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December 12, 2015

"The Armed Career Criminal Act: Imprecise, Indeterminate, and Unconstitutional"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new piece authored by Michael Schearer and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Armed Career Criminal Act provides a mandatory minimum fifteen-year sentence enhancement for felons possessing a firearm who have previously been convicted three times of a “violent felony” or a “serious drug offense.” Despite this seemingly clear mandate, the statute has been embroiled in controversy for decades as judges struggle to determine what predicate crimes meet this standard.  The culmination of this battle resulted in the invalidation of the ACCA’s “residual clause” when the Supreme Court found that the clause violated due process in Johnson v. United States.  Nonetheless, the remaining provisions of the ACCA are still problematic.

For example, although burglary is a specifically enumerated offense that constitutes a violent felony, burglary convictions in some states have been held to be violent felonies while burglary convictions in other states have not. Likewise, offenses involving “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another” have mired the courts in similar difficulties in determining whether the particular offensive qualifies as violent felony.  Perhaps most troublesome, a finding of juvenile delinquency can be considered a criminal conviction that subjects an individual to ACCA enhancement in a subsequent adult proceeding, despite the fact that juveniles do not have the right to a jury trial. This paper argues that the ACCA is imprecise, indeterminate, and insusceptible of principled and predictable interpretation.  Absent a wholesale modification by Congress, the substantive provisions of the ACCA examined in this paper ought to be held by the courts to be unconstitutional because they deprive defendants of due process.

December 12, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

December 11, 2015

SCOTUS grants cert on permissible practices for police roadside tests and for prisoner litigation

As reported in this SCOTUSblog posting by Lyle Denniston, the Supreme Court granted certiorari review on four matters this afternoon including a set of cases "that could have a nationwide effect on the roadside actions of police officers."  Here are the details:

[T]he Supreme Court agreed on Friday to decide whether a blood or breath test for drunk driving can be made without a search warrant and whether, if there is no warrant, an individual can be charged with a crime for refusing to take such a test.  The Justices took on three cases raising the issue: two from North Dakota and one from Minnesota.

The Court also granted review of three other cases ... [including one involving] a dispute over whether a prison inmate is excused from attempting administrative remedies for a grievance if the prisoner believed, wrongly, that he had already done so (Ross v. Blake).

The drunk-driving cases provide the Court with something of a sequel to its ruling in 2013 in Missouri v. McNeely, which left the clear impression that, if police have enough time, they should get a warrant before taking a test of a suspected drunk driver.  The Court ruled that the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not always amount to an emergency situation that permits a DUI test without a warrant.

In North Dakota, state laws bars a person from driving in the state if he or she refuses to submit to a chemical test, of blood, breath or urine, to determine alcohol concentration.  It makes refusal to take such a test open to prosecution for a crime that carries the same punishment as a conviction for drunk-driving.   In Minnesota, state law makes it a crime to refuse an officer’s request to take a chemical test for alcohol in the blood, if the individual has been validly arrested for drunk driving.  The two cases involve either a blood or breath test.

Lawyers for the three men involved in the appeals said that the issues they were raising were coming up more frequently in the wake of the McNeely decision.  And they argued that the decisions by the state supreme courts in these cases conflict with the McNeely ruling.  The Supreme Court, at its private Conference on Friday, had thirteen cases on these issues, and chose the three from that list — all filed by the same attorneys.

December 11, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Prez candidate Donald Trump pledges (seemingly unconstitutional) death penalty mandate for cop killers

As reported in this article from The Hill, "Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Thursday vowed to issue an executive order to mandate the death penalty for anyone who kills a police officer."  Here is more:

“One of the first things I’d do in terms of executive order, if I win, will be to sign a strong, strong statement that would go out to the country, out to the world, anybody killing a police man, a police woman, a police officer, anybody killing a police officer, the death penalty is going to happen,” he said.

“We can’t let this go,” he added, speaking to a New Hampshire crowd alongside the New England Police Benevolent Association, shortly after the group voted to endorse Trump.

The outspoken businessman referenced the 2014 shooting of two New York City police officers in their squad car, which prompted significant outcry from some conservatives accusing President Obama of fostering resentment against police officers. “I want to let you know, the police and law enforcement in this country, I will never ever let them down,” he said. “The job they do and the job all you in this room do is second to none, and everyone in our country knows that.”

As most informed readers likely know, the Supreme Court back in 1976 first declared that a system of mandatory death sentencing was unconstitutional, and the Justices reaffirmed this "individualization" constitutional requirement in a number of subsequent ruling. But Justice Scalia has long complained about the Supreme Court finding such a limit in the Constitution, and it is certainly possible that a President Trump might be inclined to seek to live up to this campaign pledge by seeking to overturn prior SCOTUS precedent precluding any capital punishment mandates.

December 11, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

December 10, 2015

NAAUSA sends letter opposing federal sentencing reforms on behalf of forty former federal officials

As reported in this new Washington Examiner article, "[f]orty former top federal law enforcement officials want senators to hit the breaks on bipartisan legislation that would roll back mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing and other crimes." Here is more:

The group, which includes former New York mayor and U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, former Attorney General John Ashcroft and drug control czar William Bennett, say sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s led to the dramatic dip in crime rates that began 25 years ago, a claim disputed by many liberals and criminologists.

"Our system of justice is not broken," the former officials wrote in a Dec. 10 letter sent by the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys to Senate leaders. "Mandatory minimums and proactive law enforcement measures have caused a dramatic reduction in crime over the past 25 years, an achievement we cannot afford to give back." The officials call for leaving the current sentencing regime alone.

"Our current sentencing structure strikes the right balance between congressional direction in the establishment of sentencing levels and the preservation of public safety," they write. The former officials express alarm about proposals to retroactively alter previously applied sentencing guidances, a step they say would cause the release of "thousands of armed career criminals."...

Some senior Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, support scraping some minimum sentencing laws, though Grassley backs a less sweeping bill than [Senator Rand] Paul. The GOP support has helped make sentencing reform a popular issue, widely hailed as a rare area where bipartisan cooperation is possible.

But the law enforcement officials' letter shows reports of an emerging bipartisan consensus are exaggerated. The letter's signatories include officials who helped enact the tough sentencing laws now under fire. Michele Leonhart, who headed the Drug Enforcement Agency under Obama, is a notable Democratic appointee who broke with her former boss by signing on.

Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another a presidential hopeful, are among conservatives gearing up to oppose to sentencing reform, raising the chance the issue could divide Republicans.

I cannot yet find a copy of this NAAUSA letter on-line, but I will try to post it when I can get access to a copy.

UPDATE:  A helpful colleague sent me a copy of the letter for posting here:  Download Former_Official_Ltr_1210-2015-FINAL (1)

December 10, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015"

Pie2015The title of this post is the title of this valuable new on-line report from the Prison Policy Initiative. Everyone interested in the details essentials of modern mass incarceration ought to check out the full report (and the larger version of the pie graphic reprinted here). Here is part of the report's introductory text and subsequent discussion:

Wait, does the United States have 1.4 million or more than 2 million people in prison? And do the 636,000 people released every year include the people getting out of local jails?  Frustrating questions like these abound because our systems of federal, state, local, and other types of confinement — and the data collectors that keep track of them — are so fragmented.  There is a lot of interesting and valuable research out there, but varying definitions and other incompatibilities make it hard — for both people new to criminal justice and for experienced policy wonks — to get the big picture.

This report offers some much needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement.  The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.  And we go deeper to provide further detail on why people in the various systems of confinement are locked up.

While the numbers in each slice of this pie chart represent a snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and therefore the many more lives that are affected by the criminal justice system.  In addition to the 636,000 people released from prisons each year, over 11 million people cycle through local jails each year.  Jail churn is particularly high because at any given moment a majority of the people in local jails have not been convicted and are in jail because they are either too poor to afford bail and are being held pretrial, or because they have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days.  The remainder of the people in jail — almost 200,000 — are serving time for minor offenses, generally misdemeanors with sentences under a year.... 

Now, armed with the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States in the various types of facilities and for what offenses, we have a better foundation for the long overdue conversation about criminal justice reform.  For example, the data makes it clear that ending the War on Drugs will not alone end mass incarceration, and it demonstrates why the policymakers and advocates who see ending the War on Drugs as a politically acceptable first step towards ending mass incarceration must take great care that their actions both constitute actual progress for people with drug offenses and do not make further reforms more difficult.  Looking at the “whole pie” also opens up other conversations about where we should focus our energies:

  • What is the role of the federal government in ending mass incarceration? The federal prison system is just a small slice of the total pie, but the federal government can certainly use its financial and ideological power to incentivize and illuminate better paths forward.

  • Are state officials and prosecutors willing to rethink both the War on Drugs and the reflexive policies that have served to increase both the odds of incarceration and length of stay for “violent” offenses?

  • Do policymakers and the public have the focus to also confront the geographically and politically dispersed second largest slice of the pie: the 3,283 local jails? Given that the people behind bars in this country are disproportionately poor and shut out of the economy, does it make sense to lock up millions of people for a few days at a time for minor offenses? Will our leaders be brave enough to ask the public to support smarter investments in community-based drug treatment and job training? Or will they support the continued use of jails as mass incarceration’s front door?

December 10, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

The Sentencing Project spotlights major criminal justice reform stories of 2015

The Sentencing Project is an extraordinary public policy group that does some of the most effective and important criminal justice reform research and advocacy.  I received via e-mail this letter from The Sentencing Project about its latest publication and its impressive recent:

This year, we have seen an emerging national consensus for criminal justice reform.  At The Sentencing Project, we’ve been proud to have contributed to this shift, as we have for more than a quarter century. Our 2015 annual newsletter contains highlights of criminal justice reform activities this year, including:
  • A look at the major reform developments in Washington, including the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, introduced in the Senate this fall
  • Successful reform efforts at the state level, including scaled back bans on public assistance for people with felony drug convictions in Alabama and Texas
We have had a wonderful year, and we look forward to continued success in the year ahead. 

December 10, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Shouldn't the Black Lives Matter movement focus a lot more on ensuring black voters are able to matter?

The question in the title of this post reflects my reaction to two stories I came across this morning.  First, as reported here, readers of The Crime Report in the site's "fifth annual survey of the most significant criminal justice news stories and developments ... [chose] the growing political profile of Black Lives Matter and related organizations as the major development of 2015."  Second, this new Intercept article reports that within "Florida’s black population, the rate of disenfranchisement is high, with nearly a quarter of African-Americans prohibited from voting."  This second piece is headlined "Thanks to Republicans, Nearly a Quarter of Florida's Black Citizens Can't Vote," and here is an excerpt:

Nationwide, nearly 6 million Americans are barred from voting due to felony convictions. Although most states restrict the voting rights of imprisoned felons, Iowa currently is the only one that joins Florida in imposing a lifelong disenfranchisement on ex-felons.  Until three weeks ago, Kentucky also had such a ban, but on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving the state’s outgoing Democratic governor issued an executive order restoring the voting rights of 140,000 nonviolent ex-felons in the state.  The incoming Republican governor has signaled that he may uphold the order.

Meanwhile, the scale of the problem in Florida appears to be growing. The 1.5 million figure dates from 2010; when Republican Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, he immediately rolled back a policy of his predecessor, Charlie Crist, who automatically restored the rights of many felony offenders who had completed their sentences.  Scott introduced new rules requiring that people convicted of nonviolent felonies wait five years before they can apply to have their civil rights restored; those convicted of violent and certain more serious felonies must wait seven years to apply.  Under Crist, tens of thousands of felons, on average, won back their right to vote each year. So far, Gov. Scott has restored the rights of just 1,866 ex-felons, while tens of thousands of former inmates are released each year, stripped of their voting rights. As the Scott administration has choked off the one existing channel for former felons seeking suffrage, anecdotal evidence suggests that wait times are getting longer for those petitioning the governor to restore their civil rights. ...

More than 50 years after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Florida is still a place where in a typical public setting — a grocery store or a city block — a sizable portion of the citizens you walk among are likely to be quietly enduring the state’s lifelong disenfranchisement. In neighborhoods like heavily black Parramore, an even larger number of residents will be unable to vote. And Walker says that in his congregation, those who can vote are outnumbered by those who cannot.

“We’ve had older clients call us and say I want to be able to vote again before I die,” said Mathew Higbee, the founding partner of Higbee & Associates, a law firm that helps ex-felons restore their civil rights. “And we say, ‘Right now it’s going to be a six- to 10-year wait before they’ll even look at it,’ and the person says: ‘I’m not sure I’m going to live that long so I’m not even going to try.’”

The Scott administration has asserted that the governor uses the right to vote as an incentive to encourage former offenders to stay out of trouble. “Gov. Scott feels that convicted felons need to have an opportunity to show they can be law-abiding members of society before those rights are restored,” a spokesperson said during the 2012 election season. Yet ex-felons who have stayed clear of the law for more than a decade told me that their petitions to Florida’s clemency board have gone unanswered or have become stalled in a bewildering bureaucracy plagued with a backlog of nearly 11,000 pending applications for civil rights restoration. So far this year, the state has approved only 315 applications. The former felons I spoke with hold little faith in the clemency process. And, perhaps more than anything else, they express a feeling of having been being forgotten by virtually every element of political life in America. (Gov. Scott’s office did not respond to a list of emailed questions.)

I view the 2008 and 2012 election results as dramatic proof that minority populations garner significant political power and can have maximum political and social impact when they turn out in large numbers to vote.  As the title of this post suggests, I think the BLM movemen could and would have the most long-term political and social impact if it were to aggressively challenge felon disenfranchisement laws and other formal and informal barriers to people of color voting in very large numbers in every election.

December 10, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

December 9, 2015

Jared Fogle's partner in sex crimes scheduled for sentencing

This Indianapolis Star article, headlined "Russell Taylor turns on Jared Fogle as he awaits sentencing," reports at length on the sad sorted backstory for this week's federal sentencing of the crime partner of a high-profile federal sex offender. Here is how the extended article gets started:

Russell Taylor and Jared Fogle had much different backgrounds, but their lives became intertwined to the point that people started calling them "an old married couple." Fogle was sent to prison last month for more than 15 years on child pornography charges, and Taylor will stand before the same federal judge Thursday to learn his fate.

While degrees of depravity for child pornographers might be hard to accept, the man leading the prosecution used his toughest designation on Taylor. "In every respect, he's a monster," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven DeBrota said at Fogle's sentencing. But, DeBrota added, Taylor is a monster Fogle helped create.

The sentencing in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana marks the end of a shocking Hoosier child pornography case that attracted international attention because of Fogle, the former Subway sandwich pitchman.

Taylor, who headed Fogle’s charitable foundation from 2009 until his arrest in April, has agreed to plead guilty to 12 counts of producing child pornography and one of distributing. The production charges involve images of a dozen children between the ages of 9 and 16, including family members, that Taylor secretly recorded in his home and then shared with Fogle.

As part of a plea deal, prosecutors are asking for a sentence of 35 years, while Taylor’s attorneys want a prison term of 15 to 23 years. Taylor has been in jail since his arrest. The length of Taylor’s sentence will be decided by Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, who is not bound by terms of the plea agreement.

Under federal law, Taylor faces a minimum sentence of 15 years. The maximum is 380 years if Pratt issues the longest sentence on all counts — 30 years for each count of production, 20 years on the distribution count — and orders them to be served consecutively, not concurrently.

The sentencing will close the door on the criminal case. Yet questions will linger, including why nobody, especially Taylor's wife, knew or intervened until an Indianapolis woman alerted police in September 2014 to Taylor's interest in child pornography and bestiality.

The facade of Fogle and Taylor promoting healthy lifestyles and helping young people came crashing down months later, revealing two married fathers who sought out strippers and prostitutes, drank heavily and dove into the seamy world of child pornography with virtually no level of depravity too taboo. They were, literally, partners in crime.

The prospect of growing old in federal prison, however, brought an acrimonious end to what Taylor described as a “12-year run” in which he and Fogle lived the high life, traveling the world and meeting celebrities — while carrying on debauched double lives. Since their arrests earlier this year, Taylor and Fogle have turned on each other, admitting their own guilt but attempting to minimize their roles and cast the other as more reprehensible.

The rise and fall of the men is detailed in hundreds of pages of court records from the two criminal cases. How much of their stories are true is hard to tell. Both men were desperately maneuvering to avoid long prison sentences when they submitted their version of the facts to the judge.

December 9, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Decriminalizing Drugs: When Treatment Replaces Prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Times commentary piece authored by Tina Rosenberg, which gives extended attention to Portugal's experience with drug decriminalization. Here are extended excerpts:

If one of my children were a drug addict, what would I want for him?

I would want what any parent would: for his addiction to be treated as a health problem, not a criminal matter, and for him to have every kind of help possible to get him off drugs. Until that happened, I would want him to be able to manage his addiction and live a normal life by taking methadone or another substitute opioid. And until that happened, for him to stay as safe as possible from overdosing, developing H.I.V., or going to prison, which would irrevocably alter the course of his post-addiction life.

What’s significant about the question is not how I would answer, but the probability that I might be asked it at all. Because I am white and middle class, society would view my addict child as a sick person who needed help. If I were African-American and poor, he would most likely be seen as a criminal to be locked up. And no one would be interested in what I wanted, or what was best for him....

New England and Appalachia have been hit particularly hard by the heroin and opioid epidemic in the United States, but all across the country, policies are emerging that treat drugs as a health problem instead of a crime. Conservative politicians who once called needle exchange the devil’s work are now establishing them in their cities. Police officers now carry naloxone, a drug that instantly reverses overdoses, and are saving lives on a daily basis. Cities all over the country are copying Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, in which police officers put low-level drug offenders into treatment and social services instead of jail. It is hard to imagine Congress decriminalizing drugs, but easy to imagine that soon, any debate at the national level may be irrelevant.

Where will that take us? We can look at what happened in various countries that have decriminalized drugs. Portugal has gone the furthest. It decriminalized the personal use of all drugs (dealing and trafficking are still crimes and use remains illegal) in 2001. Its program is the most comprehensive and the best-studied. At the turn of the century, Portugal was drowning in heroin and had the worst H.I.V. rates among injecting drug users in Europe. The country had responded with harsh drug laws, which had not helped. Indeed, the laws drove many users underground.

On July 1, 2001, Portugal reversed course, decriminalizing possession of less than 10 days’ supply of any drug. That’s not legalization. But the penalties have been made administrative, not criminal. When the police catch people using or possessing drugs, the drug is seized. Within 72 hours, the user meets with what is called a dissuasion commission. The commission has social workers and psychologists who use the police report and assess the drug user and his needs. Then the user comes before a dissuasion panel; Lisbon’s, for example, has a sociologist, a lawyer and a psychologist.

The panel can simply warn a user, or send him to appropriate social or health services — including drug treatment if the user is an addict.  Nuno Capaz, the sociologist on Lisbon’s panel, said that users were punished only if they refused to go or they were repeat offenders.  The punishment can be a fine, community service, or supervision by a local agency.

Decriminalization doesn’t work alone. “You need to invest heavily in public health response,” said Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, a British organization. “The success of Portugal is not just a model of law reform, but also significant harm reduction and a public health response. The whole package should be deployed.” “Decriminalization is easy,” said Capaz. “You write down that if people are caught doing illegal things, the sanctions are administrative and not criminal. The hard part is making treatment available. It works for us because it works with our health care system — drug users who want treatment can get it for free.”

As it changed its laws, Portugal set up prevention campaigns, harm-reduction measures such as needle exchange that make drug use safer, and treatment services. Although drug-free treatment is available, Portugal relies heavily on methadone and other opioid substitution therapy to gradually wean users away from drugs. Hyper-controversial when it first started, Portugal’s program is now widely accepted.  When global recession hit in 2008, the country’s health, housing and employment programs were severely cut. That may have affected its drug policies, but when drug programs themselves were cut — mostly outside of Lisbon — the losses were less than in other programs, Capaz said. Their success largely protected them, and politicians knew that cutting treatment or prevention services would only cost more later.

With those caveats, here’s what’s happened in Portugal:

Overdose deaths — down by 72 percent....

Spread of H.I.V. — down by 94 percent....

Drug crime and imprisonment — down, by definition....

Drug use — mixed....

Portugal is far from alone. At least 25 countries have decriminalized some drugs, mostly cannabis. A few countries in Europe did so in the 1970s — or had never criminalized drugs at all. But in the last 10 years more have joined in Europe and Latin America, and other countries that have not decriminalized have nevertheless softened their policies to emphasize public health and harm reduction.... The tragic exception to the trend is Russia, where even methadone is still illegal. Russia’s cruelty towards drug users is the main reason the country’s epidemic incidence of H.I.V. has doubled in the last five years....

The most surprising endorsement of decriminalization came last month from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which had always taken a hard-line approach to drugs. At a harm-reduction conference in Malaysia, the agency released a paper that began: “This document clarifies the position of UNODC to inform country responses to promote a health and human rights based approach to drug policy.” It lays out the case for decriminalization and harm reduction. (Branson put the paper on his website.)

As soon as the paper came out, the agency drew back. The author was supposed to speak at the conference, but didn’t. A spokesperson for the agency said the paper was “neither a final nor a formal document….and cannot be read as a statement of UNODC policy.” It’s not clear why the agency retreated, but in the past, the United States has pressured international organizations to retract documents that propose a softer line.

Other countries that have decriminalized have largely echoed Portugal’s results, seeing big improvements in avoiding deaths, disease and imprisonment, but very little effect on usage. Two recent British studies examined the effects of drug policy on drug use in different countries. The nongovernmental organization Release looked at decriminalization’s effects in 21 countries, and found no statistically significant increase in levels of drug consumption. Britain’s Home Office published a study last year of drug policies and their effects in countries around the world. “We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country,” the report concluded.

For all its advantages, decriminalization fails to alleviate many harms that come from drugs — its lack of impact on usage is one example. “Decriminalization doesn’t deal with the supply-side issues,” said Eastwood. “It doesn’t really undermine all the negative consequences from the illicit market. It doesn’t reduce violence. It doesn’t affect drug purity.” Indeed, the inconsistent purity of heroin is a big contributor to overdose deaths. In short, decriminalization is not a good solution to the drug problem. It’s just a better solution than the one we’ve got. 

December 9, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (1)

Georgia struggles a bit while completing final scheduled US execution of 2015

As reported in this local article, headlined "Georgia executes Brian Keith Terrell after struggling to find vein," the Peach State had a not-so-peachy time completing an execution yesterday. Here are the details:

Brian Keith Terrell was put to death at 12:52 a.m. Wednesday for the 1992 murder of 70-year-old John Watson of Covington.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Terrell’s final appeal shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday, clearing the way for the death to proceed. But it took an hour for the nurse assigned to the execution to get IVs inserted into both of the condemned man’s arms. She eventually had to put one into Terrell’s right hand.

Terrell winced several times, apparently in pain. After all the witnesses were seated and a prayer was offered, Terrell raised his head and mouthed, “Didn’t do it,” to Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown, who was sitting at the center of the front row.

Terrell’s execution marks the fifth lethal injection the state has carried out this year, more than any other year since the state first used lethal injection in 2001....

In 1992, Terrell stole John Watson’s checkbook and withdrew a total of $8,700 from the victim’s bank account. Watson, a friend of Terrell’s mother, Barbara, told her he would not press charges against her son if a substantial amount of the stolen money was returned within two days. Instead, Terrell ambushed Watson as he left his Covington house for a dialysis appointment.

Terrell’s lawyers had pleaded for clemency because of their concerns about the pharmacist who made the lethal injection drug. According to court filings, that pharmacist has a 50 percent error rate.

The pharmacist — whose identity is secret under state law — compounded the drugs used in six previous executions, including the pentobarbital that turned cloudy in early March, forcing the state to postpone scheduled executions. The Department of Corrections said it has addressed the problem. Kelly Gissendaner, who was the lone woman on Georgia’s death row, and another man have since been put to death. Terrell’s lawyers argued in court filings that at the very least Georgia should use another pharmacist to make the drug.

December 9, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (5)

December 8, 2015

"The Path to Exoneration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Jon Gould and Richard Leo. Here is the abstract:

This article is the first systematic empirical study of how the American criminal justice system discovers and responds to factual error based on actual innocence.  The study analyzes a data set of 260 cases of wrongful conviction of the innocent and 200 near misses (i.e., dismissals and acquittals involving an innocent defendant) to better understand the sources of and bases for exoneration; who is responsible for, as well as who opposes, exoneration; the statistical correlates of exoneration; and the primary methods and mechanisms involved in the path to exoneration.

This study leads to several findings.  First, wrongful convictions are difficult to reverse in the absence of dispositive evidence of innocence. The vast majority of exonerations relied on one or two bases, and even then most required DNA evidence.  Second, the adversarial nature of the criminal justice system continues from the trial level to subsequent efforts to exonerate the innocent.  Police and prosecutors maintain their roles, infrequently playing a central part in investigating or advocating for exoneration and serving as the largest combined source of opposition to exonerations.  Finally, exonerations take a long time, even longer when based on DNA evidence, which appears to be the primary basis for clearing defendants.

After examining these findings, the authors advocate for the following changes in the United States criminal justice system: 1) police and prosecutors must take a more active role in the review and reversal of factually erroneous convictions; 2) additional juridical proceedings are needed for the wrongly convicted to prove their innocence even after conviction; 3) efforts must be made to prevent wrongful convictions at the front end because the resources for freeing the wrongly convicted are so limited and the path to exoneration following conviction is filled with formidable challenges.

December 8, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Kentucky gov issues hundreds of pardons and a few commutations on way out of office

As reported in this local piece, outgoing Kentucky Governor "Steve Beshear Monday night granted 201 pardons and six commutations to people sentenced for a range of offenses, including 10 women sentenced for violent crimes they committed after suffering years of domestic violence."  Here is more:

Throughout his eight years in office, the Democratic governor said he received more than 3,400 requests for pardons that were reviewed over several months by him and his staff. “I spent many long days weighing the merits and circumstances of individual cases before making my final decisions,” Beshear said in a statement. “The pardon authority afforded me by Section 77 of the Kentucky Constitution isn’t something I take lightly. We are talking about action that impacts the lives of so many individuals.”

Beshear noted that his predecessor, Republican Ernie Fletcher, received more than 1,000 pardon requests and granted just over 100 pardons during his four years in office.

Of the commutations of sentence or full pardons to 10 women who suffered domestic violence, Beshear said, “These 10 women — some of whom are currently incarcerated and some of whom have already been released from institutions — were recommended to me for consideration for full pardons after an extensive joint review by the Department for Public Advocacy and the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association. After further review of those files, I determined that some of the pardon requests should be granted, while others merited a commutation of sentence.”...

Beshear, a former attorney general, also pardoned several individuals convicted of drug offenses. He said their requests “described with candor their mistakes with drugs and highlighted their efforts to stay sober and become productive members of their communities.”

Beshear added: “Throughout my administration, I have worked tirelessly with legislative leaders, local officials and advocates to wipe out the tragic impacts that substance abuse and addiction have had on the people of the commonwealth.

“A significant part of that strategy has been a focus on treatment to help these individuals have a fighting chance at staying clean and turning their lives around. After carefully considering the details of each of these cases, I am convinced that these individuals deserve a second chance at life with a clean record.”

December 8, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Why Has The Death Penalty Grown Increasingly Rare?"

The title of this post is the headline of this extended NPR piece reported by Nina Totenberg. (She also has this companion shorter piece headlined "As Supreme Court Upholds Death Penalty, Number Of Executions Plummets.") Here is how the big segment gets started: 

The last execution scheduled in the U.S. for the year is set for Tuesday in Georgia.  But capital punishment has gown rare in America, to the point of near extinction.

Even though polls show that 60 percent of the public still supports the death penalty, and even though the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld it as constitutional, the number of executions this year so far is almost the same as the number of fatalities from lightning strikes — 27 executions versus 26 deaths by lightning.

It's an ironic statistic.  When the Supreme Court briefly banned the death penalty in 1972, it did so, in part, because, as Justice Potter Stewart put it, capital punishment was being imposed so randomly and "freakishly" that it was like being "struck by lightning."  Four years later, the court would revive the death penalty, but with new limitations aimed at reserving it for the so-called worst of the worst.

Few could have imagined the trajectory the death penalty would follow in the years after.  The number of executions soared in the 1990s — hitting a high of 98 in 1999 and ultimately totaling more than 1,400 — but tailed off dramatically after 2000.  With just one more execution set for this year, the current year's total will be the smallest number in almost 25 years.

While the death penalty remains the law in 31 states, that figure is misleading.  In many of the 31, capital punishment has largely fallen into disuse.  In four states, the governor has put a moratorium on the death penalty, and in 17 there's an executive or judicial hold on executions because of botched procedures or problems in obtaining drugs that courts and legislatures have approved for lethal injection.

December 8, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

December 7, 2015

Notable new BJS data on veterans in state and federal prisons and local jails

As reported in this official press release, titled "Fewer Veterans In Prison And Jail In 2011-12 Than 2004," the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a new report on incarcerated vets. Here are excerpts from the first page of this detailed, data-heavy report:

In 2011–12, an estimated 181,500 veterans (8% of all inmates in state and federal prison and local jail excluding military-operated facilities) were serving time in correctional facilities. This represented a decrease from the estimated 206,500 incarcerated veterans (9% of the total incarcerated population) in 2004, and was consistent with the decline in the number of veterans in the U.S. general population. While the number of veterans in prison and jail increased along with growth in the overall number of persons incarcerated between 1980 and 2008, the proportion of incarcerated veterans has declined, down from an estimated 24% of all persons incarcerated in state prison and jail in 1978 (federal inmates were not surveyed in 1978).

In 1978, 19% of U.S. adult residents, 24% of prisoners, and 25% of jail inmates were military veterans. By 2011–12, veterans accounted for 9% of the general population, 8% of state and federal prisoners, and 7% of jail inmates....

The total incarceration rate in 2011–12 for veterans (855 per 100,000 veterans in the United States) was lower than the rate for nonveterans (968 per 100,000 U.S. residents). „

Non-Hispanic black and Hispanic inmates made up a significantly smaller proportion of incarcerated veterans (38% in prison and 44% in jail), compared to incarcerated non-Hispanic black and Hispanic nonveterans (63% in prison and 59% in jail). „

A greater percentage of veterans (64%) than nonveterans (48%) were sentenced for violent offenses....

„ More than three-quarters (77%) of incarcerated veterans received military discharges that were honorable or under honorable conditions.... „

„ A quarter of veterans in prison (25%) and less than a third of veterans in jail (31%) reported that they had been in combat while in the military. „

About half of all veterans in prison (48%) and jail (55%) had been told by a mental health professional they had a mental disorder. „ Incarcerated veterans who saw combat (60% in prison and 67% in jail) were more likely than noncombat veterans (44% in prison and 49% in jail) to have been told they had a mental disorder.

December 7, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Justice Thomas (with Justice Scalia) dissents from cert denial in Second Amendment challenge to local assault weapon ban

After SCOTUS released on Friday its most list of certiorari grants (including a sentencing case as noted here), the highlight of today's long order list of denials of certiorari comes in the form of this dissent authored by Justice Thomas and joined by Justice Scalia. The dissent from the denial of certiorari in Friedman v. City of Highland Park, Illinois, begins and ends this way (with a few cites removed):

“[O]ur central holding in” District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U. S. 570 (2008), was “that the Second Amendment protects a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense within the home.” McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, 780 (2010) (plurality opinion).  And in McDonald, we recognized that the Second Amendment applies fully against the States as well as the Federal Government. Id., at 750; id., at 805 (THOMAS, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). Despite these holdings, several Courts of Appeals— including the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in the decision below — have upheld categorical bans on firearms that millions of Americans commonly own for lawful purposes.  See 784 F. 3d 406, 410–412 (2015).  Because noncompliance with our Second Amendment precedents warrants this Court’s attention as much as any of our precedents, I would grant certiorari in this case....

[The Seventh Circuit's] analysis misreads Heller.  The question under Heller is not whether citizens have adequate alternatives available for self-defense.  Rather, Heller asks whether the law bans types of firearms commonly used for a lawful purpose — regardless of whether alternatives exist.  554 U. S., at 627–629.  And Heller draws a distinction between such firearms and weapons specially adapted to unlawful uses and not in common use, such as sawed-off shotguns. Id., at 624–625.  The City’s ban is thus highly suspect because it broadly prohibits common semiautomatic firearms used for lawful purposes.  Roughly five million Americans own AR-style semiautomatic rifles.  See 784 F.3d, at 415, n.3.  The overwhelming majority of citizens who own and use such rifles do so for lawful purposes, including self-defense and target shooting.  See ibid.  Under our precedents, that is all that is needed for citizens to have a right under the Second Amendment to keep such weapons.

The Seventh Circuit ultimately upheld a ban on many common semiautomatic firearms based on speculation about the law’s potential policy benefits.  See 784 F. 3d, at 411–412. The court conceded that handguns — not “assault weapons” — “are responsible for the vast majority of gun violence in the United States.”  Id., at 409.  Still, the court concluded, the ordinance “may increase the public’s sense of safety,” which alone is “a substantial benefit.”  Id., at 412.  Heller, however, forbids subjecting the Second Amendment’s “core protection . . . to a freestanding ‘interest-balancing’ approach.”  Heller, supra, at 634.  This case illustrates why.  If a broad ban on firearms can be upheld based on conjecture that the public might feel safer (while being no safer at all), then the Second Amendment guarantees nothing.

The Court’s refusal to review a decision that flouts two of our Second Amendment precedents stands in marked contrast to the Court’s willingness to summarily reverse courts that disregard our other constitutional decisions.... There is no basis for a different result when our Second Amendment precedents are at stake.  I would grant certiorari to prevent the Seventh Circuit from relegating the Second Amendment to a second-class right.

As I have noted in prior posts, the Second Amendment has been relegated to status as a "second-class right" primarily due to dicta in Heller suggesting that any person who ever commits a crime can and does forever forfeit the "personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes."  Lower courts since Heller have consistently upheld federal prosecution and severe sentencing of persons who long ago committed nonviolent crimes simply for much later seeking to "keep and bear arms for lawful purposes."  Not a single Justice has said a peep about this extreme restriction on Second Amendment rights even though, to my knowledge, few have ever seriously argued that any other right enumerated in the Bill of Rights is or should be subject to permanent forfeiture forever once a person is adjudicated guilty of a crime.

The significant and enduring pattern of courts upholding laws criminalizing persons with criminal records for gun possession, especially in a nation in which it seems more than a 25% of adults have some kind of criminal record, is what I think truly relegates the Second Amendment to a second-class right.  But, for obviously reasons, I am not expecting any SCOTUS Justices to note anytime soon that a mere local ban on possessing a certain type of firearm is far less consequential than the current federal ban on tens of millions of Americans ever being able to possess any firearm even for self-defense in their home.

December 7, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (13)

Extended account of much Obama executive ado so far still amounting to nearly nothing

Images (6)This past weekend, the Washington Post had this extended account of how and how long Prez Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder have been talking about working toward significant criminal justice reform.  I recommend the entire piece, and here are some extended excerpts:

Thee summer after President Obama began his second term in office, he and then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. were relaxing and watching fireworks from a porch on Martha’s Vineyard. Holder was about to interrupt his family vacation to fly to San Francisco and deliver a speech unveiling their plans to make the most significant changes in the country’s criminal justice system in decades.

“I’m the only one who hasn’t seen your speech,” Obama said teasingly to Holder... But the president really already knew what Holder planned to say.

The text was the culmination of countless conversations over the years between Holder and Obama about how this country prosecutes and incarcerates its citizens. Obama had seen the racial disparities of the decades-long war on drugs close up as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago; Holder experienced them as a former D.C. judge and prosecutor.  The two men met in 2004 at a small Washington dinner party shortly after Obama was elected to the Senate, and there was an instant connection. “We share a world view,” Holder said recently. “We kind of feel each other.”

Now, they were finally ready to act....

Laying out a three-part plan he called “Smart on Crime,” Holder said that he was directing his prosecutors nationwide to stop bringing charges that would impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences, except in the most egregious cases.  He called for more compassionate release of aging and ill inmates, more drug diversion programs as alternatives to prison and spoke of “shameful” sentencing disparities, a hint of Obama’s plans to use his clemency power to correct the disparities and release certain drug offenders early....

Nearly 2-1/2 years later, the administration’s major criminal justice overhaul has yielded mixed results.  Obama and Holder helped launch a national conversation about mass incarceration.  Last year, federal prosecutors pursued mandatory minimum sentences at the lowest rate on record — and sentencing reform legislation with bipartisan support has been introduced in Congress.

But some prosecutors are continuing to resist changes to mandatory minimum sentencing.  The initiative has also not yet made a significant dent in the number of inmates crowded into federal prisons.  Only 25 of the 531 elderly inmates who have applied for compassionate release under the new policy have received it.

And in the key executive action that Obama can take to undo unfair sentences, he has only granted clemency to 89 inmates of the thousands of federal drug offenders who have applied.  The president is expected to grant clemency to about another 100 prisoners in the coming weeks.

But Holder said he initially thought that as many as 10,000 of the federal prison’s nearly 200,000 inmates “were potentially going to be released” under the new clemency initiative.  Other Justice officials say the number is closer to 1,000 or 2,000. Criminal justice reform advocates are criticizing the president for moving too slowly and are calling on him to speed up the clemency process before his administration runs out of time.

“Given the president’s repeated concern about the numbers of people in prison serving excessive sentences, he has done little to alleviate the problem through clemency,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  “The president has all the constitutional authority he needs to do the right thing. Failure here cannot be blamed on partisanship in Congress.  If the president wants to correct past injustices, he can.”...

The real planning for how to unwind the country’s war on drugs began the summer before Holder’s speech. He and Obama anticipated a successful second-term election....  “Let’s go big,” Holder recalls Obama saying that August, again on the Vineyard.  “It’s gutsy.  It’s risky.  But it’s something we ought to do.”

A few months later, in January 2013, Holder directed his senior Justice officials to break into groups and bring him recommendations.  Holder and Obama were concerned about the backlash.  Could they pull off this huge reversal of drug policy and sentencing?  Would they be accused by Republicans of being soft on crime?

The pushback did come — but it was from within Holder’s own department.  In U.S. attorneys’ offices around the country, some prosecutors were supportive of the new policy, but others grumbled that Holder was taking away their most effective tool to get cooperation from drug offenders.  The organization representing line prosecutors wrote a letter to Holder and then went over his head and sent letters to top congressional leaders, urging them not to change the sentencing rules.

Regular readers know that I have been a persistent supporter of the Obama Administration's efforts to refocus criminal justice energies away from the war on drugs, and both Prez Obama and former AG Holder merit credit for helping to change the modern criminal justice reform conversation in the US. But I find quite frustrating and aggravating to hear that Obama and Holder were interested in doing something "big" and "gutsy" concerning the drug war given how little they have done so far that would merit the label big or gutsy.

Big and gutsy would involve granting thousands of commutations, not just dozens; big and gutsy would involve pushing hard on Congress and the Sentencng Commission to move away from drug quantities as the basis for long prison sentences; big and gutsy would involve advocating for bringing back parole eligibility for at least nonviolent drug offenders; big and gutsy would involve creating executive task forces with mandates to lower the federal prison population by at least 25% and to study how best to reform federal marijuana prohibtion; big and gutsy would involve tasking past and present GOP Govs who have championed state sentencing reform to propose possible reforms for the federal system.

Especially because Prez Obama still has a final year to make good on his desire to do something "big" and "gutsy," I am disinclined to give up hope that he can still bring more significant change to the most troublesome part of the nation's criminal justice systems.  In addition, when thinking of Prez Obama's likely sentencing legacy, he surely merits credit for appointing SCOTUS Justices and USSC Commissioners that have been pushing forward significant jurisprudential and doctrinal changes.  But as of this writing, the size, scope and operation of the federal criminal justice system in late Fall 2015 is practically speaking not very much different at all from what the system looked like in late Fall 2008.  Prez Obama has a lot of work ahead if he really wants things to truly be different in this space when he leaves the Oval Office.

December 7, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Are debtors' prisons returning?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent lengthy CNN commentary authored by Van Jones and Jessica Jackson. Here are excerpts:

Debtors' prison is supposed to be illegal in the United States. But in too many American cities, it has made a shocking return.  This [past] week, a bipartisan group of leaders, and a few A-list celebrities, gathered at the White House to do something about it.

The problem: Faced with ballooning costs of America's massive incarceration industry, local jurisdictions have started billing people for time they spend behind bars.  They are also charging them for electronic supervision services. Not to mention DNA collection, juries and constitutionally mandated public defenders.

The trouble here is obvious: Recently incarcerated people often do not have jobs.  Therefore, they cannot possibly keep up with an increasingly aggressive list of fees and fines.

So believe it or not: Cities are throwing them BACK into jail -- for not being able to pay!  From Detroit to Dallas, America's criminal justice system is trapping poor people in a perpetual cycle of prisons and poverty....

On top of the stated fees and fines, many jurisdictions are adopting practices employed by shady payday lenders, not public safety agencies.  For example, Washington state charges a 12% interest rate on all its criminal debt.  Florida adds a 40% fee that goes into the pockets of a private collections agency.  And in Arizona, an 83% surcharge turns a $500 fee into a $915 bill.  A portion of those proceeds go to finance electoral campaigns, creating a strong incentive to preserve the status quo.

One study revealed that most people with a felony conviction can expect to be saddled with an average $11,000 in debt.  In total, about 10 million Americans collectively owe more than $50 billion in outstanding fines and fees. Repaying this debt would be challenging for the average American family, half of whom would have trouble finding $400 on short notice.  But for those already struggling to get on their feet after prison, the debt from fees and fines often carry carries with it an air of impossibility.

The current system has dire consequences for millions of Americans that can be permanently debilitating and perpetuates a cycle of poverty and incarceration.  Failure to pay fines can result in lost income, depressed credit ratings, housing instability, suspended drivers' licenses, arrest warrants, loss of Social Security benefits or further incarceration.  These consequences can permanently affect an individual's life and reduce the ability ever to get his or her life back on track.

The system is not supposed to work this way.  A Supreme Court ruling in 1983 prohibited putting people in prison for failure to pay their fines and fees without an indigency hearing.  And yet at least 15 states have found ways to ignore this mandate.  They have made this a standard practice....

The Sunlight Foundation is supporting the collection of data so we can understand the scope of the problem and how we can better address the issue.  The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is funding a comprehensive research and litigation-based approach to reform.  And #cut50 is dedicated to highlighting this injustice and amplifying leadership from around the country.

Together, we can roll back these policies that ultimately have little to do with public safety.  Our challenge strikes at the heart of our criminal justice system: Are we a nation of second chances, or will we sit by and watch a perpetual punishment machine run wild?  Let us ensure our elected representatives and government agencies live up to the highest values of our society.

This ABC News column authored by Lz Ganderson, headlined "To Be Poor, Black and Jailed," discusses similar issues and concerns.

December 7, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

December 6, 2015

Supreme Court takes up Montana case to resolve applicability of Sixth Amendment speedy trial right to sentencing

The major matter among the cases that the Supreme Court decided to take up on Friday concerns the authority of the Puerto Rican government to deal with its debt crisis.  But as this post from Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog notes, the undercard cert grants are still noteworthy:

The Court granted review in three other cases on Friday, involving: the application of the constitutional right to a speedy trial to a follow-up sentencing proceeding (Betterman v. Montana); a definition of when a government contractor has filed false reimbursement claims under the False Claims Act (questions 2 and 3 in Universal Health Services v. United States ex rel. Escobar); and a claim for attorney’s fees for an employer when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not carry out its assigned duties before a lawsuit is filed (CRST Van Expedited v. EEOC). Those cases, too, are likely to be argued in March.

The cert petition in Betterman is available at this link, and here is how it presents the question:

Whether the Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause applies to the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution, protecting a criminal defendant from inordinate delay in final disposition of his case.

This question has divided lower courts, but I am not so sure having it answered either way will really impact sentencing practices much. Defendants can, and regularly do, waive and forfeit Sixth Amendment speedy trial rights so having such a right apply at sentencing may not practically lead to much more than just some more formal waiver practices. Conversely, defendants surely have some residual Fifth Amendment Due Process right not to suffer too much prejudice from excessive delays before sentencing, so defendant already have and will continue to have some procedural protections in this arena even without the Sixth Amendment getting involved.

That all said, it is always exciting and interesting when SCOTUS takes up a constitutional sentencing issue that has split both state and federal courts. And there could be some "sleeper" elements emerging in this case through briefing and argument that could make it a bigger deal. And, if nothing else, the case has the benefit of a cool party name that will keep me humming one of my (many) favorite Pearl Jam songs.

December 6, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Can and will Prez Obama effectively help get a federal sentencing reform bill to his desk?

Justice-refThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Washington Post report, headlined "Obama convenes meeting on criminal justice reform to buoy bipartisanship," discussing a meeting Prez Obama convened with congressional leaders to talk about how to turn reform bills into new sentencing laws. Here the details:

President Obama convened a meeting of more than a dozen congressional Republicans and Democrats Thursday, in an effort to bolster a fragile bipartisan coalition working to reform the criminal justice system.

The House and Senate have been working to craft legislation to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, as well as to revamp aspects of federal incarceration. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a comprehensive bill on a bipartisan 15-5 vote in October; the House Judiciary Committee has passed five separate measures by voice vote in recent weeks.

But there are a few major differences between the two chambers’ approaches. Most significantly, one of the House bills — the Criminal Code Improvement Act — would require prosecutors in cases as wide-ranging as food tainting and corporate pollution to prove that defendants “knew, or had reason to believe, the conduct was unlawful,” otherwise known as “mens rea.”

That measure has angered many Democrats, who argue that it could block criminal prosecution of some corporate entities — including those owned by Koch Industries, which has helped mobilize conservative support for the overall reform effort. Obama specifically asked lawmakers to remove the provision, according to individuals familiar with the meeting, though House Republicans argued that it was a critical component for conservatives.

“We believe that invites a lot of controversy and delay into our agreement, and the House feels just the opposite,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who attended the White House meeting and co-authored the Senate criminal justice bill.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), another co-author of the bill, said that while “nothing was decided” in the more than hour-and-a-half session, he was “very optimistic” after participating in it. “I think it was all a very positive, bipartisan, bicameral, executive, legislative meeting,” Cornyn said, adding that although “there was not consensus” on that issue, there might be a way to work it out in a conference between the two chambers. “But I think part of the message was, ‘Let’s take the things where there is consensus, get that done.’ ”

A spokeswoman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) declined to comment on the meeting. She noted that the House panel has passed bills on issues including modifying sentencing guidelines and eliminating statutes in the U.S. Code that subject violators to criminal penalties for trivial conduct. The committee will take up measures on prisons, civil asset forfeiture, and criminal procedures and policing in the coming weeks, she added.

Durbin said “we have a good chance” of passing legislation in early 2016, so lawmakers can work out their differences “and send it to the president before midpoint of next year.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who helped craft the Senate bill and also met with the president, said the meeting was less about “the path forward” than how to get the two competing proposals brought up for floor votes in the House and Senate.

Obama also pressed for specific numbers on how many individuals would benefit overall from the two proposals, people familiar with the meeting said, because the proposals introduce new sentences even as they reduce some mandatory minimums.

Senator Durbin's comments reinforce my understand that there is a good chance that the full House and Senate will likely vote in January or February on the various reform bills that have already passed the Judiciary Committees. Such votes would pave the way for harmonizing efforts on the bills and perhaps enactment sometime in Spring 2016. I think the commnts coming after this meanign from not only Senator Durbin but also Senator Cronyn lead me to have continued (tempered) optimism that this will get done in some form before Prez Obama leaves the Oval Office.

That all said, the dispute over menas rea reform could throw a wrench into this process, as could various other political developments. Especially if the legislative process drags into the summer, I think whomever emerges as a GOP leader through the primary season could end up having an impact on the sentencing reform debate. In addition, as both the title and contents of this post suggests, Prez Obama also is a critical and complicated figure in all this. Cajoling Congress effectively could help keep the legislative process, but too much advocacy or criticism on sentencing issues coming from the White House could upset an already delicate political balance in this arena.

December 6, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Latest USSC retroctivity data suggest prison savings over $1.4 billion from drugs-2 guideline amendment retroactivity

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this new document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated December 2015, provides "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782 [the so-called drugs -2 amendment]. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through September 30, 2015 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by November 30, 2015.

The subsequent official data indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive, well over 20,000 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of just about two years.

So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers over $1.4 billion dollars. As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing at least some proof that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and costs of the federal government.

December 6, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)