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March 7, 2015

California voters through Prop 47 help fix prison crowding problems plaguing state for decades

Images (5)Prison overcrowding has been a persistent problem in California for decades, driven in part by tough-on-crime repeat offender sentencing laws passed in the state in the early 1990s.  Governors and legislative leaders from both political parties have long understood the critical need to address prison overcrowding problems: e.g., in 2006 as noted here and here, Governor Schwarzenegger issued a proclamation calling the state's legislature into special summer session starting to address prison crowding issues.  But, until the US Supreme Court finally affirmed a special federal court order requiring reductions in the prison population, California's political leaders could not agree on laws to address these pressing problems.

I provide all this back-story, which should be familiar to those who follow California crime-and-punishment issues closely, because this new local article about the prison impact of Prop 47 in the state highlights that voters apparently figured out in one election how to address prison crowing problems in a significant way.  The piece is headlined "California prisons have released 2,700 inmates under Prop. 47," and here are excerpts from the piece:

California’s prisons have released 2,700 inmates after their felonies were reduced to misdemeanors under a ballot measure that voters approved in November, easing punishment for some property and drug crimes.

The mass inmate release over the past four months under Proposition 47 has resolved one of the state’s most ingrained problems: prison overcrowding, state prisons chief Jeffrey Beard told a Senate committee at a legislative hearing Thursday.  Prop. 47 has allowed the state to comply with a court-ordered inmate reduction mandate a year ahead of schedule, Beard said.

But law enforcement leaders say they’ve already seen an increase in crime, and they believe it’s because of Prop. 47.  “The good news is we’ve addressed our jail overcrowding situation in California, which wasn’t acceptable to anybody,” said San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr in a phone interview.  “The thing we are grappling with is the tremendous rise in property crime.”

Prop. 47 allows inmates serving sentences for crimes affected by the reduced penalties to apply to be resentenced and released early. Those crimes include shoplifting, grand theft and writing bad checks, among others. About 150 inmates a week are being released under the relaxed laws. Initially, 250 to 300 inmates a week were being let out....

Prisoners released under Prop. 47 are required to be on parole for one year unless a judge decides otherwise. California now has 112,500 inmates in its prisons, which is 1,300 inmates below the final cap the state was required to meet by February 2016....

In San Francisco, Suhr said burglaries are up 20 percent, larceny and theft up 40 percent, auto theft is up more than 55 percent, between 2010 and 2014.  Suhr said those crimes shot up largely due to prison realignment, Gov. Jerry Brown’s program that changed sentencing, sending thousands of convicted felons to county jail or probation instead of state prison. Suhr said auto burglaries are up quite a bit this year, and he believes it’s because of the Prop. 47 release.

Last year, violent crime and property offenses in San Francisco were down overall, according to end-of-year data released by the Police Department last month. “This situation is not unique to San Francisco,” Suhr said.  “I don’t think this is something we can’t figure out, but there is a new normal for property theft we have to figure out.”

Prop. 47 scrapped felony penalties for possession of most illegal drugs, such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin, as well as for property crimes in which the loss was $950 or less.  Prior to the measure, the threshold for misdemeanor property crimes was $450.  Those crimes include forgery, check fraud, petty theft, shoplifting and receiving stolen property.

Defendants in those cases could still be charged with felonies if they had a previous conviction for specified serious or violent crimes or sex offenses. “There are still consequences,” Anderson said. “Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor can face a year in county jail.”

Each year, 40,000 people in California are convicted of crimes covered by Prop. 47, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which projected the state will save $100 million to $200 million beginning next fiscal year from the measure.  Most of that money is slated for mental health and substance abuse programs.

I think it will likely take at least a few more years to sensibly measure and understand even the short-term impact of Prop 47 and other legal reforms in California on crime rates. But I suspect that, economic savings aside, most California voters and victims could tolerate an increase in property crime if it is accompanied by a decrease in violent crime. And I have long believe it is important to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders in prison so that there is more room for the violent ones.

Thanks to California voters passing Prop 47, the state now finally has 1,300 spare prison beds available for the confinement of the most serious and dangerous offenders. in addition, it has many millions of tax dollar to devote to programming to reduce crime and recidivism among those at great risk based on substance abuse. I am hopeful (though not especially optimistic) that California officials will allocate all these extra resources to programs with a proven track record in helping to drive down violent crimes (which I believe are already at record low levels in California).

Some prior related posts on California's Prop 47 and its early impact:

March 7, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 6, 2015

Examining some statistical realities behind federal death penalty administration

This intriguing Voactiv piece, headlined "Here Are The Odds The Boston Bomber Will Get The Death Penalty," draws on the Boston bomber federal capital trial as an opportunity to looks at some basic federal capital sentencing data. The piece is subheaded "Turns out, it's pretty hard to get a jury to vote for execution," and here are excerpts:

As the [Tsarnaev] trial wraps up its first week, we looked at how often the U.S. Attorney General has asked for the death penalty over the past two decades, and how often it has been able to get the jury to agree.  Between 1989 and 2009, some 2,795 cases were eligible for the death penalty.  Of those, the federal government brought 262 death- cases to trial and only 70, or about 25 percent, ended in a death sentence, according to the most recent statistics from the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel.  In the vast majority of the 262 cases, the juries recommended a life sentence instead.

Many death-penalty cases, another 201, never saw the inside a courtroom because they were settled before the trial....  [And] the federal government rarely pursues it even in cases that are eligible.  The U.S. Attorney General has approved death penalty prosecution for only 15 percent of all eligible cases over the past 20 years....

Even if Tsarnaev does get the death penalty, the execution isn’t likely to happen any time soon: Of the 70 people who have been sentenced to death in federal trials around the country in the last two decades, most are still waiting on death row.  Only three people have been executed since 1977, the latest in 2001.  Some defendants have been waiting on death row for over 20 years.

March 6, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Fourth Circuit holds that Miller is not retroactive on collateral review under Teague

Like many who follow Eighth Amendment jurisprudence or care about juvenile justice, I had been hopeful that the Supreme Court was finally going to resolve this Term whether its Miller ruling barring mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders was to be applied retroactively.  But Toca, the case on which cert had been granted a few months ago, got resolved on other grounds and now lower court rulings continue to be central to this issue for the time being.  Consequently, I am grateful to a reader who alerted me that the Fourth Circuit yesterday, in Johnson v. Ponton, No. 13-7824 (4th Cir. March 5, 2015) (available here), formally addressed this matter.  Here is how the panel's unanimous opinion starts and winds down: 

Petitioner-Appellant Shermaine Ali Johnson appeals the district court’s dismissal of his habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his sentence of life imprisonment without parole.  He argues that the rule announced in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), is retroactively applicable to him on collateral review.  Miller held that imposing mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders -- i.e., imposing that sentence without any individualized consideration of their status as juveniles -- violates the Eighth Amendment.  For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the Miller rule is not retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review. We therefore affirm....

We therefore hold that the Supreme Court has not held the Miller rule retroactively applicable, and that the Court’s holdings do not dictate retroactivity because the rule is neither substantive nor a watershed rule of criminal procedure.  In so deciding, we join the Eleventh Circuit.  We also note that our holding is consistent with that of the only other circuit court panel to have answered the question of Miller’s retroactivity.  See Craig v. Cain, No. 12-30035, 2013 WL 69128 (5th Cir. Jan. 4, 2013) (per curiam) (unpublished).

March 6, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Highlighting that mass incarceration is "Not Just the Drug War"

For lots of good reasons, the modern war on drugs is the focal point for lots of criticisms of criminal justice systems in the United States.  But this effective Jacobin Magazine Q&A with Marie Gottschalk, author of the book "Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics," spotlights that the US affinity for record-levels of incarceration is about a lot more than the drug war. The full piece is today's must-read, and here are excerpts from its start:

[The] new book by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Marie Gottschalk, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, makes it clear that the problem is far worse than commonly suspected, and that the reforms on the table are unlikely to even make a dent in the forces that keep millions behind bars.

Contrary to what many progressives believe, Gottschalk argues it’s not primarily the War on Drugs that’s driving this beast.  Instead, it’s an all-out assault that “extends a brute egalitarianism across the board.”  Jacobin editor Connor Kilpatrick recently got a chance to interview Gottschalk.

Q:  One of the most shocking stats in your book is that simply rolling back punishments for violent offenses to their 1984 levels in 2004 would have done more to lower the incarceration rate — a cut in state prison rates of 30 percent — than simply ending the drug war.

A: The intense focus in criminal justice reform today on the non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenders — the so-called non, non, nons — is troubling.  Many contend that we should lighten up on the sanctions for the non, non, nons so that we can throw the book at the really bad guys.  But the fact is that we’ve been throwing the book at the really bad guys for a really long time.

Legislators are making troubling compromises in which they are decreasing penalties in one area — such as drug crimes — in order to increase them in another area — such as expanding the use of life sentences.  In doing so, they’re also fostering the mistaken idea that it is easy to distinguish the non, non, nons from the really bad guys.

March 6, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

March 5, 2015

Gear up for the last weeks of April, SCOTUS sentencing fans

Kent Scheidegger via this post over at Crime & Consequences provides a helpful run-down of criminal justice and related cases appearing on the just-released Supreme Court April argument calendar. With Kent's descriptions, here are the two dates and cases that I think sentencing fans ought to be sure to place on their personal calendars:

Monday, April 20: Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120 will be reargued.  The case deals with possession of a sawed-off shotgun as a "violent felony."   The case was argued Nov. 5, but on Jan. 9 the Court restored it to the calendar and asked for supplemental briefing on "Whether the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(ii), is unconstitutionally vague."

Wednesday, April 29: Glossip v. Gross, No. 14-7955, deals with Oklahoma's three-drug execution protocol using midazolam as the first drug. A similar protocol is used in Florida.

March 5, 2015 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Despite spending many millions, Arizona prosecutors again fail to convince a sentencing jury to send Jodi Arias to death row

I have been interested in the Jodi Arias case from Arizona since she was found guilty of murder two years ago, not principally because of all the media attention her case generated, but because of the extraordinary efforts Arizona prosecutors were prepared to make AT TAXPAYER EXPENSE to try to get Arias on to the state's death row.  Last year in this post, I guessed that Arizona prosecutors were spending more than $5,000,000 in taxpayer funds in their effort to have Jodi Arias sent and kept on death row rather than in another part of Arizona's prison system.  

As this new AP report from Arizona highlights, all those taxpayer costs created by the prosecutors in this one state capital case have now officially achieved nothing:

Convicted murderer Jodi Arias was spared the death penalty Thursday after jurors deadlocked on whether she should be executed or sent to prison for life for killing her lover in 2008.

It marked the second time a jury was unable to reach a decision on her punishment — a disappointment for prosecutors who argued for the death penalty during a nearly seven-year legal battle.  It means the judge will sentence Arias on April 13 to either life in prison or a life term with the possibility of release after 25 years.

Family members of victim Travis Alexander wept when the judge announced that jurors couldn't reach a decision after deliberating for about 26 hours over five days.  The family sobbed as they left the courtroom, with one covering her eyes as she walked out. Arias' mother, Sandra, received a hug from a friend moments after the verdict was read....

Arias' 2013 trial became a sensation with its tawdry revelations about her relationship with Alexander and that she shot him in the head and slit his throat so deeply that he was nearly decapitated.  It was broadcast live and TV audiences heard how Arias had stabbed and slashed Alexander nearly 30 times then left his body in his shower at his suburban Phoenix home, where friends found him about five days later.

The jury convicted her of first-degree murder but deadlocked on punishment, prompting the sentencing retrial that began in October.  Prosecutors say they don't regret trying again to send Arias to death row.  Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who decided to seek the death penalty a second time, told reporters that "regret is a place in the past I can't afford to live in."

Arias initially courted the spotlight after her arrest, granting interviews to "48 Hours" and "Inside Edition."  She testified for 18 days at her first trial, describing her abusive childhood, cheating boyfriends, relationship with Alexander and her contention that he was physically abusive.  She did more media interviews after the jury convicted her of murder.

Spectators lined up in the middle of the night to get a coveted seat in the courtroom for the first trial. However, attention was dampened during the penalty retrial after the judge ruled cameras could record the proceedings but nothing could be broadcast until after the verdict.

The proceedings revealed few new details about the crime and dragged on months longer than expected amid a series of expert witnesses and a surprising late October decision by Judge Sherry Stephens to remove reporters and spectators from the courtroom so Arias could testify in private. A higher court halted the testimony on its second day after complaints from news organizations. At the end of the retrial, Arias passed up a chance to address the jury. She said she wanted to make such comments but refused to do so unless the courtroom was cleared. She cited potential personal safety threats in declining to speak in the open courtroom.

I am not at all surprised to hear the Arizona prosecutors now "say they don't regret trying again to send Arias to death row."  After all, these prosecutors got the opportunity to work for two more years on a high-profile and exciting case and they likely will not suffer any professional consequences for wasting an extraordinary amount of taxpayer resources now twice failing to convince a jury that Jodi Arias ought to die for her crimes.

Especially because, as I said before in prior posts, it was extremely unlikely Arias would ever be executed even if she had been sentenced to death, this case is now for me exhibit #1 in the extraordinary misallocation of resources that the death penalty can often engender because prosecutors generally get all the political benefits and suffer none of the true economic costs of capital punishment systems.  The folks who should really regret how this case has been handed are crime victims and others in need of social services and programming in Arizona.  As I noted in a prior post, the Arizona Crime Victims Programs — which is under the authority of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission and "provides support to all agencies that assist and compensate the victims of crime" — has an annual budget of around $5,000,000.  I feel pretty confident a lot more good throughout Arizona could have been done if state tax resources were allocated to doubling the funds for crime victim programming rather than enabling prosecutors to keep seeking a death verdict for Jodi Arias (which itself was never likely to get carried out).

Some prior posts on the Arias case:

March 5, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Should there be a presumptive incarceration "retirement age" to deal with the graying of prisons?

The question in the title of this post is my latest provocative (but very serious) thought about how to deal with the aging US prison population and the costs that incarcerating the elderly places on taxpayers.  This thinking is prompted today by this new commentary from New York titled "Address the Graying of Prisons," which makes these points:  

In New York, roughly 17 percent of the state's prison population is elderly. By 2030, the aging are expected to account for one third of the prison population. This large-scale incarceration of the elderly is enormously expensive. The United States spends over $16 billion annually on incarceration for individuals aged 50 and older — approximately double the cost of incarcerating a younger person.

But cost is not the only reason to address this crisis. Prisons were not designed to meet the basic needs of elderly individuals. Wheelchair inaccessibility and bunk beds make daily life difficult for people with mobility impairment; cognitive impairments and hearing loss exacerbate the challenges. When the health ward proves incapable of providing care, prisoners must be cared for at an outside hospital — with expensive around-the-clock guards.

Weigh this against the following fact: many "long-termers" are so old, sick, and frail that they pose virtually no safety risk to the public, with a national recidivism rate of only 4 percent for those over 65.

But, if we release more of the aging, as we should (of the 2,730 requests for compassionate release in New York between 1992-2002, only 381 were granted), we will need to address the dearth of community-based services to support them. The majority of those released after serving long sentences face fading social and family networks, a struggle to access health care and housing, and a lack of skills required to live independently. Nursing homes often won't take them, they are ineligible for Medicare while on parole, and many haven't paid enough into Social Security to receive benefits....

And the solution cannot be left only to those of us in criminal justice and corrections. We need the fields of gerontology, mental health treatment and senior services, working together to develop better solutions to the complex, multifaceted problems faced by aging formerly incarcerated individuals....

Here in New York, the Osborne Association will soon begin a pilot project to provide discharge planning and case management support for elders released to New York City. It is a start. But ultimately, any systemic and sustained change is contingent upon our collective willingness to deal with the looming crisis of a graying prison population in ways that reduce costs and improve lives while recognizing the inherent dignity of all people.

Given that the recidivism rate for those over 65 is so low (and I suspect especially lower for elderly prisoners without a long criminal record and not previously involved in serious sex or drug offenses), why not a national policy that any and all prisoners who have already served a certain number of years in prison and reach 65 ought to be presumptively considered for immediate parole? We could have data-driven risk-assessment instruments that help officials decide which older offenders are likely to pose no real safety risks at their old ages.

Among other benefits, a national "presumptive prison release at 65 scheme" could and would bring all jurisdictions in compliance with the Eighth Amendment rules set forth in Graham and Miller. In addition, both offenders and victims (and lawyers and judges) could/would all know that "life" sentences really mean serving for sure in prison until the offender is 65 at which point the offender would have a chance to seek release.  And victims and others could plan and gear up to explain why they would oppose or support release at that date certain.

Especially in light of improving life expectancies, even for those imprisoned, I could image tweaking this proposal to set the presumptive prison retirement age at 70 or even 75.  But, whatever the selected retirement age, I think our sentencing and prison systems might be improved by having some national presumptive norms about being "too old to jail."   Indeed, just as many employers and employees believe it is not just or efficient to expect elderly individuals to work full-time until they drop dead, I suspect many prison officials and prisoners may believe it is not just or efficient to expect elderly individuals to remain imprisoned full-time until they drop dead.

March 5, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

"Evolving Standards of Domination: Abandoning a Flawed Legal Standard and Approaching a New Era in Penal Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this provocative new paper by SpearIt now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article critiques the evolving standards of decency doctrine as a form of Social Darwinism. It argues that evolving standards of decency provided a system of review that was tailor-made for Civil Rights opponents to scale back racial progress.  Although as a doctrinal matter, evolving standards sought to tie punishment practices to social mores, prison sentencing became subject to political agendas that determined the course of punishment more than the benevolence of a maturing society.  Indeed, rather than the fierce competition that is supposed to guide social development, the criminal justice system was consciously deployed as a means of social control.  This evolutionary model was thus betrayed by Court opinions that allowed states nearly unfettered authority over prison sentencing and use of solitary confinement, a self-fulfilling prophecy — a deep irony in the expanded incarceration of poor, uneducated, minorities — the very population that might be expected under an evolutionary frame.

The Article urges the Supreme Court to abandon evolving standards as a flawed and pernicious concept, and simultaneously, accept the duty to reinterpret the Eighth Amendment for prison sentencing and solitary confinement.  Looking forward, the Article advances a blueprint for employing research and science as a means of reimagining the scale of imprisonment.  It challenges the Court to do something never done before in American penal history — justify the length of prison sentences with more than just random and arbitrary figures.  The Court has been trying to implement objective standards to guide punishment practices for decades, but has constantly fallen prey to its own subjective inclinations.  This Article suggests that the objectivity the Court has been seeking all along is there for the taking, provided it abandons the sociological myth of “survival of the fittest” along with the idea that American society is ever-progressing in humane decency.  The Court must move beyond its obsessive tinkering with the death penalty and focus on the realities of “doing time” in America.

March 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

March 4, 2015

First Circuit creates hard and firm standards before allowing sex offender penile plethysmograph testing

Long-time readers likely can recall the occasional post throughout the years setting out some appellate jurisprudence as to when and how a court may rely upon or order sex offenders to be subject to penile plethysmograph testing.  The First Circuit has added to this jurisprudence today in via a lengthy panel ruling in US v. Medina, No. 13-1936 (1st Cir. March 4, 2015) (available here), which starts and ends this way:

Moisés Medina failed to register as a sex offender when he moved to Puerto Rico in May of 2012, even though he had been convicted of a state sex offense four years earlier. As a result, Medina was arrested for violating the Sex Offender Notification and Registration Act, also known as SORNA, 18 U.S.C. § 2250. He then pled guilty and was sentenced to a thirty-month prison term, to be followed by a twenty-year term of supervised release.

The supervised release portion of the sentence included various conditions that Medina must follow or face returning to prison. Medina now challenges two of those conditions as well the length of the supervised release term. One of the two conditions restricts Medina from accessing or possessing a wide range of sexually stimulating material. The other requires Medina to submit to penile plethysmograph testing -- a particularly intrusive procedure -- if the sex offender treatment program in which he must participate as a condition of his supervised release chooses to use such testing.

We hold that the District Court erred in setting the length of the supervised release term. We further hold that the District Court inadequately justified the imposition of the supervised release conditions that Medina challenges.  We therefore vacate Medina's supervised release sentence term and the conditions challenged on this appeal, and remand for re-sentencing....

A district court has significant discretion in setting a term of supervised release. A district court also has significant discretion to craft special supervised release conditions. But a district court's exercise of its discretion must still accord with the statutory framework governing supervised release.

Here, we conclude that the District Court improperly determined the relevant guidelines range in setting the term of supervised release; imposed a blanket pornography ban without explanation and contrary to directly applicable precedent; and then imposed an extraordinarily invasive supervised release condition without considering the condition's efficacy in achieving the statutory purposes of such conditions, given both the particular defendant whose liberty was at stake and the evident concerns he directly raised about the appropriateness and reliability of the condition to which he was being required to submit. Although we have been deferential in reviewing district courts crafting of special conditions of supervised release, Congress and our precedent required more of the district court in this instance.  We thus vacate the supervised release sentence term, as well as the conditions challenged on this appeal, and remand the case for resentencing.

Some related prior posts:

P.S.: I am truly sorry I could not resist using a juvenile and sophomoric double-entendre in the title of this post.  It has been a long day.

March 4, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Victims and law enforcement assail Gov Wolf's execution moratorium in Pennsylvania

As reported in this local article, folks in Pennsylvania unhappy with "Gov. Tom Wolf's moratorium on the death penalty gathered at the state Capitol on Wednesday to criticize that decision that they say was reached without input from crime victims or law enforcement officers." Here is more:

They came together on the day that death row inmate Terrence Williams was scheduled to be executed; his being the first death sentence to be reprieved as a result of the moratorium.

"Pennsylvania crime victims deserve justice. What they are receiving from the governor is politics," said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, at the news conference. "He could approach the Legislature to try to get the law changed or he could have filed a lawsuit in court and seek an injunction in death penalty cases. The governor chose to pursue neither of those options."

Instead, with the stroke of his pen on Feb. 13, he signed an executive order to put capital punishment in Pennsylvania on hold until he reviews a Senate-ordered study of the issue that is due later this year....

Many are awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit filed by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams challenging Wolf's authority to impose the moratorium. The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear the case.

In the meantime, Vereb has introduced a resolution calling on the governor to reverse his decision and obey the law that now exists in Pennsylvania allowing for capital punishment. While he admits that won't carry the force of law, Vereb said it at least sends a message to the governor.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Lower Paxton Twp., said he plans to have at least two committee hearings on the issue of capital punishment, starting with one in Philadelphia on March 26 and the other scheduled for June. This month's hearing will focus on testimony from family members of murder victims.

Throughout the news conference, legislators along with the crime victims and district attorneys standing in front of a line of photos of murder victims criticized Wolf for failing to seek their input....

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said victims are best suited to explain the impact of Wolf's actions. He then proceeded to read a letter from Pauline Smith, whose mother June Rose Ohlinger, was murdered in 1995 in Schuylkill County by serial killer Mark Spotz who is among the 186 inmates now on death row. In her letter, Smith described the governor's decision as "a slap in the face to all of the victims of heinous crimes."

Prior related posts:

March 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"Do the Koch Brothers Really Care About Criminal-Justice Reform?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Atlantic piece by Molly Ball exploring what to make of the recent emphasis on criminal justice reform coming from politically-savvy billionaires.  Here are excerpts:

Here is the thing the Koch brothers wish their critics understood: They just want to help people. "Everything we do is designed to help people improve their lives, whether you're talking about our business or our philanthropy," Mark Holden, the senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, told me recently from his office in Wichita, where the multibillion-dollar international manufacturing conglomerate that Charles and David Koch inherited from their father is headquartered.  "We think a free society, consistent with classical liberalism and individual liberties, is the key to success for everyone, and that's what drives a lot of our activities. And criminal-justice reform is good for all of us — the rich, the poor, and everyone else."

Though the Kochs are best known — and, to liberals, notorious — for the massive amounts of money they pour into politics, they have lately been calling attention to a less polarizing crusade: an attempt to address what they term "the overcriminalization of America." But not everyone is convinced that their efforts are quite so sincere.

Critics such as Robert Greenwald, director of the documentary Koch Brothers Exposed, suspect that the push to roll back the criminal code is really just the brothers' deregulatory agenda by another name.  Indeed, Charles Koch, the company's chairman and CEO, has said he became interested in criminal-justice reform after a grand jury's 1995 indictment of a Koch refinery in Texas for 97 felony violations of environmental law.  The company spent six years fighting the charges and eventually settled with the government for $10 million. Seen in this light, the criminal-justice pitch is just another attempt to manipulate the political process to advance the company's financial interests.  That's the view of the liberal group American Bridge, which maintains the anti-Koch "Real Koch Facts" website. "Their own bottom line isn't just an important factor in their activity, it's the only thing," a spokesman for the group, Ben Ray, told me.

This is the question that has always swirled around the Kochs and their political efforts — the massive juggernaut of funding for conservative activism and candidates that critics dub the "Kochtopus": Are the brothers sincere ideologues dedicated to a libertarian vision for America? Or are they simply trying to tilt the political system to favor themselves and their companies?

Various tentacles of the Kochtopus have been involved in criminal-justice issues for about a decade; during that time, Charles Koch has quietly made contributions amounting to seven figures to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, money that has been used to provide lawyers for poor defendants. In 2011, the group honored Koch Industries with its annual Defender of Justice award. "They are in complete agreement with us on the fundamental policy — to make the Sixth Amendment a reality for every person in the country," said the association's executive director, Norman Reimer.

But the Kochs' advocacy has become more vocal in recent months, from public statements to new partnerships with such groups as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, and even the liberal Center for American Progress. The bid for more attention for the reform effort has received overwhelmingly positive attention, and coincides with a new PR push to show Koch Industries in a friendlier light, including a "We Are Koch" national television campaign that casts the company as heartland job creators — prompting the Kochs' critics to suspect a whitewash.  After all, the investment in criminal-justice reform pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions the Kochs and their donor network have spent electing Republicans, many of whom don't share their views on civil liberties, Greenwald noted.  "Certainly the scales tip against the impact of this, except from the press point of view," he said of the reform push.

And yet the Kochs have found many willing partners on the left for this effort, even among their erstwhile critics.  In 2011, the civil-rights activist and former Obama administration adviser Van Jones cited the Kochs as emblematic of the "economic tyranny" plaguing America, declaring, "We will not live on a national plantation run by the Koch brothers." He appears in the Koch Brothers Exposed (tagline: "The 1% at its very worst").  But Jones has welcomed the Kochs' support for his new Cut50 project, which aims to halve the prison population over the next decade. At a recent panel discussion in Washington, he sat next to Holden and gave him a hug. Koch Industries has agreed to participate in an upcoming conference Jones is sponsoring on prison reform.  When I asked Jones if it made him uncomfortable to team up with people he's previously depicted as villains, he responded, "When you've got more than 2 million people behind bars, I'll fight alongside anybody to change those numbers."...

To allies like Jones, it doesn't matter whether the Kochs are acting in good faith as long as their assistance stands to help the cause.  In a neat illustration of the way this issue crosses partisan lines, the ACLU's campaign against mass incarceration is supported by both the Kochs and liberal financier George Soros's Open Society Foundation.  Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director, acknowledged that some of the group's liberal members aren't thrilled about the Koch partnership: "There's always some unhappiness whenever you work with, quote-unquote, the enemy," he told me.  But particularly with Republicans in control of Congress, he said, validation from the likes of the Kochs is the key to moving the issue forward.  "Having the Koch brothers involved fundamentally changes the landscape. It gives legitimacy to this issue as a proper field of inquiry for Republican political leaders," he said.

The Kochs' activism fits within a broader trend on the right. Where once Republicans could reliably be stereotyped as tough-on-crime and Democrats as squishy bleeding hearts, recent years have seen many in the GOP question the old dogma of lock-'em-up, spurred by the party's increasingly libertarian bent and a desire to control spiraling prison costs. The 2012 Republican Party platform discarded its old plank endorsing the War on Drugs for one that emphasized prisoner reentry and rehabilitation; at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, then-Texas Governor Rick Perry headlined a criminal justice panel at which he urged, "Shut prisons down. Save that money." As The Nation noted approvingly, Perry "has become one of the more aggressive prison reformers in the country," and he's been joined by Republican governors or former governors in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey....

Holden, the Koch counsel, is a spike-haired Massachusetts native who once worked as a jail guard—seeing youths from his blue-collar neighborhood on the other side of the bars, he says, made a deep impression. He takes issue with the notion that the Kochs only want to pad their own pockets, pointing out that they take many positions "contrary to our short-term economic self-interest."

Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:

March 4, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Cloudy with (less of) a chance of executions in Georgia

ImagesAs reported in this Time piece, headlined "Georgia Postpones 2 Executions Over ‘Cloudy’ Drugs," the forecast in the Peach State just got peachier for those on the state's death row as the state deals with uncertainty concerning its execution drugs.  Here are the details:

Georgia's supply of lethal injection drug pentobarbital may have gone bad.  Georgia indefinitely postponed two executions Tuesday to allow officials to analyze its current batch of lethal injection drugs, which “appeared cloudy” prior to an execution that had been scheduled Monday night.

The execution of Kelly Gissendaner, who would’ve been the first woman put to death in the state in 70 years, was called off by the Georgia Department of Corrections Monday night after the state discovered its supply of pentobarbital, a short-acting barbiturate, looked murky.  Georgia officials made the decision after consulting with a pharmacist, according to The New York Times, even though state officials said that its pentobarbital supply had been tested and was cleared for use.

The state then announced Tuesday that the executions of both Gissendaner and Brian Keith Terrell, who was set to die by lethal injection on March 10 for the 1992 murder of John Henry Watson, were indefinitely postponed.  Gissendaner was convicted of arranging the 1997 murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner.

A number of states have had trouble carrying out executions due to problems obtaining drugs.... Like many states, Georgia has turned to compounding pharmacies, which are not under federal oversight, for their drug supplies while also passing a secrecy law that keeps participating pharmacies anonymous.  Georgia has not released the name of its drug supplier, and it’s unclear when its current batch of pentobarbital was due to expire.

March 4, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition"

CoverBoxedOutThe title of this post is the title of this notable new report, which is summarized via this website at the Center for Community Alternatives: 

The Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) and the Education from the Inside Out Coalition are pleased to announce the release of "Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition" written by Alan Rosenthal, Esq., Advisor on Special Projects and Counsel; Emily NaPier, M.A., Senior Research Associate; Patricia Warth, Esq. Director of Justice Strategies; and Marsha Weissman, Ph.D., Executive Director.

This report builds upon CCA's 2010 study, "The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered." It makes clear how the criminal history box on college applications and the supplemental requirements and procedures that follow create barriers to higher education for otherwise qualified applicants. We focused on the State University of New York (SUNY), and found that almost two out of every three applicants who disclosed a felony conviction were denied access to higher education, not because of purposeful denial of their application but because they were driven out of the application process by the stigmatizing questions and the "gauntlet" of additional requirements. We call this phenomenon "felony application attrition."

This case study of SUNY has national implications. The supplemental procedures and requirements imposed by SUNY campuses are not unique, and reflect procedures followed by many colleges and universities across the county.

March 4, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review, slowly, Gov Wolf's execution moratorium

As reported in this local article, headlined "Pennsylvania Supreme Court to take death penalty moratorium case: Philadelphia DA calls governor’s actions lawless and unconstitutional," a fascinating case concerning state executive powers in the Keystone State is officially to be considered by the state Supreme Court. Here are the details:

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to take a case filed by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office challenging Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium implemented last month on capital punishment in the state. District Attorney R. Seth Williams asked the court to take up the matter involving a defendant named Terrance Williams, who was scheduled for lethal injection today.

Although Seth Williams asked that the court take the case on an expedited basis, the court refused, and it will be heard on a standard calendar, which means that both sides will file briefs and replies over the next several months, and oral argument will be scheduled at a date in the future.

It will probably be more than a year before any decision is reached, and University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said it could be even longer if the court decides it wants two new justices, who will be elected later this year, to consider the case as well.

Mr. Wolf announced on Feb. 13 that he was instituting a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, saying that it was not an “expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes.” Instead, he continued, it was “based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive.” He cited nationwide statistics that show 150 people have been exonerated from death row, including six in Pennsylvania....

But in his filing, Seth Williams argues that Mr. Wolf’s action was lawless and unconstitutional. “Merely characterizing conduct by the governor as a reprieve does not make it so,” the prosecutor’s filing said.

Instead, it continued, “At all times in Pennsylvania history a reprieve has meant one thing and only one thing: a temporary stay of a criminal judgment for a defined period of time, for the purpose of allowing the defendant to pursue an available legal remedy. The current act of the governor is not a reprieve. Nor, indeed, could it be. There is no remaining legal remedy available to defendant. He received exhaustive state and federal review. He sought pardon or commutation and it was denied. There is nothing legitimate left to pursue and no remedy to wait for.”

To halt the imposition of the death penalty on a defendant, the district attorney’s office continued, the sentence must be commuted, which can be done only with unanimous agreement by the state Board of Pardons. Seth Williams accused the governor of usurping judicial function.

But in the governor’s response, his attorneys said what he was doing is temporary — a reprieve — and requires no input from the Board of Pardons. “The governor has ‘exclusive authority’ and ‘unfettered discretion to grant a reprieve after imposition of sentence and on a case by case basis,’ ” they wrote, quoting an earlier court case.

Prior related posts:

March 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Three of "Kettle Falls Five" convicted on least serious federal marijuana charges in Washington

This AP story reports on the notable mixed verdict in a high-profile federal prosecution of a group of defendants in Washington state who claimed they were growing marijuana only for medical purposes.  Here are the details:

Three people were found guilty Tuesday of growing marijuana, but they also were exonerated of more serious charges in a widely-watched federal drug case in a state where medical and recreational marijuana is legal.

The three remaining defendants of the so-called Kettle Falls Five were all found guilty of growing marijuana. But a jury found them not guilty of distributing marijuana, conspiracy to distribute and firearms charges that carried long prison sentences.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice set sentencing for June 10.

The defendants were Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, her son Rolland Gregg and his wife, Michelle Gregg. Firestack-Harvey wiped away tears as she declared victory in the case. "The truth comes out," she said, noting that the defendants were growing marijuana for medical purposes and had cards permitting that use. "We would have loved to be exonerated of all charges."

However, there was no doubt that federal drug agents found marijuana plants growing on their property near Kettle Falls, she said.

Federal prosecutors did not speak with reporters after the verdict, which followed a full day of deliberations by the jury. Prosecutors asked that the three be taken into custody until sentencing, but Rice declined.

"It's a victory, but it's bittersweet," said Jeff Niesen, an attorney for Firestack-Harvey. "They've been convicted of a federal crime." But while the tougher charges carried sentences of a decade in prison, growing marijuana should bring a much lower sentence, Niesen said.

On Monday, attorneys for the defendants asked jurors to throw out what he described as an overzealous and overreaching case. Attorney Phil Tefleyan criticized the government's prosecution of the three, who contend they were growing medical marijuana for personal use in a case that has drawn wide attention over the government's willingness to prosecute marijuana growers. "They roped in this innocent family," Tefleyan told jurors.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Hicks told jurors Monday that Washington state's stance on marijuana doesn't matter. He says the question for the jury is, "Is it legal under federal law?"

The defendants contend they didn't distribute the marijuana. But they were barred from telling jurors their claim that they grew the marijuana only for personal medical use. That issue can be raised during sentencing. Tefleyan said the government could not point to a single sale of the drug by the family. He said the evidence seized by drug enforcement agents during a raid in August 2012 — 4 pounds of marijuana and about $700 in cash — didn't support the conclusion the family was dealing.

The government has argued the family grew the plants in violation of federal law. "I don't believe there's any question in this case that we're talking about the manufacture of marijuana," Hicks told the jury.

Tefleyan placed blame for those plants on Jason Zucker, a former defendant who cut a plea deal last week, just before the trial started. Zucker, 39, testified Friday that he fronted $10,000 in costs to get the operation up and running. Zucker's plea deal called for a 16-month sentence....

Larry Harvey, 71, was recently dismissed from the case after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in December.

I believe that these defendants' acquittal on gun charges means that that they are not subject to any mandatory minimum sentencing terms, and the judge's decision to allow them to be free awaiting sentencing suggests to me that they will likely not receive significant (or perhaps any) prison time for these offenses. In addition, these defendants might have various grounds for appealing to the Ninth Circuit (although they many not want to bother if they get relatively lenient sentencing terms).

Prior related posts:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

March 4, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 3, 2015

"Fishy SOX: Overcriminalization's New Harm Paradigm"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Todd Haugh available via SSRN. The piece argues that the recently decided Yates case is more consequential than the standard fish shory. Here is the abstract:

The harms of overcriminalization are usually thought of in a particular way—that the proliferation of criminal laws leads to increasing and inconsistent criminal enforcement and adjudication. For example, an offender commits an unethical or illegal act and, because of the overwhelming depth and breadth of the criminal law, becomes subject to too much prosecutorial discretion and faces disparate enforcement or punishment. But there is an additional, possibly more pernicious, harm of overcriminalization.

Drawing from the fields of criminology and behavioral ethics, this Article makes the case that overcriminalization actually increases the commission of criminal acts themselves, particularly by white collar offenders. This occurs because overcriminalization, by delegitimatizing the criminal law, fuels offender rationalizations. Rationalizations are part of the psychological process necessary for the commission of crime—they allow offenders to square their self-perception as “good people” with the illegal behavior they are contemplating, thereby allowing the behavior to go forward. Overcriminalization, then, is more than a post-act concern. It is inherently criminogenic because it facilitates some of the most prevalent and powerful rationalizations used by would-be offenders. Put simply, overcriminalization is fostering the very conduct it seeks to eliminate. This phenomenon is on display in the recently argued Supreme Court case Yates v. United States. Using Yates as a backdrop, this Article presents a new paradigm of overcriminalization and its harms.

March 3, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Prez policing task force calls for a "National Crime and Justice Task Force"

As reported widely (see here and here), the task force appointed in December by President Obama to examine modern policing released a big report on Monday with lots of detailed reform recommendations.  Everyone interested in policing issues should check out this lengthy (and reader-friendly) report, which is technically  titled an "Interim Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing."  

Not surprisingly, there is not much discussion of sentencing and formal punishment issues in the report because such topics are mostly beyond the of a task force tasked with reviewing police practices.  But, the introduction to the report highlighted the intersection of policing and other criminal justice issues, and includes these notable passages and recommendations:

Many excellent and specific suggestions emerged from these listening sessions on all facets of policing in the 21st century, but many questions arose as well. Paramount among them was how to bring unity of purpose and consensus on best practices to a nation with 18,000 separate law enforcement agencies and a strong history of a preference for local control of local issues.  It became very clear that it is time for a comprehensive and multifaceted examination of all the interrelated parts of the criminal justice system and a focused investigation into how poverty, lack of education, mental health, and other social conditions cause or intersect with criminal behavior. We propose two overarching recommendations that will seek the answers to these questions.

0.1 OVERARCHING RECOMMENDATION: The President should support and provide funding for the creation of a National Crime and Justice Task Force to review and evaluate all components of the criminal justice system for the purpose of making recommendations to the country on comprehensive criminal justice reform....

0.2 OVERARCHING RECOMMENDATION: The President should promote programs that take a comprehensive and inclusive look at community based initiatives that address the core issues of poverty, education, health, and safety.

March 3, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Jury seated and ready for opening arguments in Boston bombing trial

As reported in this AP article, to culminate "two months of jury selection, a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates was seated Tuesday for the federal death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev." Here is more about a high-profile federal capital proceeding:

The all-white panel consists of eight men and 10 women. Jurors include a self-employed house painter, an air traffic controller, an executive assistant at a law firm and a former emergency room nurse. Opening statements in the case are scheduled for Wednesday.

Tsarnaev, 21, faces 30 charges in connection with twin bombings at the finish line of the marathon April 15, 2013. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured. He is also charged in the killing of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer days after the bombings.

If the jury convicts Tsarnaev, the trial will move on to a second phase to determine his punishment. The only two options available for the jury are life in prison or the death penalty....

During the jury selection process, Tsarnaev's lawyers tried repeatedly to get the trial moved out of Massachusetts, saying he could not find a fair and impartial jury because of the emotional impact the bombings had in the state. O'Toole rejected three change-of-venue motions, saying the process of carefully questioning jurors to detect bias was successful in finding impartial jurors. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice refused to order the trial moved.

Some prior related posts:

March 3, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Student Guest Post: "Behind Bars In 140 Characters or Less"

I told students in my Sentencing Course this semester that they could earn extra credit in the class by providing me with blog-ready, cut-and-paste materials for this blog.  One student did just that by providing me with this effective review of recent discussions of prison discipline in South Carolina:

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"Behind Bars In 140 Characters or Less"

This February 19 article from the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Shame of Solitary Confinement” explores the abuse of solitary confinement sentencing for inmates of South Carolina prisons.

Dave Maass, an investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, used the 40-page South Carolina Department of Corrections Social Media Disciplinary Report to parse through punishments inmates receive for posting to Facebook or Twitter while behind bars.  (His full report can be found here.) The distributed punishments range from loss of canteen privileges, good time, or visitation, to loss of property privileges or telephone rights.

On the record of some inmates, “disciplinary detention” for X number of days is listed.  Disciplinary detention or “administrative segregation” are nicer terms for solitary confinement.  Maass discovered that South Carolina inmates who made online posts were receiving seemingly disproportionate sentences of solitary confinement for their actions, a punishment typically received for “the worst of the worst” within prison.  Now, simple rule violations, in South Carolina and (we have reason to believe) in other states, can land inmates in solitary.  Could these disobedient actions not be equally, and perhaps more justly, punished by locating and confiscating the device, and sentencing the inmate to an overnight work shift, janitor duty, or a loss of other privileges short of years worth of solitary confinement?

The most troubling thing of all, Maass discovered, is that the undefined number of days could reach up to nearly thirty-eight years of solitary confinement for repeat offenders. 

“In October 2013, for example, Tyheem Henry received a penalty of 37½ years in solitary confinement, for posting on Facebook on 38 different days.  When Maass looked into the issue, he found that the agency was sending inmates caught posting on social-media sites to solitary confinement for an average of 512 days.”

In Tyheem Henry’s case, that’s nearly one year of solitary confinement per post on social media.  In cases less egregious than Henry’s, where inmates posted only once or twice, the average length of solitary per post exceeded a year.

The policies behind prisons not wanting inmates to post to online sites is strong.  The state is concerned that inmates may use the sites to intimidate witnesses or to plan the exchange of drugs or other contraband.  Since prisoners generally are not allowed Internet access nor cell phones, presence of posts is also indicative of a possession of contraband and thereby an automatic rule violation.

Fortunately, Maass is hopeful that this punishment scheme is disappearing, thanks to South Carolina judges and Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling.  On February 2, Stirling signed a new disciplinary mandate setting the maximum solitary punishment to sixty days per infraction/series of related infractions.  Stirling reported that the new policy would prevent “stacking time,” the practice that allowed for the extended sentences discussed above.

“In January 2014, a few months after Stirling took office, a South Carolina state court judge, J. Michael Baxley, entered a hard-hitting directive in a long-running lawsuit on behalf of about 3,500 mentally ill prisoners.  Baxley called the case “the most troubling” to come to the South Carolina courts, “far above all others,” in his 14 years on the bench. For mentally ill patients, isolation was “often used in lieu of treatment, with severe consequences,” Baxley found. Prisoners in South Carolina who suffered from depression, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses were almost twice as likely as other prisoners to go to solitary, for an average of 647 days.”

Citizens, taxpayers, and prison reformists should still be concerned, however.  Is it going to take a Judge Baxley in each of the fifty states to add some structure to the punishment scheme for inmates? Shouldn’t there be at least some debate as to whether solitary confinement should be on the table at all for social media violations?  After all, nearly 7% of South Carolina’s inmate population remains in solitary confinement.

“South Carolina’s record of abusing solitary may be particularly horrendous, but it’s not unique.  California is being sued over prolonged solitary confinement — defined as lasting between 10 and 28 years (yes, again, years).  In 2013, a county in New Mexico agreed to pay a settlement of $15.5 million to a man who, awaiting trial in jail on a drunken-driving charge, endured mental and physical suffering during 22 months of isolation. (He was never prosecuted.)”

March 3, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Concerns about lethal drug creates reprieve for condemned Georgia woman

As reported in this CNN piece, for "the second time, a Georgia woman's execution has been postponed -- this time because of concerns about the drugs to be used." Here is why:

Kelly Renee Gissendaner was scheduled to die at 7 p.m. ET Monday.  "Prior to the execution, the drugs were sent to an independent lab for testing of potency.  The drugs fell within the acceptable testing limits," the Georgia Department of Corrections said in a statement.

"Within the hours leading up to the scheduled execution, the Execution Team performed the necessary checks.  At that time, the drugs appeared cloudy.  The Department of Corrections immediately consulted with a pharmacist, and in an abundance of caution, Inmate Gissendaner's execution has been postponed."

The 47-year-old was originally scheduled to die on Wednesday, but that execution was called off because of winter weather.

If I were a deeply religious person, I might be inclined to contend that some higher power is doing all it can to keep Georgia from being able to execute Gissendaner.

March 3, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 2, 2015

California Supreme Court rules blanket sex-offender residency restriction fails rational basis review

In recent years, a number of state courts have struck down local sex-offender residency restrictions on a number of different legal grounds.  As this AP article reports, another state Supreme Court is now part of this group: "California's Supreme Court ruled Monday the state cannot prohibit all registered sex offenders in San Diego County from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park."

As the title of this post hints, the unanimous ruling released today in In re Taylor, S206143 (Cal. March 2, 2015) (available here), strikes me as especially significant because of the legal rationale used to strike down a state-wide voter-initiative law as it was applied in one jurisdiction. These passages explaining the heart of the ruling highlight why Taylor will likely be cited in challenges to sex offender residency restrictions nationwide:

In this case, however, we need not decide whether rational basis or heightened strict scrutiny review should be invoked in scrutinizing petitioners' constitutional challenges to section 3003.5(b).  As we next explain, we are persuaded that blanket enforcement of the mandatory residency restrictions of Jessica's Law, as applied to registered sex offenders on parole in San Diego County, cannot survive even the more deferential rational basis standard of constitutional review. Such enforcement has imposed harsh and severe restrictions and disabilities on the affected parolees‟ liberty and privacy rights, however limited, while producing conditions that hamper, rather than foster, efforts to monitor, supervise, and rehabilitate these persons.  Accordingly, it bears no rational relationship to advancing the state's legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators, and has infringed the affected parolees' basic constitutional right to be free of official action that is unreasonable, arbitrary, and oppressive....

The authorities we have cited above explain that all parolees retain certain basic rights and liberty interests, and enjoy a measure of constitutional protection against the arbitrary, oppressive and unreasonable curtailment of “the core values of unqualified liberty” (Morrissey v. Brewer, supra, 408 U.S. at p. 482), even while they remain in the constructive legal custody of state prison authorities until officially discharged from parole.  We conclude the evidentiary record below establishes that blanket enforcement of Jessica's Law's mandatory residency restrictions against registered sex offenders on parole in San Diego County impedes those basic, albeit limited, constitutional rights. Furthermore, section 3003.5(b), as applied and enforced in that county, cannot survive rational basis scrutiny because it has hampered efforts to monitor, supervise, and rehabilitate such parolees in the interests of public safety, and as such, bears no rational relationship to advancing the state's legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators.

March 2, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

"A Slow Motion Lynching? The War on Drugs, Mass Incarceration, Doing Kimbrough Justice, and a Response to Two Third Circuit Judges"

The provocative title of this post is the provocative title of this new article authored by US District Judge Mark Bennett now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

A federal district court judge who has sentenced more than 4000 defendants reflects on federal sentencing and its role in mass incarceration.  The focus of the article is on federal sentencing in crack cocaine cases and policy disagreements with the United States Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines) in drug trafficking cases.  The article explores the U.S. Supreme Court cases in Kimbrough v. United States, United States v. Spears, and Pepper v. United States, the only U.S. Supreme Court cases that address sentencing judges’ policy disagreements with the guidelines.  Ironically, or perhaps serendipitously, the author was the sentencing judge in both Spears and Pepper, where he was reversed a whopping 5 times by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (twice by an en banc court) before both defendants’ sentencing positions were vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The article takes exception to two Third Circuit judges who have argued in law review articles that federal sentencing judges should be concerned about "legislative backlash" if they sentence outside the now advisory guidelines.  In the arc of the history of federal sentencing and its impact on mass incarceration, we are perched at a cresting point where the gravity of reason and our Nation’s experience with mass incarceration hopefully will pull towards greater justice in sentencing.

March 2, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

AG Holder provides Congress a sentencing reform to-do list

This new Politico story indicates that a confirmation vote for Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as Attorney General may still be week away. But AG Holder is still in the midst of some parting shots as he prepares to leave his position, and this Washington Post commentary finds the AG making a full-throated pitch for more congressional sentencing reforms.  Here are excerpts from a piece headlined "Time to tackle unfinished business in criminal justice reform":

Today, a rare consensus has emerged in favor of reforming our federal drug sentencing laws.  This presents a historic opportunity to improve the fairness of our criminal justice system.  But unless we act quickly, we risk letting the moment pass.

The Justice Department has sought to be an early innovator on this front.  A year and a half ago, I launched the Smart on Crime initiative — a comprehensive effort to reorient the federal government’s approach to criminal justice....  Preliminary results from this effort are extremely encouraging....

Last year also witnessed the first overall reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years.  Most impressive of all, we achieved this drop in incarceration at the same time we cut the crime rate, marking the first simultaneous reduction in both crime and incarceration rates in more than four decades.

But while it is indisputable that we are moving in the right direction, there is a limit to what the Justice Department can accomplish on its own.  Moving forward, we need to build upon, and make permanent, these gains through action in Congress.... [A] few specific items of unfinished business should command our immediate attention.

First, although Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate a discriminatory 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, thousands of individuals who committed crimes before 2010 are still serving sentences based on the old ratio. This is unfair.  Congress should pass legislation to apply that statute retroactively so that no one is sitting in prison serving a sentence that Congress, the president and the attorney general have all declared unjust.

Second, while the Justice Department has declined to seek harsh mandatory minimum sentences in cases where they are not warranted, we need to codify this approach. Congress should pass one of the multiple bipartisan bills aimed at restricting and refining those crimes to which mandatory minimums apply.

Third, in individual states, legislatures should eliminate statutes that prevent an estimated 5.8 million U.S. citizens from exercising their right to vote because of felony convictions.  These unfair restrictions only serve to impede the work of transitioning formerly incarcerated people back into society.

Finally, we should seek to expand the use of federal drug courts throughout the country for low-level drug offenses.  These programs provide proven alternatives to incarceration for men and women who are willing to do the hard work of recovery, and it is my hope that, in the next five years, there will be an operational drug court in every federal district — with individual states following suit.

While I will depart the Obama administration in the coming weeks — and my own formal career in law enforcement will soon draw to a close — I intend to continue this work, to promote this mission and to advance this cause.  And I hope that, in the days ahead, leaders in Congress and around the country will come together to help build the fairer, more efficient and more effective criminal justice system that all Americans deserve.

In this post over at The Volokh Conspiracy, titled "The President doesn’t need Congress’s help to fix unjust sentences," Will Baude properly notes that Prez Obama could take care of the first item on the AG's action list without any action by Congress.  As Will notes, the "Constitution gives the President 'Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States.' If the President indeed shares the Attorney General’s views, he can eliminate the thousands of unfair sentences at a few strokes of a pen."  Will speculates that "the President is unwilling to exercise his constitutional pardon power [this way] because he wants political cover if somebody who is pardoned later goes on to do something wrong." 

I am glad Will highlights the president could through commutations (or pardons) readily fix on his own problems and unfairness presented by the non-retroactivity of the Fair Sentencing Act.  Those problems persist because of President Obama's failure of resolve, not a failure of power, on this front.  In addition, I think the President could (and should) be using a lot more of his political time and energy trying to move Congress forward on other fronts as well (e.g., he could have, but failed to, talk at lengthy about these issues during his State of the Union address not long ago).

March 2, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Georgia scheduled to execute only female murderer on its death row

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "After weather delay, Georgia ready to perform rare execution of a woman," the Peach State appears poised this evening to end the life of a bad apple notable for her gender. Here are the details:

After getting a temporary reprieve when her execution was postponed because of winter weather conditions forecast to hit the state, the only woman on Georgia's death row is again set for execution Monday. Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 46, was scheduled to be executed Wednesday at the state prison in Jackson, but the Department of Corrections postponed it to Monday at 7 p.m., citing the weather and associated scheduling issues.

Gissendaner was convicted of murder in the February 1997 stabbing death of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Prosecutors said she plotted his death with her boyfriend, Gregory Owen.... Kelly Gissendaner repeatedly pushed Owen in late 1996 to kill her husband rather than just divorcing him as Owen suggested, prosecutors said. Acting on Kelly Gissendaner's instructions, Owen ambushed Douglas Gissendaner at the Gissendaners' home, forced him to drive to a remote area and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said

Owen pleaded guilty and received a life prison sentence with eligibility for parole after 25 years. He testified at Gissendaner's trial, and a jury convicted her and sentenced her to death in 1998.

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only entity in Georgia authorized to commute a death sentence, on Wednesday denied Gissendaner clemency. A federal judge in Atlanta rejected a request to halt her execution, and her lawyers have appealed that decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

If Gissendaner's execution happens, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years. Lena Baker, a black maid, was executed in 1945 after being convicted in a one-day trial for killing her white employer. Georgia officials issued her a pardon in 2005 after six decades of lobbying and arguments by her family that she likely killed the man because he was holding her against her will. Baker was the only woman to die in the state's electric chair. P>Execution of female inmates is rare with only 15 women put to death nationwide since the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the death penalty to resume. During that same time, about 1,400 men have been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Prosecutors offered Gissendaner the same plea deal that was offered to Owen, but she turned it down. Post-conviction testimony from her trial lawyer, Edwin Wilson, gives some insight into why, Gissendaner's lawyers argued in a clemency petition. They quote Wilson as saying he didn't think a jury would sentence Gissendaner to death. "I guess I thought this because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug," Wilson is quoted as saying, adding that he should have urged her to take the plea.

Victor Streib, a retired Ohio Northern University law professor and an expert on the death penalty for women, said it's clear that women are condemned to die far less frequently than men, but that there are so few cases that it's tough to draw any general conclusions. "Statistically, yes, if you've got two cases and everything about them is exactly the same and one case is a woman and the other case is a man, the man is more likely to be sentenced to death," Streib said, but added that he wouldn't count on that as a legal strategy.

One reason women aren't sentenced to death as often is that they don't commit as many murders and when they do they generally aren't the "worst of the worst" murders that lead to the death penalty, Streib said. Juries may also be more likely to believe a woman was emotionally distressed or not in her right mind at the time of a killing, which can spare them a death sentence, he said.

March 2, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Resentencing on tap in Ohio beard-cutting federal assault cases

As reported in this local article, headlined "Judge to re-sentence defendants in Amish beard-cutting case," today brings another sentencing proceeding in a high-profile civil-rights case prosecuted in Ohio's federal courts. Here are the basics:

Federal prosecutors believe that the 16 Amish people who will be re-sentenced by a federal judge this afternoon for a series of beard-cutting attacks in 2011 still have not shown that they understand the harm that they caused.

A memo filed Friday by Kristy Parker, deputy chief of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, reiterated that U.S. District Judge Dan Polster should give Bishop Sam Mullet and his followers the same sentences he gave them in February 2013, even if they do not stand convicted of carrying out religiously-motivated hate crimes because of an appellate court's decision.

"Simply put, there has also been no indication over the past two years that the time the defendants have served up to this point has in any way caused them to re-evaluate the propriety or the gravity of their behavior other than their acknowledgment that the government takes the matters seriously (even if they do not) and their obvious unhappiness at having been caught and punished," the filing says....

Polster will re-sentence all 16 defendants -- who come from the small farming community of Bergholz in Jefferson County -- at 1:30 p.m. at the federal courthouse in Cleveland. Eight of those defendants have already served out their original sentences, and Polster said in an email to attorneys last week that he intends to sentence them to time served.

At the original sentencing, the judge handed down prison terms ranging from a year and a day to 15 years for Mullet, the community's leader. Prosecutors are expected to ask for the same sentences today because Polster's original ones were lower than those recommended by the U.S. probation office. Defense attorneys are asking the judge to sentence the defendants to time served and to release the eight who remain in prison.

The defendants are members of a breakaway sect of the Amish community made up of 18 families. They were convicted of multiple crimes in September 2012 for carrying out five nighttime raids. In the attacks, members of the community rousted five victims out of bed and chopped off their beards and hair with horse mane shears and battery-powered clippers. The attackers documented the attacks with a disposable camera....

A sentencing memo filed for Mullet says that its unlikely that Mullet would ever do something similar again, and that the Bergholz Amish community is still shunned by other Amish communities because of the case and its surrounding publicity.

In a memo filed Friday, prosecutors say that "it is the defendants themselves who created these circumstances through their own lawless conduct, yet they continue to blame the government and their properly imposed prison sentences for the harms they feel they have suffered. "The defendants' sentencing memoranda leaves the impression that they are the victims in this case, not the people they violently assaulted during nighttime raids and orchestrated attacks," the memo continues.

Some related prior posts:

March 2, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 1, 2015

Another account of the massiveness and messy process behind Prez clemency initiative

This lengthy new Washington Post article, headlined "U.S. clemency effort, slow to start, will rely on an army of pro bono lawyers," reports on the extraordinary scope and process behind the clemency initiative started seemingly long ago and still awaiting major action by Prez Obama. Here are excerpts:

A massive influx of applications from prisoners and a complicated review process have slowed the Obama administration’s highly touted initiative to grant clemency to nonviolent offenders, shifting the burden to an army of pro bono lawyers and specialists willing to help.

Just over a year after the administration unveiled its initiative, President Obama has commuted the sentences of eight prisoners, all of whose applications had already been submitted at the time of the announcement.  In the meantime, more than 35,000 inmates — about 16 percent of the federal prison population — have applied to have their sentences shortened under the Justice Department-led initiative.

In an unusual arrangement, the department has sought to deal with the deluge by encouraging outside lawyers to help identify candidates for earlier release and to represent them. Prisoner applications are being reviewed by more than 1,000 attorneys at 323 law firms and organizations nationwide.

“We have created what very well may be the largest, most ambitious pro-bono effort in the history of the legal profession,” said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, one of the four groups that make up what is known as the Clemency Project 2014.  Reimer, detailing the group’s efforts for the first time, said it spent all of 2014 “gearing up” and was hopeful the process would be accelerated soon....

Candidates for clemency under the new Justice Department criteria, released in the spring, must have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant criminal history and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime.  Applicants also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.

Even given those criteria, however, the universe of inmates who might qualify is huge, lawyers say.  “We had decades of harsh sentencing,” said Marjorie J. Peerce, a partner at Ballard Spahr in New York, whose lawyers have been screening clemency applications. “People were going to jail for decades because they were drug addicts selling a little bit of crack. There was such a disparity, and it was disproportionately affecting minorities.”...

[T]he Clemency Project — which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and Reimer’s association of criminal defense attorneys — has sent the petitions of only 14 inmates to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney to be considered for clemency....

Lawyers with the Clemency Project say the pace is partly a symptom of dealing with clients whose cases are complex and whose ability to communicate is limited because they’re incarcerated.  Every lawyer participating in the project had to be trained to sift through the applications to identify candidates who met the Justice Department criteria.  In many cases, they had to try to locate old legal documents and contact prosecutors and judges who imposed the sentences for answers.

Most of the inmates who requested assistance from the lawyers sent applications electronically through the Bureau of Prisons computers, but several thousand who didn’t have access to computers sent paper applications that had to be manually entered into an enormous database the attorneys have built.  Prisoner applications are still trickling in. “Some of these inmates have been in 20 to 25 years. Lawyers have to try to get pre-sentencing reports and sentencing transcripts, and, in some cases, the sentencing proceeding might not have been transcribed. It’s a cumbersome process, and you want to get it right,” Peerce said.

Although the Clemency Project is facilitating the process for inmates, it is not working directly with the Justice Department.  Inmates can contact the Clemency Project, which will research and prepare petitions for qualified candidates and send them to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, or, as 5,333 inmates have done since the spring, apply directly to that office. From there, petitions with recommendations go to the office of acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates.

Yates then sends the petitions with her recommendations to the White House counsel, Neil Eggleston, who sends them with his recommendations to Obama. Some advocates view that process as overly cumbersome. Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said that the agency “remains committed to the President’s Clemency Initiative, consistent with our overall efforts to modernize outdated sentencing laws.”

“The Clemency Initiative is just one prong of the tools we are using to accomplish that goal, including pushing sentencing reform in Congress and through the Sentencing Commission,” Pierce said. “We also are committed to ensuring that each individual who applies is treated fairly and equally and that public safety is a consideration in each and every petition under consideration.”

Reimer, of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that now that the Clemency Project has put in place a process for sorting out clemency applications, it plans to review and submit them to the Justice Department more quickly. “We’ve got a lot of work this year, but we’re determined to do it,” he said. “We will find everyone who may qualify and complete that by sometime early next year.”

Some prior related posts:

March 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Must one study lynchings past to understand US punishments present?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this article discussing a recent speech by a prominent civil rights activist.  The piece is headlined "Angela Davis equates lynchings with prisons, death penalty," and here are excerpts:

Iconic civil rights leader Angela Davis opened her lecture Wednesday evening at Purdue University by evoking Black History Month — setting the stage for a moving presentation that connected past stories of oppression to today's movements for freedom....

During her talk at Purdue, Davis tied the historical tradition of the black struggle against oppression to multiple contemporary movements against racist violence, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and able-ism.  "The black radical tradition can be claimed by anyone who believes that freedom is a worthy cause and that the struggle for freedom links our contemporary aspirations with many struggles of the past," she said.

She connected the history of black lynchings to today's issues of mass incarceration and capital punishment. "The death penalty's roots are sunk deep into the legacy of lynching," she said. "… If we fail to take into account the central role of lynching, then we will never truly understand the way racism worked its way into the criminal justice system."

March 1, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

"The Politics of Botched Executions"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article by Corinna Lain now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

For decades now, America’s death penalty has been beset by serious problems in its administration, but what has finally gotten the public’s attention is a spate of botched executions in the first half of 2014.  Botched executions are, like the death penalty’s other woes, nothing new. But having to manage the public relations nightmare that has followed these high-profile events is new, and tells a story of its own.  What are the politics of botched executions?  Officials have lowered the blinds so witnesses could not see what was happening inside the execution chamber, called for an “independent review” by other arms of the state, minimized concerns by comparing the execution to the condemned’s crimes, even denied that a botched execution was botched in the first place.

In this symposium contribution, I recount the four botched executions of 2014 and state responses that accompanied them.  I then make three observations — one about states’ fealty to the death penalty, one about backlash politics, and one about the changing cultural construct of lethal injection in the United States.  Finally, I surmise how state responses to botched executions (or the lack thereof) might impact the constitutionality of lethal injection and prove true the old adage about politics making strange bedfellows: the inept executioner may prove to be the abolitionist’s best friend.

March 1, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack