January 24, 2015
Another remarkable exoneration thanks only to NC Innocence Inquiry Commission
On this blog, I typically do not extensively cover or frequently discuss exonerations and criminal appeals based on actual innocence claims because, as some may know, I fear guilt/innocence concerns can at times distort sentencing procedures and policy debates focused only on indisputably guilty persons. But this new amazing story out of North Carolina, headlined "After 36 years, Joseph Sledge's unfamiliar feeling: normal," seemed especially blogworthy for various reasons.
Most significantly, I think, is that this remarkable NC story highlights the unique benefits resulting if (and perhaps only when) a jurisdiction has a special institution and special procedures for dealing specifically with innocence claims. Here are the basic of one remarkable story that is embedded in the broader realities of North Carolina's unique approach to innocence concerns:
Joseph Sledge looked out across Lake Waccamaw on Friday afternoon, shivering against a cold January rain and trying to embrace an unfamiliar feeling: normal. Sledge walked out of jail Friday for the first time in 36 years without the burden of handcuffs and shackles.
He is finally free. The state had been wrong about him in 1978, and in all the years since; he is no killer. At 70, he will begin again. “I’m full up on freedom,” Sledge said shyly, leaning over a menu at Dale’s Seafood, a lakeside restaurant in rural Columbus County.
Sledge is the eighth man freed through a unique process that forces the state to deal with prisoners’ claims of innocence. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, created in 2006, examined Sledge’s innocence claim over the last 18 months, and in December, it voted that his case merited a possible exoneration.
On Friday afternoon, a trio of judges did just that. Jon David, the Columbus County district attorney, made their decision swift and easy; David told judges he had become convinced that Sledge was innocent.
As Superior Court Judge Tom Lock announced Sledge’s exoneration, a dozen photographers and reporters rushed toward Sledge and his attorneys. Sledge smiled slightly as his attorneys, Christine Mumma and Cheryl Sullivan of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, pulled him close. Applause erupted....
Sledge ... stole some T-shirts from a department store in the early 1970s. A judge sentenced him to four years in a prison camp in rural Eastern North Carolina. In 1976, with just a year left in his sentence, he escaped from the White Lake Prison Camp one night after a beef with another inmate.
That very night, not 5 miles away, someone brutally murdered Josephine and Ailene Davis, a mother and daughter, who lived together in rural Bladen County. That horrible coincidence set the course for Sledge’s life.
Sledge’s exoneration is bittersweet. It comes after dozens of mistakes and casual dismissals of his pleas for help. David, the district attorney, ticked through the justice system’s blind spots in Sledge’s case. The system wasn’t what it is now, he said. No DNA testing was available. The best it had – microscopic hair comparison – could only determine that Sledge’s pubic hair was consistent with pieces left on one victim’s exposed torso. Sledge’s escape and the wild testimony of two jailhouse informants made it all seem too obvious during the 1978 trial, which had been moved to Columbus County.
David said Friday that he regretted the system’s weaknesses and any part that court officials played in it. “There’s nothing we regret more to our values as prosecutors than to believe an innocent person is in prison,” David said. He offered Sledge an apology.
Mumma, who first encountered Sledge’s case a decade ago, has had a hard time swallowing all of the ways the criminal justice system failed Sledge – and the amount of time it took to make it right. Clues that should have sent investigators to other suspects were disregarded. None of the nearly 100 fingerprints taken from the crime scene matched Sledge’s. Investigators also collected head hairs from the victims’ bodies, but Sledge had always shaved his bare.
During two decades, Sledge sent dozens of letters to judges, police officials and prosecutors asking that they find and test evidence from his case for DNA. Yet it took nearly 20 years for a clerk to find hairs that would prove his innocence. By happenstance, a Columbus County clerk climbed a ladder in late 2012 while cleaning the evidence vault; she found an envelope flat on the top shelf with the missing hairs. The clerks had been ordered to search for that evidence as far back as 2003.
Without the state’s new apparatus for testing innocence claims, Sledge might have remained in prison. The Center on Actual Innocence and the Innocence Inquiry Commission interviewed dozens of people, testing memories that had faded over decades. Commission staff discovered crime scene evidence and investigators’ notes that local sheriff’s deputies had said for years had been lost or destroyed. The commission spent $60,000 on forensic testing.
January 24, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack
January 23, 2015
Seven years after Baze, Supreme Court takes up another lethal injection challenge
As reported in this new USA Today piece, taking up a "case that could have broad implications for hundreds of death row inmates, the Supreme Court will consider whether a drug protocol used in recent lethal injections violates the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment." Here is more:
The justices agreed Friday to consider a case originally brought by four death-row inmates in Oklahoma -- one of whom was put to death last week, after the court refused to block his execution with a combination of three drugs that has caused some prisoners to writhe in pain.
Because the court's four liberal justices dissented from the decision to let that execution go forward, it presumably was their votes in private conference Friday that will give the issue a full hearing in open court. Only four votes are needed from the nine-member court to accept a case. It will likely be heard in April, though it could be held over until the next term begins in October.
Lawyers for Charles Warner and three other convicts set for execution in Oklahoma over the next six weeks sought the Supreme Court's intervention after two lower federal courts refused their pleas. While the court's conservatives refused to stop Warner's execution, the request for a full court hearing had been held for further consideration.
The lawyers claim that the sedative midazolam, the first drug used in the three-drug protocol, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a general anesthetic and is being used in state executions virtually on an experimental basis. They say inmates may not be rendered unconscious and could suffer painfully as the other drugs in the protocol are administered.... "States now experiment with various drug formulations that have resulted in multiple malfunctioning executions — indeed, spectacles — over the past year," the challengers' brief says....
The court's four liberal justices -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- voiced deep concern about the three-drug protocol in their eight-page dissent last week. They also dissented last September when the court rejected a stay application from a Missouri inmate executed with the same drug.
I presume this cert grant will halt all scheduled executions in Oklahoma until the Supreme Court rules. Left unclear, however, is whether other states will be able to move forward with executions while this case is pending. This DPIC page with scheduled executions suggest that at least a half-dozen states have more than a dozen serious execution dates scheduled before the Supreme Court is likely to resolve this new case from Oklahoma.
I am sure that these states will try to move forward with executions, especially if their protocols are dissimilar to what Oklahoma does in executions. But I am also sure that death row defendants and their lawyers will urge states to postpone all execution until the Supreme Court rules in this new case (as happened when the Supreme Court first took up this issue eight years ago in Baze v. Kentucky). In short, here we go again!
Recent related posts:
- Oklahoma geared up to restart its machinery of death nine months after ugly execution
- Over dissent of four Justices, SCOTUS lets Oklahoma execution go forward (... and Florida executes around the same time)
"Where Do We Go from Here? Mass Incarceration and the Struggle for Civil Rights"
On the surface, crime and punishment appear to be unsophisticated matters. After all, if someone takes part in a crime, then shouldn’t he or she have to suffer the consequences? But dig deeper and it is clear that crime and punishment are multidimensional problems that stem from racial prejudice justified by age-old perceptions and beliefs about African Americans. The United States has a dual criminal justice system that has helped to maintain the economic and social hierarchy in America, based on the subjugation of blacks, within the United States. Public policy, criminal justice actors, society and the media, and criminal behavior have all played roles in creating what sociologist Loic Wacquant calls the hyperincarceration of black men. But there are solutions to rectify this problem.
To summarize the major arguments in this essay, the root cause of the hyperincarceration of blacks (and in particular black men) is society’s collective choice to become more punitive. These tough-on-crime laws, which applied to all Americans, could be maintained only because of the dual legal system developed from the legacy of racism in the United States. That is, race allowed for society to avoid the trade-off between societies “demand” to get tough on crime and its “demand” to retain civil liberties, through unequal enforcement of the law. In essence, tying crime to observable characteristics (such as race or religious affiliation) allowed the majority in society to pass tough-on-crime policies without having to bear the full burden of these policies, permitting these laws to be sustained over time.
What’s more, the history of racism, which is also linked to the history of perceptions of race and crime, has led society to choose to fight racial economic equality using the criminal justice system (i.e., incarceration) instead of choosing to reduce racial disparities through consistent investments in social programs (such as education, job training, and employment, which have greater public benefits), as King (1968) lobbied for before his assassination. In other words, society chose to use incarceration as a welfare program to deal with the poor, especially since the underprivileged are disproportionately people of color.
At the same time, many communities attempted to benefit economically from mass incarceration by using prisons as a strategy for economic growth, making the incarceration system eerily similar to the system of slavery. Given all of the documented social and economic costs of mass incarceration (e.g., inferior labor market opportunities, increases in the racial disparity in HIV/AIDS, destruction of the family unit), it can be concluded that it has helped to maintain the economic hierarchy, predicated on race, in the United States. In order to undo the damage that has been done, and in order to move beyond our racial past, we must as a nation reeducate ourselves about race; and then, as a society, commit to investing in social programs targeted toward at-risk youth. We must also ensure diversity in criminal justice professionals in order to achieve the economic equality that King fought for prior to his death. Although mass incarceration policies have recently received a great deal of attention (due to incarceration becoming prohibitively costly), failure to address the legacy of racism passed down by our forefathers and its ties to economic oppression will only result in the continued reinvention of Jim Crow.
US Sentencing Commission essentially giving up on fixing definition of "crimes of violence"
As noted in prior posts here and here, the US Sentencing Commission earlier this month publish proposed guideline amendments with some modest but significant possible revisions to the federal fraud sentencing guidelines. One reason these modest proposed guideline changes could be the most consequential reform coming from the Commission this year is because, as noted at the very end of these remarks at by the USSC Chair Patti Saris, it appears the Commission has given up its effort to seek to improve the doctrinal problems surrounding another big part of the federal sentencing guidelines:
I did want to briefly address an issue that does not appear in the proposed amendments. As I announced at the last public meeting, the Commission held a roundtable discussion this fall on the definition of “crimes of violence” and related terms. We had hoped that we would be positioned to publish some proposals today as an outgrowth of that very informative roundtable, and we conducted considerable follow up work after that event. But ultimately, after much consideration of this issue internally and consultation with leading experts, the Commission concluded that, given the existing statutory scheme, any attempts by the Commission at this time to clarify these definitions or establish more consistency within the guidelines would likely only lead to more confusion and renewed litigation. We are currently considering whether it would be helpful for the Commission to issue a report on this issue with recommendations for legislative fixes.
I am a bit disappointed and troubled that the USSC thinks the best way now to deal with all the confusion and litigation over some key guideline terms is just to give up trying to fix these terms. But I also understand the challenge the USSC faces given that these terms are so significant in federal statutes that the Commission cannot itself amend. And, perhaps usefully, the Commission's struggles here might further embolden the Supreme Court to declare part of the Armed Career Criminal Act unconstitutionally vague as it reconsiders the pending Johnson case (as discussed here).
January 22, 2015
NACDL explains the massive work behind Clemency Project 2014
As noted in this prior post, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley last week sent this letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking a number of questions about the relationship between the Justice Department and outside groups working on "Clemency Project 2014." Though AG Holder has not yet, to my knowledge, late last week one of the key groups involved in Clemency Project 2014 described its work and the broader project.
Specifically, the NACDL on Friday sent around this lengthy news release (which I believe was a joint statement by all of the groups working together on this project) titled "Clemency Project 2014: A Historically Unprecedented and Wholly Independent Volunteer Effort By the Nation's Bar." The release merits a full read for those following closely the current activities surrounding federal clemency, and here is an excerpt:
An army of volunteer lawyers are diligently working on behalf of thousands of prisoners who have requested free legal assistance in drafting and submitting clemency petitions. This unprecedented, wholly independent effort by the bar, facilitated by the organizations which make up Clemency Project 2014, seeks to achieve justice for those prisoners. It reflects these organizations' shared commitment to the highest calling of the legal profession.
At its core, Clemency Project 2014 is a vehicle through which attorneys, responding to the Department of Justice's call for the bar to offer free assistance to potential petitioners, may participate in this important initiative. The Project has not been delegated any responsibility or authority by the Department of Justice. The Project expects the Department of Justice to treat these petitions as they would any other well-reasoned petition in making its recommendations to the President, who is the sole authority for granting clemency. Many prisoners have applied directly to the Department of Justice for clemency without using the lawyers working with Clemency Project 2014, and/or are using counsel they identified and retained outside of the Project.
Since its conception less than a year ago, Clemency Project 2014 created a training and case management infrastructure to prepare an army of volunteer lawyers. Indeed, in just a handful of months, the Project:
Provided volunteer support from each of the entities to organize a mechanism for outreach to inmates and attorneys, and to develop a technological infrastructure;
Received critical funding from the ACLU and supplemental funding from the Foundation for Criminal Justice to fund and recruit three critical staff positions to oversee the effort;
Obtained donated office space and technological infrastructure from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL);
Enabled Project administrators to efficiently review, sort, and assign prisoner requests, and created and implemented an electronic database to efficiently organize detailed prisoner requests for assistance that at last count numbered more than 26,000;
Developed and deployed an extensive, multi-hour legal education training program (available on demand to any interested attorney at no charge) to ensure that all volunteer lawyers, from any practice background, will be equipped with the tools necessary to evaluate and prepare petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for its review and consideration;
Responded to a legal memorandum issued by the Administrative Office of the Courts that opined that federal public defenders may not provide representation in clemency matters, by recruiting additional volunteer attorneys to fill the void while federal defenders continue to assist in gathering documents on behalf of former clients, and to provide administrative support for the Project;
Worked with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to recruit more than 50 large firms, bringing hundreds of additional lawyers to the process;
Established and implemented a multi-tier process to assist volunteer lawyers in identifying potentially eligible applicants and preparing petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for consideration....
Assigned 5,310 cases to volunteer attorneys;
Provided individual notice to several thousand applicants with a sentence of less than ten years, a disqualifying factor under the Justice Department's criteria;
Established a website with information for the public, including family members; and
Offered ongoing, individual legal support, resource materials, and on demand training to more than 1,500 volunteer attorneys.....
This endeavor has brought in lawyers from vastly diverse practice backgrounds, more than 50 of the nation's largest and most prestigious law firms and law clinics, leading not-for-profit organizations, and the criminal defense bar to answer the call made last year by Deputy Attorney General James Cole before the New York State Bar Association.
Some prior related posts:
- Extraordinary review of messiness of Prez Obama's clemency push
- Senator Grassley queries DOJ concerning its work with Clemency Project 2014
- Defender hiccup or major headache for Clemency Project 2014?
- Nearly a year into clemency initiative, turkeys remain more likely to get Prez Obama pardon than people
- ProPublica urges next AG to "Fix Presidential Pardons"
- President Obama (aka clemency grinch) grants a few holiday pardons and commutations
"Heroin addiction sent me to prison. White privilege got me out and to the Ivy League."
The provocative title of this post is the headline of this provocative Washington Post piece authored by Keri Blakinger. Here is how it gets started (with links from the original):
I was a senior at Cornell University when I was arrested for heroin possession. As an addict — a condition that began during a deep depression — I was muddling my way through classes and doing many things I would come to regret, including selling drugs to pay for my own habit. I even began dating a man with big-time drug connections that put me around large amounts of heroin. When police arrested me in 2010, I was carrying six ounces, an amount they valued at $50,000 — enough to put me in prison for up to 10 years. Cornell suspended me indefinitely and banned me from campus. I had descended from a Dean’s List student to a felon.
But instead of a decade behind bars and a life grasping for the puny opportunities America affords some ex-convicts, I got a second chance. In a plea deal, I received a sentence of 2½ years. After leaving prison, I soon got a job as a reporter at a local newspaper. Then Cornell allowed me to start taking classes again, and I graduated last month. What made my quick rebound possible?
I am white.
Second chances don’t come easily to people of color in the United States. But when you are white, society offers routes to rebuild your life. When found guilty of a drug crime, white people receive shorter sentences than black people. And even after prison, white men fare better in the job market than black men with identical criminal records.
It was prison that clued me in to just how much I benefit from systemic racism in our society. Until then, I hadn’t thought much about white privilege, which is exactly how privilege works — as a white person, I could ignore it. But sitting behind bars, I saw how privilege touches almost everything, especially the penal system.
January 21, 2015
Speculating about how new California Supreme Court will now handle capital cases
This new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Brown appointees to Supreme Court renew hopes in death penalty cases," reviews reasons why some think that new California Justices might mean a new type of California capital justice. Here are excerpts from the piece:
In the long run, the new composition [of the California Supreme Court] could affect an array of cases, including medical malpractice and medical marijuana, but probably will be most felt in the criminal arena. The court, long dominated by former prosecutors, has affirmed about 90% of the death sentences it has reviewed. Criminal defendants rarely win.
"Brown certainly seems to have reshaped this court in a fairly dramatic way," said Jan Stiglitz, a co-founder of the California Innocence Project, which is representing a client in a case before the newly constituted court. Instead of appointing former prosecutors, Stiglitz said, "Brown has brought in not just people from the outside but people who don't have this background that sort of predisposes them to be cynical in criminal cases."
But little experience in criminal law also can be a handicap, critics said. Former prosecutors have "stared evil in the face and know what it looks like," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty. None of the Brown appointees have had prior judicial experience. "The academic view of criminal law is what produces bad decisions," Scheidegger said.
[Mariano-Florentino] Cuellar, the court's only Latino, is a former Stanford law professor. [Leondra] Kruger, the only African American justice, has worked primarily in Washington, where she represented the federal government in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Goodwin Liu, Brown's first appointee last term, was a law professor at UC Berkeley....
Legal analysts expect the Brown justices may form a new majority with Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a moderate to liberal Republican appointee. Unlike the other Republican appointees, she was never a prosecutor. She worked for the federal government on civil rights matters and as staff attorney on appellate courts.
Should a court hearing be required anytime a registered sex offender seeks entry to a public school?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable article from Virginia headlined "ACLU questions new sex offender bill." Here are the details:
Their faces and address are already public, now one Virginia lawmaker wants registered sex offenders to face public hearings before going inside schools. To have access to Virginia public schools, House Bill 1366 would require violent sex offenders to pay for a newspaper ad publicizing a personal court hearing. It would run once a week for two weeks. Then anyone could attend the hearing and testify against them.
The bills author, Delegate Jeff Campbell, says it’s about safety, but the ACLU says it crosses the line of civil rights. “The public hearing is simply an invitation for an angry mob to gather at a school and get in the way of a parent’s right to be involved in the education of his or her child,” said ACLU of Virginia’s Executive Director Claire Gastanaga.
Gastanaga said there is no real proof that registries and restrictions like this keep kids safer. He said the most direct impact of the bill would be on parents with kids in school who want to go and meet with the kids’ teachers.
Delegate Campbell disagrees: “I disagree totally, what it does is it gives parents of the other children a say in who is around their children.”... “The public’s right to know who is around their children and to have a say in whether they agree in that or not trumps that individual’s right to free access to the school,” he said.
Currently, sex offenders must inform school superintendents before they go inside a Virginia school. Delegate Campbell said there was an incident last year in Wise County where a parent did that and got permission to attend sporting events, but then started showing up to school at other times. Parents got upset and that is the reason for his bill.
A subcommittee unanimously passed the bill on Monday, but there is no set date yet for it to go before the full committee.
Because Virginia's court system is surely already pretty crowded, the burden this bill will create for state court personnel strikes me as significant and notable. A bit of research revealed that there are about 20,000 registered sex offenders in Virginia. Even if only 10% of that group has good reason to go to a public school each year, the Virginia court system is going to have to handle 2000 more annual hearing to consider (and supervise?) any school visit.
January 20, 2015
A (too) brief 2015 State of the Union mention of criminal justice issues
At the tail end of a lengthy speech mostly focused on economic issues and foreign affairs, President Barack Obama in his 2015 State of the Union Address mentioned a few matters that should intrigue those focused on federal criminal justice issues. Here are the passages from this CNN text of the SotU speech that caught my attention:
As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice -- so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit. Since I've been President, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half. Now it's time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It's not who we are....
We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won't rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it's a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.
The absence of anything more substantive or substantial about federal criminal justice reform confirms my sense and fear that President Obama is more content simply to support criminal justice reforms pushed by others from behind rather than committed seriously to leading reform efforts from the bully pulpit.
How Texas prisons struggling with cost concerns innovate with telemedicine
This Dallas Morning News article, headlined "Texas prisons try telemedicine to curb spending," highlights how the Lone Star State and other states struggle to cope with the increased cost of an aging prison population. Here are excerpts:
Christopher Aldridge walks into the clinic, hops onto the edge of the examination table and greets his doctor.... It sounds like a routine medical visit — but patient and doctor are not in the same room or even in the same city. The doctor is in a clinic in Galveston, and Aldridge, an inmate at the Estelle prison in Huntsville, is 135 miles away in the prison clinic, talking to the doctor on a TV screen.
The high-tech medical consultation, known as telemedicine, uses technology to connect prisoners, who are often housed in remote areas, with medical experts throughout the state. It’s just one way that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is trying to control spending on prison health care. But while telemedicine has shown some success in curbing spending, it hasn’t been enough to stem rising costs due to an aging prison population.
From 2001 to 2008, the cost of providing health care per inmate increased nationally by an average of 28 percent, according to a 2013 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts that examined cost data from 44 states. During that period, Texas and Illinois were the only states to see a reduction in spending. Texas reduced the cost of health care per inmate by 12 percent while Illinois saw a 3 percent decrease.
But that trend has changed in recent years. From 2007 to 2011, Texas prisons have seen a 24 percent increase in health care spending per inmate, according to a more recent study by the Pew Research Center. The July 2014 report looked at cost data for 50 states and found spending increased by an average of 10 percent....
Prison health care is expensive. It cost $7.7 billion to provide health care to U.S. prisoners out of an overall $38.6 billion spent on corrections in 2011, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. More than $581 million was spent on health care for Texas’ 152,841 prisoners in 2011.
Texas is trying to lower that cost by subcontracting prison health care to the University of Texas Medical Branch and Texas Tech University. The partnership reduces medication costs through a federal program and uses cost-saving technology such as telemedicine....
But critics argue that telemedicine isn’t the way to save money in a system plagued with long-standing concerns of poor medical care. The Texas Civil Rights Project has filed dozens of lawsuits against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its medical contractors citing medical negligence. Wayne Krause Yang, the project’s legal director, is concerned that telemedicine could shortchange an already vulnerable population....
Telemedicine saved the Texas Department of Criminal Justice $780 million from 1994 to 2008. Those savings are set to increase as the number of telemedicine consultations rises. About 100,000 telemedicine encounters take place in Texas state prisons each year....
But a steady increase in the number of older prisoners is stretching the prison health budget. Costs for their medical care are two to three times higher than for younger prisoners....
While some states begin to enroll inmates in health insurance under the new Medicaid expansion part of the Affordable Care Act — an option not available to prisoners in Texas — others look to Texas for cues on expanding telemedicine and accessing federal drug pricing programs.
"End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the The Vera Institute of Justice. Here is a description of the report I received today via an e-mail from The Vera Institute of Justice:
Enacted in 1973, New York State’s Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated lengthy prison sentences for people convicted of a range of felony drug offenses. This heralded a wave of mandatory sentencing statutes that swept the nation, contributing to dramatic increases in state prison populations and fueling the racial disparities that have come to characterize the U.S. criminal justice system. In 2009, however, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were essentially dismantled by the latest in a series of reforms that eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for the possession, use, or small-scale sale of illegal drugs and increased eligibility for diversion treatment.
In End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University examine the impact of reform soon after implementation and suggest mid-course corrections. The research team compared cases pre and post-reform to assess changes in the use of jail and prison, rates of diversion to treatment, recidivism, and cost. Researchers also interviewed 35 criminal justice stakeholders to assess their perceptions of the impact of drug law reform. The National Institute of Justice-funded study, which focused on New York City where the majority of the state’s prison population is from, found that drug law reform, as it functioned in the city soon after the laws were passed, led to a 35 percent rise in the rate of diversion among eligible defendants. Although the use of diversion varied significantly among the city’s five boroughs, it was associated with reduced recidivism rates, and cut racial disparities in half.
Hoping for (but not expecting) some mention of sentencing reform in 2015 State of the Union
For criminal justice and especially sentencing fans, the most notable aspects of President Obama's State of the Union addresses have been the absence of any discussion of anything having to do with sentencing or criminal justice. Notably, the Obama era SOTU silence on sentencing issues contrasts with President George Bush's discussion of reentry and capital defense in his 2004 and 2005 SOTU speeches.
Calling America "the land of second chance," President Bush in his 2004 State of the Union Address spotlighted prisoner re-entry issues and proposed "a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups." And asserting that in America "we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit," President Bush in his 2005 State of the Union Address said he was going to send "to Congress a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases, because people on trial for their lives must have competent lawyers by their side."
I am expecting that President Obama in his 2015 State of the Union Address scheduled for tonight may finally say something about criminal justice issues, in part because I think he will want to say something about race and policing issues in the wake of Ferguson and his creation of a Task Force on 21st Century Policing. But, as the title of this post reveals, I am not really expecting to hear tonight any discussion of sentencing law and policy issues even though many in Congress and throughout the nation are concerned about the modern status quo and prospects for federal reforms.
On this front, Andrew Cohen at The Marshall project put together this terrific new piece headlined "‘My Fellow Americans …’: Reimagining the president's State of the Union speech," in which he got "a group of people who think deeply and regularly about criminal justice to share what they would like President Obama to say." I was honored to be one of the people who Andrew Cohen asked to share my thoughts, though I find most notable what Senator Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.) had to say:
The biggest issue facing our justice system today is our mass incarceration problem. The president has said before that we should enact laws that ensure “our crime policy is not only tough, but also smart.” But tonight, while he has the attention of every member of Congress and the American people, I want to hear the president say that he supports an end to all mandatory minimum sentences, as I do. Mandatory minimums are costly, unfair, and do not make our country safer. For too long they have served as an easy way to score cheap political points: Want to prove you're tough on crime? Just add another mandatory minimum to the law. No need to bother with evidence that they do not make us safer; they make a nice talking point. That policy fallacy is one of the reasons we have the largest prison population in the world. And why $7 billion – nearly a third of the Justice Department’s budget – goes to the Bureau of Prisons instead of to community policing, victims services, or prison diversion programs that would make us safer and save taxpayers money.
Reagular readers will not be surprised to hear that I support the substance of what Senator Leahy is saying here. But I am personally a bit surprised that the a ranking member (and former Chair) of the Senate Judiciary Committee is saying he think it is important for an executive branch official to say he opposes a legislative sentencing problem that Congress itself created and seems unable or unwilling to address dynamically.
SCOTUS rules in favor of prisoner's RLUIPA claim and capital defendant's AEDPA contention
The Supreme Court handed down a few opinions this morning, and two of them involve notable victories for criminal defendants (and notable reversals of the Eighth Circuit).
Via a unanimous ruling in Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13- 6827 (S. Ct. Jan 20, 2015) (available here), the Court explains why a rigid prison beard policy wrongfully infringes religious rights. Here is how the opinion, per Justice Alito, gets started:
Petitioner Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, is an Arkansas inmate and a devout Muslim who wishes to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Petitioner’s objection to shaving his beard clashes with the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy, which prohibits inmates from growing beards unless they have a particular dermatological condition. We hold that the Department’s policy, as applied in this case, violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 114 Stat. 803, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq., which prohibits a state or local government from taking any action that substantially burdens the religious exercise of an institutionalized person unless the government demonstrates that the action constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.
We conclude in this case that the Department’s policy substantially burdens petitioner’s religious exercise. Although we do not question the importance of the Department’s interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification, we do doubt whether the prohibition against petitioner’s beard furthers its compelling interest about contraband. And we conclude that the Department has failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests. We thus reverse the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
Via a summary reversal in Christeson v. Roper, No. 14-6873 (S. Ct. Jan 20, 2015) (available here), the Court explains why lower federal courts were too quick to preclude a capital defendant from arguing a habeas deadline ought to be tolled. Here is how the Court's per curiam decision gets started:
Petitioner Mark Christeson’s first federal habeas petition was dismissed as untimely. Because his appointed attorneys — who had missed the filing deadline — could not be expected to argue that Christeson was entitled to the equitable tolling of the statute of limitations, Christeson requested substitute counsel who would not be laboring under a conflict of interest. The District Court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit summarily affirmed. In so doing, these courts contravened our decision in Martel v. Clair, 565 U. S. ___ (2012). Christeson’s petition for certiorari is therefore granted, the judgment of the Eighth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
Notably, in Holt, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor concurred in a little separate opinion to provide a bit of their own spin on RLUIPA. And in Christeson, Justices Alito and Thomas dissent from the summary reversal because they would have preferred full briefing concerning a "question of great importance" regarding "the availability of equitable tolling in cases governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)."
Should we be concerned about the economic or human costs of Colorado's efforts to get Aurora killer James Holmes on death row?
The question in the title of this post is my first reaction to this lengthy Denver Post piece discussing what to expect now that jury selection is about to begin in the Colorado's high-profile capital trial of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes. The piece is headlined "Aurora theater shooting trial could strain limits of jury service," and here are some excerpts:
After 50 days of testimony and deliberations, the jurors who decided the fate of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh emerged haunted. "Have you ever seen 12 people cry?" one juror told reporters about deliberations for the 1997 verdict, handed down in a federal courtroom in Denver. "I'm 24," another said, "But I don't feel 24 anymore."
Pummeled with horrific accounts of the attack, freighted with finding justice amid tragedy, the jurors had been pushed to near shattering. "I personally felt subject to the same sort of trauma that some of the victims and survivors went through," another said.
Now, imagine if that trial had lasted twice — even three times — as long. The trial of Aurora movie theater gunman James Holmes, which starts Tuesday with jury selection, is expected to be so lengthy and arduous that it could strain the very process of justice it seeks to uphold.
Nine thousand potential jurors — one of the largest pools in American history — have been summoned for the case. If picked, jurors will be ordered to serve for as long as five straight months, longer than any state criminal trial in memory in Colorado. They will weigh whether Holmes was sane in July 2012, when he killed 12 people inside the Century Aurora 16 movie theater and tried to kill 70 others, and, if they find he was, they will decide whether he should be executed.
For their service, they will be guaranteed a wage of only $50 a day, a rate that could plunge their income to near the federal poverty level. Even harder, during what will likely be the most stressful time of their lives, they will be forbidden from talking to anyone about the experience — not their family or fellow jurors or counselors. Until deliberations begin sometime late this year, the jurors will bear that stress in silence, despite a growing body of research that shows jury service on traumatic cases can lead to mental and physical illness and impact jurors' decision-making....
Since the 1930s, perpetrators of public mass shootings nationwide are more likely to die at the scene than to be captured, according to research by Minnesota Department of Corrections official Grant Duwe. Of the 45 percent who were arrested, only a fraction ever faced a jury. And even fewer of those were charged with killing in an attack as devastating to the community as Holmes is for the Aurora theater shooting.
William Bowers, a researcher for the Capital Jury Project at the State University of New York in Albany, likens the theater shooting trial to that currently taking place for one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers. "There's nothing really comparable to these cases in modern experience, in terms of duration of the trial and effect on the jury," Bowers said....
But, at its most extreme limits, jury service can become less of a duty and more of an ordeal, legal experts say. Studies have shown that jurors in traumatic trials can suffer from insomnia, anxiety, anger and depression. One study documented cases of jurors who broke out in hives, developed ulcers or increased their alcohol consumption while serving at trials. And after the trial is over, some jurors have said they experienced flashbacks....
In recognition of the strains of jury service, courts across the country increasingly offer counseling to jurors. Jon Sarche, a spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch, said counseling will be made available to jurors in the theater shooting case once the trial is over. But — because judges routinely order jurors not to talk about the case with anyone, to protect the trial's integrity — counseling is almost never available to help jurors manage stress during the case.
While this piece effectively highlights some economic and human costs to be borne the jurors in this case, the question in the title of this post also suggests thinking about the economic and human costs sure to burden the lawyers and the court system throughout this case. And, as the question in the title of this post is meant to highlight, these costs are all endured in service now only to having Holmes sentenced to death; inevitable appeals and other factors will likely mean Holmes is unlikely ever actually to be executed by Colorado for his crimes.
I suspect these kinds of costs and uncertainties explain (and clearly justify?) why the feds were willing to cut LWOP plea deals for other mentally-challenged mass killers like Ted Kaczynski (the Unibomber) and Jared Lee Loughner (the Tucson shooter). But Colorado prosecutors in this case appear quite committed to enduring all these costs in service to trying to get James Holmes sentenced to death.
Recent and older related posts (with lots of comments):
- Largest mass shooting in US history surely to become a capital case
- Offense/offender distinctions in first-cut punishment reactions to Batman mass murder
- "For James Holmes, Death Penalty is Far from a Certainty"
- You be the prosecutor: will you accept Aurora theater shooter's plea offer and drop pursuit of the death penalty?
- "James Holmes' Victims Applaud Death Penalty Plan: 'I Want Him Dead'"
- Lawyers for Aurora shooter James Holmes attacking Colorado's death penalty again
- Intriguing sparring over victims' rights in Colorado massacre capital case
January 19, 2015
"Graham's Gatekeeper and Beyond: Juvenile Sentencing and Release Reform in the Wake of Graham and Miller"
The title of this post is the title of this timely and important new article by Megan Annitto now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court imposed limits on the use of the life sentences for juveniles. The decisions require states and the federal government to craft new procedures when and if courts levy life and lengthy sentences upon juveniles. But the Court’s decisions are not self-actualizing and there is little within them that creates a bright line about the substance or procedures states should follow. This article focuses on three of the questions that states face in the implementation of the Court’s decisions. First, who is the best gatekeeper for the release of these offenders on the back end of sentencing — the judiciary, parole boards, or something new? Second, what procedural and substantive guidance should states provide for these chosen gatekeepers? And, finally, what role will modern risk assessment tools play in this decision making?
The answers to these questions must fairly balance public safety with the possibility of redemption the Court recognized is inherent in childhood. They will also affect the public’s perception of legitimacy in the release process. State and the federal government answers to those questions are even more pressing given the applicability of Graham’s rationale to a larger category of offenders — the American Bar Association and American Law Institute both recommend the creation of some form of sentencing review for all juveniles sentenced under an adult regime.
Despite the importance of these questions, in the early aftermath of the Court’s opinions, legislative and judicial attention has primarily focused on issues related to the length of sentences that should be alternatives to life terms, the time at which review should occur when life sentences are imposed, and retroactivity. But some pioneering states have passed legislation tinkering with broader reform and legislatures are rapidly taking up the issues presented. Some courts have broadened the reach of Graham and Miller, striking down juvenile life without parole altogether. But many legislatures are embattled over decisions about whether to enact only the perceived minimal requirements of Graham and Miller or whether to extend the Court’s reasoning to broader release policies affording back end sentencing review at reasonable time periods. Choices that provide for expanded but careful opportunities for relief can counterweigh some of the harsh results of juvenile transfer laws that have brought, and continue to bring, increasing numbers of juveniles under the rubric of adult sentencing schemes in ways that were not necessarily intentional or desirable. The Article discusses the implications of the chosen gatekeeper for release and discusses the accompanying procedural and substantive considerations that states and the federal government should consider upon implementation.
January 18, 2015
Highlighting that most prisoners in Wisconsin now sent there for parole or probation violations
This lengthy Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel article highlights the interesting reality of just who gets sent to prison in the Badger State and how. The piece carries this headline and subheading: "No new conviction, but sent back to prison; Re-incarceration for rule, parole violations costs taxpayers millions." Here is how the article starts:
More than half of the nearly 8,000 people sent to Wisconsin's prisons in 2013 were locked up without a trial — and they weren't found guilty of new crimes. Some were punished for violating probation or parole by doing things such as accepting a job without permission, using a cellphone or computer without authorization, or leaving their home county. Some were suspected of criminal activity, but not charged.
Re-incarcerating people for breaking the rules costs Wisconsin taxpayers more than $100 million every year. The process that forces violators back behind bars relies largely on the judgment of individual parole agents, which can vary widely. Once accused of violations, people on parole can be sent back to prison for years without proof beyond a reasonable doubt — and they are left with little chance of a successful appeal.
Hector Cubero's agent, for example, recommended he be returned to prison on his original sentence of life with the possibility of parole after he inked a tattoo on the shoulder of a 15-year-old boy. The tattoo featured a cross and a quote from peace activist Marianne Williamson: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."
Cubero maintains the teen lied about his age. Had Cubero been found guilty of tattooing a minor, a city ordinance violation, he would have been ticketed and fined $200. If he had been convicted of tattooing without a license, a misdemeanor, he could have been fined $500 and faced a maximum of 30 days in jail. But because he was on parole at the time, Cubero, 52, has served more than two years — with no guarantee he will ever go home.
Cubero already had spent more than 27 years behind bars for being a party to the crimes of first-degree murder and armed robbery. Court records show Cubero, 18 at the time of the offense, did not plan the robbery or fire the shots that killed the victim, a Milwaukee dentist.
Until the parents of the 15-year-old complained about the tattoo, Cubero had never violated parole, according to Corrections Department records. During the four years he'd been free, he passed all his drug tests, paid his restitution and court costs and worked fairly steadily. Nonetheless, Cubero's parole agent recommended he be sent back to prison. The agent, with cooperation from a prison social worker, also blocked his fiancée, Charlotte Mertins of Delafield, and her three children, all in their 20s, from visiting him.
"Smart Guns Save Lives. So Where Are They?"
The question in the title of this post is one that long-time readers know I have been asking on this blog for nearly a decade. Today the question also serves as the headline for this Nicholas Kristof op-ed in the New York Times. Here are excerpts:
About 20 children and teenagers are shot daily in the United States, according to a study by the journal Pediatrics. Indeed, guns kill more preschool-age children (about 80 a year) than police officers (about 50), according to the F.B.I. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This toll is utterly unnecessary, for the technology to make childproof guns goes back more than a century. Beginning in the 1880s, Smith & Wesson (whose gun was used in the Walmart killing) actually sold childproof handguns that required a lever to be depressed as the trigger was pulled. “No ordinary child under 8 years of age can possibly discharge it,” Smith & Wesson boasted at the time, and it sold half-a-million of these guns, but, today, it no longer offers that childproof option.
Doesn’t it seem odd that your cellphone can be set up to require a PIN or a fingerprint, but there’s no such option for a gun? Which brings us to Kai Kloepfer, a lanky 17yearold high school senior in Boulder, Colo. After the cinema shooting in nearby Aurora, Kloepfer decided that for a science fair project he would engineer a “smart gun” that could be fired only by an authorized user....
Kloepfer designed a smart handgun that fires only when a finger it recognizes is on the grip. More than 1,000 fingerprints can be authorized per gun, and Kloepfer says the sensor is 99.999 percent accurate. A child can’t fire the gun. Neither can a thief — important here in a country in which more than 150,000 guns are stolen annually.
Kloepfer’s design won a grand prize in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Then he won a $50,000 grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation to refine the technology. By the time he enters college in the fall (he applied early to Stanford and has been deferred), he hopes to be ready to license the technology to a manufacturer.
There are other approaches to smart guns. The best known, the Armatix iP1, made by a German company and available in the United States through a complicated online procedure, can be fired only if the shooter is wearing a companion wristwatch.
The National Rifle Association seems set against smart guns, apparently fearing that they might become mandatory. One problem has been an unfortunate 2002 New Jersey law stipulating that three years after smart guns are available anywhere in the United States, only smart guns can be sold in the state. The attorney general’s office there ruled recently that the Armatix smart gun would not trigger the law, but the provision has still led gun enthusiasts to bully dealers to keep smart guns off the market everywhere in the U.S.
Opponents of smart guns say that they aren’t fully reliable. Some, including Kloepfer’s, will need batteries to be recharged once a year or so. Still, if Veronica Rutledge had had one in her purse in that Idaho Walmart, her son wouldn’t have been able to shoot and kill her.
“Smart guns are going to save lives,” says Stephen Teret, a gun expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “They’re not going to save all lives, but why wouldn’t we want to make guns as safe a consumer product as possible?” David Hemenway, a public health expert at Harvard, says that the way forward is for police departments or the military to buy smart guns, creating a market and proving they work....
Smart guns aren’t a panacea. But when even a 17yearold kid can come up with a safer gun, why should the gun lobby be so hostile to the option of purchasing one? Something is amiss when we protect our children from toys that they might swallow, but not from firearms. So Veronica Rutledge is dead, and her son will grow up with the knowledge that he killed her — and we all bear some responsibility when we don’t even try to reduce the carnage.
Among other potential benefits, I think a sophisticated commitment by gun rights advocated to smart gun technologies could in some ways expand gun rights to people now too often denied their rights by overly broad federal firearm restrictions.
Right now, for example, anyone convicted of any felony is forever criminally precluded from ever even possessing a firearm. In a world with more technologically sophisticated guns, some kind of microchip might be installed in certain hunting rifles so that they only work at designated times in designated areas and perhaps then persons guilty of nonviolent felonies could be exempted from broad felon-in-possession prohibitions in order to be able to use these kinds of guns for sport. Or, perhaps technology might allow all persons after completing their formal punishment to still be able to exercise their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms: ex-cons might be permitted only access to smart guns with GPS tracking/reporting technology (something comparable to the internet tracking/screening software now regularly required to be on sex offenders' computers) so that authorities can regularly follow when and how former felons are exercising their gun rights.
A few recent and older related posts:
- Could latest tragic mass shooting prompt renewed consideration of "smart gun" technologies?
- "Smart Gun Technology Could Have Blocked Adam Lanza"
- Sentencing "highlights" in President Obama's new gun control push
- Technology, smart guns, GPS tracking and a better Second Amendment
- More on smart guns, dumb technologies and market realities
- Interesting developments in "smart gun" discussions and debate
- "Can ‘Smart Gun’ Technology Change the Stalemate Over Gun Violence?"
Long weekend highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
Though it has only been about ten days since I last provided a round up of notable new posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, an important new report from the RAND Corporation along with lots of other cannabis commotion calls for another link review:
As hinted above, I think this big new RAND report seeking to take stock of the potential benefits and costs of various marijuana reform options for Vermont and other states is a must-read for anyone concerned about marijuana reform (pro or con). Here is a paragraph from the report's abstract:
The principal message of the report is that marijuana policy should not be viewed as a binary choice between prohibition and the for-profit commercial model we see in Colorado and Washington. Legalization encompasses a wide range of possible regimes, distinguished along at least four dimensions: the kinds of organizations that are allowed to provide the drug, the regulations under which those organizations operate, the nature of the products that can be distributed, and price. These choices could have profound consequences for health and social well-being, as well as job creation and government revenue.