April 4, 2015
In praise of Senator Charles Grassley's advocacy for criminal justice transparency and accountability (and his one blind spot)
With respect to sentencing policy and procedure, I frequently disagree with the current Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley. But on the topic of federal court transparency, I surmise that Senator Grassley and I have very similar views as evidence by this new National Law Journal op-ed penned by the Senator. The piece is headlined "Legislation Allowing Cameras in the Courtroom More Important Than Ever, and here are excerpts:
In [the Boston Bombing] high-profile case and countless others, the mechanics of our criminal justice system work day in and day out to provide equal justice under the law. Before a jury of peers, prosecutors make the government's case on behalf of the people, and the defense works to give the accused a fair trial. America's system of justice, including our bedrock constitutional principles guaranteeing due process, a fair and speedy trial, and the right to counsel, is a tangible right of citizenship that too often goes unnoticed. That's because a majority of Americans aren't able to look under the hood to see it — at least not in federal courts, which ban cameras from their courtrooms.
The federal trial in Boston carries significant public interest. And yet, the ban on cameras disallows the public to bear witness to the public proceeding. Courtroom sketches and tweets from reporters arguably don't do justice for most people, especially those who have a keen interest to see justice served.
In this day and age when the American public is hard-wired to access what they want to see, when they want to see it, it's hard to square the injustice of essentially banning broad civic engagement from our judicial system by banning cameras from the federal courtroom.
Blockbuster trials certainly generate a lot of attention. They renew interest in something I've been working to achieve for nearly two decades. And that is to unlock the federal courtroom door to cameras. As a co-equal branch of the federal government, the federal judiciary serves a fundamental function in our system of self-government. It alone interprets the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress and managed by the executive branch. Although removed from electoral politics by constitutional design, the federal judiciary and Article III judges are not part of a royal class or monarchy. The federal judiciary is the custodian of constitutional rights and providing equal justice under the law. If anything, the federal judiciary ought to be the first to throw open the shutters to bring this extraordinary branch of government to life for ordinary Americans.
As a longtime crusader for more transparency, I've worked to spread sunshine through the halls of the federal government. Transparency, and the accountability that comes with it, renews credibility in our institutions of government and strengthens our free and open society. The same goes for civic engagement. Allowing courtroom proceedings to be broadcast would give more citizens an opportunity to develop a better appreciation for the federal judiciary and how the wheels of justice serve the public good.
With very few exceptions, the public's business ought to be public. Period. My leadership on this issue has prompted a few steps in the right direction, such as the adoption of pilot programs to allow cameras into some federal courts. The most recent program was launched in 2011 and includes 14 federal trial courts. So far, the sky has not fallen and the program will wrap up this summer. The courts will report back to Congress next year.
Each of the 50 states allows some level of camera access in their courtrooms. As far as I know, the recording and broadcasting of state trials haven't turned the carriage of justice into a pumpkin. To me, it's a miscarriage of justice that the 20th century courtroom camera ban still exists in the 21st century at the federal level....
[M]y bipartisan bill would allow the presiding judge discretion to protect the privacy of witnesses and private conversations among clients, lawyers and the judge. It prohibits the televising of jurors and includes measures to protect due process rights. The bipartisan verdict on this issue exceeds reasonable doubt. Allowing cameras into the federal courtroom would foster better civic engagement with our courts of law and, ultimately, strengthen the court of public opinion about the integrity of our judicial system in American society.
The burden of proof is clear. It's time to lift this arbitrary barrier to transparency. Let's end the camera ban and raise the bar on good government.
I could not agree more strongly with this forceful assertion by Senator Grassley: "With very few exceptions, the public's business ought to be public. Period." Now I just wish Senator Grassley would come to understand that his righteous commitment to transparency and accountability in the federal criminal justice system is deeply undermined by his steadfast support for federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes and the extraordinary hidden power they place in the hands of unelected federal prosecutors.
Existing federal mandatory minimum statutes enable federal prosecutors to make profoundly consequential sentencing decision behind closed doors without any explanation, transparency or accountability. The US Sentencing Commission and others have frequently documented the profound sentencing impact of the hidden charging and bargaining decisions made by federal prosecutors using mandatory minimum sentencing provision. It is near impossible to even know what decisions are being made by prosecutors in the use of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions, let alone to assess effectively the legitimacy of the factors employed by prosecutors in their charging and bargaining decisions, because prosecutors need never explain or justify these sentencing decisions in any way.
My general disaffinity for federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes is deeply based in my strong belief that "the public's business ought to be public." Because it seems Senator Grassley is truly and deeply committed to the values of transparency and accountability in the federal criminal justice system, I hope he will at some point come to understand how his support for federal mandatory minimums problematically disserve these critical values.
"'Revenge Porn' Defendant Sentenced to 18 Years"
The title of this post is the headline of this local California article reporting on a first-of-its-kind sentencing that was completed yesterday in state court. Here are the details:
A San Diego man convicted of identity theft and extortion after posting more than 10,000 sexually explicit photos of women to his so-called "revenge porn" website was sentenced on Friday to 18 years behind bars.
The sentencing of Kevin Bollaert ended an all-day hearing where a number of victims told of the humiliation inflicted by his website. Bollaert burst into tears as he listened to testimony from his mother and victims.
The sentence was at the high end of the range; Bollaert faced a maximum of 20 years. In explaining his punishment, the judge noted that he stacked the sentencing terms based on the multiple victims. Considering credits for good behavior, Bollaert could be eligible for parole after 10 years, the judge noted. Bollaert also must pay $10,000 in restitution.
It was the first case of its type in the United States, and California was the first state to prosecute someone for posting humiliating pictures online. Bollaert was convicted of 27 counts of identity theft and extortion in connection to the thousands of photos posted online. Once they were published, Bollaert would then demand hundreds of dollars from individuals to remove their photos through a second website he owned.
Prosecutors called Bollaert "vindictive" and claimed he took pleasure out of hurting his female victims with the internet being his "tool of destruction."...
The case centered on a now defunct website called YouGotPosted.com, created by Bollaert so ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends could submit embarrassing photos of victims for revenge. The photos also linked to victims’ social media accounts.
Prosecutors say those who wanted to get the pictures taken down were redirected to another one of Bollaert's sites, ChangeMyReputation.com. There, the victims were charged $300 to $350 to have their photos removed.
State law prohibits anyone from putting identifiable nude photos online after a breakup, punishable with $1,000 or six months in jail.
April 3, 2015
Notable nomenclature for naming the "liberty disabled"
This new piece from The Marshall Project reports on the results of an interesting inquiry about what to call those who are serving time. The piece is headlined "Inmate. Prisoner. Other. Discussed. What to call incarcerated people: Your feedback." Here is how it starts:
We received more than 200 responses to our callout asking the best way to refer to people behind bars. Of the options we offered, 38 percent preferred “incarcerated person,” 23 percent liked “prisoner” and nearly 10 percent supported use of the word inmate. Thirty percent selected “other” (“person in prison,” “man or woman,” “the person’s name.”)
Personally, I kind of like "liberty disabled" or "unwillingly caged" or "long-term guest at the graybar hotel." Well, actually, this is best I could come up with in an effort to add some levity at the end of a long week. I welcome and encourage readers to use the comments to have some (inappropriate?) fun with this name game.
AG-nominee Loretta Lynch has votes for confirmation, but is still waiting for a confirmation vote
This new Politico article, headlined "Mark Kirk will back Loretta Lynch, assuring confirmation," reveals that enough GOP Senators have now indicated their support for confirmation of Prez Obama's selected replacement for Attorney General Eric Holder. Here are the details:
Attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch won’t need Vice President Joe Biden’s vote after all. Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, who was complimentary of Lynch after meeting with her last month, said at a Thursday event in Chicago that he would vote to confirm her.
He becomes the fifth Republican to publicly support Lynch, and with all 46 Senate Democrats expected to back her nomination, Lynch now has the votes to be confirmed without Biden coming to the Capitol to break a tie....
Just a few hours earlier, aides to indicted Sen. Robert Menendez said the embattled New Jersey Democrat will also support Lynch’s nomination to be the nation’s top law enforcement official. That means Lynch almost surely has the 51 votes necessary to win confirmation.
Lynch may be able to cobble together a few more votes, with several undecided senators remaining like Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, all like Kirk up for reelection next year. But there’s still no resolution to an abortion dispute over a sex trafficking bill that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says must first be resolved before Lynch’s nomination comes to the floor.
Senators and aides in both parties have been discussing a way forward on the trafficking bill for weeks, though no resolution is expected until the Senate reconvenes after Easter recess on April 13.
I surmise that current Attorney General Eric Holder has kept a fairly low profile since he announced his plans to resign in the hope that his actions would not slow the confirmation of his replacement. But I have long thought that the surest way to get Holder's replacement confirmed would be for Holder himself to be even more active, not more passive, so that the Republicans in control of the Senate would have a reason to get him out of his office.
Should age matter at sentencing of elderly child molester?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article headlined "Sentencing delayed for 89-year-old child molester in Santa Cruz County." Here are excerpts:
An 89-year-old Felton man is expected to be sentenced in May for molesting a girl younger than 9, but her supporters fear that his advanced age might play a role in a reduced sentence.
Thursday, Santa Cruz County Superior Judge Stephen Siegel delayed a sentencing for Eric Frank Greene, who already pleaded no contest to a felony charge of lewd acts with a minor. The crimes took place in 2004.... Prosecutor Rafael Vazquez said he does not believe there are other victims.
Greene faces a wide range of sentences, from probation to up to eight years in prison. “I haven’t made an ultimate decision, but I am contemplating probation,” Siegel said in court Thursday.
More than 15 supporters of the victim attended the hearing, and Siegel said he received a folder full of letters about the case from many of them Wednesday that he needed to review. Because probation is his indicated sentence, the law requires Greene to be evaluated by a psychologist and by County Probation leaders to see if he would benefit from probation....
Greene, who has no criminal record in Santa Cruz County, remained out of jail. He said in court that he has severe hearing problems, but he walked without a cane or other aid and appeared in good health.
Vazquez said outside court that Greene caused ongoing psychological harm to the victim. “It doesn’t matter that he’s that old,” Vazquez said of Greene outside court. “The fact is that he’s committed this egregious act. They want him to be held accountable just like any other person.”
April 2, 2015
Amnesty International reports on death penalty administration around the world
Via this webpage, Amnesty International provides a report in multiple languages on what it can confirm about the use of the death penalty throughout the world in 2014. This AI blog posting, headlined "Death Penalty: 607 executions – the story behind the numbers," provides some highlights from the report and some backstory:
The numbers behind our latest overview of the global use of the death penalty, released today, tell a chilling story: 607 people were executed in 22 countries and at least 2,466 men and women were sentenced to death in 55 countries in 2014 alone. But, alarming as they are, the figures paint a partial picture of the true extent to which people are hanged, shot or given the lethal injection across the world.
The reality is likely to be much gloomier but many governments refuse to come clean about how many people they kill each year. In countries such as Eritrea, Malaysia, North Korea and Syria, very little information about the use of the death penalty is available due to restrictive state practice or political instability.
In others, such as Japan, executions are carried out without notice, and prisoners are left waiting on death row every day wondering if it will be their last. In Belarus, the only country in Europe to still use the death penalty, family members of executed prisoners usually only find out the fate of their loved ones when they visit them at the prison only to be told their relative is no longer there.
China, the country believed to execute more individuals than the rest of the world put together, considers information about the death penalty a “state secret”, just like Vietnam. The Chinese authorities have claimed that the number of executions in the country has decreased since the Supreme People’s Court began reviewing all death penalty cases in 2007. Unfortunately, this claim is impossible to corroborate....
That is the “glass half empty”. But the story does not end there. Despite the alarming number of people sentenced to death and executed, most of the world is moving in the right direction - away from the ultimate punishment.
In 2014, the number of recorded executions dropped by almost 22% in comparison to 2013. Fewer executions were recorded in all regions, except Europe and Central Asia, in 2014 than in 2013.
In 1945, when the United Nations was founded, only eight countries had abolished the death penalty. Today 140 states are abolitionist in law or practice.
You be the judge: what state sentence for unstable 1% whose reckless driving killed young family?
This AP story from Vermont, headlined "Victims' Family at Exec's Crash Sentencing: You're Heartless," reports on the first day of a dynamic sentencing hearing in a very sad case. Here are the details:
Family members of a Vermont couple killed in a car crash were unflinching during a sentencing hearing Wednesday as they poured out their anger toward a New Hampshire man who admitted causing the wreck, which also killed their unborn fetus.
Prosecutors have said Robert Dellinger told investigators he was trying to kill himself in December 2013 when he drove his pickup truck across an Interstate 89 median and smashed into an SUV carrying 24-year-old Amanda Murphy, who was 8 months pregnant, and her fiance, 29-year-old Jason Timmons.
The Valley News of West Lebanon reported that relatives of Murphy and Timmons tore into Dellinger during the first of the two-day sentencing hearing. "I have been robbed and violated. I will never see or touch my child ever again," the newspaper quoted Timmons' mother, Debbie Blanchard, as saying, reporting that she fought back tears. "How could you be so heartless? You still have a family; you have taken mine from me."
Dellinger appeared to be deeply remorseful during the hearing, the newspaper reported. "You have my deepest, most heartfelt apology, condolences and remorse for your loss. I am so sorry," the 54-year-old Dellinger said through sobs. "My guilt and remorse will be with me forever. I ask for your forgiveness, and I pray for your healing."
Dellinger, of Sunapee, New Hampshire, was a senior vice president and chief financial officer at PPG Industries Inc. when he left in 2011 because of health problems. He also held high-level posts at Sprint Corp., Delphi Corp. and General Electric Co. He pleaded guilty in February to negligent homicide for the deaths of the couple, who were from Wilder, Vermont, and to assault for the death of the fetus. He faces 12 to 24 years in prison when sentencing resumes Thursday....
Defense lawyers have said Dellinger was suffering from delirium due to a "toxic regime" of prescription medications for multiple sclerosis and depression. In asking for a shorter sentence, they also contend he was suffering from withdrawal of a sleeping aid. Attorney Steven Gordon wrote in a sentencing brief they now know "a medical event" was the main cause "of this accident."
Dellinger has been jailed since his arrest in December. His lawyers want a sentence that would see him serve only about eight months in prison after being given credit for time already served.
Investigators say Dellinger told them that on the day of the accident he "had a disagreement with his wife and went to Vermont to drive around. He said he was very depressed and gloomy and wanted to have a car wreck and kill himself." On Wednesday, Dellinger told the court: "I have never been suicidal."
Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward said in court that Dellinger's truck reached 101 mph in the seconds before the crash and was going 87 mph one second before he hit the SUV. His truck sheared off the top of the SUV. The medical examiner's report compared the injuries suffered by Murphy and Timmons to those of plane crash victims. Dellinger suffered cuts and bruises.
April 1, 2015
"For principle to be served, 22 worthy, long-term narcotics prisoners granted release needs to become 2,200 or more."
In one day, Obama commuted almost as many sentences as Reagan and George W. Bush did in 16 years.
What we are glimpsing like a gorilla in the mist might be something so rare it has not been spotted in four decades: the principled use of the pardon power in a systemic way to address injustice. It could even be the reclaiming of a core Constitutional imperative that was squandered by President Clinton in his last days in office, and largely ignored by President Reagan and both Bushes. Or maybe not; it all depends on what comes next....
The president has most of the work ahead of him if he is really to reclaim the pardon power from its long period of disrepute. Tuesday’s 22 men and women are largely symbolic, representing the thousands like them who remain in prison.
Perhaps most importantly, the president should reform the pardon process so that it doesn’t need special initiatives like the Clemency Project 2014. Like Presidents Bush and Clinton before him, Obama complained of not getting good cases. The problem is the system that delivers those cases to his desk, which winds its way through the Department of Justice and the White House, navigating as many as seven levels of review....
[M]any of the most efficient [state] systems use a clemency board to make recommendations directly to the executive. Establishing such a board cuts the levels of review down to just a few and opens up other opportunities. For example, such a board could compile and analyze data on those released and their success, providing guidance for future cases.
The fact that 22 clemencies is historic says more about the state of federal clemency than it does about this toe-in-the-water action, given that there are over 200,000 people in federal prisons across the United States. At best, it is a symbolic gesture, and the coming reality will be good for the prisoners released, good for the communities they return to, and good for a living Constitution in need of balance.
Prior related post:
"A Republican Governor Is Leading the Country's Most Successful Prison Reform"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new piece from The New Republic. Here are excerpts:
During his second inaugural address this past January, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal shared the story of Sean Walker. After serving 12 years of a life sentence for murder, Walker was paroled in 2005 and began working in the governor’s mansion while in a state transitional center. At the time of Deal’s address, Walker was working for Goodwill as a banquet catering sales coordinator and was nominated for Goodwill International Employee of the Year. As of January, Walker was planning to take college courses with the hope of becoming a counselor.
Deal, who got to know Walker at the governor’s mansion, shared the story to underscore his own “message to those in our prison system and to their families: If you pay your dues to society, if you take advantage of the opportunities to better yourself, if you discipline yourself so that you can regain your freedom and live by the rules of society, you will be given the chance to reclaim your life.” He continued, “I intend for Georgia to continue leading the nation with meaningful justice reform.”
That last sentence could seem at best like optimism, and at worst like hyperbole. However, one could reasonably argue that Georgia is doing more to reform its criminal justice system than any other state in the country — from sentencing to felon employment after release to juvenile detention.
Over the last four years, mandatory sentencing minimums have been modified, and judges’ discretion in sentencing has been expanded. The adult prison population has been given enhanced access to educational resources, including a program that enables two charter schools in the state to go into prisons to teach inmates, and those participating earn a high school diploma instead of a GED. (Studies suggest that some recipients of a GED tend not to fare any better in employment prospects than high school dropouts do.)
In addition, inmates with felonies applying to work for the state no longer have to check a box on their job applications that discloses their criminal histories and would often disqualify them from being considered for a job from the outset. “We banned the box,” said Deal, “It is not going to affect them getting an interview.” The state has also invested $17 million into measures aimed at reducing recidivism and rehabilitating low-risk, nonviolent offenders — including expanding accountability courts like those for drug use and DUIs, and funding community-based programs that have already proven to be more cost-effective than a prison sentence and are designed to reduce crime in the long run....
Some, like Vikrant Reddy, a senior policy analyst at Right on Crime and at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, label Georgia’s criminal justice reforms conservative because they are saving the state millions, putting them in line with conservative fiscal values. Others, like Alison Holcomb, the national director of ACLU’s Campaign to End Mass Incarceration, call the reforms expansive for their holistic agenda—with improving educational and re-entry opportunities for inmates at the top of the list. The reforms have been called innovative, though some argue that it isn’t the reform initiatives themselves, so much as the way they’re being applied together that is unprecedented.
Should the Supreme Court reflect the country's "disenchantment with capital punishment"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new New York Times commentary by Linda Greenhouse headlined "The Supreme Court's Death Trap." Here are excerpts:
You wouldn’t know it from the death penalty proceeding about to take place in the Boston Marathon case, or from Utah’s reauthorization of the firing squad, or the spate of botched lethal injections, but capital punishment in the United States is becoming vestigial.
The number of death sentences imposed last year, 72, was the lowest in 40 years. The number of executions, 35, was the lowest since 1994, less than half the modern peak of 98, reached in 1999. Seven states, the fewest in 25 years, carried out executions.
California has the country’s biggest death row, with more than 700 inmates. Many more of them die of natural causes — two since mid-March — than by execution. Last July, a federal district judge, Cormac J. Carney, concluding that California’s death penalty had become “dysfunctional,” “random” and devoid of “penological purpose,” declared it unconstitutional; the state is appealing.
But if there’s one place that seems to stand apart from the tide of disenchantment with capital punishment, it’s the Supreme Court....
Adam Liptak, the Supreme Court correspondent for The Times, has highlighted the disturbing way the court handled a challenge to Missouri’s lethal-injection protocol back in January: first, over four dissenting votes, permitting the state to execute Charles F. Warner, one of four inmates who had filed appeals, only to agree a week later to hear the appeals of three identically situated inmates. The court then granted stays of execution to the three and will hear their case, Glossip v. Gross, on April 29....
A Texas death-row inmate, Lester Leroy Bower Jr., managed to win a stay of execution in February to enable the justices to decide whether to hear his challenge to the state courts’ handling of his mitigating evidence. Last week, the Supreme Court turned down his appeal, thus dissolving the stay, over the dissenting votes of Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor; Justice Breyer, not given to overstatement, wrote that “the error here is glaring.” Since at least two others must have voted for the stay, where were they? Perhaps after carefully considering the merits of Mr. Bower’s appeal, they found itinsufficient. Fair enough. But shouldn’t they have felt moved to tell us something — anything?
An argument on Monday was simply dispiriting. A Louisiana inmate, Kevan Brumfield, with an I.Q. of 75, was sentenced to death before the Atkins decision barred the execution of mentally disabled people. At trial, his lawyer had presented some evidence of his disability, but not in the detail a court would expect in the post-Atkins world. The question for the justices in Brumfield v. Cain was whether he should have received a new hearing. The obvious answer would seem to be: Of course, why on earth not? But the justices seemed more concerned about whether Mr. Brumfield and his lawyer were trying to game the system.
In 2008, two years before he retired, Justice John Paul Stevens renounced the death penalty. His nuanced opinion in Baze v. Rees rewards rereading. No current justice has taken up the call. I’m not so naïve as to predict that a majority of the Supreme Court will declare the death penalty unconstitutional anytime soon. But the voice of even one member of the court could set a clarifying marker to which others would have to respond. And it just might over time point the way to freeing the court — and the rest of us — from the machinery of death.
"Plea Bargaining and the Substantive and Procedural Goals of Criminal Justice: From Retribution and Adversarialism to Preventive Justice and Hybrid-Inquisitorialism"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article by always interesting Christopher Slobogin. Here is the abstract:
Plea bargaining and guilty pleas are intrinsically incompatible with the most commonly-accepted premises of American criminal justice — to wit, retributivism and adversarialism. This article argues that the only way to align plea bargaining with the substantive and procedural premises of American criminal justice is to change those premises. It imagines a system where retribution is no longer the lodestar of criminal punishment, and where party-control of the process is no longer the desideratum of adjudication.
If, instead, plea bargaining were seen as a mechanism for implementing a sentencing regime focused primarily on individual crime prevention rather than retribution (as in the salad days of indeterminate sentencing), and if it were filtered through a system that is inquisitorial (i.e., judicially-monitored) rather than run by the adversaries, it would have a much greater chance of evolving into a procedurally coherent mechanism for achieving substantively accurate results.
March 31, 2015
Prez Obama starts to "walk the walk" on clemency by granting 22 new drug offense commutations
Long-time readers know I have long complained about Prez Obama's failure to make regular use of his clemency power, and I have been especially critical over the last year when we have heard the President and his agents "talk the talk" a lot about a new clemency initiative, but not actually "walk the walk" by granting relief in a significant number of cases. But today, as reported in this USA Today article, may finally mark the start of a truly new clemency era:
President Obama commuted the sentences of 22 convicted federal prisoners Tuesday, shortening their sentences for drug-related crimes. Eight of the prisoners who will have their sentences reduced were serving life sentences. All but one of the 22 will be released on July 28.
The White House said Obama made the move in order to grant to older prisoners the same leniency that would be given to people convicted of the same crimes today. "Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement. "Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years—in some cases more than a decade—longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."
In issuing the commutations Tuesday, Obama has more than doubled the number he's granted in his presidency. Before Tuesday, he had issued just 21 and denied 782 commutations in his more than six years. It was the most commutations issued by a president in a single day since President Clinton issued 150 pardons and 40 commutations on his last day in office.
And it could represent the crest of a new wave of commutations that could come in Obama's last two years in office. Last year, the Justice Department announced a new clemency initiative to try to encourage more low-level drug offenders to apply to have their sentences reduced. That resulted in a record 6,561 applications in the last fiscal year, at least two of which were granted commutations Tuesday, according to the Justice Department....
Obama wrote each of the 22 Tuesday, saying they had demonstrated the potential to turn their lives around. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will encounter many who doubt people with criminal records can change," Obama wrote. "I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong."
Of the 22 commutations granted Tuesday, 17 were for possession or trafficking in cocaine. The others were for methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana. One was also convicted of a gun charge in addition to cocaine possession. Their convictions cover a 14-year span from 1992 to 2006.
A list of the 22 individuals receiving commutations today is available via this official White House press release, and the White House blog has this new entry by Neil Eggleston titled "Upholding the Principle of Fairness in Our Criminal Justice System Through Clemency." Here is an excerpt from that entry:
Building on his commitment to address instances of unfairness in sentencing, President Obama granted 22 commutations today to individuals serving time in federal prison. Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.
In total, the 22 commutations granted today underscore the President’s commitment to using all the tools at his disposal to bring greater fairness and equity to our justice system. Further, they demonstrate how exercising this important authority can remedy imbalances and rectify errors in sentencing. Added to his prior 21 commutations, the President has now granted 43 commutations total. To put President Obama’s actions in context, President George W. Bush commuted 11 sentences in his eight years in office....
While today’s announcement represents important progress, there’s more work ahead. The Administration will continue to work to review thoroughly all petitions for clemency. And, while commutation is an important tool for those seeking justice and fairness in our penal system, it is nearly always an option of last resort, coming after a lengthy court process and many years behind bars. That is why President Obama is committed to working with Democrats and Republicans on sensible reforms to our criminal justice system that aim to give judges more discretion over mandatory minimum sentencing. As the Department of Justice has noted, mandatory minimum sentences have at times resulted in harsher penalties for non-violent drug offenders than many violent offenders and are not necessary for prosecutions at this level.
Already, one significant reform has become law. In 2010, the President signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum penalties. The President is encouraged by the bipartisan support for improving our criminal justice system, including promising legislation that would implement front-end changes in sentencing. In addition, he supports bipartisan efforts to provide back-end support through better education and job training for those currently incarcerated and to reform of our juvenile justice system to build on the significant reductions in the number of youth being held in secure facilities.
Can we save thousands of innocent lives from serious crime through . . . a tax increase?
Those who vigorously oppose various modern sentencing reform proposals are often quick to suggest that any efforts to save taxpayer monies by reducing excessive prison terms could with the potential costs of increased crime and increased victimization. I tend to resist (as does most sophisticated research) the assertion that there is a zero-sum reality to incarceration rates and crime rates, but I do share a concern that any budget-driven criminal justice reforms need to keep a close watch on what evidence and research suggests is the public safety impact of reform.
With those thoughts always in mind, I am especially encouraged by this report about new research suggestion we might be able to successfully reduce serious crimes and innocent victimization through a tax increase that could be good for state budgets. The report is titled "Researchers see significant reduction in fatal car crashes after an increase in alcohol taxes," and here are the highlights:
Increasing state alcohol taxes could prevent thousands of deaths a year from car crashes, say University of Florida Health researchers, who found alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes decreased after taxes on beer, wine and spirits went up in Illinois.
A team of UF Health researchers discovered that fatal alcohol-related car crashes in Illinois declined 26 percent after a 2009 increase in alcohol tax. The decrease was even more marked for young people, at 37 percent. The reduction was similar for crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers and extremely drunken drivers, at 22 and 25 percent, respectively. The study was released online in the American Journal of Public Health in March and will be published in a forthcoming issue.
“Similar alcohol tax increases implemented across the country could prevent thousands of deaths from car crashes each year,” said Alexander C. Wagenaar, a professor in the department of health outcomes and policy at the UF College of Medicine. “If policymakers are looking to address dangerous drivers on our roads and reduce the number of fatalities, they should reverse the trend of allowing inflation to erode alcohol taxes.”
Alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes account for almost 10,000 deaths and half a million injuries every year in the United States. Alcohol is more affordable than ever, a factor researchers say has contributed to Americans’ widespread drinking and driving. Drinking more than 10 drinks per day would have cost the average person about half of his or her disposable income in 1950 compared with only 3 percent in 2011. Alcoholic beverages have become so inexpensive because alcohol tax rates have declined substantially, after taking inflation into account....
The research team defined an impaired driver as having a blood alcohol level of less than .15 percent and an extremely drunken driver as having a blood alcohol level of more than .15 percent, which translates to roughly six drinks within an hour for an average adult. To control for multiple other factors that can affect motor vehicle crash rates, such as traffic safety programs, weather and economic conditions, the researchers compared the number of alcohol-related fatal crashes in Illinois with those unrelated to alcohol during the same time period as well as alcohol-related fatal crashes in Wisconsin, which did not change its alcohol taxes. Results confirmed that the decrease in crashes was due to the tax change, not other factors.
The larger-than-expected size of the effects of this modest tax increase may be because the tax change occurred at the same time as the Great Recession -- a time when unemployment was high and personal incomes lower, according to the study. “While our study confirms what dozens of earlier studies have found -- that an increase in alcohol taxes reduces drinking and reduces alcohol-related health problems, what is unique is that we identified that alcohol taxes do in fact impact the whole range of drinking drivers, including extremely drunk drivers,” Wagenaar said. “This goes against the conventional wisdom of many economists, who assert that heavy drinkers are less responsive to tax changes, and has powerful implications for how we can keep our communities safer.”
Another pharmacy group expresses opposition to involvement in executions
As noted in this prior post, last week a trade group for compound pharmacists has discouraged its members from preparing or dispensing drugs for executions. Now, as reported in this new NBC News article, the "American Pharmacists Association voted Monday to oppose participation in executions, declaring that helping put prisoners to death violates the goals and oath of the profession." Here is more about these developments:
Neither policy is binding, but they could dissuade specialty pharmacists — now the only source for lethal injections in many states — from selling their products to prisons for executions. "It adds to the difficulty," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports capital punishment. "It's unfortunate that groups such as this would allow themselves to be dragged into a political dispute."
But Corinna Lain, a professor at the Richmond School of Law, said it has more to do with the bottom line. With just 35 executions across the country last year, lethal injections are not a big profit center. "The cost of these drugs has skyrocketed from something like $83 a vial to $1,200 to $1,500 a vial. But that's still a drop in the bucket for a pharmacy's total sales. And look at the downside — the negative publicity is tremendous. Executions are bad for business for compounding pharmacies for the same reason they were bad for business for the pharmaceutical companies."...
Scheidgger said he hopes that at least a few compounding pharmacies will buck the trade groups and continue to sell their products to prisons until a new source is found. "I expect states will eventually find a supply and this problem will go away," he said.
March 30, 2015
"Monitoring Youth: The Collision of Rights and Rehabilitation"
The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper by Kate Weisburd now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
A monumental shift in juvenile justice is underway, inspired by the wide recognition that incarceration is not the solution to youth crime. In its place, “electronic monitoring” has gained widespread support as a new form of judicial control over youth offenders. Supporters herald it as “jail-to-go”: a cost-efficient alternative to incarceration that allows youth to be home while furthering rehabilitative and deterrent goals. But despite electronic monitoring’s intuitive appeal, virtually no empirical evidence suggests its effectiveness. Instead, given the realities of adolescent development, electronic monitoring may cause more harm than good.
This Article is the first to examine the routine, and troubling, use of electronic monitoring in juvenile courts. After describing the realities of the practice and its proffered justifications, this Article refutes three key misperceptions about the practice: (1) that it lowers incarceration rates because it is used only on youth who would otherwise be detained; (2) that it effectively rehabilitates youth; and (3) that it is cost-effective.
Yet because of the deference afforded to judges in crafting terms of probation and pretrial release, the rehabilitative rhetoric of juvenile court, and the perception of electronic monitoring as non-punitive, electronic monitoring is subject to virtually no judicial oversight or scrutiny. The result is that the practice exists in a legal and policy netherworld: wielded and expanded with almost no limits. This Article concludes by arguing that electronic monitoring should be categorized as a form of punishment, warranting a new doctrinal framework that more rigorously evaluates, and circumscribes, monitoring and other forms of non-carceral control.
California and Ohio facing capital congestion without a functioning execution chamber
Theses two local stories concerning death row realities in two states strike a similar note:
From California here, "California's death row, with no executions in sight, runs out of room." This story starts this way:
With no executions in nearly a decade and newly condemned men arriving each month, the nation's largest death row has run out of room. Warning that there is little time to lose, Gov. Jerry Brown is asking the California Legislature for $3.2 million to open nearly 100 more cells for condemned men at San Quentin State Prison. The proposed expansion would take advantage of cells made available as the state releases low-level drug offenders and thieves under a new law voters approved last year.
California's death penalty has been the subject of a decade of litigation. One case led to a halt to executions in 2006. Another resulted in a federal judge's ruling last July that the state's interminably slow capital appeals system is unconstitutionally cruel. Through it all, the death row population has grown from 646 in 2006 to 751 today.
From Ohio here, "Backup of killers awaiting execution is building." This story starts this way:
Midway through Ohio’s two-year death penalty moratorium, a backup of men awaiting execution is building. There are 20 inmates either scheduled for execution or for whom prosecutors are seeking execution dates from the Ohio Supreme Court, according to the Capital Crimes Annual Report released today by Attorney General Mike DeWine. [The report also indicates 145 murderers are on Ohio's death row now.]
Especially because no state other than Texas ever shown a consistent ability to conduct more than 10 executions in any given year, these data necessarily mean many years (and likely many decades) will be needed to actually carry out a significant number of imposed capital punishments in these states when (if?) these states get their death machineries operating again.
Two SCOTUS summary reversals: a notable sex-offender monitoring issue and another AEDPA enforcement
In addition to granting cert on a bunch of Kansas capital cases, the US Supreme Court this morning issued two short per curiam summary reversals today in Grady v. North Carolina, No. 14-593 (S. Ct. March 30, 2015) (available here), and Woods v. Donald, No. 14-618 (S. Ct. March 30, 2015) (available here). The second of these rulings is just another example of the Justices helping a circuit (this time the Sixth) better understand that AEDPA precludes a habeas grant unless and until an "underlying state-court decision [is] 'contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by' [the Supreme Court]."
But the first of these rulings are notable because it clarifies and confirms that the Fourth Amendment is applicable to sex offender monitoring. Here are key passages from the ruling in Grady:
Petitioner Torrey Dale Grady was convicted in North Carolina trial courts of a second degree sexual offense in 1997 and of taking indecent liberties with a child in 2006. After serving his sentence for the latter crime, Grady was ordered to appear in New Hanover County Superior Court for a hearing to determine whether he should be subjected to satellite-based monitoring (SBM) as a recidivist sex offender. See N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§14–208.40(a)(1), 14– 208.40B (2013). Grady did not dispute that his prior convictions rendered him a recidivist under the relevant North Carolina statutes. He argued, however, that the monitoring program — under which he would be forced to wear tracking devices at all times — would violate his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Unpersuaded, the trial court ordered Grady to enroll in the program and be monitored for the rest of his life....
The only explanation provided below for the rejection of Grady’s challenge is [a] passage from [a prior state ruling]. And the only theory we discern in that passage is that the State’s system of nonconsensual satellite-based monitoring does not entail a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. That theory is inconsistent with this Court’s precedents....
[T]he State argues that we cannot be sure its program for satellite-based monitoring of sex offenders collects any information. If the very name of the program does not suffice to rebut this contention, the text of the statute surely does.... The State’s program is plainly designed to obtain information. And since it does so by physically intruding on a subject’s body, it effects a Fourth Amendment search.
That conclusion, however, does not decide the ultimate question of the program’s constitutionality. The Fourth Amendment prohibits only unreasonable searches. The reasonableness of a search depends on the totality of the circumstances, including the nature and purpose of the search and the extent to which the search intrudes upon reasonable privacy expectations. See, e.g., Samson v. California, 547 U. S. 843 (2006) (suspicionless search of parolee was reasonable); Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U. S. 646 (1995) (random drug testing of student athletes was reasonable). The North Carolina courts did not examine whether the State’s monitoring program is reasonable — when properly viewed as a search — and we will not do so in the first instance.
SCOTUS grants cert on collection of capital cases from Kansas
The state of Kansas has not carried out a death sentence since 1965. But even though the Sunflower state has not truly utilized its system of capital punishment for a full half-century, the Supreme Court apparently believes it is important to review three capital cases from the state as evidenced by its cert grants this morning in Kansas v. Jonathan Carr, Kansas v. Reginald Carr and Kansas v. Sidney Gleason.
This AP article provides this summary of the underlying crimes and defendants whose cases are now before the Justices:
The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear Kansas' appeal to reinstate death sentences for two brothers in the fatal shootings of four people and for another man convicted of killing a couple.
The justices said they will review rulings by the Kansas Supreme Court that threw out the sentences of Jonathan and Reginald Carr and Sidney Gleason. The Kansas court hasn't upheld a death sentence since the state enacted a new capital punishment law in 1994. The state's last executions, by hanging, took place in 1965.
The Carr brothers were sentenced to death for the four killings, which occurred in Wichita in December 2000 and followed dozens of other crimes, including robbery and rape. Gleason was sentenced to die over the couple's deaths, in the central Kansas town of Great Bend in February 2004.
March 29, 2015
"Federal Sentencing 'Reform' Since 1984: The Awful as Enemy of the Good"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article by Michael Tonry now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The federal sentencing system was conceived in one era and delivered in another. When the first bills that culminated in passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 were introduced, they aimed at reducing the worst excesses of indeterminate sentencing and achieving greater fairness, consistency, equality, accountability, and transparency in sentencing federal offenders. The overriding goal was reduction of unwarranted racial and other disparities.
In the different political climate of the mid-1980s the federal sentencing commission instead sought to achieve greater rigidity and severity and to respond to the law-and-order policy preferences of the Reagan administration and the Republican-controlled US Senate. Probation, formerly the sentence of half of convicted federal offenders, was nearly eliminated as a stand-alone punishment. Lengths of prison sentences increased enormously. After the federal guidelines took effect, buttressed by a plethora of mandatory minimum sentence laws, the growth of the federal prison population far outpaced that of the states and the federal system became the extreme example nationally and internationally of the dangers of politicization of crime policy. The political climate may be changing and the federal system may change with it. Only time will tell.
Previewing the little SCOTUS capital case examining what procedure Atkins may require
On the last Monday of March 2015, the only case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court is a quirky capital case from Louisiana, Brumfield v. Cain, which appears only to concern the process by which a state rejects a defendant's claim that he is intellectually disabled and thus prohibited from execution after Atkins. Here are the questions presented:
(1) Whether a state court that considers the evidence presented at a petitioner’s penalty phase proceeding as determinative of the petitioner’s claim of mental retardation under Atkins v. Virginia has based its decision on an unreasonable determination of facts under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2); and (2) whether a state court that denies funding to an indigent petitioner who has no other means of obtaining evidence of his mental retardation has denied petitioner his “opportunity to be heard,” contrary to Atkins and Ford v. Wainwright and his constitutional right to be provided with the “basic tools” for an adequate defense, contrary to Ake v. Oklahoma.
Lyle Denniston provides this SCOTUSblog preview, which notes that the lone amicus brief filed in this case highlights that Louisiana's "state courts have now established procedures for fully evaluating a mental disability claim, making Brumfield’s case an aberration." In short, it seems unlikely that the Brumfield case will be of great consequence for anyone other than killer Kevin Brumfield. But one never knows what the Justices will do with a capital case.
Local Tennessee prosecutors pushed for female sterilization in plea discussions
A helpful reader alerted me to this stunning AP article about a stunning aspect of what some local prosecutors sometimes incorporated into plea discussion with female defendants in Tennessee. The piece is headlined "Attorneys: Sterilizations were part of plea deal talks," and here are some of the details:
Nashville prosecutors have made sterilization of women part of plea negotiations at least four times in the past five years, and the district attorney has banned his staff from using the invasive surgery as a bargaining chip after the latest case.
In the most recent case, first reported by The Tennessean, a woman with a 20-year history of mental illness had been charged with neglect after her 5-day-old baby mysteriously died. Her defense attorney says the prosecutor assigned to the case wouldn't go forward with a plea deal to keep the woman out of prison unless she had the surgery.
Defense attorneys say there have been at least three similar cases in the past five years, suggesting the practice may not be as rare as people think and may happen more often outside the public view and without the blessing of a court .
Sterilization coerced by the legal system evokes a dark time in America, when minorities, the poor and those deemed mentally unfit or "deficient" were forced to undergo medical procedures that prevented them from having children.
"The history of sterilization in this country is that it is applied to the most despised people — criminals and the people we're most afraid of, the mentally ill — and the one thing that that these two groups usually share is that they are the most poor. That is what we've done in the past, and that's a good reason not to do it now," said Paul Lombardo, a law professor and historian who teaches at Georgia State University.
Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk agrees. A former defense attorney who took over the office in September, he recently ordered lawyers in his office not to seek sterilization by defendants. He said he hadn't heard of it happening before but didn't ask. Funk said people could be ordered to stay away from children, and the state wouldn't have to resort to such invasive measures. "The bottom line is the government can't be ordering a forced sterilization," Funk said.
However, such deals do happen.
In West Virginia, a 21-year-old unmarried mother of three agreed to have her tubes tied in 2009 as part of her probation after she pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute marijuana. And last year, a Virginia man who fathered children with several women agreed to undergo a vasectomy in exchange for less prison time in a child endangerment case.
Forced sterilization came up in a different way in California last year, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that banned state prisons from forcing female inmates to be sterilized. The law was pushed through after the Center for Investigative Reporting found that nearly 150 female prisoners had been sterilized between 2006 and 2010. An audit found that the state failed to make sure the inmate's consent was lawfully obtained in every case ....
The assistant district attorney who worked the [most recent] case, Brian Holmgren, is a child prosecutor who speaks around the country, was once a senior attorney with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse and serves on the international advisory board of the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome. He has been both praised and fiercely criticized for his aggressive courtroom tactics on behalf of children.... Holmgren did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
Nashville defense attorney Carrie Searcy said Holmgren asked that two of her clients who gave birth to children who tested positive for drugs undergo sterilization. Neither did, Searcy said, because both women had already undergone the procedure.
Assistant public defender Joan Lawson, who also supervises other attorneys, said she also had been involved in cases in which a prosecutor had put sterilization on the table. Lawson said it was typically not an explicit demand, was not an everyday occurrence and was made off the record. Lawson said she refused the idea and resolved her cases without sterilization. "It's always been more of 'If your client is willing to do this, then I might be inclined to talk about probation,'" Lawson said.
Oregon Supreme Court to consider constitutionality of LWOP sentence for public pubic promotion
This local article from the Beaver State, headlined "Oregon Supreme Court to consider: Is it 'cruel and unusual' to imprison public masturbator for life?," reports that the top court in Oregon is taking up a notable sentencing issue in a notable setting. Here are the details:
William Althouse is serving a life prison sentence -- but not because, like many in that situation, he killed someone. Althouse, 69, has repeatedly exposed his genitals in public with sexual intent. In 2012, after a Marion County jury found him guilty of that conduct again, a judge sentenced him to life without any hope of being released.
The Oregon Supreme Court, however, announced Thursday that it will consider if that amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The sentence is disproportionate to the offense, said Daniel Carroll, the defense attorney who represented Althouse at trial, told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Friday. "No one died," he said.
The high court's consideration of the case seems particularly timely given another lengthy sentence -- 18 years -- handed down to a 49-year-old Sherwood man last week who was found guilty of masturbating or exposing himself eight times at the drive-through windows of fast-food restaurants and coffee shops.
In Althouse's case, the state likely will point out that he isn't only a serial flasher -- his life sentence was meant to reflect a long and concerning history of sex offenses. His sex crime convictions include sexual abuse in 1982 and kidnapping, sodomy and sexual abuse in 1993.
Typically, first-time public indecency offenders receive probation and counseling. It's unclear from court records how many times Althouse has been convicted of public indecency, but when he was convicted in 2002 of the crime, court records indicate that he had at least one earlier conviction.
Althouse, who was living in Salem, was arrested in his last case after a female jogger reported seeing him exposing his genitals -- the prosecution contended masturbating -- along a walking path next to the Salem Parkway in October 2011. After a jury found him guilty in 2012, Marion County Circuit Judge Lindsay Partridge sentenced Althouse to the life term under an Oregon law meant to get tough on sex offenders after their third felony sex conviction.
One of many interesting aspects of this case is the import and possible impact of the age of the offender. In recent SCOTUS rulings, some Justices seemed sensibly influenced by the reality that an LWOP sentence for a juvenile offender can be functionally worse than even a no-parole 50-year sentence. But for an offender in his late 60s, an LWOP sentence is arguably functionally no worse than a no-parole 50-year sentence. Whether and how that should matter for constitutionally purposes is an issue still not yet resolved in debates over LWOP sentences that have been described as "living death sentences."