December 5, 2015
Have conservatives been "manipulated" and "duped" by abolitionists to oppose the death penalty?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by statements in the final paragraph of this lengthy American Thinker commentary authored Aaron J. Veselenak and headlined "Some Reading for Conservatives Who Oppose the Death Penalty." I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts and ends:
In recent years, opponents of capital punishment have leveled key criticisms against conservatives, claiming major hypocrisy in their continued approval of society's most serious criminal sanction. One claim is that conservative support for the death penalty violates the most central tenet of conservatism — that of limited government. How can conservatives, they ask, in their suspicion of and disdain for large, powerful government, advocate use of the greatest governmental power of all, the taking of life? Contradiction — indeed, hypocrisy — is said to exist.
This charge is faulty, even bogus. Unfortunately, this and other equally faulty charges have resonated with certain members of the conservative movement, among them state and federal lawmakers.
Why is the above claim so faulty, in fact lacking of substance? The answer lies in the fact that conservatives are not anarchists. Yes, conservatives do believe in very limited size and power of government. However, that does not mean they abandon the most basic functions of government, chief among them protection of the people through military and police powers. Or a court and penal system to further provide safety and administer justice....
Conservatives jumping on the anti-death penalty bandwagon in recent years need to rethink their position. They have been manipulated — duped by the seemingly sound and logical statements of death penalty opponents. Deeper reflection demonstrates these claims to be very shallow and without merit.
Perhaps because I hang out and interact with a number of pretty bright people with an array of views on an array of criminal justice topics, I am disinclined to believe that conservatives who oppose the death penalty are being convinced by "very shallow" claims or are subject to being manipulated or duped by death penalty opponents. Nor do I think one need to be drawn in by appeals to anarchy or libertarianism to have conservative-based concerns about the operation of modern death penalty in the United States.
Rather, I think one readily can embrace a strong belief/commitment to a government focused on the "protection of the people through military and police powers [and] a court and penal system to further provide safety and administer justice" while still voicing considerable disaffinity for the modern death penalty. This disaffinity would be based on the (seemingly conservative) perspective that the governments often, even when trying really hard to be effective in its core functions, far too often end up doing more harm than good (and at an excessive cost to taxpayers). Even apart from concerns about government dysfunction showcases by wrongful convictions (which I assume trouble conservatives as much if not more than liberals), the governmental mess we have recently seen in Oklahoma with the mixing up of execution drugs or states previously relying on unqualified executioners or even evidence of racial disparities in capitl application could all seemingly provide a principled basis for principled conservatives to conclude the government (especially state governments) ought not still be in the business of killing its killers.
December 4, 2015
"The Injustice of the Plea-Bargain System"
The title of this post is the headline of this op-ed authored by Lucian Dervan and appearing in today's Wall Street Journal. Here are excerpts:
The House Judiciary Committee introduced five bills this year in a bipartisan effort to reform America’s criminal-justice system. With incarceration rates in the U.S. five to 10 times higher than in Western Europe and other democracies, the bills aim to provide sensible reforms such as rewriting mandatory-sentencing statutes. Yet none directly addresses plea bargaining, a practice that induces too many defendants to plead guilty to avoid what has come to be known as the trial penalty....
Even in cases without mandatory sentences, it is common for sentences handed down after trial to be far more severe than those offered to induce guilty pleas. This “trial penalty” is weighed by thousands of defendants each day when considering whether to accept a plea offer.
A 2013 Human Rights Watch study found that the average federal drug sentence for defendants who proceeded to trial in 2012 was three times longer — an increase of 10 years — than for defendants who pleaded guilty. In that study, a federal judge in New York described the sentences defendants face if they reject plea offers as “so excessively severe, they take your breath away.” Not surprisingly, the great majority of convictions come from guilty pleas. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, over 97% of convictions in the federal system arise from guilty pleas; state systems aren’t far behind at about 95%.
There are numerous documented cases of innocent defendants pleading guilty, including well-known examples such as Brian Banks. In 2002, at the age of 17, Mr. Banks was wrongly accused of rape yet chose a plea bargain with a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. If he rejected the offer and lost at trial, he faced 40 years to life in prison. He took the deal and falsely confessed. In 2012, after definitive evidence of his innocence came to light, a California court reversed the conviction.
The Supreme Court established the constitutionality of plea bargaining in Brady v. United States (1970). But the court warned that it would have “serious doubts” if the “encouragement of guilty pleas by offers of leniency substantially increased the likelihood that defendants, advised by competent counsel, would falsely condemn themselves.” Sadly, the trial penalty has done just that.
Arkansas state judge strikes down portion of state execution law aimed at keep drug suppliers secret
As reported in this AP article, an "Arkansas judge struck down a portion of the state's execution law that keeps secret the source of drugs it uses, saying Thursday that drug suppliers do not have a constitutional right to be free from criticism." Here is more about the ruling and its context:
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen sided with death row inmates who challenged a law passed by lawmakers this year that prevents disclosure about the drugs that are used in executions. The judge also ordered the state to disclose drug details, including the makers and suppliers, by noon Friday. "It is common knowledge that capital punishment is not universally popular," Griffen wrote. "That reality is not a legitimate reason to shield the entities that manufacture, supply, distribute, and sell lethal injection drugs from public knowledge."
Judd Deere, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said late Thursday that the office had filed notice of appeal with the state Supreme Court. Rutledge also asked for an immediate stay of Griffen's order. "Attorney General Rutledge has a duty to defend the State's lethal injection statute and disagrees with Judge Griffen's order," Deere wrote in an emailed statement.
In the filing for an immediate stay, attorneys for the office noted that states with secrecy laws regarding executions have generally won challenges to those laws. They believe Arkansas' law is less stringent than many of those.
In his ruling, Griffen noted that a federal judge in Ohio last month granted a protective order to allow that state to maintain secrecy about the drugs, but he said that court erred because it accepted "what it acknowledged as no proof of 'a single known threat'" as an indicator that disclosing a state's source for drugs would pose an undue burden on that state....
The Arkansas Supreme Court put on hold executions for eight inmates until the inmates' lawsuit challenging the state's execution protocol and secrecy law could be heard.
Under the execution secrecy law, the Department of Correction has withheld the manufacturer and distributor of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride obtained last year, as well as other information. Midazolam, a sedative, gained notoriety after being used during executions that took longer than expected last year in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the drug's use in executions in June. Earlier this year, The Associated Press identified three pharmaceutical companies that likely made Arkansas' execution drugs; each company said it objects to its drugs being used that way.
The inmates argued that the secrecy law is unconstitutional. They want information on the drugs' makers and suppliers to determine whether they could lead to cruel and unusual punishment. They also argued the secrecy law violates a settlement in an earlier lawsuit that guaranteed inmates would be given the information. The state has said the agreement is not a binding contract.
Griffen noted in his ruling that an attorney for the state said Arkansas' suppliers "covertly sold" the drugs to the state despite directives from the pharmaceutical companies that they should not be sold for use in executions. He said the admission, "whether inadvertent of not," was important because it shows the state could abide by the contract and still obtain drugs....
Griffen noted that Arkansas has a law outlining humane euthanization practices for animals. "The court rejects the notion that domestic pets and livestock in Arkansas have the right to die free of unjustifiable or prolonged pain, but that the constitutional guarantee against 'cruel or unusual punishment' found in the Arkansas Constitution allows people who commit murders to be put to death as if they have no entitlement to such right," he wrote.
Arkansas last executed an inmate in 2005.
Spotlighting a correlation (and a connection) between police shootings and capital punishment
The always interesting Radley Balko has this especially interesting opinion piece headlined "America’s killingest counties." Here are excerpts:
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Kern County, Calif., had a reputation for being one of the most law-and-order jurisdictions in the United States. Led by longtime tough-guy prosecutor Ed Jagels, the county earned the unofficial motto “Come for vacation, leave on probation.” In 2009, Jagels’s county Web page boasted that Kern had “the highest per capita prison commitment rate of any major California County.” Jagels would retire to great acclaim and praise, despite the fact that at least two dozen of the people his office convicted during the ritual sex-abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s have since been exonerated. Kern County has also sent 26 people to death row since 1976, putting it among the top 25 in the country, and among the 2 percent of U.S. counties that account for more than half of America’s death row population.
Given all of that, it probably isn’t terribly surprising that Kern County is also home to the deadliest cops in the United States.... Kern County, in fact, has seen 79 police killings since 2005, or about 8 per year. That’s 0.9 police killings per 100,000 residents. By comparison, the city’s overall murder rate is 4.6 per 100,000, a figure right at about the national average.
There is, in fact, a pretty remarkable correlation between counties that produce a lot of death sentences and counties where cops kill a lot of people. Oklahoma County, Okla., for example, is second in the nation in both death sentences and per capita killings by police officers. San Bernardino County, Calif., is 11th in death sentences, and third in per capita killings by police. Clark County, Nev., is fourth in police killings, and among the top 50 in death sentences. Santa Clara County, Calif., is fifth in police killings, 19th in death sentences. It goes on like that....
There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States. But the 13 with the highest rates of police killings are not only all in death penalty states; they also all rank among the top 30 in death sentences meted out over the past 40 years. These 13 cities are wide-ranging in size (from Kern’s 875,000 people to Los Angeles’ 10 million), murder rate (from 9.1 in Dallas to 2.3 in San Diego) and demographics.
What does this mean? I pointed out in a post a couple of years ago that the counties that send the most people to death row also tend to be counties with histories of prosecutorial abuse and misconduct. (Jagels’s office in particular was regularly berated by appeals courts for bending — or outright ignoring — the rules.) District attorneys are the chief law enforcement officers within their judicial districts. They set the tone for the entire area. They’re also typically in charge of investigating officer-involved shootings and other allegations of excessive force. It isn’t difficult to see how when a DA takes a “win at all costs” approach to fighting crime, that philosophy would permeate an entire county’s law enforcement apparatus, from the beat cop to the DA herself or himself.
December 3, 2015
"The government is abusing mandatory minimums: How law enforcement is ruining a generation of Americans"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Salon article authored by Daniel Denvir. Here are excerpts:
The Obama administration has called for the criminal justice system to be reformed and for the population of our enormous prison system to be reduced, encouraging reform efforts in Congress and pledging to speed up a moribund clemency process so that people serving unjustly harsh sentences can be freed. The Department of Justice has taken a lead role, forcing local police departments to clean house and, under former Attorney General Eric Holder, pledging to restrict federal prosecutors’ use of harsh mandatory minimums....
There is growing concern, however, that federal prosecutors in the 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices nationwide are implementing Holder’s directives unevenly — or even resisting implementation entirely. David Patton and Jon Sands, co-chairs of the Federal Defender Legislative Committee, wrote in a recent letter to House Judiciary Committee leadership that “there is widespread disregard of DOJ policy among line federal prosecutors about when to trigger those severe enhancements. And the enhancements are regularly used for no other reason than to force people to waive their trial rights.”
851 enhancements double five- and ten-year mandatory minimum drug sentence for offenders with one prior “felony” drug conviction, and impose a life without parole sentence for offenders with two drug priors facing a ten-year sentence. What counts as a so-called felony, however, is remarkably broad [and] it can include state convictions so minor that they did not result in jail time. It can even include state misdemeanors...
Steve Cook, the president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys ... is leading a campaign against sentencing reform legislation in Congress, and he disagrees that prosecutors use 851s to coerce cooperation. “One of the criticisms I hear frequently from commentators is prosecutors want these mandatory minimums and 851s so they can strong arm guilty pleas. Well, that isn’t the case,” Cook said. “851s, those were designed to put recidivists in prison for longer.”
There is evidence, however, to suggest that that is often precisely how they are used. Judge Gleeson detailed one such instance in a 2013 opinion protesting his own sentencing of Lulzim Kupa, and the prosecutorial abuse of mandatory minimums more generally. Based on more than five kilograms of cocaine alone, Kupa faced a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. But Kupa had two prior marijuana trafficking convictions. If prosecutors so decided, they would trigger life without parole upon conviction.
On March 5, 2013, prosecutors offered Kupa a plea deal. The government would withdraw the 10-year mandatory minimum and instead recommend a sentence of between 110-137 months. With good time credits, Kupa could serve seven years and ten months, Gleeson wrote. But Kupa had just one day to think the agreement over, and he didn’t accept it. And so prosecutors twisted the screws tighter, filing the 851 information detailing his two prior marijuana convictions. Unless prosecutors withdrew the notice, he would be automatically sentenced to life without parole upon conviction. “Just like that, a defendant for whom the government, only ten days earlier, was willing to recommend an effective sentence of less than eight years was looking at life in prison without the possibility of parole,” wrote Gleeson.
December 3, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)
Fourth Circuit to consider en banc whether it can consider new claims from federal prisoner with wrong old LWOP sentence in Surratt
In this post a few months ago, I noted the lengthy split Fourth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Surratt, No. 14-6851 (4th Cir. July 31, 2015) (available here), in which a majority of the panel decided it could not consider a challenge to a wrongful LWOP sentence for a federal drug defendant. As the majority put it: "We are not unsympathetic to his claim; like the dissent, we recognize the gravity of a life sentence. However, Congress has the power to define the scope of the writ of habeas corpus, and Congress has exercised that power here to narrowly limit the circumstances in which a § 2241 petition may be brought. Surratt’s petition does not present one of the permitted circumstances. Accordingly, we agree that the district court lacked jurisdiction under § 2255(e) to consider Surratt’s § 2241 petition and affirm the judgment below."
Now, thanks to a helpful reader, I have learned that yesterday the full Fourth Circuit decided via this order to now hear the Surratt case en banc. For anyone interested in federal habeas law, this now become a must-watch case.
Federal statutory sentencing reform not going to happen until 2016 ... if at all
This TPM DC report, headlined "Criminal Justice Reform Is Quickly Running Out Of Time," provides a Capitol Hill update that confirms what I had heard from another source: the full Congress is unlikely this year to get to the criminal justice reform bills that have made it through the House and Senate Judiciary committees. And, as the TPC article goes on to explain, the enduring GOP uncertainty on this front combine with a Prez campaign to perhaps diminish the prospects that any reform gets done anytime soon:
It was supposed to be the rare bipartisan bright spot in the Senate, but a crowded legislative calendar and the looming election year are endangering the last best hope for criminal justice reform while President Obama is still in office. With roughly three weeks left until the holidays, the Senate is prioritizing passing a tax extenders bill, a reconciliation package to defund Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, a transportation bill, and legislation to fund the government. That means time has run out for criminal justice reform in this calendar year.
"No chance it can be done between now and Christmas," Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said Monday evening as he darted off the Senate floor clutching his list of the Republican senators he still intended to convince to sign onto his bill, his handwritten notes scrawled underneath each of their names.
Advocates and outside observers have long anticipated that the best chance for passage of criminal justice reform would be before the practical realities of electoral politics intruded in 2016. With the remainder of the year taken up by other matters, reformers will have to wait until the Senate gavels back in in the new year, in the midst of presidential primary season.
The prospects of pushing forward with the Senate bill just as the Republican presidential primary in particular is in full swing -- with the expected tough-on-crime appeals to the conservative base -- is daunting. Primary season is hardly the time for the Republicans back in Washington to be giving up on the well-honed GOP attack lines on crime and pushing forward a progressive new position on incarceration....
Grassley and supporters are now running short on time to get their bill on the floor especially if Republican frontrunner Donald Trump stays on top. Trump's attempts to tie illegal immigration and criminality have prompted fellow Republican presidential candidates to follow suite. In a race to out-flank one another, the GOP contenders have backed away from the new wave of conservative thinking on criminal justice reform and reverted to echoing the talking points that were cornerstones of the party in the 1980s and 1990s. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) voted against the criminal justice reform bill in committee in October even as he once billed himself as a pro-reform Republican....
While momentum had been building for the Senate's criminal justice reform bill, there are still deep divisions in the Republican Party to contend with. The tug of war is between traditional tough-on-crime Republicans who believe reductions in sentences would lead to a spike in crime and a new generation of conservatives who see an economic argument for reducing mandatory minimums and slashing the costs associated with incarceration.
Grassley and other sponsors like Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) are working to convince senators like Cory Gardner (R-CO), Shelley Moore-Capito (R-WV) and Steve Daines (R-MT) to sign on, but there are some outspoken opponents who may prove to be immovable. “I think the bill needs more work. I think it needs to be connected with the reality of criminal justice and crime in America," said Jeff Sessions (R-AL) "I would not favor bringing it up and just zipping it through. A number of members in our conference, I think share those concerns.” Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) replied "no comment" when TPM asked him about his position. Former Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said he was concerned the bill would "let out a lot of people who don’t deserve to be let out [of prison.]"
While Democratic sponsors of the bill are publicly optimistic that the legislation can get a vote on the floor even in an election year, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) admits the lack of GOP unity does put the legislation in some jeopardy. Republican leadership will want to ensure they have buy in from most of their conference if they are going to risk bringing the bill up in an election year and giving President Barack Obama a domestic legislative victory. “I think this is an issue that needs to be wrangled out on the Republican side so the Republicans on the bill need their own leadership to get it some votes," Whitehouse says. "It's not unanimous so the Jeff Sessions and people like that would be out of the floor pushing back the same way they did on the committee."
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) says he's familiar with the process of selling criminal justice reform to a skeptical audience. Tillis was speaker of the North Carolina House when the legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which made back-end reforms to reduce recidivism. "I know that a lot of people get concerned with it," Tillis said. “It’s not really a soft on crime bill. It is the typical arguments that get used for these sorts of things, but I think the more that we educate people, the broader base of support we will get for it."
Tillis recognizes, however, that the problem is that on the campaign trail, candidates don't have time to explain complicated or new policy proposals. “If candidates on either side of the aisle exploits it for what it is not, yeah it could slow things down," Tillis said." You only get to operate in 15 and 30 second soundbites, and you cannot explain the merits of this bill in that time frame so yeah going on into the early primaries, it could be difficult and they have to stake themselves out.”
I am not yet giving up all hope that Prez Obama could get to sign a federal sentencing reform bill before he leaves office. But, as I have long been saying, an array of political, policy and practical challenges lead me always to be mostly pessimistic about the prospects of significant congressional action on this front.
December 3, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
Interesting accounting of capital defense costs in Colorado
The Denver Post has this interesting new piece on capital defense costs headlined "Colorado public defenders spent $6.3 million on death penalty cases: Colorado Public Defender's office spent $6.3 million on 10 cases in which prosecutors filed a notice to see the death penalty since 2002." Here is an excerpt:
The Colorado Public Defender's office has spent a combined $6.3 million on death penalty cases during the past 13 years. In response to a request from The Denver Post, the office on Tuesday released its aggregate cost of handling death penalty cases between July 12, 2002 and Oct. 31, 2015. During that time period, public defenders handled a total of 10 cases in which prosecutors filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty.
Most recently, public defenders represented Aurora theater shooter James Holmes and Dexter Lewis, who stabbed five people to death in a Denver bar. Prosecutors sought the death penalty in both cases. Both men were sentenced to life in prison after lengthy trials this summer....
The $6.3 million total includes expenses the office incurred in handling the cases and the "best estimate of the portion of" salaries that can be attributed to death penalty cases. The office said it did not hire additional staff specifically for death penalty cases. During the 13-year period, the office spent $1,989,453 on expenses incurred on death penalty cases. For that same period, the office paid $4,343,484 in salaries related to handling death penalty cases.
December 2, 2015
"The Promises and Perils of Evidence-Based Corrections"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Cecelia Klingele and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Public beliefs about the best way to respond to crime change over time, and have been doing so at a rapid pace in recent years. After more than forty years of ever more severe penal policies, the punitive sentiment that fueled the growth of mass incarceration in the United States appears to be softening. Across the country, prison growth has slowed and, in some places, has even reversed. Many new laws and policies have enabled this change. The most prominent of these implement or reflect what have been called "evidence-based practices" designed to reduce prison populations and their associated fiscal and human costs. These practices "which broadly include the use of actuarial risk assessment tools, the development of deterrence-based sanctioning programs, and the adoption of new supervision techniques" are based on criminological research about "what works" to reduce convicted individuals' odds of committing future crimes.
Because evidence-based practices focus on reducing crime and recidivism, they are usually promoted as progressive tools for making the criminal justice system more humane. And while many have the potential to do just that, evidence-based practices are not inherently benign with respect to their effect on mass incarceration and the breadth of the penal state. In their reliance on aggregate data and classification, many such practices have as much in common with the "new penology" that enabled mass incarceration as with the neorehabilitationism they are ordinarily thought to represent.
Without denying the contribution that such practices are making to current reform efforts, this Article seeks to highlight the unintended ways in which evidence-based tools could be used to expand, rather than reduce, state correctional control over justice-involved individuals. It explains what evidence-based practices are, why they have gained traction, and how they fit into existing paradigms for understanding the role of the criminal justice system in the lives of those subject to its control. Finally, it calls on policymakers and practitioners to implement these practices in ways that ensure they are used to improve the quality and fairness of the criminal justice system and not to reinforce the institutional constructs that have sustained the growth of the penal state.
December 2, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)
Two very different (and very depressing) stories that are distinct imprints of drug war carnage
The famous image uploaded with this post has a message that has stuck with me since I first saw it many decades ago. And that message, highlighting the unhealthy carnage that always results from war, quickly came to mind as I notices these two distinct must-read stories this morning. Here are the headlines/links and key paragraphs from both stories:
The Alabama Justice Project has obtained documents that reveal a Dothan Police Department’s Internal Affairs investigation was covered up by the district attorney. A group of up to a dozen police officers on a specialized narcotics team were found to have planted drugs and weapons on young black men for years. They were supervised at the time by Lt. Steve Parrish, current Dothan Police Chief, and Sgt. Andy Hughes, current Asst. Director of Homeland Security for the State of Alabama. All of the officers reportedly were members of a Neoconfederate organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels “racial extremists.” The group has advocated for blacks to return to Africa, published that the civil rights movement is really a Jewish conspiracy, and that blacks have lower IQ’s. Both Parrish and Hughes held leadership positions in the group and are pictured above holding a confederate battle flag at one of the club’s secret meetings.
The documents shared reveal that the internal affairs investigation was covered up to protect the aforementioned officers’ law enforcement careers and keep them from being criminally prosecuted. Several long term Dothan law enforcement officers, all part of an original group that initiated the investigation, believe the public has a right to know that the Dothan Police Department, and District Attorney Doug Valeska, targeted young black men by planting drugs and weapons on them over a decade. Most of the young men were prosecuted, many sentenced to prison, and some are still in prison. Many of the officers involved were subsequently promoted and are in leadership positions in law enforcement. They hope the mood of the country is one that demands action and that the US Department of Justice will intervene.
As addiction specialists look back on the current heroin addiction crisis — which the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention calls the "worst drug overdose epidemic in [US] history" — most agree that the whole operation started out as the sort of marketing scheme Don Draper might have dreamed up. "[The marketing effort for opioid sales] was a promotional campaign unlike we have ever really seen," says Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the chief medical officer for the Phoenix House treatment centers and co-founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. "Drug reps were going to family care doctors, and insisting that OxyContin had no real risks — only benefits. What they were selling was the idea that pain was a disease, and not a symptom."...
What followed was not all that surprising. Many grew addicted to the opioids, and when the prescriptions ran out, they turned to heroin because of its availability and relatively low cost. The Mexican drug cartels saw this trend and promptly began growing their opium plants, which they consciously made purer and less expensive. And those cartels targeted the suburbs, where those introductory OxyContin prescriptions were being filled — and where the money was.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some 2,000 people died in 2001 from heroin overdose in the U.S. By 2013, that number had climbed to about 8,000. Coinciding with that rise: the number of opioid deaths caused by prescription drugs like OxyContin. About 6,000 deaths from opioid prescription drug overdose in 2001 spiked to roughly 15,000 by 2013. Over two million Americans are currently addicted to opioids, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and 467,000 are addicted to heroin. What makes those numbers even more startling: Four out of five heroin users reportedly started out on opioids.
The issues and problems discussed in both theses stories are, obviously, about a whole lot more than just the impact of criminal prohibition and intense criminal prosecutions of persons involved with certain controlled substances. Nevertheless, stories like these remind me that the long-run "war on drugs," like so many other wars, has produced an array of unexpected consequences and collateral damages that must should not be overlooked whether we consider whether and how to continue to use massive criminal justice systems to deal with drug use and abuse.
December 1, 2015
Using SCOTUS Johnson ruling, Boston Bomber argues for vacating some convictions and death sentence
Regular readers know that I have given considerable attention to the import and potential impact of the Supreme Court's summer ruling that a key clause of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015). But even from my ivory tower perch, I had not considered that the Johnson ruling might provide a basis for a high-profile federal capital defendant to seek to undo his death sentence. But, as this FoxNews article details, just such an argument was made today in Boston:
Lawyers representing Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sought Tuesday to spare him from the death penalty, citing a Supreme Court ruling they say taints half of the charges of which he was convicted.
Tsarnaev, now 22, was sentenced to death in June after being convicted of working with his brother to plant pressure cooker bombs at the 2013 race's finish line in an attack that killed three and injured hundreds. But his attorneys say prosecutors were able to pile on more severe charges using a 1984 federal law that was partly invalidated by the high court this summer, and that without those enhanced charges, Tsarnaev may have gotten a more lenient sentence. They are pushing for a new penalty phase trial, and want it held outside of Boston. "The loss of those convictions would mean that a penalty trial should be held as to all counts," attorney William Fick argued.
Tsarnaev's attorneys argued some 15 of the 30 charges came under an enhanced sentencing policy they say was invalidated by a U.S. Supreme Court decision from earlier this year. In that case, Johnson vs. United States, the court ruled 8-1 held that the term "violent felony" as it applies to a 1984 law allowing for harsher prison terms in certain cases is unconstitutionally vague. The defense argued that the number and nature of those charges likely influenced jurors when they decided Tsarnaev deserved the death penalty....
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCarthy, who prosecuted the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, said the Tsarnaev team is off-base in trying to apply the Johnson case. In that case, the Supreme Court had ruled "violent felony" was a vague term in certain instances, such as extortion, where violence may or may not be involved. Tsarnaev's use of a bomb left no gray area, he said. "It is a frivolous argument," McCarthy told Fox News. "There is no such thing as "passive" deployment of a bomb, which is innately a destructive device."
"Our Voluminous Laws And The Need For ‘Mens Rea’ Reform"
The title of this post is the title of this new posting at Right on Crime. It gets started this way:
As Congress has begun to consider various reforms to the federal criminal justice system in the last several months — sentencing and re-entry policies in particular — another element of federal law that merits consideration is beginning to receive its due, as well: namely, ensuring that criminal statutes or regulations have adequate mens rea, or criminal intent, requirements.
In yesterday’s edition of the Cato Daily Podcast, Caleb Brown interviewed Robert Alt, President of the Buckeye Institute in Ohio, about the current landscape of state and federal criminal law, where Alt succinctly describes the growing problem: “We’ve noticed over the years, both at the Congressional level and the state level, that more and more crimes are being passed that either have no criminal intent requirement at all — where you can be convicted for mere accidents — or they have inadequate mens rea requirements.”
A long-standing tradition among common law jurisdictions has held that criminal actions generally have two elements: the bad action itself (actus reus), and a guilty state of mind (mens rea). In recent decades, legislatures haven’t had much difficulty passing statutes detailing new crimes, or enabling regulatory agencies to concoct administrative rules that also bear criminal penalties. As Alt explains, an American Bar Association task force found in 1998 that the body of federal criminal law was so cumbersome that a single, “conveniently accessible” repository listing them all didn’t exist. Shortly thereafter, they commissioned a study to generate an inventory, in which case over 3,000 federal criminal statutes were detailed.
In 2007, a similar inventory performed by the Heritage Foundation and others found that the number had jumped to roughly 4,500, and this is to say nothing of federal regulatory offenses; estimates have pegged the Federal Register at approximately 300,000 regulations, though no one knows the exact number as those responsible for finding them eventually stop counting.
What hasn’t occurred with regularity as these new laws or rules are being promulgated is inclusion of the second element of crime: establishing culpable intent on the part of the actor. This has the effect of creating new criminals out of people who had no intention or knowledge of running afoul of the law, and can have adverse, long-term consequences.
Split Ohio Supreme Court reverses death sentence based on statutory "independent evaluation"
As reported in this Reuters piece, a "man who beat a female neighbor to death with a baseball bat when he was a teenager had a troubled family background and childhood of drug and alcohol abuse and should not have been sentenced to death, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.' Here is more about the notable capital ruling and some reactions thereto:
The court in a 4-3 decision vacated the death sentence of Rayshawn Johnson, who was 19 years old when he killed Shanon Marks in 1997 in a Cincinnati neighborhood.... "The sentence of death imposed by the trial court is not appropriate in this case," Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote for the majority.
Johnson had been sentenced to death twice in the killing, most recently in 2012 after a federal court set aside the initial sentence, ruling that jurors should have been allowed to consider his difficult childhood at a sentencing hearing.
“I think the message is that courts need to give meaningful consideration to the mitigation that is presented on behalf of clients. His life story, all of those things, the negative influences… the significant trauma … comes back later in life in unfortunate ways,” said Ohio Public Defender Timothy Young, whose office represents Johnson....
"What's kind of mindboggling about this decision is that -- I have to be careful because we have rules not to criticize judges so I'm not going to do that. But what is frustrating, and this poor family, my god, we went through basically two trials already," Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Deters told reporters.
The lengthy ruling in Ohio v. Johnson, No. 2015-Ohio-4903 (Ohio Dec. 1, 2015), is available at this link, and here is a key pargraph from the start of the majority opinion:
In 2011, the state conducted a new mitigation hearing. A new judge presided over the hearing, and 12 new jurors recommended a sentence of death. The trial court again imposed a death sentence, and we now review Johnson’s direct appeal as of right from that sentence. We find that there were no significant procedural defects in the new mitigation hearing, but, pursuant to our independent evaluation of the sentence under R.C. 2929.05(A), we determine that the aggravating circumstances in this case do not outweigh beyond a reasonable doubt the mitigating factors. We accordingly vacate the sentence of death and remand the cause to the trial court for resentencing consistent with R.C. 2929.06.
Lots of "New & Notable" for sentencing fans via The Crime Report
Regular readers have heard me praise and promote a lot of the work done over at The Crime Report, and this long list of stories flagged there as "New & Notable" highlights why TRC is a consistent must-read for all sentencing fans.
These pieces provide effective summaries and links to what are, as TRC suggests, new and notable research and reports on a variety of sentencing laws and practices.
"Negotiating Accuracy: DNA in the Age of Plea Bargaining"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Alexandra Natapoff and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Hundreds of exonerations have made DNA a kind of poster child for the innocence movement and the demand for more accurate evidence in criminal cases. But most wrongful convictions are not simply the result of evidentiary mistakes. In the marketplace of plea bargaining, convictions are the result of numerous inputs — a defendant’s criminal record, prosecutorial bargaining habits, the size of the trial penalty, whether the defendant is out on bail — that have nothing to do with the accuracy of the evidence. The bargained nature of these convictions means that accurate evidence is just one piece — and not always the most important piece — of the larger negotiation process that establishes guilt.
We might say that the plea process is structurally tolerant of inaccuracy, precisely because it transforms accuracy into a commodity that may be traded and negotiated away in exchange for agreement. This is a recipe for wrongful conviction. The innocence movement, for example, has uncovered numerous cases where innocent defendants pled guilty to homicide and rape in order to avoid the death penalty. The pressures to plead are likewise pervasive in the misdemeanor system, in which thousands of people are rushed through assembly-line processes and routinely plead guilty to minor crimes of which they are demonstrably innocent. Ultimately, we should recognize plea bargaining as a source of wrongful conviction in its own right, and add it to the canonical list of wrongful conviction sources such as mistaken eyewitness testimony, lying informants, and bad forensics.
You be the judge: what federal sentence for beloved elderly preist who embezzled half-million dollars?
This local article, headlined "Dozens ask judge for mercy in sentencing of embezzling Detroit-area Catholic priest," provides the interesting backstory for an interesting federal sentencing scheduled for late today. Here are the basics:
A beloved Catholic priest in Troy was scorned when allegations came forth that he embezzled more than $500,000 from church coffers. Rev. Edward A. Belczak, 70, admitted to diverting $572,775 collected by the church, most of which he kept in a secret private bank account. He also spent $109,570 to purchase a Florida condo in 2005.
Despite the admissions, dozens of people, including many of the parishioners he defrauded, have come forward to ask for a lenient sentence on behalf of the priest who headed St. Thomas More church in Troy from 1984 until 2013. He's scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday.
Belczak pleaded guilty to mail fraud as part of the plea agreement. In exchange, the U.S. Attorneys Office dismissed more serious charges and asked U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow to sentence Belczak to just over three years in prison.
Attorney John J. Morad, a friend and supporter of the priest, thinks any prison time is too much. "He made a terrible mistake and I know that he is embarrassed, ashamed and humiliated by the fact that he disappointed so many people who have grown to love and respect him for the work he has done among the people," Morad wrote in a letter to the judge. " ... I know he has confessed his sins and I'm certain God has forgiven him. Should we do anything less?"
The defense has asked for home detention, while sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of between 33 and 41 months. The theft from the church is believed to have occurred between 2004 and 2012.
UPDATE: This Detroit Free-Press article about the sentencing of Father Belczak report on the basic outcome via its headline: "Embezzling priest gets 27 months: 'It's .. my destiny'"
November 30, 2015
Notable SCOTUS dissent from cert denial in habeas case from Sixth Circuit
This morning the Supreme Court came back to work after a few weeks on argument hiatus, and its first formal action was to release this order list full of cert denials and no grants of review in any new cases. There was this one notable dissent from the denial of cert in the habeas case of Rapelje v. Blackston authored by Justice Scalia and joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. Here is how the three-page dissent starts and ends:
A criminal defendant “shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” U.S. Const., Amdt. 6. We have held that this right entitles the accused to cross-examine witnesses who testify at trial, and to exclude certain out-of-court statements that the defendant did not have a prior opportunity to cross-examine. Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 50–51 (2004); Davis v. Alaska, 415 U. S. 308, 315–317 (1974). We have never held — nor would the verb “to confront” support the holding—that confrontation includes the right to admit out-ofcourt statements into evidence. Nevertheless, the Sixth Circuit held not only that the Confrontation Clause guarantees the right to admit such evidence but that our cases have “clearly established” as much. We should grant certiorari and summarily reverse....
There may well be a plausible argument why the recantations [offered by the defendant] ought to have been admitted under state law. See Mich. Rule Evid. 806. But nothing in our precedents clearly establishes their admissibility as a matter of federal constitutional law. AEDPA “provides a remedy for instances in which a state court unreasonably applies this Court’s precedent; it does not require state courts to extend that precedent or license federal courts to treat the failure to do so as error.” White v. Woodall, 572 U. S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 11). By framing the confrontation right at a high level of generality (making it the right “to impeach the credibility of an adverse witness”), the Sixth Circuit in effect “transform[ed] . . . [an] imaginative extension of existing case law into ‘clearly established’” law. Jackson, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 7). That will not do.
The Sixth Circuit seems to have acquired a taste for disregarding AEDPA. E.g., Woods v. Donald, 575 U. S. ___ (2015) (per curiam); White v. Woodall, supra; Burt v. Titlow, 571 U. S. ___ (2013); Metrish v. Lancaster, 569 U. S. ___ (2013); Howes v. Fields, 565 U. S. ___ (2012). We should grant certiorari to discourage this appetite.
Detailing how Ohio prosecutors, armed with LWOP options, are migrating away from capital charges
This recent local article, headlined "Eluding death: Ohio prosecutors charge far fewer capital murder cases," spotlights the role that local prosecutors are playing in changing the death penalty landscape in the Buckeye State. Here are excerpts:
Prosecutors across Ohio are changing the way they charge suspected killers. They are indicting far fewer with the death penalty and pushing more sentences of life in prison without parole.
The number of capital murder indictments filed across the state since 2010 has plummeted by 77 percent, as just 19 have been brought this year. During the same time period, the number of inmates sentenced to life without parole has spiked 92 percent, according to a Plain Dealer examination of state prison records and other public documents.
The Ohio numbers mirror a national trend involving the death penalty. Legal experts cited the high costs of taking a capital case to trial. They also said decades of appeals make the death penalty extremely burdensome on the criminal justice system and traumatic for victims' families....
As the death penalty in Ohio sits stalled in a moratorium over the drugs used in executions, the emerging trends of how prosecutors handle aggravated murder cases offer insight into the way justice is meted out in Ohio courtrooms. "We simply are not charging people with the death penalty like we once did," said Michael Benza, a senior instructor of law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law....
Since late 2012, when Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty took office, five men have been indicted on death-penalty charges. But there were 75 cases that met the criteria for the penalty, according to prosecutors' records. That means McGinty's office pushed the death penalty in less than 7 percent of the possible cases.... Compare McGinty's record to his predecessor, Bill Mason: From 2009 through much of 2012, Mason's office indicted 89 death-penalty cases out of a possible 114 that met the requirements for the charge, or 78 percent, according to prosecutors' records.
McGinty told The Plain Dealer that he believes in the death penalty when going after the worst of the worst. "The death penalty used in the correct case — a case that leaves no doubt — is, I believe, a strong deterrent to crime," McGinty said. "But the endless appeals process has undermined the death penalty. In every case, I have to ask, 'Are we going to survive this?' We have to take a case to a judge and jury and then face 25 years of appeals. Is it fair to families of victims? Is it fair putting them through a quarter century of appeals?'
Since taking office, McGinty has used an internal office review committee to examine whether the death penalty is justified in each case brought to his office. Specifically, the panel looks at whether the crime fits the letter and spirit of the law, whether a reasonable jury would return a guilty verdict and whether it would be worth the resources to spend decades fighting the appeals. Based on the panel's recommendation and the family's wishes, McGinty makes the decision.
Life in prison without parole became an option to jurors in death-penalty cases in 1995. Ten years later, state lawmakers made it possible for prosecutors to seek the life-without-parole sentence in other murder cases. Years later, the trends have become quite clear.
* Death-penalty indictments dropped 77 percent, going from 81 in 2010 to 19 this year, according to records from the Ohio Public Defender's Office.
* The number of felons convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole has jumped 92 percent, going from 283 in January 2010 to 544 in October, according to state prison records. The inmates make up about 1 percent of the 50,370 inmates in the system.
* It costs $22,836 a year to house an inmate in Ohio. Since there are 544 serving sentences of life without parole, that means the total dollar amount for the group is $12.4 million a year. Because many are under the age of 35, the costs will grow for years to come.
But counties and the state also bear major costs in death-penalty trials. The trials can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars prosecuting and defending complex cases at trial — and much more during the appeals process. Ohioans to Stop Executions cited a study by WHIO-TV in Dayton that found it costs $3 million to execute a person in Ohio — from arrest to death. By comparison, the television station found, it costs $1 million to keep an inmate in prison for the rest of his or her life....
For years, Ohio Public Defender Tim Young has pushed the sentence of life without parole. "It is a good thing as an alternative to the death penalty for a myriad of reasons," Young said. "There's closure for the family, and it is cheaper to put a person in prison for life than litigating the case for 15 to 20 years. At the end of the day, it's a good thing for our society."
Others disagree. "Yes, life without parole is the lesser of two evils, but we have to be careful of applauding these sentences," said Ashley Nellis, the senior researcher at the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., group that seeks criminal justice reform. "It would be wrong to simply toss them away and forget about them."
Nellis said she is not opposed to sending the most violent convicts to prison for life. But she believes that their cases should be reviewed. "These people should not be kicked to the curb," she said. "Life in prison is a death sentence, without the execution." If there is enough evidence that shows the inmates have grown and matured behind bars, Nellis said, then they should receive consideration before the parole board or judge.
November 29, 2015
Hawaii Supreme Court refuses to exempt recidivist enhancement from Apprendi mandates
A helpful reader alerted me to a notable ruling last week by the Hawaii Supreme Court rejecting broad application of Apprendi's prior conviction exception. Hawaii v. Auld, No. SCWC-13-0002894 (Haw. Nov. 24, 2015) (available here), which discusses Alleyne and Almendarez-Torres at length, is a must-read for all hard-core Apprendi fans. It concludes this way:
We hold that, under article I, sections 5 and 10 of the Hawai'i Constitution, the State must allege the predicate prior conviction(s) in a charging instrument in order to sentence the defendant to a mandatory minimum sentence as a repeat offender under HRS § 706-606.5. We further hold that, as a matter of state law, Apprendi’s “fact of prior conviction” exception does not apply to repeat offender sentencing under HRS § 706-606.5, and that a jury is required to find that the defendant’s prior conviction(s) have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt to trigger the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence under that statute. As these new rules result from the express overruling of prior appellate precedent holding that the Apprendi rule did not apply to mandatory minimum sentencing and that notice of repeat offender sentencing did not need to be given in a charging instrument, they are given prospective effect only.
November 29, 2015 in Almendarez-Torres and the prior conviction exception, Blakely in the States, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)
Pollard, parole and the possibilities for potent sentencing reform
Writing at Salon, Daniel Denvir has this interesting and useful take on the recent release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. Here is the full headline of this piece: "People are celebrating this spy’s release from prison. Here’s what they should be doing instead. Jonathan Pollard sold intel to Israel. 30 years later, he's free. But thousands of others have no chance of parole." Here are excerpts:
Last Friday, something extraordinary happened: Jonathan Pollard, a Naval intelligence analyst sentenced to life in prison for extensively spying for Israel, was released from federal prison on parole 30 years after his arrest. Most coverage, now and in recent decades, has focused on the campaign waged by Israeli and Jewish-American leaders to free him, and the vehement opposition mounted by American intelligence figures.
The real scandal, however, is that most federal prisoners, including drug offenders make up nearly half of a federal prison population of nearly 200,000, have no chance at parole. Pollard’s crime was incredibly serious, and many drug offenders who committed crimes orders of magnitude less harmful are serving harsh mandatory minimums of 5, 10 and 20 years, if not life — all without the possibility of parole.
Pollard’s release has been covered in the context of national security intrigue. In fact, his parole reflects a quirk in federal sentencing law: He had a shot at parole because he committed his crime before parole eligibility was abolished for all those convicted of committing a federal crime on or after November 1, 1987, amidst a wave of tough-on-crime politicking.
Pollard is a true anomaly. According to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report, roughly 3 percent of federal prisoners are eligible for parole. When Pollard finally speaks to the media—he is reportedly not allowed to under the conditions of his parole—it would be good of him to express some solidarity with the far less dangerous fellow federal inmates he left behind.
The abolition of federal parole, and its sharp limitation or elimination in many states, has, like the introduction of harsh mandatory minimum sentences, been a major driver of this country’s extraordinary prison population boom. From 1988 to 2012, the average time federal inmates served rose from 17.9 to 37.5 months, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. The federal prison population rose during that same period from 49,928 inmates to 217,815....
Releasing Pollard was not a bad thing. Few people deserve punishment without end. We punish most every crime far too harshly in the United States, which is how we came to construct a system of human punishment unmatched by any nation on earth. But Pollard’s crimes were extremely serious. Compare his crimes to those committed by Alton Mills, who is serving a life without parole sentence after being convicted of couriering crack because of two prior, extremely minor, drug possession convictions. Mills’ family misses him too. And desperately so.
It’s not just a federal problem but also a matter for the states, where the bulk of American prisoners are incarcerated. Fourteen states joined the federal government in eliminating or severely restricting parole, according to a Marshall Project investigation.
“In the early 1990s, the New York state board voted to parole more than 60 percent of those eligible. That rate then went into a two-decade decline, dipping below 20 percent in 2010,” the investigation found. “In many states, parole boards are so deeply cautious about releasing prisoners who could come back to haunt them that they release only a small fraction of those eligible — and almost none who have committed violent offenses, even those who pose little danger and whom a judge clearly intended to go free.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate for president, has introduced legislation that would reestablish federal parole. Most media attention has been focused on bill provisions banning private prisons. But reestablishing parole would be far more consequential. (The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)
Way back in 2009 in this Symposium article published in the Florida Law Review, I made the claim that model modern sentencing reforms should include parole mechanisms because "parole boards possess both the effective legal tools and an ideal institutional perspective to reduce incarceration rates and mitigate extreme punishments." I therefore agree wholeheartedly agree with the suggetion in Denvir's piece that reinstituting robust parole mechanisms and opportunities in many sentencing systems would provide a truly potent path for future sentencing reforms.