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January 2, 2016

Local prosecutor urges Wyoming legislature to "fish or cut bait" with capital punishment

As reported in this local AP piece, headlined "Casper prosecutor says Wyoming needs to reconsider death penalty," a district attorney in the Equality State is complaining that his state legislature seems unwilling to back the state's capital laws with sufficient capital. Here is the story:

A prosecutor who secured a death sentence against Dale Wayne Eaton for the murder of a woman nearly 30 years ago says the lingering appeal in the case shows the Wyoming Legislature must decide if it's willing to provide the resources necessary to handle capital punishment.

The call came from Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen, who prosecuted Eaton in 2004 for the 1988 killing of Lisa Kimmell of Billings, Montana. For years, Eaton was the only man on death row in Wyoming. His death sentence was overturned in November 2014. "You keep going, and you tell yourself that this is about what the man actually did," Blonigen said.

"But it seems the further we get removed from what he actually did, and out from his trial, the less and less that seems to matter," Blonigen said of Eaton. "Instead, we're tied up in all this other stuff that has nothing to do with the truth or untruth of any of the allegations made, but have everything to do with the procedure."

Kimmell disappeared while driving across Wyoming and fishermen later found her body in the North Platte River. In 2002, DNA evidence linked Eaton to the case while he was in prison on unrelated charges.

The Wyoming Supreme Court upheld Eaton's death sentence, but U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne overturned it last year, ruling that ruled that Eaton hadn't received an adequate defense. Johnson said the Wyoming Public Defender's Office had tried to scrimp on expenses and failed to follow American Bar Association staffing recommendations on providing qualified lawyers, an investigator and a mitigation expert.

Johnson gave the state the choice of allowing Eaton to serve life in prison or seeking the death penalty against him at a new sentencing hearing with the requirement that the state appoint lawyers for him not associated with the Wyoming Public Defender's Office. Blonigen began pressing in state court to hold a new death penalty hearing for Eaton.

But Johnson ruled this summer that the state had failed to follow his order by not appointing new lawyers for Eaton fast enough. In his order last week, Johnson prohibited the state from holding a new death penalty hearing while Eaton appeals aspects of the order Johnson issued last year. Eaton's current legal team is asking a federal appeals court in Denver to rule that too much time has passed for Eaton to get a fair death penalty hearing.

Gov. Matt Mead's budget recommendations, released before Johnson's order, called for the Legislature to appropriate over $1 million for the coming two-year state funding cycle to pay for Eaton's defense in state court. Mead also is calling for $25,000 to study whether prosecutors and the Public Defender's Office are receiving adequate funding.

Wyoming last carried out the death penalty in 1992, when it executed convicted murderer Mark Hopkinson. Several other death sentences have been overturned on appeal since then on the grounds of ineffective legal representation from the Public Defender's Office....

Blonigen said Eaton's case underscores the need for the state to provide adequate support if it wants to keep the death penalty on the books. "You've got to have the resources and have the commitment to it to carry through with it," Blonigen said. "I think the Legislature has to decide do we really want this or not. If we really want it, then we have to change some things."

January 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"Throwaway Children: The Tragic Consequences of a False Narrative"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Catherine Carpenter now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Truth be told, we are afraid for our children and we are afraid of our children.  The intersection of these disparate thoughts has produced a perfect storm.  We have created increasingly harsh sex offender registration schemes to protect our children from sexual abuse.  At the same time, fear of our children ensnares and punishes them under the very same laws that were designed to protect them.  Yet, what compels action is premised on a false narrative that includes flawed studies on recidivism rates and misguided case decisions that embraced these findings.

In this article, I explore the inherently unfair and deeply flawed practice of mandatory lifetime registration for children who commit sex offenses.  Examination reveals two fallacies in a system that condemns children to lifetime monitoring: the breadth of its ensnarement, and the presumption of a child’s continued sexual predatory behavior. Fueled by emotional rhetoric, both are tightly bound in a fundamentally false narrative that is unnecessary and wholly damaging for the child registrant.

The utility of an overly-simplified registration scheme comes with a hefty price tag: the acknowledgement that mandatory lifetime registration captures and shatters the lives of many non-dangerous children.  It is a price tag we should no longer be willing to bear.  In the face of overwhelming statistical evidence to the contrary, we must commit to changing the false narrative that children who commit sex offenses are presumed to become sexually dangerous adults.  We must commit to replacing it with a narrative that acknowledges that recidivism rates are low and that mandatory lifetime registration is both unnecessary and devastating.

January 2, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

January 1, 2016

Federal criminal caseload highlights from Chief Justice's "2015 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary"

The Chief Justice of the United States always closes out a calendar year by releasing a year-end report on the federal judiciary.  The 2015 version from Chief Justice John G. Roberts is available here, and it includes an Appendix on the Workload of the Courts with some notable federal criminal justice details. Here are those details:

In the 12-month period ending September 30, 2015, caseloads decreased in the Supreme Court, the regional appellate courts, the district courts, the bankruptcy courts, and the pretrial services system.  Growth occurred, however, in the number of persons under post-conviction supervision....

In the regional courts of appeals, filings dropped four percent to 52,698. Appeals involving pro se litigants, which amounted to 51 percent of filings, fell four percent.  Total civil appeals decreased seven percent. Criminal appeals rose three percent, as did appeals of administrative agency decisions, and bankruptcy appeals grew seven percent....

Cases with the United States as defendant dropped seven percent in response to fewer filings of prisoner petitions and Social Security cases.  Cases with the United States as plaintiff went down 10 percent as filings of forfeiture and penalty cases and contract cases decreased.

Filings for criminal defendants (including those transferred from other districts) held relatively steady, declining one percent to 80,069.  Defendants accused of immigration violations dropped five percent, with the southwestern border districts receiving 79 percent of national immigration defendant filings. Defendants charged with property offenses (including 15 fraud) fell six percent.  Other reductions were reported for filings involving traffic offenses, general offenses, regulatory offenses, and justice system offenses. Drug crime defendants, who accounted for 32 percent of total filings, rose two percent.  Increases also occurred in filings related to firearms and explosives, sex offenses, and violent crimes....

A total of 135,468 persons were under post-conviction supervision on September 30, 2015, an increase of two percent over the total one year earlier.  Of that number, 114,961 persons were serving terms of supervised 16 release after leaving correctional institutions, a three percent increase from the prior year.  Cases activated in the pretrial services system, including pretrial diversion cases, fell five percent to 95,013.

January 1, 2016 in Data on sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

December 31, 2015

An effective review of the 2015 year that was in criminal justice

Download (7)As I reflect this day on the interesting and dynamic last twelve months in the field of criminal justice, I find myself wishing I could channel the brillance of Tom Lehrer to write an amusing and poignant song to tell the tale of the year that was.  (For fellow Tomfoolery fans, here are some links to always timely Lehrer classics like A Christmas Carol (just a few days late) and Fight Feircly Harvard (for football fans) and Whatever Became of Hubert (for political fans) and Who's Next (for those concerned about the Iran deal).)  

But because I lack the time and the talent of Lehrer, I am content to provide a review of the year that was via this effective Huffington Post piece authored by Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the Brennan Center for Justice.  The lengthy piece is headlined "Criminal Justice Reform in 2015: Year End Review," and below are some excerpts from its start, end and some in-between mentions of some sentencing matters (with links from the original):

Criminal justice reform continued to build momentum this year within the inner sanctum of the Beltway and across the nation in a handful of states. It emerged as a significant issue in the presidential campaign, and looks likely to stay front and center into 2016. Some of the year’s most significant steps forward (and back) are highlighted here....

April: A significant number of candidates running for President contributed essays to a book on criminal justice reform, entitled Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice.  New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker wrote, “The last time a Clinton and a Bush ran for president, the country was awash in crime and the two parties were competing to show who could be tougher on murderers, rapists and drug dealers.  But more than two decades later, declared and presumed candidates for president are competing over how to reverse what they see as the policy excesses of the 1990s and the mass incarceration that has followed.”

With the streets still smoldering in Baltimore, Hillary Clinton gives a speech declaring, “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration.” 

July: Former President Bill Clinton concedes that the 1994 Crime Bill, which imposed harsh sentences for many crimes and provided incentive funding to states to build more prison beds, “made the problem worse.”...

July: President Obama takes three high-profile actions in one week, demonstrating that he wants criminal justice reform to be one of his legacies.  On Monday, July 13, the president commutes the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, the greatest number of commutations issued in a single day since Franklin Roosevelt.  The next day, President Obama gives a “passionate” address on criminal justice before the NAACP, flatly stating, “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.”  Then, on Thursday, July 16, President Obama becomes the first president to visit a federal prison when he tours a facility in Oklahoma.  After chatting with six non-violent drug offenders for about 45 minutes, President Obama remarks, “There but for the grace of God.”   And on the last day of the month, President Obama announces a pilot program allowing some prisoners to use Pell Grants for college courses, which Congress had banned in 1994....

November: President Obama uses his executive authority powerfully this year and signs an executive order to “ban the box,”  prohibiting federal agencies from asking potential employees about their criminal records on job applications. The federal government, President Obama says, “should not use criminal history to screen out applicants before we even look at their qualifications.”

December: President Obama commutes the sentences of 95 federal prisoners and pardons two. The number of commutations granted exceeds those of the last four presidents combined....

October:  In the most significant reform measure in recent history, the Senate Judiciary Committee votes 15-5 to send the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to the floor. Although the measure does not eliminate mandatory minimum sentences entirely -- and in fact lengthens mandatory sentences for firearms and domestic violence offenses -- it reduces mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes.  It also allows current inmates who qualify to cut their sentences by 25 percent, and sets limitations on juvenile solitary confinement.  The Act is now pending on the Senate floor and is expected to be taken up in 2016.

November: House Judiciary Committee unanimously approves the Sentencing Reform Act, the House version of the Senate sentencing reform bill. The bill is expected to be taken up by the full House in 2016....

May: Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signs criminal reform legislation which is projected to cut the state’s prison population by 4,200 over five years.  In reality, it’s not much of a trim -- the state’s prisons are already running at about 185 percent of capacity.  Penalties for some nonviolent property and drug crimes are reduced, and more nonviolent offenders are to be diverted from prison. The state is expected to save a total of $380 million.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) signs criminal justice legislation, which is projected to cut the state’s prison population by 1,000 over five years. Despite having one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation, Nebraska’s prisons were operating at 159 percent of capacity at the end of 2014, and are projected to hit 170 percent by 2020. The state is expected to save a total of $300 million in corrections costs....

December: The Maryland Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, a creation of the state legislature to examine how to reduce Maryland’s prison population, releases its final recommendations.  One of 25 proposals in the report is one that would create a major change in how drug offenders are sentenced, recommending sentencing guidelines that focus on treatment in lieu of incarceration for those charged with possession....

2015 proved an extraordinarily active year for criminal justice reform in both legislative changes and the public discourse.  2016 will certainly be a year to watch amid fear that some Presidential hopefuls will start to back away from their strong support of criminal justice reform.  Already, Presidential hopeful and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) voted against significant criminal justice reform in the Senate Judiciary Committee, while this spring he supported efforts to reform the justice system.  Robert Kennedy once said, "Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope."  As we take stock of what was accomplished to improve the criminal justice system in 2015 and look ahead to 2016, a narrative of tiny ripples of hope emerges.  And with President Obama working to ensure justice reform is part of his legacy, criminal justice reform will likely remain front and center. 

December 31, 2015 in Recap posts, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 30, 2015

"Shouldn't Criminal Defense Lawyers Prepare Clients for Prison?"

The question in he title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary authored by Jay Berger and appearing in The Legal Intelligencer: Here are excerpts:

I was an attorney in Pennsylvania for over 30 years. I was also, more recently, a federal prisoner for almost five years. In 2007, I was charged with one count of mail fraud affecting a financial institution (Title 18 U.S.C. Section 1341). I pleaded guilty and served my sentence in five facilities of varying security classifications from June 2008 until April 2013.  During the entire time I was incarcerated, I do not recall hearing of a single instance, my case included, where the defense lawyer provided any meaningful prison preparation or counseling for his or her client as part of the representation.

What completely baffles me about that omission is that there is roughly a 97 percent conviction rate in today's federal criminal justice system, almost all of which derives from guilty pleas, and the outcome in most cases is incarceration. Because this inevitability of serving time in prison is known well in advance of actual confinement, there are numerous prison-related matters that can and should be addressed during that interim period....

To me the solution is fairly obvious. It must be the responsibility of the defense attorneys to provide prison preparation services to their clients.  Having been both a lawyer and a criminal defendant, I understand how imperative it is for clients to feel they can look exclusively to their defense attorneys for guidance in all areas of their cases.  This is especially true where one of those areas ultimately involves a journey through prison.  Therefore, the attorneys must either acquire enough knowledge to offer these services themselves, or in the alternative, retain a legitimate prison consulting service to work closely in conjunction with them.  I view the latter approach no differently than when a defense attorney deems it necessary to retain any reliable, independent expert to provide essential skills related to the case....

I submit that any defense attorney who ­offers clients the strategies they need to manage through confinement and emerge successfully would add substantial value to the legal representation provided.  It would bring an element to a criminal defense practice that is not typically available, and there is no better testimonial for an attorney than former clients who are satisfied that they were well represented in all facets of their cases.  Word would spread and potential criminal defense clients might just be inclined to gravitate to a law firm that provides a more comprehensive representation by including prison counseling.  In my opinion, this would significantly set that particular criminal defense practice apart from its competitors.

Those of us who have taken that shameful and lonely walk through prison doors could have desperately used some help from our defense attorneys to prepare us for what we were about to encounter.  I assure you that we would have been eternally grateful for the consideration given to this most important aspect of our cases.

December 30, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

How can a sex offender prove he is no longer a threat ... three decades after molesting a child?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article about a state court ruling from New Hampshire headlined "Judge rules convicted sex offender must remain on registry until he can prove he is no longer a threat." Here is the interesting backstory:

A Manchester sex offender convicted 28 years ago will remain a lifetime registrant unless and until he proves he is no longer a threat, which, at least for now, he can ask to do at any time, a judge in Concord has ruled.  The decision, issued last week and distributed Monday by Merrimack County Superior Court, caps the latest phase in a years-long campaign by the man, identified by the court under the pseudonym John Doe, to become eligible for public housing.

Doe’s real name is Norman St.  Hilaire. He has long pressed to be removed from the state’s public registry of sex offenders, arguing that his conviction predated its creation.  More recently, though, he asked the court to table that question and instead recognize that a recent state Supreme Court decision effectively lifts his lifetime status -- a smaller change, but one that could be enough to secure him housing eligibility.

In his new ruling, Judge Richard McNamara quickly rejected the request, writing that the higher court’s decision allows St. Hilaire to change his status only if and when he proves he is no longer a threat.  “If he never succeeds in showing that he is not a danger to the public, he must continue to register,” McNamara wrote.  “It follows that the only accurate way to describe his status at the current time is that of a lifetime registrant.”

St. Hilaire is currently a Tier III “lifetime” offender, the state’s highest sex offender category.  His attorneys had claimed he should no longer be classified as such because he now has the chance to petition to get off the registry, a privilege unavailable to Tier III offenders convicted after the registry’s creation in the early 1990s.  Tier III offenders convicted today have no opportunities to get off the list.

St. Hilaire’s case was scheduled for an evidentiary hearing in November, but he backed out shortly before, citing his victim’s request to testify.  She and victims advocates suspect he was worried she would easily derail the effort by describing the abuse and possibly disclosing new allegations (though the statute of limitations on new charges involving her has passed).

McNamara’s ruling was only a partial win for state prosecutors, who not only objected to St. Hilaire’s petition but also asked that he be barred from bringing another request for five years.  Like the Supreme Court, McNamara deferred to the Legislature on that question, saying it’s their responsibility to set parameters for how frequent the reviews should be.

Several state lawmakers are proposing new parameters, and hearings on their legislation, sponsored by Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley and two dozen others, are expected to begin next month.  The bill prohibits offenders from getting off the list if they have been convicted of serious crimes since their original convictions. Among other things, it also requires that victims get the chance to address the court, and that offenders whose petitions have been denied wait five years before petitioning again.

Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public policy for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the proposed language mirrors the requirements in place for lower tiered offenders who want to be removed from the registry. Sexton called McNamara’s ruling “a big win for victims.”...

In arguing earlier this month for the five-year ban, Assistant Attorney General Dianne Martin said the victim, now in her 40s and living out of state, “had to go through preparation for this case, and she had to relive all the events that she suffered as a child.” She should not have to constantly wonder if and when St. Hilaire will bring another petition, Martin said.

Chapman countered that St. Hilaire, who is 66 and has physical disabilities, had no plans to request a hearing, but hoped to reserve the right to do so in case his physical condition deteriorates further.  St. Hilaire has not been present for the court proceedings. He was arrested last month and charged with failure to register, a felony.  Police have said he created a Facebook account but never reported it, as required. He is out on bail and was scheduled for an arraignment at the end of this month.

St. Hilaire was convicted three decades ago of molesting the woman when she was a young teen in Hooksett, once in 1983 at Lambert Park and again the next year at their home, where the woman’s mother and three other children also lived. He was placed on probation and ordered to attend sex offender counseling, which he did weekly for two years. In an interview last month, the victim said the abuse was far more pervasive than the convictions reflected.  She said St. Hilaire sexually abused her numerous times over a decade, starting as a toddler and continuing into adolescence. 

December 30, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (11)

December 29, 2015

Interesting Texas state sentencing realities surrounding the future sentencing of 'Affluenza' teen and his fugitive mother

I tend not to blog too much about sentencing stories that are already seemingly getting too much attention in the traditional media. Ergo, I have not recently posted about the fugitive status of Ethan Couch. Couch is the Texas teen who had 15-minutes of infamy in early 2014 when, after having killed four people in a drunken-driving crash, received a 10-year probation sentence from a juvenile judge who may have been influenced by a defense psychologist's statement that Couch suffered from "affluenza" as a rich kid whose parents did not set any limits on him. But now Couch has been caught while on the run in Mexico with his mother, and this new CNN article highlights some interesting sentence aspects concerning what he and his mother are facing under Texas law.

The CNN piece is headlined "'Affluenza' teen caught, but will he get off easy?", and here are excerpts that spotlight some Texas state sentencing details that strike me as now quite interesting:

Will Ethan Couch, the "affluenza" teen, get off lightly again?, Couch drew the ire of many after a judge sentenced the then 16-year-old to 10 years probation for a 2013 drunk driving crash that killed four people.

Those who felt the sentence too lenient felt validated when Couch violated his probation and fled. He was detained Monday in Mexico. But if you are expecting a judge to throw the book at him, be warned that the book might not be too heavy.

As of now, the most severe punishment Couch could face is 120 days in adult jail, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said at a press conference Tuesday. The district attorney explained the dilemma she faces at a news conference Tuesday:

• Ethan Couch was sentenced as a juvenile and violated his probation as ordered by juvenile court system.

• Under Texas law, Couch, now 18, would be punished for his violation in the juvenile system.

• The maximum sentence that a juvenile judge can dish out for a violation of his juvenile probation is imprisonment in a juvenile facility until Couch turns 19, which is April 11, 2016.

• The DA wants to transfer Couch's sentence to adult court. But since this violation happened in the juvenile system, Couch effectively would start with a clean slate in the adult probation system. That is, the adult court judge could not punish Couch for violations he committed as a juvenile.

• At the time a judge reassesses Couch's probation in the adult system, he has the power to put Couch in adult jail for a maximum of 120 days.

The 120 days in jail won't please those who think Couch deserves worse, but as the facts stand now, it is what the law allows. If Couch ends up on adult probation, Wilson said, and violates it as an adult, he could face up to 40 years in jail. Couch could also find himself behind bars for longer if he is found to have committed any new crimes and is charged and convicted as an adult for those crimes.

Ethan Couch's mother, Tonya Couch, has been charged with hindering the apprehension of a juvenile, and if convicted, faces between 2 and 10 years in jail, Wilson said. It's tough to explain the legal maze that stands to benefit Ethan Couch in the form of a light punishment for violating his probation.

The judge who hears the case "will throw the book at him, but the book is only a few more months because he turns 19," said Larry Seidlin, a former state court and juvenile court judge in Florida. "So the legal issue is: Can the prosecutor move this case to adult court and try to get adult sanctions, get some state prison time. It's a close question because double jeopardy is going to take effect. We've already gone through his case. We've already done a plea bargain."...

Couch is wanted by authorities in Tarrant County, Texas, for allegedly violating his probation. His mother, Tonya, was listed by Texas authorities as a missing person after her son's disappearance, and the authorities said they believed she was assisting him.

A warrant was issued in mid-December for Couch to be taken into custody after his probation officer couldn't reach him. He appears to have dropped off the radar after a video emerged that allegedly showed him at a party where alcohol was being consumed, according to authorities. Couch had been ordered to stay away from drugs and alcohol for the duration of his sentence probation.

His sudden disappearance reignited controversy over his case, which attracted widespread attention after a psychologist testified that Couch, who was 16 at the time of the crash, suffered from "affluenza," describing him as a rich kid whose parents didn't set limits for him. His lawyers argued that his parents should share some of the blame for the crash.

Prosecutors had requested that Couch be sentenced to 20 years behind bars. The juvenile court judge's decision to put him on probation for 10 years instead of sending him to prison outraged victims' families It also prompted many observers to question the term "affluenza," which isn't recognized as a medical condition in any formal sense. G. Dick Miller, the psychologist who said the word at the trial, later said he wished he hadn't used it.  And Couch's lawyers have criticized what they say is the news media's narrow focus on the term in relation to his case.

As some regular readers know, I have long been troubled by and long complained about what I perceive as unduly lenient sentences too often handed out for serious and repeat drunk driving offenses. For that reason (and others), this high-profile sentencing case has always annoyed me because it seemed to me it was more reflective of our society's general tendency to treat drunk driving offenders too leniently than reflective of a tendency to give special breaks to serious crimes committed by rich white kids with lenient parents (though I certainly believe the general impact and import of rich white privilege at sentencing also merits attention).

Prior related posts around Couch's initial sentencing:

December 29, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

New BJS data show continued (very) slow decline in correctional populations in US

One of the many joys of the holiday season for data junkies is new releases of new official reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  This latest one, excitingly titled "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2014," was released today at this BJS webpage where one can also find this summary of the report's basic coverage main findings:

Presents statistics on persons supervised by adult correctional systems in the United States at yearend 2014, including offenders supervised in the community on probation or parole and those incarcerated in state or federal prison or local jail. The report describes the size and change in the total correctional population during 2014. It details the downward trend in the correctional population and correctional supervision rate since 2007. It also examines the impact of changes in the community supervision and incarcerated populations on the total correctional population in recent years. Findings cover the variation in the size and composition of the total correctional population by jurisdiction at yearend 2014. Appendix tables provide statistics on other correctional populations and jurisdiction-level estimates of the total correctional population by correctional status and sex for select years.

Highlights:

  • Adult correctional systems supervised an estimated 6,851,000 persons at yearend 2014, about 52,200 fewer offenders than at yearend 2013.
  • About 1 in 36 adults (or 2.8% of adults in the United States) was under some form of correctional supervision at yearend 2014, the lowest rate since 1996.
  • The correctional population has declined by an annual average of 1.0% since 2007.
  • The community supervision population (down 1.0%) continued to decline during 2014, accounting for all of the decrease in the correctional population.
  • The incarcerated population (up 1,900) slightly increased during 2014.

December 29, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Recuenco and review of Blakely error, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Would-be Prohibition offenders make huge donation to ACLU help real ex-offenders

Via The Marshall Project, I just saw this Washington Post story, headlined "Total Wine co-founder funding $15 million push to aid ex-convicts," on a notable private funding effort for a notable public cause. Here are the details:

A Maryland couple is donating $15 million to the American Civil Liberties Union to expand a campaign to cut prison populations and promote private initiatives to rehabilitate and employ ex-convicts, the ACLU announced.  The grant from David Trone, co-founder of Bethesda-based Total Wine & More, and his wife, June, is among the largest in the ACLU’s history.

The Trones, both 60, join a growing cadre of wealthy business­people funding a coalition of liberal, conservative and libertarian groups pushing the Obama administration and Congress to unwind sentencing laws from the era of the drug war. Those advocates argue that draconian punishments have gone too far and cost too much, incarcerating 2.2 million Americans, pouring $80 billion a year into prisons and jails and hollowing out families — particularly in low-income and minority communities.

David Trone, of Potomac, cited Total Wine’s support of the “ban the box” movement — which seeks removal of the criminal-record check box from job applications — as a factor in his gift and an example of what private-sector partners can accomplish. “Yes, people make mistakes,” he said. “But if they paid the price and now want to build a better life, why should that mistake have to carry with them the rest of their lives?”

The Trones’ grant comes one year after George Soros’s Open Society Foundations pledged $50 million over eight years to the ACLU’s political arm to push for sentencing and other criminal-justice policy changes in local, state and national elections. Unlike Soros’s grant, the Trones’ gift will pay for traditional ACLU litigation and educational activities and is tax-deductible.

The six-year bequest will establish the Trone Center for Criminal Justice and boost state-level projects — including ones in the District, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Indiana — where incarceration rates and the prospect of bipartisan cooperation are greatest, said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU.

Romero said that while attention is focused on a gridlocked Congress, momentum for change is growing among state and local governments, which house more than 90 percent of the nation’s prisoners and spend more than 90 percent of incarceration-related tax dollars. He likened the momentum to the push for same-sex marriage, where business leaders who threatened to leave hostile states added an economic argument to the moral and legal case for anti-discrimination laws. “If business leaders take a big stake in pushing these reforms, it ensures the sustainability of long-lasting reform,” Romero said. “If you can tie the power of the private sector to this sled, then Congress and the president will be dragged into taking real action.”...

The ACLU said David Trone will chair a new private-sector advisory council that will include business and university leaders. The council will promote efforts to return former prisoners to the workforce and reduce the stigma of employing past offenders, Romero said. It also may consider the value of education and economic incentives such as tax credits for workers and companies. Council members include Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, and Paul Lewis Sagan, former chief executive of Akamai Technologies, the Web- content delivery company.

Ex-prisoners face a variety of federal and state rules that restrict their ability to get jobs, housing, student and business loans, occupational licenses and public assistance, said another member, Mark V. Holden. Holden is general counsel at Koch Industries, whose billionaire founders, Charles and David Koch, are key sentencing reform backers....

David and June Trone, who are graduates of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, have been longtime ACLU supporters, giving more than $1 million since 1994. David Trone said the new gift was timed as he and his brother, Robert, co-founders of the Total Wine chain, are bringing on a new chief executive so they can step back from daily operations. Total Wine has stores in 18 states, with 4,000 workers and $2.1 billion in annual sales. Romero said Trone’s success and status outside the “usual suspects” of supporters gives him added credibility with businesspeople.

The Trones were disrupters of the liquor industry. Their “big box” model of beer and wine stores triggered bitter battles with competitors and drew scrutiny from regulators and criminal charges related to volume discounts. Cases against the family were dismissed. One of David Trone’s attorneys, Roslyn M. Litman, is an ACLU board member.

“I was lucky. I had the resources and the representation to fight an injustice and win . . . [but] there are hundreds of thousands of people who don’t,” David Trone said. With the gift, he said, he hoped the ACLU “can stand up for those who are silenced . . . and figure out how folks who have made mistakes can become great workers with great jobs and drop recidivism.”

As the title of this post highlights, I think an interesting (and likely easily overlooked) aspect of this story is the fact that the Trones made their fortune through innovation in an industry that was entirely a criminal enterprise (and the progenator of considerable violent crime) less than 100 years ago during the Prohibition era.

December 29, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

December 28, 2015

Defense argues veteran's mental problems should make him ineligible for Oregon death penalty

This interesting local article from Oregon reports on a notable and novel argument being made by defense attorneys for a defendant accused in a brutal group murder.  The story is headlined "Lawyers cite client’s military service in arguing that death penalty should not be sentencing option if found guilty," and here are the interesting details:

Army veteran A.J. Nelson stands accused of playing a central role in a brutal Eugene murder that happened three years after his squad’s armored vehicle was destroyed by a roadside bomb during a combat tour in Afghanistan.

Nelson was badly hurt in the blast, and his attorneys say there’s a link between the mild traumatic brain injury he suffered and his alleged crimes.  They are asking a judge to exclude the death penalty as a potential sentencing option in their client’s case due to his service-­related injury.  One of Nelson’s court-­appointed lawyers, Laurie Bender of Portland, said in a telephone interview that she does not know of any prior capital case in which a judge has been asked to rule on a death penalty exclusion request made on behalf of a former soldier.

Nelson, now 25, is scheduled to go to trial in March.  If he is convicted of aggravated murder in the slaying of Celestino Gutierrez Jr., prosecutors could ask a jury to sentence Nelson to death.  Nelson was one of three people arrested and charged with kidnapping and killing Gutierrez, and then using his car to carry out an armed, takeover-style bank robbery in Mapleton in August 2012.

The plot’s mastermind, David Ray Taylor of Eugene, is now on Oregon’s death row after a jury convicted him in May 2014.  The third defendant in the case, Mercedes Crabtree, is serving life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years.  She pleaded guilty to the murder in 2013 and agreed to testify against both Nelson and Taylor.

Nelson’s lawyers said in a recent court filing that they intend to present evidence at trial of a mental disease or defect that interfered with their client’s ability to form the intent to commit the alleged crimes.  In addition to the brain injury, the attorneys also assert Nelson has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those two issues change the way people see and react to the environment, can lead to other psychological problems and produce “a greater propensity for aberrant and criminal behavior,” Bender wrote in a Dec. 15 motion to exclude the death penalty in Nelson’s case.  “Nelson’s service-related injuries and illness do not exonerate him of the charged offenses but mitigate his culpability and the state’s standing to execute him,” Bender wrote... 

The Dec. 15 filing includes copies of awards and commendations Nelson received as a result of his military service. They include the Purple Heart, given to soldiers who are injured or killed while serving....  Nelson’s lawyers say sentencing a war veteran with PTSD to death is unconstitutional, and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.  Veterans, the attorneys argue, deserve categorical death-penalty exclusions similar to those given to juvenile offenders and people with intellectual disabilities.... 

According to evidence presented at Taylor’s trial, Taylor came up with a plan to kill a stranger and take that person’s vehicle for use in a bank robbery....  Crabtree then obtained a ride from Gutierrez to Taylor’s nearby home.   Gutierrez was slain at the house, where Taylor, now 60, and Nelson are said to have dismembered his body.  Crabtree, who was 18 at the time of the incident, testified during Taylor’s trial that Nelson — at Taylor’s direction — bound Gutierrez with electrical wire and a belt, pushed a crossbow bolt through one of the victim’s ears and choked him.  

After mocking Nelson for failing to kill Gutierrez swiftly, Taylor wrapped a metal chain around Gutierrez’s neck and pulled on it until the victim stopped breathing, Crabtree told the jury.  Crabtree said Nelson went into a brief seizure as he and Taylor dismembered the body, and came out of it confused about what he had done.

It is well-established constitutional law that defendants can present mitigating evidence of all sorts, including evidence of mental battle scars of war, to argue to a jury not to impose a death sentence. But here it seems defense attorneys are pressing for a new categorical ban on the death penaty for veterans whose service-related injuries may have played a role in their capital crimes.

Some (of many) prior related posts:

December 28, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"It’s Time for Obama to Go Big on Pardons"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent New Yorker commentary authored by Jeffrey Toobin. Here are excerpts:

The orderly mind of Barack Obama appears to recoil at the vulgar world of pardons.  The President is a consummate rationalist, a believer in systems and order.  Pardons, in contrast, rely exclusively on the whim of the grantor. This Presidential power is descended from the concept known in Great Britain as the royal prerogative of mercy — three words that seem almost guaranteed to offend this President, singularly or especially aligned together.

But President Obama is starting to come around on pardons, or at least on commutations. (A commutation allows a convict to leave prison at a designated date; a pardon can also involve an end to a prison sentence but bestows a broader restoration of rights, like the right to vote or own a firearm.)  Last week, the President announced that he had commuted the sentences of ninety-five federal prisoners and granted two pardons.  In seven years, Obama has now issued a hundred and eighty-four commutations, more than his last six predecessors combined, but only sixty-one pardons, which is far less than most recent Presidents.... Obama is moving in the right direction, but he has a long way to go.  There are roughly two hundred thousand people in federal prison in the United States.  Do they all belong there?  Should only a few dozen have their sentences shortened?

Those questions answer themselves, as Obama himself knows.  He has made the reduction of mass incarceration one of the touchstones of his final years in office. As he said, in a recent speech to the N.A.A.C.P. national convention, “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.” No one can stop the President from doing at least that.  Since 2011, Obama has been stymied by the Republican Congress from undertaking major legislative initiatives, but the pardon power is absolute and unfettered.  The President can pardon everyone, and anyone, he chooses.

Obama is a democrat as well as a Democrat, and surely something in him rebels at exercising absolute power on a grand scale.  One problem with pardons is that Presidents have considered them in secret, springing the decisions on the public only after they have been made.  In high-profile cases, like Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton’s pardon of the fugitive financier Marc Rich, the political repercussions have been disastrous. But Obama could avoid this problem with some innovation — and sunshine.  Over the last year of his Presidency, his Administration should publish the names of people being considered for pardons.  In this way, members of the public can make their views known about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of letting each individual out of prison.  All Presidents and governors (who also have pardon power) are haunted by the possibility that they might release someone who goes on to commit horrible crimes. (Former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas pardoned several people who did just that.)

This public airing might well save Obama from making some poor choices, but it will also guarantee him a measure of political protection.  Opponents of pardons will be able to speak now, or they’ll forever have to hold their peace.  If Republicans offer blanket objections to broad pardons, they’ll be demonstrating that they simply want more people in prison, regardless of the costs in dollars, public safety, or lost lives.

Most importantly, this process could allow the President to end or reduce the sentences of many more prisoners than he has done so far.  Obama could make the case for pardons or commutations on an individual-by-individual basis, or he could establish a broader rule — that, say, every nonviolent drug offender with just a single conviction, or possession of a certain quantity of drugs, would be eligible....

Obama should be considering action on this vast scale. When it comes to mass incarceration, he has been content so far to work around the fringes. He has asked Congress to consider reducing sentences for certain crimes.  He has told Attorney General Loretta Lynch to restrict the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons.  These are worthy, modest goals.  But the pardon power, with its roots in the monarchy, allows a President to go big — and that’s exactly how Obama should go.

P.S. Ruckman at Pardon Power is not especially impressed by Toobin's work here, as evidence by this recent posting about this commentary headlined "Toobin: Still the Worst of the Worst."

A few very recent related posts:

December 28, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Notable (lack of) big crime news emerging from the Big Apple

Sentencing and police reform opponents on the right and gun control advocates on the left have been making much of what appears to be a notable uptick in violent crimes using firearms in many cities.  But even if there was strong and consistent data showing widespread increases in violent gun crimes throughout the US throughout 2015, I would be somewhat chary about using short-term crime data alone as the basis for drawing long-term conclusions about the pros and cons of various criminal justice reforms.  

Ever the consequentialist, I do view serious violent crime rates as the single most important criminal justice metric for would-be criminal justice analysts and reformers.  But I also believe lots of (hard-to-assess in real-time) social and practical factors can have a major short-term impact on how much crime is committed and reported.  Consequently, I think it can be problematic and even dangerous for political and legal actors to over-react (positively or negatively) to any seemingly major short-term crime data changes.

That all said, this new New York Times article suggests that, at least in one major city, there may not be any major short-term crime data changes for political and legal actors to over-react to.  The article, headlined  "Anxiety Aside, New York Sees Drop in Crime," gets started this way:

Homeless encampments proliferated. Two officers, confronting armed men, were shot and killed. And many New Yorkers said they felt less safe. But fears that New York City was slipping back to a more dangerous time contrasted with reality.

As reflected in the reported levels of the most serious types of crime, the city in 2015 was as safe as it had been in its modern history. A modest decrease in reported crime is expected by year’s end.

The Police Department is reporting a 2 percent decline, as measured by seven major felonies that are tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation: murder, rape, robbery, serious assault, burglary, grand larceny and car theft.  At the same time, arrests recorded by officers fell steeply, to 333,115 through Dec. 20, down 13 percent from 384,770 over the same period the year before.  The number of criminal summonses dropped to 292,372 from 358,948.

There was a small rise in murders, to 339 as of Dec. 25, already more than last year’s historic low of 333.  Still, the number is well below the 536 murders recorded five years ago.  And despite an early increase in gun violence, the final tally of shootings for the year is set to come in slightly lower than last year’s figure.

“As we end this year, the City of New York will record the safest year in its history, its modern history, as it relates to crime,” said Commissioner William J. Bratton, summing up 2015 in an address to officers at a Dec. 17 promotion ceremony.  But, he added, the past 12 months had also been “terrible” for the department because of the loss of four officers in the line of duty since late last December.  “It has been a year of great contradictions,” he said, struggling for words.

The overall crime statistics, of course, do not capture the increasing presence of homeless people on the streets and in shelters that has bedeviled the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, while contributing to a creeping unease among New Yorkers.

But the disconnect may run deeper.  Since summer 2014, the country has seen one protest after another over fairness in the criminal justice system, prompted by the deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and other black people in confrontations with the police.  The outcry, and the occasional outbreaks of protest­related violence, have led some to argue that criticism of the police has undermined law enforcement, empowering criminals and sowing urban disorder.

December 28, 2015 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (11)

December 27, 2015

"Prisons as addiction treatment centers?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this local article from the Buckeye State.  Here are excerpts:

With at least four of five inmates struggling with addiction, Ohio's prisons are beginning to look more like drug treatment centers.

Prisoners participate in group counseling sessions, visit with prison "alumni" who have remained sober after leaving incarceration and enroll in Medicaid to help pay for counseling and medication-assisted treatment after they are released.  Money from the state budget, $27.4 million through June 30, is paying for more counselors to treat addiction inside Ohio's prisons, said Tracy Plouck, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

The concept is relatively simple: people addicted to drugs commit crimes like possessing drugs, selling drugs, stealing money or property to buy drugs and hurting others because they are under the influence of drugs. Take away the compulsion for drugs and alcohol, and these lower-level offenders might not return to prison, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction director Gary Mohr said. "What we’re attempting to do is reduce crime victims out in Ohio," Mohr said.

Before changes in July, Ohio prisons were releasing 8,000 to 9,000 people with serious addiction problems each year without treating half of them, Mohr said. Staying for less than six months?  You weren't eligible.  Too many inmates on the waiting list?  There wasn't not enough staff to help.  Now, people who will be released in three months can start counseling in prison and have their medical records sent to a halfway house when they leave.  By signing released prisoners up for Medicaid, the insurance program might pay for medication-assisted treatment and counseling — a combination considered by many physicians to be the gold standard of treatment.

"I can tell you right now we are going to be treating thousands of people that we weren’t treating before," Mohr said. When an inmate enters prison, he goes to a short-term reception center, and takes a test designed to spot mental health and addiction concerns.  From there, he is sent to the prison where he will serve out his term. If the inmate isn't a violent offender, he might participate in a therapeutic community, groups of 70 to 180 inmates who live together, attend group counseling sessions and commit to good behavior while in prison, or a reintegration unit, where inmates work eight to 10 hours a day to simulate life outside prison.

Plouck wants to triple the number of inmates in therapeutic communities by mid 2017 by expanding the number of communities from four to eight. Madison Correctional Institution and Noble Correctional Institution are next on the list.  In 2014, 569 inmates participated; by 2017, prison officials hope to have 1,500 enrolled.

Mohr also wants to have every prison enrolling eligible inmates in Medicaid by the end of 2016. Currently, 10 of 27 prisons are enrolling inmates in the low-income insurance program expanded by Gov. John Kasich.  About 2,400 people have signed up since the program began in earnest this fall, Mohr said.  Medicaid can pay for counseling and medication-assisted treatment after prisoners leave incarceration....

A smooth transition from treatment in prison to treatment outside of prison is critical. It's easy to remain sober in prison with no access to drugs or alcohol. The challenge comes when they are released back to homes where relatives or friends might still be using drugs or alcohol, Plouck said.

December 27, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)