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March 14, 2015

Reviewing DOJ's opposition to any fraud guideline amendments

This Reuters article, headlined "Justice Department objects to white-collar sentencing reforms," details that the US Department of Justice is not too keen on proposed reformed to the federal sentencing guidelines for fraud offenses. Here are the excerpts:

The U.S. Justice Department has come out broadly against a series of proposals from a federal panel that would cut prison time for white-collar criminals. The department's views, revealed on Thursday at a hearing of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, marked a potential setback for the proposals, which defense lawyers had already criticized for being too moderate.

In a letter released at the meeting, the department objected to a proposal to adjust victim losses for inflation for the first time since 1987. Losses directly influence recommended prison term lengths, and the move would reduce fraud sentences by 26 percent on average. "It seems a somewhat odd thing to do," Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, said at the hearing.

The Justice Department also objected to a proposal to shift the emphasis in calculating sentences for stock fraud cases to financial gains instead of investor losses, a change that could reduce the amount of prison time some executives would face. The department's position came amid continuing debate over whether changes to the guidelines are necessary to address what even some judges have said are overly harsh recommended punishments for fraud offenders.

Fraud offenses constitute the third largest type of federal crime in America, behind only immigration and drugs cases. Over the last decade, average prison sentences for fraud have lengthened three-fold, the commission said. But after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the guidelines advisory in 2005, judges increasingly gave shorter terms than what the commission recommended. In 2012, the average fraud sentence was 22 months, compared to the 29-month minimum recommended, the commission said.

Critics say the data shows many judges view the guidelines as overly-driven by victim losses, at times resulting in potential life sentences in cases like stock frauds with high-dollar amounts.

The commission's proposals, released in January, were viewed as too moderate by groups like the American Bar Association, which had pushed for broader revision de-emphasizing the influence losses have not just in cases involving the stock market but also for other frauds, such as in mortgages and healthcare. Still, the commission said its proposal to adjust the loss calculations for inflation would itself reduce sentence lengths.

The Justice Department said any reduction would be contrary to "overwhelming societal consensus." Several commissioners, though, appeared skeptical of the department's position.

Prior related posts:

March 14, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"Death of the death penalty by lethal injection shortage?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable recent Chicago Tribune column.  Here is how it starts:

A reliable supply line is crucial to any business. That's no less true when the business is death. States can't carry out death sentences if their prisons can't stock the lethal sedatives needed for court-sanctioned lethal injections. And that has become a serious problem of late.

Pharmaceutical companies such as Lake Forest-based Hospira in recent years have moved — pushed by activists and overseas regulators — to keep their drugs from being co-opted in the executioners' cocktails. The well is running dry.

Just in the last week:

•  Texas' pantry is quite nearly bare. The state reportedly is left with a single dose of pentobarbital because European manufacturers of the anesthetic are prohibited from allowing it to be used by prisons.

•  Georgia postponed its first execution of a woman in 70 years because the blend to be injected appeared unusually cloudy.

•  And Utah's legislature sent the governor a bill that would authorize the return of firing squads when the state can't get its hands on the requisite toxins.

March 14, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Oklahoma House passes safety valve to give judges more sentencing discretion

In the course of this lengthy discussion in the comments at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis labelled the the federal bill known as the Justice Safety Valve Act as "radically pro-criminal" because it would give federal judges some limited authority to sentence defendants below statutory mandatory minimums.  Though I disputed this label, I suspect Bill might be inclined to call most members of the Oklahoma House "radically pro-criminal" based on this recent news, headlined "Oklahoma House passes bills to give judges more discretion in sentencing."  Here are the details:

The Oklahoma House on Wednesday approved a key piece of justice reform legislation intended to help reduce the state’s growing population of prison inmates.

Rep. Pam Peterson’s House Bill 1518 would give judges the authority to hand down shorter sentences for some crimes that now require mandatory minimum prison time. The judge would be allowed to do this if the longer sentence would be unjust or if the offender does not present a risk to public safety. There are more than 100 crimes in Oklahoma that carry requirements for incarceration for specified minimum durations.

Called the Justice Safety Valve Act, the Tulsa Republican’s measure was passed 76-16 and was sent to the Senate. It is modeled after similar legislation that has been approved in 17 other states. The bill would not allow judges to consider lesser sentences for violent or sexual offenses....

Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, argued against the measure, saying it would minimize the role of district attorneys in the sentencing process and isn’t tough enough on repeat offenders.

“I’ve said I’m for reform, just not when it comes to violent offenders. Here we have repeat offenders,” he said. “This is a bad bill.”

Peterson said it’s time to reform the state’s justice system, noting Oklahoma’s prisons are overflowing due to the highest incarceration rate in the nation for women and one of the highest for men. The state’s prison population has doubled since 1990, but the crime rate has not declined as fast as that of other states, she said. “The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result,” she said.

Gov. Mary Fallin has urged the Legislature to embrace justice reform efforts this session, including finding ways to offer more prison diversion programs that would provide treatment rather than incarceration for nonviolent offenders with drug and mental health problems.

March 14, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Notable criminal justice commentary from Slate

Slate is already one of my regular daily reads for all sorts of topics, and Slate's regular writers on criminal justice issues (Dahlia Lithwick, Emily Bazelon, William Saletan) always have something interesting to say. And these recent Slate pieces seem like must-reads for criminal justice fans:

UPDATE: Just a few days since I first completed this post, here are some more must-read Slate pieces:

March 14, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 13, 2015

"Jones, Lackey, and Teague"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by J. Richard Broughton now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In a recent, high-profile ruling, a federal court finally recognized that a substantial delay in executing a death row inmate violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. Courts have repeatedly rejected these so-called “Lackey claims,” making the federal court’s decision in Jones v. Chappell all the more important. And yet it was deeply flawed. This paper focuses on one of the major flaws in the Jones decision that largely escaped attention: the application of the non-retroactivity rule from Teague v. Lane.

By comprehensively addressing the merits of the Teague bar as applied to Lackey claims, and making the case for applying the bar, this paper adds to, and challenges, the existing literature on capital punishment, Lackey claims, and Teague doctrine. This paper dissects the Jones ruling on the application of Teague, examining the Supreme Court’s “new rule” case law and concluding that Lackey claims, when viewed at the appropriate level of generality, propose a new rule. It then addresses the more complicated aspect of applying Teague in this context, recognizing that the first Teague exception poses the most likely basis for avoiding the Teague bar on a Lackey claim. At a minimum, Lackey claims (like Miller v. Alabama claims, now the subject of substantial Eighth Amendment litigation on collateral review) sit at the intersection of procedural and substantive rules. Nonetheless, this paper makes the case for viewing the claim as procedural and therefore Teague-barred. Ultimately, then, this paper emphasizes a point that could substantially influence existing litigation: litigators and federal judges should take the Teague bar more seriously when considering Lackey claims on federal habeas review, particularly when viewed in light of modern habeas rules and doctrine that limit relief and protect the interests of the states. But the paper also emphasizes an important point about death penalty policy and politics: if the state is to have a death penalty at all, it should be prepared, and willing, to ensure that death sentences are actually carried out.

March 13, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Utah establishes criminal registry for white-collar offenders

Via this New York Times piece, I see that Utah has extended the idea of a criminal registry to fraudsters. Though I have reservations about criminal registries for a variety of reasons, I think this particular kind of registry might make a lot of sense as a recidivism/crime prevention measure.  Here is how this fascinating story gets started:

With just a point and a click, you can browse a face book of felons, a new government website that will warn of the danger these criminals pose to society. Only these are not the faces of sex offenders and serial killers. These criminals are mortgage schemers and inside traders, most likely armed with nothing more than an M.B.A. or a law degree.

Their faces will soon appear online courtesy of the Utah Legislature, which on Wednesday approved a measure to build the nation’s first white-collar offender registry, appending a scarlet letter of sorts on the state’s financial felons.  The registry — quirky even by the standards of a legislature that this week reinstated firing squads as a method of execution — will be replete with a “a recent photograph” of Utah’s white-collar offenders and, in case they try to run or hide, their “date of birth, height, weight, and eye and hair color.”

“White-collar crime is an epidemic in Utah,” said Sean Reyes, the state’s attorney general who formulated the idea for the registry when he was a defense lawyer, “representing some of these bad guys.” A former mixed martial arts fighter who has a metal plate lodged in his eye socket from a basketball injury, Mr. Reyes noted that while violent crimes were devastating, many “physical wounds heal,” whereas white-collar crimes “can forever deplete your life savings.”

While some Utah lawmakers fear that the registry is overkill, the idea does tap into a vein of populist outrage over financial misdeeds. As much as sex offender registries spread state by state, so too could a white-collar crime registry find favor across the nation, say its supporters.

The legislation’s sponsor in the Utah Senate, Curtis S. Bramble, a Republican, plans to promote the idea through his role as president-elect of the National Conference of State Legislatures, an influential group, saying that “the registry could become a best practices for other states.”

March 13, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

March 12, 2015

Is there a real chance Loretta Lynch will not be confirmed as next US Attorney General?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Politico article headlined "Loretta Lynch nomination a cliffhanger." The piece starts this way:

Just days before her nomination as attorney general goes to the Senate floor, Loretta Lynch is stubbornly stuck right around 50 votes — suggesting a confirmation fight the Obama administration once seemed certain to win with relative ease will go down to the wire.

Barring an 11th-hour surprise, Lynch is likely to be confirmed. But with four GOP senators currently backing her along with unanimous support from Senate Democrats, Lynch would secure the bare minimum required to be installed as the nation’s top cop – as long as senators hauled in Vice President Joe Biden to break a tie. Story Continued Below

Several Republican senators who could have been potential “yes” votes are signaling ahead of the confirmation vote that that they will instead vote against her. The overwhelming bloc of opposition from Republicans stems from President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, and Lynch’s confirmation is also plagued with remnants of congressional Republicans’ toxic relations with current attorney general Eric Holder.

March 12, 2015 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

"Will Patrick Kennedy and SAM come out in support of the CARERS Act?" and other highlights from MLP&R

The question title of this post is the question I ask in this lengthy new post from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.  I have a lot of respect for the leading group opposing significant marijuana reform, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (which Patrick Kennedy helped start) because SAM proclaims repeatedly a commitment to charting a "middle road between incarceration and legalization [to provide a] commonsense, third-way approach to marijuana policy is based on reputable science and sound principles of public health and safety" (emphasis added).  In addition, the SAM group advocates for "rapid expansion of research into the components of the marijuana plant for delivery via non-smoked forms" and a special FDA reform that "allows seriously ill patients to obtain non-smoked components of marijuana."  My post at MLP&R explains why I think the stated commitments of Patrick Kennedy and SAM should result in them supporting expressly and vocally the a bipartisan federal medical marijuana reform bill introduced this week by Senators Rand Paul, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand known as the CARERS Act.

As detailed below, in addition to providing lot of CARERS coverage, there are lots of other recent posts of note at MLP&R that sentencing fans may want to check out:

March 12, 2015 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

US Sentencing Commission hearing on proposed fraud and other guideline amendments

Download (2)Today, as detailed at this webpage with the official agenda, the US Sentencing Commission is holding a public hearing to receive testimony from invited witnesses on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines. This event is being streamed live (for the first time, I think), and can be watched at this link.

This webpage with the official agenda also provides links to the submitted written testimony of the scheduled witnesses. Most of the interesting conceptual and technical debate about guideline amendments this cycle are focused on the fraud guidelines, which have been subject to an array of criticisms due especially to their severity in cases including significant "loss" calculations. But, as the Department of Justice's written testimony (available here) makes the case that there is nothing really broken in the fraud guideline that needs to be fixed:

Lessening penalties for economic crime would be contrary to the overwhelming societal consensus that exists around these offenses. All three branches of government have expressed a belief that the sentences for fraud offenses are either appropriate or too low....

The Department also feels that penalties for economic crimes should remain unchanged and not be decreased. The proportionality established between loss and offense level is based upon numerous policy considerations, including how economic crimes should be punished and deterred. In the Department's experience and judgment, the harm from economic crimes is generally not being overstated.

In notable contrast, the written testimony of Professor Frank O. Bowman, III (available here) has a very different take on the realities of the fraud guidelines:

[F]or the last decade or so, the loudest complaint about §2B1.1 has been that it prescribes sentences which, at least for some defendants, are far too high. In particular, many observers have argued that for some high-loss defendants the guidelines now are divorced both from the objectives of Section 3553(a) and, frankly, from common sense....

Accordingly, one would have expected the proposed 2015 amendments to §2B1.1 to concentrate on the class of high-loss offenders the Commission seems to agree are over-punished by the guidelines. Curiously, however, the proposed amendments – though in several cases laudable for other reasons – would have virtually no material impact on the guidelines ranges for very high loss offenders, while producing modest guidelines reductions for significant numbers of low-to-moderate-loss offenders.

<P>I agree with the Commission’s basic conclusion that for many, perhaps most, economic offenders the Guidelines do not suggest manifestly unreasonable sentences.  But I also agree with Judge Saris’s implicit conclusion that for many high-loss offenders the fraud guideline is “fundamentally broken.”  The Commission doubtless believes that the modest proposals put forward in this cycle will at least ameliorate the high-loss offender problem. Unfortunately, the guidelines for high-loss offenders are so “fundamentally broken” that these modest measures will have no meaningful effect.

March 12, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"Prisons Are Making America's Drug Problem Worse"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Politico piece.  Here are excerpts that reinforce my fear that one of the biggest problems with the modern drug war is that we are fighting it so very poorly:

After two decades of rapidly rising incarceration rates — rates that continued to rise even as crime sat at record historic lows — America today has nearly 2.2 million adult inmates in local, state and federal jails and prisons, including about 300,000 who have a history of heroin addiction.  The BOP spends $110 million annually on drug treatment programs for approximately 80,000 inmates identified as dependent on narcotics.  But for the 10,000 or so federal inmates dependent on heroin or other opioids, millions of those dollars are currently spent on outdated, ineffective approaches that wrongly prohibit medication-assisted therapies — approaches that, in other words, fail to help prisoners addicted to opioids during their sentence and ultimately return them afterwards to society as addicted as they were when they went into jail.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  A recent study of opioid-dependent inmates leaving Rikers Island jail in New York City showed that nearly nine out of ten inmates who were not medicated relapsed within a month, as opposed to just 2 out of 5 inmates who were on medication-assisted treatment.  The difference to society between those two numbers — in terms of health outcomes, reduced crime, and improved employment stability — is huge.

Science notwithstanding, the U.S. criminal justice system has resisted medication-assisted therapy, with only a few large urban jails (e.g. New York City, San Francisco, Albuquerque) and a handful of state prisons such as those in Rhode Island and Vermont opting to use it.  Yet most major correctional experts, including the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), the National Re-Entry Resource Center and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, all recommend increasing the availability of medication-assisted therapy for opioid dependence in the country’s jails and prisons.  The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) recently concluded that the effects of MAT are “many times greater” than behavioral therapies without medications.

Beyond the correctional world, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the United Nations Office on Drug Policy, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) all agree that people dependent on heroin and other opioids should have access to medication-assisted therapy.  In a recent publication, NIDA stated, “Taking these medications as prescribed allows patients to hold jobs, avoid street crime and violence, and reduce exposure to HIV.” The White House Office of Drug Control Policy calls MAT combined with behavioral therapy the “standard of care” for opioid dependence and recently announced that drug courts, which offer treatment as an alternative to prison for some criminal offenders, will be required to offer MAT in order to continue to receive federal dollars.

Nevertheless, despite the evidence to the contrary, the Federal Bureau of Prisons prohibits such treatments entirely for “routine” (non-detox) purposes.  Corrections officials frequently cite security concerns to justify denying buprenorphine and methadone therapy to inmates, fearing the medicine will be diverted to other prisoners — despite the fact that these issues can be resolved with tighter security measures and closer staff supervision (the prison systems of Western Europe, Scotland, Canada and even Iran can attest to that).

March 12, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 11, 2015

"Trial Defense Guidelines: Representing a Child Client Facing a Possible Life Sentence"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report/guidelines from The Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth . As this webpage notes, these new guidelines draw from the ABA Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases in the capital context and the NJDC National Juvenile Defense standards in the juvenile court context. Here is the introduction to the report/guidelines:

The objective of these guidelines is to set forth a national standard of practice to ensure zealous, constitutionally effective representation for all juveniles facing a possible life sentence (“juvenile life”) consistent with the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2469 (2012) that trial proceedings “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing [children] to a lifetime in prison.”

The representation of children in adult court facing a possible life sentence is a highly specialized area of legal practice, therefore these guidelines address the unique considerations specific to the provision of a zealous trial defense.  These guidelines set forth the roles and responsibilities of the defense team for the duration of a trial proceeding and outline child-specific considerations relevant to pre-trial, trial, and sentencing representation. Direct appeal and collateral review are not explicitly addressed in these guidelines.

These guidelines are premised on the following foundational principles: 

  • children are constitutionally and developmentally different from adults;

  • children, by reason of their physical and mental immaturity, need special safeguards and care;

  • children must not be defined by a single act; 

  • juvenile life defense is a highly specialized legal practice, encompassing the representation of children in adult court as well as the investigation and presentation of mitigation; 

  • juvenile life defense requires a qualified team trained in adolescent development; 

  • juvenile life defense requires communicating with clients in a trauma-informed, culturally competent, developmentally and age-appropriate manner; 

  • juvenile life defense is based on the client’s expressed interests, informed by meaningful and competent child client participation;

  • juvenile life defense counsel must ensure that child clients and their families are treated with dignity and respect;

  • juvenile life defense counsel must ensure that victims’ families are treated with dignity and respect;

  • juvenile life defense counsel must litigate for a presumption against life sentences for children; and

  • juvenile life defense counsel must litigate to ensure a meaningful individualized sentencing determination, in which defense counsel is able to fully and effectively present mitigation to the court.

March 11, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Colson Task Force highlights " biggest driver of growth in the prison population is in federally sentenced drug offenders"

Images (2)As reported in this Crime Report piece, the Charles Colson Federal Corrections Task Force has just released this notable new research brief titled "Drivers of Growth in the Federal Prison Population." Here are excerpts from the document (with emphasis in original):

The federal prison population has grown by 750 percent since 1980, resulting in rapidly increasing expenditures for incarceration and dangerous overcrowding.  In response, Congress created the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections to examine trends in correctional growth and develop practical, data-driven policy responses.  Following the example of many states that have recently engaged in criminal justice reform, the first step for the Task Force is to understand the underlying drivers of growth in the prison population.

The biggest driver of growth in the prison population is in federally sentenced drug offenders, almost all of whom were convicted of drug trafficking.  In fiscal year (FY) 2013, there were almost 50,000 more drug offenders in federal prisons than there were in FY 1994.  Incarceration for drug offenses disproportionately affects nonwhite offenders: in FY 2013, over 75 percent of all drug offenders in federal prison were black or Hispanic....

The population growth is driven by both the number of people who are admitted to prison for drug crimes every year and the length of their sentences.   In FY 2013, more people were admitted to federal prison for drug crimes than any other crime type, and the average sentence for those entering prison was almost six years.  Every year, about 95 percent of federally sentenced drug offenders receive a term of incarceration as part of their sentence, up from about 76 percent in the year before the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, which established mandatory minimum penalties for certain drug offenses.

In particular, length of stay for drug offenders, often dictated by statutory mandatory minimum penalties, has driven most of the recent growth.  Though the number of admissions has remained largely constant over time, the number of drug offenders in federal prison has increased because of people serving longer sentences.

March 11, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Mizzou lawyers spotlight problems poised by rapid pace of executions

As reported in this Kansas City Star article, headlined "Attorneys struggle to keep up with Missouri’s execution pace," the Show Me State's recent pattern of showing condemned inmates to the execution chamber on a regular basis has prompted a notable expression of concern from lawyers. Here are the details:

[F]or the small group of lawyers who take on the burdens of defending inmates on the cusp of execution in Missouri, the sheer volume of cases is overwhelming their ability to do that work.

That’s the message four law professors and lawyers delivered to the Missouri Supreme Court this week as they called for execution procedure changes that would give lawyers more time for each client. “These amendments are necessary because the capital defense bar is in crisis because of its recent workload,” the group wrote.

Since November 2013, Missouri has executed 13 men. A handful of lawyers who specialize in capital litigation have represented most of them. They also represent most of Missouri’s other defendants with a pending execution date or who soon are expected to see one set.

The state’s fast execution pace — Missouri tied Texas for most in the country last year with 10 — has left those lawyers struggling to meet their legal obligations to multiple clients at the same time, according to the letter by members of an American Bar Association death penalty assessment team that recently studied Missouri’s execution system. “The legal proceedings in death penalty cases are notoriously lengthy and complex,” they wrote. “Establishing a detailed understanding of those proceedings is a time consuming task and a basic prerequisite to competent performance.”

In addition, the cases take an intense emotional toll on attorneys who get to know the clients intimately before watching them die, the letter said. “No matter how professional the relationship between a death-sentenced client and his counsel, having a client executed is a uniquely taxing professional experience,” the letter stated. One attorney has represented five of the last nine men executed and has two other clients with an “imminent risk of execution,” the letter noted....

The four members of the assessment team who sent the letter to the Supreme Court — University of Missouri law professor Paul Litton, St. Louis University law professor Stephen Thaman, retired Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Hal Lowenstein and Douglas Copeland, a partner in a St. Louis law firm — recommended three amendments to the state’s rules.

The first would limit any one lawyer from representing a client who has an execution date set within six months of any of the lawyer’s other clients. Second, they also ask that a minimum notice of six months be given before an execution can be carried out. The third proposal would allow lawyers to prioritize caseloads to concentrate on cases with pending execution dates while being granted more time to deal with other clients’ cases.

“These are common-sense solutions to a serious problem affecting virtually every scheduled execution,” according to the letter.

The problems have mounted only recently in Missouri, where the lawyers pointed out that only two executions took place in the seven years from 2006 through 2012. But this has been a long-term issue in other death penalty states. “For decades it has been widely recognized … that unreasonable workloads among capital litigators can severely challenge the effectiveness of their representation,” said national death penalty expert Deborah Denno, a professor at the Fordham University School of Law.

Though it will be up to the Missouri Supreme Court to adopt or reject the rule changes, the court has shown some flexibility in the past. Last July, it changed the rules to limit executions to no more than one per month.

And last August, the court withdrew an execution warrant it had issued the previous month after the inmates’ attorneys said they wouldn’t have enough time to do everything required in the case while balancing work they had in other pending cases. They were given additional months before that man’s execution was carried out in November....

Jennifer Herndon, a St. Louis-area lawyer who has represented several death row inmates, said the proposals are all good ideas that are badly needed. “People don’t understand the pressure, particularly in the last 30 to 45 days before an execution,” she said. “If you don’t work on it 24 hours a day, you’re thinking about it 24 hours a day.” Facing that same kind of pressure month after month makes it virtually impossible to operate at 100 percent “no matter how hard you try,” she said.

The helpful folks at The Marshall Project have uploaded a copy of the letter reference in this article at this link.

March 11, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Utah legislature brings back firing squad as alternative execution method

Firing-squadAs detailed in this Reuters piece, "lawmakers in Utah voted on Tuesday to bring back executions by firing squad if lethal injections are unavailable, which would make it the only state in the country to permit the practice." Here is more:

Utah used firing squads for decades before adopting lethal injections in 2004. The Republican-sponsored bill, which passed the state Senate by 18-10, was introduced amid national concerns about the efficacy of lethal injections.

The measure, approved last month by the Utah House of Representatives, says a firing squad should be used if "the state is unable to lawfully obtain the substance or substances necessary to conduct an execution by lethal intravenous injection 30 or more days" before the date set for the procedure.

Several U.S. states have had to search for new drugs for their lethal injection cocktails after many pharmaceutical companies, mostly in Europe, imposed sales bans about four years ago because they objected to having medications made for other purposes being used in executions.

Supporters of the legislation said three states - Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona - recently carried out lethal injections that led to inmates' physical distress and drawn-out deaths, and that death by firing squad was more humane.

Republican state Representative Paul Ray of Clearfield, the bill's sponsor, said someone executed by gunfire typically dies in three to five seconds. "It's a quick bleed-out," he said.

Utah previously used firing squads, including in the execution of Gary Gilmore, a convicted murderer who in January 1977 became the first person to be put to death in the United States in 10 years, after insisting the sentence be carried out....

The last person to be executed in Utah by firing squad was Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010. Gardner was convicted of murdering a lawyer inside a Salt Lake City courthouse in 1985.

The bill now goes to Utah Governor Gary Herbert. In a statement, a spokesman for the Republican governor said he had not yet decided whether to sign the measure.whether to sign the measure. 

March 11, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 10, 2015

Fascinating press conference introducing federal medical marijuana reform bill, the CARERS Act

I am watching the press conference (streamed here) with presentations by Senators Rand Paul, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand introducing their new federal medical marijuana reform bill, the CARERS Act.  Fascinating stuff.

Senator Booker started by noting veterans' interest in using medical marijuana, Senator Paul spoke of the need for more research and banking problems for state-legal marijuana business, and Senator Gillibrand was the closer by stressing the need for families to have access to high-CBC medicines for children suffering from seizure disorders.

Adding to the power of the press conference is a set of testimonials from a mom eager to have CBC treatments for her daughter (who had a small seizure during the press conference!), and an older woman with MS eager to have access to marijuana to help her sleep.  Senator Paul followed up by introducing a father of one of his staffers with MS, who testified from a wheelchair.   Senator Booker then introduced a 35-year-old veteran who complained about been deemed a criminal for his medical marijuana use by a country he fought for over six years.   Notably, after all the white users/patients advocated for reform, Senator Booker introduced an African-American business owner talking about the problems with having to run a medical marijuana business without access to banking services.

This Drug Policy Alliance press release summarizes what is in the CARERS Act: 

The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States - CARERS - Act is the first-ever bill in the U.S. Senate to legalize marijuana for medical use and the most comprehensive medical marijuana bill ever introduced in Congress. The CARERS Act will do the following:

  • Allow states to legalize marijuana for medical use without federal interference

  • Permit interstate commerce in cannabidiol (CBD) oils

  • Reschedule marijuana to schedule II

  • Allow banks to provide checking accounts and other financial services to marijuana dispensaries

  • Allow Veterans Administration physicians to recommend medical marijuana to veterans

  • Eliminate barriers to medical marijuana research.

March 10, 2015 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Depressing news that sentencing toughness is doing little to deter child porn offenses

Regular readers know about the severity of some federal and state sentencing schemes for the downloading of child pornography.  The federal sentencing guidelines often recommend sentences of a decade or longer just for downloading child porn (though federal judges do not always follow these guidelines).  In one notable case from Florida, as reported here, a first offender received an LWOP sentence for downloading illegal images on a laptop.  And in Texas a few years ago, as reported here, a child porn downloader received a sentence of 220 years (though probably mostly do to evidence of lots of child molesting).

I have long hoped that these kinds of severe sentences for computer sex offenses would help serve to deter others who might otherwise be inclined to be involved in the harmful and disturbing activity of creating and distributing sexual picture of children.  Sadly, though, according to this discouraging new Houston Chronicle article, child pornography still "is increasing fast, authorities say." The article is headlined "Child porn reports soaring with technology upgrades," and here are excerpts: 

Every week in the Houston area, FBI agents execute warrants on child pornography charges, said agency spokeswoman Shauna Dunlap. "It's one of our busiest areas," Dunlap said. "We're serving search warrants or arrest warrants across the city and county area, whether for our (Houston Area Cyber Crimes) Task Force or the (Harris County) District Attorney's Office."

On Feb. 13, William Butler Myers of Meadows Place in Fort Bend County was sentenced to nearly 20 years (236 months) in federal prison for attempted production of child pornography involving a 14-year-old girl, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson's office announced. Myers, 43, entered a guilty plea on Nov. 21, 2013. Charges against Myers resulted from evidence found on a cellphone that he took to a repair shop. A shop employee called police after seeing what he thought was child pornography on the phone, officials said.

Cellphone evidence also led to charges against Jason Ryan Bickham, 32, of Orange. He pleaded guilty in September to possession of child pornography and was sentenced Feb. 24 to 10 years in federal prison, U.S. Attorney John M. Bales of the Eastern District of Texas announced last month.

With technology advancing rapidly, federal authorities expect the crime of creating, possessing or distributing pornographic images to increase as well, Dunlap said. "One of the issues and concerns with child pornography is that, once those images are shared, there's a great possibility for the victims to be revictimized each time those images are traded and shared," she said....

Like most crimes, this one cuts across socioeconomic lines. "We've had affluent individuals, those in positions of trust and regular, everyday individuals," Dunlap said. "There's not necessarily any particular stereotype with this crime."

On Thursday, March 12, former Denton High School teacher Gregory Bogomol is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court in Fort Worth after pleading guilty to two counts of producing child pornography. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in federal prison. Bogomol allegedly used social media applications such as KIK, Grindr, and Pinger to initiate conversations with underage males and to entice boys to produce sexually explicit pictures, authorities said.

Terry Lee Clark of Corpus Christi, who admitted possessing more than 5 million pornographic images, was sentenced Feb. 26 to eight years in federal prison, according to a news release from the office of U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson for the Southern District of Texas. Clark pleaded guilty in October to possession of illegal pornograpic images, including about 47,000 involving pre-pubescent females, some under the age of 12, engaging in sexually explicit conduct with adult males, authorities said.

On Feb. 17, a Galveston jury convicted William Cody Thompson of two counts of possession of child pornograpny. He was sentenced the next day to 10 years in Texas state prison on each count, with the sentences to run consecutively. Agents with the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force conducted an investigation, which led to a 2013 search warrant for Thompson's residence and the discovery of thousands of pictures and videos on multiple computers, officials said.

Since 2010, child pornography reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's cyper tip line have skyrocketed, said John Shehan, executive director of the agency's Exploited Child Division. "We certainly have an increasing trend," he said, noting that 223,000 reports were received in 2010, compared with 1.1 million in 2014 and 560,000 in the first two months of this year.

Part of the spike is explained by a federal law that requires electronic service providers to make a report to the Cyber Tip Line if they become aware of child pornography images on their systems, Shehan said. "Many companies are proactively looking on their network for child sexual abuse images," he said, which likely means they learn about more images than they would by happenstance.

Also boosting the numbers, Shehan said, is the fact that pictures are easily spread around the globe online, he said. Of this year's half-million reports to the tip line, 92 percent were linked back to IP addresses abroad, he said.

However the number of federal child-exploitation cases brought against defendants between 2009 and Fiscal Year 2014 has hovered around 2,100, dipping to 2,012 in Fiscal Year 2012 and jumping up to 2,331 the next year.

This story confirms what social scientists have long known about deterrence: even a very severe punishment is unlikely to deter if its imposition is neither certain nor swift. This story suggests that there may well be at least 1000 other child porn offenses for every one that gets prosecuted. Even if a jurisdiction were to try imposing a death sentence for child porn offenses (which, of course, the Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional in the US), such a severe sanction would be very unlikely to deter when there is less and a .1% chance of any offender getting caught.

I have long been concerned about the efficacy of severe child porn sentences in the federal system, and this story heightens my concern. In the end, I think some distinct technology and a kind of economic sanction on tech facilitators of this scourge is now needed far more than still tougher sentences (which may not even be possible) in order to deal with this still growing problem.

March 10, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Might drug shortages in Texas grind its machinery of death to a halt?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new article headlined "Dearth Row: Texas Prisons Scrambling to Find More Execution Drug." Here are excerpts:

Texas' prison agency is scrambling to find a supplier to replenish its inventory of execution drugs, which will be used up if the state goes forward with two lethal injections scheduled for this week and next. Prison officials only have enough pentobarbital for the scheduled executions of Manuel Vasquez on Wednesday and Randall Mays on March 18, but they don't know how they will conduct lethal injections on four others scheduled for April.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to say why it has not been able to obtain more pentobarbital from the same compounding pharmacy that provided the current batch of the powerful sedative last March. The state switched to that source several months after its previous supplier cut ties, citing hate mail and potential litigation after its name became public through an open records request from The Associated Press.

Prison officials have since waged a legal battle to keep the name of its latest supplier secret, but it's unclear how much longer they can do so after a state judge last year ordered the agency to divulge the source. That ruling is on hold pending the outcome of the state's appeal....

Although Texas, traditionally the nation's busiest death penalty state, faces the most imminent deadline for replenishing its pentobarbital supply, other states are experiencing similar problems. Texas has executed a nation-leading 521 inmates since 1982, when it became the first state to use lethal injection. It's now been nearly three years since Texas began using pentobarbital as its only capital punishment drug, switching in July 2012 after one of the chemicals in the previous three-drug mixture no longer was available.

The last 17 Texas executions, stretching back to September 2013, have used compounded pentobarbital, and the last nine from compounding pharmacies the state has refused to identify. Texas officials have insisted the identity should remain secret, citing a "threat assessment" signed by Texas Department of Public Safety director Steven McCraw that says pharmacies selling execution drugs face "a substantial threat of physical harm." Law enforcement officials have declined to elaborate on the nature of those threats.

The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, has refused to block punishments based on challenges to secrecy laws. However, the high court is reviewing Oklahoma's lethal injection method, resulting in a hold on executions there, after a punishment using the sedative midazolam followed by two other drugs went awry. Oklahoma lawmakers now are considering a switch to nitrogen gas as the first alternative to injection while officials in other states are considering a return to firing squads or the electric chair.

Despite all the controversies over lethal injection protocols and problems with drug supplies nationwide in recent years, Texas has been able to keep its machinery of death humming.  And because so many executions take place in Texas (basic DPIC data here), a halting of executions in that one state would functionally diminish the overall number of US executions quite significantly.

Given that Texas has a long modern history of finding ways to move forward with executions, this drug story is especially interesting and dynamic because it might lead the Lone Star State to get serious about other possible execution methods.  I assume some officials in Texas are already quietly exploring the possibility of executions using nitrogen gas or firing squads, and perhaps a Texas discussion of such matters will become public at some point soon if the state struggles to secure needed execution drugs.

March 10, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 9, 2015

What is SCOTUS reviewing in Hurst as it considers Florida's capital sentencing process?

As noted in this post, this morning the US Supreme Court today finally decided to decide whether Florida's capital sentencing scheme is constitutional in light of Apprendi and Ring.  But, as this new SCOTUSblog post about the cert grant spotlights, it actually is not entirely clear just what the Supreme Court has decided to decide:

The Florida death penalty case now up for review involves Timothy Lee Hurst of Pensacola, who faces a death sentence for the 1998 murder of a woman who was an assistant manager at a Popeye’s fast-food restaurant where Hurst also worked.

Hurst’s public-defender lawyers asked the Court to rule on two broad questions: one about the jury’s role when an accused individual claims a mental disability, and one about the jury’s role in the death-sentencing process, including an issue of whether its verdict must be unanimous. (His jury split seven to five in recommending death.) The second question was based on a claim that Florida courts fail to follow a 2002 Supreme Court decision on death sentencing, Ring v. Arizona.

In agreeing to rule on the case, the Court rewrote the question it will consider in an apparent attempt to simplify it: whether Florida’s approach to death sentencing violates either the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment “in light of this Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona.”

Because the Ring decision is all about the Sixth Amendment, and the role of the jury in deciding whether a murder was committed in an “aggravated” form, it is not clear just what the Court had in mind in linking an Eighth Amendment issue to the Ring precedent. It could be, although this was not plain from the order, that the Court is looking at Hurst’s case on Eighth Amendment grounds on his claim of mental disability, on the lack of jury unanimity, and on the general fairness of a death sentence for this particular individual. Presumably, that will become clearer as the briefs are filed in the case in coming months.

Helpfully, this extended post at Crime & Consequences reviews some of the legal background and possible implication of the Hurst case, which includes these observations:

The U.S. Supreme Court only rarely specifies the question for review itself and that often occurs when the Court wants the latitude to consider overruling prior precedent. This case is on direct appeal from a re-sentencing trial at which Hurst challenged the constitutionality of Florida's capital sentencing procedure.  Therefore, there is no limitation on the Court's authority to create new law in this case.  The Florida capital sentencing procedure is substantially different from the procedure employed by most death penalty States.  Therefore, the Court's ruling in this case is not likely to affect death penalty cases in those other States.  However, we can expect that attorneys representing prisoners in capital cases will argue the contrary.

Because of the maelstrom of potential legal issues raised by this particular Florida case, I am not sure what to expect from the Justices. I am sure any and everyone who does not like how Florida does its capital sentencing (including the nearly 400 murderers currently on Florida's death row) may be inclined to present varied constitutional arguments to SCOTUS to urge a reversal of the death sentence in this intriguing new case.

March 9, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Bipartisan federal medical marijuana bill to be introduced Tuesday

As reported in this new Washington Post entry, headlined "In a first, senators plan to introduce federal medical marijuana bill," a trio of notable Senators have interesting plans for mid-day Tuesday:

In what advocates describe as an historic first, a trio of senators plan to unveil a federal medical marijuana bill Tuesday. The bill, to be introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would end the federal ban on medical marijuana.

The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act would “allow patients, doctors and businesses in states that have already passed medical marijuana laws to participate in those programs without fear of federal prosecution,” according to a joint statement from the senators’ offices. The bill will also “make overdue reforms to ensure patients – including veterans receiving care from VA facilities in states with medical marijuana programs – access the care they need.” The proposal will be unveiled at a 12:30 p.m. press conference on Tuesday, which will be streamed live here. Patients, their families and advocates will join the senators at the press conference.

The announcement was met with praise by advocates. “This is a significant step forward when it comes to reforming marijuana laws at the federal level,” Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. “It’s long past time to end the federal ban,” said Michael Collins, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. Both describe the introduction of the bill as a first for the Senate....

In December, Congress for the first time in roughly a decade of trying approved an amendment that bars the Justice Department from using its funds to prevent states from implementing their medical marijuana laws — a significant victory for proponents of the practice.

Potential Republican presidential candidates Rand, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) have all said they support states’ rights to legalize pot, though they themselves disagree with the policy.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

March 9, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Right on Crime poll reports most Texans want to "spend more money on effective treatment programs [rather than] on our prison system"

Last week, Bill Otis over at Crime & Consequences in this post wondered what the general public thinks about Attorney General Eric Holder's advocacy for "smart on crime" reforms. Bill there asks:

What is the electorate's view of the current state of crime and punishment in America? Does the public agree with the Attorney General that we have too many people in prison for too long, or does it think we aren't doing enough to keep people who commit crime off the street?  To my knowledge, this question has never been polled by any respected organization.

I am unsure if Bill would consider the Texas Public Policy Foundation or Right on Crime to be a "respected organization," but today brings the release of a new poll from these sources that suggests that Texans strongly support the state's own "smart on crime" reforms that have served as something of a model for AG Holder's own advocacy for sentencing reform. This press release, titled "New Poll Shows Voters Strongly Support New Justice Reforms in Texas," provides the details, and here are excerpts from it:

A new poll released today by Right on Crime, the nation’s leading conservative public policy campaign for criminal justice reform, shows voters strongly support criminal justice reforms in Texas.  The poll conducted by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research for the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that the vast majority of likely Texas voters want to hold more nonviolent offenders accountable in communities, make penalties proportionate to the crime, and ensure those leaving prison spend part of their sentence-under community supervision....

The poll was conducted by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research from February 24-26, 2015. The study has a sample size of 1000 likely voters, with a margin of error of ±3.1%. Some significant findings from the survey, include:

• 73% of voters in Texas strongly support reforms that would allow non-violent drug offenders found guilty of possession to be sent to a drug treatment program instead of jail.

• Voters agree that we should spend more money on effective treatment programs (61%) rather than spending more money on our prison system (26%)....

“Texans are clearly demanding a different solution to the state’s criminal justice problems, especially when it comes to nonviolent offenders,” said Right on Crime Policy Director Marc Levin.  “The primary reason to adopt these policies is that they are the most cost-effective way to fight crime, but it is reassuring to see that average Texans recognize this as well.”

March 9, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

SCOTUS finally takes up whether Florida's capital system is constitutional in light of Apprendi and Ring

One big question that arose way back in 2000 when the Supreme Court issued its landmark Apprendi decision was whether capital sentencing schemes that incorporated judicial death penalty determinations were still constitutional.  In 2002, in Ring, the Supreme Court somewhat clarified matter when it found Arizona's capital sentencing scheme problematic in light of Apprendi.  Now, finally and remarkably, the Supreme Court has decided to decide whether Florida's capital sentencing scheme is constitutional in light of Apprendi and Ring.

This new SCOTUS order list has just one new cert grant, and here it is:

HURST, TIMOTHY L. V. FLORIDA: The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis is granted. The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to the following question: Whether Florida's death sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of this Court's decision in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002).

Notably, according to the Death Penalty Information Center's data, Florida has carried out 39 executions since the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Ring in 2002, and I suspect a good number of those Florida condemned (and now dead) murderers asserted that their death sentencing violated the Sixth Amendment and/or the Eighth Amendment in light of Ring.  If there is some kind of afterlife for executed murderers, I expect there will now be some interesting SCOTUS talk in the Florida section of that netherworld.

March 9, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

"Hey, Grandpa: End Mandatory Minimums!"

The title of this post is the headline of this Daily Beast piece highlighting the generational divide which now impacts the fate and future of some proposed federal sentencing reforms. Here are excerpts:

[A] wave of young conservative leaders has been pushing for a variety of reforms to address problems that, in many cases, disproportionately affect the African-American community. The bad news it that these conservatives have a formidable adversary: Their elders.

When word leaked last month the Smarter Sentencing Act would be reintroduced, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, 81, wasted little time in going nuclear. “It is a fact that the so-called Smarter Sentencing Act would cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences that Congress put in place for distributing drugs to benefit terrorists or terrorist organizations,” he said. ... Terrorists?!?

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act included Republicans Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Jeff Flake as co-sponsors — hardly the sort to want to help fund terrorists. But this isn’t a new line for Grassley, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and it isn’t clear whether the terrorist line is a sincere (albeit wrongheaded and crank-ish) concern, or merely a way to kill reform....

According to Vikrant Reddy, a senior policy analyst for the conservative Right on Crime, the generational divide — not the partisan divide — is the issue. “It is true that Senator Grassley has expressed skepticism about the Cruz-Lee proposals, but it is also true that Dianne Feinstein voted against last year’s Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act," Reddy said. “Senators Grassley and Feinstein have very little in common, but they do share a generation: They are both exactly 81 years old.”

Meanwhile, the loudest voices for criminal justice reform in Congress are members of Generation X: Mike Lee is 43, Ted Cruz is 44, and Cory Booker is 45. But Reddy doesn’t want to bash his elders just for the sport of it. There is, he insists, a perfectly good explanation for the generational divide: Grassley and Feinstein came of age in an era of high crime....

But the violent crime rate has consistently dropped in recent decades, and many reformers believe the pendulum has swung too far. “We may be at the point where high levels of incarceration are themselves ‘criminogenic,’ meaning that they actually cause more crime than they prevent, because extremely lengthy prison stays produce high recidivism rates,” says Reddy.

It would be a mistake to return to the bad old days of being soft on crime, but it would also be foolish to fail to adapt to changing times.  Rather than resting on our laurels, we should continue to tweak and fix problems.  Bipartisan agreement is rare in Washington, and it would be a shame to scuttle one of the few areas where conservative reformers have a real opportunity to do well by doing good.

... And they might have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling codgers.

March 9, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Profile of one (of thousands) of the juve LWOP stories full of post-Miller uncertainty

Thanks to How Appealing, I saw this interesting article from North Carolina about the history of an offender long serving an LWOP sentence for a juvenile murder who still awaits resolution of whether he can benefit from the Supreme Court's work three years ago in Miller v. Alabama.  The piece is headlined "Convicted of murder at 16, Anthony Willis is hoping a Supreme Court decision will overturn his sentence," and merits a full read for those following post-Miller developments closely. Here is an excerpt from the lengthy piece:

[I]f nothing else, prison gives a man time to reflect. Willis slowly came to realize — even though he was expected to die behind bars — that he needed his life to matter. The best way to do that, he decided, was to lean on God and to educate himself. After earning his GED, Willis began taking anger- and stress-management classes and attending prison fellowship seminars.

He earned back-to-back-to-back associate degrees from Western Piedmont Community College and a bachelor's degree from California Coast University. His mother attended his graduation ceremony for his first associate degree.  "That's my baby," Brenda Willis yelled as Willis walked down the aisle.  She was so proud of her son.

That's a big part of Willis' motivation today.  He wants his mother to know that his actions as a teenager were never her fault....  Now 35, his appearance and demeanor are nothing like one might expect from a man who has spent slightly more than half his life in prison. Most of the other prisoners call him Smiley, a nickname that has transferred with him from prison to prison.

Thin, polite, boyish and articulate, Willis seems to have been transformed by prison into a man who has gained respect by learning to stop following the herd.  Willis said he has found comfort in the Lord and teaches those virtues to other prisoners.  He said he regularly leads prison fellowship seminars and takes pride in his role as a mentor and recreational leader.  Willis said he often counsels new prisoners almost as soon as they get off the bus.  Most mistake his optimism for someone who is about to get released — anyone but a lifer....

Willis acknowledges that serving a life sentence isn't easy. "It's hard to hold onto hope in here," he said. "It's like holding onto a ledge by your fingertips." But he endures the best he can, buoyed by his faith, his new-found purpose in life and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling called Miller vs. Alabama.

On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life in prison without parole for people who committed murder as juveniles constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling effectively struck down laws in 28 states, including North Carolina....

The court did not bar mandatory life sentences without parole in all juvenile homicide cases. It said lower courts could impose such a sentence only after examining mitigating factors, including family environment, the circumstances of the offense and the possibility of rehabilitation.  But the court didn't make its order retroactive, so it does not apply to Willis and 87 other murderers convicted as juveniles and now serving life sentences in North Carolina.

In December, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the Miller ruling should be made retroactive in a Louisiana murder. But the case was resolved at the state level, leaving no issue for the federal court to hear. So making Miller retroactive remains in limbo, at least in North Carolina.

Less than two weeks after the Miller ruling, North Carolina's General Assembly responded by approving a law that requires a parole review after a juvenile murderer has spent a minimum of 25 years in prison.  But again, the law applies only to sentences handed down after the Miller ruling.  Courts in at least nine states — including South Carolina — have ruled that the ruling will be applied retroactively. Five other states have ruled that the decision is not retroactive.  North Carolina's appellate courts continue to consider the issue.

March 9, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 8, 2015

"Questions raised about the death penalty in Ohio"

Death-penalty-art1-gpu10obcu-10308-gfxdeathpenaltychart-epsThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy front-page article appearing today in my own home-town Columbus Dispatch.  The subheading of the piece summarizes its themes: "Dozens of inmates sentenced to die have been removed from Death Row in the past 12 years. Add that to botched executions and lingering questions about lethal-injection drugs, and it raises questions about the death penalty in Ohio." Here is how the extended article gets started:

The Cincinnati man had ordered his last meal and was going to be executed the next day when the governor spared his life largely because the DNA on his shoes did not match the blood of the victim.

A Cleveland man, originally sentenced to Death Row, was freed from prison after serving nearly 40 years when a witness confessed that he lied at the original trial about seeing the killing.

An Akron man was sentenced to die but spared from execution after officials confirmed that he was mentally disabled and had the intellect of a second-grader.

In the wake of such cases and other questions about the death penalty, key Ohio lawmakers say that while there’s no movement to eliminate capital punishment from Ohio’s criminal-justice books, some have proposed changes in the law.

Ohio has removed 20 inmates from Death Row since 2003 because investigations or evidence raised questions about their guilt, they were found to be mentally disabled or governors granted them clemency.

Another five men, who were removed from Death Row in the 1970s when Ohio abolished the death penalty for a short period, have been exonerated and released during the past 12 years. There were another 28 men spared from execution during the same period whose cases involved constitutional violations and procedural issues.

All of this has contributed to a slowdown in executions. Last year, for example, 35 people were executed across the U.S., the lowest number in 20 years. And while Ohio has executed 53 inmates since 1999 — an average of slightly more than three a year — it put to death only four in the past two years. The next execution is set for January 2016.

This all raises issues that should be addressed by the legislature, said Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, but are not reasons to kill the death penalty. “I won’t say never, but right now there is no way (abolishing it) is going to happen,” Seitz said. “But if we’re going to retain the death penalty, and I’m firmly committed to its retention, we ought to take away most of the serious objections.”

Lawmakers are poised to introduce new laws in the next few weeks. Seitz and Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, are working on four bills incorporating 14 of the 56 recommendations made by the Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force in April 2014. The bills focus on significant recommendations: preventing execution of seriously mentally disabled inmates; establishing a statewide indigent death-penalty litigation fund in the Ohio Public Defender’s office; requiring certification for coroner’s offices and crime labs, and prohibiting convictions based solely on uncorroborated information from a jailhouse informant.

Seitz said he expects “tough sledding” in the legislative debate, adding that it’s too soon to predict whether any of the bills will become law. But he was clear that the debate likely won’t include ending executions because a majority of state lawmakers support the death penalty.

March 8, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Can a sheriff prohibit sex offenders from a church that is sometimes a school?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this story coming from North Carolina, headlined "Graham sheriff bans sex offenders from church." Here are the details:

A sheriff in one of North Carolina's smallest counties told sex offenders they can't attend church services, citing a state law meant to keep them from day care centers and schools. Sheriff Danny Millsaps, in Graham County, told the registered offenders about his decision on Feb. 17, according to a letter obtained by the Asheville Citizen-Times on Friday....

"This is an effort to protect the citizens and children of the community of Graham (County)," he wrote. "I cannot let one sex offender go to church and not let all registered sex offenders go to church." He invited them to attend church service at the county jail.

Millsaps, in an interview on Friday, said he may have made a mistake when he wrote that offenders "are not permitted to attend church services." He said he understands the Constitution gives everyone the right to religious freedom. But, he said, he's standing by his take on the law blocking offenders from places where children are present.

"I understand I can't keep them from going to church," he said. "That may have been misunderstood. I'll be the first one to say I might have made mistakes in the wording of that letter." He said he has no immediate plans to arrest a sex offender should one of the 20 in his county attend church on Sunday.

Graham County Manager Greg Cable said the county attorney is looking into the matter and any legal mistakes would be corrected. The American Civil Liberties Union in Raleigh, at the newspaper's request, is reviewing the letter the sheriff sent. The newspaper also sent a copy to the state Department of Justice for an opinion on the law....

Other North Carolina counties have dealt with the same issue. Deputies in Chatham County in 2009 arrested a sex offender for attending church, citing the same law. A state Superior Court judge eventually ruled the law, as applied to churches, was unconstitutional.

In Buncombe County, sex offenders are permitted in church as long as pastors know and are in agreement, Sheriff Van Duncan says. That's similar to the county's policy for allowing sex offenders at school events such as ball games. They are allowed as long as school administrators have warning and the offenders are monitored to some extent, the sheriff said. The law allows schools to do this, a factor the judge noted back in 2009 in the Chatham County case.

Duncan said if a sex offender threatens a child at a church or school event, the law can be enforced and used to ban the offender. He said church leaders in Buncombe County, generally, want to minister to sex offenders.

The law applies to churches that run schools Monday-Friday the same as it would apply to county or city schools during the week. Sex offenders are generally banned from school property.

March 8, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Religion, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Stirring (sentencing) civil rights sentiments in Selma speech

The events in Selma, Alabama a half century ago has led to a modern weekend of discussion and reflection on the achievements and work still to be done in the never-ending struggle for civil rights for all.  President Obama, whom even his toughest critics will admit can give a good speech, spoke to these matters in a speech at an historic location in Selma.  The full text of the speech is worth a read, and these sentiments from the text of President Obama's remarks which have obvious sentencing significance:

This is work for all Americans, and not just some.  Not just whites.  Not just blacks.  If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination.  All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now.  All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children.  And if we make such effort, no matter how hard it may seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.

With such effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some.  Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on — the idea that police officers are members of the communities they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for — the protection of the law.  Together, we can address unfair sentencing, and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and workers, and neighbors.

Some related posts (from both SL&P and MLP&R):

March 8, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack