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January 10, 2015

Should honoring vets and PTSD call for commuting a death sentence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters story headlined "Vietnam veteran in Georgia pleads to be spared the death penalty." Here are excerpts:

Lawyers for a decorated Vietnam War veteran due to be executed in Georgia next week say his life should be spared because he was suffering from a combat-related mental disorder when he killed a sheriff’s deputy in 1998.

Andrew Brannan's guilt is not disputed. He shot Laurens County Deputy Sheriff Kyle Dinkheller, 22, nine times during a traffic stop, a scene caught on tape by the deputy's patrol car camera.

Defense attorneys argue Brannan, 66, should not be put to death for behavior they say is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by his combat service. On Monday, they will ask the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Brannan's sentence to life in prison without parole. “Commuting his sentence would honor his very meritorious service to this country,” said Brian Kammer, one of Brannan’s lawyers. “We should not be executing those we sent into harm’s way and who were deeply wounded, physically and mentally.”...

Brannan received Army commendations and a Bronze Star for his service as an officer, Kammer said. He was on full Army disability for PTSD and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before killing Dinkheller, the lawyer said.

Brannan, who had no prior criminal record, was driving 98 miles per hour on a Georgia highway when Dinkheller pulled him over in January 1998, according to court records. The video recording showed Brannan stepping out of his truck, cursing and telling the deputy to shoot him....

Brannan pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity at his trial. Some experts testified that during the shooting he suffered a flashback from combat, but a court-appointed psychiatrist said Brannan was sane and may have killed the deputy because he believed the officer was being disrespectful.

Brannan's execution is scheduled for Tuesday. He would be the first person put the death in the United States this year.

I am inclined to assert that this offender's decorated service on behalf of our nation as well as his undisputed mental problems indisputably means that Brannan is not one of the "worst of the worst" killers. For that reason, I would be inclined to support this defendant's commutation request.

Do others agree?

Some older related posts:

January 10, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

SCOTUS orders new briefing and argument on ACCA's constitutionality in Johnson!?!?!

The US Supreme Court on Friday afternoon added a remarkable twist to what had been a small sentencing case, a case which had its (first) SCOTUS oral argument earlier this Term, via this new order:

13-7120 JOHNSON, SAMUEL V. UNITED STATES

This case is restored to the calendar for reargument. The parties are directed to file supplemental briefs addressing the following question: "Whether the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(ii), is unconstitutionally vague."  The supplemental brief of petitioner is due on or before Wednesday, February 18, 2015.  The supplemental brief of the United States is due on or before Friday, March 20, 2015.  The reply brief, if any, is due on or before Friday, April 10, 2015.  The time to file amicus curiae briefs is as provided for by Rule 37.3(a). The word limits and cover colors for the briefs should correspond to the provisions of Rule 33.1(g) pertaining to briefs on the merits rather than to the provision pertaining to supplemental briefs.  The case will be set for oral argument during the April 2015 argument session.

As some readers likely know, and as Will Baude effectively explains in this new post at The Volokh Conspiracy, "Justice Scalia has been arguing with increasing force that the Act is vague, and the reargument order suggests that there’s a good chance he may finally have convinced his colleagues that he’s right."

This strikes me as huge news, especially because I think any ruling that part of ACCA is unconstitutionally vague would be a substantive constitutional judgment that should get applied retroactively to hundreds (and potentially thousands) of federal prisoners serving mandatory minimum terms of 15 years or more. US Sentencing Commission data suggests that perhaps 5000 or more federal defendants have been sentenced under ACCA over the last decade, though I would guess the majority of these cases did not hinge on the ACCA subprovision that SCOTUS might now find unconstitutional.

January 10, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 9, 2015

US Sentencing Commission proposes (modest but significant) changes to the fraud guidelines

Download (1)As reported in this official news release, the "United States Sentencing Commission voted today to publish proposed guideline amendments, including revisions to the sentencing guideline governing fraud." Here are the basics from the release:

The bipartisan Commission voted to seek comment on a proposed amendment to revise guideline §2B1.1 governing fraud offenses by clarifying the definition of “intended loss,” which contributes to the degree of punishment, and the enhancement for the use of sophisticated means in a fraud offense. The proposed amendment also revises the guideline to better consider the degree of harm to victims, rather than just the number of victims, and includes a modified, simpler approach to “fraud on the market” offenses which involve manipulation of the value of stocks.

The proposed revisions to the fraud guidelines come after a multi-year study, which included a detailed examination of sentencing data, outreach to experts and stakeholders, and a September 2013 symposium at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “We have heard criticism from some judges and members of the bar that the fraud guideline may be fundamentally broken, particularly for fraud on the market cases,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission. “Based on our extensive examination of data, we have not seen a basis for finding the guideline to be broken for most forms of fraud, like identity theft, mortgage fraud, or healthcare fraud, but this review has helped us to identify some problem areas where changes may be necessary.”...

Consistent with the Commission’s mission to make the guidelines more efficient and more effective, the Commission also voted today to clarify the provisions allowing for sentence reductions for offenders with mitigating roles in the offense and the provisions governing jointly undertaken criminal activity.  The Commission similarly proposed adjusting the tables based on amounts of money for inflation in an attempt to keep the guidelines current and follow the approach generally mandated by statute for most civil monetary penalties....

The proposed amendments and issues for comment will be subject to a public comment period running through March 18. A public hearing on the proposed amendments will be scheduled in Washington, D.C., on March 12. More information about these hearings, as well as a data presentation on today’s proposed fraud amendment and other relevant data, will be available on the Commission’s web site at www.ussc.gov.

Here are links to new materials already posted on the USSC website this afternoon:

As the title of this post indicates, these new proposed amendments strike me as relatively modest but still quite significant. Most notably, the white-collar defense bar is likely to be very interested in what these changes signal and suggest, and any federal fraud defendants currently serving very long guideline sentences may want to start thinking about whether these proposed amendments might help their cause if they are formally adopted and thereafter made retroactive.

January 9, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons"

9780199892808The potent title of this post is the potent title of this new piece at The Nation by Willie Osterweil, which serves as a review of sorts of a book by historian Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America. Both the full Nation article and the book it discusses are worth attention, and here are excerpts from the article:

In her first book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, historian Naomi Murakawa demonstrates how the American prison state emerged not out of race-baiting states’-rights advocates nor tough-on-crime drug warriors but rather from federal legislation written by liberals working to guarantee racial equality under the law.  The prison industry, and its associated police forces, spy agencies and kangaroo courts, is perhaps the most horrific piece of a fundamentally racist and unequal American civil society.  More people are under correctional supervision in the United States than were in the Gulag archipelago at the height of the Great Terror; there are more black men in prison, jail or parole than were enslaved in 1850. How did this happen?

The common-sense answer is that launching the war on drugs during the backlash against civil-rights struggles encouraged agents of the criminal-justice system to lock up black people for minor infractions.  This isn’t wrong, or not exactly. Ronald Reagan’s infamous Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established federal minimums (a k a sentencing “guidelines”) and abolished parole in the federal prison systems, did lead to an explosion in the number of federal prisoners, particularly drug offenders.  It was one of the pivotal moments in the production of the prison-industrial complex (PIC) — the overlapping sphere of government and industrial activity that employs hundreds of thousands of guards, cops, judges, lawyers, bail-bondsmen, administrators and service employees and which sees millions of prisoners performing barely paid production labor to generate profit.  But, as Murakawa painstakingly demonstrates, the Sentencing Reform Act has a “liberal core,” and is built on the technical and administrative logic of racial fairness that structures all federal civil-rights legislation.

This is the fundamental thesis of Murakawa’s book: legal civil rights and the American carceral state are built on the same conceptions of race, the state and their relationship. As liberals believe that racism is first and foremost a question of individual bias, they imagine racism can be overcome by removing the discretion of (potentially racist) individuals within government through a set of well-crafted laws and rules.  If obviously discriminatory laws can be struck down, and judges, statesmen or administrators aren’t allowed to give reign to their racism, then the system should achieve racially just outcomes.  But even putting aside the fact that a removal of individual discretion is impossible, such a conception of “fairness” applies just as easily to producing sentencing minimums as school desegregation....

Murakawa does not simply collapse liberal and conservative into each other. She makes an important distinction between postwar racial-liberalism and postwar racial-conservatism. Race conservatives are those who don’t believe that racism is real, but that race is: they believe that black people are innately inferior to whites, and attribute their place in society to a failure of black culture. This race-conservatism is what is broadly considered “real racism.”

Race-liberalism, on the other hand, remains the dominant — and usually unspoken — American framework for understanding race.  Built on the premise that racism is real but manifests as the prejudice of white people, race-liberals argue that individuals’ racism can corrupt institutions and bias them against black people.  That bias damages black psyches as well as black people’s economic and social prospects.  Race-liberals believe that training, laws, stricter rules and oversight can eliminate prejudice and render institutions “colorblind.” Since it is biased treatment that damages black prospects, then this fix — civil rights — applied to all of society’s institutions, would eventually end racial disparity.

Both race-liberals and race-conservatives base their theories on one disastrous assumption: black people naturally produce crime.  For race-conservatives, black people are innately, genetically criminal, full stop.  For race-liberals, the psychological, economic and social damage of prejudice makes black people “lash out” violently and criminally–either in the form of individual criminal acts or, as the black freedom movement begins in earnest, as protests and rioting. Under both schema, however, the reason society must achieve racial equality is because equality will eliminate black crime.

January 9, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 8, 2015

Early 2015 highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

In this recent post, I called 2014 the most interesting and dynamic year in modern history for reform and debate over marijuana laws and policies and then provided some 2014 highlights from my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog.  Even though 2015 is barely a week old, the round up below of notable new posts from MLP&R highlights that the buzz over marijuana policy is likely only to grow in the weeks and months ahead:

January 8, 2015 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Ohio to delay scheduled executions early in 2015 after adopting another new execution protocol

This Columbus Dispatch article, headlined "State revises death penalty protocol, will delay executions," provides the latest news in the ever-dynamic Ohio execution story. Here are the details:

Ohio will switch its lethal injection protocol, adding thiopental sodium, a drug used previously, and dropping the two-drug regimen of midazolam and hydromorphone that caused problems in the last execution a year ago.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said today until it secures supplies of pentobarbital, a drug already permitted, or thiopental sodium, the Feb. 11 execution of Ronald Phillips, and possibly others, will be postponed. The state used thiopental sodium from 1999 until 2011.

Gov. John Kasich will likely have to postpone the executions of Phillips, 41, of Summit County, and Raymond Tibbetts, 57, of Hamilton County, scheduled for March 12. The execution of Gregory Lott, 53, of Cuyahoga County, is scheduled May 14.

The first two executions would take place before House Bill 663, a new lethal injection law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, takes effect in late March. The law allows the state to buy drugs from small compounding pharmacies, which mix batches of drugs to customer specifications. It also permits the state to keep secret the identities of drug suppliers because of security concerns....

The state had to file legal paperwork detailing the new drug protocol with U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost 30 days in advance of the next scheduled execution on Feb. 11. Frost has presided over most of the recent contested lethal injection cases filed on behalf of Ohio Death Row prisoners.

The change means that Dennis McGuire 53, will be the one and only person in Ohio to be put to death using the combination of midazolam and hyrdomorphone. During his Jan. 16, 2014, execution, McGuire choked, coughed, gasped and clenched his fists for about 20 minutes prior to succumbing to the drug mixture. His son and daughter, who watched their father’s troubled execution, subsequently sued the state, alleging his death was cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution....

The controversy over McGuire’s executions resulted in the postponement of all remaining executions in Ohio last year. It will be the fifth time in 2 1/2 years that Phillips has had a new execution date. Dates in September and July last year, and November 2013 were delayed either by Kasich’s clemency actions or reprieves from Frost. Phillips was given a reprieve by Kasich to explore his desire to have transplant surgery to provide a kidney to his ailing mother, but the surgery never took place....

In addition, a lawsuit was filed late last year on behalf of Phillips, Tibbetts and two other inmates challenging the secrecy shrouding the revised execution process. Frost will also hear that lawsuit which claims that state officials, through the new law, are trying to stifle public debate about capital punishment by “seeking to punish, disarm, suppress and silence” opposition.

January 8, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Is California prepared to revoke parole for any sex offender with an iffy lie-detector test?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP story with the headline "California making sex offenders take lie-detector tests." Here are the basics:

For the first time, California is making paroled sex offenders take periodic lie-detector tests in response to several high-profile cases involving parolees who raped and killed.

State officials said this week that the stepped-up effort to prevent new sex crimes will help them better gauge which offenders are most dangerous and in need of increased supervision. All sex offender parolees also are required to participate in specially-designed treatment programs. Previously, only high-risk offenders had to undergo treatment.

California is not the first state to adopt the new policies. But with more than 6,000 sex offenders on parole, officials say it is by far the largest.

I have never closely followed the debates of the reliability of lie detector tests, but it appears that California has decided that they are reliable enough to become a mandatory part of parole requirements for sex offenders.   That said, I wonder if these lie-detector test will be considered reliable enough (by parole officials? by courts?) to alone provide a sufficient basis for revoking a sex offender's parole if he sometimes fails to "pass the test with flying colors"?

January 8, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

"Sentencing Rules and Standards: How We Decide Criminal Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article on SSRN authored by Jacob Schuman. Here is the abstract:

Over the course of the past 300 years, American sentencing policy has alternated between “determinate” and “indeterminate” systems of deciding punishment.  Debates over sentence determinacy have focused on three questions: Who should decide punishment? What makes punishment fair?  And why should we punish wrongdoers at all?

In this Article, I ask a new, fourth, question: How should we decide punishment? I show that determinate sentencing uses rules to determine sentences, while indeterminate sentencing relies on standards.  Applying this insight to federal sentencing practice, I demonstrate that district court judges “depart” or “vary” from the United States Sentencing Guidelines in order to correct the substantive and formal errors that result from rule-based decisionmaking, instead sentencing based on the § 3553(a) standard.  I argue that judges should be more willing to take departures and variances in cases involving particularly large or particularly numerous sentence adjustments.

January 8, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 7, 2015

Mapping facilities in incarceration nation which "has more jails than colleges"

The terrific Washington Post wonkblog has this notable post by Christopher Ingraham with a fascinating map and discussion of prisoners and incarceration facilities in the United States.  The post is titled "The U.S. has more jails than colleges. Here’s a map of where those prisoners live." Here is an excerpt: 

There were 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S. as of the 2010 Census. It's often been remarked that our national incarceration rate of 707 adults per every 100,000 residents is the highest in the world, by a huge margin. We tend to focus less on where we're putting all those people....

Much of the discussion of regional prison population only centers around inmates in our 1,800 state and federal correctional facilities. But at any given time, hundreds of thousands more individuals are locked up in the nation's 3,200 local and county jails....

To put these figures in context, we have slightly more jails and prisons in the U.S. -- 5,000 plus -- than we do degree-granting colleges and universities. In many parts of America, particularly the South, there are more people living in prisons than on college campuses. Cumberland County, Pa. -- population 235,000 -- is home to 41 correctional facilities and 7 colleges.  Prisons outnumber colleges 15-to-1 in Lexington County, S.C....

[S]tates differ in the extent to which they spread their correctional populations out geographically. Florida, Arizona and California stand out as states with sizeable corrections populations in just about every county. States in the midwest, on the other hand, tend to have concentrated populations in just a handful of counties.

I encourage everyone to click through to see the map of all this in the WaPo posting.

January 7, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Intriguing Sixth Circuit procedural sentencing reversal of upward variance

A helpful reader alerted me to a thoughtful Sixth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Coppenger, No. 13-3863 (6th Cir. Jan. 7, 2015) (available here), which covers effectively a (little?) procedural problem at sentencing.  Here is how it starts:

Defendant Jack Coppenger, Jr., pled guilty to conspiracy to commit mortgage fraud. Pursuant to the parties’ plea agreement, the government agreed not to recommend a sentence in excess of the applicable advisory Guidelines range, which was 78 to 97 months’ imprisonment.  Nonetheless, the district court used information in presentence reports prepared for Coppenger’s co-conspirators to vary upward and sentenced Coppenger to 120 months in prison.  Coppenger contends the sentence is substantively and procedurally unreasonable.  He asserts two claims of error: the district court impermissibly treated coconspirators as victims; and the district court failed to provide him with notice and opportunity to respond to its intent to vary upward based on information contained in co-conspirators’ presentence reports.  Because the district court abused its discretion when it failed to provide Coppenger meaningful opportunity to respond to information used to vary upward, we vacate and remand for resentencing.  

January 7, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"How to reduce poverty and improve race relations by rethinking our justice system"

The title of this post is the subheadline of this notable Politico commentary authored by Charles Koch and Mark Holden.  Here are excerpts:

As Americans, we like to believe the rule of law in our country is respected and fairly applied, and that only those who commit crimes of fraud or violence are punished and imprisoned.  But the reality is often different.  It is surprisingly easy for otherwise law-abiding citizens to run afoul of the overwhelming number of federal and state criminal laws.  This proliferation is sometimes referred to as “overcriminalization,” which affects us all, but most profoundly harms our disadvantaged citizens.

Overcriminalization has led to the mass incarceration of those ensnared by our criminal justice system, even though such imprisonment does not always enhance public safety. Indeed, more than half of federal inmates are nonviolent drug offenders.  Enforcing so many victimless crimes inevitably leads to conflict between our citizens and law enforcement.  As we have seen all too often, it can place our police officers in harm’s way, leading to tragic consequences for all involved.

How did we get in this situation?  It began with well-intentioned lawmakers who went overboard trying to solve perceived or actual problems.  Congress creates, on average, more than 50 new criminal laws each year.  Over time, this has translated into more than 4,500 federal criminal laws spread across 27,000 pages of the United States federal code. (This number does not include the thousands of criminal penalties in federal regulations.) As a result, the United States is the world’s largest jailer — first in the world for total number imprisoned and first among industrialized nations in the rate of incarceration....

We have paid a heavy price for mass incarceration and could benefit by reversing this trend.  It has been estimated that at least 53 percent of those entering prison were living at or below the U.S. poverty line when their sentence began.  Incarceration leads to a 40 percent decrease in annual earnings, reduced job tenure and higher unemployment.  A Pew Charitable Trust study revealed that two-thirds of former inmates with earnings in the bottom fifth upon release in 1986, remained at or below that level 20 years later.  A Villanova University study concluded that “had mass incarceration not occurred, poverty would have decreased by more than 20 percent, or about 2.8 percentage points” and “several million fewer people would have been in poverty in recent years.” African-Americans, who make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for almost 40 percent of the inmates, are significantly affected by these issues.

According to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western: “Prison has become the new poverty trap. It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”...

Fixing our criminal system could reduce the overall poverty rate as much as 30 percent, dramatically improving the quality of life throughout society — especially for the disadvantaged.

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

January 7, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Criminology & Public Policy special issue on sentencing reform and mass incarceration

CoverA helpful reader alerted me to this special November 2014 issue of the journal Criminology & Public Policy with an array of top criminologists and legal scholars talking about modern sentencing reform and mass incarceration in the united States. The entire issue looks like a must-read, and here is a list of the contents: 

January 7, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Victim rights' back-story at heart of new Cassell-Dershowitz blood feud

Lots of criminal justice folks are buzzing about the extraordinary spitting match that has broken out between notable criminal law professors Paul Cassell and Alan Dershowitz.  Helpfully, Jacob Gershman has this effective Wall Street Journal posting which explains the interesting criminal justice issues that got this heavyweight fight started.  The piece is headlined "Behind Epstein Suit, a Tussle Over Due Process and Victims’ Rights," and here are excerpts:

The salacious allegations against Prince Andrew and Alan Dershowitz that surfaced in a federal lawsuit involving convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein have generated international attention.  Drawing less coverage is the lawsuit itself — a case with the potential to expand the rights of crime victims during federal investigations.

The lawsuit centers on a 2007 agreement the federal government made with Mr. Epstein, a Florida financier suspected of sexually abusing multiple underage girls.  Under its agreement with Mr. Epstein, who had been the target of an FBI probe, federal prosecutors promised not to bring charges against him in Florida if, among other conditions, he pleaded guilty to a state felony charge of soliciting an underage prostitute.  Mr. Epstein pleaded guilty to the state charge in 2008 and served about 13 months behind bars.

Two of Mr. Epstein’s alleged victims then filed suit against the U.S. government in 2008, claiming federal authorities violated their rights under a 2004 law by keeping them in the dark about the non-prosecution deal.  They want a federal court to invalidate the agreement, a position fiercely contested by the government.  The law in question is the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a statutory bill of rights for victims of federal crimes.  Among other things, the law grants victims a “reasonable right to confer with the attorney for the Government in the case.”

The case exposes tensions between the due-process rights of the accused and the rights of victims.  Attorneys representing the plaintiffs, former federal judge Paul Cassell and Florida lawyer Bradley Edwards, say at stake “is whether a federal statute protecting crime victims rights can be ignored with impunity or, as we argue, whether instead real remedies exist for its violation.”

U.S. prosecutors say the government had no obligation to confer with the alleged victims. Since they never charged Mr. Epstein with a crime, they argue, the plaintiffs don’t qualify as victims under that 2004 law.  And even if that right existed, the government argues, the Constitution’s due-process guarantees bar prosecutors from reneging on their agreement with Mr. Epstein.

In making their argument, prosecutors have cited a Dec. 2010 opinion issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to the president and executive-branch agencies.  The opinion states that the “rights provided by the CVRA are guaranteed” only after “criminal proceedings are initiated through a complaint, information, or indictment.”

In a 2011 ruling, the federal judge presiding over the case, Kenneth A. Marra, sided with the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the law, writing that the CVRA “clearly contemplates pre-charge proceedings.”  And in a 2013 order, rejecting a motion by the government to dismiss the case, the judge wrote that a non-prosecution arrangement may be “re-opened” if it were reached in “violation of a prosecutor’s conferral obligations under the statute.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyers allege that the government failed to meet those obligations. In court documents, they accuse the U.S. attorney’s office of concealing the agreement “to avoid a firestorm of public controversy that would have erupted if the sweetheart plea deal with a politically-connected billionaire had been revealed.”

January 7, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Congressional Black Caucus saying it will focus on criminal justice reform

I expect the next few years to be dynamic with respect to federal criminal justice reform, and this inside-the-Beltway story provides another reason why:

The Congressional Black Caucus will focus on criminal justice reform, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina said in a speech on Tuesday at a ceremony where he was sworn in as the group’s new chairman. “There is a well-founded mistrust between the African American community and law enforcement officers,” Butterfield said in a speech. “The statistics are clear. Video clips are clear.

“We recognize that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities. Unfortunately, there are some officers who abuse the sacred responsibility to protect and serve by using excessive, and sometimes deadly force when a less severe response is warranted,” the North Carolina Democrat said. “The CBC will seek legislative action to reverse this terrible trend.”

The Congressional Black Caucus also would work to try to change sentencing laws, hold prosecutors to ethical standards, and ensure that defendants have competent lawyers, Butterfield added....

The Congressional Black Caucus welcomed five new members at the ceremony where Butterfield spoke, including one Republican, conservative Mia Love of Utah, and Democratic Reps. Alma Adams of North Carolina, Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, Brenda Lawrence of Michigan and Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

As I noted in this prior post, Mia Love, the first black Republican woman ever elected to Congress, could be an especially important voice on these issues if she embraces the CBC's commitment to making these matters a priority for reforms.

A few prior related posts:

January 7, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 6, 2015

Notable discussions of children as mass incarceration’s "collateral damage"

Child-in-Court-boy-text1The latest issue of The Nation includes this effective piece about the generational impact of incarceration headlined "Mass Incarceration’s Collateral Damage: The Children Left Behind; When a parent is sent to prison, a child’s life is derailed, leaving schools to pick up the pieces."  Here is an excerpt:

A growing body of research suggests that one of the most pernicious effects of high adult-incarceration rates can be seen in the struggles of children ... who often lose a crucial source of motivation and support with their parents behind bars....

A very small subset of children — those with abusive parents — were found to be more likely to thrive academically and socially if their parents are incarcerated. But most children declined markedly. In fact, the new research suggests that prisoners’ children may be the most enduring victims of our national incarceration craze. “Even for kids at high risk of problems, parental incarceration makes a bad situation worse,” concluded Christopher Wildeman and Sara Wakefield in their recently published book, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality.

Wildeman and Wakefield found that children with incarcerated fathers were three times more likely than peers from similar backgrounds to become homeless. They also suffered significantly higher rates of behavioral and mental-health problems, most notably aggression.

Kristin Turney, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, reached similar conclusions in a report published this past September. Turney found that children with incarcerated parents were three times more likely to suffer from depression or behavioral problems than the average American child, and twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities and anxiety....

Within the last few years, however, a broad range of agencies and policy-makers have begun to frame the nation’s prison boom as a children’s issue. Last summer, the Justice Department launched a wide-reaching campaign to provide support to the children of imprisoned parents — by rethinking visitation policies and changing the protocol for arresting parents in front of children, for example. In August, the American Bar Foundation and the National Science Foundation invited key researchers, advocates and federal officials to the White House for a conference to discuss reducing the “collateral costs” to children and communities when parents are incarcerated. The conference was part of a larger inter-agency initiative begun in 2012 to focus the attention of participating agencies, including the Department of Education, on the children of incarcerated parents. A few months later, in November, the Federal Bureau of Prisons hosted its first-ever Universal Children’s Day, an event attended by nearly 8,500 children visiting more than 4,000 federal inmates....

John Hagan, a professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University, led the White House conference with his research collaborator, Holly Foster, of Texas A&M University. Fifteen years ago, in an oft-cited paper, Hagan first suggested that the effects on children might be “the least understood and most consequential” result of mass incarceration. Now Hagan is seeing his hypothesis proved. More than that, as his adolescent subjects enter adulthood, the effects are compounded: “Almost no children of incarcerated mothers make it through college,” he noted. “These people are now in early adulthood, and they’re really struggling.”

I have long believed and asserted that politicians and policy advocates truly concerned about family values and children's interests should be deeply concerned about the over-use of incarceration as a punishment, especially for non-violent offenders.  And I find fascinating and compelling the suggestion in this lengthy post at The Clemency Report titled "Children deserve legal standing when parents are sentenced." Here is how the potent post by Dennis Cauchon starts:

Are children entitled to legal standing when parents are sentenced in criminal cases? The current answer is “no.” The answer should be “yes.”

Today, the well-being of a defendant’s children is close to irrelevant in criminal courtrooms. Institutional indifference to children is official policy. This is the most profound legal error in the last 35 years, the mistake that made mass imprisonment possible.

Criminal courts produce millions of orphans every year using procedures that weigh only the interests of adults in the courtroom. This is a profoundly ignorant way for a bureaucracy to act. Removing a mother or father from a child’s life is a not mere “side effect”of the day’s procedure; it is an “effect,” often the most important thing that will happen that day.

Children deserve rights — legal rights, established in law — to end their mistreatment in criminal courts.

In domestic courts, the “best interest of the children” is the trump card standard that overrides almost all other adult needs in divorce and custody cases. In criminal courts, defendant’s children are treated as trash in the back row. This difference is legally shameful and morally indefensible.

January 6, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Former Virginia Gov McDonnell gets (way-below-guideline) sentence of two years in prison

As reported here by the Washington Post, a "federal judge sentenced former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell to two years in prison Tuesday — a term far lower than what prosecutors had sought and one that means the popular politician will be free before his 63rd birthday." Here is more:

U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer said he was moved by the outpouring of support for McDonnell, though he could not ignore the jury’s verdict. “A price must be paid,” Spencer said. “Unlike Pontius Pilate, I can’t wash my hands of it all.  A meaningful sentence must be imposed.”

The penalty is a win for defense attorneys, who had asked that the former governor be sentenced to mere community service even as prosecutors initially advocated for a prison term stretching longer than a decade.  The U.S. probation office had determined that federal sentencing guidelines called for a term of incarceration between 10 years and a month and 12 years and seven months.

Spencer ordered the former governor to report to prison on Feb. 9. Though McDonnell (R) will certainly appeal his conviction, the sentence brings to a close a stunning narrative of politics, greed and family drama that reached a climax in September when McDonnell, 60, and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of public corruption. A jury found unanimously that the couple used the governor’s office to help a wealthy dietary supplement company executive advance his business interests, and in exchange, the businessman gave the McDonnells $177,000 in loans, gifts and luxury goods.

January 6, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

GOP apparently eager to have Eric Holder as AG for at least one more month

The (slightly) tongue-in-cheek title of this post is my reaction to the news reported in "this notable NPR report, titled "Senate Slow To Schedule Hearings For Attorney General Nominee."  In the piece, Carrie Johnson reports that Democrats have been pushing for confirmation hearings ASAP for Attorney General nominee Lorreta Lynch, but new GOP Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has indicated that these hearings will not take place before the last week in January  at the earliest.

I am very eager for the Lynch hearings because they should provide an important window into what both the GOP-controlled Congress and the Obama Administration are thinking about on federal criminal justice issues for the next two years.  But I suspect the GOP is feeling a bit forced to take a go slow approach on how to best approach (and attack) nominee Lynch and Prez Obama on these fronts, in part because the GOP has real internal divisions on these issues and in part because racial issues and divides are especially salient in criminal justice reform discussions these days.  

So, because AG Eric Holder remains in his position until his successor is confirmed, the GOP Senate is right now functionally extending his term as the nation's top prosecutor and lawyer. 

January 6, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

January 5, 2015

"Any broad criminal justice reforms ... will fail without first fixing the indigent defense crisis."

The title of this post is one notable point stressed by David Carroll in this Marshall Project commentary titled "Gideon’s Despair: Four things the next attorney general needs to know about America’s indigent defense crisis." Here is how it is explained:

America’s deficient indigent defense services produce a myriad of seemingly disconnected problems throughout the greater criminal justice system.  Why do convicted persons have difficulty re-entering society upon release from prison?  They do so, in part, because their public advocates are prevented from continuing to fight on their behalf for better conditions of confinement, and treatment and reentry programs after they are incarcerated.  Why is the United States one of the few countries in the world that still relies on bail?  The answer is that many states and counties do not appoint counsel until after bail hearings (and often not until after arraignment or indictment).  Without an impetus for change, the bail system continues unabated.

Point to almost any criminal justice issue — wrongful convictions, over-incarceration, non-violent offenders serving life sentences, etc. — and the root problem will be a lack of true advocacy on the part of people of insufficient means charged with or convicted of crime. Just as a doctor treating only the visible symptoms of an underlying ailment may fail the patient, the focus of any number of well-meaning advocacy groups to address the countless issues plaguing criminal justice without concurrently reforming indigent defense services will result in half-measures and unsustainable policies.  Your own criminal justice goals therefore are dependent on you continuing, and indeed redoubling, Mr. Holder’s past efforts.

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

Extraordinary review of messiness of Prez Obama's clemency push

Josh Gerstein has this extraordinary Politico piece which provides a terrific (and disconcerting) review of the Obama Administration's recent clemency activities.  The lengthy piece is a must-read for lots of reasons. It is headlined "Obama's drug-sentencing quagmire: Justice Department turns to ACLU, others to prepare thousands of commutation requests," and here is how it starts:

President Barack Obama’s sweeping plan to commute the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders who were caught up in the disparities in laws governing crack and powder cocaine is lagging, burdened by vague guidelines, lack of Justice Department resources and the unusual decision to invite advocacy groups like the ACLU to help screen applications, according to lawyers close to the process.

In the year since the Justice Department encouraged inmates to apply to cut short their sentences, more than 25,000 prisoners have come forward.  But when Obama announced his annual commutations last month, only eight were given.  That reflects deeper problems in the government’s process for reviewing sentences and determining which ones are, indeed, overly long because of the crack-powder distinction, according to those familiar with the system.

The piece includes lots of interesting and notable comments by various unnamed lawyers discussing how the President, the Justice Department, and the Clemency Project 2014 are handling matters. Here are excerpts with some of these quotes:

With so many thousands of petitions pending, the tiny number of commutations announced during the Christmas season prompted a new round of skepticism about the administration’s capacity to ease onerous drug sentencing.

“This is paltry,” said one lawyer familiar with the process. “It is very disappointing.”

“I’d be shocked if it skyrockets to 100 before [Obama] leaves office,” another added....

[DOJ] officials encouraged the groups forming the Clemency Project to recruit and train private attorneys to prepare applications. The organizations have instituted their own screening effort to try to determine if prisoners meet the criteria and to make sure the private lawyers spend time on meritorious cases....

Some liberal-leaning lawyers and clemency advocates ... say the private consortium has taken on an outsize, quasi-official role in the process and has an inherent conflict of interest: Project organizers want to get the strongest possible applications to the Justice Department, which may mean abandoning prisoners whose cases fall into a gray area.

“It bothers me that you have a group of private citizens who have an under-the-table deal with the deputy attorney general to help him do his job and the promise is, ‘We’re going to put your guys at the front of the list,’” one lawyer involved said.  “Instead of dealing with a process that’s already opaque and bureaucratic and too slow, they’ve added this additional layer that’s even more opaque and bureaucratic and too slow.”...

One benefit to the administration of its current approach of working with outside groups is that it could mute criticism from advocates wrapped up in the effort — at least as long as there seems to be a prospect of a meaningful wave of commutations.  “They’ve co-opted all the people who would usually be critics,” said one lawyer close to the project.  “You have that dynamic in play, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”

The Clemency Project groups insist their involvement hasn’t silenced them.

Though I am not too concerned about clemency critics being co-opted through the Clemency Project, I am concerned about what will be a poor allocation of pro bono lawyering efforts if 1,500 lawyers spend months and years working on clemency applications for thousands of offenders if Prez Obama ends up granting commutations to only a few hundred prisoners. I genuinely believe that an army of 1,500 lawyers working on aggressive for months and years on federal sentencing litigation — perhaps in marijuana cases or attacking some extreme mandatory minimums through habeas actions or other means — could produce jurisprudential development that could end up helping many more than a few hundred defendants.

January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Previewing (and predicting) federal sentencing prospects for former Virginia Gov McDonnell

The Washington Post has this lengthy article, headlined "What to expect at former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell’s sentencing," providing an effective preview of a high-profile white-collar sentencing taking place in federal court tomorrow. Here are highlights:

As a federal judge on Tuesday sets the punishment for former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, he will consider legal issues as well as sweeping personal questions.  U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer will look first to guidelines that call for McDonnell to receive as much as 12 years and seven months for trading the influence of his office to a smooth-talking businessman in exchange for sweetheart loans, lavish vacations and high-end merchandise.

But the judge is not bound by those recommendations.  And his ultimate decision rests, in part, on intangible considerations: How serious was McDonnell’s public corruption?  What penalty might deter others in the former governor’s shoes?  What weight should be given to the good the former governor has done?...

rosecutors want McDonnell to spend at least 10 years and a month in prison.  The former governor’s attorneys believe a sentence of community service — and no time behind bars — would be sufficient.

Both sides will make their best pitches to the judge in person beginning at 10 a.m. McDonnell may offer a personal plea, as may some of his supporters.  Spencer has been given more than 440 letters that friends, family members and others wrote on the governor’s behalf, urging leniency and extolling the virtues of the onetime Republican rising star.  Spencer also has reviewed filings from prosecutors, who have accused McDonnell of feeling no remorse and still seeking to blame others....

The starting point for determining the former governor’s punishment is this: The U.S. probation office — the federal agency tasked with calculating a range of appropriate penalties according to the federal sentencing guidelines — has recommended that McDonnell face between 10 years and a month to 12 years and seven months in prison. There is no parole in the federal system, and if McDonnell were to be incarcerated, he would be able to reduce his time behind bars with good behavior by only 54 days a year, at most.

Spencer is not bound by the probation office’s recommendation — it is merely a technical calculation of how the office believes federal sentencing guidelines should be applied in the case — but experts say he typically heeds its advice....

After Spencer determines the guideline range, he will weigh entirely different factors as he fashions what he considers an appropriate punishment.  Among those that prosecutors and defense attorneys highlighted in McDonnell’s case: the nature and circumstances of his offenses, McDonnell’s personal history and characteristics, and the need to deter others from ending up in similar straits....

A former prosecutor and Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer, Spencer was appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.  Known as a no-nonsense and efficient jurist, he took senior status on the bench last year, meaning he is now semi-retired.  Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor who now does white collar criminal defense work, said Spencer probably will not impose a decade-long sentence, but defense attorneys’ bid for only probation is something of a “Hail Mary.”

I share the view that it is unlikely McDonnell will get either probation as he wishes or the 10 years in prison sought by the feds. As a betting man, I would put the over-under line at around three years. The nature of the crime and the defendant leads me to think the sentencing judges will be likely to impose a substantial prion term, but still something less (perhaps much less) than half a decade.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just discovered that Randall Eliason at his Sidebars Legal Blog has this lengthy post about the McDonnell sentencing which provides much more detailed review of the interesting guideline calculation issues that are in dispute in the case.  

January 5, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Former District Judge Paul Cassell at center of two big new victim-rights stories

ImageLong-time readers of this blog are surely familiar with the name Paul Cassell, perhaps primarily for his notable sentencing rulings back when he was a federal district judge concerning mandatory minimums and the impact of Blakely on the federal sentencing guidelines.  Long-time criminal justice academics are familiar with his long-ago scholarly work on Miranda and related police-practices jurisprudence and modern victim-rights advocates know Paul as one of the leading modern (court-focused) advocates for the interests of crime victims.  

With all that background (and the disclaimer that I have worked with Paul on various issues over the last decade and greatly respect his talents, energies and perspectives), I am now fascinating to see Paul Cassell's name at the forefront of two big new victim-rights stories.  Here are links and the start of articles about these stories:

From the Washington Times here, "Loretta Lynch questioned over secret deal depriving fraud victims of $40M":

More than a year before President Obama nominated federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch to be attorney general, a former federal judge quietly called on Congress to investigate her U.S. attorney’s office for trampling on victims’ rights.

Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah, said Ms. Lynch’s office, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, never told victims in a major stock fraud case that a culprit had been sentenced — denying them a chance to seek restitution of some $40 million in losses. Mr. Cassell, in written remarks to a House Judiciary Committee panel in 2013, said if prosecutors were using secretive sentencing procedures to reward criminals for cooperating with them, it could violate the Crime Victims Restitution Act.

From the Salt Lake Tribune here, "Utah law professor claims British prince, well-known attorney had sex with teen ‘sex slave’":

University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell has come under fire for filing a motion in a victims’ right suit that claims a client was forced as a girl to be a "sex slave" who allegedly was made available to a well-known attorney and a member of the British royal family.

The motion filed Friday in a federal court in Florida alleges that a woman identified as Jane Doe #3 was sexually exploited beginning at age 15 by billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein, who also loaned her for sex to politically connected and powerful people — including Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz and Prince Andrew, a son of Queen Elizabeth II.

Both men have denied the allegations, and Dershowitz is threatening to initiate disbarment proceedings against Cassell and Bradley Edwards, a Florida attorney who also represents Jane Doe #3, according to The Wall Street Journal.

For lawyers and politicians, the story about criticisms of the Attorney-General-nominee is much more important and consequential.  But the teen sex slave story is sure to get a whole lot more attention — and that story could, I think, end up making it difficult for Paul Cassell to be called to testify or otherwise be a visible voice in AG-nominee Lynch's upcoming confirmation hearings.

January 5, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Current Affairs, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"Is Obama Finally Ready To Dial Back The War On Drugs?"

Meme1The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Forbes piece by Jacob Sullum, which provides preview of sorts of of some of the biggest federal criminal justice issues to keep an eye on in the year to come. The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts:

Some critics of the war on drugs — a crusade that Obama had declared “an utter failure” in 2004 — predicted that he would improve in his second term.  Safely re­elected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective.  As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years.  Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances:

Marijuana Legalization. Although the federal government cannot stop states from legalizing marijuana, it can make trouble for the ones that do by targeting state­licensed growers and retailers.  Under a policy announced in August 2013, the Justice Department has declined to do so, reserving its resources for cannabis operations that violate state law or implicate “federal law enforcement priorities.”...

Federal Marijuana Ban.... Contrary to the impression left by the president, the executive branch has the authority to reschedule marijuana without new legislation from Congress. In September, a few days before announcing that he planned to step down soon, Holder said whether marijuana belongs in the same category as heroin is “certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves.” Since the Controlled Substances Act empowers Holder to reclassify marijuana, it would have been nice if he had asked that question a little sooner. Still, Holder was willing to publicly question marijuana’s Schedule I status, something no sitting attorney general had done before.

Sentencing Reform.  Obama supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 crack penalty changes retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses in half, and loosen the criteria for the “safety valve” that allows some defendants to escape mandatory minimums.  Beginning last year, Holder has repeatedly criticized our criminal justice system as excessively harsh. Under a new charging policy he established last year, hundreds of drug offenders could avoid mandatory minimums each year....

Clemency.  After a pitiful performance in his first term, Obama has signaled a new openness to clemency petitions.  Last April an unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the administration’s new clemency guidelines could result in “hundreds, perhaps thousands,” of commutations.  Obama’s total so far, counting eight commutations announced a few weeks ago, is just 18, but he still has two years to go....

A few months ago, Obama chose former ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta, a passionate critic of the war on drugs who emphasizes its disproportionate racial impact (a theme Obama and Holder also have taken up), to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  A year before her appointment, Gupta had criticized Holder’s moves on drug sentencing as an inadequate response to mass incarceration.  The previous month, she had endorsed marijuana legalization. The next two years will show whether Gupta’s appointment is a sop to disappointed Obama supporters or a signal of bolder steps to come.

If Obama actually uses his clemency power to free thousands, or even hundreds, of drug war prisoners, that would be historically unprecedented, and it would go a long way toward making up for his initial reticence.  He could help even more people by backing sentencing reform, which has attracted bipartisan support in Congress.  And having announced that states should be free to experiment with marijuana legalization, he could declare the experiment a success....

If none of those things happens, Obama’s most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization.  Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.

This piece reviews some important basics, though hard-core sentencing fans know that there is a lot more the Obama Administration could be doing to radically reshape the battlefield in the modern federal drug war.

On the marijuana front, for example, DOJ could (and I think should) play an significant role defending Colorado as it gears up a response to the recent Supreme Court suit brought Nebraska and Oklahoma attacking its marijuana reform efforts. In addition, DOJ could (and I think should) be willing to interpret broadly the recent provisions enacted by Congress precluding it from using funds to interfere with state medical marijuana reform efforts.

On the broad drug war front, Prez Obama and DOJ could not only support the Smarter Sentencing Act but even try to give renewed life to the Justice Safety Valve Act. The JSVA, which Senator Rand Paul introduced and robustly promoted, would effectively reform the operation of all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Also Prez Obama and DOJ, especially in light of renewed concerns about racial biases in criminal justice systems, could (and I think should) return to the issue of crack sentencing reform. Specifically, given the apparent success of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which only reduced the crack-powder disparity from the ridiculous 100-1 ratio to a ghastly 18-1, the Prez ought to get behind what I would call the Fully Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate any and all crack-powder sentencing disparity completely.

January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Gearing up (finally) for start of capital trial of Boston Marathon bomber

TsarnaevsketchNearly two years after the vile (alleged?) crimes and challenging capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a very high-profile federal capital trial gets started today.  This lengthy Boston Globe story, headlined "Marathon bombing trial to start today with jury selection: Long 1st phase for Marathon bombing trial; testimony may begin next month," provides a helpful preview. Here are excerpts:

Starting Monday, the judge, prosecutors, and defense lawyers will start whittling down a list of more than 1,200 names, aiming to find 12 jurors and six alternates capable of deciding whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 21, is guilty, and if so, whether he should be put to death.

The trial, which is attracting international attention, is expected to move especially slowly and with more than the usual care because a life is at stake; testimony probably will not begin until February, and a verdict may take until late spring or early summer....

For the jury to determine Tsarnaev’s sentence, the panel must be unanimous in its decision. If it is not, the judge would be required to step in and sentence him to life in prison. No declaration of mistrial would be allowed, lawyers who specialize in the death penalty said.

The potential jurors summoned by US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. over the next three days will start by filling out surveys to help determine whether they are qualified to serve on a death penalty jury. They will be intensely screened for impartiality, and the ability — and willingness — to sentence Tsarnaev to death, if the verdict warrants it.... The judge will also have to find jurors who, while willing to hand out the death penalty, also feel capable of opposing it if they find the crimes do not warrant death.

The Massachusetts courts last struck down the state’s death penalty in the early 1980s, and the last execution to take place in the state was in 1947. But Tsarnaev has been charged in the federal court system, which allows for capital punishment for about 50 crimes, including the detonation of weapons of mass destruction resulting in death, one of the crimes Tsarnaev faces.

Tsarnaev faces 30 charges — 17 of which carry the possibility of the death penalty — in the bombings at the Marathon finish line the afternoon of April 15, 2013, that killed three people and injured more than 260 others. Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan also allegedly shot and killed an MIT police officer in Cambridge days after the bombings, a crime for which Tsarnaev is also charged.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Tsarnaev in part based on the vulnerability of his targets, and his “heinous, cruel, and depraved manner of committing the offense,” according to court filings.

Tsarnaev’s defense team has argued that it has not had enough time to prepare for the trial, and that finding impartial jurors in the same city where the bombs went off will remain impossible — an argument that has been echoed by legal analysts.

But O’Toole has ruled that the defense team has failed to show that he cannot impanel a fair jury in Boston, and he has said the defense team has had enough time to prepare. A federal appeals court in Boston on Saturday refused a last-minute defense request to intervene.

Since his arrest, Tsarnaev has been held at the federal prison at Fort Devens in Ayer, under special conditions that restrict his communications. Five lawyers are assigned to his case. The prosecution team also includes five lawyers, with assistance from the federal Department of Justice.

The jury selection process could take at least a month. O’Toole and the lawyers from both sides will begin by reviewing the jurors’ initial surveys to determine which of them should immediately be excluded: for example, if they have a personal connection to the case, or a hardship that would prevent them from serving, such as a young child or ill relative who needs care.

The trial will be split into two phases. If jurors find Tsarnaev guilty of the bombings, they would have to determine his fate in a second, full-fledged trial, with evidence and witness statements. In that trial, however, the rules of evidence are far more relaxed, giving prosecutors and defense more leeway in painting a picture of Tsarnaev.

Prosecutors will want to show that he was a determined, indiscriminate killer. Defense lawyers will seek to portray Tsarnaev as an impressionable teenager who was influenced by a dominant older brother who had grown extreme in his Muslim views, according to court records.

Some prior related posts:

January 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 4, 2015

Despite recent reforms, Indiana and Ohio still struggling greatly with prison crowding and costs

This weekend brought two similar stories from two heartland states struggling with similar persistent prison problems.  Here are links to the stories with their headlines and highlights:

From Indiana here, "Despite code changes, state's prisons will grow":  

Amid other demands the Legislature will be juggling starting this month is a request from the Indiana Department of Correction for money to build and operate new prison cells. Without those cell units, department officials told legislators recently, the state will run out of beds for male inmates in about two years....

One reason is that the criminal code revisions, in addition to sending more prisoners back to the county, tightened the credit-for-time-served formula for other types of prisoners, keeping them in state prisons longer. It's not yet clear exactly how much more pressure that will put on the prison system, but DOC officials believe they would have had to increase capacity soon anyway. Indiana's prison population numbered 6,281 in 1980. At the end of 2013, it was 29,377. That's more than 4½ times as many prisoners.

From Ohio here, "Emergency early release of prisoners is considered":

As Ohio’s inmate population once again approaches record levels, with no money available for bricks and mortar, prisons chief Gary Mohr is looking at something never used here before — emergency early release of prisoners.

In his budget overview for 2015-16, Mohr said, the department will “request strengthened language on emergency release of inmates contained in Ohio Revised Code 2967.18.” The changes Mohr will ask the General Assembly to make weren’t specified. JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, emphasized that emergency release will be an option only if overcrowding persists and money is unavailable for additional prison beds....

As of Dec. 29, Ohio prisons held 50,641 inmates, 31 percent above design capacity and about 1,000 more than two years ago at this time.

The section of state law Mohr referenced, ORC 2967.18, specifies the chain of events for declaring an “overcrowding emergency,” resulting in the release of some nonviolent prisoners 30, 60 or 90 days early. Enacted in 1997, the early-release provision has never been used.

Mohr’s budget letter said the state is at a “significant decision point for criminal justice policy. Do we invest in people or in bricks and mortar? To build and operate one prison for two decades would cost Ohioans one billion dollars.”

New projections have the population hitting 50,794 by July 1, and rising to 52,844 by 2023. Ohio’s all-time high was 51,273 on Nov. 10, 2008. The prison population is increasing despite an overall drop in the crime rate and the fact that Franklin and the other five largest counties are sending fewer people to state prisons. The other 82 counties are making up for it....

State lawmakers have in recent years passed a host of laws adding offenses or increasing prison time for existing ones. Reform efforts to rein in the growth have helped, but the slow creep in prison population continues.

As outlined in law, Mohr would submit a declaration of an overcrowding emergency to the Ohio Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative watchdog agency, which would forward a recommendation to Gov. John Kasich. The governor could then declare an official emergency, clearing the way for early release of qualifying nonviolent offenders. That would exclude inmates serving sentences for murder, voluntary manslaughter, felonious assault, kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson and aggravated robbery.

January 4, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"Switzerland has too many criminals and too few prisons"

ImagesThe title of this post is from the first sentence of this recent AP article headlined "Switzerland mulls plan to export prisoners." Here is more about a notable European nation having a problem all to common in the US:

Now the Justice Ministry is reportedly considering a proposal to export convicts to neighboring France and Germany.  Swiss prisons chief Thomas Freytag told public broadcaster SRF in a program aired late Friday that the country's correctional facilities are at more than 100 percent capacity.

Prisons in the French-speaking cantons (states) of western Switzerland are said to be particularly overcrowded.  It's unclear when the Justice Ministry would decide on the plan, and whether France or Germany would be prepared to let Swiss inmates do their time there.

Left out of this brief story is the basic fact that Switzerland, at recent count, has less than 7,000 prisoners in the whole country and an incarceration rate that is only about 1/8th of the incarceration rate in the United States. For comparison, consider that the US state of Virginia has a state-wide population that is a little lower than Switzerland's, but it has more than 30,000 prisoners (and that count excludes a few thousand federal prisoners coming from Virginia).

January 4, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack