October 10, 2014
Wyoming Supreme Court joins group deciding SCOTUS Miller ruling is retroactive
As reported in this local article, headlined "Casper man convicted of murder as a teenager now has possibility of parole," the Wyoming Supreme Court had a big ruling yesterday on juve life sentences. In Wyoming v. Mares, 2014 WY 126 (Wyo. Oct. 9, 2014) (available here), the Court held that Miller v. Alabama announced a substantive rule that is to be applied retroactively under Teague and also that a Wyoming statute enacted last year making juves parole eligible should be applied retroactively. Here is how the unanimous opinion in Mares gets started:
In 1995, Edwin Mares was convicted of felony murder as a juvenile and sentenced to life in prison, which sentence was by operation of law the equivalent of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In 2013, Mr. Mares filed a motion, pursuant to Rule 35 of the Wyoming Rules of Criminal Procedure, to correct an illegal sentence. Through that motion, Mr. Mares contended that his sentence of life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012). This Court accepted certification of two questions from the district court. The first question concerns the test to be used in determining the retroactivity of new constitutional rules when a judgment is challenged on collateral review. The second question is whether Miller applies retroactively under our chosen test.
We conclude that as a result of amendments to Wyoming’s parole statutes in 2013, Mr. Mares’ life sentence was changed from one of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole to one of life with the possibility of parole in twenty-five years. This change occurred by operation of the amended law, and the sentence Mr. Mares challenged in his Rule 35 motion therefore no longer exists. We are aware, however, that other collateral challenges to juvenile offender sentences are pending throughout our district courts, and we therefore, in the interests of judicial economy and to avoid conflicting rulings, choose to answer the certified questions. In response to the first certified question, we hold that the proper rule for determining whether a new constitutional rule applies retroactively to cases on collateral review is the test announced by the Supreme Court in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 (1989). In response to the second question, we conclude that under a Teague analysis, the rule announced in Miller applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.
Oklahoma has impressive early success with revised earned credit program
This local article, headlined "Most Oklahoma inmates granted early release since March have stayed out of trouble," reports on another positive state criminal justice reform effort. Here are the details:
Santajuan M. Stepney was released from prison in March after serving less than half of a 10-year sentence for possession of marijuana. By mid-July, he was back in prison, this time sentenced to two years for beating his wife in Canadian County.
Stepney, 31, was among about 1,500 inmates granted an early release by the Corrections Department after they had good-behavior credits restored through the once-obscure Earned Credits program. The releases in question began in March, according to the agency.
A state lawmaker recently questioned the program, saying restoration of good-behavior credits and early release is in the name of saving money, while Corrections Department officials have defended its expanded use....
Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, said Stepney and inmate Brian Harvey, who was granted early release in March, are the only members of the group who’ve returned to prison since being set free under the Earned Credits program....
Last week, Rep. Aaron Stiles told The Oklahoman he believes Robert Patton, who was hired as the Corrections Department’s executive director earlier this year, is directing staff to release inmates by restoring the good behavior credits that had been lost due to infractions while behind bars. Stiles said Patton is doing so to save money as the cash-strapped prison system continues to struggle with tight budgets and overcrowded prisons.
The lawmaker said “several” Corrections Department employees have contacted him about the mass release of inmates with good behavior credits restored. He said some of the employees, who feared speaking openly, “made recommendations that certain people not be released, but they get overruled by upper level DOC administration.”
“It is all about saving money,” Stiles said last week. “They had 1,800 inmates in county backup. So how do you make room for 1,800 prisoners? Release 1,800 convicts early.”
The Earned Credits program has been around about 20 years, officials say, but it’s never been as widely used as it is now. Essentially, the program allows inmates to have good-behavior credits restored if they’ve been lost as a result of misconduct. The program does not apply to inmates who are required to serve a minimum amount of their sentence, such as 85 percent crimes like rape, murder, and many sex crimes.
Terri Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said increased use of the program isn’t all about saving money. She said it’s part of a series of changes made by Patton, and that those changes will continue in the future.
This partial report about early success with a revised corrections program in one state does not, obviously, prove conclusively that significant early releases can be achieved without a huge public safety impact. Nevertheless, given the ugly reality that recidivism rates for released prisoners can often exceed 40%, the folks in Oklahoma must be doing something right if only less than 0.15% of prisoners released early this year have committed a crime requiring requiring being sent back to prison so far.
October 9, 2014
New survey shows significant and growing support for "eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders"
As reported via this FAMM news release, which is headlined "New Poll Finds 77% of Americans Support Eliminating Mandatory Minimums for Non-Violent Offenses," there is new polling data suggesting that large and growing percentages of Americans favor mandatory minimum sentencing reform. Here are the basic details:
A new Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey finds that 77 percent of Americans support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. That number is up from 71 percent in December 2013, the last time Reason-Rupe polled on the question. You can find the full survey results here (PDF); mandatory minimums are question 17.
“Almost three decades have passed since the United States instituted harsh mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses. During that time, countless lives have been ruined and countless families destroyed. The American people have noticed, and they want no more of it,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
The poll question Reason-Rupe posed reads as follows: “Would you favor or oppose eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders so that judges have the ability to make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis?”
Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they favored eliminating mandatory minimums, while only 17 percent of respondents said they were opposed. When Reason-Rupe asked the same question in December 2013, 71 percent of respondents were in favor of eliminating mandatory minimums, and 24 percent were opposed.
Texas succeeds with new laws intended to disrupt school-to-prison pipeline
Discovering the (perhaps somewhat unexpected) success of reforms in (perhaps somewhat unexpected) states is one of the great joys of following closely state-level criminal justice policy and practice. For example, this new local article showcases how Texas is achieving success at addressing problems often stressed by juvenile justice advocates. The piece is headlined "New laws drastically cut prosecutions of Texas students," and here is how it starts:
Working as intended, two state laws passed in 2013 have fueled a larger-than-anticipated 83 percent decline in the number of Texas schoolchildren prosecuted in adult court for infractions such as disrupting a classroom, court figures show. Including other misdemeanor school-based offenses, almost 90,000 juvenile cases were kept out of adult court by the new laws, which were written to encourage schools to handle most behavior problems internally instead of relying on police or the courts, two Texas House committees were told Wednesday.
“We were expecting a drop. I don’t think we were expecting that significant a drop in the first year,” said David Slayton, director of the state Office of Court Administration. The sharp decline in the number of juvenile prosecutions, publicized for the first time at Wednesday’s joint hearing of the House Corrections and Public Education committees, offered early evidence that the laws were working to reduce the number of children saddled with criminal records for relatively minor school offenses, legislators and criminal justice advocates said.
“We have seen major success as a result of the passage of these bills,” said Mary Schmid Mergler with Texas Appleseed, a legal advocacy group. “School discipline had increasingly moved from the schoolhouse to the courthouse, and misbehavior that used to mean a trip to the principal’s office was landing children in court and resulting in criminal convictions,” she said.
The offenses targeted by the laws are prosecuted in municipal and justice of the peace courts — adult settings that lack protections found in juvenile court, such as appointed lawyers and confidentiality rules — and can result in criminal convictions that often make it difficult to find housing, enter college or join the military, Mergler said.
The laws, known as Senate Bills 393 and 1114, barred police officers from writing tickets for Class C misdemeanors that occur on school grounds, though traffic violations are exempt from the ban. Officers also cannot issue citations for school offenses such as causing disruptions in class or on a school bus.
"Fifteen Years of Supreme Court Criminal Procedure Work: Three Constitutional Brushes"
The title of this post is the title of this lovely essay by Daniel Richman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This essay — written in connection with a French National Research Agency project on “Neo or Retro Constitutionalisms” — is an effort to pull together the last fifteen years of Supreme Court criminal procedure cases expanding constitutional protections. It identifies three different styles: thin and clear doctrinal lines on miniature doctrinal canvases that have only passing connections to criminal justice realities; episodic and self-limiting engagements with a potentially larger regulatory space; and a grand style that hints at sweeping structural ambitions but collaborates with other regulatory authorities.
Readers undoubtedly can come up with more than three styles. But, in any event, the exercise highlights the limited nature of the Court’s work during this period, the limits of formalism, and the need for scholars to disaggregate broad references to “constitutionalism.”
October 8, 2014
Ninth Circuit panel chastises prosecutors for breaching "fast-track" plea agreement
A Ninth Circuit panel has handed down a lengthy, must-read opinion today in US v. Morales Heredia, No. 12-50331 (9th Cir. Oct. 8, 2014) (available here). The start of the opinion should make clear to federal practitioners, especially in border districts, why this case is notable:
Every day along the southwest border, previously deported aliens lacking entry documents are arrested, detained, and charged with illegal reentry. Once convicted, they serve a term of imprisonment, and then are again deported. The numbers are so great that federal prosecutors in these border states began to resort to an efficient means of securing a conviction: a “fast-track” plea agreement that binds the government and the defendant, but not the district judge.
The government secures the benefit of a streamlined process that minimizes the burden on its prosecutorial resources. It need not go before a grand jury to secure an indictment; battle motions, including collateral attacks on the underlying deportation; prosecute a jury trial; or oppose an appeal. The defendant, in turn, waives constitutional and other rights and agrees to a term of incarceration and, often,a term of supervised release ordinarily discouraged by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. What is the incentive for the defendant to take this deal? The prosecutor binds his office to recommend a four-level downward departure in the offense level now advised by the Guidelines, and to present a “united front” in favor of a reduced sentence to the district judge. If the judge does not accept this sentence, the defendant may walk away from his guilty plea, and proceedings will begin anew.
Paul Gabriel Morales Heredia (Morales) was one such defendant. But in Morales’s case, the orderly and efficient plea-bargaining process did not play out as intended. The government extended the promise of a reduced prison term with one hand and took it away with the other. The prosecutor’s recommendation of a six-month prison term rang hollow as he repeatedly and unnecessarily emphasized Morales’s criminal history, adding for good measure his personal opinion that “defendant’s history communicates a consistent disregard for both the criminal and immigration laws of the United States.” Morales’s counsel timely objected and sought specific performance of the plea agreement. The district judge denied this relief on the irrelevant ground that the prosecutor’s statements did not influence him. We conclude that Morales is entitled to relief, and we vacate his sentence and remand for further proceedings before a different judge.
Distinctive religious perspective on the drug war for the season
In the wake of the recent Jewish high holy days, I found especially notable and timely this recent commentary appearing in The Forward authored by Hanna Liebman Dershowitz. The piece is headlined "A Drug Policy That Denies Repentance: We Are Ruining The Lives of Small Time Users," and here are excerpts:
We are emerging from the Day of Repentance — a time for contrition for misdeeds, focusing on self-improvement and making a fresh start. But what about people who don’t have the luxury of wiping their slates clean, even for minor transgressions? Are our laws and policies robbing millions of citizens of their own opportunities to turn toward good, to achieve the possibility of teshuvah, atonement, that we claim for ourselves each year?
For decades this country has pursued a policy of mass arrest and imprisonment of people for possessing drugs. The consequences of being prosecuted for simple drug possession — conduct that does not harm other people’s bodies or property — can affect people for the rest of their lives, and wreak untold cost on our country and our society.
A criminal record can cripple job prospects and much more. Individuals with a record are often denied child custody, voting rights, business financing, professional licenses, student loans and public housing....
The United States has a higher level of incarceration than any other country. Today, more than 2.3 million people are behind bars in America. Almost one in four of them are there for drug offenses, many serving extensive mandatory minimum sentences. It is costing us dearly in lives and dollars.
And what has been gained? No appreciable reduction in use or in rates of addiction. By contrast, we have degraded the conditions that promote recovery for those who are addicted — such as access to treatment, access to support networks, gainful employment and education. It feels like we are tearing apart communities when we don’t need to. In 2012, upward of 1.5 million Americans were arrested for drugs. More than 80% of those arrests were for possession of small amounts.
Meanwhile, focusing too much attention on drug possessors often leads to perverse results. For example, in 2008, in California alone, 61,000 people were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana; that same year, 60,000 violent crimes in California went unsolved. When drug arrests are made, testing the drugs in crime labs often jumps ahead of testing rape kits and other evidence from violent crimes, because there is a suspect in custody and the courts need evidence to sustain the prosecution. In various ways, the focus on arresting drug users has atrophied our ability to address violent crime and other public safety threats.
Equally troubling, penalties for drug use fall disproportionately on people of color. Arrest rates of African-Americans for marijuana possession (the bulk of drug arrests) are many times higher — in some areas, as much as 10 times higher — than for whites in most United States cities, despite the fact that black and white people use drugs at similar rates. Although they make up 13% of America’s population, blacks make up fully 31% of arrests for drug offenses and more than 40% of incarcerations. A recent study found that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for blacks as they are for whites. This is about dehumanizing and demoralizing large numbers of citizens and stripping them of their dignity. We as Jews should recognize and strenuously oppose these unfair and discriminatory practices.
Is this how we want our system to respond to this kind of nonviolent conduct? What does it mean to be a law-abiding citizen if a person cannot make the conscious choice to walk a positive path even after a transgression? Continuing consequences, especially for minor nonviolent acts, seem to render hollow the concepts of forgiveness, redemption and community healing.
The implications of policies should be particularly resonant to us during this season of renewal. We have fasted, made our amends and hoped we were inscribed in the book of life. We should abhor a system that erases other people’s chances to atone simply because those people chose an action we have singled out for disdain.
Criticizing the tenure of AG Eric Holder based on the death penalty as a human rights issue
This extended New Republic commentary authored by Mugambi Jouet, somewhat inaccurately titled "What Eric Holder — and Most Americans — Don't Understand About the Death Penalty," takes shots at Holder's specific record on the death penalty:
Attorney General Eric Holder's recent resignation announcement prompted a flurry of assessments on his six years of service under President Obama. He let Wall Street off too easy. He was a hero to the poor. He compromised civil liberties in the name of national security—and defended civil rights better than any attorney general before him. But the debate over Holder’s record has overlooked one of the most important aspects of his legacy. Holder has been profoundly at odds with the rest of the Western world on one of the most significant human rights issues of our time: the death penalty.
All Western democracies except America have abolished capital punishment and consider it an inherent human rights violation. America further stands out as one of the countries that execute the most people. Thirty-nine prisoners were executed by the United States in 2013. While that figure marked a continuing decline in the annual number of U.S. executions, it still placed America fifth worldwide, right behind several authoritarian regimes: China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
No federal prisoner has been executed since 2003, yet Holder’s decisions could ultimately lead this de facto moratorium to end, as he authorized federal prosecutors to pursue capital punishment in several dozen cases. "Even though I am personally opposed to the death penalty, as Attorney General I have to enforce federal law," Holder has argued. Prosecutors actually have the discretion not to pursue the death penalty at all — at the risk of losing popularity — since enforcing the law does not require pursuing capital punishment as opposed to incarceration....
Holder notably approved the decision to seek the death penalty in the federal trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of perpetrating the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013 — and whom a majority of Americans want to be executed. Nevertheless, the state of Massachusetts has abolished the death penalty and only 33 percent of Boston residents support executing Tsarnaev as opposed to sentencing him to life in prison without parole. However, Holder’s decisions supporting capital punishment have hardly been limited to terrorism cases. For example, he authorized the recent decision to seek the death penalty for Jessie Con-Ui, a Pennsylvania prisoner accused of murdering a federal correctional officer....
The death penalty is rarely framed as a human rights issue in America, unlike in other Western democracies. That's partly because the principle of human rights plays a very limited role overall in the legal and political debate in the U.S., where "human rights" commonly evoke foreign problems like abuses in Third World dictatorships — not problems at home.
The situation is different on the other side of the Atlantic, where the European Court of Human Rights tackles a broad range of problems facing European states, from freedom of speech to labor rights, discrimination, and criminal justice reform. National human rights commissions also exist in multiple countries, including Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, and New Zealand. These bodies focus mostly or exclusively on monitoring domestic compliance with human rights standards. On the other hand, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, an arm of the U.S. Congress, focuses on the human rights records of foreign countries.
The relative absence of human rights as a principle in modern America is remarkable given how U.S. leaders actively promoted the concept in its infancy. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked “human rights” in his “Four Freedoms Speech” of 1941. Eleanor Roosevelt was among the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. As the human rights movement progressed in later decades, Martin Luther King said in 1968 that “we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.”
Even though Holder regards King as one of his models — and despite his proposals to make the U.S. penal system less punitive and discriminatory — the nation’s first black attorney general hardly put human rights at the center of his agenda.
The death penalty is far from the only human right issue where America stands apart from other Western democracies. America effectively has the world’s top incarceration rate, with 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. America is likewise virtually alone worldwide in authorizing life imprisonment for juveniles. Its reliance on extremely lengthy periods of solitary confinement has been denounced by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture. The extreme punishments regularly meted to U.S. prisoners are generally considered flagrant human rights violations in other Western countries. Nevertheless, Holder argued that America has “the greatest justice system the world has ever known.”
By the same token, no other modern Western democracy has gone as far as America in disregarding international human rights standards as part of anti-terrorism measures. This trend has been epitomized by indefinite detention at Guantanamo and the torture of alleged terrorists under the Bush administration. These practices have sharply divided U.S. public opinion but only a segment of Americans have depicted them as “human rights” abuses....
[T]he limited weight of human rights in the U.S. legal and political debate is not without consequences. Human rights are a far stronger basis to oppose practices like the death penalty or torture than the administrative arguments frequently invoked in America. The human rights argument against such practices is largely based on the premise that they violate human dignity....
Holder's narrow focus on problems with the administration of capital punishment suggests that he is among the many U.S. public officials and reformers who believe they have no duty to assess the “moral” issues regarding the death penalty. Whether this stance is justified or not, it seems quite exceptionally American in the modern Western world. Most contemporary European, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealander jurists probably would disagree with the notion that it is not their duty to assess whether executions violate human dignity.
Martin Luther King, who considered the death penalty an affront to human dignity, argued that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Perhaps Eric Holder — and his boss, Barack Obama — would have been willing to argue that the death penalty is dehumanizing if they did not fear losing popularity.
October 7, 2014
Rolling Stone laments enduring casualties of drug war's mandatory minimums
Rolling Stone magazine has just published this extensive "special report" titled "The Nation's Shame: The Injustice of Mandatory Minimums." The piece details the stories of seven notable low-level drug defendants serving high-level prison sentences. The piece has this subheading: "For decades, lawyers, scholars, and judges have criticized mandatory drug sentencing as oppressive and ineffective. Yet tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders continue to languish behind bars." And here is a portion of the lead into the seven cases profiled:
Widely enacted in the Eighties and Nineties amid rising crime and racially coded political fearmongering, mandatory penalties — like minimum sentences triggered by drug weight, automatic sentencing enhancements, and three-strikes laws — have flooded state and federal prisons with nonviolent offenders. Intended to ensure uniform discipline, these policies simply shifted discretion to prosecutors. Judges lost latitude to tailor sanctions based on whether someone was a kingpin or courier, for example, while [Professor Mark] Osler says, prosecutors gained "a big hammer. The easy way of doing things is to threaten people with a lot of time, and then plead them out," he says. "But easy and justice don't go together very well."...
[T]he drug war is entrenched in decades of prison buildup. Between 1980 and 2010, state incarceration rates for drug crimes multiplied tenfold, while the federal drug prisoner population ballooned by a factor of 20. Every year, taxpayers shell out $51 billion for drug war spending. Meanwhile, 2.2 million people — or a quarter of the world's prisoners — crowd a system that exacts its harshest toll on the most vulnerable. Racism undermines the justice process from initial stop to sentence, and 60 percent of those incarcerated are people of color. Rates of illiteracy, addiction, and mental illness are disproportionately high.
Amid utter congressional deadlock, sentencing reform is the only issue that has cut across partisan bickering to unite such normally irreconcilable voices as Rand Paul, Dick Durbin, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Paul Ryan and John Conyers. Yet the proposed Smarter Sentencing Act, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, has since run aground. The bill would halve key mandatory minimums, make relief under the Fair Sentencing Act available to 8,800 federal crack defendants locked up before 2010 and save $4 billion in the process. More than 260,000 people have been imprisoned under federal drug mandatory minimums, and more will continue to cycle through the system — even as others are granted clemency — as long as reforms remain stalled. At the state level, reforms without retroactive application strand drug defendants in prison even after the laws that put them there are reassessed as unjust. The following seven cases epitomize the rigid regimes of the past, and the challenges involved in dismantling them.
Arkansas deputy AG cut to pieces while trying to defend prison beard-cutting policies
This morning the Supreme Court head oral argument in a prisoner rights case, and this SCOTUSblog report on the argument from Lyle Denniston suggests it did not go well for one advocate. Here is the start of Lyle's argument recap:
The Supreme Court on Tuesday sent a blunt message to prison officials planning a policy that limits the religious freedom of inmates: it would be important to have a good reason for the restriction before it gets into court. Trying to bolster the rationale at the lectern is not a promising strategy.
A lawyer for Arkansas prison officials found that out in two quick exchanges with Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., that came close to collapsing his case.
David A. Curran, a deputy attorney general from Little Rock, arguing for the state in the case of Holt v. Hobbs, took his turn before the Justices after two lawyers on the other side had repeatedly complained that the state simply had no real justification for banning all beards on inmates, even for those who might want insist that they need one for religious reasons.
Curran tried to offer two rationales: the policy keeps prisoners from hiding anything dangerous or illegal in their chin hair, and it helps the guards identify the inmates as they move about in the prison yard or working in the farm fields. (A third rationale, put forward only briefly, is that “prisoners are capable of a lot of mischief.”) But the more he talked, the more the skepticism spread across the bench.
Clearly, though, his worst moments came when Justice Alito quietly probed both of the primary arguments.
As to the contraband-hiding problem, Alito suggested that the prison guards could just hand an inmate a comb and have him run it through the beard, “to see if a SIM card — or a revolver — falls out.” It produced a broad wave of laughter in the courtroom, at the quite ridiculous image of a gun being stashed in a half-inch beard. (There were enough modernists in the audience to know that a SIM card is a tiny electronic chip that identifies the assigned user of a cellphone; cellphones are not allowed in Arkansas prisons.)
As to the altered-identify problem, Alito tried verbally to imagine how an inmate wishing to enter the wrong barracks after a work period outside would — while out in the field — produce a razor, shave the beard, switch photo ID cards with an inmate who looked like him beardless, and go into a barracks different from the one specified on that ID card. That, too, was such a stretch that it taxed credulity.
Other Justices had also given Curran little peace, although the Court’s members did at times make some determined — and mostly frustrated — attempts to define a standard as to when courts should defer to prison officials’ judgment about what is required for prison safety, and a standard to determine when a restriction on religious practice among inmates would go too far.
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Gregory Gilchrist now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Jury trials are rare. Almost all criminal cases are resolved by guilty plea, and almost all guilty pleas are secured by prosecutorial offers of leniency. Our system of criminal procedure was developed around the norm of trials, and the shift to resolution-by-plea represents a massive change to the structure of the system.
The dominance of plea bargaining can best be explained by reference to a constitutionalized criminal procedure that renders formal adjudication too costly to provide in most cases. Plea bargaining dramatically enhances the efficiency of our system, serving as a safety valve against costly trials. The transformation of an adjudicatory system of criminal justice to a confessional one, however, generates severe costs for the legal system as a whole.
This article proposes trial bargaining as a new safety valve to counteract the negative consequences plea bargaining. Through the mechanism of waiver — the very tool that makes plea bargaining possible — trial bargaining allows the defendant to waive limited trial rights in exchange for limited leniency. As such, it promises to reinvigorate the jury trial, mitigate the costs of an excessive reliance on plea bargains, and allow a more vibrant and experimental approach to criminal justice than has been realized under our constitutionalized system.
October 6, 2014
Trying not to get too excited about SCOTUS relist in Jones/Ball acquitted conduct case
Regular readers likely recall a number of posts about the notable federal drug sentencing case from DC involving Antwan Ball and his co-defendants concerning judicial fact-finding to increase a federal guideline sentence contrary to a jury acquittal. As I noted in this post last week, this case, Jones v. US, No. 13-10026, was consider by the Justices at their "long conference." When there was subsequently no announcement of cert being granted last week, I assumed today's SCOTUS order list (noted here) would include Jones v. US, No. 13-10026, on the long list of cases for which certiorari was denied.
But, while the Justices surprised many court-watchers today by denying cert on all the same-sex marriage cases, they surprised me by "relisting" Jones v. US, as noted in this official docket report, for consideration again at the Court's conference this coming Friday. This is relatively big news — to the extent that not making a cert decision is big news — because a relist is usually a strong signal that one or more Justices are strongly interested in the case and want some more time to mull over the possibility of a grant of cert or some other significant action.
Still, as the title of this post is intended to connote, I am trying real hard to resist getting excited by the prospect of cert being granted in Jones (and/or in another acquitted conduct case) real soon. It is quite possible — dare I say perhaps even likely — that this relist is just a sign that a Justice or two is working on a dissent from the denial of cert review and need another few days to put the finishing touches on that dissent. Indeed, given how crisply the acquitted conduct issue is presented in Jones and how many prior petitions have failed to garner the votes need for a cert grant in recent years, it is hard to imagine that the Justices want or need more time to mull this over. But, while the Dougie Downer voice in my head will keep telling me not to get too excited by all this, the optimist voice in my head keeps imaginging that the big baseball and Sixth Amendment fans on the Supreme Court, namely Justices Scalia and Sotomayor, are going to convince enough of their colleague to finally be willing to "play Ball" and take up the acquitted conduct issue in Jones v. US.
Previous related posts on this case and acquitted conduct sentencing enhancements:
- Rooting for acquitted conduct petition grant from SCOTUS long conference
- Extended examination of ugliness of acquitted conduct enhancement
- Latest chapter in notable federal acquitted conduct case from DC
- "When Acquitted Doesn't Mean Acquitted"
- DC Circuit gives disconcertingly short-shrift to Antwuan Ball's many significant sentencing claims
- Notable follow-up thoughts on acquitted conduct and the sentencing of Antwuan Ball
- Strong commentary on acquitted conduct sentencing
- Sincere questions about acquitted conduct sentencing
- Amicus brief in Sixth Circuit acquitted conduct case focused on statutory issues
Reviewing California's debate over lowering sentences through Prop 47
I have noted in a few prior posts some of the details of California's Proposition 47, which seeks to reduce penalties for certain offenders convicted of low-level property and drug crimes. This new New York Times article, headlined "California Voters to Decide on Sending Fewer Criminals to Prison," discusses the current state of debate over Prop. 47. Here are excerpts:
Twenty years ago, amid a national panic over crime, California voters adopted the country’s most stringent three-strikes law, sentencing repeat felons to 25 years to life, even if the third offense was a minor theft. The law epitomized the tough-on-crime policies that produced overflowing prisons and soaring costs.
Now California voters appear poised to scale back the heavy reliance on incarceration they once embraced, with a measure that would transform several lower-level, nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors punishable by brief jail stays, if that, rather than time in a state penitentiary. The referendum on Nov. 4 is part of a national reappraisal of mass incarceration.
To its advocates — not only liberals and moderates, but also an evangelical conservative businessman who has donated more than $1 million to the campaign, calling it “a moral and ethical issue” — the measure injects a dose of common sense into a justice system gone off the tracks.
“Law enforcement has been on an incarceration binge for 30 years, and it hasn’t worked,” said George Gascón, the San Francisco district attorney and a former police chief who, bucking most of his counterparts around the state, is the main sponsor along with a former police chief of San Diego. For the large numbers of nonviolent offenders with mental health or substance abuse problems, Mr. Gascón said, “Incarceration doesn’t fix the problem.”
California has already been forced by federal courts to trim its prison population because of inhumane crowding, which it did mainly by sending more offenders to county jails. Two years ago, in a previous referendum, voters took the worst sting off the three-strikes law, shortening the sentences of those whose third crime was a minor one.
The new initiative would have wider effects, altering penalties for low-level theft and drug-possession crimes that result in felony convictions, and sometimes prison terms, for thousands of nonviolent offenders each year. Proposition 47, as it is called, would redefine thefts, forgery and other property crimes involving less than $950, and possession for personal use of drugs including heroin and cocaine, as misdemeanors — punishable by at most one year in a county jail, and often by probation and counseling. The changes would apply retroactively, lightening the penalties for thousands already in prison or jails....
The proposals here are modest compared with changes recently taken by other states to curb prison growth. But Proposition 47 has drawn harsh attack from law enforcement officials, including most district attorneys and the association of police chiefs, which calls it “a dangerous and radical package” that will “endanger Californians.”...
In a poll in September conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, 62 percent of voters said they supported the initiative, and only 25 percent said they opposed it. Proponents like Mr. Gascón and Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic president pro tem of the State Senate, say this shows that the public is far ahead of timid legislators, necessitating the unusual step of a ballot initiative....
But opinions could change, especially if the two sides mount television campaigns in coming weeks. One of the most outspoken opponents, Shelley Zimmerman, the chief of police in San Diego, has already gone on the offensive. “Virtually all of law enforcement is opposed,” Chief Zimmerman said. “It’s virtually a get-out-of-jail-free card” for 10,000 felons, many with violent histories. She and other opponents have zeroed in on two details: Stealing a gun worth less than $950 and possessing date-rape drugs would no longer be automatic felonies....
So far, supporters of the proposal have a large financial advantage, raising more than $4 million as of last week, half of which had been used to get the measure on the ballot, compared to less than $300,000 for the opponents, with most of that donated by a law enforcement officers’ association. Large donations in support have come from the Open Society Policy Center, a Washington-based group linked to George Soros; the Atlantic Advocacy Fund, based in New York; Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix; and Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook.
But the largest single donor is B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a conservative Christian businessman and philanthropist based in Malibu. In one of the most tangible signs yet of growing concern among conservatives about the cost and impact of incarceration, Mr. Hughes has donated $1.255 million....
Even if Proposition 47 passes, California will still lag behind many other states, including some that are politically conservative, in reforms that have achieved prison cuts with no increase in crime, said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Just looking at the dollar threshold for theft or forgery felonies, he noted, Mississippi recently raised its cutoff to $1,000, and South Carolina to $2,000. “This reform may be modest,” Mr. Gascón acknowledged. “But California led the way early on in draconian sentencing, and now I’m hoping that these reforms, too, will have an impact on the state and the nation.”
Prior related posts:
- Inititative details and debates over California's Proposition 47 to reduce severity of various crimes
- Is California's Prop. 47 a "common-sense" or a "radical" reform to the state's criminal laws?
- Newt Gingrich helps explain "What California can learn from the red states on crime and punishment"
SCOTUS summarily reverses Ninth Circuit habeas grant on AEDPA deference grounds
Thanks to this post by Kent Scheidegger over at Crime & Consequences, I just saw that the Supreme Court kicked off the first Monday of October with its first reversal of the Ninth Circuit in a criminal case. Here is how the per curiam opinion in Lopez v. Smith, No. 13-346 (S. Ct. Oct. 6, 2014) (available here), gets started:
When a state prisoner seeks federal habeas relief on the ground that a state court, in adjudicating a claim on the merits, misapplied federal law, a federal court may grant relief only if the state court’s decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). We have emphasized, time and again, that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 110 Stat. 1214, prohibits the federal courts of appeals from relying on their own precedent to conclude that a particular constitutional principle is “clearly established.” See, e.g., Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U.S. __, __ (2013) (per curiam) (slip op. at 6). Because the Ninth Circuit failed to comply with this rule, we reverse its decision granting habeas relief to respondent Marvin Smith.
After reporting on this SCOTUS development, Kent added this pointed commentary about the general failure of lower federal courts to show adequate AEDPA deference:
There is a broad spectrum of viewpoints on the Supreme Court today, but when there is not a single justice who thinks the court of appeals' decision is correct, when the error is so obvious that it doesn't even require full briefing and argument, and when the same pattern recurs "time and again," there is something gravely wrong with some of our courts of appeals (mostly those divisible by 3).
The continuing violation of this provision by some of the lower federal courts is the largest-scale defiance of federal law since the "massive resistance" campaign in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Except this time federal courts are perpetrators of the violations instead of enforcers of the law.
SCOTUS keeps rejecting important follow-up Graham and Miller issues
The Supreme Court this morning issued this lengthy order list that has 60+ pages listing case after case for which the Justices have denied certiorari review. Not suprisingly, folks are surprised to discover that all the same-sex marriage cases brought to the court over the summer are on the cert denied list (SCOTUSblog discussion here, AP discussion here).
Sentencing fans will also be interested to learn about another group of notable state cases on the cert denied list this morning. A helpful reader provided this account: "For what it’s worth, the US Supreme Court declined to hear at least three virtual LWOP cases (Goins v. Lazaroff, Barnette v. Ohio, and Bunch v. Ohio). They also declined to hear at least two cases on the retroactivity of Miller, including one that was an appeal by a state (Evans v. Ohio and Nebraska v. Mantich)."
I have long believed it will only be a matter of time before the Justices take up at least a few important follow-up Graham and Miller Eighth Amendment issues. These cert denials suggest that the Justices are content to let the issues continue to be resolved only by lower courts for the foreseeable future.
Highlighting and lamenting the too potent powers of prosecutors
The Economist has these two new pieces spotlighting and complaining about the powers of modern prosecutors:
Here is an excerpts from the end of the first piece linked above:
Disquiet over prosecutorial power is growing. Several states now require third-party corroboration of a co-operator’s version of events or have barred testimony by co-operators with drug or mental-health problems. Judge [Jed] Rakoff proposes two reforms: scrapping mandatory-minimum sentences and reducing the prosecutor’s role in plea-bargaining — for instance by bringing in a magistrate judge to act as a broker. He nevertheless sees the use of co-operators as a “necessary evil”, though many other countries frown upon it.
Prosecutors’ groups have urged Mr Holder not to push for softer mandatory-minimum sentences, arguing that these “are a critical tool in persuading defendants to co-operate”. Some defend the status quo on grounds of pragmatism: without co-operation deals and plea bargains, they argue, the system would buckle under the weight of extra trials. This week Jerry Brown, California’s governor, vetoed a bill that would have allowed judges to inform juries if prosecutors knowingly withhold exculpatory evidence.
Most prosecutors are hard-working, honest and modestly paid. But they have accumulated so much power that abuse is inevitable. As [Justice Robert] Jackson put it all those years ago: “While the prosecutor at his best is one of the most beneficent forces in our society, when he acts with malice or other base motives, he is one of the worst.”
October 5, 2014
Previewing some of the high-profile criminal cases on the SCOTUS docket
This new Reuters article, headlined "Inmate beards, Facebook threats on U.S. top court's docket," helpfully spotlights some of the higher-profile criminal law cases on the SCOTUS docket for the Term that officially gets started on Monday. Here are excerpts:
The U.S. Supreme Court opens on Monday a new term in which the nine justices will decide issues such as whether a Muslim prison inmate can have a beard and whether a man can be prosecuted for making threatening statements on Facebook. The term, which runs to the end of June, is expected to be defined by whatever action the justices take on whether states can ban gay marriage....
Arguments start on Monday in the cases the court has already accepted. It has agreed to hear a number of cases involving people challenging their treatment by the government, whether it be prosecutors, police or agencies.
Arkansas inmate Gregory Holt's challenge to a state prison grooming policy will be heard on Tuesday. Holt, who initially got the court's attention with a handwritten plea last year, says the policy violates a 2000 federal law giving religious rights to prisoners. He wants to grow a half-inch (1.3 cm) beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs. Holt's lawyers note that 44 state prison systems and the federal government allow inmates to have similar beards. Legal experts predict he has a good chance of victory....
The Facebook threat case, to be argued on Dec. 1, concerns Anthony Elonis, who posted statements on the social network in 2010 after his wife, Tara Elonis, left him. Aimed at his wife, co-workers and others, the posts were mostly in the form of rap lyrics in which he fantasized about committing violent acts. Elonis was charged with violating a federal law that outlaws sending threatening communications. He was convicted on four of five counts and sentenced to 44 months in prison. The legal question is whether prosecutors needed to convince jurors that Elonis intended his statements to be interpreted as threats.
The first argument the court will hear on Monday comes in a North Carolina case brought by Nicholas Heien, who was charged and pleaded guilty to drug trafficking after police found cocaine in his car during a traffic stop. He challenged whether police had the right to stop his car for having a broken tail light when state law does not require two working tail lights.
Could we reduce recidivism with tattoo removal prison programming?
The (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting new research paper available on SSRN authored by Kaitlyn Harger. The piece is titled "Bad Ink: Visible Tattoos and Recidivism," and here is the abstract:
This study examines whether tattoo visibility affects recidivism length of ex-offenders. Conventional wisdom suggests that visible tattoos may negatively influence employment outcomes. Additionally, research on recidivism argues that employment post-release is a main determinant of reductions in recidivism. Taken together, these two bodies of literature suggest there may be a relationship between tattoos visible in the workplace and recidivism of released inmates.
Using data from the Florida Department of Corrections, I estimate a log-logistic survival model and compare estimated survival length for inmates with and without visible tattoos. The findings suggest that inmates with visible tattoos return to incarceration faster than those without tattoos or with tattoos easily hidden by clothing.
Though I cannot fully parse the data reported in this paper, among the seemingly significant findings is that " inmates with tattoos located on their face, head, neck, or hands, return to incarceration faster than inmates with tattoos in other visible locations. In general, ex-offenders with tattoos located on their face, head, neck, or hands fail 674 days earlier than ex-offenders with visible tattoos in other locations." Though this relationship between tattoo and criminal offending may well be a story more about correlation than causation, it certainly suggest to me that we might well start paying a more attention to "bad ink" as we focus efforts on efforts to reduce recidivism.
Concurrence laments "trend" of federal prosecutors seeking "significantly enhanced terms of imprisonment under the guise of 'relevant conduct'"
An otherwise unremarkable federal drug sentence appeal in the US v. St. Hill, No. 13-2097 (1st Cir. Oct. 1, 2014) (available here) took on some blogworthy character because of a lengthy concurrence by Judge Torruella. Here is the start, heart and close of Judge Torruella's opinion in St. Hill:
I join the court's opinion but write separately to note a disturbing trend in criminal prosecutions. All too often, prosecutors charge individuals with relatively minor crimes, carrying correspondingly short sentences, but then use section 1B1.3(a) of the Sentencing Guidelines ("Guidelines") to argue for significantly enhanced terms of imprisonment under the guise of "relevant conduct" — other crimes that have not been charged (or, if charged, have led to an acquittal) and have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt....
St. Hill was subject to an additional six to eight years in prison due to isolated drug sales not directly related to the twenty oxycodone pills which led to his conviction, all of which he was never arrested for, never charged with, never pleaded guilty to, and never convicted of by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a prime example of the tail wagging the dog. Even more disturbing: the government could, if it so chooses, still charge St. Hill for these uncharged crimes in a separate proceeding, and he could be convicted and sentenced again without protection from the Double Jeopardy Clause. See Witte v. United States, 515 U.S. 389, 406 (1995)....
[I]f the government intends to seek an increase in a criminal defendant's sentence for conduct that independently may be subject to criminal liability, the government should charge that conduct in the indictment. The Fifth Amendment requires that "[n]o person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," U.S. Const. amend. V, while the Sixth Amendment provides an accused with the right to a trial "by an impartial jury," id. amend. VI. The practice of arguing for higher sentences based on uncharged and untried "relevant conduct" for, at best, tangentially related narcotics transactions seems like an end-run around these basic constitutional guarantees afforded to all criminal defendants. Cf. Alleyne, 133 S. Ct. at 2162 ("When a finding of fact alters the legally prescribed punishment so as to aggravate it, the fact necessarily forms a constituent part of a new offense and must be submitted to the jury."). The government's role is to ensure justice, both to the accused and to the public at large; it is not to maximize conviction rates and argue for the greatest possible sentence. And, while it is unclear to me whether this trend is due to shaky police work resulting in cases that cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutorial laziness, or other less nefarious factors, it remains troubling regardless....
Nevertheless, as a judge, it is my responsibility to faithfully apply the law as articulated by both the Supreme Court and this court, and I do not dispute that both the Guidelines and our interpretation of them currently condone this questionable process. See Witte, 515 U.S. at 396, 406 (finding no constitutional violation where the sentence was based in part on a cocaine offense that defendant "clearly was neither prosecuted for nor convicted of"); United States v. Lombard, 102 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 1996) (finding no constitutional violation where the district court "choose[s] to give weight to the uncharged offenses in fixing the sentence within the statutory range if it finds by a preponderance of evidence that they occurred"). I nonetheless question whether this interpretation should be revisited — either by the courts or by revisions to the Guidelines.