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September 4, 2015

Are you ready for some college football ... and highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

I have plans to watch a lot of college football over the long weekend, which culminates Monday night with my Ohio State Buckeyes beginning their national championship defense at Virginia Tech.

I assume a lot of college students also plan to watch a lot of football, and some recent research reported via this post at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform indicates that college students are now more likely to be smoking marijuana than to be smoking cigarettes when they are taking study breaks.  With that terrible segue, here are some more recent posts of note from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform:

September 4, 2015 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (3)

"I’m a public defender. It’s impossible for me to do a good job representing my clients."

The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post piece authored by Tina Peng, who is a staff attorney at the Orleans Public Defenders. Here are excerpts:

Our office represents 85 percent of the people charged with crimes in Orleans Parish but has an annual budget about a third the size of the district attorney’s. The American Bar Association recommends that public defenders not work on more than 150 felony cases a year. In 2014, I handled double that.

The United States accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of the global prison population. The vast majority of people in prison are indigent: The Justice Department has estimated that 60 to 90 percent of criminal defendants nationwide cannot afford their own attorneys and that in 2007, U.S. public defender offices received more than 5.5 million cases....

The funding crisis is nationwide, and it is dire. When people ask how to push back against police misconduct, how to decrease the costs of mass incarceration and how to ensure fairer treatment of our nation’s most disenfranchised citizens, part of the answer lies in fully funding public defender’s offices and enabling us to represent our clients in a meaningful manner....

I went to law school to be a public defender. My frustration with our office’s persistent underfunding is not that it forces me to work long hours, represent numerous clients or make far less money than I would at a private law firm. It is that when we are constantly required to do more with less, our clients suffer.

Because we don’t have enough lawyers on staff, the week I passed the bar in 2013, I began representing people facing mandatory life sentences on felony charges. In Louisiana, people with as few as two prior nonviolent felony convictions can face mandatory life imprisonment on charges as minor as possession of a syringe containing heroin residue or, until recently, possession of a single joint. Defendants who cannot afford to make bond can sit in jail for 60 days while the district attorney decides whether to arraign them. An unconstitutionally high caseload means that I often see my new clients only once in those two months. It means that I miss filing important motions, that I am unable to properly prepare for every trial, that I have serious conversations about plea bargains with my clients in open court because I did not spend enough time conducting confidential visits with them in jail. I plead some of my clients to felony convictions on the day I meet them. If I don’t follow up to make sure clients are released when they should be, they can sit in jail for unnecessary weeks and months....

Unfortunately, budget cuts and a spiraling workload are not unique to Orleans Parish. Funding problems threaten poor people’s right to counsel across America.

In June, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Idaho, claiming that the state has failed to fund or improve its broken public defense system and has deprived indigent residents of their Sixth Amendment right to adequate legal representation. Indigent defendants in most Idaho counties have no lawyers at their first court appearances, where bail is set and pleas of guilty or not guilty are entered, according to the lawsuit. Many counties also pay attorneys who accept public defense contracts a flat fee, regardless of the number or seriousness of the cases each attorney handles. Some public defenders in Idaho carry caseloads that are double national standards....

Ultimately, it’s easy to forget what we’re talking about when we talk about the criminal justice system. I’ve been asked by my family members, my friends and my hairdresser why I represent criminals. The answer is that I, and other public defenders, don’t represent criminals. We represent poor people who were arrested and are facing criminal charges — charges on which they are presumed innocent until proven guilty in court. We represent members of our communities who have a right to real and meaningful legal representation, even if they are poor. My clients, like the millions of other people in America currently represented by public defenders, deserve better.

September 4, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23)

Remarkable federal sentencing story pits prosecutors against each other

A colleague alerted me to a remarkable and disconcerting federal sentencing story from the Carolinas, which is reviewed in this local piece headlined "Gang Leader Sought Prosecutor’s Murder: In spite of threat, her superiors sought a lesser sentence." Here are the basics from the start of the article:

Federal prosecutor Denise Walker, who was forced into hiding for six weeks as a result of a drug dealer’s threats to have her killed, later resigned when her superiors in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Raleigh proposed a lesser sentence for the drug dealer and blocked any mention of his murderous intentions in a pre-sentencing report.

Walker had been the lead federal attorney on a task force of law enforcement professionals who flushed out and captured members of a criminal gang.  She resigned her position in March 2015 after learning of the intentions of her superiors, U. S. Attorney Thomas Walker (no relation to Denise Walker) and his top deputy John Bruce, to seek a reduction of the mandatory life sentence called for in federal guidelines for Reynaldo Calderon, the gang leaders who threatened to have her killed.

In exchange for Calderon’s cooperation with testimony against one of his associates, the government had proposed a 30-year sentence for Calderon, now age 31.  Denise Walker believed Calderon’s cooperation was insignificant and did not warrant any leniency.  At the sentencing hearing, at which she testified, she said her superiors downplayed the Calderon threat and even mocked her for being concerned about it.  And she termed the proposed lesser sentence and the omission of the death threat in the pre-sentencing hearing “deplorable.”

During the sentencing hearing, however, the judge presiding over the case shared her concern, denied the government’s request for a lesser sentence, and imposed the mandatory life sentence guidelines prescribed.

September 4, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"American Criminal Record Exceptionalism"

The title of this post is the titel of this new paper by Kevin Lapp now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In recent decades, criminal records have proliferated and come to be more consequential than ever. James B. Jacobs’s new book, THE ETERNAL CRIMINAL RECORD (2015), documents their broad scope, wide availability, and the long, devastating shadow that criminal records cast.

In this Review, I organize the material in this challenging book into three different claims about American criminal record policy: that in the United States, criminal records are exceptionally public, exceptionally punitive, and exceptionally permanent.  I explain how this results in an inexpensive means of sorting and inflicting punishment by devolving a great portion of the work to private actors and the general public.  It also presents a public policy conundrum for American criminal justice: the more information we collect and share about suspected criminals and actual offenders, the easier it is to identify and discriminate against those marked individuals.  This, it turns out, increases recidivism, therefore undermining the public safety goal at the heart of comprehensive, accessible criminal records.  To counter this perverse outcome, I marshal evidence and optimism for reforms that Jacobs considers either unattainable or unwarranted, including the possibility of juvenile justice policy serving as a blueprint for a more redemptive criminal record policy for all.

September 4, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

September 3, 2015

Julie Stewart of FAMM goes hard after Bill Otis for being "proven wrong time and time again"

Regular readers know I often note and express respect for the work and writings of both former federal prosecutor Bill Otis, who now writes most regularly at Crime & Consequences, and Julie Stewart, who is the President and Founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.   Today I must note and express amazement at the concerted efforts of one of these two taking on the other: Julie Stewart has this notable new Reason commentary headlined "The Former Prosecutor Who Consistently Gets Criminal Justice Reform Wrong: Former prosecutor Bill Otis has been mistaken over and over again when advising legislators against reducing drug sentences."  Here are excerpts mostly from the start and end of the piece:

No one expects our elected representatives to be experts in every area of public policy. At the same time, we have every right to expect that our representatives will consult policy analysts and experts who know what they're talking about, not someone who has been proven wrong time and time again. In the world of criminal justice, that someone is former federal prosecutor and Georgetown Law adjunct William Otis.

Over the past two decades, Bill Otis has become the Paul Ehrlich of criminal sentencing reform.  He is always certain in his convictions and nearly always wrong.  Moreover, like Ehrlich, Otis likes to scare the public with predictions of certain and impending doom, and he is immune to feelings of embarrassment or humiliation despite being proven spectacularly wrong over and over again....

[W]hereas Ehrlich saw overpopulation as the culprit, Otis thinks shortening sentences for nonviolent drug offenders will be America's undoing.  Indeed, every time Congress or the U.S. Sentencing Commission has considered even mild sentence reductions over the past two decades, Otis has gone full Chicken Little.  He has been wrong every time....

The nationwide drop in crime and prison crowding should be celebrated.  Less violent crime means fewer murder victims, fewer robbery victims, and fewer assault victims. Smaller prison populations means savings for taxpayers and more money to spend on what actually does reduce crime — community policing and supervision practices like "short, swift, and certain."  None of these gratifying results would have been possible if Otis's theory were correct — or if any lawmakers outside the Beltway had heard of Otis and took his views seriously.  While Otis has been consistently wrong, thankfully lawmakers have ignored him....

Committed to his prison-is-always-the-answer ideology, Otis derided the [Fair Sentencing Act], saying it should be called the "Crack Dealers Relief Act."  When the U.S. Sentencing Commission lowered the crack guideline and made it retroactive in accord with the FSA, Otis predicted it would lead to an increase in crime....  On his blog, Otis cranked up the fear machine. He predicted "misery" when "thousands of crack dealers" would be "put back on the street prematurely" to terrorize their communities.

Fortunately for those of us concerned about public safety, Otis was wrong again — amazingly wrong.  Since passage of the FSA, the crime rate, the prison population, and crack usage are all down!  It bears repeating.  Otis said the changes would cause "misery" and "inevitably lead to more crime."  Instead, while thousands of offenders have received fairer sentences, the crime rate has fallen, crack use is down, and taxpayers have saved millions from being wasted on unnecessary prison costs....

Otis is impervious to facts and evidence.  He will quote Professor Steven Levitt's finding that greater reliance on incarceration helped reduce crime in the 1990s and then ignore Levitt's later conclusion that the country has gone too far and that prisons should reduce their populations by one-third.  Otis will say, as he does in National Review, that the movement for sentencing reform "is strictly interest-group — and billionaire — driven, inside-the-Beltway," which would be fine if you did not already know that the reform movement began in the states and is being promoted in Washington, DC by insiders like Senators Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Otis's amazing record of wrongness would be interesting and perhaps even funny if he, like fellow fear-peddler Paul Ehrlich, were exiled from the world of rational public policy making.  But media reports have suggested that some members of Congress actually listen to Otis.  If that's true, then we really do have a good reason to be scared.

Yowsa.   Because I consider both Julie Stewart and Bill Otis to be personal friends, I am going to be trying hard to stay out of this sentencing sparring.  But I am also going to try to report fairly on any rounds of this fight, and thus will be quick to post any response that Bill Otis provides in his own defense in the days ahead. 

UPDATE:  Bill Otis has a response up at Crime & Consequences: Are Sentencing "Reformers" Getting Worried?.  Here is a snippet from Bill's introduction to his brief substantive refutation of points made by Julie Stewart:

I think it unbecoming and unwise to get caught up in this sort of thing.  If you hold a controversial position, you can expect some heat.  And if you spend all your time answering your critics, you'll never do anything else.  You'll certainly abandon any hope of making your own points. Accordingly, with the exceptions noted below, I am not going to engage with Ms. Stewart. (If she seeks a live debate with me, that would be another matter).

I'm quite sure she is sincere. But, for reasons stated in hundreds of things I have said on this blog and elsewhere, I believe she is in error.

September 3, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, National and State Crime Data, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

South Carolina prosecutors begin pursuit of death penalty again Charleston church mass murderer

As reported in this new AP piece, the "man accused of killing nine black churchgoers during a Bible study will face the death penalty, according to court documents filed Thursday." Here is more:

The documents said prosecutors would pursue the death penalty against Dylann Roof, 21, because more than two people were killed, and that others' lives were put at risk.

Prosecutors also said they intended to present evidence on Roof's mental state, adult and juvenile criminal record and other conduct, as well as his apparent lack of remorse for the killings.

Roof faces state charges including nine murder counts in the June 17 slayings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He is expected in court again on those charges in October.

He also faces federal charges including hate crimes and obstruction of the practice of religion, some of which are also eligible for the death penalty in that system.  U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said federal charges were necessary to adequately address a motive that prosecutors believe was unquestionably rooted in racial hate. South Carolina has no state hate crimes law.

September 3, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Lots of ideas for Prez Obama for final criminal justice reform push

The fine folks at The Marshall Project got a lot of other fine folks to share their views here on what Prez Obama might usefully do in the criminal justice reform area as his time in the Oval Office winds down.  The piece is headlined "Obama’s Final 500 Days: People from across the political spectrum suggest criminal justice reforms the president should enact during his remaining time in office." There is a lot of food for thought (for both readers and Prez Obama) in the piece, and here are some of the headings used by the Marshall Project marking some themes:  

Prosecute the Prosecutors

Have Truly Smarter Sentencing

Release More Prisoners

Don’t Forget the Aftermath

Rethink Solitary

Create a Few Commissions

September 3, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Third Circuit panel explains Scylla and Charybdis of habeas law to prisoner John (Odysseus) Doe

Anyone who loves to read about and think a lot about federal post-conviction sentencing review rules — and really, who doesn't? — will want to make sure to preserve some time today to try to consume all of the extraordinary work done yesterday by a Third Circuit panel in US v. Doe, No. 13-4274 (3d Cir. Sept 2, 2015) (available here). The Doe decision runs 50 pages (with a table of contents longer than a page), but the starting quotes and introduction highlight the basics:

“The whole thing was a very cleverly planned jigsaw puzzle, so arranged that every fresh piece of knowledge that came to light made the solution of the whole more difficult.” — Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express.

“It’s like kind of complicated to me” — John Doe, on the withdrawal of his § 2255 motion.

John Doe, whose identity we protect because he is a Government informant, appeals from the denial of (1) a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion filed in 2012 and (2) a request made in 2013 to reopen a § 2255 motion filed in 2008.  Doe was sentenced pursuant to the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines as a “career offender” on the basis of two convictions for simple assault in Pennsylvania.  He argued in his 2008 motion that his convictions were not “crimes of violence” within the meaning of the Guidelines and thus he was not a career offender.  Our precedent foreclosed that argument when he made it, but, in light of the Supreme Court case Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137 (2008), we reversed ourselves, and Doe’s argument became plausible.  He therefore filed another § 2255 motion, but it too was denied.

This case presents many procedural complexities of first impression within this Circuit. If Doe can manage the Odyssean twists and turns of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), including the Scylla of the second-or-successive bar and the Charybdis of the statute of limitations, he may find a meritorious claim at the end of his journey.  However, we do not definitively reach the merits here and instead remand to let Doe’s case continue its uncertain course.

September 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"The simple truth about why mass incarceration happened"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective recent Vox piece by German Lopez. Here are excerpts:

How could US politicians possibly think it was a good idea to incarcerate millions of Americans starting in the 1980s, creating the system of mass incarceration we have today?

It's a question that gets tossed around a lot nowadays, with varied answers — from claims it was an attempt to control the population to arguments that private prisons created a profit motive for locking up millions of Americans.

But there's a much simpler explanation: The public wanted mass incarceration. It's easy to forget now, but the politics of crime were huge in the 1990s.  According to data from Gallup, never before or after the nineties have so many Americans said that crime is the most important problem facing the country today.

Americans had a very good reason for these concerns.  From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, crime was unusually high.  The country was still coming off what was perceived as a crack cocaine epidemic, in which the drug ran rampant across urban streets and fueled deadly gang violence.  So Americans, by and large, demanded their lawmakers do something — and politicians reacted with mass incarceration and other tough-on-crime policies.

It's very easy in hindsight to consider this an overreaction — now that we know crime began its decades-long decline in the early 1990s, and now that research has shown that mass incarceration only partly contributed to this decline.  But people didn't know that at the time. They didn't know crime was about to begin its long-term drop, and the research on mass incarceration was far from conclusive. Politicians thought crime would get worse, not better.

In fact, there were warnings at the time that things were on the verge of getting worse. One prominent concern in the 1990s — based on what turned out to be very bad social science research — suggested that there was an incoming epidemic of superpredators, violent youth who would rob and kill people....

In this context, it was expected that all politicians — liberal and conservative — take a tough stance on crime.  That's partly why liberals like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders supported the 1994 crime law that contributed to mass incarceration.  It's why dueling candidates for governor in the liberal state of New York campaigned on who could be tougher on crime.  And it's why practically every state passed tough-on-crime policies throughout the 1980s and 1990s....

Popular demand for tough-on-crime laws in the past doesn't in any way excuse the devastation lawmakers inflicted on millions of people through mass incarceration and other policies.  But based on voters' concerns in the 1990s, if a politician didn't contribute to the problem back then, he or she may not be prominent enough to run for president today.  That's how America ended up with mass incarceration — and the seemingly contradictory Democratic presidential candidates for 2016.

September 3, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

September 2, 2015

Prison administrators contribute to new report on solitary confinement

AscatanAs detailed in this press release, the Association of State Correctional Administrators has joined with researchers at Yale to produce an important new report about solitary confinement. Here are the basics via the press release: 

Prolonged isolation of individuals in jails and prisons is a grave problem in the United States. The insistence on change comes not only from legislators across the political spectrum, judges, and a host of private sector voices, but also from the directors of correctional systems at both state and federal levels.  Even as a national outcry has arisen about isolation, relatively little information exists about the actual number of people held in restrictive housing, the policies determining their placement, and whether and how conditions vary in different jurisdictions.  Indeed, the figures cited on the number of people held in isolation vary from 25,000 to more than 80,000.  But that information comes from a decade and more ago.

To rectify the absence of data and to pave the way for changes, the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) joined with the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School to develop a national database of the policies and practices on what correctional officials call “restricted housing” and is frequently referred in the media as “solitary confinement.”  ASCA is the only national organization of persons directly responsible for the administration of correctional systems and includes the heads of each state’s corrections agencies, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the District of Columbia, New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles County.

The result is the new report Time-in-Cell: The Liman-ASCA 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison, which is the first to provide updated information, as of the fall of 2014, on both the numbers and the conditions in restrictive housing nationwide.  This Report represents the commitments of correctional leaders to make such changes.  But without a baseline, it is not possible to know the impact of the many efforts underway. Time-in-Cell provides one way to measure and to learn whether the hoped-for changes are taking place, to reduce and to eliminate the isolation of prisoners, so as to enable prisoners and staff to live and work in safe environments, respectful of human dignity. 

This important report, which runs nearly 100 pages, is available in full at this link. Some of its findings and the broaded policy discourse now surrounding solitary confinement are effectively covered in new stories via the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal here and here, respectively.

September 2, 2015 in Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

"The Pressing Need for Mens Rea Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new "Legal Memorandum" authored by John Macolm, who is the Director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Here is the abstract and "Key Points" from this publication:

Abstract

One of the greatest safeguards against overcriminalization — the misuse and overuse of criminal laws and penalties to address societal problems — is ensuring that there is an adequate mens rea requirement in criminal laws.  Sentencing reform addresses how long people should serve once convicted, but mens rea reform addresses those who never should have been convicted in the first place: morally blameless people who unwittingly commit acts that turn out to be crimes and are prosecuted for those offenses rather than having the harms they caused addressed through the civil justice system.  Not only are their lives adversely affected, perhaps irreparably, but the public’s respect for the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system is diminished.  That is something that should concern everyone.

Key Points

1 Nearly 5,000 federal criminal statutes are scattered throughout the U.S. Code, and an estimated 300,000 or more criminal regulatory offenses are buried in the Code of Federal Regulations.

2 Not even Congress or the Department of Justice knows precisely how many criminal laws and regulations currently exist.  Because many of them lack adequate (or even any) mens rea standards, innocent mistakes or accidents can become crimes.

3 Congress should pass a default mens rea provision that would apply to crimes in which no mens rea has been provided.  If a mens rea requirement is missing from a criminal statute or regulation, a default standard should automatically be inserted, unless Congress makes it clear in the statute itself that it intended to create a strict liability offense.

September 2, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Prison realities and reform insights from "Mr. Smith Goes to Prison"

51Qm5bXG9NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Politico magazine has this fascinating excerpt from a new book titled "Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis."  The book is authored by Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator, who spent a year in federal prison for violating federal election laws, and parts of the excerpt read a bit like the Y-chromisone version of Orange is the New Black. But, as these passage highlight, it appears the book covers much more than just the fish-out-of-water elements of prison life for a white-collar offender:

Long story short: Five years after losing the election, I pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice for impeding the federal investigation Carnahan had initiated. But I requested an unorthodox sentence: two years of home confinement and full-time community service during which I would be allowed to leave my house only to teach civics and coach basketball at a St. Louis charter school I’d co-founded a decade earlier. It would’ve saved taxpayers about $175,000: two years of a teacher’s salary, plus the cost of housing a federal prisoner, since I would’ve paid for my electronic monitoring. More than 300 people, including a bipartisan group of the state’s top elected officials, wrote public letters to the to the judge requesting clemency and arguing that — as the prison counselor in Kentucky would later note — locking me up would be a waste. But the Feds portrayed me as the mastermind of a “textbook case of political corruption” and pushed for a harsh sentence at the top of the federal guidelines. The judge gave me a year and a day in federal prison.

Six months later, I was adrift in a sea of sharks — a professor-turned-politician-turned-felon forced to learn prison patois and the politics of survival. Among other areas, I’d studied and taught criminal justice policy as a political scientist for a decade. But in prison I would be the student, not the teacher.

This is the story of what I learned — about my fellow prisoners, the guards and administrators, and the system in which we operated. It is a cautionary tale of friendship and betrayal. It is a story of how politics prepared me — and didn’t — for prison, and how prison prepared me for life. But more broadly, it is a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens, and a prescription for how America can begin to decarcerate and harness the untapped potential of 2.2 million incarcerated people through programs that will transform offenders’ lives, infuse our economy with entrepreneurial energy, increase public safety and save taxpayers billions by slashing sky-high recidivism rates....

Prisons have been called “training grounds for rapists,” and according to one estimate based on two decades of surveys, nearly 300,000 rapes occur annually in U.S. prisons. The most recent Justice Department data concluded that from 2003 to 2012, nearly 2 million inmates were sexually assaulted, costing society as much as $51.9 billion annually, including the costs of victims’ compensation and increased recidivism. Advocates hoped that passage of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which sought to prevent, uncover and address sexual assault, would help, but many large states have refused to comply with it (with little consequence). In 2011, a typical prisoner’s likelihood of being raped was roughly 30 times higher than that of a given woman on the outside, suggesting a depressingly steady trendline despite PREA’s passage. And since reporting assaults will only bring more trouble from fellow prisoners and COs alike, most victims remain quiet, rendering official prison data unreliably low.

Exacerbating this is a dearth of post-rape psychological treatment during incarceration and reentry, which increases the likelihood that victims will suffer from PTSD as well as their odds of recidivism — especially for crimes involving sexual assault. Tragically, prison rape often causes compensatory aggression as untreated victims commit rapes upon release to reclaim their manhood in the same way they imagine it was lost. This vicious cycle by which (frequently) nonviolent offenders become violent is the opposite of the duty that “correctional institutions” are meant to perform....

I spent less than a year in prison. In the words of my first cellie, I had less time in prison than he had done on the prison toilet. I had every advantage upon re-entry: I was a white guy with a Ph.D. from a top school, community and family support, and financial savings. Yet getting a decent job was a struggle. I often think about the re-entry of the guys I was locked up. Most had a GED earned in prison; some hadn’t had a visit in years, or even a decade, and had no one to call on the phone; few had savings to fall back on. They would be coming home to a world in which four of five landlords and nine of 10 employers run criminal background checks on prospective tenants and employees to screen out felons, in which many are not allowed to vote or use food stamps and in which they must immediately find money to pay for a halfway house room and urinalysis tests even as they cannot afford clothes for a job interview.

Mass incarceration is driven in large part by sky-high recidivism rates, and when one contemplates the myriad obstacles to successful prisoner re-entry, one grasps that the system is not, as many claim, broken at all; rather, it appears to be a well-oiled machine, keeping millions of people out of our economic mainstream. And only a shift in our cultural mindset — a realization that people who are incarcerated could, to paraphrase President Obama after his recent prison visit to a federal prison, be our brothers, our sons, our mothers, or ourselves — will change that.

September 2, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Share Your Grief But Not Your Anger: Victims and the Expression of Emotion in Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Susan Bandes.  Here is the abstract:

In the recent capital trials of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for the Boston Marathon bombings and James Holmes for the Colorado theater shootings, victims’ families were permitted to give testimony after the sentence had been announced.  Since victim impact testimony in capital cases was upheld by the Supreme Court on the ground that it provides important information to the sentencing jury, hearings after sentencing raise the question of what role the statements are meant to serve.

I argue that although victim impact testimony was originally justified as a means of providing information to sentencing juries, it is now regarded as having two additional purposes.  First, it is widely assumed that the statements serve a cathartic or therapeutic role for victims and their families; that they assist in obtaining “closure.”  Second, there is a growing tendency toward viewing the statements as a means of confronting the perpetrator in order to elicit remorse, or at least impress on him the gravity of the harm he has caused.  Each of these three rationales has different implications for the nature, scope and advisability of allowing victim impact statements.

In this chapter I examine what goals the statements are meant to serve, how those goals should affect the rules governing the statements, and whether the goals are practically achievable or normatively desirable.

September 2, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

September 1, 2015

California settles prisoner lawsuit by agreeing to limit use of solitary confinement

As reported in this local AP piece , headlined "California to end unlimited isolation for most gang leaders," a lawsuit concerning California's use of solitary confinement culminated today in a significant settlement. Here are the details:

California agreed Tuesday to end its unlimited isolation of imprisoned gang leaders, restricting a practice that once kept hundreds of inmates in notorious segregation units for a decade or longer.

The state is agreeing to segregate only inmates who commit new crimes behind bars and will no longer lock gang members in soundproofed, windowless cells solely to keep them from directing illegal activities by gang members.  "It will move California more into the mainstream of what other states are doing while still allowing us the ability to deal with people who are presenting problems within our system, but do so in a way where we rely less on the use of segregation," Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey Beard told The Associated Press.

The conditions triggered intermittent hunger strikes by tens of thousands of inmates throughout the prison system in recent years.  Years-long segregation also drew criticism this summer from President Barack Obama and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

"I think there is a deepening movement away from solitary confinement in the country and I think this settlement will be a spur to that movement," Jules Lobel, the inmates' lead attorney and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in a telephone interview.

The lawsuit was initially filed in 2009 by two killers serving time in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay.  By 2012, Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell were among 78 prisoners confined in Pelican Bay's isolation unit for more than 20 years, though Troxell has since been moved to another prison. More than 500 had been in the unit for more than 10 years, though recent policy changes reduced that to 62 inmates isolated for a decade or longer as of late July.

The suit contended that isolating inmates in 80-square-foot cells for all but about 90 minutes each day amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.  About half the nearly 3,000 inmates held in such units are in solitary confinement.  Inmates have no physical contact with visitors and are allowed only limited reading materials and communications with the outside world.

The settlement will limit how long inmates can spend in isolation, while creating restrictive custody units for inmates who refuse to participate in rehabilitation programs or keep breaking prison rules....  Lobel said the new units, by giving high-security inmates more personal contact and privileges, should be an example to other states to move away from isolation policies that he said have proven counterproductive in California....

Nichol Gomez, a spokeswoman for the union representing most prison guards, said it was disappointing that "the people that actually have to do the work" weren't involved in the negotiations, so she couldn't immediately comment.

Beard said he will work to ease the unions' previously expressed concerns that guards could face additional danger. He said the settlement expands on recent changes that have reduced the number of segregated inmates statewide from 4,153 in January 2012 to 2,858 currently.

Until recently, gang members could serve unlimited time in isolation.  Under the settlement, they and other inmates can be segregated for up to five years for crimes committed in prison, though gang members can receive another two years in segregation.

September 1, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Lots of notable new sentencing-related content at Crime & Consequences

I make Crime and Consequences a daily read for lots of reasons, and here is just a sample of some new content in a number of recent posts that sentencing fans should be sure to check out:

 

September 1, 2015 in Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Previewing the latest (and most important) bipartisan federal statutory sentencing reform effort in Congress

ImagesAs regular readers know, September is the month that a (long-forecast) important new federal sentencing reform bill has become likely to emerge from the US Senate.  This new Daily Signal article, headlined "Bipartisan Group of Senators Set to Announce Deal to Reduce Prison Population," which reports that this bill is going to be unveiled a week from today, provides an account of what we can expect to see in this bill.  Here are excerpts:

Soon after lawmakers return to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8, a bipartisan group of members on the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to announce a deal meant to relieve the overcrowded federal prison population.

The bill, which is still being written and near completion — according to Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley — would give judges more discretion in sentencing offenders of certain nonviolent drug crimes and let well-behaved inmates earn time off their prison terms.

“They want to announce a deal as soon as they get back, but they just aren’t quite there yet,” says Conn Carroll, the communications director for Sen. Mike Lee, a committee member and leading reform advocate. “Let’s just say it’s first and goal on the one, everyone thinks we’ll score, we just don’t know when,” Carroll continued.

The legislation, the result of months of negotiations, will likely incorporate policies from previously introduced legislation in both houses of Congress.

The judiciary committee’s compromise bill is not expected to include reductions to mandatory minimums that are blamed for mass incarceration. Mandatory minimums require binding prison terms of a particular length and prevent judges from using their discretion to apply punishment. But the legislation is expected to give judges some leeway in sentencing drug offenders....

A new Pew study, using data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, reveals that there are more than 207,000 inmates in federal prisons, and 95,000 of those inmates are incarcerated for drug-related offenses — up from fewer than 5,000 in 1980.

The jump in the number of inmates has cost a lot of money. From 1980 to 2013, federal prison spending increased 595 percent, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion. According to the study, prison spending now represents one of every four dollars spent by the U.S. Justice Department. The report says growth of the prison population, and the longer drug sentences, can be pinned on a tough-on-crime mentality that dominated the 1980s.

Reform advocates say these policies — such as laws passed by Congress enacting mandatory minimum sentences of five, 10, or 20 years for drug offenders, and abolishing parole for federal offenders — have outlived their usefulness and need to be revised.

“The question really boils down to, has Sen. Grassley come to recognize mandatory minimums are a policy failure?” says Alison Holcomb, the director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. “Whether the bill is worth all the time and effort of the negotiations depends on a large part to the answer to that question.”

Grassley, as the judiciary committee chair, is the gatekeeper of the talks. Experts such as Holcomb say Grassley is opposed to across-the-board repeal of mandatory minimum sentences. “The real question of this bill is, how far can Grassley go?” says Molly Gill, the government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit. “There’s a lot of pressure to do something significant. Is Grassley’s definition of significant close to everyone else’s? There becomes a certain point where you ask, is this real reform?”

Though Grassley’s office won’t share the exact details, the bill is expected to address a “safety valve” law that’s supposed to keep people from receiving unfair sentences.

Under the law, a federal drug offender can avoid a mandatory minimum sentence if he passes a five-part “safety valve” test. A convicted felon can be sentenced below a mandatory minimum if he was not a drug leader or “king pin,” he did not use or possess a gun during the offense, the offense is nonviolent, he was truthful with the government, and he has little or no other criminal activity on his record.

Reform advocates argue that even the most minor criminal history, such as being convicted for possessing a small amount of marijuana as a juvenile, can make an offender ineligible for the safety valve exception. The Senate Judiciary Committee bill may make the criminal record aspect of the safety valve more forgiving. It may also create a new loophole to get around mandatory minimums.

In addition, the legislation will include elements of a separate bill, the Corrections Act, authored by two senators of the judiciary committee: John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

That bill would allow certain well-behaved prisoners to earn time off their sentences by participating in recidivism reduction programs such as drug counseling and vocational training. The judiciary committee bill won’t be as comprehensive as the House’s SAFE Justice Act, sponsored by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., which would narrow the range of offenders that mandatory minimums apply to. Some members, like Grassley, think that reform plan is too far-reaching.

“Although there is clearly bipartisan support for a number of these proposals, [this] is a difficult issue,” says John Malcolm, the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies. “Some believe our current sentencing regime is unfair and the pendulum has swung too far in terms of imposing harsh sentences,” Malcolm continued. “Others believe increased incarceration and harsh sentences have taken some very dangerous people off of the streets. I remain cautiously optimistic there is some ‘sweet spot’ where both sides can compromise.”

Whatever the final product looks like, all sides are optimistic that Congress will give Obama a criminal justice reform bill to sign this year — because too many people are waiting. “The American criminal justice system has gotten has so far out of whack, with far too many people behind bars for too high a price,” Holcomb said. “The cold hard fact that people across the aisle can agree on is that America is better than this.”

I am pleased that some key details of the sentencing reform bill most likely to get to Prez Obama's desk are emerging, and I am not surprised that Senator Grassley is more interested in pursuing expanded exceptions to current federal mandatory minimums rather than across the board cuts to any current mandatory minimum. At the same time, I am concerned (but again not suprised) that advocates of federal sentencing reform are worried that this latest bill which has Senator Grassley's blessing is not going to be as far-reaching or impactful as other bills that have been making the rounds.

As a general matter, I favor a federal sentencing world without any crude and strict mandatory minimums terms for any non-violent crimes. But, especially now that we have had two-plus years of talk about statutory sentencing reform and nothing at all that has made it through Congress, I am hopeful all reform advocates will get on-board with whatever comes out of the Senate later this month. Especially with growing talk about violent crime increases in some cities and with sound-bite presidential campaigns now dominating the broader political conversation, I think the window for any meaningful federal sentencing reforms emerging from Congress is already starting to close. If visions of the "best" or even the "really good" prompt criticisms of any bill that has a real chance of passage, we could well end up with no bill making it through Congress at all.

Some prior related posts:

September 1, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Skin Color and the Criminal Justice System: Beyond Black‐White Disparities in Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new article discussing empirical research on sentencing outcomes in Georgia authored by Traci Burch. Here is the abstract:

This article analyzes sentencing outcomes for black and white men in Georgia. The analysis uses sentencing data collected by the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC). Among first‐time offenders, both the race‐only models and race and skin color models estimate that, on average, blacks receive sentences that are 4.25 percent higher than those of whites even after controlling for legally‐relevant factors such as the type of crime.

However, the skin color model also shows us that this figure hides important intraracial differences in sentence length: while medium‐ and dark‐skinned blacks receive sentences that are about 4.8 percent higher than those of whites, lighter‐skinned blacks receive sentences that are not statistically significantly different from those of whites.  After controlling for socioeconomic status in the race‐only and race and skin color models the remaining difference between whites and dark‐ and medium‐skinned blacks increases slightly, to 5.5 percent.  These findings are discussed with respect to the implications for public policy and for racial hierarchy in the United States.

September 1, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Charging on the Margin"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper discussing prosecutorial practices and collteral consequences autored by Paul Crane now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The American criminal justice system has experienced a significant expansion in the number and severity of penalties triggered by misdemeanor convictions.  In particular, legislatures have increasingly attached severe collateral consequences to misdemeanor offenses — penalties such as being required to register as a sex offender, prohibitions on owning or possessing a firearm, and deportation.  While there is a wealth of scholarship studying the effect this development has had on defendants and their attorneys, little attention has been paid to the impact collateral consequences have on prosecutorial incentives.  This Article starts to remedy that gap by exploring the influence collateral consequences exert on initial charging decisions in low-level prosecutions.

Critically, the ability to impose certain collateral consequences through a misdemeanor conviction unlocks an array of additional charging options for prosecutors.  As a result, prosecutors are now more likely to engage in a practice I term “strategic undercharging.” A prosecutor engages in strategic undercharging when she charges a lesser offense than she otherwise could, but does so for reasons that advance her own aims — and not as an act of prosecutorial grace or leniency.  In other words, prosecutors can sometimes gain more by charging less.  By explaining why (and when) prosecutors are likely to engage in strategic undercharging, this Article complicates the conventional wisdom that prosecutors reflexively file the most severe charges available.

This Article also proposes that collateral consequences be factored into the determination of what procedural safeguards are afforded a criminal defendant.  Under existing law, collateral consequences are generally deemed irrelevant to that inquiry; the degree of procedural protection provided in a given case turns exclusively on the threatened term of incarceration.  Changing this approach could have several salutary effects on the administration of collateral consequences.  At a minimum, it would honor a basic principle underlying our criminal justice system: the threat of serious penalties warrants serious procedures.

September 1, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Guns, gangs, ganja, going after police ... are there obvious lessons from 2015 homicide spikes?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy front-page New York Times article spotlighting the notable spike in homicides in many US cities so far in 2015.  The article is headlined "Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities," and here are excerpts:

Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines, and few places have witnessed a shift as precipitous as this city.  With the summer not yet over, 104 people have been killed this year — after 86 homicides in all of 2014.

More than 30 other cities have also reported increases in violence from a year ago. In New Orleans, 120 people had been killed by late August, compared with 98 during the same period a year earlier.  In Baltimore, homicides had hit 215, up from 138 at the same point in 2014. In Washington, the toll was 105, compared with 73 people a year ago. And in St. Louis, 136 people had been killed this year, a 60 percent rise from the 85 murders the city had by the same time last year.

Law enforcement experts say disparate factors are at play in different cities, though no one is claiming to know for sure why murder rates are climbing.  Some officials say intense national scrutiny of the use of force by the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals, though many experts dispute that theory.

Rivalries among organized street gangs, often over drug turf, and the availability of guns are cited as major factors in some cities, including Chicago.  But more commonly, many top police officials say they are seeing a growing willingness among disenchanted young men in poor neighborhoods to use violence to settle ordinary disputes....

Urban bloodshed — as well as the overall violent crime rate — remains far below the peaks of the late 1980s and early ’90s, and criminologists say it is too early to draw broad conclusions from the recent numbers.  In some cities, including Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Newark, homicides remain at a relatively steady rate this year.

Yet with at least 35 of the nation’s cities reporting increases in murders, violent crimes or both, according to a recent survey, the spikes are raising alarm among urban police chiefs. The uptick prompted an urgent summit meeting in August of more than 70 officials from some of the nation’s largest cities.  A Justice Department initiative is scheduled to address the rising homicide rates as part of a conference in September....

The police superintendent in Chicago, Garry McCarthy, said he thought an abundance of guns was a major factor in his city’s homicide spike.  Even as officials in both parties are calling for reducing the prison population, he insisted that gun offenders should face stiffer penalties.  “Across the country, we’ve all found it’s not the individual who never committed a crime before suddenly killing somebody,” Mr. McCarthy said on Monday. “It’s the repeat offenders. It’s the same people over and over again.”

Among some experts and rank­and­file officers, the notion that less aggressive policing has emboldened criminals — known as the “Ferguson effect” in some circles — is a popular theory for the uptick in violence.  “The equilibrium has changed between police and offenders,” said Alfred Blumstein, a professor and a criminologist at Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University.

Others doubt the theory or say data has not emerged to prove it.  Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist from the University of Missouri­-St. Louis, said homicides in St. Louis, for instance, had already begun an arc upward in 2014 before a white police officer killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in nearby Ferguson.  That data, he said, suggests that other factors may be in play.

Less debated is the sense among police officials that more young people are settling their disputes, including one started on Facebook, with guns....

In New Orleans, Michael S. Harrison, the police superintendent, said the city’s rise in homicides did not appear to reflect any increase in gang violence or robberies of strangers, but rather involved killings inside homes and cars by people who know their victims — particularly difficult crimes to predict or prevent....

In New York, there have been a larger number of gang­-related killings, Stephen Davis, the department’s top spokesman, said.  But he also said many homicides remained unexplained, the result of disputes with murky origins.  “There are a lot of murders that happen in the spur of the moment,” Mr. Davis said.

Especially because 2014 was a year with record-low homicide rates in many jurisdictions, I am not too surprised (though I am much troubled) by these new homicide data. I share the view that it is too early to draw any firm conclusions as to what is causing or what should be done about this uptick in deadly urban violence.  But I also think it is not too early for researchers to be asking a lot of hard questions about what sets of legal and social factors which were previously successful in reducing homicide rates are now proving less effective.

Astute readers should see that I threw ganja into the alliterative mix of factors in the title of this post because changes in national marijuana policies and practices are among the legal and social factors that I have been watching closely lately in relation to crime rates.  This New York Times article does not discuss this factor — or many others crime and punishment factors like increases in opioid addiction, or reduced use of the death penalty — surely because there are so many different and hard-to-track factors which might play some role in any changing nationwide  crimes patterns.

September 1, 2015 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (4)

August 31, 2015

District Judge struggles with impact of reduced guidelines for (long-ago) kingpin crack dealer

NPR has this notable new story about a notable request by a notable federal crack offender seeking a reduced sentence based on the new reduced crack guidelines.  Ths piece is headlined "Notorious Cocaine Dealers' Release Requests Test New Sentencing Guidelines," and here are excerpts:

A longtime federal judge struggled Monday over what constitutes justice for members of one of Washington, D.C.'s most notorious drug rings. Senior U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth pressed a public defender about the fate of Melvin Butler, a man who helped flood the city with cocaine that contributed to waves of violence in the late 1980s.

"You're saying that I can't consider the fact that he was one of the biggest drug dealers in the history of our city?" the judge asked. "Congress has tied my hands and I can't consider that?"

The issue arrived in a spotless second-floor room in the federal courthouse on a request from Butler, now 52, for a sentence reduction that would allow him to leave prison in November, after spending half of his life behind bars.

Butler landed in federal custody on April 28, 1989 — so long ago that most of his court records are lost somewhere in storage. Butler, based in California, was a top associate of Rayful Edmond III, Washington's most infamous drug kingpin. The two men allegedly connected at a heavyweight boxing match in Las Vegas in 1987. Two years later, their trial riveted the country. Officials outfitted the courtroom with bulletproof glass and flew Edmond in each day from a lockup in Quantico, Va.

Butler had initially been sentenced to life in prison, Judge Lamberth pointed out, as "one of the two top ringleaders" of a gang that made more than $1 million a week. But the judge who presided over the case, and died in 1997, later reduced the sentence. Now, Butler and his lawyer are trying to shave off more time using a process the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved last year for drug offenders to secure early release from prison.

"I recognize this man's stature and what happened in the '80s," said Assistant Federal Public Defender Dani Jahn. "He's now 52 years old. He's not the person that he was. This is a very lengthy sentence." Jahn said that if Butler were sentenced under laws in place now, he'd face far less time. And, she said, if the judge refuses to grant the request, Butler will still win release in 2017, having served his full term. She pointed out that Butler will remain under supervised release, subject to sanctions if he breaks the law again. "These guys have everything to lose by screwing up when they get out," Jahn said, adding that appearing before Judge Lamberth under those circumstances "would not be a good experience."...

Another member of the Edmond drug gang, lower down on the ladder, James Jones, also is seeking a sentence reduction. Now 58, Jones is scheduled to leave prison in February 2018. But he too wants to take advantage of a change in the sentencing guidelines that would allow him to go free in November with the judge's permission. Thousands of prison inmates across the country already have won the ability to leave prison early under that mechanism.

But in his courtroom, across from the U.S. Capitol, Judge Lamberth expressed reservations. "It still gives me pause what Congress is doing," the judge said. "I would have thought the top drug kingpins in the country wouldn't be the beneficiaries of what we're trying to do here."

The questions of crime and punishment are particularly timely now as the Obama administration has prioritized sentencing reform and clemency initiatives that would deliver shorter sentences and other relief to nonviolent drug criminals. Lawmakers from both political parties are preparing to advance their own proposals for overhauling the criminal justice system in September....

But the question before Judge Lamberth, and others deliberating notorious cases across the country, is what standards to consider for criminals involved at higher levels in violent drug gangs. The judge said he recalled Edmond testifying that many of his lieutenants wielded firearms. Lamberth also asked about an apparently unresolved murder allegation involving Jones dating to the 1980s. But the prosecutor, the public defender and the probation officer couldn't remember back that far, so they asked for time to research the question.

Prosecutor Barry Wiegand said he didn't want to opine about changes in criminal justice policy. But he said he lived several blocks away from what used to be a drug market under Edmond's control. "I wouldn't presume as an assistant United States attorney to be privy to the wisdom of Congress," he said. "I observe that 31- and 32-year sentences are long. I observe that a lot of places aren't what they used to be. What we did in the 1980s and 1990s was the right thing to do, and we did it well."

August 31, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS lets convicted former Virginia Gov to remain free pending cert decision

As reported in this local article, headlined "U.S. Supreme Court lets McDonnell stay free for now," a high-profile white-collar federal defendant has gotten a kind of prison sentence reprieve while continuing to pursue his appeals. Here are the basics:

In a surprise to many observers Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed former Gov. Bob McDonnell to remain free while the justices decide whether to take up his appeal....

Should the justices not take the case, the stay ordered this afternoon will end automatically. If the court takes the case the stay will continue, the court ordered.

"Wow," said Randall Eliason, former chief of the Public Corruption/Government Fraud Section at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington. "It suggests there is some level of interest at the Supreme Court in reviewing the case, even though not a single appellate judge in the 4th Circuit agreed with his arguments.”

Henry Asbill, one of McDonnell’s lawyers, said “We’re very grateful for this order and we’re gratified that the justices recognize that this case raises substantial and important legal questions and we look forward to a full merits briefing."

McDonnell’s lawyers made the request to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who referred the matter to the full court. McDonnell needed a majority vote for the stay - it is unclear if the full court voted - but only needs four votes for the court to agree to take up his appeal.

"I am surprised," said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of law. "There's no explanation" provided by the justices, "so it's really hard to know what the vote might have been. But I think it may be a hopeful sign for McDonnell," he said.

"It certainly buys some time," perhaps four months or more while the court considers taking the case, he said. "I think it shows there is some interest on the court in this case," but not necessarily the ultimate outcome. "There's still a lot of steps to go," he said.

The government opposed continued bond for McDonnell and argued that he should begin serving his two-year term. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney had no comment on the order. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of corruption charges stemming from $177,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the former CEO of Star Scientific, in exchange for helping with the promotion of a product.

I am a bit disinclined to assert that the former Gov is getting the benefit of celebrity justice, especially because there is good reason to believe McDonnell would have possibly served the majority of his two-year prison sentence before SCOTUS would be able to decide the case on the merits if it ultimately chooses to take up his appeal.  Still, many white-collar defendants (despite presumably not being a risk to public safet) do not often get the opportunity to remain free on bail pending an appeal of right to a circuit court, let alone a cert appeal to SCOTUS. 

Prior related posts:

August 31, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

India Law Commission urges nation to abolish death penalty for all common crimes

This new article reports on an interesting and notable international sentencing reform development coming from India, a large nation within a continent which has long embraced and preserved a commitment to capital punishemnt.  The piece's extended headline provides the basics: "Law Commission recommends abolishing death penalty except in terror cases: In its 272-page draft report, the commission favoured speedy abolition of the death penalty from the statute books, except in cases where the accused is convicted of involvement in a terror case or waging war against the nation."

The full text of this lengthy report from the Law Commission of India, which is titled simply "Report No. 262: The Death Penalty," can be accessed at this link.  Here is one of many key passages leading up to the report's final recommendations:

In sum, the death penalty operates in a system that is highly fragile, open to manipulation and mistake, and evidently fallible.  However objective the system becomes, since it is staffed by humans, and thus limited by human capacities and tendencies, the possibility of error always remains open, as has been acknowledged the world over, including by the most highly resourced legal systems.

As the instances cited above indicate, while the existence of appellate procedures may reduce the chances of error, these cannot be eliminated altogether.  Given the irreversibility of the death penalty, this punishment can only be justified where the entire system works in a fool proof manner, having regard to the highest standards of due process, the fairest of investigation and prosecution, the most robust defence, and the most impartial and astute judges.  However, experiences the world over, including in India suggest, that “all it takes is one dishonest police officer, one incompetent lawyer, one over-zealous prosecutor or one mistaken witness and the system fails.”  In a perfect criminal justice system, the death penalty may be imposed error free.  However, no such system has been devised so far.  The death penalty therefore remains an irreversible punishment in an imperfect, fragile and fallible system.

August 31, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Just-Barely-Sustainable California Prisoners’ Rights Ecosystem"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper by Margo Schlanger now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Nationwide, litigation currently plays a far smaller role as a corrections oversight mechanism than in decades past, a change largely caused by the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).  Yet no such decline is evident in the nation’s most populous state, California, where prisoners’ rights litigation remains enormously influential and was the trigger to the criminal justice “Realignment” that is the subject of this symposium. Indeed, every prison in California is subject to numerous ongoing court orders governing conditions of confinement.

This article examines why California is different.  It argues California’s very large bar includes a critical mass of highly expert prisoners’ rights lawyers.  Working for both non-profits and for-profit firms, they benefited from a pipeline of large-scale, pre-PLRA, fees-paying cases that sustained them while they learned to cope with the statutory obstacles. And the Ninth Circuit’s hospitable bench awarded them some favorable fee-related rulings in support of their coping strategies.  In short, they learned how to — just barely — maintain a prisoners’ rights docket nothwithstanding very substantial financial hurdles. They continue to litigate old and new cases, but ongoing challenges pose a real threat to the fragile litigation ecosystem they have created.

August 31, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 30, 2015

Gearing up for the Ninth Circuit oral argument concerning California's (capricious?) capital cae review

As I have noted in a few recent posts (linked below), panel oral argument is scheduled for tomorrow, August 31, 2015, in the Ninth Circuit appeal of last year's ruling by US District Judge Cormac Carney in Jones v. Chappell (now Jones v. Davis) that California's administration of capital punishment was unconstitutional.  Unsurprisingly, media both old and new are giving significant attention to this appeal in a case that could possibly preclude any further executions in the state with the largest death row, and here are headlines/titles and links to a melange of recent media coverage I have come across recently:

As I have mentioned in prior posts, Jones was an interesting ruling from the federal district court for various reasons, and a lot of interconnected issues are in play on appeal.  As revealed via this Ninth Circuit webpage, various amici have submitted briefs to the Ninth Circuit urging reversal or affirmance of the Jones decision.  And I believe we can all watch the panel arguments live via this link from the Ninth Circuit tomorrow at 12noon EDT (9am PDT).  

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: Here are two more new (old media) pieces previewing today's oral argument in Jones v. Davis:

August 30, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Following the industries that follows incareration nation (with only limited concerns about sentencing reform)

Today's New York Times has this interesting article authored by David Segal about various corrections-oriented industries and their (limited) worries about the impact of sentencing reform on their bottom lines.  The article is headlined "Prison Vendors See Continued Signs of a Captive Market," and here are a couple excerpts:

[There were] 264 vendors in booths at the Indiana Convention Center for what is essentially a trade show for the prison industry.  It is the shiny, customer­-friendly face of a fairly grim business. The A.C.A. accredits jails and prisons and is also the country’s largest association for the corrections field, with a membership filled with wardens and state and county correctional administrators.

The convention is where those people window­shop.  The United States currently imprisons about 2.2 million people, making it the world’s largest jailer.  Those in charge of this immense population need stuff: food, gas masks, restraints, riot gear, handcuffs, clothing, suicide prevention vests, health care systems, pharmacy systems, commissary services — the list goes on.  These outlays are a small fraction of the roughly $80 billion spent annually on incarceration, though precise sales figures are hard to come by because most companies in this niche market are private.  Two publicly traded players, the private prison operators Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, have a combined market capitalization of almost $5.8 billion. Both companies had booths in Indianapolis.

For prison vendors, this would appear to be a historically awful moment.  Sentencing reform has been gaining momentum as a growing number of diverse voices conclude that the tough­-on-­crime ethos that was born 40 years ago, and that led to a 700 percent increase in the prison population since 1970, went too far....

My goal ambling through the oddly colorful bazaar in Indianapolis for three days was to see what effect — if any — this much discussed change was having on the hard­nosed bottom line.  Was anyone here experiencing a slump, or even bracing for one?  Nobody wants businesses to suffer financially, but if you think the current incarceration system is a calamity, there is no way around it: Bad news for these companies is good news for the country.  And if change was coming, or had already arrived, these vendors would be among the first to know.

I had no idea what I would find.  But a few days before the exhibition doors opened, I spoke on the telephone to a skeptic, a guy who just didn’t believe that the country was really on the verge of a correctional system makeover. “It’s hard for me not to be cynical about it,” said Jack Cowley, a retired warden who lives in Oklahoma. “Think about the size of our system, all the judges and lawyers, putting their kids through college, people that make leg irons, Tasers. Crime is driving the train. It’s like a business that is too big to fail.”...

In Indianapolis this summer, there were the ingratiating smiles that are always part of sales, but nobody seemed giddy. Concern about sentencing reform was in the air, but more than a few vendors seemed to regard the trend as a business opportunity....

[M]any companies are trying to diversify. In 2013, Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison company, purchased Correctional Alternatives, which specializes in re­entry programs, like work furloughs and home confinement. “We have continued to look for opportunities in this service area,” a spokesman for C.C.A. wrote in an email. “It aligns with the needs of our government partners, who are increasingly looking to this type of solution.”

August 30, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)