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September 18, 2015

Shouldn't former federal judge Mark Fuller now be federally prosecuted for perjury?

The question in the title of this post prompted by this new AP article, headlined "Judicial Conference says former federal judge's conduct was reprehensible, impeachable." Here are the details:

Judicial investigators told Congress this week that a former federal judge — arrested last year on a domestic violence charge — had demonstrated "reprehensible conduct" and there was evidence that he abused his wife several times and made false statements to the committee reviewing his behavior.

The Judicial Conference of the United States, in a report to Congress this week, said former U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller of Alabama brought disrepute to the federal judiciary and that his conduct might have warranted impeachment if he had not resigned this summer.  

In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee [which can be accessed here], the Judicial Conference noted Fuller's resignation, but said the severity of Fuller's misconduct and its finding of perjury led it to turn the information over to Congress for whatever action lawmakers deem necessary. "This certification may also serve as a public censure of Judge Fuller's reprehensible conduct, which has no doubt brought disrepute to the Judiciary and cannot constitute the 'good behavior' required of a federal judge," Judicial Conference Secretary James C. Duff wrote in a Sept. 11 letter to House Speaker John Boehner....

The Judicial Conference wrote that there was substantial evidence that the judge "physically abused Kelli Fuller at least eight times, both before and after they married, which included and culminated in the assault that took place on Aug. 9, 2014, in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Atlanta, Georgia." The conference wrote that Fuller denied under oath to the investigating committee that he ever hit, punched or kicked his wife, and that the investigating committee considered those to be false statements. The Judicial Conference also cited a separate incident, on which it did not elaborate, saying Fuller in 2010 made a false statement to the chief judge that caused a disruption in operations and a loss of public confidence in the court.

The House committee is not releasing the full report, which contains some sensitive victim information. Fuller was placed on leave after his arrest. In May, he announced that he was resigning effective Aug. 1. The Judicial Council of the U.S. 11th Circuit at the time said Fuller's actions might have warranted impeachment, but the reasons for the determination were not released until this week.

Fuller was appointed to the bench in 2002 by then-President George W. Bush. He is perhaps best known for presiding over the 2006 public corruption trial of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy. 

As celebrity white-collar attorneys surely recall, in recent times a number of prominent public figures ranging from Barry Bonds to Roger Clemens to Marion Jones to 'Lil Kim to Scooter Libby have been federally prosecuted for alleged acts of perjury that seems far less serious and consequential than what the Judicial Conference has found former judge Mark Fuller committed.  Absent some prominent explanation for why a federal perjury prosecution would not be worthwhile in this setting, I will be mighty disappointed and a bit concerned if Fuller does not face sanctions for his apparent criminal behavior in this matter.  (Critically, I am not — at least not yet — asserting that Fuller should be imprisoned for his lying under oath to cover up his misbehavior and stay in his position as a federal judge.  But I am saying (former state DA prosecutor) Fuller ought to at least face federal criminal charges and be subject to the heat that comes with a formal federal prosecution.)

September 18, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

"Cuba to release 3,522 prisoners on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit; why can’t Obama do the same?"

PopeFrancisIsis-v2The provocative question in the title of this post is the title of this notable San Francisco Bay View commentary. Here is how it starts:

Just prior to the visit of Pope Francis to Cuba on Sept. 19, the Cuban government has announced the release of 3,522 people being held in the country’s jails.  This humanitarian gesture will include prisoners who are over 60 years of age, younger than 20, those with chronic illnesses, women and those who are close to their release dates.

Why couldn’t Obama follow the Cuban example before Pope Francis continues on his tour to the U.S. on Sept. 22?  The United States, which has the dubious distinction of having the largest per capita prison population in the world, is overflowing with people who are primarily incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, on drug charges, or being mentally ill and poor.  Of the 2.5 million people in jails and prisons in this country, a vastly disproportionate number are people of color.

As the Obama presidency winds down, with nothing to lose, he could do the right thing by releasing an equal percentage of the prison population as the Cubans did.  Now that would be a humanitarian gesture that a war torn world could appreciate and a gesture of peace with justice to the visiting Pope.  It would amount to the freedom of tens of thousands of people.

Though I am suspect of any accounting of Cuba's incarceration levels (or its propaganda about recent releases), the latest estimate of its imprisoned population is around 57,500.  Consequently, its release of more than 3,500 prisoners amounts to freeing more than 6% of its incarcerated population.  A comparable effort by President Obama, if we focus on the entire local, state and federal incarcerated US population, would require the release of more than 135,000 persons imprisoned in the United States. Even if Prez Obama only released 6% of the current federal prison population, he would still need to grant over 12,000 federal offenders their freedom to make a gesture for the Pope comparable to what Cuba is claiming it has done.

I am not expecting to Prez Obama (or any state's Governor) to make a mass clemency gesture like this for the Pope's visit to the US.  But, as this new NPR story highlights, there are a number of criminal justice reform advocates who are hopeful that, at the very least, the Pope's visit will help kick-start federal criminal justice reform efforts. The NPR piece is headlined "Pope's U.S. Visit Spurs Catholic Support For Criminal Justice Reform," and it highlights that the "Pope will visit a prison in Pennsylvania next week and ... and faith leaders are using the opportunity to press Congress for action."

Some prior related posts on Pope Francis and criminal justice reform:

September 18, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Prisons and prisoners, Religion, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Ohio judges pushing for "truth in plea bargaining"

My Columbus Disptach this morning has this notable new article about a notable new push for a new criminal procedure rule concerning plea bargaining practices here in the Buckeye state.  The article is headlined "Plea deals must reflect crime committed, judges demand," and here are excerpts:

Judge Michael P. Donnelly had seen enough by the time his spreadsheet of plea deals in sexual-assault cases reached nearly 200. In each case, the defendant pleaded guilty to a lesser crime that bore no factual resemblance to what occurred, allowing many to avoid sex-offender registration requirements.

Many rape cases involved pleas to aggravated assault, a crime involving serious bodily harm in which the defendant was provoked by the victim — a scenario common in a drunken bar fight but wildly inconsistent with rape. “It’s sidestepping the truth. It’s legal fiction, nothing more than a lie,” said Donnelly, a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge. “No one can defend this process. There is no ethical defense.”

With Donnelly leading the charge for change, the Ohio Supreme Court — unless legislators object — could amend court rules to require charges in felony plea deals to be factually based — to reflect what actually occurred. “Ending the charade” would promote transparency and foster public accountability in the justice system, Donnelly said. “We can be allowing pleas to something that everyone knows didn’t happen.”

The court’s rules commission has advanced the proposal by moving to seek public comment on the changes in Criminal Rule 11 as part of the early steps of a lengthy process leading to approval or rejection. The Ohio Judicial Conference, which represents the state’s judges, is on board with the change, calling “often convenient” plea agreements “contrary to the objectives of the justice system.”

Advocates for sexual-assault victims also support the change, saying pleas to lesser, unrelated offenses leave victims’ trauma unacknowledged and victims feeling “like the justice system let them down.”

Criminal-defense lawyers oppose the change, saying that it would unfairly limit their options in representing criminal defendants and could increase the number of cases going to trial. “While (plea deals) may be factually incorrect, from a justice perspective it is the right thing to do,” said Ohio Public Defender Timothy Young. “We have punishments that are not proportional to everyone who commits a crime because not every crime, while of the same name, is of the same nature.”

Barry Wilford, public-policy co-director of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, “Truth in plea bargaining is an easily stated expression, but it begs the question, ‘What is the truth?’  ” Prosecutors and defense lawyers, with the ultimate approval of judges, “have to have some freedom, some negotiating room. ... There’s give and take by both sides. Each side has its objectives. The law should permit them that liberty,” Wilford said.

Donnelly’s study of 197 cases between 2008 and 2012 that resulted in plea agreements that he determined were not based on the facts represented only about 5 percent of the 3,700 sexual-assault cases handled in Cuyahoga County, an official said. “Sometimes, you take the sure thing to get someone off the street and hold them accountable,” said Joseph Frolik, spokesman for Prosecutor Timothy McGinty, who took office in 2013.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien agrees with Donnelly that plea deals “should resemble what the conduct was.” He and his assistants work to base plea agreements on the factual circumstances of cases and preserve sex-offender registration, often by using lesser and included “attempted” offenses, such as attempted rape, he said. “It’s been on everyone’s radar for a number of years. Anyone who has been doing it to an improper degree probably already has changed that practice,” O’Brien said.

Greene County Common Pleas Judge Stephen A. Wolaver leads the Ohio Supreme Court’s criminal-rules committee and believes truth-in-plea-agreements should be adopted to foster public confidence in courts. “If you are going to handle a case based on the fact a person committed a crime, transparency says they should have committed that crime. If there is no fact basis for a particular crime, the question is raised, ‘Was there actually justice?’  ” Wolaver asked.

September 18, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

September 17, 2015

Prez Candidate Bernie Sanders announces plan to restore federal parole and eliminate private prisons

Images (1)As reported in this new USA Today piece, headlined "Sanders seeks to ban private prisons," a US Senator on the presidential campaign trail has come out with a distinctive and ambitious criminal justice reform proposal. Here are the basics:

Sen. Bernie Sanders said he hopes to end the “private, for-profit prison racket” with the introduction Thursday of bills to ban private prisons, reinstate the federal parole system and eliminate quotas for the number of immigrants held in detention.

The Vermont independent, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, introduced the “Justice is not for Sale Act” with Democratic Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Bobby L. Rush of Illinois. It would bar the federal government from contracting with private incarceration companies starting two years after passage.

“The profit motivation of private companies running prisons works at cross purposes with the goals of criminal justice,” Sanders said. “Criminal justice and public safety are without a doubt the responsibility of the citizens of our country, not private corporations. They should be carried out by those who answer to voters, not those who answer to investors.”...

Ellison said the private-prison industry spends millions each year lobbying for harsher sentencing laws and immigration policies that serve its bottom line. “Incarceration should be about rehabilitation and public safety, not profit,” he said.

The legislation would reinstate the federal parole system, abolished in 1984, and increase oversight of companies that provide banking and telephone services for inmates. It also would end the requirement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement maintain 34,000 detention beds.

Sanders said the bill represents only a piece of the major criminal justice reforms he believes are needed, but he’s convinced the issue can find bipartisan support. “Making sure that corporations are not profiteering from the incarceration of fellow Americans is an important step forward.”

The full text of the Justice is Not for Sale Act of 2015 can be accessed at this link, and it is a very interesting read. Perhaps not surprisingly, the media is so far focused on the provisions of the bill seeking to eliminate use of private prisons. But I think the provisions in the bill that are the most important and could be, by far, the most consequential are those that would reintroduce parole in the federal system.

September 17, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Lots of new data from BJS on prisoners and from USSC on federal sentencing

Sentencing and corrections data junkies have the opportunity for heavy dose of notable new data runs from two federal sources.  Both of these recently released reports have a number of interesting and important modern sentencing stories buried inside lots of notable new numbers:

From the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Prisoners in 2014"

From the US Sentencing Commission, "FY 2015 Third Quarterly Sentencing Data Report"

Importantly, the BJS prisoners document has data on only prison populations and thus does not include total incarcerated persons in the US because jail populations are not in the statistics.  With that important statistical reality in mind, here are some highlights identified by BJS concerning "Prisoners in 2014" that I found particularly noteworthy:

September 17, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Notable Left/Right morality accounting of the "Truth about Mass Incarceration"

Cover_20150921_tocProviding the cover feature piece for the September 21 issue of The National Review, Stephanos Bibas has this notable new commentary reflecting on the political rhetoric and statistical realities that surround modern crime and punishment in the United States.  The piece is headlined "Truth about Mass Incarceration," and I highly recommend the piece in full.  Here is an except from heart of the commentary, as well as its closing paragraph:

So the stock liberal charges against “mass incarceration” simply don’t hold water.  There is no racist conspiracy, nor are we locking everyone up and throwing away the key.  Most prisoners are guilty of violent or property crimes that no orderly society can excuse.  Even those convicted of drug crimes have often been implicated in violence, as well as promoting addiction that destroys neighborhoods and lives.

But just because liberals are wrong does not mean the status quo is right.  Conservatives cannot reflexively jump from critiquing the Left’s preferred narrative to defending our astronomical incarceration rate and permanent second-class status for ex-cons.  The criminal-justice system and prisons are big-government institutions.  They are often manipulated by special interests such as prison guards’ unions, and they consume huge shares of most states’ budgets.  And cities’ avarice tempts police to arrest and jail too many people in order to collect fines, fees, tickets, and the like.  As the Department of Justice found in its report following the Michael Brown shooting in Missouri, “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” That approach poisons the legitimacy of law enforcement, particularly in the eyes of poor and minority communities.

Conservatives also need to care more about ways to hold wrongdoers accountable while minimizing the damage punishment does to families and communities.  Punishment is coercion by the state, and it disrupts not only defendants’ lives but also their families and neighborhoods.  Contrary to the liberal critique, we need to punish and condemn crimes unequivocally, without excusing criminals or treating them as victims.  But we should be careful to do so in ways that reinforce rather than undercut conservative values, such as strengthening families and communities....

American criminal justice has drifted away from its moral roots. The Left has forgotten how to blame and punish, and too often the Right has forgotten how to forgive. Over-imprisonment is wrong, but not because wrongdoers are blameless victims of a white-supremacist conspiracy. It is wrong because state coercion excessively disrupts work, families, and communities, the building blocks of society, with too little benefit to show for it. Our strategies for deterring crime not only fail to work on short-sighted, impulsive criminals, but harden them into careerists. Criminals deserve punishment, but it is wise as well as humane to temper justice with mercy.

September 17, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"The Meaning of 'Meaningful Appellate Review' in Capital Cases: Lessons from California"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Steven Shatz now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court's seminal death penalty case, the Court held that the death penalty, as then administered, violated the Eighth Amendment because the penalty decision was so unguided and the imposition of the death penalty was so infrequent as to create an unconstitutional risk of arbitrariness.  The Court's remedy, developed in subsequent decisions, was to require the state legislatures to "genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty" and the state courts to provide "meaningful appellate review" of death sentences.  In recent years, a number of scholars have addressed the genuine narrowing requirement with empirical research on particular state schemes.

Less attention has been paid to the appellate review requirement and, in particular to Pulley v. Harris, the Court's key case on the issue.  In Pulley, the Court held that comparative proportionality review of death sentences was not constitutionally required in a state's death penalty scheme unless that scheme was "so lacking in other checks on arbitrariness" that it could not otherwise pass constitutional muster.  The Court acknowledged, however, that some form of meaningful appellate review was required. Using California as an object lesson, this article examines both aspects of the Court's opinion: what would make a state scheme so lacking in checks on arbitrariness as to require comparative proportionality review; and what would constitute meaningful appellate review by a court which eschews comparative proportionality review.

The article argues that the California death penalty scheme is that scheme imagined in Pulley — a scheme with virtually no checks on arbitrariness, producing arbitrary sentences and arbitrary executions, and, therefore, a scheme where comparative proportionality should be required.  The article also argues that, in California, there is no meaningful review of death sentences at all — not once in 593 direct appeals in death penalty cases has the California Supreme Court set aside a death sentence on the ground that it was disproportionate, excessive or otherwise aberrant.  Although California is, in this respect, is a distinct outlier, it is not alone among the states in ignoring the Furman requirements. The lesson from California is that the Supreme Court's "meaningful review" of state schemes is long overdue.

September 17, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

September 16, 2015

Hoping (again) to hear criminal justice reform discussion during tonight's GOP debate

Regular readers know I am ever eager to have the national political conversation focus on criminal justice issues, and thus today I am giddy with pre-GOP-debate anticipation again.  As just explained via this new post over at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, the location and run-up to tonight's debate has me thinking that federal marijuana laws and policies could possibly get some attention.  In addition, as detailed in lots of prior posts linked below, there are plenty of other criminal justice topics that would merit attention as CNN tries to encourage a "real debate" among the GOP candidates on topics in which they have some real disagreements.

I am due to be off-line the rest of this afternoon, so this will be my last pre-debate post.  I will close it not only by linking to lots of my pre-debate questions from last month, but also by again encouraging readers to fill the comments with questions they would like to see asked of the candidates.

Some recent related posts:

September 16, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (6)

Oklahoma's top criminal court stays execution of Richard Glossip for two weeks

As reported in local news pieces here and here, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin late yesterday refused to delay today's scheduled execution of Richard Glossip amid concerns about his factual guilt.  But today the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals issued a stay of execution for death row inmate Richard Glossip. Here are the basics:

Just before 12 p.m. Wednesday, a stay has been granted for him until September 30. Late Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Mary Fallin said she will not grant Glossip a stay of execution. Just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, Glossip’s attorneys filed the appeal with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. It's their last avenue to stop the execution.

Court documents released on Wednesday stated that, "Due to Glossip's last minute filing, and in order for this court to give fair consideration to the materials included with his subsequent application for post-conviction relief, we hereby grant an emergency stay of execution for two weeks. The execution of Richard Eugene Glossip shall be reset, without further order, for September 30, 2015."

During a news conference on Wednesday, the Director of Oklahoma Department of Corrections said he does not know the reasons behind the stay, and that at this time, they are shutting down all procedures.

Prior related post:

September 16, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Attorney for Dylann Roof, Charleston church mass murderer, suggests plea to avoid death sentence

As reported in this local piece, headlined "Accused gunman in Charleston church shooting proposes guilty plea," a high-profile mass murderer is apparently prepared to cut a plea deal to try to avoid a state capital prosecution. Here are the details and context:

An attorney for the man accused of gunning down nine people at a historic black church in South Carolina said on Wednesday his client is willing to plead guilty to state murder charges if the move would spare him a death sentence.

A guilty plea by Dylann Roof, 21, in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without parole also would spare the victims' families and shooting survivors from the trauma of trial proceedings, attorney Bill McGuire said.

His remarks came during a hearing in Charleston over whether a judge will release 911 calls and police reports about the June 17 massacre during a Bible study meeting at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church. Judge J.C. Nicholson in July blocked the release of investigative materials in the state's murder case against Roof, who is white, citing concerns about graphic photos of the crime scene and emergency calls that might have recorded the sounds of victims.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams, who is prosecuting Roof in federal court, said the families and survivors were "re-traumatized" every time they heard, saw or read something about the killings. He argued for the documents, including coroner's reports and witness statements, to remain sealed. "It may take years before people are ready to see that," Williams said.

Jay Bender, an attorney for news organizations challenging the gag order, asked the judge to review documents and photos to decide whether some could be released. Media outlets have argued that transparency ensures a defendant's right to a fair trial. "There is an alternative to the imposition of a cloak of secrecy over what has happened in Charleston," Bender said....

In addition to state murder charges, Roof faces 33 federal hate crime and weapons charges that also could result in a death sentence but federal prosecutors have not said if they will pursue that in their case. The federal charges are based on evidence that Roof targeted the black victims because of their race and "in order to interfere with their exercise of religion," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.

A few prior related posts:

September 16, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Split en banc Third Circuit struggles through how to review and assess Alleyne error

A decade ago, way back in the early Blakely and Booker days, this blog covered lots of cases dealing with lots of Sixth Amendment sentencing problems and circuit court efforts to sort through all the problems. Anyone with a continued fondness for the legal challenges and debates of that era will want to be sure to find the time to read today's work by the full Third Circuit in US v. Lewis, No. 10-2931 (3d Cir. Sept. 16, 2015) (available here). I will provide the highlights via the first paragraph from each of the three opinions.

Here is the start of the plurality opinion in Lewis:

Jermel Lewis was sentenced for a crime with a seven-year mandatory minimum — brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence — notwithstanding the fact that a jury had not convicted him of that crime.  Instead, he had been convicted of the crime of using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, which has a five-year mandatory minimum. Lewis was never even indicted for the crime of brandishing.  In Alleyne v. United States, the Supreme Court held that this scenario, i.e., sentencing a defendant for an aggravated crime when he was indicted and tried only for a lesser crime, violates a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.  133 S. Ct. 2151, 2163-64 (2013).  Even though that constitutional issue is settled, we still must address the issue of whether the error that transpired in this case was harmless. We conclude that the error was not harmless because it contributed to the sentence Lewis received.  Accordingly, we will vacate Lewis’s sentence and remand for resentencing.

Here is the start of the concurring opinion in Lewis:

Jermel Lewis was charged with and convicted of using or carrying a firearm, but was eventually sentenced on the basis of a different, aggravated crime.  Conviction of the aggravated crime would have required proof of an element unnecessary to a using or carrying offense: that Lewis had brandished a firearm.  Lewis’s indictment did not charge him with brandishing, nor did the jury find that he had committed that crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  Yet Lewis was subjected to the enhanced mandatory minimum sentence required for brandishing.  I agree with the majority that this error demands resentencing; the new sentence should be based solely on the crime with which Lewis was actually charged and for which he was convicted.  But I would hold that this error was structural and therefore reversible if properly preserved.  Structural errors do not require a court to inquire into whether the error was harmless.

Here is the start of the dissenting opinion in Lewis:

The plurality finds that Jermel Lewis’s substantial rights were affected when he was sentenced to a seven-year mandatory minimum sentence for brandishing a weapon during a crime of violence, despite undisputed and overwhelming testimony that he pointed a gun at many people during a robbery.  Though what occurred below was error, in my view, for the reasons explained in Judge Smith’s concurring opinion, the error occurred both at trial and at sentencing.  So, upon a review of the uncontroverted evidence presented to the grand and petit juries, I would hold that the error was harmless.

September 16, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recuenco and review of Blakely error, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Literal Cost of Solitary Confinement: Why are prisoners forced to pay fines when they are put in isolation?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable New Republic piece, and here is an excerpt:

The United Nations has determined that solitary confinement may amount to torture: It can destroy the mind, sometimes the spirit.  And yet many jails and prisons around the country have decided that this punishment alone is not harsh enough.  It’s not widely known, but inmates who are determined to have committed a disciplinary infraction are regularly subjected to fines that can range into the hundreds of dollars on top of weeks or months-long solitary sentences.  Both the psychological damage caused by extreme isolation and the financial burden of the jail debt can hang over these people once they’re released, often making re-entry into society nearly impossible.

“When the system is built on punishment, you find every chance you get to damage people more,” said Glenn Martin, who spent six years in New York state prisons and founded the criminal justice reform group JustLeadershipUSA.  “Unfortunately, prisons in America have evolved into places that are devoid of values such as rehabilitation, fairness and human dignity.”

Prison officials in at least six state systems have the authority to impose fines in addition to solitary for a single rule violation.  Wyoming charges up to $50, Georgia up to $100, Oregon as much as to $200.  Fees in the states of New York, Kansas, and South Dakota range between $5 and $20.  (Wyoming, New York State, Georgia, and Kansas dismiss fines once an inmate is released or put them on hold in case the person returns. South Dakota said it doesn’t use solitary confinement, but the ACLU contends that the state’s isolation policies fit the definition.)...

While some of the state disciplinary fees may sound insignificant, small fines can pile up fast.  They pile up on people who often were homeless or unemployed before they were incarcerated and will face the same situations upon release.  The ACLU of Kansas said inmates could easily rack up thousands of dollars of debt just from disciplinary fines....

For many inmates and their families, disciplinary fines accumulate on top of court and attorney fees, court-ordered restitution, and child support.  And around the country, inmates may be obligated to pay for a seemingly infinite number of additional charges. Some of those costs: drug and alcohol abuse treatment; medical, dental, and psychiatric services; vocational training; toilet paper, laundry, and clothing; phone and video calls, food from the jail store, booking fees, drug testing, and fingerprinting.  In some jurisdictions, inmates pay “room and board” for the time they spend in jail awaiting trial.  Ninety percent of local jails collect revenue from incarcerated people. Those inmates pay an average of $1,259 per person per year to local facilities, according to a recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice.

Prisoners can even be charged for trying to kill themselves.  “I’ve seen it multiple times,” said Elisabeth Owen, the managing director of the Prisoners’ Justice League of Colorado.  “Someone hangs themselves and then they get a medical bill for thousands of dollars.”

September 16, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal child porn downloaders complaining to judges about Jared Fogle's (too sweet?) plea deal

This local article from Indiana, headlined "Convicted sex offenders object to Fogle's proposed plea deal," reports that at least a couple of incarcerated federal child pornography offenders have written to a federal judge to complain about how federal prosecutors used their discretion to resolve sex offense charges against former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle. Here are the basics:

Sex offenders in prison right now around the country are writing the judge here in Indiana handling the Jared Fogle case, upset over his possible plea deal.

In the letters — one from an inmate in Tucson, the other from an inmate in Florida — both talk about the time they are serving for distribution of child pornography.  One is serving a 40-year sentence, the other 16.5 years.

They are critical of Fogle's plea deal that could have him serve 5- to 12.5 years behind bars. They argue they are serving far more time for child pornography, and Fogle is also accused of having sex with underage girls.  Both asked for the judge to deny the plea deal.  Fogle's sentencing is set for November 19.

These two inmate letters make for fascinating reads and they can be accessed at this link. Among other stories, these letters provide an interesting perspective on how federal prosecutorial discretion can and does contribute to federal sentencing disparity and on how this disparity is perceived by those most impacted by it.  Notably, in a post last month I asked, Has Jared Fogle gotten a sweetheart plea deal and/or celebrity treatment for sex crimes?, and the question prompted a good comment dialogue.  Obviously, some federal child porn offenders think the answer to this question is obviously yes.

Prior related posts:

September 16, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Family"

Download (1)The title of this post is the title of this new report based on research by a number of public policy groups.  Here is the executive summary:

For decades, individuals, families, and communities—especially low-income people and communities of color—have faced destabilizing and detrimental impacts as a result of our nation’s unfair criminal justice policies. The repercussions of these policies extend far beyond sentencing and incarceration, affecting the employment, education, housing, and health of individuals and their families for years to come. A unique contribution to the body of research, the study explores the ways in which women support their incarcerated loved ones, often jeopardizing their own stability. Our nation can no longer afford the devastating financial and familial costs of incarceration if we truly want to foster communities that are healthy, sustainable, and just.

As a result of this research, recommendations are made for three key categories of critical reforms necessary to change the criminal justice system and to help stabilize and support vulnerable families, communities, and formerly incarcerated individuals: Restructuring and Reinvesting, Removing Barriers, and Restoring Opportunities.

Restructuring and Reinvesting: Following the lead of states like California, all states need to restructure their policies to reduce the number of people in jails and prisons and the sentences they serve. The money saved from reducing incarceration rates should be used instead to reinvest in services that work, such as substance abuse programs and stable housing, which have proven to reduce recidivism rates. Additionally, sentencing needs to shift focus to accountability, safety, and healing the people involved rather than punishing those convicted of crimes.

Removing Barriers: Upon release, formerly incarcerated individuals face significant barriers accessing critical resources like housing and employment that they need to survive and move forward. Many are denied public benefits like food stamps and most are unable to pursue training or education that would provide improved opportunities for the future. Families also suffer under these restrictions and risk losing support as a result of their loved one’s conviction. These barriers must be removed in order to help individuals have a chance at success, particularly the many substantial financial obligations that devastate individuals and their families. On the flip side, when incarcerated people maintain contact with their family members on the outside, their likelihood of successful reunification and reentry increases, and their chances of recidivating are reduced. For most families the cost of maintaining contact is too great to bear and must be lowered if families are to stay intact. Removing cost and other barriers to contact is essential.

Restoring Opportunities: Focusing energy on investing and supporting formerly incarcerated individuals, their families, and the communities from which they come can restore their opportunities for a brighter future and the ability to participate in society at large. Savings from criminal justice reforms should be combined with general budget allocations and invested in job training and subsidized employment services, for example, to provide the foundation necessary to help individuals and their families succeed prior to system involvement and upon reentry.

Our nation’s criminal justice system has dramatic impacts on the lives of individuals who are incarcerated and the lives of those they touch. These effects wreak financial, physical, and emotional havoc on women, families, and communities, undermining potential for a better life. The true costs of our criminal justice system are complex, deeply rooted, and demand a closer look at the multiple impacts on individuals and families. When these costs are understood and acknowledged, it becomes clear that the system — and society more broadly — must change.

September 16, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Does Glossip case reveal Oklahoma's prosecutors as immoral and its judges lacking in moral fiber?

The qustion in the title of this post is prompted by this provocative Slate commentary authored by Robert J. Smith and G. Ben Cohen which is headlined "Groundhog Day Nightmare: Oklahoma is about to execute a man who is probably innocent." Here are excerpts from the piece, including sections with the forceful rhetoric parroted in the title of this post:

Oklahoma is set to execute Richard Glossip, despite grave doubts about his guilt. A chorus of people that includes Republican former Sen. Tom Coburn; Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson; and Barry Switzer, the beloved former Oklahoma Sooners football coach, has called for Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to grant a stay of execution. If she does not, and if the Supreme Court does not step in, Glossip will be put to death Wednesday....

In 1997, Justin Sneed killed Barry Van Treese, a motel owner for whom both Sneed and Glossip worked. The police found Sneed’s fingerprints all over the bloody crime scene and in the victim’s vehicle. Sneed later confessed to the killing. The prosecution’s theory at Glossip’s trial was that Glossip pressured Sneed into murdering Van Treese. What evidence supported the state’s theory? Not much....

The prosecution gave him a sweetheart deal: In exchange for his testimony against Glossip, the state waived the death penalty. The problem is that the substance of Sneed’s testimony at trial was invented by the state....

It is bad enough that Sneed received a deal in exchange for his testimony. It is worse that the detective “educated” Sneed about Glossip being the mastermind. But what’s not only unforgivable, but downright immoral, is that the prosecution put forward the Glossip-as-mastermind theory in a capital case, with a man’s life on the line, when Sneed couldn’t even keep his story straight....

If Oklahoma proceeds with this execution, Glossip will not, unfortunately, be the only plausibly innocent man put to death....

Did Georgia execute an innocent man when it killed Troy Anthony Davis? Did Texas execute innocent men when it put Cameron Todd Willingham and Lester Bower to death? Will Oklahoma add to this tragic list if neither Gov. Fallin nor the Supreme Court stops the execution of Richard Glossip? We honestly do not know. And that’s the problem. How do we preserve the integrity of our justice system and our courts if we send condemned inmates to the lethal injection chamber with no more certainty of their guilt than a coin flip?

Given all that is known today about wrongful convictions, the fallibility of our criminal justice institutions, and their fallibility in identifying these potentially fatal errors, the question should not be Is this person innocent? but rather: Is this a case of uncertain guilt? Whatever principles the state seeks to uphold, whether it is the finality of its judgments or deference to juries or state courts, nothing trumps the risk of executing a person where there is some serious doubt as to his or her guilt.

In Richard Glossip’s case, there is more than “some” doubt.  There is lots of it. No physical evidence ties him to the crime.  There is no motive that withstands scrutiny. The detectives in the case engaged in tactics known to increase the likelihood of witnesses providing false statements.  And the state’s chief witness, Justin Sneed, was unreliable at best, with clear motives for lying. Few of us would buy a used car from Justin Sneed.  Are we prepared to stake the moral fiber of our justice system on his word?  If our answer is no, we must stop the execution of Richard Glossip. His life depends upon it, and so does the soul of our nation’s justice system.

I was a bit dismissive in this prior post of eleventh-hour innocence claims here given that Glossip was twice convicted and sentenced to death (his first conviction was reversed for procedural error). But I cannot help but wonder if my eagerness to question claims of innocence here is a result of my own desire to believe that Oklahoma prosecutors would not be immorally eager to condemn to death (twice) a man based on very weak evidence and that Oklahoma and federal courts would have had the moral fiber to intervene if there was real substance to the innocence claims.

That all said, absent "smoking gun" evidence to provide some more confidence in Glossip's guilt, I can understand why the abolitionist crowd has now garnered broad support for their claim that the Glossip execution should not go forward.  Still, I continue to be deeply troubled that a case which produced two jury convictions well over a decade ago, and which has been at the center of the national death penalty debate for nearly all of 2015, is  only now struggling at the very minute with what is the most fundamental and basic question in any and every criminal case.

Prior related post:

September 16, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

September 15, 2015

"Here’s why Obama should pardon hundreds more women"

The title of this post is part of the headline of this recent Fusion commentary authored by Amy Ralston Povah. Here are excerpts:

After the fifth year in prison, each additional year begins to eat into the layers of your soul.  Parents pass away, friends drift off, spouses find someone else.  Children grow up, graduate, get married, have children of their own; holidays come and go, and when that 7th, 15th or 22nd year rolls around, you feel like your heart is being crushed.

I shared those emotions with the women I served time with at FCI Dublin, a correctional facility in northern California.  I was serving 24 years on a drug conspiracy charge, arrested for collecting bail money for my husband, who manufactured MDMA.  He was the kingpin, but he only received three years probation because he cooperated with the prosecutors.  I refused a plea bargain, and I got stuck in jail.

So when President Clinton commuted my sentence on July 7, 2000 — after I’d served 9 years and 3 months — I felt like I had won the lottery.  The prison compound erupted into cheers and marched me across the yard to the gate on the day I left.  And yet, it was a bittersweet victory.  While I was elated for myself, it was hard to walk away, knowing I would not see these women the next day, or possibly ever again.

I felt that mix of bittersweet emotions again this summer when President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, more than any sitting president in the last 50 years.  It was the result of Clemency Project 2014, a federal initiative that encouraged over 35,000 prisoners to apply for clemency.  On one day, 42 men and four women were the lucky lottery winners chosen from a massive number of candidates....

Having served time with over a thousand women, I believe they are the hardest hit victims in the war on drugs.  Many women are indicted because they are merely a girlfriend or wife of a drug dealer, yet are not part of the inner circle and have limited information to plea bargain with.  Mandatory minimums are reserved for those who do not cut a deal with prosecutors.

Women are being overlooked by the Department of Justice as candidates worthy of a seat on that coveted commutation list.  Over the last 30 years, the female prison population has grown by over 800% while the male prison population grew 416% during the same timeframe.  More than half of the mothers in prison were the primary financial supporters of their children before they were incarcerated.  And the vast majority of women in federal prison were put there due to conspiracy laws that hold them equally culpable for the criminal actions of other co-defendants, often a spouse or boyfriend. In other words, many women are guilty by association.

There are hundreds of women sitting in federal prison on drug conspiracy charges who deserve clemency — most of them first offenders serving life without parole.  Alice Johnson is an accomplished playwright who has served 18 years on a life sentence for cocaine conspiracy and has the support of three members of Congress.  Josephine Ledezma has already served over 23 years and is still waiting to have her petition filed.  Sharanda Jones has served 15 years; filed for clemency in 2013 and has over 270,000 supporters on change.org.  Michelle West has served 22 years of a double life sentence, plus fifty years, in a case where the key witness was given immunity and never served a day for a murder he admitted to.

Some days, sitting in prison, you think life can’t get any worse.  And then another blow comes when 46 people receive clemency and your name is not on that list.  Many of the same women I said goodbye to in 2000 are still in prison, serving 30 years to life, even though, like myself, they were minor participants in a nonviolent drug conspiracy case.... But with a stroke of his pen, President Obama can help right the wrongs of the past and give these deserving women a second chance at life.  He should get started right away.

September 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Unequal Assistance of Counsel"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Peter Joy now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

There is now, and has always been, a double standard when it comes to the criminal justice system in the United States.  The system is stacked against you if you are a person of color or are poor, and is doubly unjust if you are both a person of color and poor.  The potential counterweight to such a system, a lawyer by one’s side, is unequal as well.  In reality, the right to counsel is a right to the unequal assistance of counsel in the United States.

The unequal treatment based on the color of one’s skin is reflected by the racial disparity throughout the criminal justice system in which minority racial groups are involved in the criminal justice system as suspects and defendants at rates greater than their proportion of the general population.  This is illustrated by the “driving while black” phenomenon in which law enforcement officers initiate traffic stops against persons of color and subject them to searches at a higher rate than whites, even though law enforcement is more likely to find contraband on white drivers than persons of color.

The Sixth Amendment promises the effective assistance of counsel to every person accused of a crime where incarceration is a possible punishment.  This guarantee suggests that everyone, rich and poor, is equal before the law.  But the reality of the criminal justice system is much different for the majority of those charged with crimes.  If one does not have the financial means to hire effective counsel, or is poor and not lucky enough to have a well-funded, effective public defender or appointed counsel, the defendant’s right to counsel is unequal.  This disparity is driven largely by the wealth of the accused and falls most harshly on people of color, who are twice as likely as whites to live in poverty and are accused of crimes at rates much higher than their proportion of the population.  As a result, class and race are largely determinative of the lawyer, and often the amount of justice one receives.

This article explores how unequal assistance of counsel contributes to unequal justice.  The article begins with a brief overview of racial disparities in the ways laws are enforced.  The initial step in the criminal justice system, whether the police stop someone, can lead to arrest, charges, and the need for a lawyer.  Next, it analyzes the systemic barriers to effective assistance of counsel at the state level, which is driven largely by excessive caseloads and an ineffective assistance of counsel standard that tolerates bad lawyering.  It concludes with strategies for achieving more effective assistance of counsel, which emphasize the ethical imperative to provide meaningful assistance of counsel, the importance of data collection by public defender systems, and systemic litigation that positions assistance of counsel claims prior to trials.

September 15, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Two very interesting (and very different) long reads about mass incarceration and drug dealing

I recently noticed two new (and very different) long-form commentary pieces that both ought to be of interest to deep thinkers about crime and punishment. Both defy easy summarization, so I will just provide links and the extended headline of the pieces and encourage readers in the comments to highlight important themes in either or both:

September 15, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 14, 2015

Montgomery wards: gearing up for SCOTUS juve LWOP retroactivity case

In four weeks, the US Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana.  Here, via this SCOTUSblog posting and this official SCOTUS page, are the questions that the Justices will be considering in Montgomery:

Do we have jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana correctly refused to give retroactive effect in this case to our decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ____ (2012)?

Whether Miller v. Alabama adopts a new substantive rule that applies retroactively on collateral review to people condemned as juveniles to die in prison.

Because both of these questions engage many interesting, important and dynamic issues, I am planning to do a (lengthy?) series of posts about this case and the various arguments that have been presented to the Justices via amicus briefs (including one I filed thanks to the efforts of good folks at the Columbus offices of Jones Day).  As the title of this post reveals, I have decided to use "Montgomery wards" as the cheeky title for this coming series of posts.

Notably, as this new SCOTUSblog posting highlights, it would now appear that the Justices share my sense that the Montgomery case raises many interesting, important and dynamic issues because they have now scheduled additional argument time for the case.  Here are the basics via Lyle Denniston's SCOTUSblog report:

The Supreme Court on Monday added fifteen minutes to the argument schedule for its hearing October 13 on Montgomery v. Louisiana, a case that could decide which juveniles convicted of murder can take advantage of a 2012 decision limiting sentences of life without parole for minors.  The added time will allow a Court-appointed attorney to argue a question about the Court’s authority to actually rule on the legal issue in the case.

In March, the Justices agreed to hear the appeal of Henry Montgomery of Baton Rouge, who is seeking retroactive application of the Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which had all but eliminated states’ power to sentence youths to life without parole, as punishment for committing a murder when they were under the age of eighteen.  In taking on the case, however, the Court also added the question whether it has jurisdiction to review and rule on the Louisiana Supreme Court decision refusing to apply the Miller precedent to cases that had become final before June 25, 2012, when Miller was decided.   Louisiana had raised that issue in a filing in an earlier case on the juvenile sentencing question. 

Instead of the usual one hour of argument time, the Court in the Montgomery case will hear seventy-five minutes.  The time will be divided this way: the Court-appointed attorney, Richard Bernstein of Washington, D.C., will have fifteen minutes to argue against the Court’s jurisdiction, Montgomery’s attorney will have fifteen minutes to argue both points, an attorney from the office of the U.S. Solicitor General will have fifteen minutes to argue both issues, and a lawyer for the state of Louisiana will have thirty minutes of time to argue both questions.  The order also said that Bernstein and Montgomery’s lawyer will be allowed to save time for rebuttal.

The federal government, in a brief filed by the Solicitor General, supported Montgomery’s plea to apply Miller retroactively and argued that the Court does have jurisdiction to decide that question.  The brief noted that there are twenty-seven inmates in federal prisons whose sentences could be affected by the retroactivity issue.

September 14, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Is a capital case the right kind of vehicle for SCOTUS to consider solitary confinement?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new New York Times piece by Adam Liptak headlined "Virginia Has Solitary Confinement Case, if Justices Want It." Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court seems eager to hear a case on the constitutionality of a distinctively American form of punishment: prolonged solitary confinement. “Years on end of near total isolation exact a terrible price,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a concurrence in a case in June. Justice Stephen G. Breyer echoed the point in a dissent in a case later that month.

An appeal from Virginia materialized almost immediately. Now the justices must weigh whether it has the right features — whether it is, in legal jargon, a good vehicle — to serve as the basis for a major decision on extended solitary confinement, which much of the world considers torture.

On the plus side, the case asks the sort of focused and incremental question that the justices often find attractive: May states automatically put all death row inmates in solitary confinement?

Last week, Mark R. Herring, Virginia’s attorney general, filed a brief urging the court to turn down the appeal. It is, he said, the wrong vehicle to address “the broader concerns recently voiced by Justices Kennedy and Breyer.” For starters, Mr. Herring wrote, “the case is likely to become moot before it can be decided.” That is because the state intends to execute the inmate who brought the challenge, Alfredo R. Prieto, on Oct. 1.

More generally, Mr. Herring wrote, Virginia is the wrong state in which to examine the issue of prolonged solitary confinement on death row because its capital justice system is exceptionally efficient. Inmates in other states can spend decades in solitary confinement, he wrote, but Virginia generally executes condemned inmates seven to 10 years after their convictions.

Mr. Prieto has been on death row for about seven years. But that was enough isolation, he told the justices, to have caused him mental agony. In a 2013 deposition, the warden of the prison where Mr. Prieto is serving his sentence seemed to concede the inhumanity of solitary confinement. “There is real importance to getting out and being with other people, I agree, and not being 24/7 in a cell,” said the warden, Keith Davis. “We, as humans, we don’t survive very well that way with lack of human contact.”

Later that year, a federal trial judge ruled in Mr. Prieto’s favor. “He must spend almost all of his time alone,” deprived of contact even with fellow prisoners, the judge, Leonie M. Brinkema, wrote. In theory, family members could visit on weekends in a room with a glass partition. “In actuality,” she said, “no one ever comes.”

Mr. Prieto, she said, “has not engaged in any of the behaviors that would normally support placement in segregated confinement,” and was “by all accounts a model prisoner.” On the other hand, he has a chilling criminal record. Mr. Prieto was on California’s death row for the 1990 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl when, in 2005, DNA evidence linked him to a 1988 rape and double murder in Virginia. He was extradited to Virginia and found guilty....

In March, a divided three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Virginia reversed Judge Brinkema’s ruling, though even the majority said the state’s approach was harsh. “Of course,” Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the majority, “the Supreme Court could prescribe more rigorous judicial review.”

Last week, Mr. Herring, the state’s attorney general, urged the Supreme Court to defer to prison officials in the case, Prieto v. Clarke, No. 15-31. “Death row offenders are sui generis,” he wrote. “States are entitled to make the judgment that death-sentenced offenders, as a class, should be confined in maximum-security conditions.”...

In June, Justice Kennedy lamented that “the condition in which prisoners are kept simply has not been a matter of sufficient public inquiry or interest.” That seemed to change over the summer. In July, President Obama ordered the Justice Department to review the use of solitary confinement in federal facilities....

This month, California settled a lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights by agreeing to cut back sharply on solitary confinement. The next day, a group representing the nation’s corrections officials called for “efforts to limit or end extended isolation.”

Things are changing even in Virginia, perhaps as a consequence of Mr. Pietro’s lawsuit. In a sworn statement filed last month in a different case, Mr. Clarke, the corrections official, said death row inmates can now watch television and play games like chess or checkers with up to three other condemned prisoners for an hour a day. They can also have weekly “contact visits” with family members. These can include “one brief kiss, a handshake and/or an embrace.”

Plans are afoot, Mr. Clarke added, for an outdoor recreation yard that will allow small groups of death row inmates to play basketball and exercise together. It should be completed by the end of October, not long after Mr. Prieto’s scheduled execution.

Regular readers likely know that I believe and often lament that capital cases often get too much attention from the Supreme Court (and others) relative to other cases involving much less serious crimes and much more sympathetic offenders. Nevertheless, as this piece notes, Virginia's blanket policy of putting all death-row defendants in solitary might make this case an appropriate (and certainly interesting) setting for a foray into what the Eighth Amendment might say these days about extreme forms of imprisonment.

September 14, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Is the death penalty on "life support" or about to have a quickened pulse?

NptuDCEThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this huge new USA Today article headlined "Courts, states put death penalty on life support." Here are some excerpts from the lengthy article that is well-told in multiple chapters:

If there is such a thing as a lock for the death penalty, the case against Daniel Higgins appeared to be just that. Already sought for sexually assaulting a child, Higgins killed Sheriff's Sgt. Michael Naylor last October with a point-blank shot to the head, making him the only deputy slain in the department's 130-year history. "I wanted him dead," Sheriff Gary Painter says of the murderer.

But Naylor's widow, Denise Davis, said she couldn't bear the likely rounds of appeals that could stretch on for decades.  Higgins was allowed to plead guilty and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.  The death penalty in America may be living on borrowed time.

The emotional and financial toll of prosecuting a single capital case to its conclusion, along with the increased availability of life without parole and continuing court challenges to execution methods, have made the ultimate punishment more elusive than at any time since its reinstatement in 1976.

Prosecutors, judges and juries also are being influenced by capital punishment's myriad afflictions: racial and ethnic discrimination, geographic disparities, decades spent on death row and glaring mistakes that have exonerated 155 prisoners in the last 42 years.

Those trends may be squeezing the life out of the death penalty.  That doesn't even take into account the added burden of legal clashes, legislative repeals, and problems finding and administering drugs for lethal injections.

The Supreme Court in June upheld a controversial form of lethal injection by the narrowest of margins, thereby giving Oklahoma the green light to reschedule three executions.  But courts in many states continue to wrestle with that issue, and the justices have four more death penalty cases on their docket this fall challenging the roles of Kansas juries, Florida judges and Georgia prosecutors....

Still, the Supreme Court has twice upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection, first in 2008 and again in June, when the justices ruled 5-4 that Oklahoma can use a sedative involved in three botched executions last year.  Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said challengers could not suggest a better alternative.

The ruling gave impetus to states such as Alabama and Mississippi seeking to jump-start executions after a hiatus of several years.  But it also rejuvenated legal efforts by groups opposed to the death penalty, who continue to fight against lethal injection protocols in several states....

Several states took the high court's ruling as a reason to rejuvenate the death penalty. Missouri wasted little time resuming executions, putting David Zink to death two weeks later, on July 14.  Texas, by far the nation's leader in executions with 528 since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, followed suit with an execution in August and has six more on tap this year.

States from Florida to Montana that have not killed anyone for several years are in court, seeking to rejuvenate dormant death penalties.  Some states are establishing backup methods in case lethal injections become impossible.  Eight permit electrocution, three allow gas chambers, three allow hanging, and two would use firing squads -- as Utah did in 2010 and 2013....

Nebraska this year became the first "red" state to ban capital punishment.  That law faces potential repeal in 2016 if death penalty proponents can put it to a vote.  The attention Nebraska received overshadowed near-misses in Delaware, where Rep. Sean Lynn says the death penalty is applied in discriminatory fashion, and Montana, where Rep. David Moore says the costs are proving to be unaffordable....

The debate over lethal injection has energized legislatures as well as courts and corrections departments.  North Carolina and Arkansas, two Southern states seeking to rejuvenate their dormant death penalties, approved laws this year that impose secrecy on the source of lethal injection drugs.  Arkansas recently purchased a new supply of drugs.

The problem for the legal system is that it's more of a medical issue.  Some drugs, such as sodium thiopental and pentobarbital, no longer can be obtained from European drug makers.  That has sent states scurrying to compounding pharmacists, where the drugs they get are not subject to Food and Drug Administration regulation.

But those pharmacists aren't pleased.  Its trade group in March discouraged members from "participating in the preparation, dispensing or distribution of compounded medications for use in legally authorized executions."  A week later, the American Pharmacists Association called executions "fundamentally contrary to the role of pharmacists as providers of health care."

I would recommend this USA Today article to anyone looking for an effective up-to-date account of the current state of the death penalty in the United States. But while the piece details all the notable barriers and hurdles in the way of continued use of the death penalty and execution, it does not fully note that the Glossip case could well have removed enough legalistic barriers to allow traditional "death belt" states and a few others to conduct multiple executions in the coming months.

Notably, this Death Penalty Information Center scheduled execution page details nine serious execution dates in five different states for the month of October. If all (or even most) of these executions get carried out without any unusual difficulties or Supreme Court intervention, I suspect additional states will feel emboldened to try a bit harder to get its death machinery up-and-running again in 2016.  And especially if Ohio can get the drugs it needs to conduct executions, I think 2016 could see a significant uptick in nationwide executions.

Especially with a death penalty referendum on the ballot in Nebraska and a presidential election season in full swing, I think 2016 will be an especially interesting and important year for the future of the death penalty in the United States.  Though it is certainly possible to look at recent developments to predict the coming demise of capital punishment, the death penalty in the United States has historically found ways to stay alive and kicking.

September 14, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

"How Obama can use his clemency power to help reverse racism"

The title of this post is the headline of this provocative new MSNBC commentary authored Mark Osler and Nkechi Taifa. Here are excerpts:

In the remaining months of his second term, President Barack Obama has the chance to deliver justice for thousands of people given overly-harsh sentences for drug crimes.  The White House is probably now contemplating the next batch of clemency grants, which is expected in October.

It is likely that the vast majority of those whose sentences would be shortened will be African American. That is as it should be given that past laws and policies, as well as prosecutors and presidents, have tilted the criminal justice system disproportionately against them.

On average, blacks face unequal treatment at each stage of the criminal justice system. They are stopped and arrested more frequently than others; they are less likely to receive favorable terms on bail; and they are more likely to be victims of prosecutorial misconduct. Blacks are more likely to accept unfair plea bargains and be sentenced to rigid, lengthy mandatory minimums, or even death.  Race mattered when blacks were disproportionately targeted, imprisoned, and sentenced beyond the bounds of reason.  Race should also matter in providing relief via clemency today.

Despite the facially neutral nature of current laws that do not intentionally discriminate, disparate treatment is nevertheless sewn into the structural fabric of institutions, allowing bias to occur without direct action by a specific person.

Today’s racism is subtle and structurally embedded in many police departments, prosecutor offices, and courtrooms.  It is found in laws that look fair, but nevertheless have a racially discriminatory impact.  For example, from 1986 through 2010, the federal sentencing guidelines and the primary federal narcotics statute mandated the same sentence for five grams of crack as they did for 500 grams of powder cocaine....

Moreover, we know that even now prosecutors use the law unfairly to punish black defendants.  Writing in the Daily Beast, Jay Michaelson reports that 95% of elected prosecutors are white, and that those prosecutors disproportionately use mandatory minimum sentences to incarcerate black defendants for longer periods of time than similarly situated whites.  Again, there is seldom a “smoking gun” tying white prosecutors to specific acts of racism.  But there is a growing consensus that the system is flawed and structurally biased against blacks.

The number of African-Americans jailed under these laws and policies soared in the past few decades.  Yet previous presidents predominantly used their power to pardon to benefit high profile white men, including Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, and Clinton donor and financier Marc Rich.  Indeed, President George W. Bush used the pardon power 200 times, but fewer than 16 of those were granted to black petitioners who have traditionally been unconnected to money, power and influence....

As the president’s clemency program accelerates over the 16 months remaining in his second and final term, we hope that he will look at the impact race has played in meting out unjust sentences.  We hope that he will broadly consider those who are worthy of a shortened sentence and a lengthened term of freedom and responsibility.  And we hope that among this group will be multitudes of eligible black men and women who will be able to be reunited with families and communities.  This does not reflect a racial bias.  It simply reflects the gut-wrenching reality of those disproportionately over-sentenced in the first place.

September 14, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 13, 2015

Alabama Chief Justice laments mandatory LWOP drug sentence for 76-year-old offender

As reported in this AP article, "Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore says the case of a 76-year-man sentenced to life without parole for a drug offense shows the need to change sentencing laws."  Here is more about the notable separate opinion authored by the top jurist of the the Cotton State:

Moore issued a special writing Friday as the Supreme Court refused to overturn the case of Lee Carroll Brooker. "I believe Brooker's sentence is excessive and unjustified," Moore wrote.

Brooker lived with his son in Houston County, and court documents show police found a marijuana-growing operation there during a search in 2013. The elderly man was convicted of drug trafficking last year, and a judge sentenced him to life without parole because of past robbery convictions in Florida. His son was also convicted. Moore writes that the life-without-parole sentence for a non-violent drug offense shows "grave flaws" in Alabama's sentencing system.

"A trial court should have the discretion to impose a less severe sentence than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole," Moore added. "I urge the legislature to revisit that statutory sentencing scheme to determine whether it serves an appropriate purpose."

The full opinion by Chief Justice Moore is available at this link.

September 13, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

New gossip about claim of innocence in Glossip

As reported in this New York Times article, the condemned murderer whose name was atop the case in which the Supreme Court recently upheld Oklahoma's approach to lethal injection now has supporters raising questions anew about his factual guilt.  The piece is headlined "Oklahoma Inmate the Focus of Renewed Attention as Execution Date Nears," and here are excerpts:

Richard E. Glossip was at the center of a major Supreme Court case this year, arguing along with two other men on Oklahoma’s death row that the state’s choice of lethal injection drugs could cause unconstitutional suffering. The court rejected that claim in a 5­4 decision in June, clearing the way for Oklahoma to resume executions. Mr. Glossip’s is the first; he is scheduled to die on Wednesday.

Now Mr. Glossip, 52, is again a focus of attention, this time over whether he is guilty of the arranged murder in 1997 of the owner of a run­down motel he was managing. Mr. Glossip’s supporters call his case a striking example of a repeating pattern in American capital punishment, in which a defendant receives inadequate legal representation early on and then, many years later, only as execution nears, higher­powered lawyers and civil rights groups become involved, raising important new issues at the 11th hour, when it may be too late.

Mr. Glossip has won the fervent backing of Sister Helen Prejean, the antideath­penalty campaigner; the actress Susan Sarandon, who played Sister Helen in the film “Dead Man Walking”; and a new legal team, working pro bono, which says his conviction was marred by poor lawyering and unreliable, police-­coached testimony.

In a drumbeat of media appearances, Mr. Glossip’s supporters are calling on Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma to delay his execution for 60 days while they explore what they say is important new evidence that they released on Friday and will discuss in a news conference in Oklahoma City on Monday.

The victim, Barry Van Treese, was beaten to death with a baseball bat in a room at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City, a motel that he owned and Mr. Glossip managed. Justin Sneed, a 19-­year-­old drifter with an eighth­grade education whom Mr. Glossip allowed to stay at the motel in return for maintenance work, admitted to the murder and is serving life without parole.

Mr. Sneed testified that Mr. Glossip had told him to kill Mr. Van Treese in return for thousands of dollars in motel receipts. Prosecutors said Mr. Glossip was a cunning figure who feared he was about to be fired for mismanagement and stealing motel revenues, and persuaded Mr. Sneed to commit the crime....

Mr. Glossip’s appeals to the state and federal Supreme Court have been exhausted. His last hope is for Governor Fallin, a Republican, to stay his execution while his lawyers work to persuade a judge, or the state board of pardon and parole, that significant new evidence warrants a new hearing or clemency. “We are seriously racing against time, as you can imagine,” said one of those lawyers, Donald R. Knight, from Colorado. “We’re trying to do work that should have been done by trial lawyers a long time ago.”

But Governor Fallin has rejected calls to intervene. “His actions directly led to the brutal murder of a husband and a father of seven children,” she said last month in a statement about Mr. Glossip, stressing that he had been convicted in two jury trials and lost multiple appeals. “The state of Oklahoma is prepared to hold him accountable for his crimes and move forward with his scheduled execution.”

Barry C. Scheck, co­director of the Innocence Project in New York, said there were serious “residual doubts” about Mr. Glossip’s guilt. A number of cases in which those sentenced to death were later exonerated, he said, had similarly relied on witnesses who benefited from testimony.

Mr. Glossip was first found guilty and sentenced to death in 1998, but a state appeals court ordered a retrial because his defense lawyers had failed to cross­-examine or investigate witnesses effectively. He was again convicted and condemned in 2004, and the courts did not find evidence of deficiencies that would require a new appeal. But Mr. Knight said the new team had identified weaknesses with that second defense as well. By all accounts, Mr. Glossip’s behavior on the day after the murder hurt his case....

The Glossip case reflects a common problem in capital punishment, Mr. Scheck said: a poor defense in the initial trial, which then limits the legal options in later appeals. “What frequently happens in these capital cases is that the really good lawyers only get involved at the end, when it’s too late,” Mr. Scheck said.

Mr. Van Treese’s family is convinced of Mr. Glossip’s guilt and has thanked the governor for standing firm. “Execution of Richard Glossip will not bring Barry back or lessen the empty hole left in the lives of those who loved Barry,” family members said in a statement this week to The Tulsa World. “What it does provide is a sense that justice has been served.”

I use the term gossip in the title of this post in part because I find less than compelling the development of new contentions about innocence a full two decades after the crime was committed given that the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death twice by two different juries. I certainly recognize that juries can get guilt/innocence determinations wrong, but I am ever hopeful it is highly unlikely that a two different juries would both get this critical determination unanimously wrong.

In addition, Mr. Glossip's supporters had to reasonably expect he would have a serious execution date in 2015, and he has not had his death sentence carried out already only because of Oklahoma's difficulties with its lethal injection plans. And, based on the tenor of the the Supreme Court oral argument in Glossip back in April, it should have been especially obvious that Oklahoma would likely have its machinery of death up and running again pretty soon. I find it troublesome that, despite all this extra time to conduct whatever additional investigation might now unearth new concerns about guilt, defense attorneys now assert they need another 60 days to make a more forceful showing of innocence.

September 13, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8)