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April 5, 2014

Dueling sentencing reform perspective from Heritage and Crime & Consequences blogs

Two recent posts from two notable blogs are worthwhile weekend reads as the debate over federal sentencing reform continues to heat up in Congress.  First, via Heritage, this post by Israel Ortega asks "Can We Get Some Americans Out of Jail?" and includes these sentiments:

An unlikely alliance is forming between conservatives and liberals rightly asking whether it makes sense that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world.... Besides the tremendous cost of housing an inmate in a maximum-security federal prison — pegged at around $33,000 per year — the sheer volume of the U.S. prison population warrants a closer look....

[I]t’s encouraging to see senators from both sides of the aisle pursuing sentencing reform. Introduced by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), the Smarter Sentencing Act is proof that there are legislators from both political parties who are ready to have a fact-based and policy-driven discussion on sentencing reform without the fear of being branded “soft on crime.”

If done right, sentencing reform would not only save American taxpayers millions each year, but it would also free up resources to focus on prevention and rehabilitation — an approach that is working in places like Texas.... In Texas, which incarcerates more people than any other state, lawmakers have adopted alternatives to prison, such as drug courts and improved community supervision programs, that help keep people from reoffending. The result has been a steady decline in the prison population and the closing of three state prisons, even as crime rates go down.

Mississippi’s governor just signed a sentencing reform bill this week that was praised by Texas Governor Rick Perry (R). These are the kinds of innovation we need — and the kinds of programs that truly help people turn their lives around.

But, via Crime and Consequences, this post by Bill Otis explains "Why the Feds Can't Just Copy State Prison Population Reductions" and includes these sentiments:

The increased use of incarceration has accounted for about a quarter of the decline in crime. What that means is that about three quarters of the decline is attributable to other factors (things such as hiring more police and improved and proliferating private security measures). When three quarters of the factors responsible for the decrease in crime are still on-going, crime is very likely to continue to decrease. What reducing the prison population will do, by putting recidivist criminals back on the street, is slow the rate of the decrease. And that is, in fact, what's been happening. As some large states have been marginally lowering their prison populations, crime has continued to decease, but at a slower rate....

To the extent we have more recent data, they come from California, the state laboring under the effects of the Plata decision, ordering it to make substantial cuts to its prison population. Accordingly, and because of its very large size to begin with, California has had a greater reduction in its prison population than any other state. Result: property crime is up, I believe by 7%.

Even if prison reduction programs work for the states, they are not going to work for the feds. The feds prosecute precisely the kind of drug gangs, and drug offenders, who are the most violent, the most entrenched, and the most prone to recidivism. The kind of offender you see coming out of the county courthouse is a choir boy compared to what you see coming out of the federal courthouse.

Persons very familiar with crime and punishment data know that there are some questionable claims and concerns set forth in both these postings. But they should also appreciate that these piece provide two good examples of the nature and tenure of the modern sentencing reform debate.

April 5, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

"Is the Death Penalty Starting to Make a Global Comeback?"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing Slate commentary.  Here are excerpts:

An Indian court today sentenced three men to death for the horrific gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai last year.  They are the first to be sentenced under India’s tough new anti-rape law.

The sentence hammers home something that’s been obvious for some time now: After appearing to be on the verge of abolishing the death penalty entirely, India has now firmly rejoined the ranks of the world’s executioners.  It’s one of a number of countries — including some of the world’s largest democracies — that have recently re-embraced capital punishment.

A 1983 Indian Supreme Court decision allows for capital punishment in only the “rarest of the rare” cases, and from 2004 to 2011 the country didn’t carry out any executions at all. From 1995 to 2012, it carried out only three.  Then in 2012, Ajmal Kasab, the last surviving gunman of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, was hanged in secret in what appeared to be an unusually swift and haphazard execution.  The Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru was hanged under similar circumstances last year.  Seventy-two people in total were sentenced to die in India last year, including four of the men involved in the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi in 2012 — a case that shocked the country and prompted the drafting of laws aimed at speeding up the prosecution of rapists.

India’s not the only country heading in this direction. Amnesty International’s 2013 death penalty report noted that executions were up 15 percent last year — and that’s not even counting China, where the number of executions is a state secret.  Just three countries — Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia — accounted for 80 percent of executions, but to my mind, the most interesting recent trend has been been the countries that, like India, have been bucking the general global movement away from the death penalty.

In 2012 Japan carried out its first executions since 2010. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, four rounds of “secret executions” have taken place.  Nigeria carried out its first executions in seven years last year and Indonesia its first in five years.  Vietnam resumed them after an 18-month pause with the execution of seven people by lethal injection.

It’s true that in terms of number of countries, the world is moving away from the death penalty. According to Amnesty’s numbers, 37 countries had the death penalty in 1994, compared with 22 today.  In Europe and Latin America, the practice has essentially been entirely banished and an increasing number of African countries are reviewing their laws.

On the other hand, with the exception of Brazil, where it’s banned, and Russia, where it’s legal but abolished in practice, the world’s 10 biggest countries are all death penalty states.  With India, Japan, and Indonesia rejoining the U.S., the world’s largest democracies are death penalty countries and the practice has heavy popular support in all of them.

UPDATE: This interesting international article highlights related death penalty developments under the headline "Vietnam is sentencing corrupt bankers to death, by firing squad."

April 5, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

April 4, 2014

If it clearly saved thousands of innocent lives on roadways, would most everyone support medical marijuana reforms?

The question in the title of this post is my sincere inquiry, directed particularly to those most concerned about modern marijuana reform movements, as a follow-up to this extended (data-focused) commentary by Jacob Sollum at Forbes headlined "More Pot, Safer Roads: Marijuana Legalization Could Bring Unexpected Benefits." Here are excerpts (with key research links retained):

The anti-pot group Project SAM claims drug test data show that marijuana legalization in Washington, approved by voters in that state at the end of 2012, already has made the roads more dangerous. The group notes with alarm that the percentage of people arrested for driving under the influence of a drug (DUID) who tested positive for marijuana rose by a third between 2012 and 2013. “Even before the first marijuana store opens in Washington, normalization and acceptance [have] set in,” says Project SAM Chairman Patrick J. Kennedy. “This is a wakeup call for officials and the public about the dangerousness of this drug, especially when driving.”

In truth, these numbers do not tell us anything about the dangerousness of marijuana. They do not even necessarily mean that more people are driving while high. Furthermore, other evidence suggests that legalizing marijuana could make the roads safer, reducing traffic fatalities by encouraging the substitution of marijuana for alcohol....

According to State Toxicologist Fiona Couper, the share of DUID arrestees in Washington whose blood tested positive for THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, rose from 18.6 percent in 2012 to 24.9 percent in 2013.  That’s an increase of more than 33 percent, as Project SAM emphasizes with a scary-looking bar graph. At the same time, the total number of DUID arrests in Washington rose by just 3 percent, about the same as the increases seen in the previous three years, while DUID arrests by state troopers (see table below) fell 16 percent.

These numbers do not suggest that Washington’s highways are awash with dangerously stoned drivers. So why the substantial increase in positive marijuana tests?  Lt. Rob Sharpe, commander of the Washington State Patrol’s Impaired Driving Section, notes that additional officers were trained to recognize drugged drivers in anticipation of marijuana legalization. So even if the number of stoned drivers remained the same, police may have pulled over more of them as a result of that training....

As Columbia University researchers Guohua Li and Joanne E. Brady pointed out a few months ago in the American Journal of Epidemiology, [a recent] increase in marijuana consumption has been accompanied by an increase in the percentage of drivers killed in car crashes who test positive for cannabinol, a marijuana metabolite.

But as with the increase in DUID arrestees who test positive for THC, this trend does not necessarily mean marijuana is causing more crashes.  A test for cannabinol, which is not psychoactive and can be detected in blood for up to a week after use, does not show the driver was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the crash, let alone that he was responsible for it. “Thus,” Li and Brady write, “the prevalence of nonalcohol drugs reported in this study should be interpreted as an indicator of drug use, not necessarily a measurement of drug impairment.”

Another reason to doubt the premise that more pot smoking means more deadly crashes: Total traffic fatalities have fallen as marijuana consumption has risen; there were about 20 percent fewer in 2012 than in 2002.  Perhaps fatalities would have fallen faster if it weren’t for all those new pot smokers.  But there is reason to believe the opposite may be true, that there would have been more fatalities if marijuana consumption had remained level or declined.

While marijuana can impair driving ability, it has a less dramatic impact than alcohol does. A 1993 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for example, concluded: “The impairment [from marijuana] manifests itself mainly in the ability to maintain a lateral position on the road, but its magnitude is not exceptional in comparison with changes produced by many medicinal drugs and alcohol.  Drivers under the influence of marijuana retain insight in their performance and will compensate when they can, for example, by slowing down or increasing effort.  As a consequence, THC’s adverse effects on driving performance appear relatively small.”  Similarly, a 2000 report commissioned by the British government found that “the severe effects of alcohol on the higher cognitive processes of driving are likely to make this more of a hazard, particularly at higher blood alcohol levels.”

Given these differences, it stands to reason that if more pot smoking is accompanied by less drinking, the upshot could be fewer traffic fatalities. Consistent with that hypothesis, a study published last year in the Journal of Law and Economics found that legalization of medical marijuana is associated with an 8-to-11-percent drop in traffic fatalities, beyond what would be expected based on national trends.  Montana State University economist D. Mark Anderson and his colleagues found that the reduction in alcohol-related accidents was especially clear, as you would expect if loosening restrictions on marijuana led to less drinking. They also cite evidence that alcohol consumption declined in states with medical marijuana laws.

Anderson et al. caution that the drop in deadly crashes might be due to differences in the settings where marijuana and alcohol are consumed. If people are more likely to consume marijuana at home, that could mean less driving under the influence.  Hence “the negative relationship between legalization and alcohol-related fatalities does not necessarily imply that driving under the influence of marijuana is safer than driving under the influence of alcohol,” although that is what experiments with both drugs indicate.

Arrest data from Washington are consistent with the idea that marijuana legalization could result in less drunk driving. Last year drunk driving arrests by state troopers fell 11 percent. By comparison, the number of drunk driving arrests fell by 2 percent between 2009 and 2010, stayed about the same between 2010 and 2011, and fell by 6 percent between 2011 and 2012. The drop in drunk driving arrests after marijuana legalization looks unusually large, although it should be interpreted with caution, since the number of arrests is partly a function of enforcement levels, which depend on funding and staffing.

Two authors of the Journal of Law and Economics study, Anderson and University of Colorado at Denver economist Daniel Rees, broadened their analysis in a 2013 article published by the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Anderson and Rees argue that marijuana legalization is apt, on balance, to produce “public health benefits,” mainly because of a reduction in alcohol consumption. Their projection hinges on the premise that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes. If marijuana and alcohol are instead complements, meaning that more pot smoking is accompanied by more drinking, the benefits they predict would not materialize.  Anderson and Rees say “studies based on clearly defined natural experiments generally support the hypothesis that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes.”  But in the same issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, co-director of the RAND Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center, and University of South Carolina criminologist Eric Sevigny conclude that the evidence on this point “remains mixed.”

study published last month by the online journal PLOS One suggests that the substitution of marijuana for alcohol, assuming it happens, could affect crime rates as well as car crashes. Robert G. Morris and three other University of Texas at Dallas criminologists looked at trends in homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and auto theft in the 11 states that legalized marijuana for medical use between 1990 and 2006. While crime fell nationwide during this period, it fell more sharply in the medical marijuana states, even after the researchers adjusted for various other differences between states. Morris and his colleagues conclude that legalization of medical marijuana “may be related to reductions in rates of homicide and assault,” possibly because of a decline in drinking, although they caution that the extra drop in crime could be due to a variable they did not consider.

One needs to be very cautious, of course, drawing any firm conclusions based on any early research about impaired driving, car crashes, and marijuana reform. But let's imagine it does turn out generally true that legalizing medical marijuana helps produce a 10% drop in a jurisdiction's traffic fatalities. If extended nationwide throughout the US, where we have well over 30,000 traffic fatalities each and every year, this would mean we could potentially save more than 3000 innocent lives each year from nationwide medical marijuana reform. (One might contrast this number with debated research and claims made about the number of lives possibly saved by the death penalty: I do not believe I have seen any research from even ardent death penalty supporters to support the assertion that even much more robust use of the death penalty in the US would be likely to save even 1000 innocent lives each year.)

Obviously, many people can and many people surely would question and contest a claim that we could or would potentially save more than 3000 innocent lives each year from nationwide medical marijuana reform. But, for purposes of debate and discussion (and to know just how important additional research in this arena might be to on-going pot reform debates), I sincerely wonder if anyone would still actively oppose medical marijuana reform if (and when?) we continue to see compelling data that such reform might save over 50 innocent lives each and every week throughout the United States.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

April 4, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

"Should T.J. Lane's 3 life sentences get another look from the appellate court?"

TJ laneThe title of this post is the question in the headline of this local editorial discussion of a high-profile school shooter who might be the type of juvenile murderer that even the US Supreme Court would conclude can be given a juvenile LWOP sentence.  Here are a few excerpts:

The lawyer for Chardon High School shooter T.J. Lane wants an appellate court to overturn Lane's three consecutive life sentences for the 2012 shootings in which three students died and three were wounded on the grounds that the sentencing judge didn't explicitly consider Lane's age — 17 at the time of the crime — as a mitigating factor in the sentencing. A recent Ohio Supreme Court ruling in another case said a judge must specifically address the age of a juvenile defendant when sentencing a youth to life without parole. Geauga County prosecutors say the appeal is frivolous because Geauga County Common Pleas Judge David Fuhry was well aware of Lane's age throughout the proceedings and that his age also featured prominently in the many reports on T.J. Lane's psychological state and life going back to kindergarten that Fuhry had before him at sentencing.

Does Lane's lawyer raise a valid point or should the three life sentences stand?  Editorial board members share their thoughts on this case...

Thomas Suddes, editorial writer: The appeal of T.J. Lane's sentencing is a perfect example of why so many Ohioans, like Charles Dickens' Mr. Bumble, think "the law is a ass  — a idiot." First, Lane pleaded guilty to killing three students, and wounding three others, in Chardon High School's cafeteria.  His guilty plea is a fact. There is no question about his guilt, no doubt his guilty plea was voluntary.  Those, too, are facts.  Second, Lane's sentence — three consecutive life terms in prison without parole — was, is, eminently just. Third, unless an Ohioan was on Mars, virtually everyone who knew of the Chardon murders, and just about everybody in Ohio did know about them, also knew that Lane was 17 when he embarked on his homicidal rampage....

The facts of the sentencing that resulted from the Cincinnati case are whatever those facts are.  But no rational bystander can claim that Fuhry was unaware of, or failed to take into account, Lane's age when he murdered.  Everyone charged with a crime is entitled to a vigorous legal defense, but given the facts of the Lane case, and his guilty plea, this appeal represents the privileging of form over substance.  In Lane's case, justice was done. And justice was seen to be done.  And justice requires the dismissal of this appeal.

Kevin O'Brien, deputy editorial page editor, The Plain Dealer:  Age is an arbitrary measure that often comes into play in the law.  People under 21 cannot legally consume alcohol — a rule made based on the supposition that allowing otherwise would be detrimental to social order.  T.J. Lane’s lawyer is making a general argument about 17-year-olds that doesn’t fit the specifics of his client’s case.  Lane knew what he was doing in the school cafeteria, and he certainly was aware that it was wrong.  He knew what he was doing at his sentencing hearing, when he wore his disgustingly boastful T-shirt.  He is a cowardly assassin who, far from showing any remorse, has gone out of his way to compound the emotional hurt to his victims’ loved ones.   He is right where he belongs, and three consecutive life sentences are perfectly appropriate.

Elizabeth Sullivan, opinion director, Northeast Ohio Media Group: Judges should consider a young offender's age when sentencing someone to life in prison without any possibility of parole.  The Ohio Supreme Court is absolutely right about that, and if any judge fails to do so, he or she should be challenged on it.  But it seems the most trivial of technicalities to suggest that Judge David Fuhry in Geauga County didn't consider T.J. Lane's age simply because he didn't explicitly reference it in his sentencing decision.  Lane's age was a factor throughout this case, whether or not the judge spoke to it during sentencing. That's why this appeal is likely going nowhere.  And if the appellate court takes a second look, what then?  Two consecutive life terms instead of three?  All the data before the judge at the time of sentencing pointed to the fact that T.J. Lane, a clearly disturbed and dangerous young man, should be locked up for life.

Christopher Evans, editorial writer, Northeast Ohio Media Group: The cold-blooded executions of three Chardon High School students and the wounding of three others, the lack of remorse and the contempt for the families, the community and the justice system made Lane ageless. He wasn't 17. He was psycho. The smirk, the handwritten "Killer" T-shirt — which mirrored the one he wore when he opened fire in the school cafeteria — and his offensive comments to the packed courthouse all speak to that. Lane earned every minute of those three life sentences for the three lives he took.  But we're better than T.J. Lane.  Reduce his sentence to two life sentences without parole.  I can live with that.

Prior related post:

April 4, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

April 3, 2014

Serial killer hoping SCOTUS will be troubled by execution drug secrecy in Texas

As highlighted in this AP article, a legal challenges based on execution drug secrecy is now before the Supreme Court after a Texas death row defendant has won and then lost on lower courts in his effort to block his execution.  Here are the basics:

Attorneys for a serial killer asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt his execution set for Thursday in Texas as they challenge that state's refusal to release information about where it gets its lethal injection drug.

Lawyers for Tommy Lynn Sells made the plea after a federal appeals court allowed the execution to stay on schedule.  A lower court had stayed the execution Wednesday, ordering Texas to reveal more information about its drug supplier, but the ruling was quickly tossed on appeal.  "It is not in the public interest for the state to be allowed to be deceptive in its efforts to procure lethal injection drugs," Sells' attorneys told the high court.

The appeal was one of two separate issues pending before the justices.  Another before the court since last month asked for the punishment to be stopped to review whether Sells' legal help at his trial was deficient, and whether a court improperly denied him money to hire investigators to conduct a probe about his background.

Sells, who was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing a 13-year-old South Texas girl in 1999, claims to have committed as many as 70 killings across the U.S. The 49-year-old is scheduled to be lethally injected Thursday evening in Huntsville. Sells' attorneys argue that they need to know the name of the company now providing the state with pentobarbital, the drug used during executions, in order to verify the drug's quality and protect Sells from unconstitutional pain and suffering.

But 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Texas prison officials, who argued that information about the drug supplier must be kept secret to protect the company from threats of violence. It also found that the stock of the pentobarbital, a powerful sedative, falls within the acceptable ranges of potency.  The court said that had Texas wanted to use a drug never used before for executions or a completely new drug whose efficiency or science was unknown, "the case might be different."

It's unclear how the Supreme Court would rule. Last month it rejected similar arguments from a Missouri inmate's attorneys who challenged the secrecy surrounding where that state obtained its execution drugs, and the condemned prisoner was put to death....

A batch of pentobarbital that Texas purchased from a compounding pharmacy in suburban Houston expired at the end of March. The pharmacy refused to sell the state any more drugs, citing threats it received after its name was made public. That led Texas to its new, undisclosed suppler.

The court case challenging the state's stance also included 44-year-old Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas, who is scheduled for execution next week.  But the 5th Circuit ruling affected only Sells. Maurie Levin, an attorney for the inmates, said Sells' case would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Levin said the lower court ruling, which had ordered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to give defense attorneys details about the drug supplier and how the drug was tested, "honors the importance of transparency in the execution process."

If Sells' execution is carried out Thursday, it would be the fifth lethal injection this year in Texas, the nation's busiest death-penalty state.

Sells had dubbed himself "Coast to Coast," a nod either to his wandering existence as a carnival worker or to his criminal history. Court documents said he claimed as many as 70 murders in his lifetime in states including Alabama, California, Arizona, Kentucky and Arkansas. "We did confirm 22 (slayings)," retired Texas Ranger John Allen said this week. "I know there's more. I know there's a lot more. Obviously, we won't ever know."

UPDATE: This AP story reports that Sells "was put to death Thursday in Texas after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his lawyers' demand that the state release information about where it gets its lethal injection drug."

April 3, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (43) | TrackBack

Months into state experiment, first death officially linked to marijuana legalization in Colorado

As reported in this Denver Post article, headlined "Denver coroner: Man fell to death after eating marijuana cookies," it appears that at least one fatality can now be directly linked to "legalized" marijuana use and abuse in Colorado.  Here are the basics:

A college student visiting Denver jumped to his death from a hotel balcony after eating marijuana-infused cookies, according to a coroner's report that marks the first time authorities have publicly linked a death to marijuana since legal sales of recreational cannabis began in Colorado.

Levy Thamba, a 19-year-old student at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., died last month at a Holiday Inn in northeast Denver. On Wednesday, the Denver coroner released a report concluding that Thamba's death was caused by "multiple injuries due to a fall from height." The coroner also listed "marijuana intoxication" from cannabis-infused cookies as a significant condition contributing to the death. The report classifies the death as an accident.

A brief summary of the investigation that was included in the autopsy report says Thamba, also known as Levi Thamba Pongi, traveled to Denver with three friends on spring break. On March 11, the report says, Thamba consumed "marijuana cookies" and "soon thereafter exhibited hostile behavior (pulling items off the walls) and spoke erratically."

"The decedent's friends attempted to calm him down and were temporarily successful," the report states. "However, the decedent eventually reportedly jumped out of bed, went outside the hotel room, and jumped over the balcony railing." Thamba and his friends were staying on the hotel's fourth floor, according to the report.

Michelle Weiss-Samaras, a spokeswoman for the coroner's office, said the office often lists alcohol intoxication as a significant contributing factor in a death — for instance, in an alcohol-related car accident. She said the office also has seen cases involving apparent marijuana-impaired driving, but she said she believes this is the first time it has listed marijuana intoxication from an edible product in such a way.

Weiss-Samaras said Thamba had no known physical or mental-health issues, and toxicology tests for other drugs or alcohol came back negative. "We have no history of any other issues until he eats a marijuana cookie and becomes erratic and this happens," she said. "It's the one thing we have that's significant."

According to the autopsy report, Thamba's marijuana concentration in his blood was 7.2 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood. In impaired driving cases, state law sets a standard of 5 nanograms per milliliter at which juries can presume impairment.

In January, Colorado became the first state in the country to allow people 21 and over to legally buy marijuana for any purpose from regulated stores.  Weiss-Samaras said investigators believe a friend of Thamba's purchased the cookies in a recreational marijuana store. "We were told they came here to try it," she said....  It remains unclear how much of the marijuana-infused product Thamba consumed or how long after consuming it that he died.  

Marijuana edibles — which account for 20 to 40 percent of overall sales, industry experts estimate — have been controversial in Colorado, and the legislature will likely take up the issue again this session.  Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said he and Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, plan to introduce a bill as early as this week that would further cap the potency of edibles and prohibit them from being made in forms that might appeal to children.

This story is already getting coverage in national newspapers, and it will now be interesting to see whether and how opponents of marijuana reform might actively use this sad development in support of their arguments against reform efforts.  Notably, at age 19, Levy Thamba was technically underage and thus his recreation marijuana use was not legal.  But that fact itself reinforces the arguments of opponents of marijuana reform that legalization makes it easier and more likely that underage persons will have access and be eager to try marijuana products.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

April 3, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (30) | TrackBack

April 2, 2014

Terrific upcoming NYU Law conference on "Mercy in the Criminal Justice System"

Image001I am very pleased and very excited that on April 15 this year I will be spending all day thinking and talking about something other than my income tax forms.  That is because, as detailed in the program linked at the bottom of this post, I will be spending that day attending and speaking at the Sixth Annual Conference of the NYU Law School's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law.  This year's NYU Center conference is focused on clemency and related topics.

The full official title for the event, which runs from 10am to 4pm at NYU Law is "Mercy in the Criminal Justice System: Clemency and Post-Conviction Strategies," and the keynote speaker is White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.  Here is a brief account of the panels and participants scheduled to surround the keynote:

Panel 1: The Role of Law Schools in Delivering Clemency and Post-Conviction Assistance.

This panel will discuss how law schools are providing critical services to prisoners through clemency clinics and other mechanisms, and will also provide practical training on how to effectively prepare clemency petitions, post-conviction motions and provide other reentry support to prisoners.

Moderator: Prof. Mark Osler, University of St. Thomas Law School.  Panelists: Prof. Anthony Thompson, NYU Law; Prof. J.P. “Sandy” Ogilvy, Columbus School of Law, Catholic University; Harlan Protass, Esq., Clayman & Rosenberg; Prof. Joann M. Sahl, University of Akron Law School.

Panel 2: What We Can Learn About Clemency From the States.

This panel will examine the different ways clemency and pardon petitions are administered in selected states with effective systems.

Moderator: Nancy Hoppock, Executive Director of the CACL. Panelists: Lt. Governor Matthew Denn, State of Delaware; Hon. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., King & Spalding and former Governor of Maryland; Margaret Love, Esq., former U.S. Pardon Attorney; Jorge Montes, Esq., former Chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

Panel 3: The Future of Clemency.

This panel will discuss recent developments in federal clemency and where clemency could and should be headed in the future.

Moderator: Prof. Rachel E. Barkow, NYU Law. Panelists: Amy Baron-Evans, National Federal Defender Sentencing Resource Counsel; Prof. Paul G. Cassell, University of Utah Law School; Prof. Douglas A. Berman, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law; Sam Morison, Esq.; Dafna Linzer, Managing Editor of MSNBC.com.

Persons can register for this great and timely conference at this link.

Download CACL.ClemencyProgram5

April 2, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

"Law Enforcement Lobby Quietly Tries To Kill Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Huffington Post piece.  Here are excerpts:

Several organizations representing state and local law enforcement are quietly trying to kill a bipartisan bill that would roll back tough mandatory sentences for people convicted of federal drug offenses under legislation passed during the height of America’s drug war three decades ago.

These groups include the National Sheriffs' Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, the National Association of Police Organizations and the Major County Sheriffs' Association, The Huffington Post has learned.

They hope to weaken congressional support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reform the nation's mandatory minimum statutes, authorizing federal judges to sentence drug defendants to less time behind bars than what current law requires. The legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, when, in a rare instance of bipartisan collaboration these days, Republicans Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona joined the committee’s Democrats in supporting the measure. Its House counterpart is still sitting in committee....

Major drug dealers “need to be locked up somewhere,” [Bob] Bushman [president of the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, one of the groups fighting the bill] told HuffPost. “Some of these folks have worked hard to get to prison."...

A number of law enforcement agencies have already joined advocacy groups like the ACLU in endorsing the bill. They include the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the International Union of Police Associations, the American Correctional Association, the International Community Corrections Association and the American Probation and Parole Association. Attorney General Eric Holder backs the measure as well.

Bushman and his allies, however, aren’t the first law enforcement advocates to speak out against the bill. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys have also come out against federal sentencing reform in recent months. Unlike Bushman’s cohorts, both of these groups represent officials who work for the federal government, and both have stated their positions in public.

The National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, the National Sheriffs' Association and the other state and local groups have been working behind the scenes. Several of them had previously lined up against Debo Adegbile, the president's nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and helped block his confirmation last month.

Lobbyists with the National Association of Police Organizations and other groups met with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Walsh (D-Mont.) to discuss their opposition to the reform package. A spokeswoman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police confirmed that the organization was lobbying against changes on Capitol Hill, but said it wasn't prepared to speak publicly on the topic.

Fred Wilson, an official with the National Sheriffs' Association, said his group isn't formally opposed to the legislation in principle but believes the bill needs more study -- even though it has already passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It may be [late], but our legislative folks seem to think not all is lost," Wilson said.

A letter from Bushman and his group to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- just one of several letters written by the Smarter Sentencing Act opponents that Bushman said are floating around Capitol Hill -- argues that federal policy should not be driven by "second-order effects of America’s drug problem" like incarceration costs....

Bushman said it was "a little early" to talk about whether law enforcement groups could be won over with a compromise bill this time, but said members of Congress first need to look at the "broader implications" of rolling back mandatory minimums. Democratic congressional aides acknowledged that they have been speaking with a number of law enforcement groups about the bill and said they hoped some of the concerns raised would be addressed, but likewise noted it was still relatively early in the legislative process.

April 2, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

"Two church leaders urge Senate to pass Smarter Sentencing Act"

The title of this post is the headline of this article from what appears to be a prominent Catholic newspaper. Here are excerpts:

Two Catholic leaders called on the U.S. Senate to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reform rigid sentencing policies for certain nonviolent drug offenders. Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said in a March 27 letter to senators that tough minimum sentences "are costly, ineffective and can be detrimental to the good of persons, families and communities." They called the bill a "modest first step in reforming our nation's broken sentencing policies."

The bill would cut minimum existing sentences by half and allow judges to use discretion when imposing jail terms against lower-level offenders. The legislation also would permit crack cocaine offenders to seek lighter sentences if they were jailed under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The bill's supporters tout it as a necessary first step to reduce overcrowding in prisons and begin whittling down the massive cost of incarceration.

Despite supporting the bill, Archbishop Wenski and Father Snyder questioned three new categories of mandatory sentencing minimums that were added to the original bill, saying they would not ease prison overcrowding or reduce costs. The new categories cover sexual assault, domestic violence and arms trading....

Noting that annual incarceration costs for state and federal governments total about $80 billion annually, the clergymen wrote that it is time for the government to support programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, education and substance abuse treatment and as well as probation, parole and reintegration into society. "Our Catholic tradition supports the community's right to establish and enforce laws that protect people and advance the common good. But our faith teaches us that both victims and offenders have a God-given dignity that calls for justice and restoration, not vengeance," the letter said. 

The full letter referenced in this article is available at this link, and here is the closing paragraph:

Though imperfect, the Smarter Sentencing Act will help begin a long, overdue reform of our nation’s ineffective and costly sentencing practices.  Pope Francis recently said, “God is in everyone’s life.  Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life.”  We join the pope by advocating for reforms to our nation’s sentencing policies that will lead to healing and restoration, rather than simply punishment.

Though I am not sure this would be an entirely fair and accurate statement, I love that this last paragraph allows me to reasonably assert that wise religious leaders say "Pope Francis supports the Smarter Sentencing Act."  Indeed, maybe based on this letter I can even consider claiming that God supports the SSA (and, in so doing, provocativey and humorously speculate aloud about who is really behind the forces opposing the SSA).

April 2, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Is there any likely sentencing or (private) prison reform aspect to big SCOTUS political speech ruling?

The big SCOTUS news this morning is the split 5-4 First Amendment ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC (available here). This press report on the ruling from the Los Angeles Times provides the basics: 

The Supreme Court on Wednesday freed wealthy donors to give more money directly to congressional candidates, extending its controversial 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the door for unlimited independent spending on political issues.

In a 5-4 decision, the court’s conservative majority struck down Watergate-era aggregate limits that barred political donors from giving more than $123,000 a year in total to candidates running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate. The court said this limit violated the free-speech rights of the donors, and it was not needed to prevent “corruption” of the political process. The justices noted that donors mush still abide by rules that prevent them from giving more than $2,600 per election per candidate.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., speaking for the court, said the 1st Amendment protects a citizen’s free-speech right to give to candidates. “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the 1st Amendment protects,” he said. If it protects “flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, speaking for the four dissenters, said the court had opened a huge legal loophole that threatens the integrity of elections. “Taken together with Citizens United, today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws,” he said.

The question in the title of this post highlights that I am always a blogging criminal justice hammer seeing every important SCOTUS ruling as a possible sentencing nail. Without even reading the full opinion, I wonder if this ruling might end up helping (1) some white-collar defendants and their wealthy friends better support federal legislators and candidates who advocate sentencing reform in arenas that impact these kinds of defendants, and/or (2) private prison companies and their executives support federal legislators and candidates who advocate for continued or expanded reliance on private prisons.

As usual, I am sure I am stretching a bit to view a non-sentencing story as having significant potential sentencing echoes. But maybe readers agree that there could be something to these early post-McCutcheon speculations.

April 2, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

April 1, 2014

Forecasting the uncertain present and future of federal legislative sentencing reform

Writing for CQ Weekly (which calls itself the "definitive source for news about Congress") John Gramlich has this fascinating and lengthy new article about the state of federal sentencing reform efforts. The piece is headlined "The Prison Debate, Freshly Unlocked," and here are excerpts from a piece that merits a full read:

A bipartisan Senate coalition intent on shrinking the swollen federal prison population will see its toughest test yet in the weeks ahead. Party leaders face the delicate task of shepherding legislation through a politically charged chamber that could ease punishment for tens of thousands of felons — in an election year, no less.

The political stakes, particularly for Democrats, are substantial.  Control of the Senate is up for grabs in November and if Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada presses forward with a debate over crime and punishment, he could force members of his own caucus to cast difficult votes on a subject that has haunted the party in the past.  Many vulnerable Democrats want to focus on jobs rather than softening criminal penalties.

Despite the risks, it’s clear that Congress is closer than it has been in decades to slowing the growth of the federal prison population, which has ballooned to about 216,000 today from 25,000 in 1980.  Overhaul supporters have covered their bases, building consensus and deliberately pushing legislation through the committee process. But floor consideration will pressure any cracks in the coalition, given lingering reservations from influential lawmakers in both parties and opposition from prosecutors, which could stoke public fears about crime.

Reid has two bills on his slate, both of which would cut criminal penalties for a broad cross-section of federal offenses.  One would slash mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenders by as much as 60 percent and give judges more leeway to impose lighter penalties than those set out in statute.  It also would allow crack cocaine users and dealers who were sentenced under a system that Congress abolished in 2010 to seek shorter sentences retroactively.

The other measure would allow as many as 34,000 currently incarcerated inmates — more than 15 percent of the federal correctional population — to leave prison early, provided they successfully complete rehabilitation programs first.

Both bills have support from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, further undermining the decades-old caricature of party orthodoxy on criminal justice: that Republicans are “tough on crime” while Democrats are “soft.”...

Predicting the outcome of an election year Senate debate about criminal justice is not easy. Reid is still weighing whether to bring the legislation up in a year in which his party is at risk of losing control of the Senate for the first time since 2007.

And even if legislation passes the Senate, finding a path through the House is more difficult.  The House Judiciary Committee has set up a task force to examine sentencing and prison population issues.  But House leadership has, so far, shown no interest in taking up companion bills to the Senate measures. House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said his panel “is taking a comprehensive look at the prison reform issue, and plans to continue its review over the next several months.”...

Lobbying from law enforcement organizations could still prove pivotal in this debate, particularly if it focuses on the specter of increased crime.  The sentencing bill sponsored by Durbin and Lee has sparked notable opposition from the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, a prosecutors’ group that took the rare step of publicly breaking with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — their boss — to denounce the legislation and warn that it could endanger public safety....

Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police ... has its own concerns about any proposals that might reduce time behind bars.  The group is still evaluating both bills.  “The argument that we hear most often for reducing the prison population is cost,” James Pasco, the executive director of the group’s legislative advocacy center, says.  “Well, you know, the fact of the matter is if somebody commits a crime serious enough for lengthy incarceration, it’s at variance with common sense to suggest that’s not a good penalty just because it costs too much.”

“We have had conversations with the administration and we’ve had conversations with both sides in Judiciary, and they are aware of our apprehensions [about the bills],” Pasco added. “But the game really begins now.”

Bipartisan opposition from a handful of holdouts could make for speed bumps on the floor, if not outright problems.  California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, a senior member of the Judiciary panel, warned that the early-release bill could endanger public safety because “we do not know the facts of any of the 34,000 inmates estimated to be affected by this bill.”

Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, also withheld his support for the early-release bill by voting “present” in committee. Leahy expressed concerns that the measure, which would let lower-risk inmates earn credits allowing them to transfer from prison to halfway houses and other forms of supervision, could worsen “racial and socioeconomic disparities in our prison system” and place an unfunded mandate on the Bureau of Prisons by requiring the agency to do widespread risk assessments on the inmates it incarcerates.

Holder has endorsed the sentencing measure, but stopped short of endorsing the early-release proposal, telling the U.S. Sentencing Commission in March that it needs changes to make it “as good as it might be.”

The sentencing bill also faces likely amendments.  In an interview with CQ Roll Call, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said he and fellow Judiciary member Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, are working on an amendment that would scale back some of the bill’s sentencing reductions.

Republicans, for their part, are divided about whether they want both measures to reach the floor at all.  Tea-party-backed members such as Lee and Paul support both bills, but Cornyn and the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, represent the party’s establishment wing and support only the early-release measure.  “If Sen. Reid would take up the prison reform legislation, I think then it has a good chance of passing. It’s got good, strong bipartisan support,” Cornyn, the Senate minority whip, says. “If they’re going to try to pair it with the sentencing reform, I think that’s a problem.”

In the Senate, where opposition from even a single member can stop legislation dead, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions is still evaluating his options to oppose both bills. Sessions, another member of the Judiciary Committee and a former federal prosecutor who helped broker a new law in 2010 to reduce sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses, voted against both of the new proposals in committee.

“One of the reasons people want to reduce sentences is because the crime rate is down,” Sessions said. “They think that just happened. But a fundamental reason is we enhanced enforcement, we enhanced the likelihood that you’d be apprehended and actually convicted, and we enhanced the penalties.  I believe the changes in the law that they have proposed are larger and more impactful than the sponsors fully realize.”

Though I sincerely hope I am very wrong, I take away one fundamental message from this story (aided, in part, by reading between the lines): the real chance of passage of any significant federal sentencing or prison reform legislation this year seems slim, at best.

April 1, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Reviewing the state of the death penalty in the Buckeye State

The Attorney General of Ohio has a statutory obligation to report on the state's administration of capital punishment each year, and this local article highlights parts of the latest version of the AG's Capital Crimes Report (which can be accessed in full here):

Ohio continues to add more people to Death Row — four last year — even though the lethal injection process is mired in legal controversy.

The 2013 Capital Crimes Report, issued today by Attorney General Mike DeWine, says 12 executions are scheduled in the next two years, with four more pending the setting of death dates....

Ohio has carried out 53 executions since 1999, including three last year, the same as in 2012.  The annual status report on capital punishment in Ohio, which covers calendar year 2013, does not mention the problems during the Jan. 16, 2014, execution of Dennis McGuire when he gasped, choked and struggled for more than 10 minutes before succumbing to a two-drug combination never before used in a U.S. execution....   The next scheduled execution is Arthur Tyler of Cuyahoga County on May 28.

DeWine’s report notes that 316 people have been sentenced to death in Ohio since 1981 when capital punishment was restored after being overturned as being unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The report cites 18 gubernatorial commutations of death sentences: four by Kasich, five by Gov. Ted Strickland, one by Gov. Bob Taft, and eight by Gov. Richard F. Celeste.

For the first time this year, a group opposed to the death penalty issued its own report in response to the official state document. Ohioans to Stop Executions concludes, “While Ohio's overall use of the death penalty is slowing, it has become clearer than ever before that the race of the victim and location of the crime are the most accurate predictors of death sentences in the Buckeye State.”  The group said 40% of death sentence originate in Cuyahoga County. 

Ohio prosecutors filed 21 capital murder indictments last year, a 28 percent drop from 2012, as life without the possibility of parole sentences became more prevalent.

I do not believe the report from the group Ohioans to Stop Executions is available yet, but I assume it will be posted on OTSE's website before too long.

April 1, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

"Alleyne on the Ground: Factfinding that Limits Eligibility for Probation or Parole Release"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Nancy King and Brynn Applebaum now available via SSRN. The piece contends that the Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment ruling in Alleyne v. United States last Term renders a number of state sentencing systems constitutionally suspect, and here is the abstract:

This article addresses the impact of Alleyne v. United States on statutes that restrict an offender’s eligibility for release on parole or probation. Alleyne is the latest of several Supreme Court decisions applying the rule announced in the Court’s 2000 ruling, Apprendi v. New Jersey. To apply Alleyne, courts must for the first time determine what constitutes a minimum sentence and when that minimum is mandatory. These questions have proven particularly challenging in states that authorize indeterminate sentences, when statutes that delay the timing of eligibility for release are keyed to judicial findings at sentencing. The same questions also arise, in both determinate and indeterminate sentencing jurisdictions, under statutes that limit the option of imposing either probation or a suspended sentence upon judicial fact finding.

In this Article, we argue that Alleyne invalidates such statutes. We provide analyses that litigants and judges might find useful as these Alleyne challenges make their way through the courts, and offer a menu of options for state lawmakers who would prefer to amend their sentencing law proactively in order to minimize disruption of their criminal justice systems.

April 1, 2014 in Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

"Top 50 Criminal Law Blogs"

The title of this post is the heading of this posting at the website "Criminal Justice Degree Schools." I am not exactly sure if the site's rankings are definitive, but here is how it introduces the list:

We have organized the best criminal law blogs on the Internet and ordered them based on popularity according to third party sources.* These blogs provide excellent commentary and insights into criminal law from the point of view of prosecutors, defense lawyers, and professors. You can also follow these blog authors on Twitter to stay up to date on the latest news in criminal law.

*The order of this list of top criminal law blogs was determined based on website metrics including Page Authority, number of websites linking to the blog, MozRank, Google PageRank, and Domain Rank. The data is taken from third party sources including Opensiteexplorer.org, Google, and Ahrefs.com.

If you click through to the list, you will quickly see why I am partial to the rankings. More importantly, I find this whole list a very valuable resource for those interested in keeping up with criminal justice blogging.

April 1, 2014 in On blogging | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

"Sex offender housing restrictions do more harm than good"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable Concord Monitor editorial.  Here are excerpts:

Of all the constituents that politicians want to help out, sex offenders probably rank at the very bottom of the list.  But the New Hampshire Senate should summon the courage to do just that. By helping sex offenders, as strange as it sounds, the Senate will end up making life safer for everyone else.

At issue is legislation that would ban cities and towns from placing broad restrictions on where sex offenders may live.  Several communities have attempted such restrictions, and lower-court judges have already struck down two as unconstitutional: one in Franklin and one in Dover.  In both cities, local officials wanted to keep convicted sex offenders from living too close to places where children regularly gather: schools, day care centers and playgrounds.  Several other communities still have such ordinances on the books, among them Tilton, Sanbornton, Northfield and Boscawen.

The impulse to keep sex offenders away from kids via zoning is completely understandable.  But there is strong reason to resist. And there is strong reason to set such policy at the state level, rather than leaving it to individual communities.

A growing body of evidence — gathered not just by civil liberties lawyers, but from law enforcement officers, public officials and child advocacy groups — suggests that residency restrictions are placebo pills at best and counterproductive at worst.  Such ordinances give communities a false sense of security while driving sex offenders underground or into rural areas where they can’t access the services that give them the best chance at rehabilitation....

An Iowa study, for instance, showed that sexual-abuse convictions had remained steady since statewide residency restrictions went into effect five years earlier but that the number of sex offenders failing to register their addresses with local police departments, as the law required, had more than doubled.

When a sex offender has served his sentence, it is in everyone’s interest that he succeed on the outside. Passing this bill would help.

April 1, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (34) | TrackBack

March 31, 2014

New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association endorses marijuana legalization

A helpful reader alerted me to this notable article from the Asbury Park Press, headlined "It's high time to legalize pot, N.J. prosecutors say." Here is how it starts:

Proponents of legalizing marijuana in New Jersey received a boost from an unlikely source — the very people who prosecute pot users. The New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association in Hamilton, N.J., has come out in favor of legalizing possession of marijuana. The support of the prosecutors association comes as two bills were introduced this month in the New Jersey State Legislature and as polls show a majority of Americans favor legalization.

One of the bills, introduced March 10, calls for a referendum asking voters to legalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. Assemblymen Reed Gusciora, a Democrat from Trenton, N.J., who also is municipal prosecutor in Lawrence Township, N.J., and Michael Patrick Carroll, a Republican from Morris Township, N.J., are its sponsors.

"If it were up to me, I would make all quantities legal," Carroll said. "Why should the government be in the business of criminalizing marijuana? All it does is create administrative Al Capones and puts the power in the hands of gangsters." From the government's perspective, Carroll said legalizing marijuana would be a huge benefit. Government could save money by hiring fewer police and parole officers. Carroll also noted that getting an arrest record has ruined many people's careers.

On March 24, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat from Linden, N.J., who also is municipal prosecutor there, introduced another bill. Scutari's bill does not call for a referendum. Instead it would legalize the cultivation, sale and possession of marijuana; set up an agency to oversee the industry; and then funnel the sales tax revenue to the state Transportation Trust Fund, drug prevention and enforcement efforts and women's health programs....

The board of trustees of the municipal prosecutors association voted Feb. 21 to endorse legalization, said its president, Jon-Henry Barr, who is municipal prosecutor in Kenilworth and Clark Township, N.J. "The board was not unanimous, but a clear majority of municipal prosecutors favor the idea," Barr said.

Of the 10 members of the board of trustees, seven were in favor of legalization, Barr said. Two members were opposed to legalization, and one member of the board abstained from voting, Barr said. He said the association is made up of 150 prosecutors. Among the reasons the municipal prosecutors favor legalization is the damage a prosecution for marijuana possession has on a person's reputation and the growing acceptance among Americans that marijuana should not be criminalized, Barr said....

"The time has come to understand that this particular offense makes about as much sense as prohibition of alcohol did," Barr said. "It is time to stop the insanity." Barr said prosecutors are spending time prosecuting marijuana cases when they could be attacking more pressing problems.

Some municipal prosecutors were unaware of the association's position on marijuana, and not all agree with it. "I was not at the meeting," Municipal Prosecutor Bonnie Peterson said. She is prosecutor in Seaside Park, Ship Bottom and Harvey Cedars, three communities on the Jersey Shore. "They sent an e-mail. I was surprised. ... I would find it very hard to believe the municipal prosecutors association would come out with a blanket endorsement of legalization of marijuana."... Steve Rubin, prosecutor in Long Branch and West Long Branch, N.J., was one of the municipal prosecutors association's board of trustees who voted to endorse legalization. Still, he said he has some concerns, especially during a transition to legalization. He said he fears some marijuana trade would remain in the hands of criminals. "There still are people who are bookmakers," Rubin said. "We thought they would have been eliminated with OTB (off-track betting) and the lottery."

But Rubin said legalization would eliminate many of the court cases he has to present. "I would no longer have to prosecute a bunch of 18-year-olds who went to a frat party," Rubin said.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

March 31, 2014 in Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Is it time for AARP to get active in policy debates over sentencing and prison reforms?

Coa-main2The (provocative) question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy article from a local Pennsylvaia paper under the headline, "Older criminals present challenges for prisons, courts; Our population is getting grayer everywhere, including behind bars." I have seen and highlighted a number of these article in the past, and often they appear in a series of articles about state prison policies and reform. But this lengthy article is within a series of articles called "Coming of Age" addressing a range of issues facing a greying baby-boom population.

It is surely a sign of the modern mass incarceration times that a series about growing old includes a lengthy article about growing old in prison. And here are excerpts from the piece:

Older prison inmates are more likely to have chronic illnesses and mental conditions that require special treatment, and moving them through the court system can be a complicated balancing act on the scales of justice.

At the Bucks County Correctional Facility in Doylestown Township, 7.5 percent of the population — about 89 prisoners — are 65 and older.  There is no special cell block for the elderly, although some prisoners who are especially frail may be placed in protective custody, said William Plantier, Bucks County’s director of corrections....

Most of Pennsylvania’s state correctional institutions house elderly inmates. All have wheelchair-accessible cells and showers that can accommodate people with disabilities. Inmates with medical conditions that require elaborate care are sent to SCI Laurel Highlands, a minimum security prison located about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Built on the site of a former state hospital, Laurel Highlands is set up like a medical facility. Inmates receive treatments like kidney dialysis and chemotherapy, and staff members have been trained to treat chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Laurel Highlands has 15 dialysis chairs. Before the facility opened in 1966, inmates had to be transported to outside clinics for treatment. “We’re saving a ton of money by doing it in-house,” said Betsy Nightingale, assistant superintendent at Laurel Highlands. “It’s also much better for security purposes, because the inmates do not have to travel.”

Inmates in Laurel Highlands follow a normal prison schedule; there are regular times when prisoners are counted and meals follow a schedule. Frail inmates who cannot move about the facility easily have activities brought to them. “There’s bingo and a current events program,” Nightingale said.

About 120 inmates reside in Laurel Highland’s skilled care unit. That part of the prison has nurses on staff 24/7. Prisoners who have Alzheimer’s and other incapacitating illnesses take up most of the rooms. While the majority of the 1,571 beds at Laurel Highlands are filled with older inmates, younger people with chronic illnesses may also be sent there. Sometimes, they are nursed back to health and transferred to another prison.

Currently, about 5,365 of Pennsylvania’s 51,512 state-sentenced prisoners are over age 55. That’s about 10.42 percent of all prisoners. In 2000, the percentage was 4.82, about 1,775 out of 36,802 inmates.

There are 1,249 prisoners over age 65 — about 2.49 percent of the prison population. Nationwide, the number of prisoners age 55 and older has risen sharply over the past decade, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Charitable Trust, a nonpartisan research center. In 1999, there were 43,300 prisoners age 55 and up. By 2011, that number had blossomed to 121,800.

The health care costs for inmates age 55 and older with a chronic illness is, on average, two to three times that of the cost to house and care for other inmates, according to the study. In Pennsylvania, the ratio of older to younger inmates fluctuates, as prisoners complete their sentences and are released, said Susan Bensinger, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Corrections. “Not everyone who is older and goes to prison, even to Laurel Highlands, goes there to die, which is a common assumption,” she said.

But the reality is, people do die behind bars. To address this issue, the department has created an end-of-life care initiative, in which an inmate volunteer is paired with another prisoner who is terminally ill. The two inmates spend several hours a day together, so the dying prisoner spends less time alone and is more comfortable. The program, which isn’t hospice care, can be an emotional experience for the volunteers, Bensinger said. “It’s a very different thing to watch another human being die,” she said. “Some of them are probably seeing themselves in 10 years. The volunteers are very compassionate.”

In the prison system, 50 is considered elderly. That’s because inmates often enter the facilities with serious health problems. “Many inmates come to us never having received dental care or regular health care. Most of them also have drug and alcohol dependence, which ages a body much more rapidly,” Bensinger said.

March 31, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Controversy long after du Pont heir got probation as punishment for raping his small daughter

As detailed in this lengthy local article from Delaware, headlined "Heir's sentence raises questions in child rape case," a high-profile child rape case from years ago is now generating new controversy because the low sentence imposed on the rapist just became public.  Here are the details: 

A judge who sentenced a wealthy du Pont heir to probation for raping his 3-year-old daughter noted in her order that he "will not fare well" in prison and needed treatment instead of time behind bars, court records show.  

Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden's sentencing order for Robert H. Richards IV suggested that she considered unique circumstances when deciding his punishment for fourth-degree rape.  Her observation that prison life would adversely affect Richards was a rare and puzzling rationale, several criminal justice authorities in Delaware said. Some also said her view that treatment was a better idea than prison is a justification typically used when sentencing drug addicts, not child rapists.

Richards' 2009 rape case became public this month after attorneys for his ex-wife, Tracy, filed a lawsuit seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the abuse of his daughter. The fact that Jurden expressed concern that prison wasn't right for Richards came as a surprise to defense lawyers and prosecutors who consider her a tough sentencing judge. Several noted that prison officials can put inmates in protective custody if they are worried about their safety, noting that child abusers are sometimes targeted by other inmates.

"It's an extremely rare circumstance that prison serves the inmate well," said Delaware Public Defender Brendan J. O'Neill, whose office represents defendants who cannot afford a lawyer. "Prison is to punish, to segregate the offender from society, and the notion that prison serves people well hasn't proven to be true in most circumstances." O'Neill said he and his deputies have often argued that a defendant was too ill or frail for prison, but he has never seen a judge cite it as a "reason not to send someone to jail."...

O'Neill said the way the Richards case was handled might cause the public to be skeptical about "how a person with great wealth may be treated by the system."  Richards, who is unemployed and supported by a trust fund, owns a 5,800-square-foot mansion in Greenville, Del., he bought for $1.8 million in 2005.  He also lists a home in the exclusive North Shores neighborhood near Rehoboth Beach, according to the state's sex abuse registry. His great-grandfather is du Pont family patriarch Irenee du Pont, and his father is Robert H. Richards III, a retired partner in the Richards Layton & Finger law firm....

The lawsuit filed by Richards' ex-wife accuses him of admitting to sexually abusing his infant son between 2005 and 2007, the same period when he abused his daughter starting when she was 3.  Police said they investigated allegations involving the boy in 2010 after his mother filed a complaint, but said they did not have sufficient evidence to justify charges. Investigators will take another look at the allegations included in the lawsuit, which are based on reports by probation officers.

State Attorney General Beau Biden's office had initially indicted Richards on two counts of second-degree rape of a child -- Class B violent felonies that carry a mandatory 10-year prison term for each count.  According to the arrest warrant filed by a New Castle County Police Detective JoAnna Burton in December 2007, the girl, then 5, told her grandmother, Donna Burg, that Richards sexually abused her.

Burg said the child reported that her father told her it was "our little secret" but said she didn't want "my daddy touching me anymore." Tracy Richards, who confronted her then-husband, told police he admitted abusing his daughter but said "it was an accident and he would never do it again," the warrant said.

Richards was free on $60,000 secured bail while awaiting trial on the charges that could have put him behind bars for years.  But in June 2008, just days before a scheduled trial, prosecutor Renee Hrivnak offered Richards a plea to a single count of fourth-degree rape, which carries no mandatory time, and he accepted, admitting in court that he abused his child.

"It was more than reasonable, an enlightened plea offer," Richards attorney Eugene J. Maurer Jr. said.  Fourth-degree rape is a Class C violent felony that by law can bring up to 15 years in prison, though guidelines suggest zero to 2 1/2 years in prison.

At Richards' February 2009 sentencing, Hrivnak recommended probation, Biden's chief deputy Ian R. McConnel said, adding that in retrospect he wished she would have sought prison time.  Hrivnak would not comment.... McConnel would not discuss the rationale behind the Richards' plea deal and Hrivnak's recommendation of probation for the fourth-degree rape conviction.

While judges have the latitude to sentence defendants within legal parameters, they are urged to follow more lenient guidelines established by the Delaware Sentencing Accountability Commission, a panel of judges and other top officials in the criminal justice system. The panel has a policy that prison should be reserved for violent offenders, including rapists.

Jurden gave Richards, who had no previous criminal record, an eight-year prison term, but suspended all the prison time for probation. "Defendant will not fare well in Level 5 setting," said the final line of her sentencing order. In Delaware's correctional system, Level 5 is prison....

Defense lawyer Joseph A. Hurley said it makes sense to him that the judge would be concerned about Richards' time in prison. "Sure, they have protective custody, but that is solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. We're not a third-world society," Hurley said. "Sex offenders are the lowest of the low in prison," Hurley said. "He's a rich, white boy who is a wuss and a child perv. The prison can't protect them, and Jan Jurden knows that reality. She is right on."

Though lots of reactions to this story are possible, I cannot help but highlight that a story which might seem like an example of a sentencing judge being surprisingly lenient proves to really be a story of prosecutors being surprisingly lenient through plea bargaining and sentencing recommendations. Without a lot more information about the evidence in the case, I am disinclined to robustly criticize either the prosecutors or the judge for how this du Pont heir was treated. But I am inclined to encourage everyone to appreciate how this story reveals yet again how prosecutorial charging, bargaining and sentencing decisions are never subject to transparency or formal review, while judicial sentencing decisions have to be made in open court, on the record, and can in some cases be appealed.

March 31, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

March 30, 2014

As heroin concerns grow, so do proposals to increase sentences

Everyone who follows sentencing reform developments knows that it is common for legislative proposals calling for longer prison terms to follow reports of a new or increased crime problem.  The biggest crime problem being discussed these days seems to be heroin use and abuse, and here are two stories from Louisiana and Ohio reporting on proposals to increase drug sentences:

The sentencing reform debate developing around heroin in Louisiana is especially interesting, and here are excerpt from the article linked above:

Heroin-related deaths soared last year from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, and the drug has shown no signs of loosening its grip as the epidemic spills into more and more parishes. On the verge of panic, authorities are warning of a public health crisis that demands new methods of deterrence. “When we’re getting to people, they’re dead,” said Col. Mike Edmonson, the State Police superintendent. “When we’re getting to people, the needle is still hanging out of their skin.”

Against this backdrop, law enforcement officials are supporting legislation to drastically increase prison time for heroin dealers and users, including a bill backed by the influential Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association that would impose a mandatory minimum of two years behind bars — without parole — for anyone caught possessing even a small amount of heroin. House Bill 332 sailed through the House Criminal Justice Committee last week and is attracting bipartisan support, even among lawmakers otherwise skeptical of the “tough-on-crime” policies that have been blamed for Louisiana’s nation-leading incarceration rate.

“I think everybody understands the danger of heroin,” said Rep. Joseph Lopinto, R-Metairie, the committee’s chairman and the author of the bill. “I don’t want to put them away for the rest of their lives, but from the other standpoint, I want to make it enough of a deterrent that when they do get out of prison they say, ‘I’m staying away from that stuff.’ That’s the purpose.”

The proposal, which also would double the mandatory minimum sentence for heroin distribution from five to 10 years, stands in sharp contrast to a package of other legislative measures that aim to reduce the state’s teeming prison population, in part by shortening jail time for nonviolent offenders. And it comes at a time of growing recognition among conservatives and liberals alike that mandatory minimums for drug offenses have strained state coffers while doing little, if anything, to curb crime.

“Louisiana already has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and part of the reason for that is their history with mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses,” said Lauren Galik, a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, who has studied the state’s sentencing laws. “It clearly hasn’t served as a deterrent effect if people are still using drugs.” 

March 30, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack