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September 27, 2014

Arizona poised to take second (costly) run at death sentence for Jodi Arias

As reported in this AP article, headlined "Life or Death? Arias Set for Sentencing Retrial," prosecutors in Arizona are about to take another run at convincing a jury that murderer Jodi Arias should be condemned to die for her crime.  Here are the basics:

Jodi Arias' guilt has been determined. The only thing that remains is whether she dies for killing her ex-boyfriend. More than six years after his death, and more than a year after being convicted of murder, a second penalty phase to determine her punishment gets underway Monday with jury selection.

Arias acknowledged that she killed Travis Alexander in 2008 at his suburban Phoenix home but claimed it was self-defense.  He suffered nearly 30 knife wounds, had his throat slit and was shot in the head. Prosecutors argued it was premeditated murder carried out in a jealous rage when Alexander wanted to end their affair.

The 34-year-old former waitress was found guilty last year, but jurors couldn't agree on a sentence.  While Arias' murder conviction stands, prosecutors are putting on the second penalty phase with a new jury in another effort to secure the death penalty.

If the new jury fails to reach a unanimous decision, the judge will then sentence Arias to spend the rest of her life behind bars or to be eligible for release after 25 years. At least 300 prospective jurors will be called in the effort to seat an impartial panel, not an easy task in the case that has attracted so much attention....

One key difference in the second penalty phase is that there will be no live television coverage.  Judge Sherry Stephens ruled that video cameras can record the proceedings, but nothing can be broadcast until after the verdict.  Arias' five-month trial began in January 2013 and was broadcast live, providing endless cable TV and tabloid fodder, including a recorded phone sex call between Arias and the victim, nude photos, bloody crime-scene pictures and a defendant who described her life story in intimate detail over 18 days on the witness stand.

Arias' attorneys claimed the televised spectacle led to threats against one of her lawyers and defense witnesses who opted not to testify.  Citing Arias' right to a fair trial, Stephens is erring on the side of caution this time around.

The retrial is expected to last until mid-December.

In this prior post, it was reported way back in January that "Jodi Arias' legal bills have topped $2 million."   If this new penalty trial really extends a coupld of months, I suspect the tab for Arizona taxpayers will surely be nearly another million, and the imposition of a death sentence would also ensure many years of expensive appeals.  Especially given the relatively low odds that Arias will actually ever be executed, I cannot help but wonder if all these Arizona taxpayer millions might have been better spent on a more productive cause.

Some prior posts on the Arias case:

September 27, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Teacher resentenced to 10 years in notorious Montana rape case

As reported in this AP piece, a "Montana teacher was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison in a notorious student rape case that dragged on for years and led to the censure of a judge who partially blamed the victim." Here is more about the latest (and last?) development in a long-run controversy:

Stacey Dean Rambold, 55, was resentenced by a new judge exactly a year after he completed an initial one-month prison term for the crime. Rambold appeared to grimace as Friday’s sentence was read by Judge Randal Spaulding. He then was handcuffed and led away by deputies, pausing briefly to exchange words with family as he exited the courtroom.

Rambold pleaded guilty last year to a single count of sexual intercourse without consent in the 2007 rape of 14-year-old Cherice Moralez, a freshman in his Billings Senior High School business class. She committed suicide in 2010.

Rambold’s attorney had argued for a two-year sentence, pointing out that the defendant had no prior criminal record, underwent sex offender treatment and was considered by the state as a low risk to reoffend.

Spaulding indicated that the nature of the crime outweighed those factors. “I considered your abuse and exploitation of your position of trust as a teacher, and specifically Cherice’s teacher,” Spaulding told the defendant.

The state Supreme Court in April overturned Rambold’s initial sentence, citing in part comments from Judge G. Todd Baugh, who suggested the victim shared responsibility. Baugh was censured and suspended for 31 days. He’s stepping down when his terms ends in January....

Rambold broke down crying during a brief statement to the court. He said he was sorry for his actions and had worked hard to make himself a better person. In a recent letter to the court, he lamented the international publicity the case attracted. “No one can really appreciate and understand what it feels like to have so many people actually hate you and be disgusted by you,” Rambold wrote. “I do not mention this for the sake of sympathy, but it has been hard.”...

During last year’s sentencing, Baugh suggested Moralez had as much control over her rape as the defendant and said she “appeared older than her chronological age.” He gave Rambold a 15-year term with all but one month suspended. That triggered an appeal from the office of Attorney General Tim Fox, and ultimately resulted in the case being reassigned to Spaulding.

Prior related posts:

September 27, 2014 in Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

September 26, 2014

Could (and should) AG Eric Holder be even bolder on sentencing and drug war reform as a lame duck?

Not suprisingly, the early conversations after Attorney General Eric Holder's resignation announcement yesterday (discussed here) concerns who President Obama will nominate for the position and and when the Senate will consider that nomination.  But, because AG Holder indicated he would stay on the job until his replacement is confirmed, and because it is certainly possible that the confirmation process could take a number of months, it is certainly possible that Holder could still need to do some significant work before he turns over the keys to his office.  And, as the question in the title of this post suggests, one might wonder if AG Holder might see his new lame duck status as providing him with even more freedom to push even more aggressively on various sentencing and drug war reforms he has championed in his tenure (especially over the last year or so).

Though I seriously doubt AG Holder could or should seek now to push through any major formal DOJ policy initiatives as he heads out the door, he certain can use his office and its bully pulpit to continue to talk up his views about the need for federal criminal justice reforms.  Indeed, as highlighted by this new Huffington Post piece, headlined "Eric Holder Signals Support For Marijuana Reform Just As He's Heading Out The Door," Holder may now already feel a bit more free to talk about reforming federal marijuana laws.

I am especially interested to see if AG Holder might have some more to say about DOJ's clemency efforts on his way out the door.  Needed reforms on executive clemency have been widely discussed by various DOJ officials throughout 2014, and yet there has still been a paucity of real consequential action by the President in this arena.  I hope AG Holder might really try to prod Prez Obama to get moving on this front on his way out the door.

September 26, 2014 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Hall v. Florida: The Death of Georgia's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Standard"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Adam Lamparello now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Welcome: We’re Glad Georgia is On Your Mind.

Georgia is on many minds as Warren Hill prepares for a state court hearing to once again begin the process of trying to show that he is intellectually disabled.  As Warren Hill continues to flirt with death, one must ask, is Georgia really going to execute someone that nine experts and a lower court twice found to be mentally retarded?  The answer is yes, and the Georgia courts do not understand why we are scratching our heads.  The answer is simple: executing an intellectually disabled man is akin to strapping a ten-year old child in the electric chair.

Georgia’s standard for determining intellectual disability -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- is itself intellectually disabled.  In 1986, Georgia became the first state to ban executions of the intellectually disabled.  It should also be the next state to eliminate a standard that, as a practical matter, ensures execution of the intellectually disabled.

Ultimately, the Georgia legislature must explain why it chooses to execute defendants like Warren Hill, and the Georgia courts must explain why they allow it to happen. Intellectually disabled defendants do not appreciate or understand why they are being executed.  Their crimes may be unspeakable, but the punishment is never proportional. Until Georgia provides an answer that extends beyond platitudes and biblically inspired notions of justice, the fact will remain that executing Warren Hill is as heinous as the crimes he committed.  The only acceptable answer should come from the Supreme Court, holding that Georgia’s beyond a reasonable doubt standard violates the Eighth Amendment.

September 26, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

September 25, 2014

Louisiana legislative commission looking closely at capital case costs

As this local article reports, the "Louisiana Legislature is looking into the cost associated with carrying out the death penalty in the state." Here is how:

State Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, is heading up a new Capital Punishment Fiscal Impact Commission. The group's first meeting was Wednesday morning. Louisiana doesn't have a well-researched estimate of how much it is spending on capital punishment trials and execution, according to Morrell. The commission's goal is to get an idea of what the overall price tag is for executions in the state.

The death penalty might be more expensive than the general public realizes. Inmates on death row are segregated from the main prison population and receive specialized care. Capital murder trials can also be much more expensive than regular murder cases.

Members of the commission include lawmakers, prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement, an auditor and staff members from nonprofit organizations. The group has been broken down into three subcommittees -- prosecution expenses, defense expenses and general Department of Corrections expenses. The subcommittees will meet approximately once per month. The overall commission will meet once per quarter, according to Morrell. The group has to conclude its work by the end of 2015.

Louisiana's House Appropriations Committee experienced some sticker shock related to the death penalty last spring during the legislative session. The state's public defender told lawmakers he expected to spend $479,000 on legal work related to the murder of a Louisiana State Penitentiary guard. Louisiana has already spent $10 million on court proceedings for the defendants, known as the Angola 5.

September 25, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Eric Holder resigning Attorney General position ... next up?

As this Politico article reports, "Attorney General Eric Holder will announce Thursday his plans to leave his post at the Justice Department once a successor is confirmed." Here is more about this breaking news:

Holder has been in the job for nearly six years, since the start of the Obama administration, and would be the third longest-serving attorney general if he is still in the position in December.

President Barack Obama will announce the personnel change at the White House at 4:30 p.m. Officials have not yet said whether the president will announce a nominee for the job at that time.

Obama and Holder developed a close working and personal relationship over the course of the administration, putting the attorney general on stronger footing as he faced a wide range of criticism from Congress and the public, and as even some of the president’s aides privately urged for a change in leadership at the Justice Department. Holder also is close with Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

Holder’s departure has long been speculated, and he has discussed his plans with the president “on multiple occasions in recent months,” a Justice Department official said. He finalized his plans in an hourlong conversation at the White House residence over Labor Day weekend, potentially giving the White House close to a month to decide on a nominee for the position.

One much talked-about contender, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, is scheduled to travel to Washington on Thursday for pre-planned Friday events with the Congressional Black Caucus, his office said.... Two others believed to be on the short list for the job are Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

This USA Today article, headlined "After Eric Holder: Potential attorney general choices," provides this longer list of potential AG nominees in addition to Governor Patrick:

Janet Napolitano: The former Homeland Security secretary and governor was Arizona's attorney general from 1999 to 2002. She currently serves as president of the University of California system.

Kathryn Ruemmler: She departed as White House counsel last year. Obama told the New York Times that he deeply valued Ruemmler for "her smarts, her judgment and her wit." She worked for the White House since the start of Obama's tenure, starting as principal associate deputy attorney general — the third-ranking position at the Justice Department.

Robert Mueller: The respected lawyer and specialist in white-collar crime became FBI director a week before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mueller went on to serve both George W. Bush and Obama. Currently in private law practice, Mueller was recently tapped to lead the NFL's investigation into the Ray Rice domestic violence incident.

Kamala Harris: The attorney general of California is often touted as as a potential candidate for governor or U.S. Senate. She was the first woman elected as district attorney in San Francisco and first elected to her current position in 2010.

I have no insider knowledge and no real sense of who might be especially good at a job likely to be especially difficult over the next few years. But I think I am pulling for Kamala Harris (because I would like to see a woman of color in this job) and Preet Bharara (because I was a summer associate with him at a big NY firm more than two decades ago).

September 25, 2014 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

"Does Immigration Enforcement Reduce Crime? Evidence from 'Secure Communities'"

The title of this post is the title of this new empirical paper by Thomas Miles and Adam Cox now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Does immigration enforcement actually reduce crime? Surprisingly, little evidence exists either way — despite the fact that deporting noncitizens who commit crimes has been a central feature of American immigration law since the early twentieth century. We capitalize on a natural policy experiment to address the question and, in the process, provide the first empirical analysis of the most important deportation initiative to be rolled out in decades. The policy initiative we study is “Secure Communities,” a program designed to enable the federal government to check the immigration status of every person arrested for a crime by local police. Before this program, the government checked the immigration status of only a small fraction of arrestees. Since its launch, the program has led to over a quarter of a million detentions.

We exploit the slow rollout of the program across more than 3,000 U.S. counties to obtain differences-in-differences estimates of the impact of Secure Communities on local crime rates. We also use rich data on the number of immigrants detained under the program in each county and month — data obtained from the federal government through extensive FOIA requests — to estimate the elasticity of crime with respect to incapacitated immigrants. Our results show that Secure Communities led to no meaningful reductions in the FBI index crime rate. Nor has it reduced rates of violent crime — homicide, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault. This evidence shows that the program has not served its central objective of making communities safer.

September 25, 2014 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 24, 2014

Interesting response from Heritage folks interested in AG Holder's recent sentencing comments

In response to yesterday's posting about Attorney General Eric Holder's big speech at the Brennan Center for Justice's conference on the topic of "Shifting Law Enforcement Goals to ​Reduce Mass Incarceration," I received (and got authorization to reprint here) the following interesting and amusing e-mail from Paul Larkin, who is the Senior Legal Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation's Center for Legal & Judicial Studies:

Professor Berman: In AG Holder's speech yesterday, I found interesting the fact that he quoted from an article that Evan Burnick and I wrote for Heritage earlier this year, entitled “Reconsidering Mandatory Minimum Sentences: The Arguments For and Against Potential Reforms,” Heritage Legal Memorandum No. 114 (Feb. 10, 2014), available at this link.   You blogged about it a while ago.  (Thank you.)   Many people at Heritage were quite surprised that AG Holder quoted from a Heritage paper, but I think that it is rewarding to see that DOJ officials read it.

I do have one question, however: Do you know what the temperature was in hell yesterday?

Recent related posts:

September 24, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Is California's Prop. 47 a "common-sense" or a "radical" reform to the state's criminal laws?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new FoxNews piece headlined "California voters weigh 'radical' changes to justice system as prisons fill up." Here are excerpts:

Voters this fall, however, could approve big -- and some say "dangerous" -- changes to the state’s sentencing system, aimed in part at easing the overcrowding.  On the state ballot is a proposal that would dramatically change how the state treats certain “nonserious, nonviolent” drug and property crimes, by downgrading them from felonies to misdemeanors.

The measure, known as Prop 47, also would allow those currently serving time for such offenses to apply for a reduced sentence, as long as they have no prior convictions for more serious crimes like murder, attempted murder or sexual offenses. 

Businessman B. Wayne Hughes Jr., who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to push the ballot measure, told FoxNews.com the changes would affect Californians who are “over-incarcerated and over-unpunished.” 

“I saw Prop 47 as common-sense reform,” Hughes said. “I don’t see it as a radical reform.”

However, the measure is being slammed as dangerous by members of California’s law enforcement, including San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.   Zimmerman told FoxNews.com “virtually the entire law enforcement community opposes Prop 47.”

“It will require the release of thousands of dangerous inmates,” she said. 

The proposition would reduce penalties for an array of crimes that can be prosecuted as either felonies or misdemeanors in California. This includes everything from drug possession to check fraud to petty theft to forgery.  Prop 47 would, generally, treat all these as misdemeanors, in turn reducing average jail sentences.  According to a state estimate, there are approximately 40,000 people convicted each year in California who would be affected by the measure.

“[Prop 47] allows the criminal justice system to focus in on more serious crimes,” Hughes said.

According to an analysis by the California Budget Project, state and local governments would save hundreds of millions of dollars every year.  The measure dictates the savings be split among three different areas, with 65 percent going to mental health and drug treatment programs, 25 percent going to K-12 school programs and 10 percent going to victim services.  The measure’s supporters say it also would help reduce California’s prison-overcrowding problem, an issue that has dogged the state for years.

The analysis by the California Budget Project found that the California prison population would “likely" decline if Prop 47 were implemented.  “If Proposition 47 reduced the prison population by just 2,300 individuals – through re-sentencing and/or reduced new admissions – the state could meet the court-ordered population threshold via the measure alone,” the analysis said.

However, Zimmerman argued that the proposition would only shift the burden from the state prisons to local law enforcement and communities.   “[Prop 47 is] not a sustainable or responsible way to reduce California’s prison population,” she said.

The California Police Chiefs Association also has come out hard against the proposition.  “Proposition 47 is a dangerous and radical package of ill-conceived policies wrapped in a poorly drafted initiative which will endanger Californians,” the association said....

Former Republican congressional candidate Weston Wamp agreed, saying Prop 47 "might not be perfect, but it’s a breath of fresh air to talk about an issue where there can be some agreement."  Wamp said if passed, he believes Prop 47 could have a positive effect on the nationwide prison reform movement.   "I think it’s realistic if you give people who are not violent criminals, if you give them an opportunity not to just stay behind bars but to make their lives better, you may see over a longer period of time is lower rates in recidivism and a better chance at taking care of the problems and paying the bills," he said. 

For now, it seems like the proposition’s supporters are connecting with voters. An August poll by the Field Research Corporation found that 57 percent of Californians were in favor of the measure, 24 percent were opposed and 19 percent were undecided. 

Prior related post:

September 24, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"Why Are So Many People Getting Sentenced to Death in Houston?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new article in The National Journal.  It gets started this way:

Just 10 U.S. counties — roughly 0.3 percent of the nation's total — account for more than a quarter of all the American executions that have been carried out since 1976.

Texas's Harris County, which includes Houston, is far and away the leader in executions during that period. That district has handed out 122 death sentences that were carried to completion, more than double the next highest. Harris County alone is responsible for more executions than any state besides Texas.

Dallas County, which includes the Dallas-Fort Worth area, comes in second at 53.

September 24, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Absent evidence of threats to humans, is incarceration for five years for animal abuse needed (or helpful)?

Justice_4_rose_tshirt-rf92764868c3241a48727a11177e14794_804gy_512Like all good people, I really like puppies and really dislike animal abuse.  Still, after being drawn in to this Florida sentencing story by the headline "Man Rapes Pit Bull Puppy, Sentenced To Five Years In Jail For Sexually Abusing Dog," I kept wondering what else the defendant must have done other than abuse his dog in order to be sentence to half a decade behinds bars.  But the most complete story I could find about this "puppy rape" case, here from the Daytona Beach News-Journal, heightens my concern that Florida taxpayers are now going to have to spend a lot of money incarcerating a disturbed old man who presents no obvious threat to humans and clearly needs treatment to deal with his affinity for bestiality. Here are the basics:

A man whose sexual battery of a pit bull puppy did not rise to the level of state prison time, nonetheless received five years behind bars Friday afternoon after Circuit Judge Leah Case compared the crime to “systematic” and “chronic” child abuse.

When Case announced her decision to imprison James Bull of Daytona Beach, a crowd of mostly female animal advocates cheered and cried.  Many of the advocates wore T-shirts bearing the pit bull puppy’s picture and the words “Justice For Rose.”  The dog’s name was Coco, but the New York City rescue organization now fostering the milk-chocolate-colored canine renamed her Rose.

The case is the first time in Volusia or Flagler counties that a person has been convicted on the charge of sexual activity with an animal, a first-degree misdemeanor, State Attorney spokesman Spencer Hathaway said.  Bull was also convicted of two counts of felony cruelty to animals and cruelty to animals.  According to an article in the Mayport Florida Mirror in January, a St. Augustine man was convicted of bestiality with his dog and was sentenced to eight years in prison under the same state statute that was applied to Bull on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014....

Prosecutor Nathaniel Sebastian told Case that Bull did not score enough points criminally to be sentenced to state prison.  He said perhaps the defendant could get additional jail time, probation and psycho-sexual counseling.  Bull’s attorney Peter Kenny didn’t present much of an argument in his client’s favor, but did ask Case to spare Bull from prison because of his age and because he has a “bad back.”

While Case acknowledged that indeed Bull didn’t score high enough for prison, she also repeated the jarring testimony given a few minutes earlier by the state’s four witnesses regarding the dog’s daily suffering.  “Although he (Bull) doesn’t score, it’s more about the intentional infliction of pain on an animal over and over again,” Case said.  “It’s like child abuse. It often happens in secret behind closed doors.”

Prosecutors called three witnesses to the stand — their fourth witness, Halifax Humane Society veterinarian Tom Frieberg, testified via telephone — who provided graphic testimony about the animal’s living conditions and Bull’s abuse.  Bull’s neighbor Dean Ray Gill testified that he constantly heard the dog yelping and “screaming.” Gill said that one day in March he was “fed up” and went to the back apartment to see what was happening to the animal.  Gill said the door to Bull’s apartment was slightly ajar and he could hear the radio or a stereo blaring inside.  Nonetheless, he could still hear the canine yelping above the music. Gill said he saw Bull sexually abusing the animal.  Bull threw the dog aside and closed the front door, the neighbor testified.

Daytona Beach animal control officer Eva Burke said that when she arrived at Bull’s residence on March 18, the dog was chained to a porch and could not move because the chain was too short. Burke also said the animal’s rib cage was showing.  Both Sebastian and Assistant State Attorney John Reid showed their witnesses photographs of the dog when police arrived on scene.  Hathaway, the assistant state attorney who initially had the case, said the pictures were horrifying.  Kenney did not call any witnesses on behalf of Bull.

At the risk of being labelled "soft on puppy rapists" or not loving animals, I cannot help but wonder and worry about the quality of representation this defendant received and about the need for such a lengthy term of incarceration if there is was indeed no evidence this defendant ever hurt a human or had plans to abuse humans. This defendant is plainly disturbed and his mistreatment of animals should be punished, but will a five-year jail term help this defendant get needed treatment or help safeguard the community upon his eventual release? Especially because there is considerable evidence suggesting certain types of offenders become MORE likely to recidivate as a result of a term of incarceration, I fear that this kind of "Justice for Rose" will actually entail greater expenses and an eventual greater threat to public safety for the people of Florida.

September 24, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Brennan Center urges new orientation in "Federal Prosecution for the 21st Century"

As noted in prior posts here and here, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a big speech yesterday in New York at the Brennan Center for Justice's conference on the topic of "Shifting Law Enforcement Goals to ​Reduce Mass Incarceration." In that speech, AG Holder praised the Brennan Center's effort to encourage prosecutrs to "shift away from old metrics and embrace a more contemporary, and more comprehensive, view of what constitutes success."  These Brennan Center efforts are reflected in this important new publication titled "Federal Prosecution for the 21st Century." Here is how the Center describes this report:

This new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law proposes modernizing one key aspect of the criminal justice system: federal prosecutors. Prosecutors are in a uniquely powerful position to bring change, since they make decisions about when and whether to bring criminal charges, and make recommendations for sentencing.  The report proposes reorienting the way prosecutors’ “success” is measured around three core goals: Reducing violent and serious crime, reducing prison populations, and reducing recidivism.  The mechanism for change would be a shift in how attorneys' performance is assessed, to give prosecutors incentives to focus on how their practices reduce crime in and improve the communities they serve, instead of making their "success" simply a measure of how many individuals they convict and send to prison.

September 24, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 23, 2014

Noting the dynamics and debate over risk-assessments at sentencing

NA-CC851_SENTEN_D_20140923153009This new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Judges Turn to Risk-Evaluation Tools in Sentencing Decisions: Many Are Adopting More Systematic Approach to Assessing Likelihood of Reoffense," discusses the always interesting issue of using risk-assessment measures at sentencing.  Here are excerpts:

Judges have always considered the risk of reoffending in meting out sentences, and they generally follow guidelines that dictate a range of punishment for a given offense.  [More recently], however, [there is] a broad effort to bring a more scientific approach to decisions made by judges, parole officers and corrections officials working in a system that often relies on gut instinct.  Risk-evaluation tools have emerged as a centerpiece of efforts to reduce the U.S. inmate population, which jumped from around 200,000 in the early 1970s to over 2 million today.

Many parole boards now weigh risk scores when considering early release, and prison officials use them to determine the level of security offenders need during their stay.  But the adoption of such tools has sparked a debate over which factors are acceptable. Attributes such as age or sex, which employers are generally forbidden from including in hiring decisions, are considered by criminal-justice experts to be strong predictors of whether an offender is likely to commit a crime in the future.

The measures vary widely but generally are based on an offender's criminal history and, in addition to age and sex, may include marital status, employment and education, according to Sonja Starr, a law professor at the University of Michigan.

Pennsylvania, one of the latest states to turn to actuarial tools in sentencing, is building a test that weighs the nature of offense, criminal history, age, sex and county of residence. The last factor is the most controversial as it could be considered a proxy for socioeconomic status.  Missouri takes into account current offense and criminal history, age, whether the offender has a history of substance abuse, education level and employment.

Judges aren't bound by the evaluations, but there is evidence they are taking them into account. Virginia officials attribute a more than 25% drop in the number of nonviolent offenders sent to prison annually to the assessments, used to score felons convicted of fraud, larceny and drug crimes since 2003.  In the past decade, the percentage of offenders serving prison terms for violent crime has risen to 74% from 61%, said Chief Judge Bradley B. Cavedo of Richmond Circuit Court. "It doesn't really control the outcome, but it is useful information," he said of the measures.

The efforts have drawn skepticism from Attorney General Eric Holder, who told a group of defense lawyers in Philadelphia last month that basing sentencing on factors such as a defendant's education level "may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities."

There is no research yet on whether the use of risk evaluations in sentencing has aggravated, for example, the gap between sentences for black and white men for similar crimes.  Ms. Starr said the disparities created by risk measures are evident. "When it comes down to it, these assessments stand for the proposition that judges should sentence people longer because they were in foster care as children or had too many bouts of unemployment," she said.

Christopher Slobogin, a Vanderbilt University law professor, said the alternative was potentially worse.  "At least these risk-assessment instruments don't explicitly focus on race or poverty, unlike what might occur in a sentencing regime where judges are making risk assessments based on seat-of-the-pants evaluations," he said.

Recent related posts:

September 23, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Highlights from AG Holder's big speech today at the Brennan Center for Justice

As noted in this prior post and as detailed in this official Justice Department press release, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a big speech today in New York at the Brennan Center for Justice's conference on the topic of "Shifting Law Enforcement Goals to ​Reduce Mass Incarceration." Here are some highlights from a speech that all sentencing fans will want to read in full:

As you know, we gather this afternoon just over a year after the launch of the Justice Department’s Smart on Crime initiative — a series of important changes and commonsense reforms I set in motion last August.  Already, these changes are fundamentally shifting our response to certain crime challenges —particularly low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.  And this initiative is predicated on the notion that our work as prosecutors must be informed, and our criminal justice system continually improved, by the most effective and efficient strategies available.

After all — as I’ve often said — the United States will never be able to prosecute or incarcerate its way to becoming a safer nation.  We must never, and we will never, stop being vigilant against crime — and the conditions and choices that breed it.  But, for far too long — under well-intentioned policies designed to be “tough” on criminals — our system has perpetuated a destructive cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration that has trapped countless people and weakened entire communities — particularly communities of color....

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that this astonishing rise in incarceration — and the escalating costs it has imposed on our country, in terms both economic and human — have not measurably benefited our society.  We can all be proud of the progress that’s been made at reducing the crime rate over the past two decades — thanks to the tireless work of prosecutors and the bravery of law enforcement officials across America.  But statistics have shown — and all of us have seen — that high incarceration rates and longer-than-necessary prison terms have not played a significant role in materially improving public safety, reducing crime, or strengthening communities.

In fact, the opposite is often true.  Two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that new analysis of crime data and incarceration rates — performed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and covering the period of 1994 to 2012 — shows that states with the most significant drops in crime also saw reductions in their prison populations.  States that took drastic steps to reduce their prison populations — in many cases by percentages well into the double digits — saw crime go down as well.  And the one state — West Virginia — with the greatest increase in its incarceration rate actually experienced an uptick in crime.

As the Post makes clear: “To the extent that there is any trend here, it’s actually that states incarcerating people have seen smaller decreases in crime.”  And this has been borne out at the national level, as well.  Since President Obama took office, both overall crime and overall incarceration have decreased by approximately 10 percent.  This is the first time these two critical markers have declined together in more than 40 years. And although we have a great deal of work to do — and although, last year, some states continued to record growth in their prison populations — this is a signal achievement....

Over the past year, the federal prison population declined by roughly 4,800 inmates — the first decrease we’ve seen in many ‎decades.  Even more promising are new internal projections from the Bureau of Prisons. In a dramatic reversal of prior reports — which showed that the prison population would continue to grow, becoming more and more costly, overcrowded, and unsafe — taking into account our new policies and trends, our new projections anticipate that the number of federal inmates will fall by just over 2,000 in the next 12 months — and by almost 10,000 in the year after.‎

This is nothing less than historic.  To put these numbers in perspective, 10,000 inmates is the rough equivalent of the combined populations of six federal prisons, each filled to capacity.  Now, these projected decreases won’t result in any prison closures, because our system is operating at about 30 percent above capacity.  But my hope is that we’re witnessing the start of a trend that will only accelerate as our Smart on Crime changes take full effect.

Clearly, criminal justice reform is an idea whose time has come.  And thanks to a robust and growing national consensus — a consensus driven not by political ideology, but by the promising work that’s underway, and the efforts of leaders like Senators Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul — we are bringing about a paradigm shift, and witnessing a historic sea change, in the way our nation approaches these issues. ...

The Smart on Crime initiative is in many ways the ultimate expression of my trust in the abilities — and the judgment — of our attorneys on the front lines.  And although some have suggested that recent changes in charging and sentencing policies might somehow undermine their ability to induce cooperation from defendants in certain cases, today, I want to make it abundantly clear that nothing could be further from the truth.

As I know from experience — and as all veteran prosecutors and defense attorneys surely recognize — defendant cooperation depends on the certainty of swift and fair punishment, not on the length of a mandatory minimum sentence.  Like anyone old enough to remember the era before sentencing guidelines existed and mandatory minimums took full effect, I can testify to the fact that federal guidelines attempted to systematize the kinds of negotiations that were naturally taking place anyway.  As our U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, John Vaudreuil, often reminds his colleagues, even without the threat of mandatory minimums, it remains in the interests of all attorneys to serve as sound advocates for their clients — and for defendants to cooperate with the government in exchange for reduced sentences.

Far from impeding the work of our prosecutors, the sentencing reforms I’ve mandated have strengthened their discretion.  The contention that cooperation is somehow dependent on mandatory minimums is tied to a past at tension with the empirical present, and is plainly inconsistent with history, and with now known facts.  After all, as the Heritage Foundation observed earlier this year: “[t]he rate of cooperation in cases involving mandatory minimums is comparable to the average rate in all federal cases.”

Of course, as we refine our approach and reject the ineffective practice of calling for stringent sentences against those convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes, we also need to refine the metrics we use to measure success; to evaluate the steps we’re taking; and to assess the effectiveness of new criminal justice priorities.  In the Smart on Crime era, it’s no longer adequate — or appropriate — to rely on outdated models that prize only enforcement, as quantified by numbers of prosecutions, convictions, and lengthy sentences, rather than taking a holistic view.  As the Brennan Center and many others have recognized — and as your landmark report on Federal Prosecution for the 21st Century makes crystal clear — it’s time to shift away from old metrics and embrace a more contemporary, and more comprehensive, view of what constitutes success....

Your concrete recommendations — that federal prosecutors should prioritize reducing violence, incarceration, and recidivism — are consistent with the aims of the Smart on Crime initiative.  The new metrics you propose — such as evaluating progress by assessing changes in local violent crime rates, numbers of federal prisoners initially found in particular districts, and changes in the three-year recidivism rate — lay out a promising roadmap for us to consider.  And my pledge to you today is that my colleagues and I will not merely carefully study this critical report — we will use it as a basis for discussion, and a vital resource to draw upon, as we engage in a far-reaching process to develop and codify new success measures — with the aim of cementing recent shifts in law and policy.

One of the key points underscored by your report — and emphasized under the Smart on Crime approach — is the need for the Justice Department to direct funding to help move the criminal justice field toward a fuller embrace of science and data. This is something that we — and especially our Office of Justice Programs and Bureau of Justice Assistance  — have taken very seriously throughout the Obama Administration.  And nowhere are these ideals more fully embodied — or more promisingly realized — than in our Justice Reinvestment Act and Second Chance Act programs....

Thanks to bipartisan support from Congress, funding for the Justice Reinvestment Initiative has more than quadrupled this year.  That, on its own, is an extraordinary indication of the power and importance of this work.  And this additional funding is allowing us to launch a new challenge grant program — designed to incentivize states to take the next major step in their reform efforts.

Today, I am pleased to announce that five states — Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, and Oregon — will be receiving these grants, which can be used to expand pre-trial reforms, to scale up swift and certain sanctions, to institute evidence-based parole practices, or a number of other options.  I am also pleased to announce that five states have been selected to receive new funding under the Second Chance Act to help reduce recidivism. Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Vermont will each be awarded $1 million to meet their recidivism reduction goals.  And each will be eligible for an additional $2 million over the next two years if they do so.

September 23, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

High-profile commentator Dinesh D’Souza gets below-guideline probation sentence for violating federal campaign finance laws

As reported in this New York Times piece, headlined "D’Souza Is Spared Prison Time for Campaign Finance Violations," another notable white-collar defendant got a below-guideline federal sentence today thanks to judges now having broader post-Booker sentencing discretion. Here are the details:

The conservative author and documentary filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza was spared prison time on Tuesday after pleading guilty earlier this year to violating federal campaign finance laws.

Judge Richard M. Berman of Federal District Court in Manhattan handed down a probationary sentence — including eight months in a so-called community confinement center — and a $30,000 fine, bringing to a close a high-profile legal battle that started with Mr. D’Souza’s indictment in January for illegally using straw donors to contribute to a Republican Senate candidate in New York in 2012.

Mr. D’Souza, who has accused President Obama of carrying out the “anticolonial” agenda of his father, initially argued that he had been singled out for prosecution because of his politics. In April, his lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, filed court papers contending that Mr. D’Souza’s “consistently caustic and highly publicized criticism” of Mr. Obama had made him a government target.

A month later, however, on the morning he was scheduled to go on trial, Mr. D’Souza pleaded guilty. “I deeply regret my conduct,” he told the court. Even with his fate hanging in the balance, Mr. D’Souza plowed ahead with his thriving career as a right-wing provocateur. Over the summer, while awaiting his sentencing, he published the book “America: Imagine a World Without Her,” which reached No. 1 on The New York Times’s nonfiction hardcover best-seller list, and a companion documentary film that has made $14.4 million at the box office.

The government charged Mr. D’Souza, 53, with illegally arranging to have two people — an employee and a woman with whom he was romantically involved — donate $10,000 each to the campaign of an old friend from Dartmouth College, Wendy E. Long, with the understanding that he would reimburse them in cash for their contributions. Ms. Long was challenging Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a Democrat.

According to prosecutors, Mr. D’Souza lied to Ms. Long about the donations, reassuring her that “they both had sufficient funds to make the contributions.” Ms. Long pressed Mr. D’Souza on the issue after the election, and he acknowledged that he had reimbursed the two people, the government said, but told Ms. Long not to worry because she had not known about it.

When Mr. D’Souza entered his guilty plea, Judge Berman said he could face up to two years in prison. The federal sentencing guidelines call for 10 to 16 months, but the final decision is up to the judge’s discretion. “Judges are all over the map on these reimbursement cases,” said Robert Kelner, a campaign-finance lawyer at Covington & Burling.

Mr. D’Souza’s lawyers asked for leniency, arguing in a court filing that their client had “unequivocally accepted responsibility” for his crime. “We are seeking a sentence that balances the crime he has regrettably committed with the extraordinary good Mr. D’Souza has accomplished as a scholar, as a community member and as a family member,” they wrote, requesting that he be sentenced to probation and community service at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego.

The government rebutted Mr. D’Souza’s claims, highlighting both the seriousness of his offense and what it called “the defendant’s post-plea failure to accept responsibility for his criminal conduct.” According to the government, Mr. D’Souza assumed a different posture with respect to his case when he was not before the court. It cited a television interview he gave two days after his plea in which he “repeatedly asserted that this case was about whether he was selectively prosecuted.”

This story reminds me why I am so sad Bill Otis no longer comments on this blog; I am so eager to hear from him directly whether he thinks this case is yet another example of, in his words, allowing "naïve and ideologically driven judges" to make sentencing determinations and therefore further justifies embracing mandatory sentencing schemes that would always require judges to impose prison terms on these sorts of non-violent offenders because these sorts of offenses do great harm even if they do not involve violence.

Based on my limited understanding of the crime and criminal here, I feel fairly confident asserting that a prison term for Mr. D’Souza would have achieved little more than spending extra federal taxpayer dollars without any real public safety return on that investment. But Bill and I rarely see eye-to-eye on these matters, and thus I am eager for a distinct perspective in this notable white-collar case.

September 23, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Split NJ Supreme Court holds that state's sex offender GPS tracking is punishment subject to ex post facto limits

As reported in this local article, headlined "Some sex offenders can't be forced to wear GPS monitors, N.J. Supreme Court rules," the top state court in the Garden State issued a significant constitutional ruling concerning GPS tracking of sex offenders.  Here are the basics:

New Jersey cannot force sex offenders to wear GPS tracking devises if they were convicted before the monitoring program was signed into law seven years ago, the state Supreme Court ruled in a split decision today.

The court voted 4-3 to uphold an appellate panel's decision that said it was unconstitutional for the state Parole Board to require George C. Riley to wear the ankle monitor when he was released from prison in 2009 after serving 23 years for attempted sexual assault of a minor.

Justice Barry Albin wrote today that the Riley, 81 of Eatontown, should not be subject to the 2007 law because it constitutes an additional punishment that was not included in the sentence he already served.... A spokesman for the Parole Board did not respond when asked how many released sex offenders could be affected by the ruling.

Riley was convicted of trying to have sex with an 11-year-old girl in 1986. At the time, New Jersey law did not allow a sentence that included parole for life. But while Riley was in prison, the state enacted Megan's Law in 1994, requiring sex offenders to not only register with local authorities upon release but be placed under parole supervision for life. Then, in 2007, Gov. Jon Corzine signed the Sex Offender Monitoring Act, requiring the state's most dangerous sex offenders to wear GPS devises.

When Riley was released two years later, court papers say, he was not subject to any parole supervision. But he was designated a Tier III offender under Megan's Law — which applies to those who are considered a high risk for committing another offense. Under that tier, Riley was subject to "Internet registration and the most comprehensive degree of community notification," court papers say.

Six months later, though, Riley was told he would need to wear the pager-sized monitor on his ankle 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and carry a cell phone-sized tracking unit when he left his home, the papers say The devise must also be plugged into an electrical outlet to be charged one to two hours each day, the papers say. During that time, Riley could not move further than the length of the cord. And he was assigned a parole officer with access to his home. Riley would be subject to prosecution for a third-degree crime if he didn't comply....

The Supreme Court ... agreed with the lower court that the "retroactive application" of Riley to the GPS program violates the ex post facto clauses in the U.S. and state Constitutions, which safeguard against imposing "additional punishment to an already completed crime." The court also rejected the state's argument that the GPS monitor is not punitive but "only civil and regulatory."

"Parole is a form of punishment under the Constitution," Albin wrote for the high court. "SOMA is essentially parole supervision for life by another name." Albin added that "the disabilities and restraints placed on Riley through twenty -four-hour GPS monitoring enabled by a tracking device fastened to his ankle could hardly be called 'minor and indirect.'" The court also rejected the state's assertion that the Parole Board made its decision as a result of the Megan's Law designation, saying that designation "was based primarily on Riley’s previous sexual-offense convictions."

The full ruling in Riley v. New Jersey State Parole Board, No. A-94-11 (NJ Sept. 22, 2014) is available at this link.

September 23, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

"Banks, Marijuana, and Federalism"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Julie Andersen Hill now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Although marijuana is illegal under federal law, twenty-three states have legalized some marijuana use. The state-legal marijuana industry is flourishing, but marijuana-related businesses report difficulty accessing banking services.  Because financial institutions won’t allow marijuana-related businesses to open accounts, the marijuana industry largely operates on a cash only basis — a situation that attracts thieves and tax cheats.

This article explores the root of the marijuana banking problem as well as possible solutions.  It explains that although the United States has a dual banking system comprised of both federal- and state-chartered institutions, when it comes to marijuana banking, federal regulation is pervasive and controlling.  Marijuana banking access cannot be solved by the states acting alone for two reasons.  First, marijuana is illegal under federal law. Second, federal law enforcement and federal financial regulators have significant power to punish institutions that do not comply with federal law.  Unless Congress acts to remove one or both of these barriers, most financial institutions will not provide services to the marijuana industry.  But marijuana banking requires more than just Congressional action. It requires that federal financial regulators set clear and achievable due diligence requirements for institutions with marijuana business customers.  As long as financial institutions risk federal punishment for any marijuana business customer’s misstep, institutions will not provide marijuana banking.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

September 23, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 22, 2014

Inititative details and debates over California's Proposition 47 to reduce severity of various crimes

One of the most intriguing criminal justice initiatives not dealing with marijuana in the 2014 election season is Proposition 47 in California.  This nonpartisan analysis from the Legislative Analyst's Office provides this simplified summary of the initiative (as well as a more detailed explanation of Prop 47's particulars):

This measure reduces penalties for certain offenders convicted of nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes.  The measure also allows certain offenders who have been previously convicted of such crimes to apply for reduced sentences.  In addition, the measure requires any state savings that result from the measure be spent to support truancy (unexcused absences) prevention, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and victim services.

This local recent article, headlined "Arguments Heating Up in Penalty-Reducing Prop 47," provides the essence of the current state of debate over this notable initiative:

Some say under Proposition 47 criminals will get a slap on the wrist, but others argue it's a second chance. The crime-fighting arguments for and against Prop 47 are heating up as we inch closer to the November election.

Prop 47 looks to drop non-violent, non-sexual and non-serious felony crimes into misdemeanors. Supporters say it will ease jail and prison overcrowding by giving some a second chance. But opponents say it's a dangerous way to increase the speed of the revolving jail door.

About two dozen religious activists began a huge push Thursday at St. Rest Baptist Church is Southwest Fresno to support Prop 47, calling it the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act. Catholic Bishop Armando Ochoa was among the speakers who believe Prop 47 would benefit the public. "Incarceration does a miserable job of educating people and treating mental illness, but that has become the norm for California," he said.

Under Prop 47 there is a promise of savings to the state by reducing prison and jail population. The promise includes transferring that savings, around a billion dollars over several years, to K-12 education, mental health and rehab programs.

"It promises to lower crime by making it legal," said Mike Reynolds, author of California's three-strikes law. "That's basically what it's saying." Reynolds penned three strikes after his daughter, Kimber Reynolds, was killed in the Tower District in 1992. "This is going to encourage more young people to come into a life of crime," Reynolds said. "It's going to release dangerous criminals back out on the streets, including three strikers."...

So far several law enforcement groups, like the California Police Chiefs Association, are highly opposed to Prop 47's reduced penalties....

The crimes that would be reduced to misdemeanors include drug possession, forgery and shoplifting, among a host of other crimes.

September 22, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Brennan Center event on "Shifting Law Enforcement Goals to ​Reduce Mass Incarceration"

As detailed via this webpage, the Brennan Center for Justice has assembled an impressive cast of prominent  public officials to address all day on Tuesday September 23 the topic of "Shifting Law Enforcement Goals to ​Reduce Mass Incarceration."  Among the headliners is US Attorney General Eric Holder, who will give a keynote speech at 1pm.  Here is how the Brennen Center sets up the coming discussion:

The need to reform law enforcement practices is now at the center of American public discourse. Join the Brennan Center and the nation’s leading law enforcement and economic policy experts, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, for a full-day conference focused on transforming prosecutorial practices and federal funding structures to both decrease crime and violence and reduce the nation’s incarcerated population.

Experts will discuss: What role should prosecutors and police play in reform efforts? Should their goal be simply to enforce and prosecute to their fullest authority, or should they also strive to reduce unnecessary arrests and incarceration? How can federal funding help modernize local law enforcement nationwide?

The full agenda for this event is available via this link, and I blieve the event will be live-streamed starting at 8:30am and can be accessed via this weblink.

September 22, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sixth Circuit reverses Ponzi scheme sentence because loss calculation failed to credit monies paid out

This morning a Sixth Circuit panel has handed down a notable ruling about loss calculations in the federal sentencing of a Ponzi schemer.  Here is how the panel opinion in US v. Snelling, No. 12-4288 (6th Cir. Sept. 22, 2014) (available here) starts and concludes:

Defendant-Appellant Jasen Snelling appeals a 131-month prison sentence imposed pursuant to a plea agreement.  In the agreement, Snelling admitted to charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and tax evasion for his part in an investment scheme that defrauded investors of nearly $9 million.  Snelling challenges the sentence based on an allegedly faulty Guidelines-range calculation that employed a loss figure that did not take into account the sums paid back to his Ponzi scheme’s investors in the course of the fraud.

For the reasons below, we vacate the sentence of the district court and remand the case for resentencing.....

Admittedly, there is intuitive appeal to the government’s argument that Snelling should not be allowed to benefit from the payments he made “not to mitigate the losses suffered . . . but to create the means to convince new victim-investors to pay him even more money.”  We need not reflect, however, on whether it is unseemly for Snelling to benefit from the money he paid out to investors in an effort to perpetuate his Ponzi scheme. Undoubtedly, it is.  The only question we must consider is whether the district court correctly applied the Guidelines and whether it used a correct Guidelines range.

An accurately calculated Guidelines range is necessary for a procedurally reasonable sentence — any error in calculating the Guidelines range cannot survive review.  See Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 49 (2007); see also United States v. Bolds, 511 F.3d 568, 579 (6th Cir. 2007) (“[W]e must ensure that the district court correctly calculated the applicable Guidelines range which are the starting point and initial benchmark of its sentencing analysis.”) (internal alterations and quotation marks omitted).  As appealing as the government’s argument may be, it does not comport with the text of the Guidelines. Accordingly, the district court was in error when it declined to reduce the loss figure by the value of the payments made by Snelling to his investor victims in perpetuating his Ponzi scheme.

September 22, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Serious talk about a serious alternative (nitrogen) to lethal injection in Oklahoma

NgWhether one is a supporter or opponent of the death penalty, any and all fans of good government should be encouraged by this editorial from The Oklahoman headlined "Death penalty treated seriously in Oklahoma interim study."  Here are excerpts:

Oklahoma was a trailblazer in the use of one form of execution — lethal injection. Could it play that role again with the use of nitrogen?

A legislative study requested by Rep. Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City, reviewed the potential merits of using nitrogen to execute death row inmates in Oklahoma.  To state lawmakers’ credit, this study was conducted with appropriate seriousness.  There was reason to worry it might instead turn into a forum for grandstanding, partly because of Christian’s own past comments and actions.

In April, Christian called for the impeachment of Oklahoma Supreme Court justices who supported a temporary stay of execution for Clayton Derrell Lockett.  “I realize this may sound harsh, but as a father and former lawman, I really don’t care if it’s by lethal injection, by the electric chair, firing squad, hanging, guillotine or being fed to the lions,” Christian, a former state trooper, said then.  “I look forward to justice being served.”

Yet the problems that occurred during Lockett’s execution, once it did move forward, prompted renewed national debate about the death penalty and led Christian to request a review.  When he filed that request in June, Christian said the study would explore the idea of giving condemned prisoners the option of death by firing squad, hanging or the electric chair, with firing squads made the primary, default option.....

Despite Christian’s past “fed to the lions” rhetoric, he appears to have put serious thought into this issue.  At the House study, he shifted focus from using firing squads to using nitrogen for executions.  Faculty members from East Central University discussed research on nitrogen hypoxia.

A 1961 study involving human volunteers who hyperventilated on nitrogen found that subjects lost consciousness after just 20 seconds and reported no physical discomfort. There is little sense of suffocation involved.  Many euthanasia organizations reportedly support the use of nitrogen gas. 

The use of nitrogen would eliminate the need to find execution drugs for lethal injection, which has become increasingly difficult.  And the process of administering an execution would be much simpler.

Those are good selling points.  Still, it’s reasonable to wonder: Why has no other state adopted this method of execution if it’s superior?  In 1977, Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal injection as a means of execution, although Texas was ultimately the first state to employ the procedure.  But that was a different era.  Being the first state to authorize a new execution method today would undoubtedly prompt numerous legal challenges, increasing taxpayer costs and slowing executions once again.

This is a debate with no easy answers, no cure-all for logistical challenges, and no permanent consensus achievable regarding the ultimate morality of the death penalty and its practical application.  But state lawmakers, Christian in particular, deserve credit for taking a serious, thoughtful approach to this ultimate application of government power.

A few recent related and older posts:

September 22, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

September 21, 2014

"Under Pressure: The Hazards of Maintaining Innocence after Conviction"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new piece authored by Daniel Medwed and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Innocent people convicted of child abuse or sexual offenses face a classic “Catch-22” situation that has ramifications on their prospects for parole and for exoneration in court. If prisoners continue to maintain their innocence while imprisoned, then corrections officials may interpret this behaviour as demonstrating a key trait of sex offenders — “denial” — and make them ineligible for treatment programs that are a prerequisite for parole in many jurisdictions. Even if they are technically eligible to apply for parole, inmates who claim innocence before parole boards harm their chances for release based on the belief that those unable to admit guilt are likely to re-offend; they are perceived as lacking in remorse and failing to address their offending behaviour.

Prisoners who pursue their innocence through post-conviction litigation also face an uphill climb. This is attributable in part to cognitive biases that affect how prosecutors treat innocence claims in the aftermath of conviction and all too often lead them to discount their potential legitimacy. Considering the hazards that inmates encounter in maintaining their innocence in parole and post-conviction litigation settings, there is reason to think that many of them are not in denial, but rather the victims of profound miscarriages of justice. This Book Chapter will explore this conundrum in these two settings before concluding with some thoughts on reform.

September 21, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Newt Gingrich helps explain "What California can learn from the red states on crime and punishment"

Newt Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr. are the co-authors of this notable recent Los Angeles Times op-ed headlined " "What California can learn from the red states on crime and punishment." Among other points, the piece makes the case for a proposition on the ballot in California (Prop 47) that would reduce the severity of a number of California crimes. Here are excerpts:

Imagine you have the power to decide the fate of someone addicted to heroin who is convicted of petty shoplifting. How much taxpayer money would you spend to put that person in prison — and for how long? Is incarceration the right form of punishment to change this offender's behavior?

Those are questions states across the nation are increasingly asking as the costly and ineffective realities of incarceration-only policies have set in. Obviously, we need prisons for people who are dangerous, and there should be harsh punishments for those convicted of violent crimes. But California has been overusing incarceration. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with many folks we are just mad at.

Reducing wasteful corrections spending and practices is long overdue in California. The state imprisons five times as many people as it did 50 years ago (when crime rates were similar). And as Californians know, the state's prison system ballooned over the last few decades and became so crowded that federal judges have mandated significant reductions.

Contributing to the growth in the number of prisoners and in prison spending has been a dramatic expansion in the number of felonies. In addition, mandatory minimum sentences have been applied to an increasing number of crimes. These policies have combined to drive up the prison population, as more prisoners serve longer sentences. On top of that, California has an alarmingly high recidivism rate: Six out of 10 people exiting California prisons return within three years.

It makes no sense to send nonserious, nonviolent offenders to a place filled with hardened criminals and a poor record of rehabilitation — and still expect them to come out better than they went in. Studies show that placing low-risk offenders in prison makes them more dangerous when they are released.

Over-incarceration makes no fiscal sense. California spends $62,396 per prisoner each year, and $10 billion overall, on its corrections system. That is larger than the entire state budget of 12 other states. This expenditure might be worth it if we were safer because of it. But with so many offenders returning to prison, we clearly aren't getting as much public safety — or rehabilitation — as we should for this large expenditure.

Meanwhile, California spends only $9,200 per K-12 student, and the average salary for a new teacher is $41,926. And as California built 22 prisons in 30 years, it built only one public university.

California is not alone in feeling the financial (and public safety) consequences of over-incarceration. Several states — politically red states, we would point out — have shown how reducing prison populations can also reduce cost and crime. Most notably, Texas in 2007 stopped prison expansion plans and instead used those funds for probation and treatment. It has reduced its prison population, closed three facilities and saved billions of dollars, putting a large part of the savings into drug treatment and mental health services. Better yet, Texas' violent crime rates are the lowest since 1977.

Another red state, South Carolina, made similar reforms for nonviolent offenses. The drop in the number of prisoners allowed South Carolina to close one prison and also lower its recidivism rate. Other states (Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Mississippi) have similarly shifted their approach to nonviolent convictions.

Now voters in California will have a chance to do the same, using costly prison beds for dangerous and hardened criminals. It is time to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on locking up low-level offenders. Proposition 47 on the November ballot will do this by changing six nonviolent, petty offenses from felony punishments (which now can carry prison time) to misdemeanor punishments and local accountability.

The measure is projected to save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars per year, and it will help the state emphasize punishments such as community supervision and treatment that are more likely to work instead of prison time....

If so many red states can see the importance of refocusing their criminal justice systems, California can do the same. It's not often the voters can change the course of a criminal justice system. Californians should take advantage of the opportunity and vote yes on Proposition 47.

September 21, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack