April 11, 2015
Reviewing Massachusetts' "long and tortured history" with the death penalty
The AP has this notable new piece headlined "in Massachusetts, a Long and Tortured Death Penalty History." Here are excerpts:
Massachusetts hasn't executed anyone since 1947, but during most of its history it allowed capital punishment for crimes ranging from murder to witchcraft. Jurors weighing whether Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should die under the federal death penalty statute or spend the rest of his life behind bars are the latest to do so in a state with a long and tortured history with execution:
Using death as a punishment was common in the state's earliest days. In one notable case, Mary Dyer, was put to death in Boston in 1660 after she was banned by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for being a Quaker. Dyer returned several times in defiance of anti-Quaker laws and was eventually hanged. A statue of Dyer sits in front of the Statehouse as a caution against religious intolerance. Capital punishment reached a new fervor a few decades later, when 19 people were hanged and one person crushed to death during the 1692 Salem witch trials.
Perhaps the most infamous Massachusetts death penalty case of the 20th century focused on Italian immigrants and committed anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The two were arrested several weeks after a payroll clerk and a security guard were shot and killed during an armed robbery at a Braintree shoe factory. The 1921 trial drew international attention. After they were convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair, political dissidents, unionists, Italian immigrants and other supporters ... demonstrated across the United States and Europe arguing the two were targeted for their political beliefs and immigrant status. They were executed in 1927. The case still remains contentious....
In the decades after the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, the appetite for capital punishment began to wane in Massachusetts. In 1947, the state carried out its last executions, putting convicted murderers Philip Bellino and Edward Gertson to death in the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison. Although capital punishment remained legal, governors refused to sign death warrants over concerns that the penalty offered no more safety for the community than life in prison....
In 1975, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court curtailed capital punishment, holding that a mandatory death sentence for rape-murder constituted cruel or unusual punishment in violation of the state constitution's Declaration of Rights. In 1982, voters approved a constitutional amendment that would have restored the death penalty and the governor signed a new law also reinstating capital punishment in certain cases. In 1984, the court ruled that law unconstitutional saying it impermissibly burdened a defendant's right against self-incrimination and trial by jury. The ruling effectively banned the death penalty.
In the 1990s there was a new push to revive the death penalty spearheaded by a series of Republican governors. The effort gained momentum following the 1997 abduction and murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley by two men who later received life sentences. A death penalty bill filed in the wake of Curley's murder failed after a single lawmaker switched his vote during reconsideration.
In 2005 former Gov. Mitt Romney unveiled what he called the "gold standard for the death penalty in the modern scientific age" that would bring back capital punishment for people convicted of terrorism, multiple murders and killing law enforcement officers, using conclusive scientific evidence to ensure only the guilty were executed. The bill failed.
April 10, 2015
Basic report on basic changes to fraud guidelines promulgated by US Sentencing Commmission
Though the US Sentencing Commission's vote yesterday to revise the fraud sentencing guidelines is very big news for white-collar sentencing in future high-profile federal cases (basic here), this notable sentencing reform got very little news attention. Here are excerpts from this Reuters piece with the most fulsome coverage I have seen:
A federal judicial panel on Thursday adopted new guidelines for sentencing white-collar criminals in fraud cases, in an effort to make punishments more fairly reflect the harm suffered by victims and the intent of offenders to cause harm. The changes approved by the U.S. Sentencing Commission will take effect on Nov. 1 unless Congress objects.
They follow years of criticism from defense lawyers and some judges who say federal sentencing guidelines have led to overly severe punishments, potentially reaching life in prison, because they emphasize financial losses such as from falling stock prices. Judges need not follow the guidelines, but must consider them. "These amendments emphasize substantial financial harms to victims rather than simply the mere number of victims and recognize concerns regarding double-counting and over-emphasis on loss," said Chief Judge Patti Saris of the federal court in Massachusetts, who chairs the commission.
The changes call for "intended" losses to reflect financial harm that defendants "purposely sought to inflict," and give judges greater discretion in factoring actual losses in stocks, bonds or commodities into punishments. They also permit greater punishments when even just one or a few people suffer "substantial financial hardship" from fraud, while current guidelines emphasize the number of victims, even if their losses are small. Another change adjusts fraud losses for inflation for the first time.
The U.S. Department of Justice had expressed concern that the new definition of intended loss could let defendants claim they never intended to financially harm anyone. It also said an inflation adjustment could negate the "overwhelming societal consensus" favoring tougher punishments for fraud, and reduce the length of typical sentences by roughly one-fourth. On the other hand, the Justice Department welcomed the greater focus on actual harm inflicted. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Thursday.
David Debold, a Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner who led an advisory group to the commission, said the changes on balance "tend to make sentences more fair" in fraud cases. "They make punishment better reflect the harm that defendants actually intended," he said. "That's an important change, and a good one."
Prior related post:
Controversy surrounding California judge who sentenced 19-year-old child rapist way below mandatory minimum 25-year-term
As reported in this lengthy CNN piece, headlined "California judge faces recall try over sentence in child rape case," a judge's decision to impose only a 10-year prison term on a child rapist is causing a big stir in Los Angeles. Here are some of the details:
Three county supervisors in California announced Thursday a campaign to recall a judge who sentenced a man to 10 years in prison -- instead of the state mandatory minimum of 25 years -- for sodomizing a 3-year-old girl who is a relative.
At the center of the controversy is Orange County Judge M. Marc Kelly who, according to transcripts of a February court proceeding, was moved by the plea for leniency by the mother of the defendant. The judge expressed "some real concerns" about the state's minimum sentence of 25 years to life in prison for a child sodomy conviction and about "whether or not the punishment is disproportionate to the defendant's individual culpability in this particular case," according to a transcript of the February proceeding.
"I have not done this before, but I have concerns regarding or not this punishment as prescribed would fall into the arena of cruel and unusual punishment and have constitutional ramifications under the Eighth Amendment," the judge said in February, according to the transcript. "I know this is a very rare situation. It doesn't come up very often."... [An] account of [the April 3] sentencing quoted the judge as saying the mandatory sentence would be appropriate in most circumstances, but "in looking at the facts of ... (the) case, the manner in which this offense was committed is not typical of a predatory, violent brutal sodomy of a child case," Kelly said. The judge noted that the defendant "almost immediately" stopped and "realized the wrongfulness of his act," according to the newspaper.
"Although serious and despicable, this does not compare to a situation where a pedophilic child predator preys on an innocent child," the judge said, according to the newspaper. "There was no violence or callous disregard for (the victim's) well-being."
Three Orange County supervisors held a press conference Thursday to announce the campaign to collect 90,829 signatures needed to hold a recall election of Kelly. They were Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Todd Spitzer, County Supervisor and Vice Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett and Supervisor Shawn Nelson. ...
Spitzer said he was responding to "a huge community outcry" against the judge's sentence and his comments from the bench. "We as a community spoke on behalf of the victim today, the 3-year-old child," Spitzer said. "If it was a stranger, the mom would have thrown the book at the guy. The family cares about the perpetrator. It's a family member," Spitzer said. "The victim is related to the perpetrator, and that is what is so difficult here."
But Spitzer said the judge didn't follow state law. "We don't want a judge that legislates from the bench," Spitzer said. "It's just unfathomable that the judge would try to describe what is a brutal sodomy," Spitzer added. "Sodomy of a 3-year-old child is a brutal, violent act in itself."...
Orange County District Tony Rackauckas has called the sentence "illegal," and his office will appeal it, said his chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder. "We believe that his decision, his sentencing was illegal because there was a mandatory minimum set up by statute by the legislature," Schroeder said. "We're doing what the people of Orange County have asked us to do. We're going to fight through the courts."...
The June crime occurred in the garage of the family home in Santa Ana, where the defendant, then 19, was playing video games, prosecutors said. CNN is not identifying any family members so the victim can remain anonymous. The defendant also made the victim touch his penis, and he covered the girl's mouth while the mother called out to her, prosecutors said....
"As a 19-year-old, defendant appears to be mentally immature and sexually inexperienced. It is difficult to explain away defendant's actions, however, as sexual frustration," prosecutors said in court papers. "All things considered, defendant appeared to be a relatively normal 19-year-old, aside from the crime of which he is convicted." But the defendant "poses a great danger to society and probably will for the majority of his life," prosecutors added.
During the February court proceeding, a statement by the mother was read aloud to the court by her husband, according to the transcript. "While a mother's love is nothing less than unconditional, I am clearly aware of the gravity of my son's actions and the inevitable discipline that he must now confront," the mother's statement said. "It has been not only extremely difficult, but utterly devastating for me and my family to fully come to terms with the events that took place."
The mother said she hadn't had the strength or courage yet "to directly talk" to her son about the crime, but she said her son "has allowed God into his heart and has committed himself to God's guidance." Her son "is not a bad person," and she asked for forgiveness for his "transgressions and for the opportunity to have a second chance at liberty," the husband told the judge, summarizing his wife's statement.
The judge remarked about the rarity of the mother's plea. "I have never had a situation before like this where a mother is the mother of the victim of the crime and the mother of the defendant who was convicted of the crime," the judge said. "It's very rare in these situations. So I know it must be very difficult for you."
Defense attorney Erfan Puthawala said his client never denied his responsibility "for the heinous act he committed" and, in fact, cooperated with investigators. "He made a statement essentially incriminating himself, which he did not have to do," the attorney said.
"He expressed remorse for the actions he took and the mistake he made. He understands that a momentary lapse has had lifelong ramifications for his sister the victim, for his family, and for himself," Puthawala added. "It is important to note that (my client) is not a pedophile, he is not a sexual deviant, he is not a sexually violent predator, and he poses a low risk of recidivism." Those findings came from an independently appointed psychologist who wrote a report to assist the judge in sentencing, Puthawala said.
Intriguingly, the judge at the center of this controversial sentencing was a senior local prosecutors for more than a decade before he became a member of the state judiciary. Perhaps because of that history, this judge perhaps though the prosecutor who charged this case likely had some discretion not to charge an offense that carried a 25-year mandatory minimum and thus perhaps he thought he should have some discretion not to sentence based on the mandatory minimum. Based on this case description, too, I wonder if this judge found that some of the Eighth Amendment themes stressed by the Supreme Court in Graham and Miller had some applicability in this setting because the defendant was only 19.
April 10, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Penalty phase in Boston Marathon bombing capital trial scheduled to start April 21
As reported in this NBC News piece, the "penalty phase in the federal trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will begin on April 21, a judge ordered Friday." Here is more:
The jury has been asked to come to court next week — on April 14 — to receive a brief set of instructions. This year's Boston Marathon will be held on April 20. "The defendant has requested that the penalty phase commence in approximately two weeks so as to, among other things, allow the defendant additional time to resolve outstanding logistical issues with a number of potential witnesses. It is not uncommon for there to be a brief recess between phases in a capital case," Judge George O'Toole said in the order.
Tsarnaev, 21, was convicted for his role in the April 15, 2013, twin bombings that killed three people and injured 260 others at the Boston Marathon — the worst terror attacks on American soil since 9/11. A jury found him guilty Wednesday on all 30 criminal counts. Seventeen of the 30 counts carry the possibility of the death penalty.
This related NBC News piece has some interesting poll data reported under the headline "Americans Divided Over Death For Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Poll Finds."
Recent related post:
Based on "discovery violation," Florida appeals court reverses convictions for defendant given LWOP sentence for first child porn possession conviction
Long-time readers may recall the remarkable state sentencing story, covered here and here, involving Daniel Enrique Guevara Vilca. In 2011, a Florida circuit court judge sentenced Vilca, then aged 26 and without any criminal record, to LWOP based on a laptop containing hundreds of pornographic images of children. On appeal, Vilca challenged his trial and his severe sentence, and he prevailed in an opinion released just today. Here are part of the opinion in Guevara-Vilca v. Florida, No. 2D11-5805 (Fla. App. 2d Dist. Apr. 10, 2015) (available here), with a few cites omitted):
Daniel Guevara-Vilca appeals his convictions for possession of child pornography. Owing to a discovery violation by the State, we reverse and remand for a new trial....
During the trial, the State introduced 206 photographs and 248 videos containing child pornography, each of which was charged in a separate count. The file names generally contained descriptive terms. All of the material had been downloaded to the laptop from January 2009 to January 2010 using LimeWire, a file-sharing program. The files were found in thirteen different folders on the computer, including the recycle bin....
The jury returned guilty verdicts on all 454 counts. Although Guevara-Vilca had no prior criminal record, under his sentencing scoresheet the minimum permissible sentence was 152.88 years in prison; the scoresheet contained enough points to permit a sentence as severe as life imprisonment. The trial court sentenced Guevara-Vilca to 454 concurrent life terms....
Guevara-Vilca raises multiple issues on appeal. We agree with his assertion that the trial court erred in its handling of the State's discovery violation. The State was required to disclose Guevara-Vilca's pre-Miranda response to the detective's question, see Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.220(b)(1)(C), and it admittedly did not do so.... The record cannot be said to affirmatively reflect that the discovery violation caused no prejudice to the defense; to the contrary, the record strongly supports the opposite conclusion....
We reverse Guevara-Vilca's convictions and remand for a new trial. This renders moot, for now, the sentencing issue raised on appeal. Guevara-Vilca argued, below and on appeal, that a life sentence violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Our analysis of the sentence at this point would be dicta, and it is not our intention to prejudge an issue that may be raised in a subsequent appeal if Guevara-Vilca is convicted on remand. But the issue, if raised, deserves serious consideration by the sentencing court. Indeed, it is noteworthy that if Guevara-Vilca had been charged with possession of child pornography with intent to promote, he could have been convicted and sentenced for only one second-degree felony count rather than 454 third-degree felony counts.
Also, if Guevara-Vilca is again convicted and sentenced on remand, defense counsel will not be limited to the arguments previously raised and he may, if justified, advance grounds for a downward departure. Guevara-Vilca's mother testified at sentencing that her son was born prematurely and that, at ages five and around thirteen, he had surgeries to remove brain tumors. Expert testimony may illuminate the ramifications of this medical history. Guevara-Vilca stated in his interview that while he graduated from high school, his grades were "D's and E's." Cf., e.g., § 921.0026(c), (d), Fla. Stat. (2008) (providing for downward departures when defendant's capacity to appreciate criminal nature of conduct or conform to law was substantially impaired; or when defendant requires, and is amenable to, treatment for mental disorder unrelated to substance addiction).
Prior related posts:
- Florida defendant gets LWOP sentence for mere possession of (lots of) kiddie porn
- "Life Sentence for Possession of Child Pornography Spurs Debate Over Severity"
Highlighting and assailing Prez Obama's "weak approach to pardons" and Clemency Project 2014
Today's Washington Post has this potent new commentary authored by George Lardner Jr. and P.S. Ruckman Jr. headlined "Obama’s weak approach to pardons." Here are extended excerpts:
When it comes to the pardon power, President Obama is still more talk than action. According to the most recent Justice Department data, he has granted only one pardon for every 29 petitions that have come before him, fewer than any of the past seven presidents. Last week, he signed 22 commutations, but his record on those is even more dismal because he has such a staggering backlog, the biggest of any president in U.S. history. It is a backlog that he and his administration invited.
But you wouldn’t know that from his rhetoric. In a recent interview with Buzzfeed, the president said, “We’ve revamped the pardoning office in the Justice Department because, traditionally, we weren’t reaching a lot of nonviolent offenders who, if they received a pardon, perhaps would be in a better position to get employed.”... What he didn’t say is that he has let those applications pile higher and higher.
The Justice Department named a new pardon attorney in November, and her overburdened office now has more lawyers than before — but if that was the “revamping,” it has yet to produce significant results. Despite receiving unprecedented numbers of petitions, Obama has granted only 64 pardons and 43 commutations. Only six other presidents have been less merciful, and most of those served a single term or less.
Without counting a program called Clemency Project 2014, which makes his record worse, Obama has granted just one of every 779 commutation petitions addressed to him. Every president since Richard Nixon (who approved one of every 15 commutation petitions) did better....
Obama’s “new approach” to pardons remains just a promise. More than a year ago, the Justice Department announced that Clemency Project 2014 would aim to find federal prisoners who deserved a commutation, which reduces the severity of a sentence. But pardons, which forgive applicants for their crimes and restore their civil rights, were excluded.
This drive for more commutations has become a disaster, notwithstanding last week’s action. When the project was announced in early 2014, then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole asked the legal profession for help in composing “effective and appropriate” petitions for inmates serving harsher sentences than they would have received “if convicted of precisely the same offenses today.” Since then, The Post reports, more than 35,000 inmates — some 16 percent of the federal prison population — have asked for commutations under the initiative. And since then, Obama has commuted just 34 sentences.
More than 1,000 lawyers at more than 300 law firms have offered to participate in Clemency Project 2014. Yet little more than 5,000 of the 35,000 applications have been assigned to a lawyer....
The unduly restrictive rules spelled out by Cole last spring are an even larger problem. It should not be too difficult for prisoners to show they got a stiffer sentence than they would have received today, but that’s not enough. Under the criteria, a prisoner must have served at least 10 years, have no significant criminal history and have had no involvement with gangs, cartels or organized crime. The program also penalizes prisoners who previously asked for commutations by placing Clemency Project 2014 petitioners in line ahead of them.
Just as troublesome is the fact that the critical decisions about whether the rules have been met have been farmed out to private organizations — the ACLU, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. These are fine groups, but the pardon power is supposed to be reserved for the president, and saying no, which these private agencies can do, is as much an exercise of that power as saying yes.
To Obama’s credit, he wrote a letter to the 22 inmates whose sentences he commuted. All of them had been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, in many cases under punitive rules no longer in effect. But there must be hundreds if not thousands more who are just as qualified. It was a nice try by the White House to say last week that Obama’s commutation record was now better, numerically, than George W. Bush’s. What it didn’t say was that Bush’s record on commutations (11) was one of the worst in history and that he granted almost three times as many pardons as Obama has (188 to 64).
President Obama keeps referring to the Justice Department as though it were in charge of the process while he remains a frustrated bystander. He conceded in South Carolina that “we have a pretty strict set of criteria” for grants of clemency, but he spoke as though he was handcuffed by those criteria (when, in fact, he isn’t). Criticisms of the pardon process usually focus on the prosecutorial mindset of officials at Justice and blame them for rejecting too many deserving applications. It’s time for the president to take the heat and stop letting Justice be the scapegoat.
April 9, 2015
"Reality check: Is sex crime genetic?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this interesting new Science piece that a helpful reader sent my way. Here are excerpts:
A splashy headline appeared on the websites of many U.K. newspapers this morning, claiming that men whose brothers or fathers have been convicted of a sex offense are “five times more likely to commit sex crimes than the average male” and that this increased risk of committing rape or molesting a child “may run in a family’s male genes.” The study, published online today in the International Journal of Epidemiology, analyzed data from 21,566 male sex offenders convicted in Sweden between 1973 and 2009 and concluded that genetics may account for at least 40% of the likelihood of committing a sex crime. (Women, who commit less than 1% of Sweden’s sexual offenses, were omitted from the analysis.) The scientists have suggested that the new research could be used to help identify potential offenders and target high-risk families for early intervention efforts.
But independent experts — and even the researchers who led the work, to a certain degree — warn that the study has some serious limitations. Here are a few reasons to take its conclusions, and the headlines, with a generous dash of salt.
Alternate explanations: Most studies point to early life experiences, such as childhood abuse, as the most important risk factor for becoming a perpetrator of abuse in adulthood. The new study, however, did not include any detail about the convicted sex criminals’ early life exposure to abuse. Instead, by comparing fathers with sons, and full brothers and half-brothers reared together or apart, the scientists attempted to tease out the relative contributions of shared environment and shared genes to the risk of sexual offending....
Data on sexual crimes are tricky to obtain and parse: It’s extremely difficult to collect sufficient data about sexual offenders and their families to detect statistically robust patterns. Sweden is unusual because its nationwide Multi-Generation Register allows researchers to mine not only anonymized criminal records, but also to link them with offenders’ family records as well. Even with access to a nationwide database, Seena Fazel, of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and colleagues had to include a very diverse range of offenses, from rape to possession of child pornography and indecent exposure, to maintain a large sample size.
The team did do some analysis by type of offense, separating rape from child molestation, for example. But some researchers worry that attributing a genetic basis to such a wide swath of behaviors is premature. There are also problems with relying on conviction records: Many more sexual crimes are committed than reported, and the proportion of those that go to trial is even smaller.
In addition, families with one member who has been convicted of a sexual offense are likely to be under much higher scrutiny by social services and law enforcement, leading to potential detection bias that artificially enhances the perception that sex crimes run in families, says Cathy Spatz Widom, a psychologist at the City University of New York who studies the intergenerational transmission of physical and sexual abuse. In a recent study, for example, Widom found that parents with a formal record of being abused as children were 2.5 times more likely to be reported to Child Protective Services for abusing their own children than parents in a control group who admitted to abusing their children, or whose kids said they had been mistreated.
The absolute risk of becoming a sex offender is very low: One of the study’s more dramatic-sounding findings is that brothers and fathers of sex offenders are four to five times as likely as men in the general population to commit sex crimes themselves. That statistic seems pretty striking until you look at the low prevalence of sex offense convictions in Sweden overall....
In summary, there’s no doubt that some families are at a higher risk for abuse and criminal behaviors, including sexual offenses. But we’re a long way from pinning down genes that can explain why a person commits rape or any other sex crime.
Effective coverage of legal land mine created by DOJ spending restriction in medical marijuana cases
As previously noted in posts here and elsewhere, a provision buried in H.R. 83, the 1700-page Cromnibus spending bill passed late last year, directed the US Department of Justice not to use any funds to interfere with state-legalized medical marijuana regimes. Today, the New York Times has this extended and informative discussion of this federal congressional directive and its uncertain meaning and impact four months after its enactment. The article is headlined "Legal Conflicts on Medical Marijuana Ensnare Hundreds as Courts Debate a New Provision," and here are excerpts:
In December, in a little-publicized amendment to the 2015 appropriations bill that one legal scholar called a “buried land mine,” Congress barred the Justice Department from spending any money to prevent states from “implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.”
In the most advanced test of the law yet, [medical marijuana defendant Charles] Lynch’s lawyers have asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to “direct the D.O.J. to cease spending funds on the case.” In a filing last month, they argued that by continuing to work on his prosecution, federal prosecutors “would be committing criminal acts.”
But the Justice Department asserts that the amendment does not undercut its power to enforce federal drug law. It says that the amendment only bars federal agencies from interfering with state efforts to carry out medical marijuana laws, and that it does not preclude criminal prosecutions for violations of the Controlled Substances Act.
With the new challenge raised in several cases, federal judges will have to weigh in soon, opening a new arena in a legal field already rife with contradiction....
The California sponsors of the December amendment, including Representatives Sam Farr and Barbara Lee, both Democrats, and Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican, say it was clearly intended to curb individual prosecutions and have accused the Justice Department of violating its spirit and substance. “If federal prosecutors are engaged in legal action against those involved with medical marijuana in a state that has made it legal, then they are the ones who are the lawbreakers,” Mr. Rohrabacher said.
Mr. Farr said, “For the feds to come in and take this hardline approach in a state with years of experience in regulating medical marijuana is disruptive and disrespectful.” The sponsors said they were planning how to renew the spending prohibition next year.
Some prior related posts:
- Defense moves to postpone federal marijuana sentencing based new law ordering DOJ not to prevent states from implementing medical marijuana laws
- Should ALL federal marijuana sentencings be postponed now that Cromnibus precludes DOJ from interfering with state medical marijuana laws?
- Impact of the 2015 federal budget's medical marijuana spending restriction remains unclear
US Sentencing Commission votes to amend fraud guidelines (but not really "fix" that much)
As reported in this official press release, "United States Sentencing Commission voted today to adopt changes to the fraud guideline to address longstanding concerns that the guidelines do not appropriately account for harm to victims, individual culpability, and the offender’s intent. The Commission also voted to change the drug quantity table to account for the rescheduling of hydrocodone." Here are some details from the press release concerning this important federal white-collar sentencing news:
The Commission altered the victim enhancement in the fraud guideline to ensure that where even one victim suffered a substantial financial harm, the offender would receive an increased sentence. It also made changes to refocus economic crime penalties toward the offender’s individual intent, while maintaining an underlying principle of the fraud guideline that the amount of loss involved in the offense should form a major basis of the sentence.
“We found through comprehensive examination that the fraud guideline provides an anchoring effect in the vast majority of cases, but there were some problem areas, particularly at the high-end of the loss table,” said Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “These amendments emphasize substantial financial harms to victims rather than simply the mere number of victims and recognize concerns regarding double-counting and over-emphasis on loss.”
The Commission also acted today to provide additional guidance as to which offenders are eligible to receive a reduced sentence as a minor or minimal participant in an offense. “This change is intended to encourage courts to ensure that the least culpable offenders, such as those who have no proprietary interest in a fraud, receive a sentence commensurate with their own culpability without reducing sentences for leaders and organizers,” Saris said....
The Commission also made an adjustment to monetary tables to account for inflation. This goodgovernment measure derives from a methodology provided by Congress and will have an effect on both penalty and fine tables. The amendments will be transmitted to Congress by May 1, 2015. If Congress does not act to disapprove some or all of the amendments, they will go into effect November 1, 2015. More information about this process and the amendments approved today will be available on the Commission’s web site at www.ussc.gov.
At the USSC's website, one can now find this "Preliminary 'Reader-Friendly' Version of Amendments. Though "reader-friendly," the amendments themselves do not really provide a complete picture of just how much these amendments, assuming they are not disapproved by Congress, could impact guideline-sentencing ranges in future high-loss white-collar cases. In addition, and of perhaps particular interest to some currently incarcerated defendants, the Commission has to my knowledge not yet indicated in any formal documents whether, when and how it might consider making these amendment retroactive in a manner that might impact past high-loss white-collar cases.
IMPORTANT FRAUD AMENDMENT RETROACTIVITY UPDATE: A helpful colleague who was able to watch the USSC meeting and votes provided this report on the topic of the potential retroactivity of these amendments:
At the end of the hearing, USSC staff brought up the question of retroactivity and said a motion would be appropriate at this time if the Sentencing Commission wanted the staff to conduct a retroactivity impact analysis. USSC Chair Saris asked whether anyone wanted to make such a motion and no one did. Saris then read a brief statement saying they have a statutory obligation to consider whether any amendments should be retroactive, and they had determined in this case that for these amendments that would not be appropriate.
Notably, if Congress was truly eager to help with prison-crowding problems by doing something for some notable non-violent offenders, I think Congress could provide by statutory direction either that the amendments be made retroactive in whole or in part (or it might at least direct that the Commission consider more fully whether these amendments be made retroactive in whole or in part). Also, back in 2007, when the crack guidelines were first adjusted downward slightly, the Commission did not take up the retroactivity issue until many months after it promulgated amendments lowering the guidelines. But, I suspect absent some significant advocacy by the white-collar defense bar, the die may be already permanently cast against any even partial retroactivity of these new fraud amendments.
Intriguing Sentencing Project analysis of a new analysis of state-by-state incarceration trends
The Sentencing Project has this notable little analysis of variations in incarceration trends in different states across the country. Here is the e-mail I received explaining the details:
This comparative analysis of recent changes in state and federal prison populations contextualizes the scale and timing of efforts to downsize prisons. Through customized measures for each jurisdiction — calculating declines since each jurisdiction's peak year, and increases in other states since 2008 — we assess the full impact of recent policy changes. The analysis reveals:
- While the total U.S. prison population declined by 2.4% since 2009, incarceration trends among the states have varied significantly. Two-thirds (34) of the states have experienced at least a modest decline, while one-third (16) have had continuing rises in imprisonment.
- Nine states have produced double-digit declines during this period, led by New Jersey (29% since 1999), New York (27% since 1999), and California (22% since 2006). Sixteen states, and the federal government, have had less than a 5% decline since their peak years.
- Among states with rising prison populations, five have experienced double-digit increases, led by Arkansas, with a 17% rise since 2008. While sharing in the national crime drop, these states have resisted the trend toward decarceration.
These findings reinforce the conclusion that just as mass incarceration has developed primarily as a result of changes in policy, not crime rates, it will require ongoing changes in both policy and practice to produce substantial population reductions.
April 8, 2015
Notable new attacks on Senator Rand Paul from (conservative?) folks at Crime & Consequences
I often view the "who, when and how" of criticisms of political figures to be a more telling indication of the importance of a politician than the substance of the criticism. Given that perspective, and the fact that the bloggers at Crime & Consequences are among the most influential and effective advocates of "tough-on-crime" ideas and rhetoric, I find quite notable that two different C&C bloggers yesterday posted quickly these three critiques of GOP Senator Rand Paul and his efforts to become the 2016 Republican nominee for President:
The first C&C post linked above asserts that Senator Paul's criminal-justice-reform commitment "sets him apart from most Republican voters," and the last post linked above asserts that Senator Paul's statement in his Prez candidacy launch speech (basics here) reflects a stunning measure of "ignorance and stupidity." Wowsa.
I suspect most of the C&C bloggers typically cast votes in GOP primaries, and I am now pretty confident that Senator Paul should not be counting on them for support.
Prior related posts:
- What would it mean for DEA and DOJ to "defeat the Washington machine and unleash the American dream”?
- Announcing his Prez campaign, Senator Rand Paul talks up liberty and (arguably) repeal of drug laws
April 8, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Terrific review of possible USSC fraud guideline amendments (and DOJ's foolish opposition)
As detailed in this official notice, the US Sentencing Commission has a public meeting scheduled for tomorrow, April 9, 2015, at 1:00 pm (which is to be live-streamed here). The big agenda item of note for the meeting is the "Vote to Promulgate Proposed Amendments," and the most consequential amendments being considered concerns proposals to tweak § 2B1.1, the key guideline for fraud cases and many other white-collar offenses.
I doubt the actual USSC meeting will be a must-see event, though I have urged my sentencing students to tune in. (I plan to watch the meeting live on my iPad while also keeping an eye on another notable on-going event in Augusta, Georgia.) But I have a must-read for anyone interested in white-collar federal sentencing: this fantastic Jurist commentary by Prof Randall Eliason titled "The DOJ Opposition to the Proposed Sentencing Guideline Amendments: Fighting the Wrong Battles in Fraud Cases." The entire commentary is a must-read (with lots of great links) for all federal sentencing fans, and here are a few choice excerpts:
On March 12, 2015, the US Sentencing Commission held a public hearing on its annual proposed amendments to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. A number of the proposals concern the guideline for economic crimes and fraud cases, § 2B1.1. The amendments would reduce the recommended sentence in many such cases, particularly those involving large dollar amounts.
At the hearing the US Department of Justice opposed most of these amendments. DOJ argued that any move to reduce the sentences in fraud cases would be bad policy and would ignore the "overwhelming societal consensus" in favor of harsh punishment for these crimes.... But given the current realities of federal sentencing, DOJ is fighting the wrong battles....
At the March 12 hearing DOJ opposed the inflation adjustment; opposed the amendments concerning sophisticated means, intended loss, and fraud on the market; and supported the new enhancement based on causing victims substantial hardship. In other words, DOJ opposed virtually any amendment that could lead to lower sentences while supporting changes that could lead to higher ones. While this may seem predictable, I think it's a mistake.
DOJ was a lonely voice at the hearing and is definitely swimming against the tide by opposing the amendments. There is a widespread and growing belief that the sentences called for in major fraud cases have become excessive. More broadly, there is an emerging bipartisan movement in the country favoring criminal justice reform, including measures to reduce skyrocketing sentences (particularly for non-violent offenders) and our enormous prison population.
Law professor Frank Bowman provided some compelling hearing testimony tracing the history of the fraud guideline and demonstrating how various forces, both intentional and unintentional, have combined over the years to escalate the sentences in such cases dramatically. As he pointed out, given the large dollar values involved in some recent Wall Street frauds, it's relatively easy for a white-collar defendant to zoom to the top of the sentencing table and end up with a recommended sentence of 30 years or even life in prison—on a par with sentences recommended for homicide, treason, or a major armed bank robbery.
DOJ's resistance to virtually any amendment that might lead to lower sentences in economic crime cases appears short-sighted and runs the risk of looking reflexive. The Sentencing Commission has researched these questions for several years, gathering input from all stakeholders. The proposals seem reasonable and justified, and in fact are more modest than many had hoped.
It's hard to see what criminal justice purpose is being served by the escalating sentences in fraud cases. The prospect of prison does have a powerful and important deterrent effect that is unique to criminal law. But for a typical business executive it's hard to believe there's much additional marginal deterrent value in a possible twenty or twenty-five year sentence as opposed to, say, a fifteen year one.
But the more important fact is that legal developments have rendered DOJ's position in favor of higher guidelines sentences increasingly beside the point. It's been ten years since the Supreme Court ruled in US v. Booker that the mandatory sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional and the guidelines must be advisory only. Later in Kimbrough v. US the Court made it clear that a judge is free to depart from the recommended sentence if the judge disagrees with a policy decision underlying the guidelines.
In this legal environment, DOJ's push for higher guidelines looks like a struggle to keep the barn door closed when the horse left for greener pastures long ago. In the post- Booker/Kimbrough world, if judges believe a sentence called for by the guidelines is out of whack they will simply reduce it. For example, in the recent public corruption case involving former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, the judge called the recommended guidelines sentence of six to eight years in prison "ridiculous" and proceeded to sentence McDonnell to only two years.
There's evidence that the same thing is already happening in fraud cases. According to the Sentencing Commission's data, judges sentence below the recommended guidelines range in about 21 percent of fraud cases (not counting those cases where the government itself requests a reduced sentence). But in the Southern District of New York, home to Wall Street and many of the big-dollar fraud cases, judges depart below the guidelines in a whopping 45.6 percent of such cases. It does no good for DOJ to continue to push for extremely high guidelines numbers only to have judges ignore the guidelines and impose the lower sentences that they feel are just and reasonable.
DOJ's approach is worse than futile, it's counter-productive. The more that judges come to regard the guidelines as calling for inappropriate sentences, the more comfortable they may become not following them. This could lead to more widespread departures from the guidelines not merely in fraud cases but in cases across the board, accelerating a deterioration in the force and influence of the guidelines that so far has been held relatively in check since Booker.
April 8, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Now on to the real trial: "Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Is Guilty of All 30 Counts in Boston Marathon Bombing"
The quoted portion of the title of this post is the headline of this New York Times report on the outcome of the guilt phase of the on-going capital trial of the Boston Marathon Bomber, and the preamble to that quote is my (pithy?) commentary about what this means. Here are the basics on what has happened so far and what is still forthcoming:
In the silent well of Courtroom Nine, a clerk read out the verdicts: Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. The word echoed in the courtroom as the clerk pronounced it 30 times, once for each of 30 counts.
By the end of the 25minute roll call of charges, a federal jury here had left no doubt how thoroughly it sided with the government against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in connection with the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon. Mr. Tsarnaev, 21, a failing college student and the youngest child in a dispersed immigrant family, stood without expression, his arms folded in front of him, flanked by his lawyers.
The verdicts set the stage for a second, more contentious phase of the trial in which the same jury will decide whether to sentence Mr. Tsarnaev to life in prison or death....
There was little doubt that the jury would find Mr. Tsarnaev guilty of most charges; his lawyers have admitted that he had been involved in the bombings, and they put on a minimal defense, calling four witnesses who testified for five hours. The government, by contrast, called 92 witnesses over 15 days. Still, in the first phase of the trial, the defense laid the groundwork for the sentencing phase, casting their client as subordinate to his older brother, Tamerlan, and less culpable for the crimes. The defense team’s goal now is to explain mitigating factors in hopes that jurors will sentence Mr. Tsarnaev to life in prison.
After the verdict was read, the judge, George A. O’Toole Jr. of Federal District Court here, told the jurors that the case would proceed to a second, penalty phase that could begin as early as next week. He cautioned the jurors that they were still “an active jury, subject to your oath,” and to not discuss the case with anyone....
The defense hopes to present mitigating circumstances that show him as less culpable than his brother. It will flesh out details of Mr. Tsarnaev’s life and family history, which includes his forebears being expelled by Stalin from Chechnya in 1944 and ending up in Kyrgyzstan. His family settled in Cambridge, Mass., in 2002. As his parents divorced and returned to Russia, Mr. Tsarnaev, who became an American citizen on Sept. 11, 2012, fell increasingly under the sway of his older brother.
Just as defense lawyers seek to impress the jurors with the reasons they should spare Mr. Tsarnaev’s life, the prosecution will impress upon them the consequences of his murderous actions. Survivors of the blasts and the families of victims are expected to testify in this next phase, as they did in the first, this time detailing the physical and emotional effects of the bomb blasts on their lives. Others are expected to discuss how the crime gripped the Boston area in fear for five days.
This news broke as I was teaching my sentencing class this afternoon, and I predicted that defense attorneys may urge that the penalty phase of the trial not begin until May, at the earliest, partially because next week will mark the two-year anniversary of the bombing and the following week is when next Boston Marathon is schedules. I suspect the defense will contend that these realities create too much of a prejudice risk if the penalty phase starts ASAP, and I think it is possible federal prosecutors might not oppose any requested delay in order to avoid creating another possible appellate issue if the jury returns a death verdict.
Federal judge finds unconstitutional "geographic exclusion zones" for sex offenders in Michigan
Thanks to a helpful reader, I did not miss this notable new story from the state up north headlined "Sex offenders can be within 1,000 feet of schools after federal judge strikes down parts of law." Here are the details:
A federal judge struck down some portions of Michigan's Sex Offender Registry Act in a court decision handed down last week. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Cleland issued a ruling March 31, striking down four portions of Michigan's Sex Offender Registry Act, calling them unconstitutional. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of five John Does and one Jane Doe against Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan State Police Director Col. Kriste Etue.
Cleland's ruling stated the "geographic exclusion zones" in the Sex Offender Registry Act, such as student safety areas that stretch for 1,000 feet around schools, are unconstitutional, according to court documents.
The law is too vague on whether the 1,000 feet barrier should be as the crow flies or how people actually travel, and if it goes from building-to-building or property-line-to-property-line, Cleland said in his ruling. "While a prescribed distance may appear concrete on its face, without adequate guidance about how to measure the distance, such provisions are susceptible to vagueness concerns," he wrote.
Cleland also stated law enforcement doesn't have strong enough guidelines to know how to measure the 1,000-foot exclusion zone around schools. Neither sex offenders or law enforcement have the tools or data to determine the zones, even if the guidelines on how to measure the zones were stronger, he said. "Accordingly, due to (the Sex Offender Registry Act's) vagueness, registrants are forced to choose between limiting where the reside, work and loiter to a greater extent than is required by law or risk violating SORA," he wrote.
Cleland struck down other portions of the law as well, but ruled in favor of the government on the rest of the lawsuit. Other portions of the law ruled unconstitutional were: a requirement to report in person to the "registering authority" when an offender begins to drive a vehicle regularly or begins to use a new e-mail or instant messaging address; a requirement for an offender to report all telephone numbers routinely used by an offender; a requirement to report all e-mail and instant messaging addresses; a requirement to report the license plate number, registration number and description of any motor vehicle, aircraft or vessel used by an offender....
The ruling drew an immediate reaction from State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge. In a statement released Tuesday morning, Jones, a former sheriff, said he plans to help rewrite the law to make up for the judge's ruling. "I warn sex offenders to stay away from schools. This is one judge's ruling, and the law will soon be changed to clarify it," said Jones, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I'm working to make sure there is no vagueness in Michigan's Sex Offender Registry law. Child molesters must stay away from our schools. Law enforcement will be watching."
The full ruling, which runs 70+ pages, is available at this link.
Larry Flynt hustles his way into Missouri litigation over lethal injection
As reported in this local article, headlined "Larry Flynt can intervene in lawsuit to unseal execution protocol records, appeals court rules," a notable publisher is now able to be a player in on-going Missouri lethal injection litigation. Here are the details:
A three-judge U.S. appeals court panel ruled Tuesday that pornographic magazine publisher Larry Flynt has a right to join death row inmates in lawsuits seeking to reveal the state of Missouri’s execution protocols. Several media and consumer watchdog groups interested in lawsuits with potential consequences for government transparency had filed briefs to support him.
Flynt, the iconic publisher of the magazine Hustler, invoked a First Amendment right to view sealed documents that might identify an anesthesiologist on the state execution team. That information is confidential under Missouri law. In a separate case, he also asserted a right to view docket entries that were sealed without explanation in a suit challenging the legality of Missouri’s execution protocol. Both lawsuits failed, but if Flynt wins his bid to unseal the documents, the public can get a look at the factors considered by the federal courts.
Flynt argued he had an interest because he was one of the victims of white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin. Missouri executed Franklin in November 2013 for the 1977 sniper killing of Gerald Gordon, 42, outside a Richmond Heights synagogue. Franklin, upset that Hustler published pornographic images of an interracial couple, also shot Flynt on the steps of a Georgia courthouse in 1978, paralyzing him. Flynt had advocated that Franklin be punished by spending the remainder of his life in prison, rather than be killed by the state and put out of his misery.
Nanette Laughrey, a judge in the Western District of Missouri, had denied Flynt’s petition with a one-sentence order: “A generalized interest in a subject of litigation does not justify intervention.” But the appeals court panel ruled the lower court had applied an incorrect legal standard in denying Flynt. It sent the case back to U.S. District Court to consider Flynt’s bid to unseal records....
Organizations signing briefs in support of Flynt’s intervention included the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico and the Missouri Press Association, whose members include 250 newspapers, including the Post-Dispatch. Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader, also added its support....
“The public needs to know what is being done in its name and these judicial records will answer a lot of questions that we and members of the media have been asking,” Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a prepared statement.
April 7, 2015
"Miller V. Alabama and the Retroactivity of Proportionality Rules"
The title of this post is the title of this very timely new article by Perry Moriearty just now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In its 2012 decision in the companion cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court declared that it was unconstitutional to sentence children to mandatory life without parole because such sentences preclude an individualized consideration of a defendant’s age and other mitigating factors. What Miller did not address, however, and what has confounded lower courts over the last two years, is whether the ruling applies to the more than 2,100 inmates whose convictions were already final when Miller was decided. In all but one case, the question has come down to an exercise in line drawing. If, under the Court’s elusive Teague retroactivity doctrine, Miller articulated a “substantive” rule of constitutional law, it is retroactive; if the rule is merely “procedural,” it is not. The Supreme Court is all but certain to decide the issue in the near future.
I make two primary arguments in this Article. The first adds to the growing body of commentary concluding that, while Miller has “procedural” attributes, they are components of a constitutional mandate that is fundamentally “substantive.” The second argument applies broadly to all new constitutional rules which, like the Miller rule, are grounded in the Eighth Amendment’s proportionality guarantee. As even those who favor of limitations on retroactivity have acknowledged, there is a normative point at which interests in “finality” simply must yield to competing notions of justice and equality. I argue that finality interests may be at their weakest when the Court announces a new proportionality rule, because the practical burdens of review and theoretical concerns about undermining the consequentialist goals of punishment are simply not as pronounced with sentences of incarceration as they are with convictions. The risks of offending basic notions of “justice” may be at their most pronounced with new proportionality rules, however, because to deny relief to those whose sentences have been deemed “excessive” (or at a high risk of excessiveness) is to undermine the very principles of proportionality and fundamental fairness in which such rules are grounded. Proportionality rules should therefore be afforded something close to a presumption of retroactivity.
Regular readers and SCOTUS fans know this article is timely because the Supreme Court has recently taken up a new case to finally resolve the lower court split over Miller's retroactivity. But I call this piece very timely because this very afternoon I am in Cambridge to talk about these exact issues with Judge Nancy Gertner's Harvard Law School sentencing class. Coincidence?
Announcing his Prez campaign, Senator Rand Paul talks up liberty and (arguably) repeal of drug laws
Senator Rand Paul, the most vocal and consistent GOP voice pushing for federal criminal justice reforms, announced today that he is running from President. Here are a few excerpts from this transcript of his speech today that ought to interest sentencing fans:
This message of liberty is for all Americans, Americans from all walks of life. The message of liberty, opportunity and justice is for all Americans, whether you wear a suit, a uniform or overalls, whether you’re white or black, rich or poor....
We need to boldly proclaim our vision for America. We need to go boldly forth under the banner of liberty that clutches the Constitution in one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other....
Love of liberty pulses in my veins not because we have beautiful mountains or white sand beaches, although we do, and not because of our abundance of resources. It’s more visceral than that. Our great nation was founded upon the extraordinary notion that government should be restrained and freedom should be maximized....
I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed.
It is telling, and should be a bit disappointing to criminal-justice reformers, that Senator Paul did not make express mention in his launch speech of sentencing and criminal justice reform beyond the final sentence quoted above. Nevertheless, building off this line and also Senator Paul's past work on criminal justice reform, Vox has these two notable new pieces about what kind of reforms we might (and might not) hear about during the coming Paul campaign:
New Urban Institute report examines challenges posed by mentally ill offenders
The Urban Institute today released this significant new report titled "The Processing and Treatment of Mentally Ill Persons in the Criminal Justice System: A Scan of Practice and Background Analysis." Here is an excerpt from the first few paragraphs of the report's executive summary (with few references omitted):
Mentally ill offenders possess a unique set of circumstances and needs. However, all too often, they cycle through the criminal justice system without appropriate care to address their mental health. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, individuals with mental health needs make up a large proportion of the US correctional population. An estimated 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of jail inmates have a mental health problem. These individuals often receive inadequate care, with only one in three state prisoners and one in six jail inmates having received mental health treatment since their admission. Offenders with severe mental illness place even more strain on the criminal justice system as a whole, in terms of their unique case-processing requirements and treatment needs and their increased risk of recidivism. Housing mentally ill offenders in the criminal justice system is costly. In addition to high health care costs, mentally ill inmates tend to have higher rates of prison misconduct and recidivism.
Despite the evidence that mental illness in the criminal justice system is a pressing concern, our comprehensive effort to identify cost-effective, evidence-based programs and policies for managing and treating mentally ill persons in the criminal justice system brought to light how limited current knowledge is on this topic. There have been only a few rigorous evaluations of criminal justice programs and policies targeted at mentally ill offenders. This limitation, in and of itself, is a notable finding, as it shows what more needs to be done to better understand how to effectively alleviate the costs and challenges of treating and processing offenders with mental illness in the criminal justice system. Given these challenges and their financial consequences for society and governments, it is important to understand how to identify and provide early intervention for those who suffer from mental illness in the criminal justice system.
This report focuses on the societal and economic costs of holding mentally ill offenders in jails and prisons. It also presents a detailed discussion of how mentally ill offenders are processed in the criminal justice system, highlighting the diversity of protocols and practices outlined in state statutes to address these challenges. Further, it discusses several promising criminal justice interventions and policies for mentally ill offenders....
"What’s the right way to compensate someone for decades of lost freedom?"
The question in the title of this post is the subheadline of this new lengthy New Yorker article about the aftermath of wrongful convictions. Here is an excerpt:
One of the earliest arguments for financial compensation for the wrongly incarcerated came in 1932, from the Yale law professor Edwin Borchard. In an influential book called “Convicting the Innocent: Sixty-five Actual Errors of Criminal Justice,” Borchard wrote, “When it is discovered after conviction that the wrong man was condemned, the least the State can do to right this essentially irreparable injury is to reimburse the innocent victim, by an appropriate indemnity for the loss and damage suffered.” He noted, “European countries have long recognized that such indemnity is a public obligation.” But it would be many years before the United States began puzzling through what constituted an “appropriate indemnity.” It wasn’t until the first DNA exoneration, in 1989, that most states began to seriously consider compensation.
There is still no consensus about the value of lost time. Missouri gives exonerees fifty dollars a day for time served, California twice that much. Massachusetts caps total compensation at half a million dollars. In Maine, the limit is three hundred thousand; in Florida, it’s two million. The variation is largely arbitrary. “If there’s a logic to it, I haven’t seen it,” Robert J. Norris, a researcher at SUNY Albany who has studied compensation statutes, told me. In Wisconsin, no matter how long an exoneree has served, the state will pay no more than twenty-five thousand dollars — the same figure that its legislators established in 1979. “They just never changed it,” Norris said. “They even amended their statute in 1987, but they didn’t change the amount.” Most states levy taxes on payment. Twenty states have no compensation statutes at all.
Fifteen hundred and seventy-five people have been exonerated in the U.S. The best off are those whom Brandon Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law who has written extensively on post-conviction litigation, describes as “the ones that win the tort lottery.” These are exonerees who seek compensation through the courts, arguing that their fundamental civil rights were violated by the police or by prosecutors. (The same legal principle is at issue in federal suits brought by people who have been shot by the police.) In such cases, the potential damages are unlimited. But the standard of proof is high. “Police officers have qualified immunity,” Garrett told me. “They can violate your constitutional rights — reasonably but not egregiously.”
More reflections on Prez Obama's recent commutations
Writing in Forbes, Jacob Sullum has this new commentary about last week's notable clemency news headlined "Obama Steps Up Commutations, Feeding Drug War Prisoners' Hopes." Here are excerpts:
Obama’s latest batch of commutations, which doubled his total in a single day, suggests that the president, whose clemency record during his first term was remarkably stingy, is beginning to make up for lost time. Last year the Justice Department signaled a new openness to clemency petitions, laying out criteria for the sort of applications the president wanted to see. An unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the new guidelines could result in commutations for “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of federal prisoners by the end of Obama’s second term. The president will have to pick up the pace to reach that goal. But his avowed interest in ameliorating the egregious injustices inflicted by federal drug laws seems to be more than rhetorical.
Most of the drug offenders whose sentences Obama has shortened so far, including 13 of the 22 prisoners whose petitions he granted on Tuesday, were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. There is a good reason for that: Crack sentences are especially harsh, and although Congress reduced them in 2010, it did not make the changes retroactive. That means thousands of crack offenders are still serving terms that almost everyone now agrees are too long.
The Smarter Sentencing Act, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year but never got a floor vote, would address that problem by making the 2010 changes retroactive. The bill was reintroduced in February, but its prospects are uncertain. In the meantime, Obama has the power to bring crack sentences in line with what the law currently deems appropriate.
With an estimated 8,800 prisoners who could benefit from retroactive application of shorter crack sentences, there is plenty of room for more acts of mercy like these. But the conventional wisdom is that commutations cannot help more than a tiny percentage of those prisoners. “While Mr. Obama has pledged to make greater use of his clemency power,” The New York Times reported on Tuesday, “the White House is unlikely to make a sizable dent in the prison population. Thousands of prisoners are serving time for drug sentences under the old, stricter rules.”
It’s true that commuting thousands of sentences, as that anonymous administration official quoted by Yahoo News envisioned, would be historically unprecedented. Yet it is clearly within the president’s constitutional authority, and there is less need for a careful, case-by-case weighing of each applicant’s merits when there is already a consensus that the mandatory minimums imposed on crack offenders between 1986 and 2010 were inappropriately harsh.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Despite the concerns he expressed about our excessively punitive criminal justice system while running for president, Obama issued a grand total of one commutation during his first four years in office and finished his first term with a good shot at leaving behind one of the worst clemency records in U.S. history.
Prior related posts:
- Prez Obama starts to "walk the walk" on clemency by granting 22 new drug offense commutations
- "For principle to be served, 22 worthy, long-term narcotics prisoners granted release needs to become 2,200 or more."
April 6, 2015
What would it mean for DEA and DOJ to "defeat the Washington machine and unleash the American dream”?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Politico article about the notable slogan to be used by a notable new presidential candidate. The piece is headlined "Rand Paul unveils populist, anti-establishment slogan," and here are excerpts:
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) gave POLITICO a sneak peek at the slogan he will unveil at his presidential campaign announcement on Tuesday: “Defeat the Washington machine. Unleash the American dream.” The slogan, beneath the RANDPAC logo of a torch flame, will set the tone as the senator kicks off a five-day, five-state announcement tour — starting in Kentucky and then going to New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada (plus a Friday night fundraiser in Newport Beach, Calif.).
The slogan is designed to evoke populist, anti-establishment themes that would work in both the primaries and the general election. A Paul adviser said of the slogan: “You could say that is a hat tip to Hillary — a subtle contrast to Hillary. But why wouldn’t that also apply to Jeb? Or someone who has never had a [recent] job outside elected office — Scott Walker?”
Advisers say Paul’s top issues will include a flat tax, IRS reform, term limits, privacy and justice reform.
As regular readers know, Senator Rand Paul has been a leading and potent voice for federal drug war and federal sentencing reform for a number of years. The US Department of Justice is a big part of the "Washington machine," and many folks interested in marijuana legalization are looking to live the American dream of working in this new industry without fear that the Drug Enforcement Agency will come after them. Though I doubt Senator Paul will be making these federal criminal justice issues his first talking point in his coming stump speeches, I am confident and excited that he is likely to be talking more about these important federal criminal justice issues than any other presidential candidate ever has in recent decades.
"Does the Death Penalty Require Death Row? The Harm of Legislative Silence"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article by Marah Stith McLeod now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Article exposes two flawed assumptions about death row in leading scholarship and judicial opinions. The first flawed assumption is that death row is an inevitable consequence of a death sentence. The second flawed assumption is that prison administrators should be entrusted with the decision whether to retain death row.
The Article will show that death row cannot be justified on prison security grounds, but, contrary to the claims of some scholars, it may be justified for other punishment purposes. Using extensive state-by-state research, the Article shows that in most jurisdictions, harsh death row conditions result not from statutory commands, but from discretionary administrative policies. This Article argues that legislatures, not prison administrators, should decide whether death row is a necessary aspect of capital punishment, for two reasons. Prison administrators may not be able to assess objectively whether death row serves legitimate purposes, because of their roles in the execution process. More importantly, legislatures and not prison administrators have the duty to decide whether punishment is just.
If death row is to be tethered by law to a death sentence, then this legal tether should be drawn by statute, after public deliberation and debate, and not by administrative fiat. If legislatures conclude that the death penalty does not require death row, then they must forbid prison administrators from so augmenting the sentence for a capital crime.
April 5, 2015
March marijuana reform madness covered at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
March has been a crazy-busy month for not only basketball, and my own busy schedule has prevented me from keeping up with many March marijuana reform developments here or at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform. But a brief respite provided by a holiday weekend enables me to highlights some notable posts from ML&P which at least details some of the March marijuana reform madness:
- A New York teen dies as a consequence, arguably, of marijuana prohibition
NY Times notes Justice Kennedy's criminal justice perspective
Today's New York Times has this extended editorial effectively contextualizing recent comments by SCOTUS Justice Anthony Kennedy headlined "Justice Kennedy’s Plea to Congress." Here are excerpts:
Members of the Supreme Court rarely speak publicly about their views on the sorts of issues that are likely to come before them. So it was notable when Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer sat before a House appropriations subcommittee recently and talked about the plight of the American criminal justice system.
Justice Kennedy did not mince his words. “In many respects, I think it’s broken,” he said. It was a good reminder of the urgency of the problem, and a stark challenge to a Congress that remains unable to pass any meaningful sentencing reform, despite the introduction of multiple bipartisan bills over the past two years....
“The corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government,” he said. He chastised the legal profession for being focused only on questions of guilt and innocence, and not what comes after. “We have no interest in corrections,” he said. “Nobody looks at it.”
That is not entirely fair; many lawyers and legal scholars have devoted their careers to studying the phenomenon of mass incarceration in America and to improving intolerable prison conditions. But Justice Kennedy was right that all too often decisions about sentencing and corrections are made without meaningful consideration of their long-term costs and benefits, or of their effect on the millions of people who spend decades behind bars. “This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working,” he said. “And it’s not humane.”...
Justice Kennedy — whose regular role as the swing vote on a closely divided court gives him tremendous power — has a mixed record on [the Eighth] amendment. Several times he has voted to uphold breathtakingly long sentences for nonviolent crimes. For example, in two 2003 cases, he joined the five-member majority that let stand sentences of 25 years to life and 50 years to life for men convicted in California of thefts totaling a few hundred dollars.
Justice Kennedy’s response to such manifestly unjust results is that fixing prison sentences is the job of lawmakers, not the courts. But that too easily absolves the justices of their constitutional responsibility. The four justices dissenting in the California cases argued that those grossly disproportionate sentences violated the Eighth Amendment.
In more recent years, Justice Kennedy has increasingly invoked the amendment in sentencing cases, as he did in writing the 2008 decision prohibiting the death penalty as a punishment for child rape, and in 2010 and 2012 when he voted to bar sentences of life without parole for juveniles in most circumstances. He also relied on it in a 2011 decision ordering California to reduce overcrowding in its prisons, a condition that threatened inmates’ physical and mental health.
Justice Breyer, who before joining the court helped design the modern federal sentencing guidelines in the 1980s, told the committee of his own concerns about the justice system, and in particular was sharply critical of mandatory minimum sentences. Such sentences, he told the representatives, are “a terrible idea.”
The justices were right to lay these issues directly at Congress’s door. They can accomplish only so much on their own. Meanwhile, states from Texas to California to New York to Mississippi have been reforming their prisons and their sentencing laws for several years now, with overwhelmingly positive results. Now it is Congress’s turn to reform the unjustly harsh and ineffective sentencing laws it passed in the first place.
Prior related post: