, before prosecutors responded and without allowing the defense to reply to prosecution arguments.

The defense asked Samour to "refrain from issuing premature rulings." Samour hasn't ruled on the motion. Earlier Friday, Samour denied a defense motion seeking the mental health records of prosecution witnesses, bluntly dismissing it as a "fishing expedition."

Samour said Holmes' lawyers don't know whether any of the witnesses have received mental health treatment, whether any records of the treatments exist and whether the records are relevant to the trial. "In other words, the defendant wants the court to approve a fishing expedition," Samour wrote. "The court declines the invitation to do so."...

Samour denied 12 defense motions that sought a raft of records, including tapes of police communications on the day of the shootings, all statements that victims and witnesses made to police and all prosecution records of communications with victims. Samour granted a defense request for information on the credibility of prosecution witnesses, noting prosecutors didn't submit any arguments opposing that motion.

It is hard to fault Holmes' attorneys for raising every plausible pre-trial claim in an effort to prevent their client from being sentenced to death; indeed, they are ethically obliged to do so.  But I struggle somewhat, now a full year since the crime was committed, with claims by the defense that the trial judge, who seems to be just seeking to get this case to trial before too long, is guilty of resolving "motions too quickly." 

August 18, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

"Some prisons let inmates connect with tablets"

The title of this post is the headline of this new USA Today article, which provides an effective overview of one interesting recent technocorrections development.  The subheading of the piece is "Proponents say allowing inmates to use tablets will help reintegrate them into society and keep them from returning to jail." Here are excerpts:

Ohio became the latest state last month to allow inmates to purchase and use mini-tablet computers while incarcerated — a controversial move intended to better connect those in jail with their families and friends on the outside.

At least six other states, including North Dakota and Georgia, permit the practice, which proponents say will deepen prisoners' ties to their communities and keep them in sync with modern technology. "We have anticipation and hope to make it a good educational tool," said Ricky Seyfang, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Opponents are concerned the tablets will be used for illegal activities or brandished as weapons. "Our challenge is always how we give inmates the exposure to these tools while protecting public safety at the same time," said Douglas Smith III, chief information officer for the Florida Department of Corrections. Florida launched a pilot program last year to test Kindle devices for inmates.

Victims' rights groups say the devices make public safety increasingly difficult to achieve. Kristy Dyroff, director of communication at the National Organization for Victim Assistance, said there is the potential for "unrestricted and unsupervised outreach where inmates can revictimize or continue to intimidate victims."...

In the seven states that allow the tablets — Louisiana, Virginia, Michigan and Washington are the four others — inmates or their family members can purchase a $49.99 mini-tablet that allows them to send e-mails and listen to music, according to Tara Bertram, vice president of marketing at JPay, a mini-tablet vendor. The e-mails and any included attachments can be monitored by the state's department of corrections or the individual facility.

Jesse Jannetta, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said expanded technology access in prisons could help inmates transition into their communities — and keep them there — if the devices are used to contact family and potential employers. "It can be hard to build connections to people or organizations they'll be interacting with," Jannetta said.

Jannetta and others caution that tablets, like cellphones, can also breed criminal activity.... "Prisons have trouble containing all sorts of things," said Robert Coombs, spokesman for the National Reentry Resource Center. "You're dealing with folks who probably want to break some rules."

JPay tries to minimize that risk by loading only limited functions, such as music and gaming, on to its tablets. The decision to allow the devices in prisons is made by state corrections departments, Bertram said.

Another vendor, Keefe Group, launched an MP3 player and music download service for prisoners in 2009. The service netted more than 1 million downloads a year after it was introduced, according to a news release on its website.

This month, Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler advocated for giving Android tablets to prisoners as a solution to close the "revolving door" of ex-offenders returning to jail. The Democratic gubernatorial hopeful said inmates would be allowed access to e-books, the state's library system, law resources and educational applications. Limited e-mail capability would also be offered.

That proposal could draw concern from taxpayers skeptical of investing more resources in jails. The average per-inmate cost a year is $31,286, ranging from $14,603 in Kentucky to $60,076 in New York, according to the Vera Institute, a research group focusing on justice systems. "When you're talking about buying individual pieces of technology and distributing them, it can be very controversial," Jannetta said.

As technology becomes increasingly embedded within society, some experts say its placement in more prisons is inevitable. "For us to expect inmates will possess the skills necessary to survive in the free world, we'll have to come to the realization they'll have to use these things," Smith said.

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August 18, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack