« June 14, 2015 - June 20, 2015 | Main | June 28, 2015 - July 4, 2015 »

June 27, 2015

"Will New Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Plan Fly?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new Crime Report piece by Ted Gest discussing the prospects for the newly introduced SAFE Justice Act (basics here). Here are excerpts:

As support for criminal justice reform has spread, many states have left the federal government behind when it comes to reducing their prison populations. There were 208,598 federal inmates as of yesterday, dwarfing the state with the most in the last national count: Texas, with about 168,000. Prisons are consuming at least a quarter of the U.S. Justice Department's budget, putting a squeeze on other spending.

Until yesterday, most discussion of the issue in Congress has taken place in the Senate, where several members, ranging from conservative Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky to liberal Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey have filed competing bills that would change federal sentencing laws and help inmates return successfully to society.

Now, two key House members from both major political parties are weighing in with a "Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective Justice Act"-- dubbed SAFE -- they suggest could go even farther than the Senate measures.

They are James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, who have long headed the House subcommittee dealing with crime. (Scott recently moved from the panel, officially called the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, and turned his role over to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.)...

Sensenbrenner and Scott headed a House over-criminalization task force that has spent the last year and a half holding hearings on the issue that led in large part to the new bill. Sensenbrenner contended yesterday that over-criminalization is a "major driver" of the federal prison count, although he conceded that no one know how many such cases are filed.

Liberals are much more interested in drug cases, arguing that mandatory minimum penalties dating from the 1980s have ensnared thousands of Americans serving terms of five or ten years or longer for relatively minor violations. Scott said that two-thirds of federal inmates serving mandatory terms in drug cases are not narcotics kingpins. He argued that in the end, the nation's high incarceration rate "generates more crime than it stops."

One notable aspect of yesterday's announcement was the presence of a wide range of organizations supporting the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the conservative Koch Industries, the American Conservative Union Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Police Foundation.

Helpfully, this article provides this link to this full text of the new House proposal which is formally the "Sensenbrenner-Scott Over-Criminalization Task Force Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective Justice Reinvestment Act of 2015."

Prior related post:

June 27, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Might prisons struggle with new SCOTUS jurisprudence on fundamental right to marry?

Gay Prison MarriageLots of folks a lot more invested in gay rights and broad constitutional jurisprudence likely have a lot more important things to say than I do about the Supreme Court's landmark marriage ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.  But given that, as noted in this prior post, the Oklahoma Corrections Department halted all prison weddings while awating the Obergefell ruling, I could not resist here wondering aloud about whether prison officials will be long struggling with the reach of the ruling as the intersection of prisoner rights and the fundamental right to marry creates new and complicated administrative concerns. 

As the opinion for the Court in Obergefell mentioned, decades ago in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), the Supreme Court "held the right to marry was abridged by regulations limiting the privilege of prison inmates to marry." The Obergefell ruling further mentions Turner in a notable passage that perhaps takes on extra meaning when one considers the loneliness and fear that surely accompany long-term incarceration for many prisoners:

And in Turner, the Court again acknowledged the intimate association protected by this right, holding prisoners could not be denied the right to marry because their committed relationships satisfied the basic reasons why marriage is a fundamental right. See 482 U.S., at 95–96. The right to marry thus dignifies couples who “wish to define themselves by their commitment to each other.” Windsor, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 14).  Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.  It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.

Of course, Supreme Court jurisprudence has long explained that prisoners have greatly diminished rights (e.g., they have no reasonable expectation of privacy and thus few if any traditional Fourth Amendment rights), and that the rights they retain behind prison walls must give way to reasonable prison regulations. More specifically, in Turner, the Court expressly stated that "legitimate security concerns may require placing reasonable restrictions upon an inmate's right to marry."

Nevertheless, in Turner the Court rigorously questioned claims by Missouri officials rationales for strict limits on prisoner marriages and concluded that an "almost complete ban on the decision to marry is not reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives." Consequently, in the wake of the the Obergefell ruling, I read Turner to preclude prison officials from simply asserting, without substantial evidence, that it will never allow prisoners to have a same-sex marriage. (Notably, only one current Justice was on the Court when Turner was decided, and Justice Scalia joined the opinion for the Court authored by Justice O'Connor striking down the Missouri prison's "almost complete ban on the decision to marry.")

June 27, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

June 26, 2015

How many federal prisoners have "strong Johnson claims" (and how many lawyers will help figure this out)?

After this post, I am going to take some time off-line in order to calmly and carefully read all the opinions in the big SCOTUS constitutional sentencing ruling today in Johnson v. US.  (Sadly, I think it is a bit too early to get some liquid assistance in calming down, but that will change in due time.) Helpfully, Justice Scalia's opinion for the Court in Johnson is relatively short and thus it should not prove too difficult for everyone to figure out the import of the Johnson ruling for future applications of ACCA or even for future vagueness/due process Fifth Amendment constitutional jurisprudence.

But, as the title of this post is meant to highlights, I suspect it may prove quite difficult for everyone to figure out the impact of the Johnson ruling for past applications of ACCA and those currently serving long federal ACCA mandatory prison sentences.  I am pretty sure vagueness ruling are considered substantive for retroactivity purposes, so even long-ago sentenced federal prisoners should at least be able to get into federal court to now bring Johnson claims.  But not every federal prisoner serving an ACCA sentence has even a viable Johnson claim and I suspect most do not have what I would call a strong Johnson claim.  In my mind, to have a strong Johnson claim, a defendant would have to be able to show he clearly qualified for an ACCA sentence based on and only on a triggering prior conviction that hinged on the application of the (now unconstitutional) residual clause.

That said, I suspect that there are likely many hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, of current federal prisoners who do have strong Johnson claim.  And the potential legal consequences of a strong Johnson claim claim could be profound because it may mean that a prisoner who previously had to be sentences to at least a mandatory 15 years in federal prison now may only legally be sentenced to at most 10 years in federl prison.

I have a feeling that this new Johnson ruling may ruin the weekend (and perhaps many weeks) for some federal prosecutors and officials at the Justice Department because they are perhaps duty bound to try to start figuring out how many federal prisoners may have strong (or even viable) Johnson claims and what to now do about these prisoners.  In addition, I am hopeful that some federal defenders and even private (pro bono Clemency project 2104) lawyers will also start working hard to identify and obtain relief for persons now in federal prison serving lengthy ACCA sentences that the Supreme Court today concluded were constitutionally invalid. 

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact (last two from before the opinion)

June 26, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (29)

A (way-too-quick) Top 5 list of thoughts/reactions to the votes and opinions Johnson

As noted here, the US Supreme Court issued a (very?) big constitutional criminal procedure ruling today in Johnson v. US.  I will need at least a few hours (if not a few days and certainly many reads) to really figure out how big a deal Johnson is.  But I can and will here, at the risk of prioritizing speed over accuracy, quickly type out the first big 5 thoughts that have come to mind concerning the  line-up of jurists in the Johnson ruling:

1.  It is truly amazing (and quite significant) that Justice Scalia was able to convince five of his colleagues (including three of the four newer Justices) to issue a big pro-defendant constitutional criminal procedure ruling in Johnson.

2.  It is very significant that Chief Justice Roberts joined Justice Scalia's significant pro-defendant constitutional criminal procedure ruling for the Court in Johnson.

3.  It is interesting that Justice Kennedy briefly concurred separately and did not join Justice Scalia's significant pro-defendant constitutional criminal procedure ruling for the Court in Johnson.

4. It is notable that the concurrence authored by Justice Thomas is longer than the majority opinion (and I suspect it was going to be the opinion for the Court before Justice Scalia convinced his colleagues to order rehearing on the constitutional issue the majority addressed).

5. It is not at all surprising Justice Alito alone dissents, and I may start formally counting how many (non-capital) criminal cases have been (and will in the coming years) be defined by that reality.

June 26, 2015 in Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

SCOTUS finds, per Justice Scalia, that ACCA residual clause is unconstitutionally vague

In a very important Fifth Amendment criminal procedure ruling, though one certain to be overlooked because of an even more important Fourteenth Amendment ruling issued right before it, the Supreme Court this morning in Johnson v. United States, 13-7120 (S. Ct. June 26, 2015) (available here), ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."  Justice Scalia wrote the main opinion for the Court (which carried five other Justices, including the Chief), and here is a key paragraph from the begining of the opinion's legal analysis:

We are convinced that the indeterminacy of the wide-ranging inquiry required by the residual clause [of ACCA] both denies fair notice to defendants and invites arbitrary enforcement by judges. Increasing a defendant’s sentence under the clause denies due process of law.

I will need some time to review and reflect to figure out how big a ruling Johnson may prove to be. But the basic reality that the defendant prevailed here on the broadest constitutional ground (and especially the fact that only Justice Alito was prepared to rule for the federal government on appeal) further proves a point I have been making since Blakely was handed down over a decade ago: The modern US Supreme Court is, at least on sentencing issues, the most pro-defendant appellate court in the nation.

That all said, and of particular significance for ACCA sentences that are built on convictions that do not depend on interpretations of the residual clause, the Court's opinion in Johnson ends with this critical and clear discussion of the limits of the holding:

We hold that imposing an increased sentence under theresidual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violates the Constitution’s guarantee of due process. Our contraryholdings in James and Sykes are overruled. Today’s decision does not call into question application of the Act to the four enumerated offenses, or the remainder of the Act’s definition of a violent felony.

June 26, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Bipartisan SAFE Justice Act with array of federal sentencing reforms introduced by House leaders

SS-602x399As this report from The Hill details, a notable and significant group of Representatives are backing a notable and significant new federal criminal justice reform bill.  Here are the basics:

A bipartisan pair of lawmakers on Thursday unveiled a comprehensive criminal reform bill aimed at reducing the federal prison population.  The Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act from Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) calls for new rehabilitation methods and sentencing reforms.  The bill is the result of the House Judiciary Committee's over-criminalization task force which examined ways to reform federal prisons....

Sensenbrenner said the bill was intended to reverse the staggering increase in the prison population, which has quadrupled in the last 30 years.  Despite increased incarceration and spending on prisons, recidivism still remains a problem, he also noted.  The bill applies mandatory minimums only to major crimes, and “expands recidivism reduction programming to incentivize and reward those who are working to make a change,” Sensenbrenner said....

Scott said the bill would encourage innovate approaches to criminal justice reform. “We were not interested in playing politics with crime policy,” said Scott.  He noted that 32 states had been able to reduce both crime and incarceration rates over the past five years. Calling those states "laboratories of democracy," he said the bill adopted many of those tested practices.

Scott lamented the high incarceration rate in the U.S. He said the bill aims to “direct non-violent low level, first time offenders from prison" and better acknowledge the conditions that lead to crime.  “If you address those underlying issues, you will have a better return rate than just from locking them up,” he said.

The bill also garnered support from major groups across the political spectrum. Leaders and representatives from Koch Industries, the ACLU, the NAACP, the Washington D.C. Police Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union have expressed support for the bill.

The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Mia Love (R-Utah), and Scott Rigell (R-Va). “Too many of our children have gotten caught into a cycle that they can not get out of,” said Love, explaining the bill's appeal.

Rep. Rigell touted the broad coalition backing the bill, which includes Koch Industries, owned-by the Koch Brothers, who are major conservative donors. “If you think of those as two gate posts, “ he said, noting Koch Industries and the ACLU, “that’s an awfully wide gate.”

I am struggling to find on-line the full text of this important new federal sentencing reform proposal, but this summary from FAMM leads me to believe that this new SAFE Justice Act may go significantly farther (and be more politically viable) that the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Justice Safety Valve Act proposals that failed to move forward in the last Congress.  Indeed, these passages from this new Vox article, which provides the most detailed media account of the SAFE Justice bill's specifics, is prompting me to think all would-be federal reformers — including Prez Obama and his Justice Department, and especially Senators Cruz and Paul and other reform-minded GOP Prez candidates — should think seriously about giving up on the SSA and other reform bills now in the Senate in order to put all their advocacy efforts behind getting SAFE Justice passed through the House ASAP:

While Senate efforts at criminal justice reform have exposed a generational split in the Republican Party, in which young reformers like Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul face off against old-school, tough-on-crime conservatives like Senators Chuck Grassley and Jeff Sessions, the House's bill was written by one of those old-school Republicans — Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin — as well as Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA).

Sensenbrenner and Scott think of the Safe Justice Act as a federal version of the criminal justice reform bills that have been taken up in state after state over the past several years, many of them under the mottos of "justice reinvestment" and "smart on crime." In their minds, they're building on what's worked in the states and are in line with reformers' emphasis on "data-driven" and "evidence-based" criminal justice policymaking.

The Safe Justice Act is a collection of dozens of different reforms. Most of them aren't terribly big on their own, but many of them overlap. That makes it really hard to estimate exactly how much the federal prison population would shrink if the bill became law. But its effect would be bigger than anything that's been introduced in Congress so far.

Many of the reforms would cut sentences for drug crimes — which reflects a growing consensus that nonviolent drug offenses aren't as bad as violent crimes. Drug prisoners are about half of all federal prisoners (unlike in states, where violent crime is the biggest cause of incarceration). That means that many of the Safe Justice Act's biggest reforms would target the largest slice of the federal population....

Most changes to prison sentences in Congress have focused on cutting mandatory minimum sentences, which force judges to sentence people to five, 10, or 20 years for certain drug crimes. But across-the-board cuts to mandatory minimums have been met with serious resistance from old-school Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The House's solution, via the Safe Justice Act, isn't to reduce the mandatory minimums themselves — but to narrow the range of people who they apply to. Instead of someone who's convicted of trafficking a certain amount of cocaine being automatically sentenced to 10 years, for example, he'd only trigger the 10-year minimum if he were also a leader or organizer of an organization of five or more people. And even then, the bill says that judges can override the mandatory minimum if the defendant doesn't have much of a criminal history, or has a serious drug problem.

The bill would also make it possible for more people to be sentenced to probation instead of getting sent to prison. It would allow drug offenders to get probation if they'd been convicted of low-level drug crimes before. It would encourage judges to give probation to first-time low-level offenders. And it would encourage districts to start up drug courts and other "problem-solving courts"; some states have found these are better ways to treat some addicts than prison is....

Current prisoners whose sentences would have been affected by the bill's front-end reforms could apply to get their sentences reduced that way. But the Safe Justice Act would also give them another way to reduce their sentences: by getting time off for rehabilitation. Under the bill, every federal prisoner would get an individual case plan, based on what particular prison education, work, substance abuse, or other programs are the best fit for his needs. For every month a prisoner follows the case plan, he'd get 10 days off his prison sentence — meaning a prisoner with a perfect behavior record could get his sentence reduced by a third. (Prisoners serving time for homicide, terrorism, or sex crimes aren't eligible for time off, but that's a very small slice of the federal prison population.) The logic is that prisoners who want to rehabilitate themselves, and whose good behavior shows they're succeeding, shouldn't be forced to spend extra time in prison just for prison's sake.

The bill goes even further when it comes to probation — which affects many more people than prison. For every month of perfect behavior on probation, the offender would get 30 days off the end of his sentence — essentially cutting the probation term in half. If the offender violated probation, on the other hand, there would be a set of gradually escalating punishments, instead of an automatic ticket back to prison....

In the year 2015, it is extremely hard to get any sort of bill through Congress. And Sensenbrenner, Scott, and their fellow reformers have a narrow window before the presidential campaign saps Congress of any will to act it has left. So the barriers are pretty high. But this isn't, in itself, supposed to be a polarizing bill. The presence of Sensenbrenner and other old-school Republicans reflects that. And this is something that both houses of Congress have been debating for some time.

If House leadership decides to snatch up the Safe Justice Act and bring it to the floor quickly, it might give the Senate enough time to act. Maybe they'll be interested in the provisions that would make it a little harder for the federal government to treat regulatory violations as crimes; that's a pet cause of conservatives, even those who aren't otherwise committed to reforming criminal justice.

Still, House leadership might not be interested. But this is the broadest bill that's been introduced during the current wave of criminal justice reform, and it's a marker of just how much consensus there is among reformers in both parties when it comes to reducing federal incarceration.

June 26, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"A Second Chance: Rebiography as Just Compensation"

I often tell my sentencing students that every good legal or policy debate has some important sentencing story lurking within it.  The title of this post is the title of this intriguing article authored by Jamila Jefferson-Jones just now appearing on SSRN, and it argues Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause has an important sentencing story lurking within.  Here is the abstract:

Once upon a time, reinvention was an integral part of the myth of the American Dream. As the story went, one could leave the old country or old neighborhood, without looking back -- fashioning one's own second chance by stepping into a newer, better identity, crafting a redesigned life story out of whole cloth if necessary.  As one legal historian noted, "American culture and law put enormous emphasis on second chances."  For most of the 20th Century, this notion of the second chance was also alive and well in the American criminal justice system, as rehabilitation was considered its primary goal.  My earlier article, "A Good Name: Applying Regulatory Takings Analysis to Reputational Damage Caused by Criminal History," couched the need for rebiography upon reentry in terms of the ongoing reputational damage suffered by the previously convicted.  Then, regulatory takings analysis was applied to that reputational damage.  In doing so, it analyzed the critical property-like characteristics of reputation, concluding that reputation is a form of "status property" and that such continued stigma attachment and reputational damage constitutes a "taking" without just compensation.  Finally, it was argued that rebiography can serve as "just compensation" for this type of taking.

Rebiography as "just compensation" for the reputational taking suffered by the previously convicted leaves open two questions: First, does the takings analysis have the same outcome regardless of the offender?  In other words, does an offender have to try to use her reputation in a positive manner and be prevented from doing so in order to have a takings claim, or is it enough to say that requiring disclosure of criminal history is a taking across the board that always requires just compensation?  Secondly, what is the relationship between "rebiography" and "privacy"?  In "A Good Name," an established continued stigma attachment was shown as a governmental taking. Now, it is offered in a way to show that "just compensation" is owed to the previously convicted and that the way to provide it is through establishing a "rebiography right," stemming from the taking of a constitutionally cognizable property right.

Part I of this new article provides the introduction, giving general definitions of rebiography and “just compensation.”  In Part II, there are reviews of the application of the Takings Clause to the reputational damage suffered by the previously convicted and apply this analysis to actual cases.  In Part III, it is further explained as to why rebiography is necessary given statistics on the previously convicted's employment prospects and recidivism.  The article goes on to examine legislative and judicial options for rebiography.

June 26, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

June 25, 2015

Seeking SCOTUS predictions: what should we now expect in Glossip and Johnson?

I feel like the Supreme Court did me a solid this morning by deciding two non-criminal cases and continuing to keep everyone waiting for the two sentencing cases I have been following most closely this term: Glossip concerning execution protocols and Johnson concerning the constitutionality and application of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.  I say that because I am due to be off-line and out-of-the-office most of the rest of today, and I am somewhat relieved I do not yet need to read and react to the (many divided and lengthy?) opinions to come from the Justices in these two cases.

In part because I am going to be off-line for a while, and in part because SCOTUS gave us a few more tea leaves to read with its rulings today and earlier this week, I am eager to hear from folks about what they are now expecting in Glossip and/or Johnson.  I think it is now a near certainty that we are going to get (deeply?) divided rulings in both cases, and I have long assumed Glossip would come down to a 5-4 vote and that Johnson might end up the same.  But as the days go by without a ruling, I am getting more and more excited (or should I say concerned) that both Glossip and Johnson will be big, lengthy and consequential.  

Do others agree?  Do folks expect the rulings tomomrrow?  Monday?  Later?

Do folks now have predictions about who will be writing for the Court and will be writing the main dissents in each case?

Does anyone share my fear that we might get a badly splintered Court in both cases?

June 25, 2015 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Circa mid-2015, Clemency Project 2014 will go down as an abject failure if it does not submit more petitions before 2016

This notable new USA Today article, headlined "'The clock is running' on Obama clemency initiative," reports that the various administrative and practical difficulties encountered (and self-created?) by those trying to get Prez Obama more good clemency case are now seemingly at risk of completely "screwing the pooch" on the whole clemency push.  Here are the discouraging details:

The Obama administration is urging lawyers for federal inmates to move more quickly in filing petitions for presidential clemency, reminding them that "the clock is running" on the Obama presidency. The new urgency from the Justice Department comes more than a year into a program intended to shorten the sentences to federal inmates who would have gotten less time under current law.

That clemency initiative was coupled with the Clemency Project 2014, an outside consortium of lawyers working on those cases. But the Clemency Project filed only 31 petitions in its first year, leading to criticism from some proponents of criminal justice reform that the process is moving too slowly.

"If there is one message I want you to take away today, it's this: Sooner is better," U.S. Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff told volunteer lawyers in a video seminar last week. "Delaying is not helpful." Leff is the Justice Department official who provides recommendations on commutations and pardons to the president, who under the Constitution has the power to shorten sentences for federal crimes and to restore other civil rights....

The Clemency Project has set a goal of Jan. 20, 2016, for all petitions to be filed, to give the Obama administration a full year to consider them and send them to the president's desk for a decision before his term ends. Leff said any petitions that come in after that date could be left to Obama's successor. "So if we receive an enormous number of petitions at the last minute, yes, they will be reviewed. But a lot of them will not be reviewed during this administration," she said.

She also suggested that attorneys were spending too much time on cases. "While I greatly admire your legal skills, this is not the time to prepare a treatise of hundreds of pages," she told the lawyers.

Another problem is paperwork. The Office of the Pardon Attorney requires the pre-sentence report for every inmate, but that can involve a complicated process of court approval. "It's been a real bottleneck to get these documents into the hands of the lawyers," said James Felman, a Tampa attorney who chairs the criminal defense committee of the American Bar Association. So the Clemency Project has now streamlined that process, allowing the Bureau of Prisons to supply that document unless a judge objects.

Felman said lawyers also need to understand that they're asking the president for mercy, and so need to be forthright about the strengths and weaknesses of the case. "Aggressive lawyering is not necessarily going to pay off," he said. The cases don't have to be perfect. Felman said the Justice Department has signaled a willingness to consider cases that don't meet all of the criteria. "Some of the criteria are less definite than others. Like, for example, a clean record in prison. Nobody has a perfect record in prison," he said.

And the Justice Department said that even cases that aren't appropriate for the clemency initiative — which is intended for people who have already served at least 10 years — will still get consideration. "In addition to the president's clemency initiative, he continues to consider commutations under the traditional criteria for clemency," said Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson. "Every applicant for clemency receives an individual review."

Margaret Love, a Washington attorney who had Leff's job in the Clinton administration, said she worries that an emphasis on the volume and speed of cases could compromise the ability of attorneys to make the best argument for their clients. "What I heard was hurry up, hurry up, deliver as many cases as quickly as you possibly can," she said. "If it's true that there were only 31 cases submitted by the project by the end of May, that's surprising given the number of lawyers they have working on them."

Regular readers know that, ever since Prez Obama and his Aministration started talking up an effort to get serious about using the clemency power seriously, I have been regularly expressing concerns about how structurally peculiar and procedurally belabored this new (and now not-so-new) clemency push has been. My particular worry, which is exacerbated by articles like this one and other similar reports, has been that a robust effort by defense lawyer groups to (1) review the complete files of, and (2) provide trained lawyers for, and (3) present a complete and extensive argument/application for, any and every federal prisoner who might want to pursue a clemency application could create a whole lot of costly and time-consuming busy work with few real substantive benefits. This is especially so given that, as all serious federal clemency advocates should know, the Pardon Attorney's Office has historically always taken its sweet time to assemble and review the files of any clemency application and will always (and justifiably) be wary of relying on just the information and representations made by a clemency applicant and is lawyer.

That all said, I remain hopeful that all the hard work being done by all the groups and lawyers involved in Clemency Project 2014 will prove meaningful and valuable and will ultimately enable Prez Obama to live up to his promises to get serious about using the clemency power seriously before he leave office in January 2017. But that might now require those working on Clemency Project 2014 to get serious about getting their applications submitted ASAP rather than continuing to spend time letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough in this arena.

Some prior related posts:

June 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Highlighting the need for much better modern prison metrics

Adam Gelb and Craig Prins, who are directors of the Pew Charitable Trusts' public safety performance project, have this notable new Washington Times commentary about prisons and prison reform. The piece, headlined "Who’s behind bars?: A better prison composition index could gauge whether reforms are succeeding," effectively highlights that for more effective prison reform (and more effective assessment of these reforms) could benefit greatly from more effective prison metrics. Here are excerpts:

The verdict is in, and it’s close to unanimous: The United States has built too many prisons. After nearly 40 years of uninterrupted prison growth that put one in 100 adults behind bars, a wave of state reforms over the past several years has reduced the incarceration rate while the crime rate has continued to fall. These tandem trends have convinced many Americans that locking more and more people up for longer and longer periods of time is neither the best nor only way to protect public safety.

Governors and legislatures in red and blue states alike have enacted substantial policy shifts, often by wide bipartisan majorities. Voters, in opinion surveys and at the ballot box, appear to be solidly behind putting the brakes on prison construction and steering lower-level offenders to alternatives.

Shifting national attitudes about crime and punishment have led to calls for even more aggressive reforms to criminal penalties and deep reductions in the inmate population. Elected officials and opinion leaders from opposite ends of the political spectrum have begun a dialogue about what it would mean — and take — to cut the current prison population in half, a once far-fetched fantasy that several new advocacy groups have adopted as their outright objective.

Tracking the number of inmates is essential but not enough to know whether we are making progress toward a more effective criminal justice system. A fuller picture requires a new and more nuanced measure — one that goes beyond the tally and captures the type of inmates behind bars. Recent state reforms have sought to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control corrections costs. To achieve these goals, many states are focusing their expensive prison beds on violent and career criminals with new policies that divert lower-level offenders into non-prison sanctions or reduce the time they spend locked up, restrict revocations of parole and probation for minor rules violations, and expand eligibility and funding for drug courts and other alternatives.

Yet most states cannot readily determine whether the new policies are working any better than those they replace. Beyond a simple count of prisoners, the typical state data report offers basic demographic information and breaks down how many inmates are serving time for violent, property, drug and other crimes. These numbers are helpful, but by themselves they reveal only fragments of the information necessary to paint a meaningful portrait of inmate populations. For instance, an offender currently serving time for a relatively minor crime may have a string of prior violent convictions that make him a higher risk to society than someone in prison for a more serious offense not likely to be repeated.

A more holistic look at prison use would blend current offense, prior record and risk of recidivism. By joining some combination of these elements into a single measure — a prison composition index — policymakers and the public could develop a better understanding of how their prison beds are being used and whether their reforms are succeeding....

The end goal is to come up with a single measure tracked over time that answers the question: What percentage of the prison population consists of violent and chronic offenders who pose a threat to public safety, and how many are offenders who could safely pay their debt to society in less expensive and more effective ways?

Pennsylvania is probably the first state to attempt to use a sophisticated prison composition index. Under the direction of Secretary John Wetzel, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections uses an “Offender Violence Risk Typology” tool, which merges information about current offense, prior record and risk level to create three categories of inmates. According to the index, 69 percent of Pennsylvania’s prison admissions and 59 percent of the standing population in 2013 fell into the least serious of the three categories, figures that have changed little since 2010.

The raw number of prisoners is an important barometer of our criminal justice system. But we also need to know who the inmates are, why they’re there, and whether society will be better off if they are incarcerated or sentenced in other ways.

June 25, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Examining federal death row as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev becomes its newest (and youngest) member

The new NBC News piece, headlined "Tsarnaev Joins A Death Row With Many Members, And Few Executions," reviews some realities of federal death row in the wake of yesterday's formal capital sentencing of the Boston Marathon bomber. Here are excerpts:

Now that he's been formally sentenced to death, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will soon become a resident of federal death row, joining 61 other killers who've been condemned to die by lethal injection at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terra Haute, Indiana.

There he will wait — likely for a very long time. Just how long depends on a range of factors, mainly the strength of his legal appeals. But it's safe to assume that, provided the appeals fail, it will be several years before he is put to death.

Despite the name, there isn't much death on death row. Since the federal government reinstated the death penalty in 1988, 75 inmates have ended up on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Ten have been removed, and only three have been executed.

The last man to die there was Louis Jones Jr., in 2003, eight years after he was sentenced for murdering a U.S. soldier.  The other two, marijuana kingpin Juan Raul Garza and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, waited eight years and four years, respectively, for their executions.  

That leaves 61 men and 1 woman still on federal death row, including two people whose original conviction or sentence has been reversed but their legal fate has not yet been finalized. Tsarnaev, 21, is the youngest.

He'll join a cast of violent men at Terra Haute — the one woman on death row, Lisa Montgomery, who killed a pregnant woman and cut her unborn baby out of her womb, is serving her remaining days in the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas....

The longest current residents of death row are Corey Johnson, James Roane Jr. and Richard Tipton, fellow gang members who were sentenced to execution in 1993 for nine murders committed to protect their crack dealing operation. The newest — before Tsarnaev — is Thomas Sanders, who was sentenced to death in September for kidnapping and killing a 12-year-old girl.

It is often said that justice delayed is justice denied.  As this article highlights, if you embrace that aphorism, federal death row is locale which has been experiencing a whole lot of justice denied in recent times.

June 25, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (3)

Noticing Senator Cornyn's notable role in federal criminal justice reform efforts

ImagesRegular readers know that Senator Charles Grassley is perhaps the most critical current player in the current debates over federal sentencing reform because of his role as Senate Judiciary Committee Chair.  But this new National Journal article, headlined "Cornyn's New Role: The 'Bridge' on Tricky Bipartisan Bills," highlights the key role now being played by the current Senate whip.  Here are excerpts from an interesting piece about Texas Senator John Cornyn:

On April 10, John Cornyn toured a huge prison in rural east Texas, about a three-hour drive north of his Houston birthplace. Nearly 700 security employees stroll the H.H. Coffield facility, which has a maximum capacity of around 3,800 prisoners, and Cornyn, a three-term senator who rose to the Texas Supreme Court and attorney general positions during the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the key 1990s, was there to draw attention to a project helping prisoners learn the skills they need to rehabilitate — and get out.

"Some of the inmates were so poorly educated they couldn't even read a tape measure," said Cornyn in an interview in his Washington office this week. "Which if you think about it, it doesn't say much for our public education system, but it also just shows how big a problem we have when people have zero coping skills — no education — and they basically have lived a continuous life of crime, and they know nothing else in terms of the challenges. We have to break that cycle."

Almost seven months into his role as Senate majority whip, Cornyn talks quite a bit about breaking cycles, whether in prisons or the nature of crises in the Senate. His official role is to keep the Republicans in line and on-message, but he also has been an influential figure — the "bridge," as one Democrat puts it — on bipartisan pieces of legislation, particularly on two in the Judiciary Committee that bedeviled the last Congress: a criminal-justice reform package — the cause du jour infiltrating liberal and conservative think tanks, as well as the 2016 presidential debate — and patent-reform legislation with Sen. Chuck Schumer. Neither is on the Senate GOP leadership's short list, but both bills could see floor action with Cornyn's help, especially if the appropriations process breaks down, leaving room in the schedule.

On criminal justice, Democrats see Cornyn as an instrumental figure in creating the package that requires low-risk offenders to participate in recidivism-reduction programs for an earlier release—saving taxpayer money and making communities safer — and that includes a bipartisan bill reducing mandatory-minimum prison sentences. That bill is supported by members across the ideological spectrum but was opposed by Cornyn — who says now that it wasn't ready for "prime time" — along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, now the Judiciary Committee chairman, and others last year.

"I think we need a marriage of both of those proposals," said Cornyn, who would like to build on his bill to include some sentencing reforms. "I think looking at nonviolent offenders, low-risk offenders, I think there's some things we can do."

"My hope is that in the near future we will have a product that we can then have a hearing on and then mark up, and my hope is that we'll get something to the president this year," he added.

Sen. Dick Durbin, who is leading the sentencing-reform effort with Sen. Mike Lee, said Tuesday that Congress could have a "dramatic impact" on the federal prison population by addressing even just a "very narrow" category of drug offenses not involving firearms, gangs, violence, or terrorism.

Grassley has been an obstacle on the issue, according to Sen. Jeff Flake, a Judiciary panel member. Grassley was not invited to a White House meeting to discuss the topic this year and was advised in his hometown paper to take up sentencing reform a few months ago. But he seems more willing to move the package now — he said recently that the committee has the "capability" of reaching a bipartisan agreement this year — and has been convening meetings to see if a compromise can be struck.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Judiciary Committee Democrat, sees Cornyn as the "bridge" trying to get their bills through the panel. "As you know, I think Chairman Grassley has gone to the floor three separate times to express his displeasure and dissatisfaction with the mandatory-minimum bill," said Whitehouse. "So by way of the chairman putting a marker down that he's not pleased with a piece of legislation in his committee, it would be hard to imagine much of a bigger, louder marker than that."

"And I think Senator Cornyn is a very helpful voice in trying to be a bridge among the different parties involved here," he added. "Whether it's Chairman Grassley, or Senator Lee or Senator Durbin, I think both Senator Cornyn and I are trying to be that bridge, but given that the chairman is a Republican and given that Senator Cornyn is a former attorney general, former judge, and leader within the Republican caucus, I think Senator Cornyn is a particularly important figure in the bridge between Senator Lee and Chairman Grassley."

June 25, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 24, 2015

"A Shrinking Texas Death Row"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new item from the Texas Tribune.  The piece has a series of great interactive charts providing the details on this basic death-penalty data story:

The number of inmates on Texas’ death row is falling. At its peak in 1999, 460 men and women were living with a death sentence in Texas, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Today, there are 260.

The reason for the decline isn't a rise in executions. In 2000, an all-time high of 40 inmates were executed in Texas, compared with 10 last year.  So far this year, nine inmates have been executed.

The main reason is a drop in new death sentences.  In 1999, 48 people were sentenced to Texas death row, according to BJS data.  In 2008, that number was nine — and has stayed in that range ever since.  This year, there have been no new death sentences so far, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit organization of death penalty attorneys, said that zero is significant.  “This is the longest we’ve gone in a calendar year in Texas without a new death sentence,” Kase said. “Before this year, the longest that we’ve gone is through the first quarter."

Experts suggest several factors could be contributing to the falling number of death sentences, from a national decline in support for the death penalty to shortages of the lethal drugs used in executions.  In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile offenders could not face execution, lessening future sentences as well as sparing 29 offenders who were already sitting on death row.

But consistently, they point to a 2005 law that offered Texas prosecutors the option to pursue life-without-parole sentences against capital murder defendants.  Previously, capital murder offenders who did not receive the death penalty were eligible for parole after 40 years....

Since that law was enacted, the number of life-without-parole sentences has increased nearly every year, according to TDCJ.  Between 2007 and 2014, the number of life-without-parole sentences jumped from 37 to 96.

Currently, 745 people are serving a life-without-parole sentence in Texas, nearly three times the number of death row inmates.  So far this year, Kase said three death penalty cases have gone to trial.  All have ended with life-without-parole sentences.

June 24, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Notable new federal drug sentencing guideline reform data and discussion from US Sentencing Commission

I just received via e-mail a notable alert from the US Sentencing Commission concerningnotable new information and materials now available on the USSC's website.  Here is the text of the alert I received (along with relevant links):

Today, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released its first report on retroactive application of the 2014 drug guidelines amendment, which reduced the drug quantity table in the federal sentencing guidelines by two levels.  This report includes motions decided through the end of May 2015 for a reduced sentence under the new amendment.  Read the report.

For background information on why the Commission amended the drug guidelines, read the first of our new Policy Profile series, “Sensible Sentencing Reform: The 2014 Reduction of Drug Sentences.”

The Commission is also seeking public comment on proposed priorities for the upcoming amendment cycle.  Public comment is due on or before July 27, 2015.  More information

There is data and discussion in each of thse three new USSC documents that merit careful study and perhaps future substantive comment. For now, though, I am eager just to praise the Commission for the creation of the reader-friendly and astute "new Policy Profile series." I have long thought it a good idea for the USSC to say a lot more about matters of policy, but to do so in smaller forms than the traditional lengthy 300+ page reports to Congress. Thus, I consider this new Policy Profile series to be both a great idea and one that could pay lots of dividends for all policy-makers, researchers and advocates who are concerned about federal sentencing law and policy,

June 24, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I know there needs to be [sentencing] reform,” Sen. Chuck Grassley says. “We need this.”

Secondary_150623_chuck_grassley_gty_1160The title of this post is the (slightly modified) subheadline of this lengthy new Politico report, headlined "Riots spur Senate look at sentencing reform." Here are excerpts:

After the Baltimore and Ferguson riots ignited nationwide discussions of race and criminal justice, a bipartisan group of top Senators is making headway on a sentencing reform compromise to release well-behaved prisoners early and reduce some mandatory-minimums.

But the fledgling proposal — yet to be committed to paper — faces potential resistance from the wings of both parties: Liberals and libertarians who want it to go further, and tough-on-crime conservatives who fear that it lets convicts off the hook.

The group, led by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), is writing legislation to allow convicts with low risks of recidivism to earn time off their sentences. They’re also contemplating reductions to some nonviolent drug-related mandatory minimums — and maybe even increasing others on white-collar crime in the name of sentencing equality. Talks are ongoing.

The path forward is uncertain, however. Grassley must thread the needle between his colleagues like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — who say the war on drugs is dead and want to ditch mandatory minimums completely — and lawmakers like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who are leery of ditching all such sentencing requirements and still back a tough-on-crime mindset that dominated the GOP in the 1980s and 1990s. It also marks a transition for Grassley, who’s never been a big advocate for reducing mandatory minimums and has been labelled an arch-nemesis of criminal justice reform by newspapers back home in Iowa.

“I have different views than Paul and those guys,” Grassley said in a short interview. “They’d make you believe [people are incarcerated] for smoking one pot or one ‘roach’ … But they’re not; they’re in for a lifetime of violent crime.” “But I know there needs to be reform,” he quickly added. “We need this.”

It’s a political gamble. On the one hand, the group risks being accused of writing a watered-down overhaul; on the other, lawmakers don’t want to be accused of letting convicts off too easily. Striking a balance between those two positions has been difficult in the past — and one of the reasons such legislation hasn’t been enacted in previous congresses.

“You’ve got to be very careful,” said Sessions, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama who’s already skeptical of the burgeoning deal. He launched into a lecture: “Historic criminal justice reform in the early 1980s has led to this dramatic drop in the crime rate. I mean, the murder rate is less than half of what it was — and so [mandatory minimums were] a fundamental component… I don’t want us to go further than we should in reducing sentences.”

The new compromise package comes amidst heightened inter-racial tensions following the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers. And when a young white man murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., because of their skin color, the nation was again plunged into discussions of race relations. “My hope is that in light of what happened in South Carolina, we think beyond the symbolism of the [confederate] flag, to changes that really show we’re committed to fairness when it comes to racial equality,” said Democratic Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is part of the compromise group.

For supporters of sentencing reform, reform is needed in the name of equality. Many mandatory minimums disproportionately affect African Americans because they are used for sentencing drug-related crimes that plague predominately lower-income, urban populations. “We’re housing too many of our citizens who are committing nonviolent crimes,” said civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). “So many people, especially, low-income people who can’t hire lawyers — and it’s not fair.”...

Over the past few years, reform negotiations have been dominated by people like Paul and more libertarian-type Republicans, as well as Democrats such as Leahy. The pair have teamed up on legislation that effectively eliminates mandatory minimums by allowing judges to override them. But the idea of eliminating mandatory minimum makes people like Grassley and his co-Republican negotiator, Sen. John Cornyn, nervous.

“Having been a judge for 13 years and attorney general, my observation is we have to be careful,” Cornyn said during a Tuesday interview in his Senate office. “Even though people may be well intentioned, there could be very negative consequences.”

The package marries provisions of two bills that passed the Judiciary panel last Congress. The first, sponsored by Cornyn and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), another member of the group, focuses on the back end of sentencing reform by letting inmates out early and giving them tools to assimilate back to normal life. The program would only be offered for prisoners considered to have a low risk of re-offending and who do not have prior convictions. Those who have committed more serious crimes such as rape, murder or terrorism wouldn’t be eligible.

“The people coming out of prison are better prepared to re-enter society and be productive as opposed to regressing back into their life of crime,” under the program, said Cornyn, who notes that states have found positive results by implementing these sorts of programs. In Texas, Cornyn’s home state, such reductions have allowed them to close three prisons, he says. The deal would also take a page out of a bipartisan bill called “Smarter Sentencing” that would reduce mandatory minimums for drug crimes.

The compromise would leave intact mandatory minimums on violent offences as well as convictions that involve the use of firearms (an important exception for Cornyn), importing heroin and cocaine (a requirement of Grassley’s), gang involvement and terrorism, among others. “It’s narrow category of drug sentencing… but it would have a dramatic impact on the population in our federal prisons,” Durbin said.

Critics like Leahy, however, are bound to have reservations because the bill likely won’t go far enough. “Passage of mandatory minimum sentencing laws has not made us safer, but it has driven our federal prison population to historic highs — a nearly 800 percent increase in 30 years,” the former Judiciary chairman said in late April, speaking to The Constitution Project. “I oppose all mandatory minimums.”

Leahy, one of the Democrats’ lead voices on this issue, also isn’t a fan of the Cornyn bill — ultimately abstaining from voting on the measure last year because he believes it will just exacerbate racial disparity with its “high risk,” “low” designations. Paul’s office would not weigh in on the package that’s still in the works.

Other lawmakers are taking the opposite tack. When asked about such a package, Sessions on Monday ranted about “safer streets … where children can be raised,” and likened the debate to a “pendulum that tends to swing.” Rubio has also written op-eds expressing reservations about getting rid of certain minimum sentence requirements. And Grassley, whose committee staff is taking the lead on the matter, is sympathetic to those worries. In fact, it’s ironic that Grassley — who was not invited to the White House when Obama hosted Republicans to discuss this issue — is taking the lead on the compromise. Back home, the Des Moines Register called him a “stumbling block remains stubbornly in place.”

But Grassley says he’s always favored reducing some minimum sentences. He also wants to increase others, however — placing him at odds with some Democrats he’s currently negotiating with. He’d like to increase mandatory minimums on white color crimes like fraud, he says.

While they applauded the idea of allowing prisoners to earn more time off their sentences, several Congressional Black Caucus members engaged in the criminal justice reform talks threw cold water on that particular pitch. “That’s not the way to do it,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “I would oppose that for the same reason I’m opposed to mandatory minimums on other crimes: They take discretion away from the judge and put too much discretion in the hands of the prosecution.” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said the idea would “clearly” addresses the question of equal treatment for black and white offenders, but he has “an objection to mandatory minimums beyond the equity question.”...

Other pieces of the package still up in the air include provisions limiting asset seizures, or funding police body cameras — but Grassley worries bringing those into the negotiations at this point may hinder talks.

Cornyn suggested the group would be open to changes in committee and on the floor — so long as they don’t take the bill too far off course from the direction it’s headed, he added. And despite potential pitfalls to come, Whitehouse seemed confident they could deliver: “There’s a sweet spot for people who support reconsideration of mandatory minimums… there is a sweet spot in the middle.”

June 24, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Many bombing victims scheduled to speak at formal sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

This AP article, headlined "More than 30 victims to speak at Boston bomber's sentencing," provides a preview of a high-profile formal sentencing scheduled to take place today in Massachusetts federal court.  Here are excerpts:

More than 30 victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and their family members are expected to describe the attack's impact on their lives before a judge formally sentences bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death.

In May, a federal jury condemned Tsarnaev to die for bombing the 2013 marathon with his brother. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured when the brothers detonated two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line. Under the federal death penalty law, Judge George O'Toole Jr. is required to impose the jury's sentence. Tsarnaev's sentencing hearing is scheduled for Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court.

Among those expected to speak are Rebekah Gregory, a Texas woman who lost a leg in the bombings, and Liz Norden, the mother of two Massachusetts men who each lost a leg. Tsarnaev, 21, also will be given a chance to speak if he chooses.

June 24, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Punishment in Popular Culture"

9781479833528_FullThe title of this post is the title of this intriguing new book of essays edited by Charles Ogletree and Austin Sarat.  The book's table of contents reveals that the essays are authored by an array of interesting and distinct scholars who focus on an array of interesting and distinct topics ranging from early prison films to Abu Ghraib to "White Masculinity and Harsh Punishment in 1990s Popular Culture." The book's introduction authored by the editors provides a great preview of the book's themes and coverage, and here is an excerpt:  

From the Gospel of Matthew to George Bernard Shaw and former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, many have remarked that how a society punishes reveals its true character. Punishment tells us who we are.  The way a society punishes demonstrates its commitment to standards of judgment and justice, its distinctive views of blame and responsibility, its understandings of mercy and forgiveness, and its particular ways of responding to evil....

Punishment in Popular Culture examines the cultural images that undergird and critique America’s distinctive approach to punishment.  It analyzes punishment as a set of images, as a marvelous spectacle of condemnation.  It recognizes that the semiotics of punishment is all around us, not just in the architecture of the prison or the speech made by a judge as she sends someone to a penal colony, but in both “high” and “popular” culture iconography — in novels, television, and film.  Punishment has traditionally been one of the great subjects of cultural production, suggesting the powerful allure of the fall and of our prospects for redemption.  But perhaps the word “our” is inaccurate here.  Émile Durkheim and George Herbert Mead, among others, remind us that it is through practices of punishment that cultural boundaries are drawn, that solidarity is created through acts of marking difference between self and other, that these processes proceed through dis-identification as much as imagined connection....

America, as is widely known, has been on a several decades’ old incarceration boom.  As noted above, we continue to lock up more people for longer periods of time than most other nations, as well as to use the death penalty and to racialize punishment in ways that are quite remarkable.  How are these facts of American penal life reflected in, encouraged through, or critiqued by the portraits of punishment that Americans regularly encounter on television and in film?  What are the conventions of genre that help to familiarize those portraits and connect them to broader political and cultural themes?  In its cultural lives, can punishment claim a secure basis in morality? Or do television and film help to undermine its moral claims?  How are developments in the broader political economy reflected in the ways punishment appears in mass culture?  And finally, how are images of punishment received by their audiences?

While the work collected in our book does not purport to provide a comprehensive overview, these are the questions that Punishment in Popular Culture addresses.  Our book thematizes issues of genre, morality, political economy, and reception in its analyses and brings together distinguished scholars of punishment and experts in media studies in an unusual juxtaposition of disciplines and perspectives.

June 24, 2015 in Film, Recommended reading, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 23, 2015

DOJ indicating it will appeal Judge Glesson's remarkable federal expungement order

As reported in this prior post, last month US District Judge John Gleeson examined the collateral workplace consequences of an old federal fraud conviction in the course of ordering the (legally questionable?) remedy of expungement in Doe v. US, No. 14-MC-1412 (EDNY May 21, 2015) (available here).  Now, as reported in this Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Justice Department Sets Its Sights on Rare Expungement Order," it appears that the Second Circuit will have a chance to consider this matter. Here are the basics:

The Justice Department spearheads the federal government’s efforts to help people convicted of crimes return to society after paying their dues, but a case in Brooklyn is putting its views to the test. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York signaled Friday that it will appeal a rare order by a federal judge expunging the fraud conviction of a health-care aide and mother of four who said her efforts to hold down a job have been sabotaged by her criminal record.

In his May order, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson nodded to “a growing recognition that the adverse employment consequences of old convictions are excessive and counter-productive.” He cited a 2011 letter by then Attorney General Eric Holder pressing state attorneys general to reassess state laws that limit the job prospects of ex-offenders. That same year, Mr. Holder established a council of 20 government agencies whose goal is “to remove federal barriers to successful reentry, so that motivated individuals — who have served their time and paid their debts — are able to compete for a job, attain stable housing, support their children and their families, and contribute to their communities.”

“If the government is trying to look out for people in these situations, why take this case of all cases?” said Brooklyn lawyer Bernard H. Udell, who is representing the woman whose conviction Judge Gleeson expunged. A spokeswoman at the Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn had no immediate comment.

In 2002, Judge Gleeson sentenced the woman, who is identified in court documents by the pseudonym Jane Doe, to five years of probation for feigning injury in a staged car crash and falsely claiming to have received medical services as part of a scheme to collect insurance money. She landed several jobs as a health-care aide since her conviction but lost them after her record came to light in background checks, according to her petition. Judge Gleeson cited several factors in support of his decision to expunge her record, including the 17 years that have elapsed since she committed a crime, the trouble she has had keeping jobs, her age (mid-50s) and the nonviolent nature of her crime.

The Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office opposed the petition in Judge Gleeson’s court, saying in a January legal brief that employers in the health-care industry were entitled to know about her criminal past. The brief said expungement should be used only in extreme circumstances, citing cases involving illegal arrests and police misconduct.

Prior related post:

June 23, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Is the initiative process a wise way to move forward with criminal justice reform?

Those who know me well know that I have become, generally speaking, big fan of direct democracy and not really that much of a fan of representative democracy.   This affinity is driven in part  by the efficacy of direct democracy in driving forward the national marijuana reform movement, but it is driven more fundamentally by the reality that direct democracy gets the electorate talking about (and the media reporting on) substantive policies and public priorities.  In contrast, as we see now most every election cycle, representative democracy too often gets the electorate talking about (and the media reporting on) personal scandals and public personas.

Because I am a big fan of direct democracy, I was especially excited to see this recent Washington Post article headlined "ACLU growing political program, plans ballot initiatives."  Here are excerpts:

The American Civil Liberties Union, looking to increase its effectiveness, is launching a major political advocacy program. The group has raised or received commitments for $80 million to back up a 501(c)(4) and announced on Friday that veteran Democratic operative Karin Johanson has been hired as its first ever national political director.

Johanson, who was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when the party took control of the House in 2006, will run the ACLU’s Washington, D.C. office and spearhead several ballot initiative campaigns in 2016, focused on criminal justice reform and banning discrimination against the LGBT community....

“It has become increasingly clear that we can’t rely upon litigation or old-style lobbying,” Romero said in an interview. “The gridlock in Washington is suffocating … Sitting down with legislators, walking through the pros and cons of a particular bill and trying to cajole them to do the right thing increasingly draws limited dividends. The place to light a fire under them is in their home district.”

The ACLU will soon pick three states with high incarceration rates and then sponsor ballot initiatives next year aiming to force sentencing reform.  Five states are being considered, but they’ll pick just three so that the group can go all-in and score some tangible victories.

Criminal justice is a hot issue right now, with backing from liberals, libertarians like the billionaire Koch brothers and fiscal conservatives. “This is not a reform effort focused on the Northeast liberal corridor,” said Romero.  “We’re going to the tough states, the Deep South.”

For various reasons, I am pleased to learn that the ACLU is looking to bring the arguments for criminal justice reform straight to the people through the initiative process. But I also know there are many people interested in criminal justice reform who have different views on the best means to reform ends, and I would be eager to hear in the comments any reasons why I should not be too excited about seeking criminal justice reform through direct democracy.

June 23, 2015 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Policing, Mass Imprisonment, and the Failure of American Lawyers"

In prior comments, someone spotlighted this notable recent commentary by Alec Karakatsanis appearing in the Harvard Law Review Forum under the title that serves as the title of this posts. Here are excerpts from the introduction and the final paragraph of this provocative piece:

The contemporary system of American policing and incarceration puts human beings in cages at rates unprecedented in American history and unparalleled in the modern world. Its current rate of incarceration is about five to ten times that of other comparably wealthy countries and five times its own steady historical average prior to 1980.  It is a considerable bureaucratic achievement to accomplish the transfer of thirteen million bodies each year from their homes and families and schools and communities into government boxes of concrete and metal.  It is also a failure of the legal profession....

The failure of lawyers is a tragedy in two parts.  First, there has been an intellectual failure of the profession to scrutinize the evidentiary and logical foundations of modern policing and mass incarceration.  Second, the profession has failed in everyday practice to ensure that the contemporary criminal legal system functions consistently with our rights and values....

Legal academics, judges, and lawyers of conscience must take up this two-pronged challenge: we must bring intellectual rigor to legal discourse and doctrine on these issues, and we must use the energy that animates our bodies to ensure that the legal system looks in practice as it appears in our scrolls and on our marble monuments.

June 23, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

June 22, 2015

Robina Institute now has great new "Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center"

Via e-mail, I just learned about a great new resource, The Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center, that has been created on-line by the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice.  Here is the text of the e-mail description of this resource center (which I already have added to my Resources sidebar):

The Robina Institute is pleased to present The Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center.  The Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center is a new website that serves as a central source of information related to American sentencing guidelines systems. The Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center includes:

  • Detailed profiles of 6 sentencing guidelines jurisdictions: Alabama; Kansas; Minnesota; Oregon; Pennsylvania; and Utah. More jurisdictions will be added over the next several months.
  • Current versions of the guidelines in each jurisdiction.
  • A searchable repository of materials produced by sentencing guidelines commissions (training manuals, worksheets, reports, meeting summaries).
  • Summaries of important interpretive case law.
  • A comparison tool so visitors can examine sentencing guidelines systems, side by side.
  • In-depth articles covering topics about guidelines and sentencing commissions.
By bringing together, in one place, materials that span all of the current sentencing guidelines systems in the U.S., the Robina Institute’s Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center is able to facilitate the exchange and sharing of information, expertise, and experience; educate on issues related to sentencing policy, guidelines, and commissions; promote multi- jurisdictional comparative research and policy analysis; and promote the adoption and retention of best practices in sentencing guidelines systems.

June 22, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

How much will get spent on (merely symbolic?) death penalty referendum efforts in Nebraska?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable local article from Nebraska headlined "Group fighting death penalty retention gets $400,000 grant."  Here are the interesting "follow-the-money" details:

Death penalty opponents got a cash injection Friday, and death penalty advocates accused them of using it to suppress voter rights.

ACLU of Nebraska will give the $400,000 grant from Massachusetts-based Proteus Action League to the Nebraskans for Public Safety coalition formed to fight the effort to retain capital punishment in the state.  Proteus Action has given $21 million nationwide in the past five years toward repeal of the death penalty.  "This support demonstrates the world is watching what is happening here this summer," Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska.  "This support will be like rocket fuel to the campaign."

ACLU of Nebraska is part of the coalition, as are Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Nebraska Innocence Project, faith leaders, conservative leaders and the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association.

Friday afternoon, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty called ACLU participation in the coalition shameful.  “Nebraskans have a constitutional right to vote on whether they wish to restore the death penalty," founding member Bob Evnen said in a statement. "The ACLU has announced that it will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to sabotage the right to vote on this very important issue.  Few rights in a democracy are more fundamental than the right to vote.  The ACLU’s effort to thwart that right is shameful.”

Replied Conrad: "I absolutely disagree with that.  I don't understand that attack." Conrad said her group's work is the opposite of voter suppression.  Declining to sign the pro-death-penalty petition is in fact exercising one's right to vote, she said.

Last month, Nebraska became the first red state since 1973 to abolish capital punishment.  The Legislature voted for repeal May 20 and a week later overrode a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts. The bill (LB268) goes into effect Aug. 31.

Almost immediately, Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy said he'd look at putting the issue to a vote, and Nebraskans for the Death Penalty opened offices in Omaha and Lincoln the first week of June.... Death penalty supporters have 72 more days to gather 115,000 verified signatures -- 10 percent of registered voters -- to suspend the law and put it to a vote in November 2016.  They need about half that number to put the issue to a vote after the law takes effect.

"I think both are hard," Conrad said of the two thresholds.  "I can tell you from working both sides of campaigns in direct democracy, it's not easy to be out in the heat and the rain in a multitude of counties. ... I don't think that they or we can take anything for granted."

Conrad said Nebraskans for Public Safety will use the $400,000 to make sure the petition drive is conducted properly and to work statewide to educate people on the issue.  And if the move to stop the law from taking effect is successful, she said, her group will have a good start at working to defeat a vote next year.

Peterson said he expects Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will raise and spend about $900,000 and will file required paperwork June 30 saying how much it has raised so far.

This story suggests that at least a few million dollars are likely to be spent on just the initiative run-up effort in Nebraska, and I have to assume many millions more will get spent on the campaign if (when?) the issue gets on the ballot. And yet, even if Nebraska voters were to bring the death penalty back after the legislature's recent repeal, it seems highly unlikely the vote will significantly increase the chances any formerly condemned murderer gets executed or that any future murderers get sent to death row.

Even if the death penalty is brought back by voter initiative, defense attorneys are sure to continue pursuing extensive (and expensive) litigation in state and federal courts asserting that the eleven folks already on Nebraska's death row cannot now be executed. And even if the death penalty is brought back by voter initiative, prosecutors are sure to continue to struggle to convince Nebraska juries to condemn murderers to death in future cases.

Notably, given that Nebraska has not executed anyone in nearly two decades, and has averaged less than a single death sentence per year over its modern history, symbolism plainly matters a lot more than substantive outcomes as money is raised to fight over the death penalty's future in the Cornhusker State. Whatever position one takes on the death penalty, it is hard not to wonder if the monies to be spent on the developing symbolic capital policy fight could go to much uses for violent crime victims and the state's judicial system.

June 22, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Interesting statement from Justice Sotomayor on Fifth Circuit approach to plain-error sentencing review

As noted in this post today (and this prior post from last week) about recent SCOTUS activity, sentencing fans like me eagerly awaiting big Supreme Court rulings in the Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act case and the Glossip lethal execution drug case have to keep waiting at least a few more days for a decision.  But, truly hard-core sentencing fans got a smidgen of unexpected love from Justice Sonia Sotomayor through this brief statement in Carlton v. US concerning how the Fifth Circuit applies plain-error review.  Here are excerpts which provide the context:

The District Court enhanced petitioner Roy Carlton’s sentence based on a factual inaccuracy introduced into the sentencing record by the Government.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to review Carlton’s appellate challenge to the enhancement, relying on Circuit precedent holding that factual errors are never cognizable on plain-error review.  For the reasons that follow, I believe the Fifth Circuit’s precedent is misguided....

The doctrine of plain error follows from the recognition that a “rigid and undeviating judicially declared practice under which courts of review would invariably and under all circumstances decline to consider all questions which had not previously been specifically urged would be out of harmony with . . . the rules of fundamental justice.” United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 732 (1993) (internal quotation marks omitted). And in all the years since the doctrine arose, we have never suggested that plain-error review should apply differently depending on whether a mistake is characterized as one of fact or one of law.  To the contrary, “[w]e have emphasized that a per se approach to plain-error review is flawed.”  Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129, 142 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).  The Fifth Circuit’s wooden rule that factual mistakes cannot constitute plain error runs counter to these teachings....

Given its inconsistency with the governing text and longstanding precedent, it is little wonder that no other court of appeals has adopted the per se rule outlined by the Fifth Circuit in Lopez....  All agree the District Court improperly relied on testimony Anderson never gave.  But in the Fifth Circuit — and only the Fifth Circuit — that mistake cannot be reviewed and possibly corrected.  As a result, Carlton may spend several additional months in jail simply because he was sentenced in Alexandria, Louisiana, instead of Alexandria, Virginia.

For all these reasons, I conclude that Lopez’s categorical rule is unjustified. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agree with the Court’s decision to deny certiorari in this case.  The Solicitor General informs us that the Fifth Circuit is at times inconsistent in its adherence to Lopez.  When that sort of internal division exists, the ordinary course of action is to allow the court of appeals the first opportunity to resolve the disagreement. I hope the Fifth Circuit will use that opportunity to rethink its approach to plain-error review.

June 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable new study on 56 failed capital cases in North Carolina over past 25 years

CDPL-REPORT_-smaller-image-e1434556853262As detailed in this local article, headlined "Report: NC prosecutors sometimes push for death penalty in flimsy cases," a notable new report about capital prosecutions in the Tar Heel State was released this morning. Here are the basics:

Fending off a capital murder charge can cost falsely accused defendants money, jobs, homes and their health, according to a report released by the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

The center studied 56 cases from 1989 to 2015 in which the death penalty was threatened as a potential punishment, but the charges were either dropped or the person charged was acquitted at trial. The results suggest that prosecutors sometimes use the threat of the state's most severe penalty when their evidence is the weakest, said Gerda Stein, a spokeswoman for the center. "They believe they have the right person," Stein said. "The problem is, they don't have enough evidence."

The center's report suggests the death penalty is used to bully defendants into accepting plea deals or to extract confessions from witnesses.

North Carolina has not executed a criminal defendant since 2006 as lawsuits over the method of execution and the now-repealed Racial Justice Act have kept the state from moving forward. During that time, there have been high-profile exonerations of death row inmates, including the recently pardoned Leon Brown and his half-brother, Henry McCollum.

Less well known are cases like that of Leslie Lincoln, who was accused of her mother's 2002 murder. She was implicated in part by faulty DNA evidence. Ultimately, she was found not guilty at trial, but she struggled with the aftermath of spending three years in jail and another two years on house arrest. She lost her job, savings and home and suffered from anxiety and depression after the acquittal, according to the report....

The center distributed embargoed copies of its report last week. One of those who reviewed a copy was former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who says he does not oppose the death penalty but is troubled by its uneven application. "I think one of the points the report stresses is the leverage that comes with trying somebody and potentially pursuing the death penalty," Orr said. "It is sometimes the weakest cases, the ones where you don't have the strong evidence, that there seems to be an inclination to try to move forward with the death penalty."

The report doesn't suggest specific fixes to the issue. The center is one of a number of groups that has argued for the elimination of the death penalty altogether.

Orr said that, if the state is going to continue having capital punishment, it needs to do more to ensure a fair system. Both prosecutors and the defense attorneys for indigent defendants need better funding, he said, and he suggested the state ought to somehow centralize the decision on whether the death penalty is pursued, taking it out of the hands of prosecutors who might use the threat of capital punishment as tactical leverage. "That would make for a fairer, more even-handed, dispassionate decision-making process," he said.

The title of this new report is "On Trial for their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina," and it can be accessed via this link.  That link also provides this summary of report's main findings about the 56 North Carolina cases it studied:

• The state spent nearly $2.4 million in defense costs alone to pursue these failed cases capitally.  Had the defendants been charged non-capitally, all that money could have been saved.  (This conservative figure does not take into account the additional prosecution and incarceration costs in capital cases.)

• Defendants who were wrongfully prosecuted spent an average of two years in jail before they were acquitted by juries or had their charges dismissed by prosecutors.

• The 56 defendants in the study spent a total of 112 years in jail, despite never being convicted of a crime.

• By the time they were cleared of wrongdoing, many defendants lost their homes, jobs, businesses, and savings accounts, and saw personal relationships destroyed.  They received no compensation after they were cleared of charges.

• Serious errors or misconduct played a role in many cases.  The 56 cases involved instances of witness coercion, hidden evidence, bungled investigations, the use of improper forensic evidence, and highly unreliable witnesses.

June 22, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS rules 5-4 against government in two criminal procedure cases

The Supreme Court, back in action this morning, issued two notable split decisions in favor of individuals asserting rights against local or state criminal justice powers.  Here is an abridged (slightly modified) account of the SCOTUSblog early coverage of these rulings (with links):

The opinion in Kingsley v. Hendrickson is here.

This case arises out of an incident in a Wisconsin jail. Kingsley was waiting for trial on a drug charge when he got into a dispute with jail officers, who handcuffed him, forcibly removed him from his cell, and later used a taser on him. Kingsley then filed a lawsuit, alleging that jail officials had used excessive force. The question before the Court was what standard of review should apply to an excessive force claim by a pretrial detainee.

The Court ruled in favor of Kingsley, holding that courts should apply an objective test – the same Fourth Amendment excessive force test that applies to people who have not been arrested.  Vote is 5-4.  Under Section 1983, a pretrial detainee must show only that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable to prevail on an excessive force claim.

Scalia dissents, joined by Chief and Thomas, and Alito dissents as well.

 

The opinion in Los Angeles v. Patel is here.

The question in this case was whether a Los Angeles ordinance that required hotel owners to keep registries of guests, and allowed officers to search them without any suspicion is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.  The Court the ordinance facially unconstitutional. Statute is facially unconstitutional because it fails to provide motel owners with an opportunity for pre-compliance review.

Sotomayor is writing. Decision of the Ninth Circuit is affirmed.  This is a strong decision for Fourth Amendment lovers.

June 22, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Justice Kennedy practically invites a challenge to solitary confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this Los Angeles Times article which effectively reviews the remarkable (off-point) concurrence penned by Justice Kennedy in last week's SCOTUS ruling in a Davis v. Ayala.  Here are excerpts:

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in an unusual separate opinion in a case, wrote that it may be time for judges to limit the use of long-term solitary confinement in prisons.  His comments accompanying a decision issued Thursday marked a rare instance of a Supreme Court justice virtually inviting a constitutional challenge to a prison policy.

“Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price,” he wrote.  He cited the writings of Charles Dickens and 19th century Supreme Court opinions that recognized “even for prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement bears ‘a further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy.’”

Sentencing judges and the high court have largely ignored the issue, Kennedy said, focusing their attention on questions of guilt or innocence or on the constitutionality of the death penalty.  “In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required,” he wrote, “to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.”

Amy Fettig, an attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said Kennedy's comments came as a welcome surprise.  “It’s a remarkable statement.  The justice is sending a strong signal he is deeply concerned about the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement,” she said.

States such as Virginia and Texas routinely put death-row inmates in solitary confinement, she said.  “They are automatically placed there.  It has nothing to do with their being violent or their level of dangerousness,” she said.  This month, a federal judge in Virginia is weighing a “cruel and unusual punishment” claim brought by inmates on death row there, she noted.

Kennedy usually joins with the court’s conservatives in cases involving crime and punishment, but he has also voiced concern over prison policies that he deems unduly harsh. These include life terms for juveniles and long mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes. Four years ago, he spoke for a 5-4 majority that condemned overcrowding in California’s prisons and said it resulted in unconstitutionally cruel conditions....

Kennedy's comments drew a short, but sharp retort from Justice Clarence Thomas. “The accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims … now rest.  And, given that his victims were all 31 years or age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth,” Thomas wrote.

June 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

June 21, 2015

Great new USSC report (with some not-so-great data) on "Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System"

Alternatives_thumbThe US Sentencing Commission released last week this notable new report on titled "Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System." (Notably, the report itself shows a cover date of May 2015, but I am pretty sure it was just posted last week on the USSC's website.)  Here is how the USSC itself briefly describes its new (data-heavy) document:

As a supplement to the Commission's 2009 publication, this report examines more recent trends in the rates of alternative sentences and examines how sentencing courts use their discretion to impose alternative sentences.

This 30+ page report has lots of data about when and how federal judges impose alernative sentences in the post-Booker era. The data could (and perhaps should) be assessed in a variety of different ways, but I found at least some of these data realities somewhat discouraging.  In particular, these passages from this USSC Alternative Sentencing report caught my eye, and they reflect data that I found at times a bit surprising and at times more than a bit depressing:

Although most federal offenders were not convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, alternative sentences are imposed for only small proportion of federal offenders not convicted of such an offense. ...

During the past ten years, the proportion of United States citizen federal offenders eligible for alternative sentences (i.e., those offenders with sentencing ranges in Zones A, B, or C and who were not statutorily ineligible) decreased slightly from 27.6 percent in 2005 to 24.6 percent in 2014....

In contrast to the moderate decrease in the proportion of offenders eligible for alternative sentences (with sentencing ranges in Zones A through C), there was a larger decrease in the proportion of those offenders actually sentenced to an alternative. The proportion of eligible offenders sentenced to an alternative decreased from 71.9 percent to 65.0 percent during that time period....

Though relatively modest, there has been a clear trend of a decreased rate of alternative sentences during the past ten years.... Rates of alternative sentences decreased regardless of whether offenders were sentenced within or below the guideline range....  Despite the increased discretion that courts have used to vary from the guidelines after Gall, the data seem to demonstrate that courts are not using that discretion to impose alternative sentences at a greater rate.

Black and Hispanic offenders consistently were sentenced to alternatives less often than White offenders. The data indicate some differences in criminal history and offense severity that provide some insight to this finding. Black offenders had more serious criminal history scores compared to the other groups....

[F]emale offenders were sentenced to alternatives at higher rates than male offenders. This difference is especially apparent for offenders with sentencing ranges in Zone B, in which 75.4 percent of female offenders were sentenced to alternatives compared to 55.9 percent of male offenders.

In general, alternative sentences were imposed for more than half of offenders in each age group. Excluding offenders under the age of 21, there was a clear trend of increasing rates of alternatives as the age of the offender increased, and this trend was consistent across the sentencing zones.

June 21, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Judicial Participation in Plea Bargaining: A Dispute Resolution Perspective"

The title of this post is the title of this significant new article by Rishi Batra recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

There is a common perception that judges do not or should not play a role in the criminal plea bargaining discussions between prosecutors and defense counsel. However, in many state jurisdictions, judicial participation is allowed or even encouraged by statute or by case law. This Article briefly summarizes some of the issues with the plea bargaining process, including how structural issues with the way defense counsel are appointed and compensated, along with the power of prosecutors, makes good representation for defendants less likely.

By then performing a fifty-state survey of rules for judicial participation in plea bargaining, the Article explicates both advantages and disadvantages of judicial participation in the plea process. Most importantly, it makes five recommendations for how states can involve judges in the plea process to retain the advantages while minimizing the disadvantages of judicial participation: having a separate judge or magistrate judge manage the plea process, recording plea bargains for future review, ensuring judges take a facilitative role during the plea process, involving defendants in the process where possible, and holding plea bargains in an informal setting.

June 21, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)