« July 26, 2015 - August 1, 2015 | Main | August 9, 2015 - August 15, 2015 »

August 8, 2015

Ohio Gov (and GOP Prez candidate) links Obamacare and crime/recidivism reduction

I am a big fan of Ohio Gov John Kasich for a variety of reasons, and my affinity for the guy is significantly enhanced by the fact that he has, as noted in this article, appropriately linked health care reforms and public safety.  The article is headlined "Kasich Says Obamacare Empties Prisons — In a Good Way," and here are excerpts:

The Ohio governor says the program, unpopular with Republicans, has reduced recidivism rates. Ohio Gov. John Kasich defended his expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare at Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate.

The Medicaid expansion, unpopular among many of the Republican faithful, has benefited mentally ill prison inmates, said Kasich. “I’d rather get them their medication so they could lead a decent life,” he said.

“Eighty percent of the people in our prisons have addictions or problems,” Kasich added. “We now treat them in the prisons, release them in the community and the recidivism rate is 10 percent….”

I have highlighted in a number of prior posts that a lot of "wonks" have sensibly suggested that Obamacare might prove over time to be an extraordinarily valuable public safety achievement. Here are some of these prior posts:

August 8, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

August 7, 2015

Aurora Shooter gets LWOP, not death, from Colorado jury

In a notable (but maybe not too surprising?) outcome, the Colorado jury previously quick to convict Aurora shooter James Holmes of capital murder today returned a sentencing verdict of life instead of death. More details and discussion of this verdict's significance will follow as time allows.

UPDATE: This FoxNews report's headline provides the basic reason for the outcome: "1 juror firmly opposed death penalty for theater shooter James Holmes." Here is more:

Nine of the 12 jurors in the Colorado theater shooting trial wanted to execute James Holmes, but one was steadfastly against the death penalty and two others wavering, a juror told reporters after the verdict was announced.

Because the 12 jurors failed to unanimously agree that Holmes should be executed, he will be sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 2012 attack on a midnight screening of a Batman movie in Aurora that also left 70 injured.

"Mental illness played into the decision more than anything else," said the woman, who would not give her name. "All the jurors feel so much empathy for the victims. It's a tragedy."

A juror told The New York Times that a fellow juror was solidly opposed to a death sentence. The juror said nine were in favor of the punishment, two were apparently on the fence about the decision. "There was nothing further to discuss at that point," the juror said. "It only takes one."

The verdict came as a surprise. The same jury rejected Holmes' insanity defense, finding him capable of understanding right from wrong when he carried out the attack. It also quickly determined the heinousness of Holmes' crimes outweighed his mental illness in a prior step that brought them closer to the death penalty. There were gasps and tears in the courtroom as the verdict was read. One man from the victim side got up and stormed out after the first one....

Holmes himself stood staring straight ahead as the verdicts were read, showing little emotion, but when he returned to his seat he leaned over to defense attorney Tamara Brady, grabbed her hand with a smile, and said "thank you." Loud sobbing could be heard from the family section, where some sat with their heads in their hands.

The courtroom was also full of first responders, including Aurora police department officers -- some of whom cried along with the families as the verdicts were read. Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed by Holmes, shook her head no and then held it in her hands. Ashley Moser, whose 6-year-old daughter died in the attack and who was herself paralyzed by Holmes' bullets, also shook her head and then slowly leaned it against the wheelchair of another paralyzed victim, Caleb Medley....

The defense had argued that Holmes' schizophrenia led to a psychotic break, and that powerful delusions drove him to carry out one of the nation's deadliest mass shootings. At least one juror agreed — a verdict of death must be unanimous. Jurors deliberated for about six and a half hours over two days before deciding on Holmes' sentence.

They reached their decision after the judge granted their request earlier Friday to re-watch a graphic crime scene video taken immediately after the massacre. The 45 minutes of footage, played during the trial, shows 10 bodies lying amid spent shell casings, popcorn and blood.... The jury's final decision came after days of tearful testimony from relatives of the slain.

The case could have ended the same way more than two years ago, when Holmes offered to plead guilty if he could avoid the death penalty. Prosecutors rejected the offer. But the victims and the public might not have ever learned in detail what was behind the shootings had the plea deal been accepted....

Four mental health experts testified that the shooting wouldn't have happened if Holmes weren't severely mentally ill. He was having increasingly palpable delusions that killing others would increase his own self-worth, forensic psychiatrist Jeffrey Metzner said.

August 7, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

"Judge orders Texas man to get married or face jail time"

The title of this post is the headline of this local report on a recent local sentencing in Texas that makes for perfect Friday afternoon follies.  (First joke alternative headline: "Judge orders Texas man to face either short-term or long-term loss of true freedom.")  Here are the (ugly? amusing? semi-sweet? unconstitutional?) details:

An East Texas couple says their choice to marry when they wanted to was taken away by a criminal court judge.  In July, a Smith County judge sentenced Josten Bundy to get married to his 19-year-old girlfriend as part of his probation, which also included writing Bible verses and getting counseling.

The court case stemmed from a February altercation between Bundy and the ex-boyfriend of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Jaynes.  “[The ex-boyfriend] had been saying disrespectful things about Elizabeth, so I challenged him to a fight,” said Bundy. “He stepped in and I felt like it was on and I hit him in the jaw twice.”

Bundy said the ex-boyfriend did not require medical attention, but pressed assault charges. “I took matters into my own hands and I know that’s wrong,” Bundy said. “I know I was raised better, but it happened.”

At his sentencing hearing, Judge Randall Rogers asked Bundy about the fight. “Is she worth it?” Judge Rogers asked Bundy, according to court transcripts. “I said, well to be honest, sir, I was raised with four sisters and if any man was talking to a woman like that,” recalled Bundy, “I’d probably do the same thing.”

Judge Rogers asked Bundy if he was married to Jaynes and then said, “You know, as a part of my probation, you’re going to have to marry her…within 30 days.” If Bundy declined to do the probation, he would be sentenced to 15 days in jail.  “He offered me fifteen days in jail and that would have been fine and I asked if I could call my job [to let them know],” said Bundy. “The judge told me ‘nope, that’s not how this works.’”

Jaynes, who was in the courtroom said the proposal from the judge embarrassed her. “My face was so red, people behind me were laughing,” said Jaynes. “[The judge] made me stand up in court.”

Afraid of Bundy losing his job if he spent two weeks behind bars, the couple applied for their marriage license and scheduled a date with the justice of the peace to get married. “It just felt like we weren't going to be able to have the wedding we wanted,” said Jaynes. “It was just going to be kind of pieced together, I didn't even have a white dress.”

The pair said a summer courthouse wedding was nothing like what they pictured when they imagined their future nuptials while they were dating. “I used to watch Say Yes to the Dress and all those shows and all the dresses and think about what kind of dress I would have,” said Jaynes. “I would have liked a spring wedding when it’s not too hot and not too cold.”...

But with only 18 days to plan, even the people most important to them were missing. "My father didn’t get to go, and that really bothers me, I know he would have liked to be there,” said Bundy. “None of my sisters got to show up, it was such short notice, I couldn’t get it together."

The father of the bride, Kenneth Jaynes, wanted answers. “[I felt] anger; I was mad. [The judge] can’t do this by court ordering somebody to be married,” said Kenneth Jaynes. “I contacted a couple of lawyers but they told me someone was trying to pull my leg…that judges don't court order somebody to get married.”

Judge Rogers declined to interview about an open probation case. He also declined to comment generally about his sentencing practices. Attorney Blake Bailey, who practices constitutional law, said an order to marry is not legal. “To say you're not going to be criminally punished if you get married is way out of left field,” said Bailey. “It sounds like the old days of shotgun weddings, but not even the judge is capable of enforcing, what he thinks is best for some people in his court.”

Bundy and Jaynes say they do not at all regret getting married, but they do regret not being able to plan or have control over their special day. “What if we [had said to the judge] we don't want to get married right now and we're not ready?” said Jaynes. “Is he going to go to jail? It scared us, a little bit.”

Attorney Bailey said the sentence would have likely been struck down on appeal to a higher court.

August 7, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

US Sentencing Commission proposes guidelines amendments to deal with SCOTUS Johnson ruling

I just finished watching on-line the brief public meeting today of the US Sentencing Commission, and the efficient event tracked closely this on-line notice/agenda.  Ever the efficient agency, within minutes of the conclusion of the meeting, the USSC got up on its website this news release reporting on the Commission's significant actions today:

The United States Sentencing Commission voted today to seek comment on proposed changes to the existing guideline definitions of a “crime of violence.” The proposed changes are primarily intended to make the guideline consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).

In Johnson, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutionally vague a portion of the statutory definition of “violent felony” used in a similar penalty provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). While the Supreme Court in Johnson did not consider or address sentencing guidelines, the statutory language the Court found unconstitutionally vague, often referred to as the “residual clause,” is identical to language contained in the “career offender” sentencing guideline, and other guidelines which enhance sentences based on prior convictions for a crime of violence.

Consistent with Johnson, the proposal would eliminate from the guideline definition of “crime of violence” the residual clause, which provides that a “crime of violence” includes a felony offense that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another. In addition, the proposal would provide definitions for several enumerated crimes of violence.

“We already see litigation over the impact of Johnson on the sentencing guidelines,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission. “In light of uncertainty resulting from the Johnson decision, we feel that it is prudent to begin considering whether, as a matter of policy, the guidelines should also eliminate the residual clause. We want to begin the process of seeking public comment so that the Commission could vote on a guideline amendment as early as possible, perhaps as soon as January 2016. However, this proposal is only preliminary and we look forward to public comment furthering informing us on this complex topic. We also intend to continue to study recidivist enhancements including those based on prior drug convictions in the guidelines throughout the upcoming amendment cycle.”

The Commission also unanimously approved its list of priorities for the coming year. Among its top priorities again is continuing to work with Congress to reduce the severity and scope of certain mandatory minimum penalties and to consider expanding the “safety valve” statute that exempts certain low-level non-violent offenders from mandatory minimum penalties.

“The Commission has taken some steps on its own to reduce federal drug sentences and relieve some of the overpopulation in the federal prisons, but only Congress can make the more fundamental changes needed to address the severity and disparity problems associated with certain mandatory minimum penalties,” said Judge Saris. “We look forward to continuing to work with Congress on this vital issue.”

The Commission will continue to work on several multi-year projects, including an examination of the overall structure of the advisory guideline system, a comprehensive recidivism study, and a review of federal practices relating to the imposition and violations of conditions of probation and supervised release and immigration.

Here are the two key documents released by the Commission on its website today that reflect and detail the summary provided by the press release:

August 7, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"What We Learned From German Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable New York Times op-ed authored by Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice. and Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Here are excerpts:

Earlier this summer, we led a delegation of people concerned about the United States criminal justice system to visit some prisons in Germany and observe their conditions. What we saw was astonishing.

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers.  They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with.  The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs...

This is an encouraging moment for American advocates of criminal justice reform. After decades of callousness and complacency, the United States has finally started to take significant steps to reverse what a recent report by the National Research Council called a “historically unprecedented and internationally unique” experiment in mass incarceration. Congress, in a bipartisan effort, seems prepared to scale back draconian federal sentencing laws. Many states are making progress in reducing their prison populations. And President Obama, in a gesture of his commitment to this issue, last month became the first American president to visit a federal correctional facility.

The delegation that we took to Germany represented the emerging national consensus on this issue. It included a Democratic governor; corrections officials from across the political spectrum; chief prosecutors; formerly incarcerated individuals; a liberal scholar of race and criminal justice; and representatives from Right on Crime and the Charles Koch Institute, conservative groups that advocate reform, as well as the evangelical Christian group Prison Fellowship.

But for all the signs of progress, truly transformative change in the United States will require us to fundamentally rethink values. How do we move from a system whose core value is retribution to one that prioritizes accountability and rehabilitation? In Germany we saw a potential model: a system that is premised on the protection of human dignity and the idea that the aim of incarceration is to prepare prisoners to lead socially responsible lives, free of crime, upon release.

While the United States currently incarcerates 2.2 million people, Germany — whose population is one-fourth the size of ours — locks up only about 63,500, which translates to an incarceration rate that is one-tenth of ours. More than 80 percent of those convicted of crimes in Germany receive sentences of “day fines” (based on the offense and the offender’s ability to pay). Only 5 percent end up in prison. Of those who do, about 70 percent have sentences of less than two years, with few serving more than 15 years.

The incarcerated people that we saw had considerable freedom of movement around their facilities and were expected to exercise judgment about how they used their time. Many are allowed, a few times a year, to leave the prison for a few hours or overnight to visit friends and family. Others resided in “open” facilities in which they slept at night but left for work during the day. Solitary confinement is rare in Germany, and generally limited to no more than a few days, with four weeks being the outer extreme (as opposed to months or years in the United States).

The process of training and hiring corrections officers is more demanding in Germany. Whereas the American corrections leaders in our delegation described labor shortages and training regimes of just a few months, in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, less than 10 percent of those who applied to be corrections officers from 2011 to 2015 were accepted to the two-year training program. This seems to produce results: In one prison we visited, there were no recorded assaults between inmates or on staff members from 2013 to 2014.

Germans, like Americans, are greatly concerned with public safety. But they think about recidivism differently. During our visit, we heard prison professionals discussing failure in refreshingly unfamiliar terms: If, after release, an individual were to end up back in prison, that would be seen as a reason for the prison staff members to ask what they should have done better. When we told them stories of American politicians who closed a work-release or parole program after a single high-profile crime by a released inmate, they shook their heads in disbelief: Why would you close an otherwise effective program just because one client failed?...

The first article of the German Constitution reads, “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” Granted, our own Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment and protects individuals against excessive government intrusions. As was noted by the Supreme Court justice Anthony M. Kennedy in a landmark 2011 opinion ordering California to reduce its prison population: “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment.”

These words hold much promise, but currently they have far too little impact on actual conditions in American prisons. In Germany, we found that respect for human dignity provides palpable guidance to those who run its prisons. Through court-imposed rules, staff training and a shared mission, dignity is more than legal abstraction.

The question to ask is whether we can learn something from a country that has learned from its own terrible legacy — the Holocaust — with an impressive commitment to promoting human dignity, especially for those in prison. This principle resonates, though still too dimly at the moment, with bedrock American values.

August 7, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

August 6, 2015

Teen placed on sex offender registries after encounter with girl claiming to be 17 to be resentenced

According to this new CNN piece, there seems to be a notable new legal development in a notable case of a teen facing extreme sex offender restrictions after a seemingly not-so-extreme sex offense.  The piece is headlined "Judge reconsidering case of teen on sex offender registry," and here are the details:

A 19-year-old Indiana man convicted of a sex offense after a teenaged girl lied about her age on a hookup app may get a new sentence. The judge in the case, Dennis Wiley, did not make a decision Wednesday, but he agreed to consider Zach Anderson's request to be resentenced, meaning that Anderson could potentially be taken off the sex offender registry.

Anderson met the girl on the dating app "Hot Or Not." The 14-year-old girl lied about her age, claiming she was 17, which made having sex with her a crime.  She lived in southern Michigan, close to Anderson's parents' home in Elkhart, Indiana.  Anderson was given a 90-day jail sentence, five years probation and placed on both Indiana's and Michigan's sex offender registry for the next 25 years -- the same registry as child rapists, pedophiles and predators.

Anderson and his lawyer, Scott Grabel, had asked a court in Niles, Michigan, to vacate Anderson's sentence, alleging that prosecutors broke the plea agreement, the defense attorney said.  Grabel, who accuses the prosecution of not staying neutral during the sentencing of Anderson as required under the agreement, described the judge's decision Wednesday as a "significant step."  Wiley is expected to make a further ruling in about a week.

"In the long run, I'm confident we're gonna get this thing fixed," the attorney told CNN. Both the girl's mother and the girl herself had earlier appeared in court, to say they didn't believe Anderson belonged on the sex offender registry....

"Our goal is to get this case resentenced in front of a different judge, because the law mandates if the prosecutor violates their plea agreement, then it should be sent to a different judge for possible resentencing, or if we want to withdraw the plea and go to retrial that may be an option, as well," Grabel told CNN before the court action Wednesday.

Anderson's attorney is also striving to get the entire case dismissed. "I don't certainly speak for the public in general, but the comments I've read nationally think that his whole life shouldn't be ruined by his decision to go on a date and obviously have sexual relations with that person, especially when that person in all honesty misrepresented their true age," Grabel said.

As a registered sex offender, Anderson can't access the Internet, go to a mall or linger near a school or playground. His parents say because he has a 15-year-old brother, he can't even live at home any longer....

Anderson's case has stirred much debate about the one-size-fits-all sex offender laws that treat all offenders the same whether they are serial child predators or teens who've had sex with a girlfriend. His family has started a Facebook page, called "Justice 4 Zach," and has been very vocal about what they call the injustice of the sex offender registry. "He's obviously not a sex offender," Anderson's father told CNN, "I mean when there's a consensual act, to have one person labeled as the offender and the other person as a victim ... It's hard to swallow."

A former judge in a nearby town said the sex offender registry has to be changed. "If we caught every teenager that violated our current law," said former Judge William Buhl, "we'd lock up 30 or 40% of the high school. We're kidding ourselves."

According to The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, there are 850,000 people on the sex offender list and about a quarter of them were juveniles when they were sentenced, but the records are not broken down by the severity of the crimes they committed.

Some recent related posts:

August 6, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8)

"Disquieting Discretion: Race, Geography & the Colorado Death Penalty in the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century"

The title of this post is the headline of this new paper just now appearing on SSRN and authored by Meg Beardsley, Sam Kamin, Justin F. Marceau and Scott Phillips. Here is the abstract:

This Article demonstrates through original statistical research that prosecutors in Colorado were more likely to seek the death penalty against minority defendants than against white defendants.  Moreover, defendants in Colorado’s Eighteenth Judicial District were more likely to face a death prosecution than defendants elsewhere in the state.

Our empirical analysis demonstrates that even when one controls for the differential rates at which different groups commit statutorily death-eligible murders, non-white defendants and defendants in the Eighteenth Judicial District were still more likely than others to face a death penalty prosecution.  Even when the heinousness of the crime is accounted for, the race of the accused and the place of the crime are statistically significant predictors of whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty.  We discuss the implications of this disparate impact on the constitutionality of Colorado’s death penalty regime, concluding that the Colorado statute does not meet the dictates of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

August 6, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Some (simple? tough?) questions on crime and punishment for the GOP field

Images (8)As detailed in some prior posts below, I have been gearing up for tonight's big GOP debate by suggesting criminal justice reform topics that I think should be a significant part of the conversation among all serious candidates for President. Here I want to turn to developing a few (pointed?) questions on these topics that might be asked of all the GOP candidates during tonight's planned festivities.

I seriously doubt the FoxNews moderators asking questions tonight regularly turn to this blog for help on how they do their jobs. But I am at least hopeful that a range of folks in social media might help ensure the mainstream media gives sufficient attention to crime and punishment topics throughout the 2016 election season. With that aspiration in mind, here are some questions I would like to see asked:

On prison policies: "The United States has 5% of the world's population but nearly 25% of the world's prisoners. Why do you think this is so, and do you think this is a national problem that a President should be trying to address?"

On state marijuana reform: "The decision by Colorado voters to legalize marijuana for adults has helped create tens of thousands of new jobs and considerable new tax revenues. President Obama's Justice Department has seemingly adopted a hands off approach concerning these sorts of state-level marijuana reforms. Would you continue or change this approach and why?"

On clemency practices: "For most of his presidency, Barack Obama was criticized for pardoning more turkeys than people. But now, after instructed his Justice Department to work harder identify good clemency candidates, his admininstration has hinted he could ultimately reduce federal prison terms for hundreds of non-violent drug offenders. What approach might you take as President in the exercise of your constitutional clemency powers?"

From Bill Otis via comments at Crime & Consequences: "Which more nearly reflects your view: That, as Attorney General Holder and some Republicans have said, we have too many people in prison for too long; or that we haven't yet done enough to keep criminals off the street?"

Of course, I welcome additional suggested questions via the comments to this post. And I am especially hopeful all folks seriously interested in serious discussion of criminal justice reform will join me in trying to ensure these kinds of issues get their due tonight and in all future debates throughout the 2016 campaign.

A few recent related posts:

August 6, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Is it now ungodly to oppose significant sentencing and prison reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable recent Crux commentary authored by Jacob Lupfer headlined "There’s a truly religious consensus on prison reform." Here are excerpts:

In an era when most faith groups’ political priorities align predictably with the two major parties, it is refreshing to behold a truly diverse religious consensus on an issue....

The budget-busting prison-industrial complex was politically popular for a time, but in the past decade the pendulum has begun swinging the other way.  Harsh sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders, created unsustainable fiscal pressures.  States simply cannot afford to house more prisoners and pay the salaries and benefits of employees to supervise and care for them.

Already, states are taking steps to spend less on “corrections.”  Fiscal conservatives now view prisons as overly expensive, hugely inefficient, bloated bureaucracies.  Yet Christians and other people of faith see problems, too.

America’s denominations and faith organizations are calling for reform.  Our vast criminal justice system emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation, while our faith traditions preach redemption.  Citing Isaiah 61, Jesus announced that his gospel would include “release for the captives” (Luke 4:18).  It seems wrong for a Christian conscience to support needless incarceration.

Catholics were early leaders in promoting restorative justice, the idea that communities must help ex-offenders re-enter society in healthy and productive ways.  The US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a major pastoral statement in 2000 that placed criminal justice issues in the context of social ills, including family breakdown, violence, racial disparities and the perverse incentives of for-profit prisons.

Once a powerhouse in ecumenical Christian political influence, the National Council of Churches has reinvented itself as a smaller, more focused agency. Yet it has made mass incarceration its top advocacy priority.  NCC President Jim Winkler has a provocative idea. “If churches want to see revival,” he told me last year, “they should pick up released prisoners and help reintegrate them into their communities.” Criminal justice reform is not just an issue. It is essential to the gospel: Redeemed sinners proclaiming mercy in the name of Jesus Christ....

Leaders from Catholic, mainline, and black Protestant traditions have been sounding this refrain for years. But the growing consensus among white evangelicals and Republican officeholders may finally make sentencing reform an urgent and truly bipartisan imperative.  The National Association of Evangelicals, known to be more active on non-sex-related issues than other religious conservatives, has spoken strongly of the need for criminal justice reform....

Until recently, disparate groups have worked on the issue largely independently.  That is changing.  In 2014, Congress appointed a committee to study the feasibility of reform among federal prison populations, whose growth threatens other federal law enforcement and funding priorities. The committee is called the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections.  Earlier this year, the task force sought input from faith leaders and saw unprecedented agreement across traditions and enthusiastic support for reform....

Sentencing and prison policy is more easily seen as a boring bureaucratic issue. Even though millions are incarcerated, most Americans know zero or one person in prison. Yet faith communities are adding urgency to the imperative for prison and sentencing reform, even as they remain divided on the death penalty (for now).

In the end, fiscal constraints will force changes in prisons and sentencing if moral concerns do not.  It seems better to make these changes out of a warm-hearted, merciful impulse than through cold fiscal realities.  The faith community can credibly speak with one voice on criminal justice reform, and that voice must be heard.

August 6, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Religion, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Toe Tag Parole: To Live and Die on Yard A"

TTP-poster-with-HBO-13The title of this post is the title of this new documentary that premired on HBO this week. Based on the few clips I have so far had a chance to watch, it looks like a valuable contribution to the broad on-going policy and constitutional debate over LWOP.  Here is the film's synopsis via its HBO website:

America is the most punitive nation in the world, handing out historically harsh sentences that largely dispense with the concept of rehabilitation. Alan and Susan Raymond (Oscar® and Emmy® winners for HBO’s “I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School”) explore the reality of “the other death penalty” in TOE TAG PAROLE: TO LIVE AND DIE ON YARD A.

Featuring exclusive, unprecedented access, TOE TAG PAROLE: TO LIVE AND DIE ON YARD A was shot entirely at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, a maximum-security facility in the Mojave Desert.

In 2000, a California State Prison inmate serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) approached the warden to request a dedicated yard for men serving life sentences that would break the code of violence dominating prison life. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) subsequently transformed Yard A at California State Prison into The Progressive Programming Facility, which inmates call The Honor Yard. The only one of its kind in the United States, this experimental prison yard is free of violence, racial tensions, gang activity and illegal drug and alcohol use.

TOE TAG PAROLE: TO LIVE AND DIE ON YARD A focuses on the 600 men living at The Progressive Programming Facility, who seek self-improvement and spiritual growth through education, art and music therapy, religious services and participation in peer-group sessions.

Although a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found mandatory sentencing of juveniles to Life Without the Possibility of Parole unconstitutional, those previously convicted still have to serve their sentences in some states. The film features interviews with three of the inmates – sentenced to life at ages 14, 16 and 17 – who describe growing up within the prison walls.

Ken Hartman, who beat a man to death at age 19 while drunk, and has been in prison for 36 years, says, “There’s a progression that these things go through. People used to be stoned to death and then they were shot and then they were hung, they were electrocuted. Each step along the way always the argument is made that this is a better kind of death penalty. I’m sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole. It’s not better than the death sentence, because it is the death sentence.” As the men of The Honor Yard say, “They will get out when they get their Toe Tag Parole,” meaning death by incarceration.

August 6, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 5, 2015

Gearing up for the Ninth Circuit's consideration of the arbitrariness of California's capital punishment system

Reader may recall that a little over a year ago, as first reported in this July 2014 post, US District Judge  Cormac Carney ruled in Jones v. Chappell (now Jones v. Davis) that California's administration of capital punishment was unconstitutional.  That ruling was based on the judge's conclusion that California operated a death penalty "system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed [, and which consequently] serves no penological purpose."   This Jones ruling was appealed by the state of California to the Ninth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit is finally scheduled to hear oral argument in the case on the last day of this month.

As detailed in some prior posts below, a number of factors make Jones an interesting ruling that go beyond its basic significance of deeming unconstitutional the state capital system with the most persons serving time on death row.  And, as revealed via this Ninth Circuit webpage, various amici have submitted briefs to the Ninth Circuit urging reversal or affirmance of the Jones decision. 

This preview post now (with perhaps more to follow) was by this new Washington Post piece, headlined "The death penalty is about to go on trial in California. Here’s why it might lose." The piece is authored by Prof Frank Baumgartner, and here are excerpts:

Carney argued that because of the extremely low likelihood of execution and long delays on death row, the system was actually a penalty of life without parole with the remote possibility of death.  His ruling declared that execution after such a long delay serves no retributive or deterrent purpose beyond the long prison term, and is therefore arbitrary and unconstitutional.  As Carney wrote in his California decision, no rational jury or legislature would design a system that functions as the system actually works.  But, he argued, we must evaluate the system we do have, not the one we might prefer to have....

Supporters of the death penalty argue that Carney overstepped with his sweeping decision throwing out the entire California death penalty.  Oral arguments in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will begin at the end of this month.  California certainly was at the low end of the distribution of “efficiency” in carrying out its death sentences....  Out of more than 900 death sentences, the state has carried out just 13 executions.  It stands as one of the few states, along with Pennsylvania, that has large numbers of death sentences that result in very few executions.

Prior related posts:

August 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Why Opposing Hyper-Incarceration Should Be Central to the Work of the Anti-Domestic Violence Movement"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Donna Coker and Ahjane Macquoid. Here is the abstract:

We demonstrate that among the many negative results of hyper-incarceration is the risk of increased domestic violence.  In Part I, we describe the growth of hyper-incarceration and its racial, class, and gender disparate character.  This growth in criminalization has been fueled by racist ideologies and is part of a larger neoliberal project that also includes disinvestment in communities, diminishment of the welfare state, and harsh criminalization of immigration policy. We place the dominant crime-centered approach to domestic violence in this larger neoliberal context.

The well-documented harms of hyper-incarceration -- collateral consequences that limit the economic and civic opportunities of those with criminal convictions; the emotional and economic harms to families of incarcerated parents; prison trauma and the deepening of destructive masculinities; the weakening of a community’s social structure, economic viability, and political clout -- produce harms that research demonstrates are tied to increased risks for the occurrence of domestic violence.

Anti-domestic violence advocates have responded to neoliberal anti-poor and anti-immigrant policies with two strategies: exceptionalizing domestic violence victims and expanding the reach of VAWA.  These strategies are likely to become less tenable in the current political climate.  We argue for a more inclusive political alignment of anti-domestic violence organizations with social justice organizations that addresses the larger structural inequalities that fuel violence.  A key part of that alignment is opposition to hyper-incarceration.

August 5, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Shouldn't front-runner Donald Trump be asked about drug war and federal marijuana policies at GOP debate?

Now that all the GOP polls show a significant number of Republican voters are taking Donald Trump's candidacy seriously, I think it would be especially valuable at tomorrow's big GOP debate for candidate Trump to be asked some seriously hard questions about federal laws and policies.  Back in June, I had this pose on my marijuana reform blog highlighting that Trump had once suggested full legalization would be the only way to "win" the drug war, and I wondered aloud "Just what is Donald Trump's position now on modern marijuana reforms (and the modern drug war)?".  Especially now that Trump is, according to the polls, the GOP front-runner, I think this would be an especially good issue to bring up with him.

Notably, a few media outlets have just recently picked up on Trump's not-so-clear and not-at-all-consistent statements about federal drug policy:

As I have explained in a few prior posts both here and at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform (some of which I have linked below), I think there are lots of good reasons to ask all the GOP candidates lots of good questions about lots of different criminal justice reform issues. But, especially in light of Trump's prior comments and what at times seems to be his libertarian-leaning, less-government-regulation, pro-jobs economic messaging, I would be especially interested now to hear what he thinks about some of the positive economic development news emerging from Colorado and other jurisdictions in conjunction libertarian-leaning, less-government-regulation marijuana and related drug war reforms.

A few recent related posts:

August 5, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Latest tea leaves concerning Senator Grassley's coming sentencing reform bill

This new Wall Street Journal piece, headlined "Senator Holds Key to Sentencing Changes," provides a few more juicy details about what we might expect to emerge from the sentencing reform work of the critical chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley. Here are the excerpts that most caught my eye:

Now, as lawmakers in both parties and both chambers of Congress show greater interest in easing policies blamed for prison crowding, Mr. Grassley is presiding over final negotiations of a group he tasked with integrating assorted criminal justice proposals into a single package. Mr. Grassley, a four-decade veteran of Congress, said he plans to unveil a bill after Labor Day.

The most likely outcome of the talks, according to aides and lawmakers involved in the negotiations, is legislation that would combine programs to reduce recidivism and create more opportunities for early release with provisions giving judges some discretion to sentence below the mandatory minimum for certain drug defendants. “I think it’s fair to say there are going to be a lot less people that are going to have mandatory minimums apply, but it’s not going to be this across-the-board cut,” Mr. Grassley said, warning that drastic reductions in sentences would weaken penalties for serious offenders.

Mr. Grassley’s position — which fellow committee members say has evolved since March, when he warned of a “leniency industrial complex” — reflects a readjustment on criminal justice among many conservatives, who increasingly are joining Democrats in calling for legislation aimed at reducing mass incarceration....

Among Republicans, the party’s libertarian wing was first to back sentencing overhaul, and more mainstream Republicans have followed.... Mr. Grassley, once seen as a chief roadblock to change, is in a position to convert that momentum into a bill committee members say could clear the Senate this year with bipartisan support now rare in a deeply divided Congress.

But it isn’t clear whether committee members with fervent objections to mandatory minimum sentences will sign onto a proposal shorn of the more sweeping changes they envision. More substantial reductions were embraced in a bill that cleared the committee last year but never made it to the floor. Its sponsors, Sens. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) and Mike Lee (R., Utah), this year reintroduced the bill, which would halve mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes and give judges more flexibility to hand down sentences below the mandatory minimum.

“He’s offering a different approach than we started with,” Mr. Durbin said of the agreement Mr. Grassley is brokering. “It’s a much different approach, and it’s a harder approach.” Still, he said, he is encouraged that Mr. Grassley would entertain any legislation revising sentencing law. “Let me tell you, he was not even at the table initially, and now he’s at the table,” Mr. Durbin said.

A compromise bill may still encounter conservative resistance. One of the committee’s more cautionary voices is that of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), who said tough criminal code has been at the heart of a reduction in violent crime.

On the other side of the Capitol, Mr. Boehner has endorsed a bill by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D., Va.) that would loosen some sentencing requirements, while also addressing probation and recidivism....

Some in Iowa have sought to hold Mr. Grassley to account for the ballooning prison population. A state report released last year estimated that Iowa’s prison population could swell 39% over the next decade. In May of this year, the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, urged Mr. Grassley not to stand in the way of changes to federal sentencing laws. Home on a recent weekend, Mr. Grassley faced questions about criminal justice at two town meetings — a surprise, he said, as it marked the first time this year constituents had raised the topic. “They were happy that it looked like we were going to get a bill,” he said.

As I explained in recent prior posts here and here reporting on the latest Grassley reform forecast, I am fearful that politics and process may continue to impede any significant federal sentencing reform from getting done before the end of the year.  Because it would appear that Senator Grassley has now invested considerably in developing a reform bill to his liking and given that he is a critical player for any reform proposals moving forward, I sincerely hope that the bill he unveils in September is perceived to be "good enough" to garner the support needed from all quarters to have a real chance at becoming law.

Some prior related posts:

August 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

August 4, 2015

Seventh Circuit authorizes successive 2255 attack on ACCA sentence based on Johnson

A helpful reader altered me to a significant post-Johnson ruling today by the Seventh Circuit in Price v. US, No. 15-2527 (7th Cir. Aug. 4, 2015) (available here).  Price, which some ACCA prisoners may come to consider priceless, authorizes a defendant serving an ACCA-influenced sentence of 20+ years imposed way back in 2006 to bring a new, successor 2255 motion based on the Johnson ruling.  Here are a few key passages from this notable ruling: 

Price now asks this court to authorize the district court to entertain a successive collateral attack, 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)(3), in which he proposes to assert a claim under Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).  Johnson holds that the imposition of an enhanced sentence under the residual clause of ACCA violates due process because the clause is too vague to provide adequate notice. Id. at 2557.  We invited the government to respond, and it has done so. We now conclude, consistently with the government’s position, that Johnson announces a new substantive rule of constitutional law that the Supreme Court has categorically made retroactive to final convictions....

Johnson, we conclude, announced a new substantive rule.  In deciding that the residual clause is unconstitutionally vague, the Supreme Court prohibited “a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status.”  Saffle, 494 U.S. at 494.  A defendant who was sentenced under the residual clause necessarily bears a significant risk of facing “a punishment that the law cannot impose upon him.”  Summerlin, 542 U.S. at 352.  There is no escaping the logical conclusion that the Court itself has made Johnson categorically retroactive to cases on collateral review.  Because Price has made a prima facie showing that he may be entitled to sentencing relief under Johnson, we GRANT Price’s application and AUTHORIZE the district court to consider a successive collateral attack presenting this claim.

We add a cautionary note in closing.  Our review of Price’s substantive claim is necessarily preliminary, and as we just noted, our holding is limited to the conclusion that Price has made a prima facie showing of a tenable claim under Johnson.  The district court will have the opportunity to examine the claim in more detail as the case proceeds. That court is authorized under § 2244(b)(4) to dismiss any claim that it concludes upon closer examination does not satisfy the criteria for authorization.  The judge is likely to be familiar with the case (or to become familiar easily) because § 2255 motions must be filed in the applicant’s sentencing court, which has access to the criminal record and familiarity with the case.  Our conclusions are tentative largely because of the strict time constraints under which we must review these applications. Tyler, 533 U.S. at 664 (“It is unlikely that a court of appeals could make such a determination in the allotted time [30 days] if it had to do more than simply rely on Supreme Court holdings.”).  For example, we do not know whether Price has other qualifying convictions that were not considered at sentencing because, at that time, the three on which the court relied were sufficient.  If he is successful in vacating his sentence under Johnson, the parties will be free to argue this and any other pertinent questions on resentencing.

August 4, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (3)

Urging Prez Obama to appoint a "new, visionary Bureau of Prisons head"

Three notable law professors, Robert Ferguson, Judith Resnik and Margo Schlanger, have come together to make this effective pitch in the Washington Post for Prez Obama to make one key appointment in his effort to reform the federal criminal justice system.  The piece is headlined "With one decision, Obama and Lynch could reshape the criminal justice system: The President needs to appoint a new, visionary Bureau of Prisons head," and here are excerpts:

The current director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons recently announced his retirement. The job is not Senate-confirmed (though Congress can play a role; on Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will be holding a hearing on the issue).  Instead, Obama’s Attorney General Loretta Lynch will choose the BOP’s ninth head since its founding in 1930.

The decision matters a lot.  The BOP’s director runs one of the critical bureaucracies of the federal government.  It houses more than 200,000 prisoners in more than 120 facilities across the United States. Under the leadership of some of its directors — such as James Bennett, who served from the late 1930s to the 1960s — the BOP set the nation’s benchmark for smart criminal justice administration.  Bennett promoted the Youth Corrections Act and vocational and education training, he became president of the American Correctional Association and he led the U.S. delegation to the UN Crime Commission.  Bennett led the BOP to the forefront of efforts to help prisoners gain skills to return to their communities and to treat juveniles differently than adults.

Since Bennett’s era, the BOP’s leadership role has eroded.  The BOP has imposed unduly harsh conditions on prisoners, failed to prevent sexual abuse, and refused to exercise discretion to house prisoners in community facilities close to their homes.  The largest prison system in America needs to do better....

The BOP also has many available tools and a good deal of discretion to lower its prison population, but it has used those opportunities far too sparingly.  The BOP does not place all eligible prisoners in residential treatment centers (halfway houses) at the earliest available dates, nor does the BOP use compassionate release — when the prisoner or a member of his or her family is dying — and other aspects of the 2007 Second Chance Act as much as it could.  Using halfway houses more would put prisoners closer to home, where they can maintain ties to their families and communities and can gain avenues to employment.  Given endemic racial and other disparities in our criminal justice system, these lost opportunities have a particularly harmful impact on poor minority urban communities.

The result of these many decisions, along with unduly harsh federal sentences which Congress is currently considering fixing, has been severe overcrowding.  The BOP is 30 percent over capacity, which makes keeping staff and prisoners safe significantly more difficult.  With congestion comes risks of violence, and less access to services such as jobs and programs.  And as prison populations age, the costs of medical care go up.

We know the BOP can do better, because many state correctional systems are making a variety of improvements in their approaches.  State prison systems have reduced the population of those in isolation, created “gender-responsive” programming to suit the histories and challenges of women and men in prison, offered new work programs and improved mental health services.  For example, Colorado, Maine and Washington have used careful analyses to substantially reduce the number of prisoners in solitary and shifted the treatment of those who remain, putting them back into structured and regular contact with other people.

When searching for the BOP’s ninth director, the president and attorney general can look to a field of experienced innovators with demonstrated commitments to reform — decarceration, improved conditions of confinement, racial justice and gender equity. The president holds the prison door keys for federal prisoners whose sentences he commutes.  His administration’s choice for the new head of the BOP is critical to reform for those remaining inside.

August 4, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Drone drops drugs, tobacco in Mansfield prison yard, spurs fight"

The title of this post is the headline of this new article from my own Columbus Dispatch.  Here are the (serious and amusing) details:

A drone deposited a package containing drugs and tobacco at the Mansfield Correctional Institution last week, sparking a fight among inmates in recreation yards.  The State Highway Patrol is investigating the incident in a bid to determine who flew the drone over the prison and for whom the package was intended.

The drone came buzzing over the prison about 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, although prison officials were unaware of its presence until video from surveillance cameras was reviewed after the brawl among inmates.  Prison workers recovered the drone’s deposit, which contained 5 ounces of tobacco, 2.3 ounces of marijuana and 0.2 of an ounce of heroin, according to a report.  If half pure, the heroin amounted to about 140 individual doses.

State prisons have encountered drones previously, said Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spokeswoman JoEllen Smith. She could not immediately provide details on the prior flyovers.  "Our agency’s top security administrators are taking a broad approach to increase awareness and detection of unmanned aerial systems," Smith said....

During the scuffle, the package was thrown over a fence from the north recreation yard to the south yard, the report said.  A sweep of the area found the package hidden in the equipment room of the south recreation yard. Officers also searched roofs and other areas for any other packages, but found nothing.

Corrections officers used pepper spray to douse the fighting and about 200 prisoners from both the north and south recreation yards were carefully searched before being returned to their cells.  Nine inmates involved in the scramble for the package were placed in solitary confinement.  There were no injuries to prisoners or prison employees. The close-security prison contains about 2,700 inmates.

Prior related post:

August 4, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

AG Lynch and Secretary Duncan make pitch for Pell Grant pilot program for federal prisoners

628x471Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have this notable new USA Today op-ed under the full headline "To cut crime, turn jailbirds into bookworms: We need a prison to productivity pipeline." Here are excerpts:

Few interventions have been shown to reduce recidivism and prepare people in prison to lead law-abiding, productive lives like access to quality postsecondary education and training. The benefits of investing in these opportunities, which also include improved employment outcomes, extend to the individual and to society. In a study funded by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, RAND Corporation estimated that incarcerated individuals who participate in correctional education are 43% less likely to return to prison within three years. And for every dollar invested in correctional education programs, five dollars are saved on re-incarceration costs. A recent report from the President’s Council on Economic Advisors notes the annual cost of incarceration for a single juvenile is over $100,000 — almost twice as high as tuition, room and board and fees at the most expensive college in the country and nearly 100 times as expensive as a year of intensive mentoring.

Nearly every person behind bars will one day leave prison — approximately 700,000 annually. Setting these Americans up for success is smart economics and a critically important investment in our future.

Unfortunately, for many incarcerated individuals, this type of life-changing opportunity is unavailable. In 1994, Congress amended the Higher Education Act to ban incarcerated individuals in federal and state penal institutions from accessing Pell Grants, which could be used to help qualified inmates pay for college classes or training. This ban was passed despite the fact that higher education has been shown to reduce recidivism and despite the fact that incarcerated students made up less than 1% of all Pell Grant recipients.

The Obama administration has taken an important step toward helping people in prison contribute to the economy, transition back into their communities and stay out of the justice system after they reenter society. The Department of Education announced a new Pell Grant Experimental Site program that will allow a limited number of incarcerated individuals to be eligible to receive Pell Grants to pay for education and training programs from colleges and universities. The Department of Justice is providing technical assistance to the correctional facilities under the pilot program. We will test how restoring Pell Grant eligibility could affect educational and other outcomes. This pilot will not prevent any eligible Pell recipient from receiving a grant. What we learn will inform our efforts — and the efforts of states and localities — moving forward in this area....

By preparing these learners to achieve their academic and career goals, we strengthen the families and communities that depend on their success. And that is fundamentally good for America.

August 4, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Should prison sentences be based on crimes that haven’t been committed yet?"

The question in the title of this post is subheadline of this new Marshall Project feature story about modern risk assessment tool being used at sentencing.  The lengthy piece, carrying the main headline "The New Science of Sentencing," merits a read in full, and here are excerpts:

Pennsylvania is on the verge of becoming one of the first states in the country to base criminal sentences not only on what crimes people have been convicted of, but also on whether they are deemed likely to commit additional crimes.  As early as next year, judges there could receive statistically derived tools known as risk assessments to help them decide how much prison time — if any — to assign.

Risk assessments have existed in various forms for a century, but over the past two decades, they have spread through the American justice system, driven by advances in social science.  The tools try to predict recidivism — repeat offending or breaking the rules of probation or parole — using statistical probabilities based on factors such as age, employment history and prior criminal record.  They are now used at some stage of the criminal justice process in nearly every state.  Many court systems use the tools to guide decisions about which prisoners to release on parole, for example, and risk assessments are becoming increasingly popular as a way to help set bail for inmates awaiting trial.

But Pennsylvania is about to take a step most states have until now resisted for adult defendants: using risk assessment in sentencing itself.  A state commission is putting the finishing touches on a plan that, if implemented as expected, could allow some offenders considered low risk to get shorter prison sentences than they would otherwise or avoid incarceration entirely.  Those deemed high risk could spend more time behind bars....

[T]he approach has bipartisan appeal: Among some conservatives, risk assessment appeals to the desire to spend tax dollars on locking up only those criminals who are truly dangerous to society. And some liberals hope a data-driven justice system will be less punitive overall and correct for the personal, often subconscious biases of police, judges and probation officers. In theory, using risk assessment tools could lead to both less incarceration and less crime.

There are more than 60 risk assessment tools in use across the U.S., and they vary widely. But in their simplest form, they are questionnaires — typically filled out by a jail staff member, probation officer or psychologist — that assign points to offenders based on anything from demographic factors to family background to criminal history. The resulting scores are based on statistical probabilities derived from previous offenders’ behavior. A low score designates an offender as “low risk” and could result in lower bail, less prison time or less restrictive probation or parole terms; a high score can lead to tougher sentences or tighter monitoring.

The risk assessment trend is controversial. Critics have raised numerous questions: Is it fair to make decisions in an individual case based on what similar offenders have done in the past? Is it acceptable to use characteristics that might be associated with race or socioeconomic status, such as the criminal record of a person’s parents? And even if states can resolve such philosophical questions, there are also practical ones: What to do about unreliable data? Which of the many available tools — some of them licensed by for-profit companies — should policymakers choose?...

The core questions around risk assessment aren’t about data.  They are about what the goals of criminal justice reforms should be.  Some supporters see reducing incarceration as the primary goal; others want to focus on reducing recidivism; still others want to eliminate racial disparities.  Risk assessments have drawn widespread support in part because, as long as they remain in the realm of the theoretical, they can accomplish all those goals.  But once they enter the real world, there are usually trade-offs.

August 4, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

August 3, 2015

US Sentencing Commission releases big report on 5-year impact of Fair Sentencing Act

2015_RtC_FSAAs reported in this official USSC news release, today "the United States Sentencing Commission submitted to Congress its report assessing the impact of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which among other things reduced the statutory 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio of crack to powder cocaine." Here are highlights of an encouraging report via the news release:

Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, said: “We found that the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, substantially reduced the federal prison population, and resulted in fewer federal prosecutions for crack cocaine. All this occurred while crack cocaine use continued to decline.”

To assess the impact of the FSA, the Commission analyzed external data sources and undertook statistical analyses of its own federal sentencing data spanning before and after the enactment of the FSA. Among other things, the study shows that:

• Many fewer crack cocaine offenders have been prosecuted annually since the FSA, although the number is still substantial;

• Crack cocaine offenders prosecuted after the FSA are, on average, about as serious as those prosecuted before the FSA;

• Rates of crack cocaine offenders cooperating with law enforcement have not changed despite the reduction in penalties; and,

• Average crack cocaine sentences are lower, and are now closer to average powder cocaine sentences.

The full report, which runs almost 100 pages including all its materials is available at this link. The USSC's website now has this terrific page with various report-related materials and links for easy consumption of all the data in the report.

August 3, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Two distinct notable tales of crimes and punishment via the Grey Lady

The New York Times starts the work week off with these two intriguing lengthy pieces about two different stories of crimes and punishment: 

August 3, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Let's hear from the presidential candidates on clemency reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this timely new op-ed authored by Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler.  Here are excerpts:

On Thursday in Cleveland, Fox News will host the first substantive presidential debate. The moderators will undoubtedly pepper 10 Republican candidates with questions about health care, government spending, foreign affairs and immigration.

For once, they should also ask the participants what they would do with one of the most powerful tools given to the chief executive by the United States Constitution -- the pardon power, which vests the president with the unilateral and unchecked authority to reduce sentences of individuals who are currently incarcerated and clear the records of those who are already done serving their sentences.

Unfortunately, we usually pay attention to clemency only after it has been used in a controversial way. When Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, we suddenly cared about clemency. When George W. Bush commuted the sentence of (but declined to pardon) Scooter Libby, people on both sides of the issue were upset. And no one has forgotten the Nixon pardon.

But the framers intended clemency to perform a systematic function in the constitutional system of checking overbroad laws and correcting injustices in individual cases, and that requires foresight, principles of action, and attention to structure. All of the modern presidents have failed to fulfill the framers' vision. Yet we never ask candidates how they would use this enormous power before they enter office — we just act surprised when they use it.

This is the right time to change that dynamic. President Barack Obama has announced an intention (so far unrealized) to use clemency aggressively to address the over-incarceration of narcotics defendants, raising the profile of this issue. That project has also brought to the surface both underlying policy issues and an unwieldy consideration process that is plagued with as many as seven levels of review.

And given the increasing bipartisan support to address mass incarceration, it is an opening to see how the candidates view the president's role in dealing with that issue. At a Republican debate, it opens the door for the candidates to critique the Obama administration's approach and to reveal what they would do to change what past presidents agree is an inefficient and ineffectual clemency bureaucracy. Republicans often value efficiency and cost savings, and a properly functioning clemency process offers an opportunity for both....

Whatever the answer, it will tell us a great deal about them. We will learn what kind of vision, if any, they have for changing entrenched and failed bureaucracies. And we will learn how seriously they view the problem of mass incarceration and criminal justice supervision in this country.

Our plea to the moderators of this and future debates (Democrat and Republican) is thus a simple one: For the first time, ask the candidates how they would use clemency, that great unchecked power of the presidency. They will certainly ask those who seek to be president how they would use the terrible swift sword of war; they should also be bold in asking the candidates how they would use this powerful tool of mercy in an age of mass incarceration and punitiveness.

August 3, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Split Fourth Circuit panel finds no means for federal prisoner to challenge collaterally wrongful LWOP

A Fourth Circuit panel on Friday issued a very intricate and thoughtful set of opinions in US v. Surratt, No. 14-6851 (4th Cir. July 31, 2015) (available here). The start of the majority opinion provides this effective overview of the issues in Surratt:

In 2005, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, Raymond Surratt was sentenced to life imprisonment.  We affirmed his conviction and sentence on appeal, and Surratt’s motion to vacate his conviction and sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 was likewise denied. Neither Surratt’s direct appeal nor his § 2255 motion questioned the legality of his mandatory life sentence.

Several years later, Surratt returned to this Court and asked for permission to file a second or successive § 2255 motion.  Surratt’s request was premised on United States v. Simmons, 649 F.3d 237 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc), which in turn overruled our prior decision in United States v. Harp, 406 F.3d 242 (4th Cir. 2005).  Had Surratt been sentenced after Simmons, he would have faced a lower mandatory minimum sentence than the mandatory life term that he actually received.  Surratt maintained that this difference entitled him to be resentenced.  But Congress set out certain conditions that must be met before a successive motion may be permitted, and Surratt did not meet those required conditions.  See 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h). We therefore denied him permission to file a successive motion. See In re Surratt, No. 12-283 (4th Cir. Sept. 13, 2012), ECF No. 6.

In the district court, Surratt had simultaneously filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 seeking the same Simmons-based relief.  As a federal prisoner, however, Surratt cannot challenge his conviction and sentence under § 2241 unless 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e) -- also called the “savings clause” -- applies.  The district court concluded that § 2255(e) did not in fact confer jurisdiction to consider Surratt’s claim in a § 2241 petition, so it denied Surratt’s petition.

Surratt now appeals from the judgment of the district court.  We are not unsympathetic to his claim; like the dissent, we recognize the gravity of a life sentence.  However, Congress has the power to define the scope of the writ of habeas corpus, and Congress has exercised that power here to narrowly limit the circumstances in which a § 2241 petition may be brought. Surratt’s petition does not present one of the permitted circumstances. Accordingly, we agree that the district court lacked jurisdiction under § 2255(e) to consider Surratt’s § 2241 petition and affirm the judgment below.

The end of the dissenting opinion in Surratt provides this alternative perspective on the case and its disposition by the majority:

I do not doubt that the majority is sympathetic to Surratt. In the end, I suppose we just have fundamentally different views on the role of habeas corpus, as well as the role of the judiciary in granting the writ.  I see it as our solemn responsibility to guard against a morbid encroachment upon that which is so precious our Framers ensured its continued vitality in our Constitution.  Instead we guard the Great Writ itself, and so closely that Surratt must spend the rest of his life in prison -- against the will of the government and the district court.  Our abdication of this responsibility begs the question: quis custodiet ipsos custodies?  Who will guard the guards themselves?

It is within our power to do more than simply leave Surratt to the mercy of the executive branch.  To hope for the right outcome in another’s hands perhaps is noble.  But only when we actually do the right thing can we be just.  I lament that today we are not the latter. Neither the plain language of our habeas statutes, our precedent, nor the Constitution demands that Surratt die in prison.  I must dissent.

August 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

August 2, 2015

Rep. Sensenbrenner explains why "Now is the time for criminal justice reform"

The Washington Examiner has published this notable new commatary authored by US Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner under the headline "Now is the time for criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

Over the past three decades, America's federal prison population has more than quadrupled — from 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2.3 million today.  Prison spending has increased alongside it, placing a heavy burden on American taxpayers.  According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, between 1980-2013, prison spending has increased by 595 percent, a staggering figure that is both irresponsible and unsustainable.  Currently, the federal prison system consumes more than 25 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget.

This redirects funding from enforcement and other criminal justice programs and reduces our system's efficiency and effectiveness.  The growth in prison population and spending, plus the massive human and social costs of mass incarceration, creates an urgent need for federal criminal justice reform.

The current high incarceration rates are a result of sweeping tough-on-crime initiatives, specifically the introduction of drug mandatory minimums in the 1980s.  While minimums have proved successful in some circumstances, too often low-level, non-violent individuals have been caught up in the system.  Instead of considering the unique circumstances of each case, taking into account the personal and criminal history of the offender, judges are forced to comply with federally mandated minimums that lock up millions of people without discretionary judgment.

Further, the current system lacks the ability to effectively rehabilitate nonviolent offenders, leaving them without the skills, education and training to successfully reintegrate into society.  A shocking 50 percent of the federal prison population has substance abuse issues, mental health issues or both.  An estimated 53 percent of offenders entering prison are at or below the poverty line, and our current prison population houses a disproportionate number of African-Americans, who account for nearly 40 percent of inmates.

Our prisons have become warehouses that simply lock away offenders, rather than treating the underlying issues that brought them there.  This neglect contributes to high recidivism rates and puts a revolving door on the gates of America's federal prisons.

While Congress has remained largely silent on the issue, states have embraced reform — enacting wide-ranging, evidence-based changes that both improve public safety and rein in prison costs. These state programs have succeeded by prioritizing incarceration for violent and career criminals, strengthening community supervision and adopting alternative sanctions for lower-level offenders....

Last year, Congressman Bobby Scott and I led a congressional task force to investigate over-criminalization, which examined the scope of mass incarceration, as well as evidence-based programs for reform.  In June, we introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, a comprehensive bill that addresses the major drivers of the federal prison population at the front and back ends of the system.

SAFE Justice promotes targeted sentencing over a one-size-fits-all approach, curtails the ballooning number of regulatory crimes, and includes policies that more effectively change the criminal behavior of the nearly 132,000 people on federal probation and post-prison supervision.  The bill, which has been endorsed by House Speaker John Boehner and boasts 36 bipartisan cosponsors, advances research-based sentencing, release and supervision policies, and will enact meaningful reforms that shadow the success seen on the state level.

Our system cannot continue on its current trajectory.  It's not only fiscally unsustainable, but morally irresponsible.  Now is the time for criminal justice reform, and the SAFE Justice Act delivers the change necessary to enact fairness in sentencing, reduce the taxpayer burden and ensure the increased safety and prosperity of communities across the country.

Prior related posts:

August 2, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6)

Prez candidate O'Malley joins chorus of leaders advocating criminal justice reform

This USA Today article reports on the latest presidential candidate's latest discussion of the need for criminal justice reform.  The piece is headlined "O'Malley pledges criminal justice reform," and here are the details:

Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley stressed his urban affairs experience as Baltimore mayor as he pledged Friday to improve race relations and the criminal justice system. The nation has moved toward racial justice, “but we are not there yet,” the former Maryland governor told a National Urban League presidential forum, citing recent killings and abuse involving police officers. “In our country, there is no such thing as a spare American,” O’Malley said.

While other candidates have talked about criminal justice reform, O’Malley said, “I have actually done it.” In outlining a criminal justice agenda, O’Malley pledged to change sentencing laws so that punishments fit crimes and to end racial disparities in sentencing, including crimes involving crack and powder cocaine. O’Malley, who is lagging far behind in Democratic polls, also called for an end to the death penalty.

August 2, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)